Theories of Property

By Samuels, Warren J. | Journal of Economic Issues, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Theories of Property


Samuels, Warren J., Journal of Economic Issues


Among the theories of property are those that attempt to (1) explain the origins of private property, (2) explain the development/evolution of private property, and (3) legitimize - or criticize - the institution of private property and/or particular rights of property. These theories have very different purposes and are not substitutes. Discussions of the institution of property and of particular property rights are also very different matters.

With that in mind, consider that the institution of private property is widely and, truth be told, not inappropriately acclaimed for its help in generating incentives to create greater actual production and "efficient" production of output. In a society in which maximum or optimum production of real goods and services is highly valued, which it seems likely to be in a society with the institution of private property, the institution will be both further effective and highly lauded. Insofar as all societies are hierarchical, a society with the institution of private property will have, among its principles of social gradation, the differential acquisition, use, and accumulation of property; insofar as social rank is important, distinctions of rank in terms of property will be important.

By way of speculative comparison, consider hypothetical societies in which rank is assigned on the basis of writing poetry, playing the violin, speed in the 100-yard dash, throwing the discus, scoring soccer goals or basketball points, and so on. In each case, distinctions of rank will be assigned on the basis of accomplishment, and accomplishment will be both reckoned and lauded in terms of the particular mode of accomplishment.

Accordingly, a sense of triumph, not to mention invidious comparison, will be system specific - specific to the particular mode of accomplishment. Those who are, for whatever reason, unable, less able, or unwilling to play the established game - business, soccer, etc. - will tend to occupy the lower ranks.

None of these games, however, are given and self-subsistent. Each is adopted and structured by rules - rules that govern the respective opportunity sets of participants. These rules govern what constitutes property, access to property, and use of property, or whatever substitutes for property, e.g., rules governing what is acceptable poetry, violin playing, and the scoring of points. Those who are, for whatever reason, unable, less able, or unwilling to play within the particular rules of the established game will tend to occupy the lower ranks. Some players will try to change the rules in their favor.

Two of the books under review tell two very different stories of private property and may be comprehended readily along the foregoing lines.

Tom Bethell is Washington correspondent for The American Spectator and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. In The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, Bethell restates the venerable arguments that prosperity and civilization can occur only where private property both exists and is secure from governmental encroachment, and that such is traceable to certain "traditional" conceptions of justice and liberty. The scope of his work is wide-ranging with regard to both history and ideas: Greece, Rome, early modern and nineteenth century England, the Soviet Union, Ireland, Araby, China, and elsewhere; and Plato, J. S. Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Robert Owen, Douglass North, Ronald Coase (Coase Theorem), and others.

This is an exercise in legitimation of a private property, free enterprise, capitalist system. The story it tells in terms of the institution of property is not wrong, however incomplete (not to say biased and mystifying) its account of economic history. Missing, in part, are inquiries into the value system of capitalism (which makes relative the definition of progress in terms of more and more goods), the operation of social control (which makes relative the general conception of absolute property rights), the transformation of individual entrepreneurial capitalism to corporate capitalism (with its change of the nature of property), and the problem of the formation and reformation of particular property rights (which, inter alia, compels recognition of the distinctions (1) among the justification, origin, and evolution of property and (2) between the institution and particular rights of property).

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