Property rights (economics)

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Property rights are theoretical socially-enforced constructs in economics for determining how a resource or economic good is used and owned. [1] Resources can be owned by (and hence be the property of) individuals, associations, collectives, or governments. [2] Property rights can be viewed as an attribute of an economic good. This attribute has four broad components [3] and is often referred to as a bundle of rights: [4]


  1. the right to use the good
  2. the right to earn income from the good
  3. the right to transfer the good to others, alter it, abandon it, or destroy it (the right to ownership cessation)
  4. the right to enforce property rights

In economics, property is usually considered to be ownership (rights to the proceeds generated by the property) and control over a resource or good. Many economists effectively argue that property rights need to be fixed and need to portray the relationships among other parties in order to be more effective. [5]


Property rights to a good must be defined, their use must be monitored, and possession of rights must be enforced.[ according to whom? ] The costs of defining, monitoring, and enforcing property rights are termed transaction costs. [6] [7] Depending on the level of transaction costs, various forms of property rights institutions will develop. Each institutional form can be described by the distribution of rights.

The following list is ordered from no property rights defined to all property rights being held by individuals [8]

Open-access property may exist because ownership has never been established, granted, by laws within a particular country, or because no effective controls are in place, or feasible, i.e., the cost of exclusivity outweighs the benefits. The government can sometimes effectively convert open access property into private, common, or public property through the land grant process, by legislating to define public/private rights previously not granted.

Kevin Guerin, [9]

The environment

Implicit or explicit property rights can be created by regulating the environment, either through prescriptive command and control approaches (e.g. limits on input/output/discharge quantities, specified processes/equipment, audits) or by market-based instruments (e.g. taxes, transferable permits or quotas), [9] and more recently through cooperative, self-regulatory, post-regulatory and reflexive law approaches. [10] See the Conservation Property Right

It has been proposed by Ronald Coase that clearly defining and assigning property rights would resolve environmental problems by internalizing externalities and relying on incentives of private owners to conserve resources for the future. At common law nuisance and tort law allows adjacent property holders to seek compensation when individual actions diminish the air and water quality for adjacent landowners. Critics of this view argue that this assumes that it is possible to internalize all environmental benefits, that owners will have perfect information, that scale economies are manageable, transaction costs are bearable, and that legal frameworks operate efficiently. [9]


In 2013 researchers [11] produced an annotated bibliography on the property rights literature concerned with two principal outcomes: (a) reduction in investors risk and increase in incentives to invest, and (b) improvements in household welfare; the researchers explored the channels through which property rights affect growth and household welfare in developing countries. They found that better protection of property rights can affect several development outcomes, including better management of natural resources.

Despite the overwhelming evidence on the economic relevance of property rights however, only recently economists have begun to study their determinants by looking at the trade-off between the dispersed coercive power in a state of anarchy and the predation by a central authority. To illustrate, incomplete property rights allow agents with valuation lower than that of the original owners of economic value to inefficiently expropriate them distorting in this way their investment and effort exertion decisions. When instead, the state is entrusted the power to protect property, it might directly expropriate private parties if not sufficiently constrained by an efficient political process. [12] The necessity of strong protection of property for efficiency has been however criticized by a vast legal scholarship, originated from the seminal contribution by Guido Calabresi and Douglas Melamed. [13] These authors argue that in the face of transaction costs sufficiently sizeable to prevent consensual trade, legalized private expropriation in the form of, for instance, liability rules can be welfare-increasing. Carmine Guerriero blends these two different strands of literature by linking property rights protection, transaction costs, and preference heterogeneity. [14] To elaborate, when property is fully protected, some agents with valuation higher than that of the original owners will be unable to legally acquire value because of sizable transaction costs. When the protection of property is weak instead, low-valuation potential buyers inefficiently expropriate original owners. Hence, a rise in the heterogeneity of the potential buyers' valuations makes inefficient expropriation by low-valuation potential buyers be more important from a social welfare point of view than inefficient exclusion from trade and so induces stronger property rights. Crucially, this prediction survives even after considering production and investment activities and it is consistent with a novel dataset on the rules on the acquisition of ownership through adverse possession and on the use of government takings to transfer real property from a private party to another private party prevailing in 126 jurisdictions. These data measure “horizontal property rights” and thus the extent of protection of property from “direct and indirect private takings,” which are ubiquitous forms of expropriation that occur daily within the rule of law and are thus different from predation by the state and the elites, which is much less common but has been the focus of the economics literature. To capture preference diversity, the author uses the contemporary genetic diversity, which is a primitive metric of the genealogical distance between populations with a common ancestor and so of the differences in characteristics transmitted across generations, such as preferences. [15] Regression analysis reveals that the protection of the original owners' property rights is the strongest where contemporary genetic diversity is the largest. Evidence from several different identification strategies suggests that this relationship is indeed causal.

Property rights approach to the theory of the firm

The property rights approach to the theory of the firm based on the incomplete contracting paradigm was developed by Sanford Grossman, Oliver Hart, and John Moore. [16] [17] These authors argue that in the real world, contracts are incomplete and hence it is impossible to contractually specify what decisions will have to be taken in any conceivable state of the world. There will be renegotiations in the future, so parties have insufficient investment incentives (since they will only get a fraction of the investment's return in future negotiations); i.e., there is a hold-up problem. Hence, property rights matter, because they determine who has control over future decisions if no agreement will be reached. In other words, property rights determine the parties' future bargaining positions (while their bargaining powers, i.e. their fractions of the renegotiation surplus, are independent of the property rights allocation). [18] The property rights approach to the theory of the firm can thus explain pros and cons of integration in the context of private firms. Yet, it has also been applied in various other frameworks such as public good provision and privatization. [19] [20] The property rights approach has been extended in many directions. For instance, some authors have studied different bargaining solutions, [21] [22] while other authors have studied the role of asymmetric information. [23]

Role of property rights in economic and political development

Classical economists such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx generally recognize the importance of property rights in the process of economic development, and modern mainstream economics agree with such a recognition. [24] A widely accepted explanation is that well-enforced property rights provide incentives for individuals to participate in economic activities, such as investment, innovation and trade, which lead to a more efficient market. [25] The development of property rights in Europe during the Middle Ages provides an example. [26] During this epoch, full political power came into the hands of hereditary monarchies, which often abused their power to exploit producers, to impose arbitrary taxes, or to refuse to pay their debts. The lack of protection for property rights provided little incentive for landowners and merchants to invest in land, physical or human capital, or technology. After the English Civil War of 1642-1646 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, shifts of political power away from the Stuart monarchs led to the strengthening of property rights of both land and capital owners. Consequently, rapid economic development took place, setting the stage for Industrial Revolution.

Property rights are also believed to lower transaction costs by providing an efficient resolution for conflicts over scarce resources. [27] Empirically, using historical data of former European colonies, Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson find substantial evidence that good economic institutions – those that provide secure property rights and equality of opportunity – lead to economic prosperity. [28]

Property rights might be closely related to the evolution of political order, due to their protections of an individual's claims on economic rents.[ citation needed ] North, Wallis and Weingast argue that property rights originate to facilitate elites' rent-seeking activities. Particularly, the legal and political systems that protect elites' claims on rent revenues form the basis of the so-called "limited access order", in which non-elites are denied access to political power and economic privileges. [29] In a historical study of medieval England, for instance, North and Thomas find that the dramatic development of English land laws in the 13th century resulted from elites' interests in exploiting rent revenues from land ownership after a sudden rise in land price in the 12th century. [30] In contrast, the modern "open access order", which consists of a democratic political system and a free- market economy, usually features widespread, secure and impersonal property rights. Universal property rights, along with impersonal economic and political competition, downplay the role of rent-seeking and instead favor innovations and productive activities in a modern economy. [31]

See also

Related Research Articles

Environmental economics is a sub-field of economics concerned with environmental issues. It has become a widely studied subject due to growing environmental concerns in the twenty-first century. Environmental Economics "...undertakes theoretical or empirical studies of the economic effects of national or local environmental policies around the world .... Particular issues include the costs and benefits of alternative environmental policies to deal with air pollution, water quality, toxic substances, solid waste, and global warming."

Externality impact on any party not involved in a given economic transaction or act

In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a third party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Externalities often occur when the production or consumption of a product or service's private price equilibrium cannot reflect the true costs or benefits of that product or service for society as a whole. This causes the externality competitive equilibrium to not be a Pareto optimality.

In economics and related disciplines, a transaction cost is a cost in making any economic trade when participating in a market.

Private property Legal designation of the ownership of property by non-governmental legal entities

Private property refers to a kind of system that allocates particular objects like pieces of land to particular individuals to use and manage as they please, to the exclusion of others and to the exclusion of any detailed control by society. In legal terms it's usually a designation for the ownership of property by non-governmental legal entities. Private property is distinguishable from public property, which is owned by a state entity; and from collective property, which is owned by a group of non-governmental entities. Certain political philosophies like socialism and anarchism make a clear distinction between private and personal property while others blend the two together. Private property is a legal concept defined and enforced by a country's political system.

Public good (economics) Good that is non-excludable and non-rival

In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous, in that individuals cannot be excluded from use or could benefit from without paying for it, and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others or the good can be used simultaneously by more than one person. This is in contrast to a common good such as wild fish stocks in the ocean, which is non-excludable but is rivalrous to a certain degree, as if too many fish are harvested, the stocks will be depleted.

A state-owned enterprise (SOE) or government-owned enterprise (GOE) is a business enterprise where the government or state has significant control through full, majority, or significant minority ownership. Defining characteristics of SOEs are their distinct legal form and operation in commercial affairs and activities. While they may also have public policy objectives, SOEs should be differentiated from government agencies or state entities established to pursue purely nonfinancial objectives.

In economics, economic rent is any payment to an owner or factor of production in excess of the costs needed to bring that factor into production. In classical economics, economic rent is any payment made or benefit received for non-produced inputs such as location (land) and for assets formed by creating official privilege over natural opportunities. In the moral economy of neoclassical economics, economic rent includes income gained by labor or state beneficiaries of other "contrived" exclusivity, such as labor guilds and unofficial corruption.

In law and economics, the Coase theorem describes the economic efficiency of an economic allocation or outcome in the presence of externalities. The theorem states that if trade in an externality is possible and there are sufficiently low transaction costs, bargaining will lead to a Pareto efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property. In practice, obstacles to bargaining or poorly defined property rights can prevent Coasean bargaining. This 'theorem' is commonly attributed to Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner Ronald Coase during his tenure at the London School of Economics, SUNY at Buffalo, University of Virginia, and University of Chicago.

Douglass North American Economist

Douglass Cecil North was an American economist known for his work in economic history. He was the co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In the words of the Nobel Committee, North and Fogel "renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change."

State ownership type of property

State ownership, also called government ownership and public ownership, is the ownership of an industry, asset, or enterprise by the state or a public body representing a community as opposed to an individual or private party. Public ownership specifically refers to industries selling goods and services to consumers and differs from public goods and government services financed out of a government's general budget. Public ownership can take place at the national, regional, local, or municipal levels of government; or can refer to non-governmental public ownership vested in autonomous public enterprises. Public ownership is one of the three major forms of property ownership, differentiated from private, collective/cooperative, and common ownership.

Free-market environmentalism argues that the free market, property rights, and tort law provide the best means of preserving the environment, internalizing pollution costs, and conserving resources.

The theory of the firm consists of a number of economic theories that explain and predict the nature of the firm, company, or corporation, including its existence, behaviour, structure, and relationship to the market.

Quasi-rent or Marshallian rent is a temporary economic rent like returns to a supplier/owner. Alfred Marshall was the first to observe quasi-rents.

In economics, the hold-up problem is central to the theory of incomplete contracts, and shows the difficulty in writing complete contracts. A hold-up problem arises when two factors are present:

  1. Parties to a future transaction must make noncontractible relationship-specific investments before the transaction takes place.
  2. The specific form of the optimal transaction cannot be determined with certainty beforehand.

In economics, a good or service is called excludable if it is possible to prevent people (consumers) who have not paid for it from having access to it. By comparison, a good or service is non-excludable if non-paying consumers cannot be prevented from accessing it.

Steven Ng-Sheong Cheung is a Hong-Kong-born American economist who specializes in the fields of transaction costs and property rights, following the approach of new institutional economics. He achieved his public fame with an economic analysis on China open-door policy after the 1980s. In his studies of economics, he focuses on economic explanation that is based on real world observation. He is also the first to introduce concepts from the Chicago School of Economics, especially price theory, into China. In 2016, Cheung claimed to have written "1,500 articles and 20 books in Chinese" during his academic career.

Financial sector development in developing countries and emerging markets is part of the private sector development strategy to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty. The Financial sector is the set of institutions, instruments, and markets. It also includes the legal and regulatory framework that permit transactions to be made through the extension of credit. Fundamentally, financial sector development concerns overcoming “costs” incurred in the financial system. This process of reducing costs of acquiring information, enforcing contracts, and executing transactions results in the emergence of financial contracts, intermediaries, and markets. Different types and combinations of information, transaction, and enforcement costs in conjunction with different regulatory, legal and tax systems have motivated distinct forms of contracts, intermediaries and markets across countries in different times.

New institutional economics (NIE) is an economic perspective that attempts to extend economics by focusing on the institutions that underlie economic activity and with analysis beyond earlier institutional economics and neoclassical economics. It can be seen as a broadening step to include aspects excluded in neoclassical economics. It rediscovers aspects of classical political economy.

Chinese property law has existed in various forms for centuries. After the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, most land is owned by collectivities or by the state; the Property Law of the People's Republic of China passed in 2007 codified property rights.

In economic theory, the field of contract theory can be subdivided in the theory of complete contracts and the theory of incomplete contracts.


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