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Property Rights Systems and the Rule of Law

43 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2003  

Ronald A. Cass

Center for the Rule of Law; Cass & Associates, PC; Boston University School of Law; Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason School of Law


Property rights - rights to control, use, or transfer things
(broadly conceived) - though not readily distinguished from
other rights, comprise a category of rights that both strongly
benefit from clear and well-designed legal rules and often are
subject to "chiseling" from failures to follow legal rules or
from ex post alterations of the rules. Governance systems that
limit official discretion to impair property rights, that have
institutions and rules that provide clear definition to
property rights and that provide predictable and consistent
applications of those rights, will accord with the rule of law
and generally will also advance social welfare. Some systems
will depart quite evidently from this pattern, to the detriment of those societies, allowing too ready changes in law at the
discretion of too few officials, too unconstrained by law, as
the example of Zimbabwe illustrates. But differences between
the good and the bad will not be drawn along simple, discrete
lines, a point made by comparing the Zimbabwe example with the
United States. The systems most consistent with the rule of
law will not be able effectively to bar all changes in the law
or to eliminate official discretion. Instead, those systems
will limit the avenues for change and the ambit of discretion
in ways that make property more secure and impositions on it
more predictable without reference to the identity of the
individual official enforcing the law or the individual
property owners subject to it.

Keywords: rule of law, law and development, land reform, property rights

JEL Classification: K4, K0, K11

Suggested Citation

Cass, Ronald A., Property Rights Systems and the Rule of Law. THE ELGAR COMPANION TO PROPERTY RIGHT ECONOMICS, Enrico Colombatto, ed., Edward Elgar Publications, 2003. Available at SSRN: or

Ronald A. Cass (Contact Author)

Center for the Rule of Law ( email )

9907 Georgetown Pike
Suite 148
Great Falls, VA 22066
United States
703-438-8832 (Phone)

Cass & Associates, PC ( email )

10560 Fox Forest Drive
Great Falls, VA 22066
United States
703-438-7590 (Phone)
703-438-7591 (Fax)


Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason School of Law

3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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