Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal issues

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The Origins of Private Property

IREF Working Paper No. 201703: Enrico Colombatto & Valerio Tavormina

Property rights play a crucial role in economics: They define the very essence of this discipline, which studies how individuals exchange in order to enhance their welfare, subject to scarcity constraints.

The recognition and enforcement of private property rights are the founding pillars of a free-market economy. Private property means that individuals have absolute, exclusive and permanent rights on what they legally own.

The debate on the origin and legitimacy of private property is thus of crucial importance, since it defines the very features of an economic system (institutions), the role of government and the content of economic policymaking.
The paper provides a critical analysis of the different views developed through the history of economic and legal thinking concerning the origins of private property, from Democritus to de Jasay.

These views have been grouped in two broad categories: consequentialism and fundamental principles. Although consequentialism is now dominant among economists and inchoate in the legal profession, we observe that it is in fact an alibi for discretionary policymaking by the authority. By definition, fundamentalist approaches generate rules that limit discretion. However, we show that some fundamental views rest on questionable a-priori statements. De Jasay’s argument based on the presumption of liberty is perhaps the only perspective that escapes this criticism.

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