What Are Property Rights, and Why Do They Matter?

What Are Property Rights?

Property rights define the theoretical and legal ownership of resources and how they can be used. These resources can be both tangible or intangible and can be owned by individuals, businesses, and governments.

In many countries, including the United States, individuals generally exercise private property rights or the rights of private persons to accumulate, hold, delegate, rent, or sell their property.

In economics, property rights form the basis for all market exchange, and the allocation of property rights in a society affects the efficiency of resource use.

Understanding Property Rights

Property is secured by laws that are clearly defined and enforced by the state. These laws define ownership and any associated benefits that come with holding the property. The term property is very expansive, though the legal protection for certain kinds of property varies between jurisdictions.

Property is generally owned by individuals or a small group of people. The rights of property ownership can be extended by using patents and copyrights to protect:

  • Scarce physical resources such as houses, cars, books, and cellphones
  • Non-human creatures like dogs, cats, horses or birds
  • Intellectual property such as inventions, ideas, or words

Other types of property, such as communal or government property, are legally owned by well-defined groups. These are typically deemed public property. Ownership is enforced by individuals in positions of political or cultural power.

Property rights give the owner or right holder the ability to do with the property what they choose. That includes holding on to it, selling or renting it out for profit, or transferring it to another party.

Acquiring Rights to a Property

Individuals in a private property rights regime acquire and transfer in mutually agreed-upon transfers, or else through homesteading. Mutual transfers include rents, sales, voluntary sharing, inheritances, gambling, and charity.

Homesteading is the unique case; an individual may acquire a previously unowned resource by mixing his labor with the resource over a period of time. Examples of homesteading acts include plowing a field, carving stone, and domesticating a wild animal.

In areas where property rights don't exist, the ownership and use of resources are allocated by force, normally by the government. That means these resources are allocated by political ends rather than economic ones. Such governments determine who may interact with, can be excluded from, or may benefit from the use of the property.

In the case of open-access property, no one owns or manages it such as waterways.

Private Property Rights

Private property rights are one of the pillars of capitalist economies, as well as many legal systems, and moral philosophies. Within a private property rights regime, individuals need the ability to exclude others from the uses and benefits of their property.

All privately owned resources are rivalrous, meaning only a single user may possess the title and legal claim to the property. Private property owners also have the exclusive right to use and benefit from the services or products. Private property owners may exchange the resource on a voluntary basis.

Special Considerations

Private Property Rights and Market Prices

Every market price in a voluntary, capitalist society originates through transfers of private property. Each transaction takes place between one property owner and someone interested in acquiring the property. The value at which the property exchanges depends on how valuable it is to each party.

Key Takeaways

  • Property rights define the theoretical and legal ownership of resources and how they can be used.
  • Property can be owned by individuals, businesses, and governments.
  • These rights define the benefits associated with ownership of the property.

Suppose an investor purchases $1,000 in shares of stock in Apple. In this case, Apple values owning the $1,000 more than the stock. The investor has the opposite preference, and values ownership of Apple stock more than $1,000.

Article Sources
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  1. United States Patent and Trademark Office. "Trademark, Patent, or Copyright."

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