Modern property rights conceive of ownership and possession as belonging to legal persons, even if the legal person is not a natural person. Corporations, for example, have legal rights similar to American citizens, including many of their constitutional rights. Therefore, the corporation is a juristic person or artificial legal entity, which some refer to as “corporate personhood”.

Property rights are protected in the current laws of states usually found in the form of a constitution or a bill of rights. The United States Constitution provides explicitly for the protection of private property in the Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment:

The Fifth Amendment states:

Nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fourteenth Amendment states:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Protection is also found in the United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17, and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Article XVII, and in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Protocol 1.

Property is usually thought of in terms of a bundle of rights as defined and protected by the local sovereignty. Ownership, however, does not necessarily equate with sovereignty. If ownership gave supreme authority it would be sovereignty, not ownership. These are two different concepts.

Traditional principles of property rights includes:

  1. control of the use of the property
  2. the right to any benefit from the property (examples: mining rights and rent)
  3. a right to transfer or sell the property
  4. a right to exclude others from the property.

Traditional property rights do not include:

  1. uses that unreasonably interfere with the property rights of another private party (the right of quiet enjoyment). [See Nuisance]
  2. uses that unreasonably interfere with public property rights, including uses that interfere with public health, safety, peace or convenience. [See Public Nuisance, Police Power]

Legal systems have evolved to cover the transactions and disputes which arise over the possession, use, transfer and disposal of property, most particularly involving contracts. Positive law defines such rights, and a judiciary is used to adjudicate and to enforce.

In his classic text, “The Common Law”, Oliver Wendell Holmes describes property as having two fundamental aspects. The first is possession, which can be defined as control over a resource based on the practical inability of another to contradict the ends of the possessor. The second is title, which is the expectation that others will recognize rights to control resource, even when it is not in possession. He elaborates the differences between these two concepts, and proposes a history of how they came to be attached to persons, as opposed to families or entities such as the church.

According to Adam Smith, the expectation of profit from “improving one’s stock of capital” rests on private property rights. It is a belief central to capitalism that property rights encourage the property holders to develop the property, generate wealth, and efficiently allocate resources based on the operation of the market. From this evolved the modern conception of property as a right which is enforced by positive law, in the expectation that this would produce more wealth and better standards of living.

  • Classical liberals, Objectivists, and related traditions
“Just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results, which means: the right of property.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
Most thinkers from these traditions subscribe to the labor theory of property. They hold that you own your own life, and it follows that you must own the products of that life, and that those products can be traded in free exchange with others.
“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” (John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government)
“Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” (Frédéric Bastiat, The Law)
“The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.” (John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government)
  • Socialism’s fundamental principles are centered on a critique of this concept, stating, among other things, that the cost of defending property is higher than the returns from private property ownership, and that even when property rights encourage the property-holder to develop his property, generate wealth, etc., he will only do so for his own benefit, which may not coincide with the benefit of other people or society at large.
  • Libertarian socialism generally accepts property rights, but with a short abandonment time period. In other words, a person must make (more or less) continuous use of the item or else he loses ownership rights. This is usually referred to as “possession property” or “usufruct.” Thus, in this usufruct system, absentee ownership is illegitimate, and workers own the machines they work with.
  • Communism argues that only collective ownership of the means of production through a polity (though not necessarily a state) will assure the minimization of unequal or unjust outcomes and the maximization of benefits, and that therefore private property (which in communist theory is limited to capital) should be abolished.

Both communism and some kinds of socialism have also upheld the notion that private property is inherently illegitimate. This argument is centered mainly on the idea that the creation of private property will always benefit one class over another, giving way to domination through the use of this private property. Communists are naturally not opposed to personal property which is “Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned” (Communist Manifesto), by members of the proletariat.

Not every person, or entity, with an interest in a given piece of property may be able to exercise all of the rights mentioned a few paragraphs above. For example, as a lessee of a particular piece of property, you may not sell the property, because the tenant is only in possession, and does not have title to transfer. Similarly, while you are a lessee, the owner cannot use his or her right to exclude to keep you from the property. (Or, if he or she does, you may perhaps be entitled to stop paying rent or perhaps sue to regain access.)

Further, property may be held in a number of forms, e.g. joint ownership, community property, sole ownership, lease, etc. These different types of ownership may complicate an owner’s ability to exercise his or her rights unilaterally. For example if two people own a single piece of land as joint tenants, then depending on the law in the jurisdiction, each may have limited recourse for the actions of the other. For example, one of the owners might sell his or her interest in the property to a stranger that the other owner does not particularly like.


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