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How Property Norms Construct the Externalities of Ownership

Joseph William Singer

Harvard Law School

Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-06

The relation between property and sovereignty is a contested one. Traditional norms identify the protection of both persons and property as two of the core functions of government. However, these twin goals come into conflict when the existence or exercise of a property right results in harm to others. Yet it can be argued that recognition of any property right necessarily harms others by excluding them from resources they may need for human life. How then do we determine when an exercise of ownership is legitimately viewed as a self-regarding act that does not affect the legitimate interests of others (and thus does not involve any negative externalities) and when such an exercise does harm others and thus comes within the legitimate sphere of government regulation? Property norms help answer this question by orienting us in a moral universe through background understandings that define legitimate interests that deserve legal protection. Norms orient us, first, by telling us who is an owner and who is a non-owner with regard to any particular entitlement in a particular resource, and second, by telling owners when they are obligated to take into account the effects of their actions on others and when they are entitled to think of their own interests alone. In so doing, property norms define which externalities we as a society must pay attention to, worry about, and seek (if possible) to prevent.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 21

Keywords: property, ownership, externalities, self-regarding acts

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Date posted: February 16, 2008 ; Last revised: March 6, 2008

Suggested Citation

Singer, Joseph William, How Property Norms Construct the Externalities of Ownership. Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1093341 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1093341

Contact Information

Joseph W. Singer (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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