The Concept of Property
Property is the legal right to possess, use, and convey tangible or intangible things. It is a key concept in the law, as well as economics and many other fields. The word is derived from the Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own.” There are different kinds of property. The most common is real property, which encompasses land and buildings. Other examples include personal property and intangible property, such as stock or bond certificates. Intangible property is also sometimes known as intellectual property, and may include a trademark, copyright, or patent. Ownership of property can be encumbered by debt, such as mortgages or tax liens.
The idea of property has a long history. In ancient pre-agricultural tribal societies, individuals typically had personal ownership of domesticated animals and weapons, ornaments, clothing, tools, and other articles. In addition, tribes often had communal ownership of hunting grounds, fishing vessels, and certain buildings.
In modern times, the concept of property has been the subject of a great deal of debate and has become more complicated. The development of capitalism and industrialization has increased the value of property as a form of wealth. This has led to a greater division between the classes and a rise in inequality. Many economists believe that this is one of the reasons for political and social unrest around the world.
Although Western legal systems have been historically characterized by a concept of property that differs from other types of law, the uniqueness of that concept lies in its timing: it emerged at a time when systematic legal thinking was evolving alongside a shift away from family ties to possession of objects. Pufendorf’s contemporary John Locke developed a theory of property that did not require the state to sanction it. He argued that an individual’s right to a thing arises from his or her labour, and that it is natural for a person to own something to which they have a direct interest because of this.
Locke’s ideas were influential, and his followers, most notably John Stuart Mill, associated property with liberty. In particular, Mill argued that security of property rights minimizes transaction costs. Modern economic theories of property, such as those that argue for a certain amount of initial allocation to allow the market to function, owe their roots to Mill and Bentham.
Other theorists have argued that there are different kinds of property, and that some of these are not distinct from each other. Comte, for example, argued that private property is appropriated from the tribe to benefit the community as a whole by making available resources such as land for cultivation. This does not violate Locke’s proviso that there must be “still enough, and as good left,” because it does not deprive remaining hunter-gatherers of anything valuable. Moreover, this type of appropriation is necessary to the survival of agriculture as a means of obtaining food. Nevertheless, this theory was criticized by others, who argue that the social benefits of agriculture do not justify such a fundamental reorganization of society.