Post by Patrick Goold
In the most recent HLS Private Law Workshop, Professor Eric Claeys presented a chapter of his forthcoming monograph, Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Foundations of American Property Law. This monograph presents a natural law theory of American property law. The monograph argues that individuals have pre-political rights to use tangible resources in ways that promote human flourishing. Contemporary property doctrine embodies this logic and, in form and substance, upholds those rights.
The chapter Claeys presented discussed and responded to criticisms of common law property doctrine frequently made by law and economics scholars. Economists, starting with Ronald Coase, tend to view property law as an instrument for settling disputes about incompatible uses of resources (what Claeys labels the “incompatible use framework” of property). When a rancher’s cattle strays onto a farmer’s wheat fields, or a railroad emits sparks onto a farmer’s hay bales, a Coasian treats the respective parties’ “rights” as the conclusion of, rather than a component of, its analysis.
As Coase acknowledged, this is not how courts have historically resolved such disputes. Rather than resolving the case before them based on transaction-cost analysis, courts tend to ask a series of conceptual questions, including: did the plaintiff have a right to prevent the defendant’s behavior? did the defendant’s actions cause the plaintiffs loss? and, did the plaintiff suffer cognizable harm? Coase and his progeny have viewed such reasoning with skepticism. At the root of this skepticism is the belief that the core concepts, such as “right”, “harm” and “causation,” lack substance and therefore, on their own, cannot tell a judge how to resolve disputes. To use a well-worn example, Coase argued that “causation” is reciprocal; that is, when a railroad’s sparks burn down a nearby farmer’s hay bales, both the railroad and the farmer are “causes” of the loss because both could have taken measures to prevent it. Accordingly asking whether the defendant’s actions “caused” the plaintiff’s harm is not a cogent way to decide who ought to win in property litigation.