Multi-person ownership is readily known to be a farce when it comes to the concept of “public property.” For example, the “public” cannot be said to own a “public chair” because the chair is rivalrous and all members of the public cannot make use of the chair without denying use to other members.
If one person from the public is an owner, and another person is also an owner, then they cannot use the chair as they see fit as owners without coming into conflict with each other as each person wholly occupies the chair as an owner to the exclusion of others.
In this paradigm, common social practice leads to the outcome of the chair being occupied on a first-come, first-serve basis with exceptions for those who get an exclusive use government permit or, at times, with the government stepping in to deny use entirely, an act fully unmasking the ruse of “public ownership.”
This same conflict over scarce resources is not limited to the public square. Through state legal norms, shared ownership has also been legally normalized despite its inherently contradictory nature.
For example, a husband and wife can own a home under a doctrine called a “tenancy by the entirety” where each spouse owns an undivided interest in 100 percent of the property with a surviving spouse inheriting the full property upon death of the other.
This joint ownership, while initially appearing as a superficially benign and helpful legal construct, actually causes a serious conflict as the term “ownership” cannot be equally and accurately applied to both husband and wife without their rights running up against each other.
If the husband has an ownership right to the entire house, and he decides he wants to paint a bedroom blue, and the wife does not want this color, then the husband painting anyway would be violative of the property right the wife has to the house. She cannot be a true owner if the husband has an equal, competing right to do with the house as he pleases and can overcome her wishes.
This conflict in ownership use desires can also be readily seen with other jointly titled items, such as with car ownership.
If a husband and wife are joint owners of a car and the husband wants to go to a hockey game at the same time his wife wants to go see her friends, they cannot both use the car to go to their respective destinations at the same time without denying the use of the car to the other.
Because of this contradiction in rights of ownership, joint ownership cannot be logically held under libertarian voluntaryist property rights norms as it inherently creates property rights conflict over scarce resources.
To avoid these conflicts, all property must be owned in unitary form when dealing with direct ownership of physical property.
Either the husband must own the car outright, or the wife. Either the wife must own the home outright, or the husband.
And this norm is, for all practical effect, the empirical outcome even now when reconciliation cannot be had.
When joint owners of a property cannot agree on use, American courts will often force a sale of the home with proceeds split between the former owners or, the court will split the property physically, giving a portion to each party. This legal situation is called a “partition action” where either one or both parties seek to have a jointly owned property broken up. A “partition in kind” is one where a joint owner only sells their portion of the property while a “partition by sale” is one where the whole property is sold off and the proceeds are split among the former “owners.”
The fact that courts will break apart a property when conflict arises demonstrates that “ownership” was never truly had because the owners, when irreconcilable in that conflict, are ultimately denied their use of the property as it is broken up for sale.
To accommodate shared use arrangements without the contradictions of multi-person ownership, different nomenclature must be used to accurately delineate between an actual owner and someone with a type of use access.
Licenses and voting shares are alternative legal mechanisms for dealing with access and control issues without wrongly ascribing “ownership” where true ownership is factually denied.
For example, if a group of friends wanted to chip in together for a boat to share, the boat could be purchased by a holding company and the friends could set a dispute resolution mechanism by which they could count their votes toward settling disputes. They could also set what each would get in the event the boat was sold. By setting title this way, there would be no confusion about ownership because the boat is not actually owned by any of the individuals, but rather, the holding company. The individuals are simply licensees with a financial interest in the boat’s proceeds should it sell.
Thinking through alternative structures can be done with financial holdings as well like with bank accounts. Instead of claiming that there are two joint owners, there can be one owner and another with licensee access rights. This clearly establishes who has the ultimate ownership of the account and who has a limited right to use of the account for certain purposes. The owner has a higher right than the licensee and, thus, can deny use to the licensee. This keeps the hierarchy of dispute resolution clear as the owner has the highest right of claim and control.
Unitary ownership would also apply to home purchases. One person can be the owner of a home with other parties allowed in as licensees. If a husband and wife wish to create a financial interest from sale proceeds of the home, they could do so contractually, but not by wrongly claiming an ownership to the home by both parties. This way, the home ownership is appropriately assigned to one party, and, in the event of sale, the sale proceeds would be what’s owned by the beneficiary to fulfill contractual obligations.
While this may seem like it’s just semantics, upending logically contradictory ownership label constructs is crucial to reducing conflict over scarce resources.
The more ownership is delineated based on individual actors or individual legal fictions, the fewer conflicts will arise in deciding who is entitled to what in the dispute resolution process.
Any other use, access, or benefit issues can be metered through contractual means without creating a performative contradiction in labelling more than one person an owner to a subject property.
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