The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership

Joseph Singer, Author Beacon Press (MA) $22 (176p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0438-8
Do private property owners have the right to do as they please with their property, or do they have larger responsibilities to the community? Can farmers, for instance, use their land as they wish, or are they obligated to engage in soil conservation because the land is a natural resource that has value to the community at large? Singer, a professor of law at Harvard, provides some startlingly new answers to this question. Most people believe a larger responsibility is associated with ownership, he argues, but American law mostly supports an individualistic conception of property. Singer offers as an example of this individualistic perspective the case of Aaron Feuerstein, a textile factory owner who continued to pay his workers for several months after a fire temporarily shut down production, though he was under no legal obligation to do so. Feuerstein believed that owning property conveyed responsibilities; his story reinforces the longstanding American belief that ownership of property builds character. Singer then turns the inherently inegalitarian implication of property on its head: if owning property has such a positive effect, expanding the number of people who own property is just as important as protecting the rights of those who are already owners. For Singer, recognizing the value of property ownership suggests at least a mild effort at redistributionDhardly what the traditional defenders of property had in mind. ""The have-nots,"" he writes, ""should be entitled to legal rules and economic institutions that allow them to become haves."" This is an original twist on a familiar issue. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/29/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 136 pages - 978-0-8070-0439-5
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