Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

The Property Prism


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The “bundle of rights” metaphor has framed several important questions about property, including questions in constitutional law, conceptual analysis, and institutional understanding. But the bundle metaphor is notably unsuccessful in answering any of these questions. A better metaphor is that of a prism. Property is an institution that takes on a different coloration from different angles, each corresponding to a different audience. For the audience of strangers, property reflects a simple rule of exclusion. For other audiences, property reflects more complex rules or forms, as befits the smaller numbers of affected parties and the higher stakes they have in the use of particular assets. The bundle metaphor suggests that property is complex, but also that it is formless and completely malleable on all dimensions. The prism metaphor suggests that property is both simple and complex, depending on the relevant audience, and that it has an inherent structural integrity determined largely by information costs.