On the metaphysics of property and exchange: a dispositional account

Wed 18, 9:20-9:50 am PDT

Massin and Tieffenbach (2017) have argued that what they call the Standard Theory of Exchange (STE) should be replaced by their Action Theory of Exchange (ATE). One important argument is that the STE is goods-centered and fails to adequately capture exchanges of services, which the STE treats as intangible goods. On the other hand, their ATE easily deals with services and treats exchanges of goods as a subspecies of actions. This paper argues that the dichotomy between goods and services can be altogether overcome if we follow the seminal suggestion by the institutional economist Commons (1931, 1936) that what is exchanged are neither goods nor services, but ownership of goods and services. This can provide a more general account of exchange, irrespective of the nature of goods or services.

For Commons, legal control is future physical control, and this paper develops this into an account of legal control as possible physical control, i.e. as a range of possible alternative actions that is recognized by others as belonging to a certain person. Property rights thereby delineate these ranges of possible actions, which easily accounts for services. Rights over (im)material goods delineate ranges of possible actions which rely on that (im)material good, so goods serve to delineate a range of possible actions rather than constitute another category of rights. Metaphysically, these possible actions are powers or dispositions whose manifestation is contingent upon the free decision and action of the person, relying on a standard libertarian conception of the alternative possibilities.

The proposal does agree with the ATE on the propositional and convergent nature of exchanges relative to a certain state of affairs, whereby the parties involved in the exchange prefer the state of affairs in which the ownership is exchanged to the counterfactual state of affairs in which it is not exchanged. But what grounds these interpersonal exchanges is the permanent intra-personal exchange whereby a person is always exchanging another possible but lesser valued state of affairs for the one that is made manifest because it is valued more. Taking this counterfactual aspect of intra-personal exchange into account can explain some of the alleged problematic aspects of the STE, resulting in an overall improved account of the metaphysics of exchange, in line with a dispositional metaphysics of property.


Commons, John R. 1931. “Institutional Economics.” The American Economic Review 21, no. 4: 648–57.

———. 1936. “Institutional Economics.” The American Economic Review 26, no. 1: 237–49.

Massin, Olivier, and Emma Tieffenbach. 2017. “The Metaphysics of Economic Exchanges.” Journal of Social Ontology 3, no. 2: 167–205.


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2 thoughts on “On the metaphysics of property and exchange: a dispositional account

  1. Massin, Olivier says:

    Thanks Michael, this is great. Three worries, which we can discuss during the Q&A:

    (i) If I get it right, your objection to our theory is that while the legal concept of ownership enters in our analysis of exchanges of good, it is absent from our analysis of exchange of services. This is indeed the case, but I do not quite see why this is a problem. After all there is distinction between goods and services, and while we need an overarching theory of exchanges, we also need to pinpoint the specificity of each. One is that goods are owned, while services are rendered, but not owned.

    (ii) this lead us to my main worry for your positive proposal : you accept that services can be owned, but I think this is a mistake. You cannot own a lesson of violin, and consequently cannot transfer a lesson to sb else, nor transfer some property rights over that lesson. Services are actions — occurrents—, not the kind of entities that can be owned : only goods —continuants— can be owned. Importantly, services are not to be conflated with immaterial goods, a point we owe to Hill. You can indeed own a right over a service : the right is an immaterial good, but the service over which you have that right is not a good, be it immaterial. Consequently, you can transfer the right over the service, but you cannot transfer the service.

    (iii) in view of that last point, your view could be : exchanges of services are exchanges of rights over services. exchanges of goods are exchanges of rights over good. This would be a beautifully unified view of exchanges, but it overlooks an important distinction on the face of it. In many cases, we exchanges services without exchanging rights over services. When I go to the hairdresser, I pay him in exchange not of a right to an haircut, but of an haircut. (My hairdresser also issues gift certificates, which are rights over haircuts, but I do not always use this).

    looking forward discussing with you !

    1. Bauwens, Michaël says:

      Hi Olivier, many thanks for the questions, perfect warm-up for the Q&A 🙂

      i) That is indeed my core objection. I would say that rendering a service is like transferring a good, so for me there is less of a difference between the two. This in turn stems from my general dispositionalist metaphysics of rights and institutions (and material objects as well of course). Material objects are bundles of powers, just as my ability to render certain services is a bundle of powers. Even legally, the distinction between goods and services is becoming increasingly blurred. Think of leasing a car, for example, or cloud services making sure you ‘have’ your email across different devices.

      ii) My proposal, starting from Commons, is that we always own and transfer rights, be they over goods or services. In that sense, I found your idea of a right as an immaterial good somewhat confusing; ownership is a right, so doesn’t that lead to an infinite regress whereby you have a good, but an ownership right over that good is itself an immaterial good, over which you can have ownership rights, etc.? More to the point, I take less of a strict distinction between ownership in the sense of absolute dominion, and other kinds of rights. That might also explain our different appreciation of the distinction between transferring goods and services.

      iii) That is indeed my view, when you enter the barbershop, you exchange a right to a haircut against a right to payment. The hairdresser redeems his obligation first, you second, but the order is not very important and is often not simultaneous. The simultaneity can make the right almost invisible because it is redeemed on the spot, but it is there nevertheless.

      Looking forward to the discussion as well!

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