The Ethical Economics
Study Center


Identifying and Claiming Property

Private property is much more pervasive and important than most people realize. In general, property is anything that can be owned or claimed as your own. Usually when people use the term property they imagine real estate, like a house, a condominium or an office building. These are just the most formal types of private property, however. When we delve deeper we’ll see that the class of private property is much broader including everything from personal possessions to one’s own body.

Perhaps the best way to identify private property is by virtue of language. Every language on the planet has possessives. In English the words, my, your, his, her, their, and our, all indicate the possession of something. And possession implies an ownership claim. ‘My coat’ indicates that I own the coat. It is my private property. When I say, “let’s go to the store in your car,” I am recognizing that you are the owner of the car. My book, his IPad, my dad’s house, their farm, our swimming pool, all represents assignments, or recognitions, of who owns what. Your own body belongs to you. It is your property. How do I know? Because you would refer to your face, your hand, your legs, etc. To see how important ownership and private property is to our daily existence, simply imagine going a whole day without using possessives. I am sure it would be very difficult.

How do we know that something you claim is yours, is really yours? One simple and obvious method is the possession rule. There is a common saying, “possession is 9/10ths of the law.” In other words, if you possess something it is generally presumed that you own it; that is unless some other evidence can be brought to bear. Other evidence could include a receipt from a store that can be matched to the disputed item; if the receipt clearly indicates that you purchased the item, or if you simply possess the receipt, then the item is more likely to be yours. Alternatively, a story may be told to explain why the true owner no longer possesses the item. For example, perhaps the item was borrowed and was expected to be returned. If so then a verbal contract may overrule the possession rule in determining true ownership. Of course, both parties would have to attest to the verbal contract, or if not, evidence of the contract, (perhaps a video of the discussion) might be needed to establish true ownership.

Another way to claim ownership is by the use of force. If someone is willing to defend their possession of something then it would take an even greater force to usurp that ownership. Consider this example from the natural world. Even carnivorous animals recognize how force can secure the ownership of something. Imagine a lion that has just killed a zebra on the plains of Africa. Once the prey is killed, the lions begin their feast. Now suppose there is a clan of hyenas nearby who smell the killed zebra and come to investigate. Can anyone imagine that the hyenas would be allowed to participate in the consumption of the zebra while the lions are still feasting? Of course, not! The lions would attack any hyena that comes too near. The lions will defend their kill from any other predator by use of deadly force if necessary. Thus, we might say that the lions “own” the fallen zebra; for the moment, at least, it is their property.

Of course, if the lions are few in number, and if the hyenas are many, the hyenas might be able to use their quickness and ferocity to scare the lions away from the kill. Similarly, a human who comes along and fires several shotgun rounds towards the lions could scare away both the lions and the hyenas. This shows that superior power can be used to claim ownership of the zebra carcass.

Human beings often secure their possessions by force as well. A local police force is armed to protect and fight against those who would steal or damage private property. Likewise, every nation through history has known that invasion by a foreign foe is less likely when protected by a large army and superior armaments.

Another method used to identify ownership of property is based on the labor devoted to produce something. John Locke, the 17th century British philosopher, argued that something becomes a person’s property when he combines his labor with something from nature to produce an object. Thus, when a carpenter takes wood from a fallen tree in a forest and turns it into a table, the table rightfully becomes his property. Similarly, if a farmer plants seed in the spring and harvests corn in the autumn, the corn becomes his property by virtue of the effort devoted to produce it.

If several people put effort into the production of something, then ownership may be split based on the proportion of total effort each party contributed to production. Alternatively, one farmer or carpenter may choose to hire the additional workers needed for production and pay a wage to compensate them for their production efforts. In this case, production is arranged as a business and the business owner retains ownership of the produced items even though multiple individuals contributed to production. Note that in this case the workers are not “exploited” when they do not retain ownership of a portion of their production. This is because they entered into a voluntary exchange with the business owner by accepting a wage in exchange for their work effort and in so doing they are not entitled to claim ownership.

Ownership of a table, say, might be contested in another way though. Suppose, after the table is produced by the carpenter, another person comes along and says the table is rightfully his because the wood that was used to produce the table came from a forest that he “owns.” If brought before a judge to determine ownership, the carpenter might be asked to compensate the forest owner for the portion of the table’s value attributable to the wood input. In this case, the outcome would mimic a market in which the carpenter first buys the wood input from the forest owner in a mutually voluntary exchange before constructing the table.

At this stage we might ask how ownership of the forest, or any property for that matter, comes about. Today, someone already owns most land property in most countries. Thus to acquire a house or office space you must buy it from someone else. But how did the first owner of a property establish his claim to it?

Consider the westward migration of US settlers in colonial America. Many argue that the lands of North America were originally “owned” by the Native American Indians. The justification is based on possession: the Indians lived on and controlled the land before the arrival of the European settlers. Once the Europeans came and began to spread out on the continent, property disputes arose. We normally call these wars. The North American Indians ultimately lost these wars because of the superior power of the Europeans, exhibited through their advanced weaponry, tactics, and continuing population growth.

As the Westward expansion ensued one of the most important tasks facing the settlers was surveying the territories. George Washington himself began working as a land surveyor at the age of 16. The purpose of surveying is to draw accurate maps of physical land for the purpose of delineating property boundaries. In other words, in order to establish what property is mine and what’s yours, surveyors will measure and mark lines that can be identified easily in the future. Sometimes the boundaries between properties are natural and easy to observe; for example a river is often used to separate properties. However, even here there may be a dispute. Is the boundary right down the middle of the river, or is it on the river’s edge? Also, what happens if the river shifts its position? This was commonly the case for the Mississippi river before it’s course was regularized by the construction of levees.

Even before the surveyors arrived though, westward settlers had a need and desire to claim prime farmland for their personal use. Not only did these claims run afoul of the Native Americans living in these regions, it also led to numerous disputes between the settlers themselves. Some of these disputes made it into the judicial system whose task was to find a resolution between competing claims on property. Certain conventions arose to arbitrate these claims. For example, if the property was actively used by a claimant, then it raised the presumption that the property belonged to him. Active use could be demonstrated by building a house on the property, farming the land, or using the land to graze cattle. Remember, possession is 9/10ths of the law! A next best way to claim a property is to mark it as yours in some way. If you build any structure on a property, for example a fence, thereby applying your labor to the natural resources, then the strength of your claim increases. In colonial days property was sometimes claimed by using a mark made with a tomahawk. For example, if a westward explorer discovered a particular area that he wanted to return to build a home and farm, he could deaden several trees near a prominent spring and carve one’s initials or symbol into the trees. Anyone who came to this location at a later time would know that someone else had recently been there and had signaled his intention to return. “Tomahawk rights” were generally recognized even by the courts of the time as a valid method to establish at least some claim to private property.

But what if the property you are trying to protect and mark as yours doesn’t remain in the same location? Suppose you are a cattle rancher whose steers are wandering freely and grazing on the open plain. In the old days, these cattle might be left untended for weeks at a time. What if during that time one rancher’s cattle mingled together with yours, or what if rustlers steal your cattle and try to sell them at market? How would you identify which are yours? The method developed in the past was branding. Ranchers would have a blacksmith fashion a unique iron symbol containing something that related to the owner of the cattle … often the letter of the rancher’s name together with some unique symbol. After heating the iron in a fire it would be placed on the butt of a steer burning his hide with the mark. In this way the steer’s ownership could be permanently identified.

Nowadays, most land in America and much of the world is not only claimed and owned by someone, but there is a legal document called a title, held by the government, which carefully identifies the boundaries of every piece of property along with the name of the rightful owner. This system developed over a very long period of time and it contributes importantly to the smooth functioning of the world’s economy. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of real estate transactions is a determination, called a title search, that the person selling a property is the rightful owner of that property. In many developing countries today, formal titles to land remain scarce and the determination of ownership is often a difficult process that involves arbitrating among numerous competing historical claims.

Steven Suranovic, April 26, 2020





Frederic Bastiat

"Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place."

Squatter's Rights

Adverse possession, sometimes colloquially described as "squatter's rights," is a legal principle which a person who does not have legal title under to a piece of property—usually land (real property)—acquires legal ownership based on continuous possession or occupation of the land without the permission of its legal owner. (Wikipedia)



Cheetahs lose battle over kill (graphic)















Aboriginal Rights

Aboriginal title is a common law doctrine that the land rights of indigenous peoples to customary tenure persist after the assumption of sovereignty under settler colonialism.



Border Rights

The boundary between Virginia and Maryland is the Potomac River. However, the river itself is “owned” entirely by Maryland based on a land grant made by King Charles I to Lord Baltimore in 1632. Virginia’s decision to draw water from the Potomac for drinking and sanitation purposes led to a Supreme Court dispute in 2003 between the two States concerning water rights.


Land Claims

In the colonial times of the United States American men could claim a piece of land for themselves and the claim has different level of merit according to the de facto conditions:

  • claim without any action on the ground
  • claim with (movable) property of the claimant on the ground
  • claim with the claimant visiting the land
  • claim with claimant living on the land.