Each of these changes is beneficial, yet I worry that Americans are, slowly but surely, losing their connection to the idea of private ownership. The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?
We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative. Perhaps we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways, but it also seems to be more conformist and to generate fewer empire builders and entrepreneurs.
Last month my family stayed at a friend’s house while on vacation. There were two unusual things we found: First, they had a record player and a nice vinyl collection we enjoyed during our stay. Second, they did not have wifi. Both of those things relate to what Cowen is developing above, I think. While it is obviously possible to become enslaved by the things we own, it is also true that ownership of physical things often helps preserve a right kind of independence and self-sufficiency, such that one can have what one needs or enjoys without having to pay a monthly fee or purchase expensive devices from a large tech company in order to do so. When that kind of ownership is lost, we move ourselves (voluntarily!) one step closer to a sort of technocratic dystopia of the sort that long concerned Neil Postman.