Democratic Estates: Property Law in a Free and Democratic Society

61 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2008 Last revised: 14 Oct 2008

Date Written: October 3, 2008


How should we think about property and property law both descriptively and normatively? This article suggests we consider this question by focusing on justifications for the estates system which limits the bundles of property rights in land that are recognized by the legal system. Thomas Merrill and Henry Smith have usefully argued that what they call the "numerus clausus" principle is justified because it lowers the information costs of property. While there is a lot to this argument, I suggest that if we look, not only at the traditional rules governing future interests but at all the statutes that regulate property and market relationships, as well as the social customs embodied in our property institutions, we can see that our legal system regulates the bundles of property rights that can be created and enforced, not only to improve efficiency, but to shape the contours of social relationships so that they comply with the norms defining a free and democratic society.

Some of those regulations attempt to prevent the negative externalities that flow from unregulated property bundles, such as the current financial crisis which appears to have been caused by the marketing of subprime, variable rate mortgages that were securitized into incomprehensible packages whose real market value hidden from purchasers who took unreasonable risks in buying them. But other laws regulating property bundles are based on norms that define our way of life, such as those that outlaw property relations characterized by feudalism, slavery, indentured servitude, or racial and religious restrictions on land ownership. Still others protect consumers by setting minimum standards for property and other market transactions.

This approach to property differs from the traditional alienability approach, the legal realist bundle of rights approach, the efficiency approach, the libertarian and liberal egalitarian approaches, and the personality, human flourishing, and virtue ethics approaches by framing descriptive and normative inquiries about property and property law by reference to the quasi-constitutional, structural role that property law plays in defining the appropriate contours of human relationships in a free and democratic society.

Suggested Citation

Singer, Joseph W., Democratic Estates: Property Law in a Free and Democratic Society (October 3, 2008). Cornell Law Review, 2009, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-42, Available at SSRN:

Joseph W. Singer (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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