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In this fictional society all people are owned by other people, in a way similar to that of share markets in modern companies. A person can have a 50% share in me, and that person then 'owns' 50% of my personal wealth. This gives him a lot of control over my life, as legally he can take 50% of my possessions, money and (if needed) shares that I own in other people. A person can't own shares in themselves, and if nobody owns them (all of their shares have been sold) they are worth nothing, as everything they have has been taken by their shareholders.

Free people will inevitably starve to death unless they find someone to 'buy' shares in them. Though at that point their shares are 'free' (literally making them free-men), it's worthwhile for shareholders to make sure that their 'investments' aren't going to die and lose their continued worth.

Children are owned by their parents, marriage can be defined as two people having a controlling interest in each other, and CEOs of corporations make sure they have a significant share in their employees and pay their employees as a way of making sure they don't starve/go insane/find someone to buy them out, not to increase their employees worth. Accountants, lawyers and investment specialists can specialise in 'personnel property law', which can be a very good way to increase their value.

In this world there has to be some form of governmental oversight. Given that nobody can be at the top of the food chain (you can't own anyone unless someone owns you), what is the best form of government to use, and why would anyone choose to be a politician knowing that their worth is directly related to the happiness of the people they govern?

2 clarifications: Money still exists as a fiat way of denoting worth.There isn't anything preventing free people from working except the society: Nobody is going to buy from/supply to a person they don't have an investment in, as they could instead buy from/supply to someone they do have an investment in (thus keeping them working in a way useful to the person owning the shares)

As such: Free people can't survive unless someone has an interest in seeing their worth grow. A sub-society of free people might flourish, but that isn't the point of the question (and they'd eventually all be arrested for illegally growing potatoes on someone else's land)

Another clarification, just for the avoidance of doubt I know this isn't a stable societal model: It's collapse is actually the interesting bit of this world. I'm just interested in the form of government likely to be used in a society such as this one.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jan 27 '16 at 2:53
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You've stated that you want to ignore any instability involved, so I'll skip that. There are three eventualities I can think of that might work, one depending on another potential loophoole.

Generally speaking, it's a capitalist system, so some people are going to end up with more shares than others. The greater number of people in important positions you control, the more power you have.

1) Uneasy Truce

A lucky investment, the father of a child prodigy; like with companies there are a number of ways that someone could strike it rich. Given that in this case you literally own the % assets of the person related to your shares in them, once you make it rich it's rather easy to stay rich... provided you don't get bought out. That's where the "Government" comes in.

A number of people have become very rich, and they plan on staying that way. They know that if they only work for themselves, the chances are other people will gang up on them and forcibly remove their assets, so they make an agreement: I don't touch yours, you don't touch mine, and together we "own" enough people performing enough important services to dictate what happens in this society. They could even shuffle their assets so that each effectively becomes a "minister" of the different governmental areas: One person owns a controlling stake in the high-authority positions in Health, another in Finance, another in Foreign Policy, say. Different ministries would be more lucrative, obviously, and that would define the relative levels of power within this group.

The group itself has no shareholders outside of their closed circle: through a combination of shrewd business deals and intimidation, they bought out everyone else before they realised what was going on, or by exercising control through other channels. Now, all they need to do is stop anyone else from getting as much power, and trust that each member is going to keep the truce.

Obviously this kind of system isn't going to stay stable for long, but it doesn't have to stay stable for long if you're just interested in watching it fall, and it's amazing how crazy a system people can rationalise themselves into as a society, and how long they'll stay there before enough people complain about it. It's entirely possible that such a system could form and last for at least 20, 30 years, if not longer.

2) The Co-operatives

As the dust settles after whatever ridiculous event caused this structure to form, people quickly realised that they couldn't make it on their own, but they had to be careful who controlled the people controlling them. Therefore "cooperatives" formed between people of similar mindsets and morals: by buying each other out and creating a closed circuit they reduced the risk of being forced to do something they didn't want to do. These cooperatives became the fundamental social unit in the society, with each cooperative electing representatives to take part in a joint council. Some are clearly more powerful than others, but the threat of being ganged up on by the combined buying power of the rest forced everyone into line... after a few examples had been made, of course. New cooperatives formed and disbanded over time as people tried to go in another direction, but they rarely managed to survive in the face of the established powers.

There would be power struggles within the cooperatives themselves, but they would be limited — regardless of how frustrated you might be with your current lot, it would be a lot worse if your cooperative became infiltrated by an outside power!


The key bit of information for me is what happens when someone dies. Where do their shares go? Are they passed on in a form of will? Do they go to next of kin? What happens to their children's shares? Under our inheritance laws they would "inherit" their own shares, which is technically illegal under your rules. Could I become a free man with all my assets if I killed all my shareholders? Presumably I have to agree before someone can buy shares in me (unless they're buying them from someone else), so if I have no shareholders but lots of assets due to all my shareholders dying, that leaves me in a position of great power.

This leads to:

3) The Private Limited People

"PLPs", as I will refer to them, are people that, by some method or another, have managed to amass a lot of shares in other people but have no shareholders in themselves. For most people, when they lose their shareholders, they don't have enough capital to keep themselves going without investment, so they have to go and seek people to buy more shares in them. Some people, however, have built a large enough portfolio that they can afford to effectively own themselves. It's not illegal because they haven't "bought" shares in themselves, they just haven't sold any to anyone living. These people become the most powerful people in the country, because they are accountable to no one. Everyone else can be influenced by some share trail or another, but these guys are totally untouchable. Plus, there are rumours about how they came to be shareholder-less, the mysteries that surround the sudden and tragic deaths of their parents...


Seriously though, I would think long and hard about death and what happens to shares in that situation. It can either be a key part of the plot that is integral in how the system becomes unhinged (in the uneasy truce, one of the main shareholders mysteriously dies and the balance of power shifts within the group shifts dramatically as suddenly the internal share structure isn't so balanced as it used to be), or it can be a massive flaw.

Any of the 3 above would be viable, at least on face value. There are likely flaws that would show up if you dug hard enough into the details. A combination of them might also work - start with 1 or 2, 3 happens and that's what changes everything.

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  • $\begingroup$ So the uneasy truce option is essentially the same as 'dystopian megacorporate' government, and the co-operative option is essentially anarchy with a series of subgroups? PLPs are a legal weirdness that can apply in either situation, and don't worry about the death laws: They get complicated but essentially lead to the splitting of all the dead person's worth (in both material, money and shares) between their shareholders. Oh, and +1 for recognising that society tends to be crazy. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 26 '16 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ Effectively, yes. The co-op one could be an anarchy (each coop does what it likes with limited coordination) or it could be a "democracy". Think of every coop like a State in the US: each state has a lot of control over its own internal policies, but there is a federal government made up of elected representatives from each that make decisions on the things that affect everyone. $\endgroup$ – Ieuan Stanley Jan 26 '16 at 14:30
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In al-Andalusia slaves could own slaves and many government officials were slaves including governors, generals, and mayors. Some ambitious folks sold themselves into slavery to help their careers. This could be your best model.

extracting your questions.

Best government, for this, historically would be a Caliphate. Although "democracy" e.g. voting could happen. Suffrage and eligibility limited to owned people. Votes could either be secret and personal or decided by who owns the most of you. The parliaments and congresses would be exactly as today but we would know who owns who.

People would choose to be politicians for the perks, the status, leverage, power, or because their owners told them to be a politician.

I have found an interesting loophole. If 20 people each have a 5% share in me can I buy 51% shares in them effectively making me my own man?

Idea 2 It is an acephalous society with perhaps a judiciary -owned by the people collectively- who decide disputes on ownership etc. If nobodies Ox has been gored then there is no law.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your loophole is entirely valid: as long as three of those people don't get together and realise they control you. At the higher-end of this society it's all pretty much machiavellian schemes to wrest controlling interests in the appropriate people away from whoever owns them without anyone working out what you're doing. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 26 '16 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ I like it. lots of intrigue. $\endgroup$ – King-Ink Jan 26 '16 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ What in the nature of a Caliphate lends itself to this? Is it just the first paragraph's explanation of al-Andulsia or it something more general about Caliphates in history? $\endgroup$ – shiningcartoonist Jan 26 '16 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ Just that historically a Caliphate is where a similar system worked. It could have something with how slavery works under Sharia or just a quirk of time and place. Historically Islamic slavery was less harsh than the chattel slavery systems in the Americas. So the possibility of being better off a slave was possible. $\endgroup$ – King-Ink Jan 26 '16 at 13:51
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There is a logical flaw in your system. If everyone is owned and there is nobody on the top, then the ownership-graph must be circular. As in A owns B, B owns C and C owns A. Because the ownership of most people is shared, the actual relations might be far more complex. But if one tries to map the ownership graph they are in in form of a tree, they will always notice that sooner or later they will end up with connections from the bottom back to the top.

That means there actually is no clear hierarchy. One can exert control over their owners through the ownership-chain of people they own themselves, which means in turn that they indirectly own themselves again. One just needs to find that connection. This makes the whole system useless.

You could fix it by removing the authority to confiscate property from people you own shares in (which usually isn't possible with real-world company shares either) and reduce it to a pure dividend-based system where one is entitled to a part of the income (or alternatively work-time if you want to focus on the slavery aspect) of the persons they own but not indirectly also the persons those people own.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't address the question of government, only the logical looping inherent in the system (which I'm aware of, see my note on 'marriage being two people with a controlling interest in each other'). Given the looping you've noted, how could a form of government emerge to provide 'public sector' services? $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 26 '16 at 15:04
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What you describe is probably not workable, and if it did "work" it would be just another dictatorship with a novel way of excusing the inequities.

  • Shares in a company don't mean a share in their assets, they are a share in the control of a company. A "controlling interest" can tell a company what to do, not just which assets it should liquidate.
  • When people historically owned other people, they could tell them what to do. Go to the cotton field, go to the mines, work ... Does that apply go voting? That makes the overt form of government (representative democracy, whatever) a sham.
  • There is a difference between percentage of ownership and net worth. How do your rules prevent somebody who is "0% owned and broke" to find some assets and become "0% owned and not broke" instead?
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  • $\begingroup$ I didn't ask if the system would work or if it was just a cover for another form of society: I asked what form of government would be used with this system. You've summed up an issue with democracy (which is useful). If clarification is needed on the rules of the system then a comment is the way to go. I think my clarifications clear up your point about '0% owned and not broke', and I'd say that the guy who can legally take everything I own away from me if I don't do as he says pretty much has his control. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 26 '16 at 13:29
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Other answers covered other points but I wanted to bring this detail up too.

Trading on the share exchange

Remember if these shares are traded on an open market, highly productive people's shares will sell for much more money than low productivity people. Some people will perform above expectation while others will perform below expectation.

A smart investor will do all he can to observe the operations of the slave shares he wants to buy.

How many share are available?

How many shares of a person are available to trade? Who decides?

Slave able to sell their own shares?

Can slaves sell their own shares or has this been done by some other entity? Who can decide?

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  • $\begingroup$ Very good points, but unrelated to the government used to administer this society. Unless the Share Exchange network is the governing body... Now there's a potential plot element!! Actually, the more I think about it the more a centralised share tracking and administration agency makes sense as the de-facto government. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 27 '16 at 9:29

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