Property rights

Both advocates and critics often imbue “property” with an absolutism that it seldom possesses in real life. My definition of property in the book Rethinking Economy instead follows the tradition of seeing it as a “bundle of rights”:

Property rights are here defined as rights to use a thing either alone or together with others (and to exclude unauthorized people from using it), to give or sell it to others, under certain circumstances to destroy it, but always under the proviso of obligations to the community that recognizes these rights and thus has brought them into existence. These rights need not all be present or to be unified in a single actual or legal person. If many different people use a thing or contribute to its preservation it is appropriate to distribute property rights among different groups of people according to their contributions – this pertains especially to rights to businesses, organizations and natural resources. (p. 121-122)

In the liberal tradition, property rights are justified as incentive and reward for work and responsible action. Unfortunately, however, there are on the one hand numerous property rights without corresponding work or responsibility, and on the other hand great work and responsibility that is not rewarded by any property rights.

A successful transformation to an economy of living abundance requires new rules about who can acquire property and use rights by which means, and which obligations are connected with these rights. Property rights are to be defined as in the previous chapter as part of a whole complex of property relationships of mutual commitments. In agreement with various other national constitutions, Article 14 of the German constitution states that property entails obligations and its use shall also serve the public good. This principle should be strengthened. (p. 151)

Consequently, Chapter 9 of the book explores

the question how property relationships could be consistently designed around the principle that doing productive work and taking responsibility shall lead to the acquisition of property rights – and the converse, that people who do not work and do not take responsibility either do not obtain property rights or relinquish their existing rights. The results of such a transformation of property relationships are … property without obligations is largely eliminated and transformed into property that entails obligations with respect to the common good and to other market participants. Depending on the context, different kinds of property relationships are most appropriate. In the context of businesses and other organizations, cooperative forms of organization are particularly relevant, while in the context of goods and resources that are managed and used by people in a larger community or a loose network, the concept of the commons is important (often as a limit on property rights). In addition, it is important to reconsider public goods and democratic administration. (p. 155)


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