Property as the Law of Democracy

49 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2014 Last revised: 20 Jun 2014

Date Written: March 12, 2014


In both his article Property as the Law of Things and his prior work, Professor Henry Smith has revitalized property law theory by emphasizing the architectural role that property plays in private law and the ways in which modular property rights reduce information costs and promote both property use and transfer. I applaud Smith’s insistence that we focus on the systemic nature of property rights and the benefits of bundled entitlements. At the same time, it is important to understand the limitations of Smith’s analysis.

Property law goes beyond managing the complexity of human interaction. Property not only presents a coordination problem but also a constitutional problem. Many issues fundamental to property law systems require attention to the norms, values, and ways of life that a society embraces. The problem is not just how to grease the wheels of social interaction; the problem is how to determine the character of that interaction. Value choices must be made to determine what property rights can be created, how many owners we should have, who can become an owner, how long rights last, and what obligations owners should have. Because we live in a free and democratic society that treats each person with equal concern and respect, we must interpret the fundamental values of liberty, equality, and democracy to define the set of property rights that we can recognize.

Property law is not simply about best management practices or coordination in the face of scarcity. Democracies elect leaders who pass laws that establish minimum standards for social and economic relationships compatible with our justified expectations and our considered judgments about what it means to treat others with dignity and respect. Property law is not just a mechanism of coordination; it is a quasi-constitutional framework for social life. Property is not merely the law of things. Property is the law of democracy.

Suggested Citation

Singer, Joseph W., Property as the Law of Democracy (March 12, 2014). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 63, No. 1287, 2014, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 14-22, Available at SSRN: or

Joseph W. Singer (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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