In corporations, the stockholders "own" the corporation. If you have your own business, you pretty much do whatever you like with the business.

However, if you're a manager working for a business, you are not free to uses the business money. You're an "agent", and the owners of the business is the "principal".

Both managers and owners have "power" of the business.

However, the manager "supposedly" manage the business for the benefit of owners or principals. Bribing a manager is an issue. Bribing a business owner is not.

If I come to a business owner and say, buy my widget instead and I'll give you 20% cashback/discount, that's just regular business deal. If I go to his manager and said, buy widget and I give you 20% cash. That's bribery.

An agent taking money from business to his own pocket is stealing.

At least, that's the impression I get.

Now, who owns a country country?

Am I correct to say that in democratic countries, the people "own" the country?

Has this ever been "formalized"?

Does everyone have equal share? Or what?

I know some constitution says that the "ultimate power" belongs to the people. However, nowhere does in my constitution say that the people "own" the country.

If the people do not own the country, why do we have corruption laws? What is wrong with a president using his power to get kickbacks and some voting bloc using his voting power to get welfare?

The latter is considered legitimate but the former is corruption. Both are using their powah to get something that benefit them.

Are there any philosophy or constitution or laws in country that more clearly define who "owns" a country?

Can countries/states be owned by somebody like corporations?

In the past, do king consider themselves as "owners" of a country? What about feudal lords below the king? Nowadays, are democracies "owned" by the people?

Possible benefits of clearly defining ownership for a state

  1. Things like going IPO. A poor country can quickly get money and better government (2 things poor countries usually lack) if the state have owners.
  2. If the states have owners, then citizenship/shareholdership can be bought and sold. Hence, citizenship will have monetary valuation.
  3. The people can see how well the state is run by looking at the monetary valuation of their citizenship. A lot of people wanting to move to the state means valuation of citizenship will go up.
  4. Some rent seeking can then be done to benefit legitimate owners of the state rather than corrupt officials that happen to be in power.
  5. Only investors willing to pay money, instead of immigrants, have a say in politic. This will solve many problems democracies have like "do immigrants share our value?"
  6. Most states acquire power and regions by invading or coup or war. Proper recognition of ownership may encourage state actors to peacefully buy and sell power and regions instead.

I understand that no states I know recognize ownership like the above. However, are there any philosophies or taught that revolve around seeing that somebody, citizens, kings, as legitimate owners of the state?

  • 5
    What do you mean by "own"? For companies, shareholders own shares in the company, which grants them certain rights under the law. There is no equivalent of a "share" for a country. Nov 7, 2018 at 16:10
  • 4
    The definition of state is not consensual among nations and today largely depends on international recognition. For example Taiwan is a fully working democratic and independent country but does not have broad international recognition (the reasons are complex). A company, on the other hand, has a full legal definition with slight variations among different nations. The two terms are not currently comparable. You'll have as much luck comparing a state to a company as you'll have comparing it to a club. It won't fit the shoes. Even in cases such as the Saudi family there are rulers, not owners.
    – armatita
    Nov 7, 2018 at 16:13
  • 2
    What do you mean by country? The soil/land that is enclosed by the borders? The buildings and other entities legally controlled by the government? The state in an abstract way (in which case I'm not sure the question can be answered)?
    – redleo85
    Nov 7, 2018 at 17:28
  • The question is unclear. It should first define what ownership is supposed to mean in this case. Then the question may become very simple. Anyway I think that a definition of ownership on a country wide scale is required to be included in the question to be able to answer it in a meaningful way. Nov 8, 2018 at 12:15

7 Answers 7


The analogy doesn't work. (So this is a frame challenge answer)

When I say "I own this pen" it is based the fact that I purchased the pen or obtained it in accordance with some code of law.

Similarly when I say "I own this company" it is within the framework of law that recognises and registers the existence of a "company". Thus all ownership is defined and determined within law.

But countries are above the law. The defining factor of a sovereign state is that it can determine the law. Countries may sign up to international "laws" but these don't define ownership.

On a football pitch there is the goal line. The location and properties of the goal line are defined by the rules of football. It would not make sense to ask "What is the goal line of a country" since a country is not a football pitch, it is not defined with the rules of football. Similarly, it does not make sense to ask "what is the owner of a country", since a country is not defined within a set of rules that define the concept of ownership.

  • 1
    Among the aspects of ownership that are not present in a country are that citizenship is not freely transferable by a citizen to a non-citizen, in the way that an owner of a share can transfer it. Most non-profits (except, e.g., home owner's associations) including pretty much all governments, are ownerless entities.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 9, 2018 at 7:12
  • 1
    Indeed, from a matter of political theory, it is more accurate, given the modified monarchist structure of sovereign states, to say that the country owns its citizens, instead of the other way around.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 9, 2018 at 7:14
  • @ohwilleke I see what's your point. So currently, no body really owns a state. And as you said, the state owns the citizens instead of the other way around. Even though unlike slaves, citizens are free to renounce their owners.
    – user4951
    Nov 10, 2018 at 15:43
  • @user4951 Just so.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 10, 2018 at 16:23
  • I think the state "used" to own citizens because citizens can't freely go to other states. Now, it's more of the other way around. Citizens are more of a liability than assets for a state. States usually screen and discourage people from becoming citizens. So I think the pendulum swing. Most citizens are more like "owners" instead of customers or assets of states. They have very little obligation and can easily move if they're not happy.
    – user4951
    Nov 12, 2018 at 17:08

This question would be better phrased as issue of legitimacy of government. At the core of your question lies issue of who, why and how is allowed to set rules within country.

Historically, until enlightenment legitimacy was usually derived from some variant of "Mandate of Heaven" or "Divine Right": god(s)-given right to rule.

During enlightenment, philosophical shift started happening. Novel idea appeared, stating that legitimacy of government is based on consent of governed and need for government to avoid chaos. Proponents of "social contract" argued that while in "natural state" people are free to do whatever they please, including murder, theft and rape, this is not a basis for working society, or society at all, necessitating giving up certain of those freedoms for safety from freedom of others. As such, within social contract government exists to secure "natural rights" (for example right to live) of citizens. Depending on flavour of social contract, government loses legitimacy when it loses ability to enforce laws, fails to provide aforementioned safety, fails to protect natural rights or any combination of the above. Illegitimate government should be overthrown by any means necessary, from voting to rebellion.

Idea of "social contract" is an overlap of philosophy of ethics, political philosophy and social philosophy. Within ethics, social contract was replaced by utilitarianism, idea that highest moral goal is maximization of happiness within entire population.

Hence we come to modern times.

Constitutions are supposed to safeguard "natural rights", democratic voting are supposed to represent voluntarity of social contract and for elected government, adhering to both is usually enough to claim legitimacy. Things get more interesting when we look at actual social policies. Is government which fails to protect physical personae (people) from acts of legal personae (e.g. corporations) illegitimate? Unlike USA, Western and Northern European governments include utilitarianism in their claim to legitimacy: extensive workers rights, social safety nets, progressive tax and higher equality are practical takes on 20th century utilitarianism, not present in 18th century moral philosophy. As such, by European standards, American government can be easily seen as partially illegitimate, due to failure to care for it's citizens and state of the society (Disclosure: this is a position I'm holding).

Now about dictatorships. It is rare for dictator to claim legitimacy through force, even if that's how position itself was claimed. Usually they claim that they represent will of the people while very deliberately not asking people what they want and not including any way for people to dissent or enact change. Regimes like Fascism and Nazism hypocritically stated that democracy means that 49% of people are forced to adhere to whims of 51% of, which somehow at the same time is both wrong, and makes it right for one dictator to rule everybody, because said dictator somehow knows what everyone wants.


No one owns a country.

Several people have different relationships to a country, some quite complicated.

But none of these relationships are analogous to ownership.

Even absolute monarchs and dictators did not own their countries. They came the closest to owning, but not quite there. They had duties, though no accountability. I have no duty to, say, a pencil I may own.

  • I would argue that as a matter of political theory, absolute monarchs did indeed own their countries. But, in all other contexts it is not an ownership relationship.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 9, 2018 at 7:16

Depends on the country, but the general rule is that Monarchies are govenrments that are "owned" by a King or Queen or other noble individual who inherited the position and thus the Country. This is countered by a Republic which literally means "Matters of the People/Public", and the government is sort of like a company that has traded stock in that the people of that government have a stake in it's running and the government answers to the people.

It should be noted that not all Republics are are Liberal Democracies (Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a Republic. North Korea is a "Republic" despite the Kim family having a hereditary rule... they play a lot of word games to try and justify that.). Conversely, not all Monarchies are Absolute Monachies (UK and Japan both have royal figure heads who are mostly hands off on the day to day functions of their government. Japan has a very long history of this under the Shoganate system.) These Constitutional Monarchies are basically created by the Absolute Monarch allowing for a Democratic Government but still retaining some form of authority, albeit reduced. The Emperor of Japan has far less power than the Queen of England in what their respective powers are. Vatican City is considered the last True Absolute European Monarchy, despite the lack of an inherited successor from the Pope's family (he does name the Cardinals who elect a successor from among themselves, though a wider candidate pool is available.).

  • I suppose your inclusion of "owned" in quotation marks is intended to recognize this, but I would point out that the relationship between monarch and realm is more complicated than ownership, although it is certainly similar to ownership, so +1. I would also point out that the usual translation of "res" is "thing," and "publica" shows that it is singular in the phrase "res publica." So the term republic may indeed denote that the country itself is a thing "owned" by the people, but not as shareholders but as members of the body politic.
    – phoog
    Nov 7, 2018 at 17:52

Whoever is powerful enough to maintain control over a given territory controls said territory. That's how it worked since the beginning of civilization and it's true to this very day. The only difference in the modern day is that countries have agreed amongst themselves to recognize each other's borders through organizations such as the UN. Therefore anyone attempting to seize a part of a foreign land by force would face a harsh reaction not just from the country in question, but also from the international community as a whole.

Within a particular country all ownership likewise lies with the whoever is strong enough to subdue all other living within the same territory. In Western democracies this power is dispersed amongst all adult citizens, who's ancestors have managed to overturn monarchs and dictators who have formerly ruled their countries. In a place like North Korea this power is restricted to a small group of politicians and generals who directly control the armed forces. In a place like Somalia the ownership is confined to whoever is the strongest warlord at the moment.


Nobody 'owns' a country.

Ownership implies the possibility of buying and selling. A house can be bought and sold. A business can be bought and sold.

Nations aren't bought or sold, or traded.

  • While it's true that countries can't literally be bought and sold, the union between England and Scotland to form the UK has sometimes been described as effectively a hostile merger, with England taking on Scottish state debt (and bribing Scottish officials, directly or indirectly). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acts_of_Union_1707#Political_motivations
    – origimbo
    Nov 8, 2018 at 13:20
  • @origimbo: I don't consider that a website has the sovereign rights invested in a nation per se; and I can't say I appreciate your attempt to confuse the issue. Nov 8, 2018 at 13:31
  • Nations can buy and sell and trade parts of themselves (see, e.g., the Alaska purchase and the Louisiana purchase and the Gadsden purchase and the treaty resolving the Spanish-American war). But, individual people within a country can't sell their rights in the country. In a Republic, the country owns itself.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 9, 2018 at 7:18

Who “owns” a country?

The State

In general, the state owns the country.

State as in sovereign state with international recognition by other states. The sort of entity that has membership of organisations such as the U.N.

In the past, for example in feudal times in Europe, the country (i.e. its land) was the property of the monarch. In modern times, when a state is taken over by a dictator, the distinction between state-ownership and personal ownership by the dictator can become blurred.


You have to identify what it means to "own" a country.

If there is an international boundary dispute over some territory, it is the states which resolve the dispute by state sponsored diplomacy or by state sponsored use of force.

It is states which control the "ownership" of land within the borders of countries and which set laws which regulate the activities of people within the borders of countries.

In some countries land ownership by persons is not full ownership but a diminished form of ownership known as freehold. In such countries people own certain rights concerning usage of a plot of land but they don't really own the land itself. The state reserves ultimate ownership.


  • Who owns the state? For whose benefit people consider a state act to be legitimate? Is it okay for a president to just spend money to enrich himself? What about the people?
    – user4951
    Nov 8, 2018 at 15:09
  • @user4951The state (an entity not a natural person) owns itself and really owns everything in the country including the people and the land in the country. No natural persons own a country if it is not an absolute monarchy or feudal system.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 9, 2018 at 7:21
  • @user4951: Why would a state need an owner? Typically the state has legal personhood, and cannot be owned just like natural persons cannot be owned.
    – MSalters
    Nov 9, 2018 at 14:19
  • Because concept of ownership for a state can allow the state to do things corporations do. Things like going IPO. If the states have owners, then citizenship/shareholdership can be bought and sold. Hence, citizenship will have monetary valuation. The people can see how well the state is run by looking at the monetary valuation of their citizenship. A lot of people wanting to move to the state means valuation of citizenship will go up. There are many other benefits of clearly defining ownership. Some rent seeking can then be done to benefit owners of the state rather than corrupt officials.
    – user4951
    Nov 10, 2018 at 15:29

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