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Pound on the Philosophy of Law (Property)

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Source: Roscoe Pound, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922). Chapter: V: Property

Copyright: The text is in the public domain.

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V. Property (with Bibliography)

ECONOMIC life of the individual in society, as we know it, involves four claims. One is a claim to the control of certain corporeal things, the natural media on which human existence depends. Another is a claim to freedom of industry and contract as an individual asset, apart from free exercise of one’s powers as a phase of personality, since in a highly organized society the general existence may depend to a large extent upon individual labor in specialized occupations, and the power to labor freely at one’s chosen occupation may be one’s chief asset. Third, there is a claim to promised advantages, to promised performances of pecuniary value by others, since in a complex economic organization with minute division of labor and enterprises extending over long periods, credit more and more replaces corporeal wealth as the medium of exchange and agency of commercial activity. Fourth, there is a claim to be secured against interference by outsiders with economically advantageous relations with others, whether contractual, social, business, official or domestic. For not only do various relations which have an economic value involve claims against the other party to the relation, which one may demand that the law secure, but they also involve claims against the world at large that these advantageous relations, which form an important part of the substance of the individual, shall not be interfered with. Legal recognition of these individual claims, legal delimitation and securing of individual interests of substance is at the foundation of our economic organization of society. In civilized society men must be able to assume that they may control, for purposes beneficial to themselves, what they have discovered and appropriated to their own use, what they have created by their own labor and what they have acquired under the existing social and economic order. This is a jural postulate of civilized society as we know it. The law of property in the widest sense, including incorporeal property and the growing doctrines as to protection of economically advantageous relations, gives effect to the social want or demand formulated in this postulate. So also does the law of contract in an economic order based upon credit. A social interest in the security of acquisitions and a social interest in the security of transactions are the forms of the interest in the general security which give the law most to do. The general safety, peace and order and the general health are secured for the most part by police and administrative agencies. Property and contract, security of acquisitions and security of transactions are the domain in which law is most effective and is chiefly invoked. Hence property and contract are the two subjects about which philosophy of law has had the most to say.

In the law of liability, both for injuries and for undertakings, philosophical theories have had much influence in shaping the actual law. If they have grown out of attempts to understand and explain existing legal precepts, yet they have furnished a critique by which to judge those precepts, to shape them for the future and to build new ones out of them or upon them. This is much less true of philosophical theories of property. Their rôle has not been critical or creative but explanatory. They have not shown how to build but have sought to satisfy men with what they had built already. Examination of these theories is an illuminating study of how philosophical theories of law grow out of the facts of time and place as explanations thereof and then are given universal application as necessarily explanatory or determinative of social and legal phenomena for all time and in every place. It has been said that the philosophy of law seeks the permanent or enduring element in the law of the time and place. It would be quite as true to say that it seeks to find in the law of the time and place a permanent or enduring picture of universal law.

It has been said that the individual in civilized society claims to control and to apply to his purposes what he discovers and reduces to his power, what he creates by his labor, physical or mental, and what he acquires under the prevailing social, economic or legal system by exchange, purchase, gift or succession. The first and second of these have always been spoken of as giving a “natural” title to property. Thus the Romans spoke of them as modes of “natural acquisition” by occupation or by specification (making a species, i.e., creation). Indeed, taking possession of what one discovers is so in accord with a fundamental human instinct that discovery and occupation have stood in the books ever since substantially as the Romans stated them. A striking example of the extent to which this doctrine responds to deep-seated human tendencies is afforded by the customs as to discovery of mineral on the public domain upon which American mining law is founded and the customs of the old whale-fishery as to fast-fish and loose-fish which were recognized and given effect by the courts. But there is a difficulty in the case of creation or specification in that except where the creation is mental only materials must be used, and the materials or tools employed may be another’s. Hence Grotius reduced creation by labor to occupation, since if one made from what he discovered, the materials were his by occupation, and if not, the title of others to the materials was decisive. This controversy as to the respective claims of him who creates by labor and him who furnishes the materials goes back to the Roman jurists of the classical period. The Proculians awarded the thing made to the maker because as such it had not existed previously. The Sabinians awarded it to the owner of the materials because without materials the new thing could not have been made. In the maturity of Roman law a compromise was made, and various compromises have obtained ever since. In modern times, however, the claim of him who creates has been urged by a long line of writers beginning with Locke and culminating in the socialists. The Romans spoke of what one acquired under the prevailing social, economic or legal system as held by “civil” acquisition and conceived that the principle suum cuique tribuere secured the thing so acquired as being one’s own.

Roman jurists recognized that certain things were not subject to acquisition in any of the foregoing ways. Under the influence of the Stoic idea of naturalis ratio they conceived that most things were destined by nature to be controlled by man. Such control expressed their natural purpose. Some things, however, were not destined to be controlled by individuals. Individual control would run counter to their natural purpose. Hence they could not be the subjects of private ownership. Such things were called res extra commercium. They might be excluded from the possibility of individual ownership in any of three ways. It might be that from their nature they could only be used, not owned, and from their nature they were adapted to general use. These were res communes. Or it might be that they were made for or from their nature they were adapted to public use, that is use for public purposes by public functionaries or by the political community. These were res publicae. Again it might be because they had been devoted to religious purposes or consecrated by religious acts inconsistent with private ownership. Such things were res sanctae, res sacrae and res religiosae. In modern law, as a result of the medieval confusion of the power of the sovereign to regulate the use of things (imperium) with ownership (dominium) and of the idea of the corporate personality of the state, we have made the second category into property of public corporations. And this has required modern systematic writers to distinguish between those things which cannot be owned at all, such as human beings, things which may be owned by public corporations but may not be transferred, and things which are owned by public corporations in full dominion. We are also tending to limit the idea of discovery and occupation by making res nullius (e.g., wild game) into res publicae and to justify a more stringent regulation of individual use of res communes (e.g., of the use of running water for irrigation or for power) by declaring that they are the property of the state or are “owned by the state in trust for the people.” It should be said, however, that while in form our courts and legislatures seem thus to have reduced everything but the air and the high seas to ownership, in fact the so-called state ownership of res communes and res nullius is only a sort of guardianship for social purposes. It is imperium, not dominium. The state as a corporation does not own a river as it owns the furniture in the state house. It does not own wild game as it owns the cash in the vaults of the treasury. What is meant is that conservation of important social resources requires regulation of the use of res communes to eliminate friction and prevent waste, and requires limitation of the times when, places where and persons by whom res nullius may be acquired in order to prevent their extermination. Our modern way of putting it is only an incident of the nineteenth-century dogma that everything must be owned.

It is not hard to see how the Romans came to the distinction that has obtained in the books ever since. Some things were part of the Roman’s familia, were used by him upon the public domain which he occupied or were traded by him to those with whom he had legal power of commercial intercourse. He acquired them by discovery, by capture in war, by labor in agriculture or as an artisan, by commercial transactions or by inheritance. For these things private actions lay. Other things were no part of his or of anyone’s household. They were used for political or military or religious purposes or, like rivers, were put to use by everyone without being consumed thereby. As to these, the magisterial rather than the judicial power had to be invoked. They were protected or use of them was regulated and secured by interdicts. One could not acquire them so as to maintain a private action for them. Thus some things could be acquired and conveyed and some could not. In order to be valid, however, according to juristic theory the distinction must lie in the nature of things, and it was generalized accordingly.

In a time when large unoccupied areas were open to settlement and abundant natural resources were waiting to be discovered and developed, a theory of acquisition by discovery and appropriation of res nullius, reserving a few things as res extra commercium, did not involve serious difficulty. On the other hand, in a crowded world, the theory of res extra commercium comes to seem inconsistent with private property and the theory of discovery and occupation to involve waste of social resources. As to the latter, we may compare the law of mining and of water rights on the public domain, which developed along lines of discovery and reduction to possession under the conditions of 1849 and the federal legislation of 1866 and 1872, with recent legislation proceeding on ideas of conservation of natural resources. The former requires more consideration. For the argument that excludes some things from private ownership may seem to apply more and more to land and even to movables. Thus Herbert Spencer says, in explaining res communes:

“If one individual interferes with the relations of another to the natural media upon which the latter’s life depends, he infringes the like liberties of others by which his own are measured.”

But if this is true of air and of light and of running water, men will insist upon inquiring why it is not true of land, of articles of food, of tools and implements, of capital and even, it may be, of the luxuries upon which a truly human life depends. Accordingly, how to give a rational account of the so-called natural right of property and how to fix the natural limits of that right became vexed questions of philosophical jurisprudence.

Antiquity was content to maintain the economic and social status quo or at least to idealize it and maintain it in an ideal form. The Middle Ages were content to accept suum cuique tribuere as conclusive. It was enough that acquisition of land and movables and private ownership of them were part of the existing social system. Upon the downfall of authority, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century jurists sought to put natural reason behind private property as behind all other institutions. When Kant had undermined this foundation, the nineteenth-century philosophical jurists sought to deduce property from a fundamental metaphysical datum; the historical jurists sought to record the unfolding of the idea of private property in human experience, thus showing the universal idea; the utilitarian demonstrated private property by his fundamental test and the positivist established its validity and necessity by observation of human institutions and their evolution. In other words, here as elsewhere, when eighteenth-century natural law broke down, jurists sought to put new foundations under the old structure of natural rights, just as natural rights had been put as a new foundation to support institutions which theretofore had found a sufficient basis in authority.

Theories by which men have sought to give a rational account of private property as a social and legal institution may be arranged conveniently in six principal groups, each including many forms. These groups may be called: (1) Natural-law theories, (2) metaphysical theories, (3) historical theories, (4) positive theories, (5) psychological theories and (6) sociological theories.

Of the natural-law theories, some proceed on a conception of principles of natural reason derived from the nature of things, some on conceptions of human nature. The former continue the ideas of the Roman lawyers. They start with a definite principle found as the explanation of a concrete case and make it a universal foundation for a general law of property. As it has been put, they find a postulate of property and derive property therefrom by deduction. Such theories usually start either from the idea of occupation or from the idea of creation through labor. Theories purporting to be based on human nature are of three forms. Some proceed on a conception of natural rights, taken to be qualities of human nature reached by reasoning as to the nature of the abstract man. Others proceed upon the basis of a social contract expressing or guaranteeing the rights derived by reason from the nature of man in the abstract. In recent thinking a third form has arisen which may be called an economic natural law. In this form of theory, a general foundation for property is derived from the economic nature of man or from the nature of man as an economic entity. These are modern theories of natural law on an economic instead of an ethical basis.

Grotius and Pufendorf may be taken as types of the older natural-law theories of property. According to Grotius, all things originally were res nullius. But men in society came to a division of things by agreement. Things not so divided were afterward discovered by individuals and reduced to possession. Thus things came to be subjected to individual control. A complete power of disposition was deduced from this individual control, as something logically implied therein, and this power of disposition furnished the basis for acquisition from others whose titles rested directly or indirectly upon the natural foundation of the original division by agreement or of subsequent discovery and occupation. Moreover, it could be argued that the control of an owner, in order to be complete, must include not only the power to give inter vivos but also the power to provide for devolution after death as a sort of postponed gift. Thus a complete system of natural rights of property was made to rest mediately or immediately upon a postulated original division by agreement or a subsequent discovery and occupation. This theory should be considered in the light of the facts of the subject on which Grotius wrote and of the time when he wrote. He wrote on international law in the period of expansion and colonization at the beginning of the seventeenth century. His discussion of the philosophical foundation of property was meant as a preliminary to consideration of the title of states to their territorial domain. As things were, the territories of states had come down in part from the past. The titles rested on a sort of rough adjustment among the invaders of the Roman empire. They could be idealized as the result of a division by agreement and of successions to, or acquisitions from, those who participated therein. Another part represented new “natural” titles based on discovery and occupation in the new world. Thus a Romanized, idealized scheme of the titles by which European states of the seventeenth century held their territories becomes a universal theory of property.

Pufendorf rests his whole theory upon an original pact. He argues that there was in the beginning a “negative community.” That is, all things were originally res communes. No one owned them. They were subject to use by all. This is called a negative community to distinguish it from affirmative ownership by co-owners. He declares that men abolished the negative community by mutual agreement and thus established private ownership. Either by the terms of this pact or by a necessary implication what was not occupied then and there was subject to acquisition by discovery and occupation, and derivative acquisition of titles proceeding from the abolition of the negative community was conceived to be a further necessary implication.

In Anglo-American law, the justification of property on a natural principle of occupation of ownerless things got currency through Blackstone. As between Locke on the one side and Grotius and Pufendorf on the other, Blackstone was not willing to commit himself to the need of assuming an original pact. Apparently he held that a principle of acquisition by a temporary power of control co-extensive with possession expressed the nature of man in primitive times and that afterwards, with the growth of civilization, the nature of man in a civilized society was expressed by a principle of complete permanent control of what had been occupied exclusively, including as a necessary incident of such control the ius disponendi. Maine has pointed out that this distinction between an earlier and a later stage in the natural right of property grew out of desire to bring the theory into accord with Scriptural accounts of the Patriarchs and their relations to the land grazed by their flocks. In either event the ultimate basis is taken to be the nature of man as a rational creature, expressed in a natural principle of control of things through occupation or in an original contract providing for such ownership.

With the revival of natural law in recent years a new phase of the justification of property upon the basis of human nature has arisen. This was suggested first by economists who deduced property from the economic nature of man as a necessity of the economic life of the individual in society. Usually it is coupled with a psychological theory on the one side and a social-utilitarian theory on the other side. In the hands of writers on philosophy of law it has often taken on a metaphysical color. From another standpoint, what are essentially natural-law theories have been advocated by socialists, either deducing a natural right of the laborer to the whole produce of his labor from a “natural” principle of creation or carrying out the idea of natural qualities of the individual human being to the point of denying all private property as a “natural” institution and deducing a general regime of res communes or res publicae.

Metaphysical theories of property are part of the general movement that replaced seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theories of natural rights, founded on the nature of the abstract man or on an assumed compact, by metaphysical theories. They begin with Kant. He first sets himself to justify the abstract idea of a law of property—the idea of a system of “external meum and tuum.” Here, as everywhere else, he begins with the inviolability of the individual human personality. A thing is rightfully mine, he says, when I am so connected with it that anyone who uses it without my consent does me an injury. But to justify the law of property we must go beyond cases of possession where there is an actual physical relation to the object and interference therewith is an aggression upon personality. The thing can only be mine for the purposes of a legal system of meum and tuum where I will be wronged by another’s use of it when it is not actually in my possession. This raises in the first instance the question “How is a merely juridical or rational [as distinguished from a purely physical] possession possible?” He answers the question by a metaphysical version of the occupation theory of the eighteenth century. Conceding that the idea of a primitive community of things is a fiction, the idea of a logically original community of the soil and of the things upon it, he says, has objective reality and practical juridical reality. Otherwise mere objects of the exercise of the will, exempted therefrom by operation of law, would be raised to the dignity of free-willing subjects, although they have no subjective claim to be respected. Thus the first possessor founds upon a common innate right of taking possession, and to disturb him is a wrong. The first taking of possession has “a title of right” behind it in the principle of the original common claim to possession. It results that this taker obtains a control “realized by the understanding and independent of relations of space,” and he or those who derive from him may possess a parcel of land although remote from it physically. Such a possession is only possible in a state of civil society. In civil society, a declaration by word or act that an external thing is mine and making it an object of the exercise of my will is “a juridical act.” It involves a declaration that others are under a duty of abstaining from the use of the object. It also involves an admission that I am bound in turn toward all others with respect to the objects they have made “externally theirs.” For we are brought to the fundamental principle of justice that requires each to regulate his conduct by a universal rule that will give like effect to the will of others. This is guaranteed by the legal order in civil society and gives us the regime of external mine and thine. Having thus worked out a theory of meum and tuum as legal institutions, Kant turns to a theory of acquisition, distinguishing an original and primary from a derived acquisition. Nothing is originally mine without a juridical act. The elements of this legal transaction of original acquisition are three: (1) “Prehension” of an object which belongs to no one; (2) an act of the free will interdicting all others from using it as theirs; (3) appropriation as a permanent acquisition, receiving a lawmaking force from the principle of reconciling wills according to a universal law, whereby all others are obliged to respect and act in conformity to the will of the appropriator with respect to the thing appropriated. Kant then proceeds to work out a theory of derivative acquisition by transfer or alienation, by delivery or by contract, as a legal giving effect to the individual will by universal rules, not incompatible with a like efficacy in action of all other wills. This metaphysical version of the Roman theory of occupation is evidently the link between the eighteenth century and Savigny’s aphorism that all property is founded in adverse possession ripened by prescription.

When Kant’s theory is examined it will be found to contain both the idea of occupation and the idea of compact. Occupation has become a legal transaction involving a unilateral pact not to disturb others in respect of their occupation of other things. But the pact does not derive its efficacy from the inherent moral force of a promise as such or the nature of man as a moral creature which holds him to promises. Its efficacy is not found in qualities of promises or of men, but in a principle of reconciling wills by a universal law, since that principle requires one who declares his will as to object A to respect the declaration of his neighbor’s will as to object B. On the other hand, the idea of creation is significantly absent. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, in view of the ideas of Rousseau, who held that the man who first laid out a plot of ground and said, “This is mine,” should have been lynched, and of the interferings with vested rights in Revolutionary France, Kant was not thinking how those who had not might claim a greater share in what they produced but how those who had might claim to hold what they had.

Hegel develops the metaphysical theory further by getting rid of the idea of occupation and treating property as a realization of the idea of liberty. Property, he says, “makes objective my personal, individual will.” In order to reach the complete liberty involved in the idea of liberty, one must give his liberty an external sphere. Hence a person has a right to direct his will upon an external object and an object on which it is so directed becomes his. It is not an end in itself; it gets its whole rational significance from his will. Thus when one appropriates a thing, fundamentally he manifests the majesty of his will by demonstrating that external objects that have no wills are not self-sufficient and are not ends in themselves. It follows that the demand for equality in the division of the soil and in other forms of wealth is superficial. For, he argues, differences of wealth are due to accidents of external nature that give to what A has impressed with his will greater value than to what B has impressed with his, and to the infinite diversity of individual mind and character that leads A to attach his will to this and B to attach his will to that. Men are equal as persons. With respect to the principle of possession they stand alike. Everyone must have property of some sort in order to be free. Beyond this, “among persons differently endowed inequality must result and equality would be wrong.”

Nineteenth-century metaphysical theories of property carry out these ideas or develop this method. And it is to be noted that they are all open to attack from the standpoint of the theory of res extra commercium. Thus Hegel’s theory comes to this: Personality involves exercise of the will with respect to things. When one has exercised his will with respect to a thing and so has acquired a power of control over it, other wills are excluded from this thing and are to be directed toward objects with which other personalities have not been so identified. So long as there are vacant lands to occupy, undeveloped regions awaiting the pioneer, unexploited natural resources awaiting the prospector,—in short, so long as there are enough physical objects in reach, if one may so put it, to go round,—this would be consistent with the nineteenth-century theory of justice. But when, as at the end of the nineteenth century, the world becomes crowded and its natural resources have been appropriated and exploited, so that there is a defect in material nature whereby such exercise of the will by some leaves no objects upon which the wills of others may be exerted, or a deficiency such as to prevent any substantial exertion of the will, it is difficult to see how Hegel’s argument may be reconciled with the argument put behind the conception of res extra commercium. Miller, a Scotch Hegelian, seeks to meet this difficulty. He says that beyond what is needed for the natural existence and development of the person, property “can only be held as a trust for the state.” In modern times, however, a periodical redistribution, as in antiquity, is economically inadmissible. Yet if anyone’s holdings were to exceed the bounds of reason, “the legislature would undoubtedly interfere on behalf of society and prevent the wrong which would be done by caricaturing an abstract right.” In view of our bills of rights, an American Hegelian could not invoke the deus ex machina of an Act of Parliament so conveniently. Perhaps he would fall back on graduated taxation and inheritance taxes. But does not Miller when hard pressed resort to something very like social-utilitarianism?

Lorimer connects the metaphysical theory with theories resting on human nature. To begin with, he deduces the whole system of property from a fundamental proposition that “the right to be and to continue to be implies a right to the conditions of existence.” Accordingly he says that the idea of property is inseparably connected “not only with the life of man but with organic existence in general”; that “life confers rights to its exercise corresponding in extent to the powers of which it consists.” When, however, this is applied in explaining the basis of the present proprietary system in all its details resort must be had to a type of artificial reasoning similar to that employed by the jurists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The abstract idea of ownership is not the only thing the legal philosopher has to consider. Moreover the reasoning by which that application is made may not be reconciled with the arguments by which the doctrine of res extra commercium is regarded also as a bit of natural law.

Although it purports to be wholly different, the positive theory of the basis of property is essentially the same as the metaphysical. Thus Spencer’s theory is a deduction from a fundamental “law of equal freedom” verified by observation of the facts of primitive society. But the “law of equal freedom” supposed to be ascertained by observation, in the same way in which physical or chemical laws are ascertained, is in fact, as has often been pointed out, Kant’s formula of justice. And the verification of deductions from this law by observation of the facts of primitive civilization is not essentially different from the verification of the deductions from the metaphysical fundamental law carried on by the historical jurists. The metaphysical jurist reached a principle metaphysically and deduced property therefrom. The historical jurist thereupon verified the deduction by showing the same principle as the idea realizing itself in legal history. In the hands of the positivists the same principle is reached by observation, the same deduction is made therefrom, and the deduction is verified by finding the institution latent in primitive society and unfolding with the development of civilization. The most notable difference is that the metaphysical and historical jurists rely chiefly on primitive occupation of ownerless things, while the positivists have been inclined to lay stress upon creation of new things by labor. In any event, laying aside the verification for the moment, the deduction as made by Spencer involves the same difficulties as those involved in the metaphysical deduction. Moreover, like the metaphysical deduction, it accounts for an abstract idea of private property rather than for the regime that actually exists. Inequalities are assumed to be due to “greater strength, greater ingenuity or greater application” of those who have acquired more than their fellows. Hence, as the end of law is taken to be the bringing about of a maximum of individual free self-assertion, any interference with one’s holding the fruits of his greater strength or greater ingenuity or greater application, and his resulting greater activity in creative or acquisitive self-assertion, would contravene the very purpose of the legal order. It will be noted also that this theory, like all that had gone before, assumes a complete ius disponendi as implied in the very notion of property. But does not this also require demonstration? Is the ius disponendi implied in the idea which they demonstrate or is it only an incident of the institution they are seeking to explain by the demonstration?

Historical jurists have maintained their theory on the basis of two propositions: (1) The conception of private property, like the conception of individual personality, has had slow but steady development from the beginnings of law; (2) individual ownership has grown out of group rights just as individual interests of personality have been disentangled gradually from group interests. Let us look at each of these propositions in some detail.

If we examine the law of property analytically, we may see three grades or stages in the power or capacity which men have of influencing the acts of others with respect to corporeal objects. One is a mere condition of fact, a mere physical holding of or physical control over the thing without any other element whatever. The Roman jurists called this natural possession. We call it custody. Writers on analytical jurisprudence regard it as an element of possession. But this natural possession is something that may exist independently of law or of the state, as in the so-called pedis possessio of American mining law, where, before law or state authority had been extended to the public domain in the mining country, the miners recognized the claim of one who was actually digging to dig without molestation at that spot. The mere having of an object in one’s actual grasp gives an advantage. But it may be only an advantage depending on one’s strength or on recognition of and respect for his personality by his fellow men. It is not a legal advantage except as the law protects personality. It is the physical person of the one in natural possession which is secured, not his relation to the thing held. Analytically the next grade or stage is what the Romanist calls juristic possession as distinguished from natural possession. This is a legal development of the extra-legal idea of custody. Where custody or the ability to reproduce a condition of custody is coupled with the mental element of intention to hold for one’s own purposes, the legal order confers on one who so holds a capacity protected and maintained by law so to hold, and a claim to have the thing restored to his immediate physical control should he be deprived of it. As the Romanist puts it, in the case of natural possession the law secures the relation of the physical person to the object; in juristic possession the law secures the relation of the will to the object. In the highest grade of proprietary relation, ownership, the law goes much further and secures to men the exclusive or ultimate enjoyment or control of objects far beyond their capacity either to hold in custody or to possess—that is, beyond what they could hold by physical force and beyond what they could actually hold even by the help of the state. Natural possession is a conception of pure fact in no degree dependent upon law. The legally significant thing is the interest of the natural possessor in his personality. Possession or juristic possession is a conception of fact and law, existing as a pure relation of fact, independent of legal origin, but protected and maintained by law without regard to interference with personality. Ownership is a purely legal conception having its origin in and depending on the law.

In general the historical development of the law of property follows the line thus indicated by analysis. In the most primitive social control only natural possession is recognized and interference with natural possession is not distinguished from interference with the person or injury to the honor of the one whose physical contact with the physical object is meddled with. In the earlier legal social control the all-important thing is seisin, or possession. This is a juristic possession, a conception both of fact and of law. Such institutions as tortious conveyance by the person seised in the common law are numerous in an early stage of legal development. They show that primarily the law protected the relation to an object of one who had possession of it. Indeed the idea of dominium, or ownership as we now understand it, was first worked out thoroughly in Roman law, and other systems got their idea of it, as distinguished from seisin, from the Roman books.

Recognition of individual interests of substance, or in other words individual property, has developed out of recognition of group interests, just as recognition of individual interests of personality has evolved gradually from what in the first instance was a recognition of group interests. The statement which used to be found in the books that all property originally was owned in common means nothing more than this: When interests of substance are first secured they are interests of groups of kindred because in tribally organized society groups of kindred are the legal units. Social control secures these groups in the occupation of things which they have reduced to their possession. In this sense the first property is group property rather than individual property. Yet it must be noted that wherever we find a securing of group interests, the group in occupation is secured against interference of other groups with that occupation. Two ideas gradually operated to break up these group interests and bring about recognition of individual interests. One of these is the partition of households. The other is the idea of what in the Hindu law is called self-acquired property.

In primitive or archaic society as households grow unwieldy there is a partition which involves partition of property as well as of the household. Indeed in Hindu law partition is thought of as partition of the household primarily and as partition of property only incidentally. Also in Roman law the old action for partition is called the action for partitioning the household. Thus, at first, partition is a splitting up of an overgrown household into smaller households. Presently, however, it tends to become a division of a household among individuals. Thus in Roman law on the death of the head of a household each of his sons in his power at his death became a pater familias and could bring a proceeding to partition the inheritance although he might be the sole member of the household of which he was the head. In this way individual ownership became the normal condition instead of household ownership. In Hindu law household ownership is still regarded as the normal condition. But with changes in society and the rise of commercial and industrial activity, a change has been taking place rapidly which is making individual ownership the normal type in fact, if not in legal theory.

Self-acquired property, the second disintegrating agency, may be seen in Hindu law and also in Roman law. In Hindu law all property is normally and prima facie household property. The burden is upon anyone who claims to be the individual owner of anything. But an exceptional class of property is recognized which is called self-acquired property. Such property might be acquired by “valor,” that is, by leaving the household and going into military service and thus earning or acquiring by way of booty, or by “learning,” that is, by withdrawing from the household and devoting oneself to study and thus acquiring through the gifts of the pious or the exercise of knowledge. A third form was recognized later, namely, property acquired through the use of self-acquired property. In the same way in Roman law the son in the household, even if of full age, normally had no property. Legally all property acquired by any member of the household was the property of the head of the household as the legal symbol and representative thereof. Later the head of the household ceases to be thought of as symbolizing the household and the property was regarded legally as his individual property. But Roman law recognized certain kinds of property which sons in the household might hold as their own. The first of these was property earned or acquired by the son in military service. Later property earned in the service of the state was added. Finally it came to be law that property acquired otherwise than through use of the patrimony of the household might be held by the son individually though he remained legally under the power of the head.

In the two ways just explained, through partition and through the idea of self-acquired property, individual interests in property came to be recognized throughout the law. Except for the institution of community property between husband and wife in civil-law countries, or as it is called the matrimonial property regime, there is practically nothing left of the old system of recognized group interests. And even this remnant of household group ownership is dissolving. All legally recognized interests of substance in developed legal systems are normally individual interests. To the historical jurist of the nineteenth century, this fact, coupled with the development of ownership out of possession, served to show us the idea which was realizing in human experience of the administration of justice and to confirm the position reached by the metaphysical jurists. Individual private property was a corollary of liberty and hence law was not thinkable without it. Even if we do not adopt the metaphysical part of this argument and if we give over the idealistic-political interpretation of legal history which it involves, there is much which is attractive in the theory of the historical jurists of the last century. Yet as we look at certain movements in the law there are things to give us pause. For one thing, the rise and growth of ideas of “negotiability,” the development of the maxim possession vaut titre in Continental law, and the cutting down in other ways of the sphere of recognition of the interest of the owner in view of the exigencies of the social interest in the security of transactions, suggests that the tendency involved in the first of the two propositions relied on by the historical school has passed its meridian. The Roman doctrine that no one may transfer a greater title than he has is continually giving way before the demand for securing of business transactions had in good faith. And in Roman law in its maturity the rules that restricted acquisition by adverse possession and enabled the owner in many cases to reclaim after any lapse of time were superseded by a decisive limitation of actions which cut off all claims. The modern law in countries which take their law from Rome has developed this decisive limitation. Likewise in our law the hostility to the statute of limitations, so marked in eighteenth-century decisions, has given way to a policy of upholding it. Moreover the rapid rise in recent times of limitations upon the ius disponendi, the imposition of restrictions in order to secure the social interest in the conservation of natural resources, and English projects for cutting off the ius abutendi of the landowner, could be interpreted by the nineteenth-century historical jurists only as marking a retrograde development. When we add that with the increase in number and influence of groups in the highly organized society of today a tendency is manifest to recognize practically and in back-handed ways group property in what are not legal entities, it becomes evident that the segment of experience at which the historical jurists were looking was far too short to justify a dogmatic conclusion, even admitting the validity of their method.

It remains to consider some twentieth-century theories. These have not been worked out with the same elaboration and systematic detail as those of the past, and as yet one may do no more than sketch them.

An instinctive claim to control natural objects is an individual interest of which the law must take account. This instinct has been the basis of psychological theories of private property. But thus far these theories have been no more than indicated. They might well be combined with the historical theory, putting a psychological basis in place of the nineteenth-century metaphysical foundation. A social-psychological legal history might achieve much in this connection.

Of sociological theories, some are positivist, some psychological and some social-utilitarian. An excellent example of the first is Duguit’s deduction from social interdependence through similarity of interest and through division of labor. He has but sketched this theory, but his discussion contains many valuable suggestions. He shows clearly enough that the law of property is becoming socialized. But, as he points out, this does not mean that property is becoming collective. It means that we are ceasing to think of it in terms of private right and are thinking of it in terms of social function. If one doubts this he should reflect on recent rent legislation, which in effect treats the renting of houses as a business affected with a public interest in which reasonable rates must be charged as by a public utility. Also it means that cases of legal application of wealth to collective uses are becoming continually more numerous. He then argues that the law of property answers to the economic need of applying certain wealth to definite individual or collective uses and the consequent need that society guarantee and protect that application. Hence, he says, society sanctions acts which conform to those uses of wealth which meet that economic need, and restrains acts of contrary tendency. Thus property is a social institution based upon an economic need in a society organized through division of labor. It will be seen that the results and the attitude toward the law of property involved are much the same as those which are reached from the social-utilitarian standpoint.

Psychological sociological theories have been advanced chiefly in Italy. They seek the foundation of property in an instinct of acquisitiveness, considering it a social development or social institution on that basis.

Social-utilitarian theories explain and justify property as an institution which secures a maximum of interests or satisfies a maximum of wants, conceiving it to be a sound and wise bit of social engineering when viewed with reference to its results. This is the method of Professor Ely’s well-known book on Property and Contract. No one has yet done so, but I suspect one might combine this mode of thought with the civilization interpretation of the Neo-Hegelians and argue that the system of individual property, on the whole, conduces to the maintaining and furthering of civilization—to the development of human powers to the most of which they are capable—instead of viewing it as a realization of the idea of civilization as it unfolds in human experience. Perhaps the theories of the immediate future will run along some such lines. For we have had no experience of conducting civilized society on any other basis, and the waste and friction involved in going to any other basis must give us pause. Moreover, whatever we do, we must take account of the instinct of acquisitiveness and of individual claims grounded thereon. We may believe that the law of property is a wise bit of social engineering in the world as we know it, and that we satisfy more human wants, secure more interests, with a sacrifice of less thereby than by anything we are likely to devise—we may believe this without holding that private property is eternally and absolutely necessary and that human society may not expect in some civilization, which we cannot forecast, to achieve something different and something better.



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Last modified April 10, 2014