The Property Clause Question

Frank I. Michelman

Harvard Law School

October 31, 2011

Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 12-07

A “property clause” is a dedicated text in the written basic law of a constitutional-democratic state, addressing the question of the security of asset-holdings (and of their values to their owners) against impairment by action or allowance of the state. The clause provides a defensive guarantee against such impairments, in the form of a trumping right of every person to be protected – perhaps not absolutely and unconditionally, but not negligibly, either – against state-engineered losses in lawfully established asset-holdings or asset-values.

How should someone writing a constitution for an expectantly “social liberal” state regime think about the question of a property clause? Without suggesting that there can be any one-size-fits-all sort of answer to the question of including such a clause or not, this paper confines itself to doubting sharply one sort of a reason our constitution-writers might consider for including one – namely, that a liberal constitutional bill of rights ought to contain clauses covering all classes of interests of persons that qualify in liberalism as basic rights and freedoms and the interest distinctively protected by a property clause does so qualify – and suggesting some pros and cons regarding a quite different sort of reason for inclusion that the writers will also undoubtedly ponder – namely, that the clause will serve to keep lawmakers and constitutional adjudicators properly attuned to a national foundational commitment to a system of political economy in which markets play a key role.

This essay, prepared as an after-dinner talk for the Conference on Constitutional Revolutions and Counter-Revolutions held at the New School for Social Research, May 5-7, 2011, is a companion to my “Liberal Constitutionalism, Property Rights, and the Assault on Poverty,” Stellenbosch Law Review (2012) (forthcoming), which treats more expansively some points made summarily here. A version of this essay will appear in Constellations 12 (2012).

Number of Pages in PDF File: 21

Keywords: property rights, constitutional rights, liberal constitutionalism

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Date posted: January 20, 2012 ; Last revised: March 21, 2012

Suggested Citation

Michelman, Frank I., The Property Clause Question (October 31, 2011). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 12-07. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1952051 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1952051

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Frank I. Michelman (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
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