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Property as the Law of Things

Private law deals with the interactions of persons in society. If we think about all the effects produced by the relation between each pair of persons and then unlimited chains of such interactions – A sells Blackacre to B, who sells to C, who mortgages to D and rents to E, and so on – then prescribing results for such interactions is a potentially intractable problem. Private law would be an impossible enterprise. This is where property comes in.

Property is a platform for the rest of private law. The New Private Law takes seriously the need for baselines in general and the traditional ones furnished by the law in particular. And nowhere is this issue of baselines more salient than in property. I argue that the baselines that property furnishes, as well as their refinements and equitable safety valves, are shaped by information costs. For information-cost reasons, property is, after all, a law of things.

Property as a law of things, however, suffers from a serious image problem in American legal theory. In stark contrast, other legal systems treat property as a right to a thing and property law as the “law of things.” An “in rem” right originally meant a right “in a thing,” and I argue that it is the mediation of a thing that helps give property its in rem character – availing against persons generally.

But if legal realism and its progeny insisted on anything, it was that property is not about things. According to this conventional wisdom, property is a bundle of rights and other legal relations availing between persons. Things form the mere backdrop to these social relations, and a largely dispensable one at that. Particularly with the rise of intangible property, so this story goes, the notions of ownership and property have become so fragmented and untethered to things that property is merely a conclusion, a label we affix to the cluster of entitlements that result from intelligent policymaking. By contrast, according to the realist and postrealist conventional wisdom, the traditional baselines provided by property law not only were undertheorized and underjustified, but also represented a pernicious superstition and an obstacle to clear thinking and progressive remaking of the social order. An inclination to take traditional property baselines seriously can then be dismissed as a failure to get with the program and a reflection of lack of sophistication or a partiality for entrenched interests.

I want to suggest that this familiar picture has things exactly backward. It is the extreme realist picture that is myopic, inflexible, and ultimately unworkable and the traditional baselines that, while in need of constant improvement, are very worthy of explanation and a good deal of respect. The point is not to restore prerealist formalism but to ask why property sometimes is formal and sometimes is not.

The first step toward understanding private law is to try not to take things for granted and to be as attentive to how things are not as to how things are. As we will see, this type of detachment makes some room for formalism, which is somewhat ironic because commentators since the legal realist era have generally criticized prerealist “formalism” for being complacent and taking traditional baselines and doctrine as given. Whether that was ever so, it is first of all important to distinguish between, on the one hand, making open-ended inquiries about property law and, on the other, building open-ended inquiry into the decisionmaking processes of judges and others operating the system of property law. There is nothing inconsistent about a highly contextual explanation of a system that itself eschews context – is “formalist” – in important respects. One might have a highly complex theory of traffic patterns and still conclude that it is best to promulgate flat speed limits and a duty to stop at red traffic lights and stop signs regardless of the amount of traffic in the other direction. We must avoid confusing the ordinary level of analysis within a system with the metalevel of propositions about that system. In this Article I argue that at a metalevel, the bundle of rights is hardly a theory of property at all and that an architectural approach to property can do much better.

To get anywhere, we have to be clear about the difference between means and ends in property. Property has purposes and employs various means to serve them. The purposes of property relate to our interest in using things. Desirable features of a system of property – stability, promotion of investment, autonomy, efficiency, fairness – relate to the interest in use. There is no interest in exclusion per se. Instead, exclusion strategies, including the right to exclude, serve the interest in use; by enjoying the right to exclude through torts like trespass, an owner can pursue her interest in a wide range of uses that usually need not be legally specified. For certain important potential use conflicts, the law specifies uses more directly, either through private law (property governance regimes, torts, contracts), public regulation, or custom. What realism and the bundle of rights typically fail to do is to distinguish between the purposes of property and the various means – trespass, nuisance, servitudes, zoning, and custom – to achieve them. Realism tends to assume a one-to-one and relatively direct relationship between the features of property and the purposes they serve, and not surprisingly, realists also regard property as plastic and responsive to policy-oriented refashioning. Once we recognize the distinction between our interest in using things and the institutions that property law sets up to serve those interests, the role of property baselines as a means for achieving property’s ends becomes clearer.

This Article argues that an information-cost account of the means property uses to serve its ends helps explain many features of property – and how they work together to achieve property’s purposes. Property is a shortcut over the “complete” property system that would, in limitlessly tailored fashion, specify all the rights, duties, privileges, and so forth, holding between persons with respect to the most fine-grained uses of the most articulated attributes of resources. Property starts by taking advantage of the fact that some connections among people, uses, and attributes of things are more important than others. Property organizes this world into lumpy packages of legal relations – legal things – by setting boundaries around useful attributes that tend to be strong complements. The law of property in effect encapsulates these lumpy packages, or modules, semitransparently from other modules and the outside world generally. Thus, property defines things using an exclusion strategy of “keep off” or “don’t touch” and then enriches the system of domains of owner control with interfaces using governance strategies. These strategies zoom in on relations between neighbors in the case of land, and between owners (and their things) and other parties in the case of both land and personal property.

Importantly, taking the architectural view raises the overlooked question of why things could not be otherwise. Why not use governance rules all the time? Why does property seem to be related to the notion of a thing and to residual claims? Why is the right to exclude important but also easy to overstate as the be-all and end-all of property? I will show that an architectural theory of property based on information costs and the advantages of using modularity to manage complexity can help answer those questions in a unified fashion. At the same time, such a theory shows how property fits, with its thing-based baselines, into the larger picture of private law.

Part I argues that much of what travels under the heading of “property theory” fails to be a theory. The bundle picture in particular lacks a parsimonious account of the structure of property. By contrast, Part II shows how an information-cost account of property does provide an explanation – even if only a partial one – for many of property’s features and their interrelation. The complexity of interactions among legal actors is managed by breaking them into components, in a modular system of law, and this process begins with defining the modular things of property. Part III evaluates the modular theory in terms of its explanatory power and draws out some of its implications in areas from trespass to entity property. Part IV shows how regarding property as a law of modular things helps define the baselines needed for private law in general.