Review of The Rule of Property by Karen Coulter
November 27, 2006
by William P. Meyers

People talk about the Rule of Law. I often talk about how corrupt the process is for creating the law. Karen Coulter goes a step further. She examines our ideas about private and corporate property and their relationship to the law. Her thesis is the title of the book: we are, in effect, ruled by property. She makes it abundantly clear that there are other concepts of property besides the one currently in circulation.

This book is short, only 58 pages long, but it packs a lot into the short space. Much of it is historic, showing how the concept of property evolved, especially under the influence of the growth of capitalism between 1600 and 1800. Every other page has an illustration, cartoon, or quotation from a historic source, which keeps the book fun and lively. Ms. Coulter does a good job summing up, in a single page or paragraph, an idea or event that could justify an entire book by itself.

One theme is that the U.S. Constitution was created for the specific purpose of entrenching ideas about property that benefitted those who owned the most of that property. Both state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation held different ideas. For instance, she quotes from the draft of the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania in 1776: "That an enourmous Portion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive to the common Happiness of Mankind; and therefore every free State hath a right by its Laws to discourage the Possession of such Property."

The Rule of Property also explains how the Constitution permanently took basic property questions out of the possibility of discussion by the Congress. Instead the Supreme Court, an appointed body not subject to recall, is permanently annointed to protect the 18th century definition of the sanctity of private property.

There are lots of great little facts in this book that few Americans know. It is an ice-breaker kind of book. Our Revolutionary predecessors, including the Anti-Federalists (who oppose the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, and who formed a majority that was cheated out of defeating it by electoral shenanigans) aren't likely to be accused of not being Patriots. This knowledge allows arguments about basic issues without falling into the capitalism v. socialism arguments that dominated political discourse in the 20th century.

What should property look like in the Age of Global Warming? Join the debate.

The Rule of Property is published by and available from The Apex Press.