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Mine! Book Summary – Michael A. Heller

What you will learn from reading Mine!:

– How property conflicts can be thought of as competing stories.

– Why rules around ownership are always a social engineering choice.

– The six ownership stories that everyone uses to claim everything.

Mine! Book Summary:

Mine! is a fascinating book that explores the many stories of ownership that we use to stake claims in assets. With many interesting examples of ownership dilemmas that come about in this day and age. This book will open up your eyes to how things property conflicts work.


Property Conflicts as competing Stories:

All property conflicts exist as competing stories. Each side picks the story that presents its claims as the moral high ground, and each side wants ownership bent toward its view. But don’t be fooled.

There are no natural, correct descriptions that frame mine versus mine conflicts. There are, however, better and worse choices that we can make to solve these dilemmas. And if you are not the one choosing, then someone else is making the choices for you.

Whenever any new resource appears, ownership is ambiguous and contested. We need an initial rule to determine who starts as the owner and what it is they own.


The Six Ownership Stories:

If there is one lesson from this book, it’s that mine reflects a choice among competing stories. There are only six simple stories everyone uses to claim everything. And which story wins is always up for grabs.

Here are six such maxims that-as it turns out-stand for all the ways scarce resources initially come to be owned:

  1. First come, first served.
  2. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
  3. You reap what you sow.
  4. My home is my castle.
  5. Our bodies, our selves.
  6. The meek shall inherit the earth.


Remember that we are all using the same ownership toolkit. It contains six contested pathways to claiming ownership: first-in-time, possession, labor, attachment, self-ownership, and family.

Often the ownership maxims that frame this book carry the day. But there’s always another story, threatening to turn ownership upside down. First come, last served. Possession is one-tenth of the law. I reap what you sow.


A bundle of sticks metaphor:

Lawyers sometimes describe ownership as a bundle of sticks. This metaphor was introduced about a century ago, and it has radically transformed the teaching and practice of law.

The metaphor is useful because it helps us see ownership as a grouping of interpersonal rights that can be separated and put back together. When you say Its mine in reference to a resource, often that means you own a lot of the sticks that make the full bundle: the sell stick, the rent stick, the right to up mortgage, license, give away, even destroy the thing.

Often, though, we split the sticks up, as for a piece of land: there may be a landowner, a bank with a mortgage, a tenant with a lease, a neighbour with a right of-way easement, a plumber with a license to enter the land, an oil company with mineral rights. Each of these parties owns a stick in the bundle.


First Come, First Served:

For most of human history, for most resources, the rule for establishing original ownership followed a maxim expressed in ancient Roman law as “Whoever is earlier in time is stronger in right.” In other words, First come, first served.

Today well-funded start-ups are aiming to mine the moon and harpoon asteroids for water, platinum, and gold-all in tension with internationally recognised ownership rules. This is also the origin story of Uber, Airbnb, YouTube, and many other Internet businesses that raced ahead of the law to create and then capture markets. Ambiguity about ownership favours the bold, the heedless, the outlaws-those who race ahead first.

In short, first-in-time is a powerful tool of social engineering, and it’s the default rule for getting along in a crowded world. But why?

What are its essential advantages?

For starters, as the Pierson majority recognised, it’s simple to understand and easy to apply. Even kids are adept at using the rule. The first to sit in the playground swing gets it for recess. Solving disputes over who is first is usually cheap and fast. There is no need for a lot of information or for long discussion, no need for parents or teachers to intervene. Lines are often completely self-policing.

First-in-time also appeals to a primitive, intuitive sense of fairness. Temporal priority seems to generate a moral claim: if you make the effort to get in line first, if you play by the rules, you should in ahead of everyone else.

But today first-in-time is under attack from all sides. We have  seen how line-standing businesses and bots are undermining the rule.

Savvy entrepreneurs, like SOLD, have figured out how to convert time into money. Getting to the head of the line provides a great business opportunity. Despite its virtues, first-in-time suffers from a crucial defect-it leaves a lot of value on the table, available to be captured by anyone who knows how to game the rules of ownership.


Bright Line rule or a Standard:

Here the judges split on one of the big divides of ownership design: whether to apply a bright-line rule or a standard.

Bright-line rules define precise terms that tend to be predictable and easy to apply across a range of cases. Standards offer general guides that allow for fine-grained judgments and can lead to fairer outcomes in particular cases.

Think of the difference between highway signs that say SPEED LIMIT 55 and DRIVE SAFELY UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES.


Ownership rules shape value:

Put another way, every rule for making things mine rewards a different idea about what to value, like the options for the rocking chair we discussed in the Introduction. Old-style first-in-time rewards those who have the time needed to get there first and patiently wait-a currency that everyone holds in equal measure. You have twenty-four hours in your day, just like the rest of us. First come, last served, by contrast, often rewards wealth. It favours those who may have less free time but can pay-or can pay for the time of others.


Possession is nine-tenths of the law:

Profit opportunities for self-appointed intermediary “owners” rise when the ultimate owner isn’t paying close attention. Look around, and you will start noticing micro-entrepreneurs like the pool attendants-creating businesses based solely on their close attention to the cues for symbolic possession, not on any actual ownership. Pool attendants monetise the maxim that Possession is nine-tenths of the law, deploying its signals for a fee.

Resource owners tolerate privately created signals of possession as long as they serve their goals, and they undercut them when they do not. These stories share a similar trajectory. On the upswing, the possessors’ mantra is “this is how it’s done around here.” People close to a resource evolve finely tailored cues that reliably signal control and resolve conflicts. Locals understand the language and are often highly motivated to respect each other’s claims, even without law’s coercion. Negative truthful gossip at the sports game, church, or bar-“how rude!”-turns out to be one of the most powerful disciplinary forces humans have devised, often more binding than law itself.


The labor Claim:

The labor claim–It’s mine because I worked for it-is the third basic justification for ownership. Quite simply, after a hard day’s work, I feel I’ve earned the right to the fruits of my labor. And this feeling of deserved reward underpins many of our other ownership intuitions. If I hustle to get in line first, I should be served before you.


Patents and the rise of innovation tollbooths:

Pressing this new button on the ownership remote control worked, in a sense. Suddenly scientists could seek patents, not just grants, tenure, prizes, and reputation. Lured by potential profits and protected by new patent monopolies, private investment money poured into basic medical research-and sparked the biotech revolution. But as drug research patents began to accumulate, they started to have exactly the opposite effect from what Congress expected.

One patent may spur innovation. But a thousand of them, held by separate startups, can function like multiple tollbooths on the highway to medical discovery.

For centuries, we thought that the paramount value of ownership was to give clear rewards to labor. The idea was that so long as ownership was secure, people could easily trade among themselves. From this perspective, increasing rewards to labor had no cost. If we want more inventiveness and creativity, simply expand patent scope for Big Pharma and give longer copyright terms to Disney.

The gridlock problem shows the flaw in this logic. Sometimes we should reward labor less, so there are fewer tollbooths along the path to creativity and innovation. With fewer owners who can block agreement, the remaining parties may find it easier to reach a deal.


Ownership is a social engineering choice:

This point represents the biggest gap between lay and legal views of property, and it is a hard lesson for new law students to grasp: ownership is a social engineering choice, a conclusion we come to, not a fact we find.

First, we decide the goals we want ownership to achieve.

Next, we decide what means will most likely get us there. Finally, we affix the legal term owner to the sum of those oft-hidden value judgments and casual empirical guesses. Ownership is the endpoint, not the start, of analysis.

Each ownership form reflects a delicate bundle of value choices regarding freedom, community, efficiency, and justice. Marriage, condominiums, co-ops, partnerships, trusts, corporations, and such-these ownership forms are the building blocks of social life. They are like words in a language that let us quickly communicate complex messages, sometimes to a few people, sometimes to the world. And that’s the key: to communicate with each other we need to understand, more or less, what each ownership form conveys.


I reap what you sow:

To the designers whose work is copied, copying may feel like a rip-off or theft. But it’s not. Theft, like ownership itself, is a legal conclusion, not an empirical fact. In America, there’s no protection for the labor that goes into fashion design. The business model of fast fashion-including global retailers like Zara and H&M-is to copy speedily what’s hot and sell it for less. As  rule, in fashion, everyone copies everyone. Copying design ideas is not theft.


Attachment ownership:

Attachment is a powerful core intuition for ownership. It’s the principle that translates an airplane boarding pass into my wedge of space; land deed into control of my crops, trees, animals, wind, solar, water, oil, gas, and countless more resources. Through attachment, the owner of an existing thing-whether land, cow, or copyright| comes to own new things plausibly connected to the original.


Reasoning via Analogy or vis Distinction:

To help set the initial rule, people often reason by analogy, one of the most widely used tools for ownership design and for legal reasoning in general. That was how states set initial ownership for oil, and water-deciding they were analogous to foxes and importing a rule of capture

The problem is, analogies that work for some purposes mislead for others. They are a rhetorical device, not a matter of logical proof.

Whenever you hear someone reason by analogy-“kidneys are like people”-consider distinctions-“kidneys don’t have identities; they don’t think for themselves.” Persuasive distinctions can make the difference between life and death.

If you want to uncover the rules of ownership, there’s no better place to start than by mastering the art of reasoning by analogy and distinction. That’s what the Montana court did with stem cells, and it’s a tool available to all of us in everyday life.


The Slippery Slope vs the Sticky Staircase

If your worry is that kidney sales are a slippery slope to slavery, well, no, we can make it a sticky staircase. Why not take one life-saving step-introducing highly regulated, protected markets-and then stop?


Ownership and the unequal distribution of wealth:

As a historian observed, “Of all the potential perils to the new American republic, the prospect of concentrated power troubled the intellectual leaders of the Revolutionary generation.

Familiar as the founders were with old Europe… they understood why the accumulation of inherited wealth led to inequities and imbalances that troubled inevitably corrupt any system of government.” Passing vast wealth from generation to generation has long been denounced in America as a feudal and aristocratic affront to the country’s civic ethos.

They help create the paths through which America sustains the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth. Make no mistake: this transformation is not happening by accident, by magic, through the free market, or just naturally. It’s a brilliantly designed heist, engineered by family dynasty lobbyists and accomplice legislators. And lower taxes for the super-rich mean higher taxes for everyone else.

The 1 percent of the 1 percent have their hands firmly on the remote control of trust law. They count on you not knowing it even exists.


Common ownership and lack of responsibility:

Common ownership works well when resources are abundant, but it often fails as populations grow and technology changes. When valuable resources are free for the taking, we tend to take too much the tragedy of the commons. The result of common ownership is that we’re overfishing the world’s oceans, cutting down tropical forests, and overusing the atmosphere by emitting greenhouse gases at historically high levels, driving climate change.

At this rate, the world of our children and grandchildren will be different from the one we grew up in, and not for the better.


The future of Ownership:

The digital world and the natural world share a core feature. Both start from the no-ownership baseline that characterises all new and emerging resources.

As soon as the race to own the resource begins, competing stories emerge. 

Which ownership rule seems most efficient? Fairest? Most conducive to enhancing our freedom and sustaining our joint projects?

Now that you can recognise the hidden rules, you can be a more effective advocate for yourself, your community, and our common good. Whether you’re waiting in line, surfing the Web, or squeezed in your airplane seat, ask yourself: Whose hand is on the remote control? Who gets what and why?