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Property (or property right) is a general term for the rules that govern people's access to and control of things like land, natural resources, the means of production, manufactured goods, and also (on some accounts) texts, ideas, inventions, and other intellectual products.[1] There is a close connection between property rights and human rights. Ludwig von Mises writes that the program of liberalism "if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production".[2]

Property and scarcity

Some have suggested that property relations only make sense under conditions of scarcity. But other grounds of conflict are possible: there may be disagreements about how a given piece of land should be used, which stem from the history or symbolic significance of that piece of land, whether land in general is scarce or not. This would imply though, that such a given piece of land, which has unique properties which people find relevant, is scarce.

Intellectual property provides an example of property rules that do not respond directly to scarcity; moreover unlike material objects, the objects of intellectual property are not crowdable, for their use by any one person does not preclude their use by any number of others.[1]

Property and conflict

Property rights govern people's access to various things. Disagreements about their use are likely to be serious because resource-use matters to people. They are particularly serious where the objects in question are both scarce and necessary. Any society with an interest in avoiding conflict needs such a system of rules.[1]

Types of property rules

There are three species of property arrangement: common property, collective property, and private property.

In a common property system, resources are governed by rules whose point is to make them available for use by all or any members of the society. A tract of common land, for example, may be used by everyone in a community for grazing cattle or gathering food. A park may be open to all for picnics, sports or recreation. The aim of any restrictions on use is simply to secure fair access for all and to prevent anyone from using the common resource in a way that would preclude its use by others.

Collective property is a different idea: here the community as a whole determines how important resources are to be used. These determinations are made on the basis of the social interest through mechanisms of collective decision-making - anything from a leisurely debate among the elders of a tribe to the forming and implementing of a Soviet-style ‘Five-Year Plan’.

Main article: Private property

In a private property system, property rules are organized around the idea that various contested resources are assigned to the decisional authority of particular individuals (or families or firms). The person to whom a given object is assigned (e.g., the person who found it or made it) has control over the object: it is for her to decide what should be done with it. In exercising this authority, she is not understood to be acting as an agent or official of the society. She may act on her own initiative without giving anyone else an explanation, or she may enter into cooperative arrangements with others, just as she likes. She may even transfer this right of decision to someone else, in which case that person acquires the same rights she had. If Jennifer owns a steel factory, it is for her to decide (in her own interest) whether to close it or to keep the plant operating, even though a decision to close may have the gravest impact on her employees and on the prosperity of the local community.[1]

Creation of property

It is often assumed that property is created whenever labor yields a result, tangible or intangible. A possible reason why this assumption is made is because an important distinction is ignored: the distinction between the creation of property and the method of determining who owns what is already considered to be property. Most libertarians would argue that the first person to "mix their labor" with previously unowned or presently abandoned property is indeed its rightful owner, but this says nothing about how property is created, only how it is acquired.

"Why are tangible goods property? A little reflection will show that it is these goods’ scarcity—the fact that there can be conflict over these goods by multiple human actors. The very possibility of conflict over a resource renders it scarce, giving rise to the need for ethical rules to govern its use. Thus, the fundamental social and ethical function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources."[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Waldron, Jeremy. "Property and Ownership", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition). Referenced 2012-01-28.
  2. Mises, Ludwig von. "Property". Liberalism. 
  3. Stephan Kinsella, Against Intellectual Property.

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