Property Law Culture: Public Law, Private Preferences and the Psychology of Expropriation

50 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2010

See all articles by Cherie Metcalf

Cherie Metcalf

Queen's University - Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 15, 2010


Many different influences shape how people think and behave. The law is among the most overtly important of these forces, but it does not exert its influence in a vacuum. Instead, the law interacts with other others drivers of human behavior, such as economic or social and psychological influences. In order to understand the importance of law, its power to determine behaviour and its effects, the relationship between law and these other influences is important to understand. Recent work suggests that there may be a reciprocal relationship between law and non-legal influences that arises through the role of law as a reference point in the definition of individual preferences and in the formation of social norms.

In the present study, I investigate whether public law influences the extent to which the residents of a jurisdiction are opposed to government expropriation, as a way to explore the influence of law on the psychology of property rights. The law of expropriation is often the subject of heated public controversy; vigorous debate surrounded Canada’s decision not to protect property rights under the Constitution. This paper tests the thesis that public law, such as a jurisdiction’s constitution, provides a reference point that shapes individual attitudes toward property and expropriation.

To do so, I submit a survey to Ontarians at Queen’s to gauge their opinions on a hypothetical expropriation. The proposed survey mirrors one administered in the U.S. (Nadler & Diamond, 2008). Comparing the results of the proposed Canadian survey with the published results of the U.S. survey allows for a preliminary analysis of the role of law by exploiting the underlying difference in constitutional rules in the two countries. The results of the Canadian survey will be interesting in their own right, as they will provide evidence as to how Canadians view government’s power to expropriate property in different settings. The initial results show that Canadians and Americans display very similar attitudes toward government expropriation of property, despite the very different constitutional rules around property protection. There are some results that indicate a potential role for law as a reference point, but overall the similarity of responses suggests that this is not a strong determinant of individual attitudes.

Keywords: reference dependent preferences, law and norms, property rights, expropriation

JEL Classification: K11, A13

Suggested Citation

Metcalf, Cherie, Property Law Culture: Public Law, Private Preferences and the Psychology of Expropriation (July 15, 2010). 5th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Cherie Metcalf (Contact Author)

Queen's University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Macdonald Hall
Kingston, Ontario K7L3N6

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