Private Property: Correcting the Half Truths
Planning and Environmental Law, Vol. 59, No. 10, pp. 3-11, October 2007
11 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2007
Today's discussions about private land ownership and regulatory takings build upon a number of critical assumptions about how private property arises, how it relates to liberty, in what sense it is an individual right, what full ownership entails, and how property rights might legitimately change over time. This essay-excerpted from chapter 1 of a new book, On Private Property: Finding Common Ground on the Ownership of Land-steps back from contemporary debates to probe these fundamental assumptions. The assumptions, it claims, tend to be seriously flawed; they are no more than half-right, and need important revision to provide a solid foundation for evaluating where we stand and charting a course ahead. At root, private property is a social institution, created by law and lawmakers and appropriately revised, generation by generation. Private property does not exist primarily to protect individual liberty; indeed, it curtails liberty as much as it protects it. It makes little sense, also, to claim: that property begins when a person takes first possession of a thing; that private property can somehow be crafted as absolute; and that ownership necessarily entails expansive rights to develop. The situation is more complex, and property rights more pliable, tentative, and morally complex. Scholarly writing on private property would likely improve if commentators turned away from Supreme Court rulings on takings and focused instead on the fundamental elements of private property as an essential tool that society uses and continually reshapes to foster shared goals.
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