Old Property

Property is the basis for every right and ounce of autonomy we have. James Madison called property “that dominion which one claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” Madison went on to argue that basically every right we enjoy is reducible to a property right. We have property in our opinions, in the free use of our faculties, in the safety and liberty of our body, and so on. He believed that “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort” and a government can only be just if it “impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

But government has not remained impartial in this endeavor. It has become a massive property owner in its own right.  It has also become a gatekeeper, setting the terms for individuals’ uses of their own property. It has also become a broker and redistributor of property. And finally, it has =become a creator of property in the form of entitlements–what Charles Reich famously called “new property.” It’s this last role that I’d like to discuss here.

Government’s role as a creator of property has muddled and watered down the strength of property rights. The problem began when U.S. courts started grappling with claims that individuals had been deprived of a constitutional right when government stripped them of a government-created entitlement, such as social security.

Courts confronted with this problem basically held that while constitutional rights do attach to entitlements, the government has an increased authority to limit the rights to those entitlements. Essentially, since the government created the entitlement, the government can define the scope and terms of that entitlement.

This “new property” doctrine then became entangled with a different idea altogether. The United States Constitution protects against deprivations of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. The Constitution, however, does not define property. Courts have held instead that state law defines property , and the Constitution then protects rights to that property.

That does not mean, however, that all property can be whisked away at a whim as if it is all “new property.” Rather, even though state law may establish what property is, states do not have the power to mutate and redefine all property rights on a whim. In essence, there is “new property” and then there is “old property.”

“Old property” is a bundle of long-recognized property rights rooted in common law. But just because those rights have arisen from common law courts over the centuries does not mean that these are property rights created by government in the same sense as less-protected “new property.” There is a fundamental difference, for constitutional purposes, between government recognizing a boundary line and creating a food stamp program. In some sense, this difference strikes a deeper philosophical chord, one that distinguishes between positive law and natural law–or fundamental rights that are acknowledged and respected by government, and entitlements that are created and controlled by government.

What are these fundamental property rights? Most are intuitive and understood by babies as soon as their hands are capable of grasping. They include the right to exclude others (the first property right understood by all children everywhere), the right to quiet enjoyment, the right dispose of the property by sale or lease, the right to develop and improve the property, etc. That right extends to chattel and land–things the government does not create but simply exist and are brought under human ownership through a first-in-time rule or a transfer.

The idea that “new property” deserves lesser protection because government dictates its bounds has bled over into the “old property” rights. This stems from confusion between government recognizing the existence of a fundamental right and government creating an entitlement. Extensive permitting regimes have only exacerbated this confusion. When local governments demand a permit before a property owner can do something with their land, the government looks upon that permit as an entitlement–a privilege and not a right. Thus, “new property” ideas come to overlay and suffocate “old property.” As permitting regimes expand, the world of “old property” retracts. But that permit is not a “new property” entitlement–it’s a condition placed upon a fundamental background right–an intruder upon natural law. When a permitting authority tries to strip away or deny a permit, that denial should be subjected to the full rigor of constitutional scrutiny offered to “old property,” not the weak sauce protections for entitlements.

If a government is only just if it limits itself to protecting what is ours, as Madison believed, then we don’t have many just governments left to us. Courts could help by establishing a clearer distinction between the old and the new forms of property so that governments can’t get away with redefining or stripping away fundamental property rights.

4 thoughts on “Old Property

  1. Do we have an entitlement to government enforcement of property rights? e.g. If you steal something from me, /how/ different is a) for me to insist that tax dollars finance putting a cop in harms way to protect, from b) my insisting that I get the social security benefits that I was promised out of tax dollars.

    • It’s a great point. I suppose I wouldn’t call government enforcement of fundamental rights an entitlement but a necessary incident to the right, distinguishable from the creation of entitlements that aren’t necessary to the enforcement of a long-standing rights like the right to exclude or something.

    • Am I right to interpret this as (essentially) the standard “negative-rights are consistent but positive-rights are problematic” argument?

  2. Yes, but I’ve found the negative/positive distinction to be a bit too reductionist, sometimes. There still needs to be an explanation as to why courts and police necessary to enforce contracts and so forth are not positive rights. I think there is an explanation as to why that’s the case, which I perfunctorily addressed above, but it’s more complicated than the positive-negative line sometimes appears.

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