Thoughts on Private Property: Or, Have I Got a Bridge in Brooklyn to Sell You

from Percy Moran's The Purchase of Manhattan

Yesterday’s post got me thinking—how has the American notion of private property shaped our culture? How has it shaped our cities? Our transportation networks? Our communities? Our ability to respond to climate change and environmental concerns? Does it encourage segregation? Exploitation? Mistrust? I remember reading a caption on a wall mural while waiting in line at Ikea that said Sweden doesn’t view land as private property, so one can walk anywhere one desires in Sweden and not worry about trespassing. The outdoor world most Americans experience is mostly limited to roads, sidewalks, parks, and a small number of backyards. Do away with private land ownership and the way we interact with the land changes fundamentally. I don’t know how true the Ikea caption is or how absolutely it is practiced, but I don’t imagine the Swedes have an epidemic of peeping toms or home invasions.

Land ownership is a cornerstone of the American dream. It is what enabled us to boot the natives, what justified manifest destiny. It’s not all our fault, of course. Far from it. Colonialism was in full swing millennia before 1626, when the Dutch “bought” Manhattan from the Lenape for the rough equivalent of cab fare. If the American empire was built on private property, so were the British, Dutch, Spanish, and Napoleonic empires before it. The idea that people can lay claim to a patch of dirt or grass was present four thousand years ago as Judaism took root, and may well be older still for all I know. But it is a strange idea—really, how can one fully own something that was here before their arrival and will be around long after their departure?—and in its most individualistic strains an antisocial one. Which is all well and fine if we all live like survivalists. But if we choose to live in close proximity, in towns or cities, where the decisions of the individual impact the lives of the community, is private property an appropriate legal and philosophical construct?

I remember reading Tim Beatley’s Green Urbanism. It seemed that many European cities, while far from perfect, have been much better able to correct destructive development trends and respond to environmental concerns because the cities themselves are the principal land owners, or at least can exercise far greater authority over land within the city than their American counterparts. American cities, if they are to claim eminent domain, must compensate individual land owners not only for whatever structure might currently exist but also for the value of whatever development is permitted by zoning laws. An individual’s right to develop their land is assumed, regardless of appropriateness. It is regulated by (often) arbitrary legal restrictions, not by its impact on its neighbors or surroundings. A man (or woman) can be king (or queen) of his (or her) castle a stone’s throw from Main Street. It has been said that with great freedom comes great responsibility. If one is free to choose to live near others, isn’t social responsibility part and parcel to that choice?

It’s funny the stories words can tell. We praise communities but not communes or communism. We like people to be social, just not socialists. Communism was a dumb idea—it assumes we are essentially identical, equally skilled, equally capable, all sharing the same thoughts, desires, and dreams. Maybe that flies in Stepford. But, and I’m no economist, it seems to me that pure capitalism is driven by the other extreme, the inherent inequality of human beings, and that private property is often improperly wielded as a club by those who excel at the game to crush or sweep aside those stuck at the starting line. Capitalism seems to be a great system for the most capable, an okay system for the merely mediocre, and a brutal system for the inept or infirm. Communism was a soul-crushing failure, but neither  is Social Darwinism a recipe for healthy communities.

Which brings me back to private property, specifically privately owned real estate. Is it by definition antisocial? Is it inappropriate in an urban context? Or does it counter autocracy and allow communities to be shaped by community members instead of governments? If private property is an issue of freedom and individual rights, are there are other concerns that should be given equal if not greater priority? Cities should last hundreds if not thousands of years, and actions that threaten such sustainability must be stymied; the decisions of the few must not negatively impact the lives of the many. A city is nothing if not a social contract given physical form. Still, the whole is made up of countless independent and autonomous parts. A friend of mine who lived in Europe for a number of years said that while he loved European cities the general lack of social mobility, if I’m using the right terminology, made things a bit stagnant.

In America, anyone can become a millionaire or a rock star or a reality television celebrity, or they can at least give it their best shot. And if they fail, myriad more realistic successes are still theirs for the taking. It’s what makes America the goal of would-be immigrants around the world, despite the best efforts of George W. Bush, Bernie Madoff, and Pat Robertson. But I wonder whether there’s enough balance. Is the we understood to be as important as the me? And I wonder what role private property plays in all of this, and what role it could play.

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One Response to Thoughts on Private Property: Or, Have I Got a Bridge in Brooklyn to Sell You

  1. Daniel says:

    Oddly enough, I was just having a conversation with a friend the other day about Swedish property law. He’s an MBA student who just returned from Stockholm. Apparently, since they are still technically a monarchy, the king or queen owns all land in Sweden. Individuals can purchase and sell a lease agreement on the market, which affords them certain rights on certain parcels of land. Because they see things this way, it makes sense to Swedes that rights to use land are not absolute, but they can be disaggregated and allocated to different parties for different purposes. Robust public access privileges are not “taking something away from the owners” because the “owners” were simply long-term lease holders in the first place.

    I do believe private property serves an important pragmatic function in terms of stability and delegation of responsibility. People need to be assured they will reap the benefits of investment or they won’t invest. It helps avoid a “tragedy of the commons” scenario by distributing the responsibility to care for the land to specific parties. It really is a necessary foundation for a market economy, and I support that in general.

    That being said, on a deeper level, I do not believe a moral right to property ownership is built into the foundation of the universe, or something like that. This is not an absolute, just a useful construct. It should be nuanced to account for the ways that property uses both positively and negatively impact everyone else and society as a whole.

    My religious beliefs tell me that really it is god who owns all of the land and we are given the temporary (until we die) responsibility of caring for and using it. This is kind of like the Swedish king, only over the whole of humanity, so it makes sense to me that I do not have absolute power over my own little kingdom to do whatever I want. I have a responsibility to the greater good. But I guess this is a minority position in the U.S. I’m not sure why :)

    I’ve been really influenced by Eric Freyfogle’s thoughts on this subject. See On Private Property. Planners mostly just have to work within the system we’ve got, but I do think it’s very important to evaluate the substructure of the system to see if it’s really meeting our contemporary needs.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

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