The Human Right to Private Property

Hanoch Dagan, Avihay Dorfman


For private property to be legitimately recognized as a universal human right, its meaning should pass the test of self-imposability by an end. In this Essay, we argue, negatively, that the prevailing (libertarian) understanding of private property cannot plausibly meet this demanding standard; and develop, affirmatively, a liberal conception which has a much better prospect of meeting property’s justificatory challenge. Private property, on our account, is an empowering device, which is crucial both to people’s personal autonomy (understood in terms of self-determination) and to their relational equality (understood in terms of reciprocal respect and recognition among persons). The liberal conception of the human right to property has both vertical and horizontal significance — it implies respect from both the public authority and other individuals — which means that it is thoroughly political but not necessarily statist.

Our account generates important implications, both domestic and transnational. Domestically, it implies that whereas some property rights should be subject to strong constitutional protection, state law should facilitate other types of private and non-private property institutions, and these property institutions may well be subject to non-owners’ claims to access and, more broadly, to being treated respectfully. Furthermore, our conception of the human right to property requires that everyone have the unusual authority typical of full-blown private ownership. Transnationally, our analysis highlights a freestanding dimension of relational justice, which is relevant across borders even given that our distributive obligations are statist. This injunction of relational justice in transnational interactions brings into question the adequacy of the current state of the law, according to which these interactions are mainly governed by choice-of-law rules that conceptualize them as wholly subsumed under the capacities of the parties as citizens of their respective polities.

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