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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Private Property in the 21st Century: The Future of an American Ideal (In Association With the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy ) edited by Harvey M. Jacobs (Edward Elgar Publishing) Private property is central to American character, culture and democracy. The founding fathers understood it as key to the liberties America was designed to foster. However, over the last 200 years what one owns has evolved; ownership is different now than for an owner 200, 100, even 50 years ago. In Private Property in the 21st Century Harvey Jacobs has brought together an interdisciplinary, politically divergent group of contributors to speculate on private property’s future.

Private property’s form is crucial to contemporary debates in land use and environmental policy and management. For some, restrictions on private property are so severe as to threaten the very freedoms property is designed to protect. For others, the realities of life in the 21st century require property’s reshaping. A number of questions frame the book:

  • Given that rights are evolving over time, how will they change during the present cen­tury?
  • What social, technological and legal forces might structure that change?
  • Is there a logical conclusion to this 'restructuring/erosion' of property rights?
  • Is there any point at which society's assertions of its legitimacy goes too far?
  • Are the ideals and principles of the Madison-Adams wing of the Founding Fathers about the relationship of land ownership to liberty and democracy still relevant in a world of urban wage earners, in contrast to the world of farmers, foresters and ranchers for which they were formulated?
  • Does land-use and environmental planning policy undermine the American-democratic social contract?

These questions are central to land-use and environmental planning, law and economics and their answers are interdisciplinary, intersecting the intellectual and academic fields of economics, geography, his­tory, law, political science, public policy, and urban and regional planning.

The answers matter because of the political power of the property rights movement in the past, its continued push to further and deepen its agenda under the Presidency of George W. Bush, the real conse­quences for the management of landscapes, ecosystems and ecological resources, and the fact that they are key to understand­ing the nature of American society and governance. In addition, to the extent advocates of land-use and environmental plan­ning want or need to refute the arguments of the private property rights movement, and/or others whom the environmental community groups to­gether as 'anti-environmentalists,' it is the issue of private property which is most difficult and troubling.

These questions are addressed in different ways by the contributors to Private Property in the 21st Century. Contributors agreed to a set of preconditions: preparation of a paper outlining their thoughts on the key questions and a willingness to engage one another openly in dialogue. Under direction from the Lincoln Institute, the participants, as much as possible, represent a political spread, simplistically speaking, from liberal, moderate and conservative camps. Chapters and their authors include:

  • Daniel W. Bromley, an economist, opens the volume with a philo­sophical exploration of the meaning of property in the American experience. He seeks to challenge some common understandings about the fixedness of property, and instead offers his assertion that property rights are a function of what he terms  ‘volitional pragmatism.’
  • Jerold S. Kayden, a lawyer and city planner, is the first of three authors to explore specifically legal issues in property rights. He takes his task to be to speculate on the twenty-first century direction that the US Supreme Court might take with regard to property rights cases, by asking what lessons can be learned from the history of the court's jurisprudence in the twentieth century.
  • William A. Fischel, an economist, asks why judges seem so wary of regulatory takings. In top-ten style, he offers a set of possible reasons (from number ten to number one) to explain a situation that to him seems paradoxical and illogical.
  • Gregory S. Alexander, a lawyer, builds on the work of his 1997 award­winning book by taking note of a movement in legal thought and policy practice that he did not anticipate – that environmentally ori­ented legal scholars and activists seem to have embraced market-based solutions as the best strategy to achieve environmental goals. He sets out to understand this shift, and speculate on its durability.
  • Robert H. Nelson, an economist and public policy analyst, shifts the focus of the volume – his issue is the twenty-first­ century future of local government in America. Swimming against the tide, he suggests the future for a governmental form many wish to pronounce as outdated can be robust, especially if it begins to act more like a form of private property.
  • Donald A. Krueckeberg, an urban planner, asks some questions about the property tax system and its relation to notions of property and entitlement. For him, the challenge is about the right of non-profit organizations to be tax-exempt, and thus  treated as in possession of special, non-taxable forms of prop­erty.
  • Ann Louise Strong, a lawyer and city planner, brings an international perspective to the topic. Drawing on her 1990s research in Australia, New Zealand, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, she asks some questions about the future of property for those who have not had access to it. One suggestion is that the interest and desire for property is more universal, and less country-specific, than it is sometimes understood to be.

In the final chapter, the editor, Harvey M. Jacobs, Professor, University of Wisconsin , Madison , Department of Urban and Regional Planning and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, an urban planner, pulls together Private Property in the 21st Century. Drawing from the contributions of the chapters and the spirited debate that occurred when the contributors came together, Jacobs speculates on the future of private property – legally, politi­cally and socially.

The re-emergence of private property as a critical issue of social conflict within US policy and politics is explored in this comprehensive volume. Scholars, students, and professionals of urban and regional planning, geography, law, natural resources, environment, real estate, and landscape architecture will all find Private Property in the 21st Century of interest.

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