From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Warning icon orange.svg This page contains too many unsourced statements and needs to be improved.

Property could use some help. Please research the article's assertions. Whatever is credible should be sourced, and what is not should be removed.

It's the
Icon law.svg
To punish
and protect

Property is anything that has an owner. Its two identifying characteristics are exclusivity and transferability.

If you're not a lawyer or looking for a home, you're probably interested in one of these eternal controversies:

  • How does one define property?
  • How is property distributed?
  • How does one determine ownership?

Legal aspects[edit]

As previously mentioned, property is defined primarily by an exclusionary right that can be transferred to other people. The owner of property possesses legal title. One analogy for explaining property rights is that of a bundle of sticks. In this analogy, a "property right" is really a collection of several different rights: possession, use, sale, protection, etc. Each one of these is a right associated with a particular thing as opposed to rights like freedom of religion or the right to a fair trial which are not.



Tangible property falls into one of two categories: real property and chattel.[1] Real property consists of land and structures on it (i.e., buildings, homes, etc.) whereas chattel (an etymological doublet of the word "cattle") is anything you have a right to possess (i.e., pencils, books, clothing, etc.). Slaves,[2] wives[3] and children (born or unborn[4][5]) may or may not count as chattels, depending on the time and space in which their owners or putative owners attempt to assert ownership rights.


Intangible property is the kind of property you can't touch. The most obvious example of intangible property is copyright. Other instances include domain names, patents, trademarks, trade names, debts, and stocks.[6]

To a business entity, the all-important customer goodwillWikipedia is very intangible; indeed some businesses may reflect on their financial statements more value in this intangible than in any buildings, equipment or inventory.

Ideas, secrets, and know-how also can be considered intangible property; for example an employee of a business is not free to steal an idea a business may be developing in secret to keep from competitors, and with the technical know-how learned from his employer, to quit and start his own business using the idea before the original owner could fully complete development.

The Coca-Cola formula or Colonel Sanders's secret recipe[7] are examples of business secrets which are intangible property.

Forms of property in political philosophy[edit]

Private property[edit]

Private property is the form of property that's the basis of capitalism. Private property is owned by capitalist individuals, rather than by everyone else. Think of land, railroads, factories, banks, intellectual property, etc. These are all variants of private property because under capitalism, sole individuals may control them. A capitalist can own a railroad, and another capitalist who owns a pharmaceutical company may execute their privilege to intellectual property by making vaccine patents. Under this system, the railroad workers don't all concomitantly control the means of production, exchange and trade; including the railroads themselves. Nor under capitalism is a vaccine available to all people as a right, and is able to be reproduced at will by other parts of pharmaceutical industry. Both the vaccine and railroads are privately owned, and thus are private property.

Property by use[edit]

Property by use is when something becomes the property of someone else when used regularly. The means of productions would be the property of workers if this form of property was recognized by laws. This type of property is a basis for some forms of anarchism, some forms of socialism, and has been implemented in Rojava with communalism

Common ownership[edit]

Common ownership of property is the basis of communism.[8] This is because communism advocates for the total abolition of private property, therefore, property under communism is owned by everyone, not individual capitalists. Recall that under communism, private property is separate from personal property; so personal possessions would not constitute private property. On the other hand, factories, land, banks, railroads, and the means of production in aggregate would constitute as private property, thus they would be owned and operated by the workers themselves.


"As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights." ― James Madison[9]

"Property is theft." ― Pierre-Joseph Proudhon[10]

“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.” ― Frédéric Bastiat

See also[edit]


  1. Tangible Property Letric Law Library's Lexon.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on chattel slavery.
  3. The Una 3 (1): 4. January 1855. "The majority believe that their wives and mothers are household chattels[...]."  quoted in: "Domestic Tyranny". The Radical Women's Press of the 1850s. Women's Source Library. 2. London: Routledge. 2013. p. 75. ISBN 9781135034061. Retrieved 7 July 2022. 
  4. Hackett, Stephen (2020). The Ownership of Goods and Chattels. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781782258575. Retrieved 7 July 2022. "The claimant then claimed for the recovery of the foetus on the basis that it was his property. The Australian High Court ruled that human tissue was in some circumstances capable of being reduced to property." 
  5. Arvan, Beth Marie (1993). Abortion: Right of Property Over Right of Privacy. Butler University. Retrieved 7 July 2022. 
  6. Understanding intangible assets and how they generate value for investors and businesses, Business Insider, November 19, 2021.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on KFC.
  8. The Principles of Communism (1847) Fredrick Engels.
  9. James Madison, Property, University of Chicago
  10. Property is Theft!, AK Press