Should We Have Property Rights Over Our Attention?
Acton Institute Powerblog

Should We Have Property Rights Over Our Attention?

look-hereOn an average day, a person is subjected to more than 5,000 advertisements and exposures to brands. Out of that number about 362 are “ads only.” That means that during your waking hours you are exposed to an average of 23 ads per hour, or about one advertisement every two and a half minutes.

A lot of people along the advertising chain—from creation to display of ads—are getting paid. If everyone else is getting paid to distribute the ads, why shouldn’t you get paid to see them? After all, as Benjamin Franklin said, time is money. Isn’t your time and attention worthy of compensation?

Philosopher Thomas Wells thinks so. He makes an intriguing market-based argument that we need an effective property-rights regime that gives individuals the right to control where we direct our attention. “Advertisers should pay us,” says Wells, “not third parties.”

“Advertising is a natural resource extraction industry, like a fishery,” adds Wells. “Its business is the harvest and sale of human attention. We are the fish and we are not consulted.”

Two problems result from this. The solution to both requires legal recognition of the property rights of human beings over our attention.

First, advertising imposes costs on individuals without permission or compensation. It extracts our precious attention and emits toxic by-products, such as the sale of our personal information to dodgy third parties.

Second, you may have noticed that the world’s fisheries are not in great shape. They are a standard example for explaining the theoretical concept of a tragedy of the commons, where rational maximising behaviour by individual harvesters leads to the unsustainable overexploitation of a resource.

Expensively trained human attention is the fuel of twenty-first century capitalism. We are allowing a single industry to slash and burn vast amounts of this productive resource in search of a quick buck.

Wells presents a lengthy and well-reasoned case for why current advertising is a market failure and that we should be compensated for a valuable resource—our time and attention. What do you think? Do humans have a natural property right claim over our attention?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).