Natural Property Rights

39 Pages Posted: 23 May 2019

See all articles by Karen Bradshaw

Karen Bradshaw

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Date Written: August 27, 2016


How do systems of property rights emerge? Many scholars embrace a cost-benefit explanation, in which people create property rights when the benefits of doing so exceed the costs. Although true, this explanation is incomplete. It focuses on human institutions, but overlooks that rights exist in a natural, physical context. Animals, plants, and even microbes recognize and enforce functional property rights — durable individual and communal rights to physical space. This Article synthesizes hundreds of scientific studies about systems of property among animals, which offers new insight to why rights emerge and dissipate. Property theorists have relied heavily on anecdote and case studies to identify the causal mechanisms. Biologists, in contrast, have produced several well-developed mathematical models to explain the emergence of rights. In this Article, I outline these models and argue that they represent a new paradigm for explaining property rights. I also show how this shift speaks to the leading property debates. For example, biological examples suggest that the imagined division between public and private property is a false dichotomy; to maximize individual property, one must simultaneously cooperate in communal governance of related resources.

Vitally, this project does not follow ugly historical attempts to use biology to distinguish among groups of people. It argues for the opposite perspective: emphasizing the universality of property as a form of organization among all living things.

Suggested Citation

Bradshaw, Karen, Natural Property Rights (August 27, 2016). Available at SSRN:

Karen Bradshaw (Contact Author)

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law ( email )

111 E. Taylor St.
Phoenix, AZ 85253
United States


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