Opinion: To each his own?


The cliché goes that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Essentially, it reinforces the playground rule that whoever has — and can defend — the swing gets to keep it for all recess. Who “owned” it before and those waiting in line to use it after are at a distinct disadvantage to the one who is in the seat. Short of physical altercation where the stronger would displace the current holder, others dispossessed of the swing are left to appeal to a higher authority to resolve the dispute. “Teacher, Johnny won’t share the swing. He’s used it long enough.  Make him share!”

As we matriculate from childhood in pursuit of something that looks like adult lives, we leave behind the short pants but carry along much of this deeply imbued sensibility of possession. Our homes are our homes. Our businesses belong to us. Our communities are defined by us living there. As we move from the more tangible, the connection to custody becomes less clear. If a bank holds a mortgage on our homes, do we really own it? If a tax authority makes a claim against it, should they demand an interest?

If we found and build a business with our own cash and labor, it is ours. But what if the entrepreneur takes investors? Is it her company any longer? Can she raise her salary assured that she answers to no other? Nonprofits are often administered by leaders decades into the job but demand term limits to keep boards fresh. Healthy buy-in can rot into a confused sense of controlling ownership. If we are the fiduciaries, can they be the sole decision-makers? Englishman J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious.”  Still, if others have a legitimate interest, does the possessor necessarily prevail?


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