Introduction to Property Rights: A Historical Perspective - Public Finances - Local Community Resources (2023)

Everyone seems to have an opinion about property rights, whether that be their own, someone else's, or a community's. Discussions about property rights can produce different and controversial opinions, and often relate to larger issues such as land use, regulation, planning and the like. Since there is no universal definition of property rights, considering different perspectives and historical background can be helpful in understanding property rights issues.

According to Neil Meyer, professor of agricultural economics and rural sociology at the University of Idaho, "What is often called ownership is actually the right to access a range of benefits from a specific set of resources." access to these benefits is now controlled in four basic ways: private property, open public access, closed public access, and government ownership.

Who owns what property and where do property rights come from?

Property rights come from culture and community. An isolated person need not worry about property rights. However, when several people get together, they need to define and enforce rules for accessing and using the property. This is how the group or community defines the benefit stream.

“This land is mine to use, enjoy and treat as I please.” Many landowners think this way about their land rights, and landowners certainly have many rights to the land they own. However, historical action by governments and courts suggests that the property rights of private owners are shared with the public. As such, the definition of property rights can and has changed over time. While the issue of property rights has received much attention in recent years, it is important to remember that property rights in the United States have been debated since the country's founding more than 200 years ago.

What are property rights?

Property rights create relationships between participants in all social and economic systems. Ownership of property rights reflects the relative power of the owner. Possession of such powers or rights requires specific responses from others, imposed by the community or our culture. For example, a farmer who owns 100 acres of farmland is entitled to the returns of his property, management skills and common sense. It is protected from encroachment by the cultural customs of its neighbors and the laws of the community. He may, at his option, sell, donate or otherwise dispose of the land's production or revenue stream.

Property rights are a function of what others are willing to acknowledge. The limits of an owner's actions result from the expectations and rights of others, as formally sanctioned and confirmed by law. The boundary between duty and right is variable. Standards of rights and duties reflect prevailing judgments about what is fair, and people's values ​​determine fairness. Laws and rules generally reflect the values ​​held by a sufficient number of people in a social group.

A bundle of rights

Property rights have been compared to a bundle of sticks, each stick representing a right or stream of benefits.

The pack expands as sticks or entitlements are added and shrinks as sticks are removed.

Some important landowner rights include the right to sell, lease, mortgage, donate, share, grant easements, etc. The community also has a set of rights such as; B. Taxes, public use, use regulations, etc. Some recent issues have also been added and removed from the package by our culture and community, such as the right to agriculture, the protection of air and water quality, the protection of species and conservation, etc.

A landowner rights package may include the right to

  • sell
  • to hire
  • mortgage
  • subdivide
  • grant servitude

A public rights package may be a little more limited, but may include the right to do so.

  • Tax
  • make public use
  • usage control
  • discard in case of death

Governments acting on behalf of the public have long exercised powers that can affect individual landowners' use of their land, including the power to tax private property, classify property as eminent property (with compensation), and law enforcement regulations to enforce enact them. These are more formal powers, but communities also have ancillary powers to influence behavior, such as public spending, public ownership, and public opinion.

History shows that previously accepted concepts of property have changed with new conditions and over time. Early communities treated land and other natural resources as common property community resources. Under feudalism, status in the community was directly linked to the rights a person had over the land. While the distribution of rights has changed significantly over generations, understanding this history is important as it forms the basis of our contemporary concept of property rights.

How are rights defined?

Five legal terms from feudal times are still in use today: property, tax, inheritance, interest, and law. These terms have similar meanings and are often interchangeable. Freehold means that the owner enjoys all the rights that one can have over a property. Many citizens believe and appreciate the notion that these rights have not changed since America's frontier days. However, an examination of the many programs approved by local, state, and federal governments shows that our culture has assumed a greater role for public rights than has been recognized from the frontier individualist perspective. This evolution over the past 200 years can be attributed to population growth, rising incomes, greater competition for available resources, environmental concerns, broader voting rights, and so on.

It is obvious that the rights we have to property come from society. Rights are only real when the sovereign power representing society recognizes these rights and is willing to defend and enforce them.

It is also important to remember that taking dicks out of the rights package does not necessarily mean less satisfaction for the owner or that the property has a reduced value. For example, residential easements that provide electricity, water and sewage often add value to the property and increase the comfort of the owner. The same applies to regulations to protect water and air quality, reduce noise, prevent health problems, etc.

Are private and public rights in conflict?

Depending on one person's perspective, one set of rights may conflict with another person's perceived set of rights. However, who is right or wrong is not necessarily a question that can or should be answered. Because property rights are culturally defined and enforced, no one knows how or when public rights might expand over time. This situation can cause concern or conflict, as the interests of different groups of people are very different.

Those who see private ownership as an opportunity to acquire wealth have obvious reason to be concerned about trends towards public ownership. Others see land as a fragile resource that needs community protection and more public oversight. Most Americans probably fall somewhere between these two views.

As demands and pressures for stronger public land use governance programs increase, private landowners may fear that such societal shifts in attitudes will adversely affect them. They may fear that they will be deprived of certain rights. To accept this change it is necessary to recognize that the rights of private property owners are balanced by duties. Landowners must use land or other income streams in a way that does not adversely affect others and engage in practices that serve the vital interests of the community. However, defining what might be an adverse impact or what specific practices to follow can be a point of conflict. The community should also reflect on the value of private property to society and remember that it is in the interest of private landowners to use their land productively.

What is community property?

Although perspectives vary, the general aspects of private and public property and rights are well understood in today's society.

Common property is a third category of property. Common ownership consists of benefit streams that are jointly owned and/or managed. Grazing on public lands or fishing in the open sea are examples of different types of common property where public and private benefit streams are shared. Community ownership can be more contentious and complicated, as groups and individuals have different beliefs about how to manage the resource. In some parts of the United States today, many known property rights conflicts involve the management of shared resources.

Ownership and management can easily be confused when using the term community ownership. Public ownership can be divided into three types: open access, closed access and state/government. There is no governance in Open Access and anyone can enjoy and participate in the benefit streams of a given resource. This situation can lead to uncontrolled usage that can destroy the resource. A second type of public property is gated access, which is commonly managed and owned. Those who jointly own the closed access feature provide control, limit access, set rules, etc. Many fisheries are managed this way. In the third type, government administration, government managers make decisions and rules about access, use, etc. These decisions can become contentious for beneficiaries of different benefit streams – for example, the issue of grazing on public lands.


When discussing issues of private property rights, it is important to remember that property rights are not absolute, but a function of what society is willing to recognize, defend and enforce. The relationship between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community has been in constant flux throughout our history and is likely to continue to change over time. As discussion of these changing relationships can be extremely divisive and controversial, adopting a historical perspective can help improve the overall discourse on these issues.

This material was authored by Neil Meyer, professor of extension in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at the University of Idaho. Edited by John Church, Extension Educator, Natural Resources, University of Illinois. Reviewed by Donald L. Uchtmann, Professor of Agricultural Law, College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois; and Gerrit Knaap, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, College of Fine Arts and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois

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