On Property & Social Inequality


By Benedict Atkinson

A note about Ben:

Having spent several years working as a government advisor before becoming an academic, most of Ben’s academic work has been concentrated in the field of intellectual property. His strongest research interest is focused on social inequality, which is closely connected with the allocation of proprietary rights. Ben notes that the study of IP helps us to understand how rights are allocated in ways that may create social disadvantage (conventional narrative about IP rights asserts that these rights are socially beneficial in effect). 

Ben has  written and co-authored  a number of books concerned with IP rights, e.g. A Short History of Copyright.

Ben also teaches administrative and constitutional law, and contract law.  He has a particular interest in reading history, and thinks that understanding history allows us to save ourselves from ourselves.

Thanks, Ben, we can hope.


My name is Ben Atkinson and I’d like to explain briefly what interests me academically. I think my area of interest, social inequality, interests most people. Social inequality technically refers to the distribution income and wealth among a population. I say ‘technically’ because inequality as we understand the term is multidimensional in scope. It’s more than statistics. However, statistical distributions tell us accurately whom in society receives the most benefit – we could say resources – and the groups or ‘cohorts’ who receive the least.

Before continuing I should say something about myself. A reader usually wants to know why an academic writer thinks he or she is qualified to speak on a subject. If you view the study of inequality as involving primarily the compilation and interpretation of statistics, then I am unqualified to say something authoritative on the subject. But if you take the wider view, which is that thinking about statistical distributions is only one – important – part of the task of understanding causes of inequality, then my academic background becomes relevant.

I am, like Liz, the founder of this website, a lawyer. Liz would probably agree that one trait that good lawyers need to possess is an aptitude for assembling a lot of information in a coherent way, and interpreting that information to provide meaningful answers. That capacity enables the lawyer to discharge an important function, which is to distil knowledge for the benefit of clients, students, or readers such as yourselves. As a lawyer I certainly try to distil knowledge.

My academic speciality is in intellectual property law, and I’ve written and co-written some books on the subject. But my greater interest extends beyond IP. IP is interesting but what really interests me is property. IP is only a part, a species of the genus property. And the subject of property is closely linked to that of inequality, as I’ll explain.

Before I do so, I want to return to the lawyer’s capacity to absorb and present information. Lawyers are often not very interesting people because they are taught to avoid creativity and stick to the facts. You will never read a case that could be called great literature, and that’s because the law is not engaged in analysing the human condition. Lawyers want to connect one precedent to another, not to present an original interpretation of human behaviour as an historian might wish to do. But the lawyer’s training is very helpful in finding patterns in information. That training helps in assembling data about inequality and in seeing patterns that help us to understand cause and effect.

So what’s the connection between property and inequality? A lawyer will tell you that property is possession. You can’t have property unless you possess something, meaning that you define the subject matter – eg land measuring 20m by 30m in such and such a location – which in turn means that the defined subject matter is possessable. That it is, it can be owned. If subject matter isn’t defined, it can’t be possessed and it can’t be owned.

Look at human language. The grammar of people who are settled, ie have eschewed nomadism in favour of establishing settlements and engaging in husbandry, is possessive. Statements like, ‘That is mine’ ‘It’s my new car’ ‘We bought the house’ declare possession. I/we possess things. Possession is usually declared by use of possessive pronouns or possessive adjectives, as in the examples above. If our grammar compels us, as it does, to make possessive declarations, we inevitably come into conflict with one another. ‘Tasmania belongs to Tasmanians.’ ‘Tasmania can’t belong to Tasmanians.’ ‘I have bought the forest and it’s mine.’ ‘No the forest belongs to all of us.’

You can see that in our everyday and formal speech we annex things, we declare that they are ‘mine’ or ‘ours’ and these possessory statements can lead us to conflict. Underlying most types of conflict are claims for possession.

A grammar that compels us to possess things or attribute ownership – ‘my parents own the beach’ or ‘my cousin inherited 10 houses’ – not only invites contest (‘I own five of the houses your cousin says she inherited’) but also compels us to exclude others. If my cousin owns ten houses, she excludes from possession and ownership those people who don’t own houses and would benefit from owning nine of her ten houses. Possession excludes, and exclusion creates social division.

In the absence of possession and property, exclusion doesn’t exist. If exclusion doesn’t exist, inequality, or what we call social inequality, doesn’t exist. So how might we reduce inequality? I can think of a number of ways. We can start to do so by reducing ownership. How reduction of ownership could be effected voluntarily is complex. What I have spelt out above is only a very small representation of my thinking on the question of inequality. I hope it prompts some thinking on the subject.

If you want to discuss social inequality, please send me an email.

I invite you also to download a copy of my PhD thesis, Ownership Causes Social Inequality. I hope that you find it stimulating.

3 Responses

  1. Liz S

    Thank you very much for that, Ben. I so appreciate your support for what I hope this is about.
    Also I have a question.
    You write that, ‘In the absence of possession and property, exclusion doesn’t exist. If exclusion doesn’t exist, inequality, or what we call social inequality, doesn’t exist.’
    But what about exclusion in commercial practice that isn’t based on ownership, boycotts, for example? Or social exclusion? I don’t own my group of friends but I might be able to influence them to exclude others. Not that I would want to, but it happens. On the Internet we can exclude without ownership or position. So it seems to me that there can be exclusion without property…. or would you disagree?
    Cheers, Liz

    • Ben Atkinson

      Hi Liz
      Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the site and for creating such a great forum and source of information and exchange.
      My reasoning is this: if you don’t have property, nothing is formally or legally defined. If nothing is defined you can argue about only a few things usually to do with personal relations. In the absence of property, what is there to argue about? As soon as you start arguing about who should control the waterfall, you have to define what is a waterfall and off you go on another dumb human quarrel about things. So if in the state of nature (or I should say the Garden of Eden) property doesn’t exist, what can Adam and Eve quarrel about? Maybe Adam gets jealous about Eve’s friendship with a beautifully coloured python and we can say that Eve is excluding Adam, but I would say that’s a different type of exclusion because Eve is not excluding Adam from resources. Once you start arguing about resources you start arguing about property. Non-proprietary exclusion on the internet might involve blocking someone on facebook but I would say the same thing: the exclusion is not exclusion from resources, and when we talk social inequality we’re talking about distribution of resources and access to resources.

  2. Ben Atkinson

    Liz I was thinking more about this topic when I realised my facebook example was back to front. Facebook is a resource contrary to the assumption I was making. Excluding someone as a facebook friend is proprietary exclusion because you’re excluding the person from a resource, facebook. The point I should have made is that if facebook – a thing, or property – didn’t exist, no exclusion could occur.