Most people understand property as something that is owned, a means of creating individual wealth. But in Commodity and Propriety, the first full-length history of the meaning of property, Gregory Alexander uncovers in American legal writing a competing vision of property that has existed alongside the traditional conception. Property, Alexander argues, has also been understood as proprietary, a mechanism for creating and maintaining a properly ordered society. This view of property has even operated in periods—such as the second half of the nineteenth century—when market forces seemed to dominate social and legal relationships.
In demonstrating how the understanding of property as a private basis for the public good has competed with the better-known market-oriented conception, Alexander radically rewrites the history of property, with significant implications for current political debates and recent Supreme Court decisions.
Countries around the world are heatedly debating whether property should be a constitutional right. But American lawyers have largely ignored this debate, which is divided into two clear camps: those who believe making property a constitutional right undermines democracy by fostering inequality, and those who believe it provides the security necessary to make democracy possible. In The Global Debate over Constitutional Property, Gregory Alexander recasts this discussion, arguing that both sides overlook a key problem: that constitutional protection, or lack thereof, has little bearing on how a society actually treats property.
A society’s traditions and culture, Alexander argues, have a much greater effect on property rights. Laws must aim, then, to change cultural ideas of property, rather than deem whether one has the right to own it. Ultimately, Alexander builds a strong case for improving American takings law by borrowing features from the laws of other countries—particularly those laws based on the idea that owning property not only confers rights, but also entails responsibilities to society as a whole.