Proposal: Let’s stop calling them “Property Rights”

I think an alternative that is both clearer and more general is “Decision Rights”. When I teach Coase Theorem I use both terms, and (I think) students have an easier time grasping it when they realize that property rights are really just rights to make certain decisions. I can’t see a good reason to keep using the term property rights except that by historical accident it’s become entrenched jargon.

Property sounds like “stuff” to most people. And property rights sounds like “owning stuff”. This raises two points that need clarifying:

1. There is more to the world than just the physical, and there is more to property than just stuff.

I would argue that economic rights are human rights. (I would also argue that corporations are owned and staffed by humans but are not humans themselves.) And I would say that right to self-ownership is a particular type of economic/human right.

When we talk about environmental issues, the root problem is usually over some shared resource (e.g. we can’t neatly privatize the atmosphere and let now-private conflicts be resolved in court). It’s much easier to focus in on the relevant particulars when our language directs us to what’s really at stake (e.g. whether I can decide to put more than X amount of pollution into the atmosphere without legal consequences).

2. I own a bit of land and I can make many decisions about how to use it. But I can’t set up a nuclear reactor or burn a massive pile of debris. My ownership is not carte blanche, but a bundle of different rights. I have the right to use (for normal domestic purposes), to exclude, to sell, etc. By “I own” what I really mean is “I can make a particular set of decisions.

I hope my hard core libertarian friends will agree with me that the decisions I can make are not limited by what is explicitly legislated. I suspect my interventionist friends will disagree. But I also think interventionists can agree that it’s more reasonable for me to have a set of decision rights (how ever nebulous the extent of that set is) than some more magical sounding dominion/ownership over a particular fifth of an acre.

The notion of decision rights makes it clearer what political debates are over. If we want to pass a law saying you can’t put a pool in your yard because of spotted owls, “property rights” muddies the discussion. The law would take away a particular property right–which is to say, the right to make a particular decision. But the debate is going to devolve into “you’re taking our land” vs. “no we aren’t.” It’s close to the real issue, but not close enough.

tl;dr: When we talk about “property rights” or ownership what we really mean is a set of various decisions that one has a right to make. Those decisions might be over the use of what we traditionally call property (e.g. my yard), but it might also be over shared resources (e.g. the atmosphere), decisions with collective impacts (e.g. ecosystem management–or lack thereof), or socially constructed issues (e.g. intellectual property). The term “property rights” is not clear or obvious (particularly for people who aren’t already likely to read this blog). A better term would be “decision rights.”

2 thoughts on “Proposal: Let’s stop calling them “Property Rights”

  1. I think this is a great point. I strongly agree that property is about who gets to decide.

    But allow me to take it one step further… the term “right” is even more confusing. The truth is of course that there is no such thing as free-floating rights. Rights did not emerge with the Big Bang alongside quarks and leptons. Rights are extremely useful conventions which humans created or discovered over time. Indeed, they have proven to be so useful, that they are best considered sacrosanct or inviolable. Of course they aren’t inviolable, not really, they are just best considered so (Libertarians have so much trouble grasping this!)

    Thus instead of property rights we have inviolable rules of who gets to decide.

    • I’m with you (despite my libertarian priors) that rights are social constructs. This is an issue that needs wider discussion.

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