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Bouckaert on Property Assignment Rules

Boudewijn Bouckaert‘s great article, What Is Property? (Summer 1990 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy) has a nice comment on the need for property rules:

The notion of scarcity serves at the same time as the most important explanation and justification of property rights arrangements. Scarcity is explicitly the rationale for modern “law and economics,”[48] and it is implicit in several older works of other legal philosophers and theorists.[49] It is argued that scarcity will involve a dimension beyond mere allocation when two or more persons consider one good as a means for the satisfaction of their wants and when the use they intend to make of it is incompatible. One cannot reduce this distributive scarcity to mere allocative scarcity because this would require the possibility of weighing utilities by a super-individual authority. Because distributive scarcity is unavoidable, only three outcomes are possible: (1) permanent conflict–the assignments of scarce means are the result of the use of violence, ruse, and tactical games;[50] (2) resignation–a resource becomes the object of competition, both parties withdraw, and such withdrawal means isolation and a massive drop in world population; (3) rules–assignments of power over scarce resources to individuals, groups, families, the government, and so forth. Not only is it difficult to imagine how one might provide reasonable arguments for the two first solutions, but these solutions also would imply tremendous costs to the working of society. As a consequence, distributive scarcity can be considered a probable explanation and a compelling justification for some arrangements of property rights in society.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • iawai September 1, 2009, 12:56 pm

    Great, there is an objective need for a basis of uniform property rules, but how does Bouckaert propose to enforce these rules? What if a member of society decides to start acknowledging a non-standard theory of property rules? Should he then be forced to submit to a political will, or be excommunicated, or have justice sought upon him?

    Who shall seek this justice, and what of those who disagree about how this justice must be realized?

    (I do actually intend to answer these questions, I’m writing a property theory paper right now about axiomatic deductions about rights and even if there is an objective ‘truth’, it is within the freedom of each individual to subjectively subscribe to this truth, and the responsibility of each individual to act in such a way that is consistent with their own claims of property rights. It is this seeking of individuals to enforce their property rights that is commonly called “justice,” and the role has been usurped by gov’t, to no one’s long term benefit)

  • iawai September 1, 2009, 1:02 pm

    Re-reading the selection, I see that Bouckart lists these three conclusions as solutions selected by society as a whole, when I see no reason that there can be an intermingling of these outcomes across individuals and objects, where some people resign some types of property while devising rules for other types, and other people are constantly in conflict over some of their property while having very strict ownership rules over the rest of it.

    What seems to be the correct deduction, then, is that between any two individuals’ concerns for a specific good, one of these three outcomes must result.

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