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date: 20 November 2018

Summary and Keywords

The term ownership society is commonly used to describe a suite of policies promoted during the second George W. Bush administration that sought, among other things, to increase popular ownership of housing and financial assets. The ownership society was always in large part an attempt at social engineering. That attempt rests on two premises: first, that asset ownership pushes individuals’ politics to the right; and second, that governments can engineer a more right-leaning populace by promoting asset ownership.

While the term was novel, the ideas were not. Bush’s ownership society bore more than a striking resemblance to Thatcher’s “enterprise society,” for example, and similar ideas percolated in some quarters of Latin American neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s. But foreign referents are in this case not necessary; the ownership society was in large part an expansion of a preexisting American tradition of promoting private ownership explicitly for its capacity to transform the owner’s politics.

Despite its consistent appeal to right-of-center governments, political science has not come to any tidy conclusions about whether the ownership society exists or, if it does exist, how it works and how it interacts with financial and housing markets. Turmoil in those markets over the past 10 years, and the accompanying political fallout, underline the need to consolidate what we know about the ownership society and to set a course for theoretical and empirical development.

Two themes in the literature are particularly noteworthy as it moves forward. First, there is a substantial contrast between “static” and “dynamic” theories of ownership society politics. Static theories argue that the fact of asset ownership per se affects the owner’s politics; dynamic theories look more toward movements in asset markets, arguing that asset ownership’s political effects vary according to the financial consequences of that ownership on the individual. While the latter appears to better fit the empirical evidence, the relevant scope conditions—when should we expect a dynamic theory to obtain, and where should we expect a static theory to obtain—remain unclear. Second, the empirical study of the ownership society is made difficult by the fact that asset ownership is virtually never randomly assigned, and the political antecedents of asset ownership are difficult to convincingly control for using observational data. In lieu of a perfect research design, better communication between observational and experimental studies can help move the literature forward.

Keywords: financial assets, home ownership, mass politics, conservatism, ownership society

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