'Governing Through Owners': How and Why Formal Private Property Rights Enhance State Power
59 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2012 Last revised: 14 Apr 2012
Date Written: March 15, 2012
A system of formal private property rights is a network of offices through which states can allocate responsibility to individuals on a mass scale for a wide variety of tasks, including some of the state’s core governance functions. A system of property rights do not straightforwardly constrain the state; in some contexts, they enhance state power, too. Because many of the state’s core governance functions are territorially defined (such as the maintenance of peace and order within the territory, defense of the territory from external threats, and the provision of infrastructure), this phenomenon appears most clearly in the case of private property rights in land. A network of landowners is a useful (and sometimes crucial) tool that enables a state to govern locally in the farthest reaches of its territory, even when it lacks the capacity or will to use other more formal tools for governance, such as governing by bureaucracy or licence. Thus, it is useful to think of the state’s power to define property rights in a manner that includes the obligation to carry out core state governance functions as itself a mode of governance. I call this “governing through owners.”
This model of state-owner relations emerges from two important conceptual starting points: first, the nature of ownership as an office through which the state assigns burdens; and second, what I call the “survival conditions” of a territorially defined state, namely, the establishment of basic governmental functions throughout its territory.
Keywords: property, jurisprudence, political theory, ownership
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