Is Property a Shared Fantasy?

7483789266_262f4a0bbd_qSome things are so ingrained in our way of thinking that we think of them as fundamental aspects of existence. Private property is one of them. Yes, it’s fundamental to our entire way of living; without the concept of ownership of property, our entire legal system vanishes.

Which makes it easy to forget that property is just as assumption that we’ve all agreed to accept. An article from Jacobin asks where this right comes from and can’t come up with a good answer. And, the writer claims, neither can libertarian thinkers, the group most enamored of property rights in current times:

None of these moves resolve the basic issue that property acquisition violates the liberty of others. They just try to compensate for it in some way, sort of like an initial-acquisition version of eminent domain. That’s fine as far as things go I suppose, but it tends to suffer from the problem that most libertarians are quite opposed to the kinds of ongoing transfers implied by these compensation schemes.

The flippant tone of the article aside, it’s an interesting question. If one days open land belongs to everyone who passes over it, what’s the mechanism by which it becomes the property of one person or group… and how does that not constitute theft from neighbors? (Ask the people of Cahokia, once North America’s largest city. Or the Aztecs.)

The idea of public property is something that the United States struggles with, and these days the idea that something can belong to the people (whose proxy is typically a government entity) is one that is out of fashion; supposedly if we hand management of “our property” over to a private entity to take care of, wonderful things will happen. (Mostly for the private entity and much less so for the public owners, in practice.)

In a very real way, the current administration is looking to steal public property from its owners (Americans) for the benefit of favored private entities. Perhaps we need a better way than government to manage something that we all say belongs to the people, even if we’re not quite sure what that means.


  1. You wrote: “…without the concept of ownership of property, our entire legal system vanishes.”

    I disagree. You forget about things like laws against physically harming others, murder, etc., which while not the majority of our legal framework, are still an important part of it and a civilized society.


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