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Property Rights, the Market, and Environmental Change in 20th-Century America

February 2002

Citation: 32 ELR 10254

Issue: 2

Author: Eric T. Freyfogle

The economic success of the United States over the past century has prompted observers around the world to look to it for lessons on stimulating growth. Compared with many countries, the United States is plainly doing something right in terms of fostering the energies of its people. One cause of U.S. success has been the fertile land of central North America, and no study can overlook that unearned natural blessing. Still, American culture and its many institutions have played chief roles in the nation's cornucopia. Somewhere in the American story are useful lessons, however hard they might be to find and transport.

One American institution that has rightly drawn attention is the system of private property, particularly the private ownership of land. Economic enterprises commonly take place on land and entail the mixing of labor and capital with land. Much land is used directly to produce food, fiber, and minerals; other lands become sites for enterprises less dependent on a land parcel's particular natural features. In all cases, investment is needed for economic gains to flow. Both economic theory and common sense give guidance on what it takes to stimulate such investments in land. One requirement is that people have secure land tenure. Mine shafts will not be dug, nor office buildings constructed, when entrepreneurs risk losing their investments because of unstable property rights. Another requirement, less necessary but still important, is the ability to transfer property freely. People are more likely to invest when they can exit an enterprise by selling to others. Free transferability also facilitates the shift of assets to their mostly highly valued uses. When property is easily transferred, markets soon develop, and assets in time move to owners able to use them for the greatest gain.

The author is the Max L. Rowe Professor of Law, University of Illinois.

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