Property Rights: Theft and Security

Created by Raheem Williams |

This is part four of a four-part series on private property rights.

“If history could teach us anything, it is that private property is inextricably linked with civilization,” said Ludwig von Mises.

Of the four ways private property can be obtained—first possession, exchange, gift, and theft—three are lawful and one is not. In a system of secure property rights, property owners are protected from theft and their rights are upheld by the justice system. To the point that civilizations experience the economic and societal benefits of private property, property rights are only as good as their enforcement.

Imagine a world without private property rights.

Would you ever leave home if you thought another family could move in and steal your things?

How much time would you devote to work or leisure if you were busy guarding your property every day?

Without the protection of property rights, society dissolves into chaos (re: every zombie apocalypse movie). In contrast, secure private property rights allow citizens to allocate their time toward more productive uses, which leads civilizations to flourish.

Social Recognition of Rights

Similar to a friend saving you a seat at a crowded bar, your stuff is only safe when others recognize your claim to it. Therefore, enforcing private property rights requires social cooperation.

In a system of secure property rights, members of society acknowledge the institutions and rules that protect private property. Respect for property becomes engrained in social norms as citizens are mindful not to trespass through a neighbor’s yard, not to take food from a friend’s lunch tray, and even to knock before entering a room. These cultural norms emphasize society’s respect for spaces and things properly belonging to others.

Likewise, when these norms are violated, the entire community has reason to remedy the situation. By punishing those who break the rules and discouraging future crimes, private property rights are strengthened for everyone.

But if property rights rely on social recognition and collective action, consider cases of negligent property. Should those owners’ rights be protected? 

Legal Theft

In some cases, it may benefit society to force an unfit property manager to legally forfeit ownership of his or her property. This happens most often in real estate. When one property owner refuses to take care of their home, the values of all the homes in the neighborhood are adversely affected. Similarly, abandoned property contributes to urban blight in many major cities. When these problems arise, the community may feel obligated to step in.

The legal doctrine of adverse possession emphasizes this relationship between community and property. Adverse possession allows a person to take legal ownership of a neglected property after a certain amount of time. This doctrine permits the transfer of property rights from a disinterested, neglectful owner to someone with a proven record of maintaining the property in question. In effect, society allows people to legally “steal” property.

Similarly, the practice of eminent domain – seizing private property for public use – is another way society dictates the application and recognition of private property rights. While both adverse possession and eminent domain can help the community advance, citizens should be wary of legal plunder by the government. These practices should only be used in limited cases, and always while maintaining respect for the justice system that protects property owners. 

Benefits of Secure Property Rights

Research shows that private property rights are fundamental to economic growth and regional stability. Countries with weak property protections tend to grow slower than countries with robust enforcement systems.

Additionally, economic growth is stifled when governments fail to protect property rights or frequently confiscate private property, eroding public trust in institutions.

People are able to achieve more when they aren’t worried about the possibility of theft. When property rights are secure, they help promote peace and increase preservation and good stewardship. This creates an incentive to maintain order, which boosts socioeconomic development.

All of these reasons and more are what led Ludwig von Mises to the conclusion, “Private property is inextricably linked with civilization.”

<< Part 3

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