Property As Legal Construct

Property appears an abstract, transcendent, metaphysical concept from afar but on closer inspection reveals itself to be legally constructed. Like ‘person,’ property obtains its philosophical traction from a legal, economic, and social imperative to distribute resources, and thus, wealth and power.  As a canonical legal textbook puts it, the “property system” that results from a particular set of legal arrangements can “order relations”; it can “confer benefits and impose burdens.” The law describes how it is acquired by discovery, capture, creation, being found, adverse possession, and gift. These accommodations of property are so fundamental that property is written into our conceptions of ourselves, in claims that “every man has a property in his own person.”

This taxonomy of ways of acquiring property highlight particular modes of interaction with the world in terms of their property creation properties: ‘this way of interacting with the world counts as an acquisition of property if it meets the requisite legal conditions’; the workings of the common law of property are refinements, over an extended period of time, of these interactions. Law thus provides a specification of the conditions under which humans interact with the world to bring property into being, and how other humans should accordingly interact with a world in which property exists, if they are to avoid particular consequences arising from regulations that preserve the categorization of particular objects as property. (Computer software—in its binary and text forms—had to be legally demarcated as ‘ownable’ and ‘copyrightable’ before it could be termed ‘property’ of any kind.) These consequences could, for instance, interfere with ends and purposes served by the provision of private property. The law of property demarcates a range of possible actions and restrictions on our freedom; various pushings, proddings, and pokings of the world become illicit because they may constitute, for instance, ‘trespass on chattels.’ This categorization of the world into property and not-property acquires ontological significance: property becomes part of our socially constructed reality, reconfigurable if social needs change.

Property is not discovered; it is made, not by the act of mixing labor with supposedly ‘fallow land,’ as Locke would have had it, but by the scaffolding provided by the surrounding legal system. Property is a wholly positivistic legal concept; it makes a supposedly natural right ‘real’ and acquires its ontological weight from law. The legal conceptions of property are indifferent to the kinds of property system they create: different sets of rules create different systems, with different balances of power for owners and others; such allocations of property might lock in and preserve existing power relations.

The best justifications—philosophical ones—for system of property are pragmatic, outcome oriented ones. There is no ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ independent basis upon which to rest the ‘protection’ of property:

The property concept had no determinate meaning or positive content. It was a contingent decision whether the owner of the factory machinery should also own the products of the factory, or whether the owner also should control the management of the plant. [Gary Peller, The Metaphysics of American Law, 73 Cal. L. Rev. 1151 (1985)]