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property rights

  An enforceable claim made against others to the use or benefit of something (and thus distinguishable from property more generally, which need not entail enforceability). Usually, that enforcing body is understood to be the state. Legal scholars tend to see property rights as residing in the \'jural relations\' between individuals, rather than in the thing itself. Thus, if I have a property right in a thing (such as land), what is really being asserted is that I can exclude you from access to it (MacPherson, 1978).

Usually, property rights are seen as identical with a private property regime, where the right to exclude is central. The implicit linkage between property rights and capitalist market relations is often explicit in the economics literature, where there is frequently assumed to be a linkage between private property rights and economic efficiency. Hence arguments about privatization and resource use (cf. Hardin\'s metaphor of the tragedy of the commons) and the more recent fascination with extending a privatized property regime to the formerly communist countries of eastern Europe.

Given its historical development under a liberal capitalist society (cf. land tenure), many critics have cast property rights in a negative light, pointing to the manner in which privatized property rights instrumentally and ideologically underpin class rule in capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism (see land rights). However, recent years have seen an attempt to revisit property rights in a more favourable light. For example, in her exploration of rent control, Radin (1993) privileges \'personal\' property rights — such as that of a tenant to her apartment — over commodified \'fungible\' property rights — such as that of her landlord to the same apartment. The distinction largely turns on the personal significance of the object of property — in this case, the apartment — to the respective parties. When a holding is fungible, she suggests, the value to the holder lies in its exchange value, rather than the object per se. For the tenant, however, a particular apartment could become an extension of her personhood and, as such, morally valuable.

Geographic writing on property rights and property more generally is surprisingly undeveloped. The politics embodied in real property rights, for example, are deeply geographical to the extent that they entail conflicts over the meanings and uses of space, both \'social\' and \'natural\'. Some suggestive exceptions include discussions of property rights in relation to ideologies of homeownership (Agnew, 1981), gentrification (Blomley, 1997), and conflicts over natural resources (Wescoat, 1997). (NB)

References Agnew, J. 1981: Homeownership and the capitalist social order\' In M. Dear and A. Scott, eds, Urbanization and urban planning in capitalist societies. London and New York: Methuen, 457-80. Blomley, N.K. 1997: Property, pluralism and the gentrification frontier. Canadian Journal of Law and Society 12 2: 1-32. MacPherson, C.B. 1978: Property: mainstream and critical positions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Radin, M.J. 1993: Reinterpreting property. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Wescoat, J. 1997: Toward a modern map of Roman water law. Urban Geography 18 2: 100-5.



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