The History of Property

For most of human history, our ancestors were nomadic wanderers. The hunter-gatherer era of humanity was a long one, marked only by traces of our prehistoric presence scattered throughout caves, fields, and grave sites. For thousands of years, humans lived with the land, but beginning around 30,000 BCE, we began the 15,000-year transition from nomadic peoples to an organized and structured agrarian society. 

Settlements across the Near East and Southern Asia began to progress in remarkably similar fashions. First, fertile plains were staked out and settled. The settlement was usually determined through military conquest, meaning whoever could defend the land could keep it. The land owners controlled the food supply – and eventually the wealth – and became tribal leaders. As society began to expand and progress, we began to note the importance of ownership and its linkage to power and stability. 

The kings of the ancient world (and even the Medieval) owned all of the land and everything on it. Thus the political importance of property began to develop. For millennia, ownership signified power and wealth — today, it still does, but property and ownership have taken on different meanings and implications. In many ways, ownership is significantly more accessible today than it was thousands of years ago. No longer are the working class serfs or slaves to the land owner. We’ve also made immense strides with the expansion of personal property, which can include any sort of possession. The jump from our ancestors’ definitions and practices of property and ownership are wildly different from what we see and experience today, and this was no accident. 

When tribal leaders gained land, they gained power. In turn, these powerful leaders pooled labor forces together on and around their land, exchanging labor for protection and a consistent food supply. In most societies, this system is split into two distinct categories: taxes and tenancy. Royal dynasties distributed their wealth to friends by signing away titles and rights to properties, allowing the owners to receive the earnings or rent generated by the peasants who lived there.

In addition to the rent, all residents of a ruler’s domain were often compelled to pay a tax. The ruling leader made numerous other conditions, including military service. These demands were only half-heartedly met because these monarchs possessed the territory not only by birthright but also by military strength.

However, this model soon began to phase out of favor as more egalitarian ideals about humanity, ownership, and tenancy developed. This was largely thanks to the expansion of the market economy in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, where the peasant class found they were able to accumulate wealth without owning property. When they gathered enough, however, they would always turn to land ownership, as the correlation between property and power held strong. Still, it was only after the Industrial Revolution that home or land ownership became accessible to the general public. With property becoming more accessible than ever, it was important to come up with a solid definition of property, which proved to be a bit more difficult than anticipated. 

Theories and definitions of property

Philosophers, leaders, and revolutionaries have attempted to define property concretely for millennia. They sought a mutual understanding of what exactly property is, the rights that ownership entailed, and how to manage property in a legal sense. 

There are numerous property theories. One is the extremely uncommon first possession theory of property, in which someone’s ownership of something is justified simply by seizing it before someone else does. This is akin to the first method of land ownership we discussed, where land owners would grab arable land and fight off anyone who wished to seize it. This theory is intuitive in many ways; it’s the “finders keepers” of property theory, but in practice, it is not referred to legally. 

The natural rights definition of property rights proposed by John Locke is perhaps one of the most popular, especially in Western legal systems. In the account of Genesis, Locke proposed that God gave men control over nature through Adam. As a result, he believed that combining one’s effort with nature results in a relationship with the portion of nature with which the labor is combined, subject to the condition that “enough, and as good, be left in common for others.” Lockean property theory is foundational to Western philosophy and legal practice, and this is evidenced by the treatment of Property as a legal person and can be possessed by an individual. Other systems, like the Cherokee Nation, define property differently. The 1839 Cherokee Constitution frames the issue in these terms:

Sec. 2. The lands of the Cherokee Nation shall remain common Property. Still, the improvements made thereon, and in possession of the citizens respectively who made, or may rightfully own them: Provided, that the citizens of the Nation possessing the exclusive and indefeasible right to their improvements, as expressed in this article, shall possess no right or power to dispose of their improvements, in any manner whatever, to the United States, individual States, or individual citizens thereof; and that, whenever any citizen shall remove with his effects out of the limits of this Nation, and become a citizen of any other government, all his rights and privileges as a citizen of this Nation shall cease: Provided, nevertheless, That the National Council shall have power to re-admit, by law, to all the rights of citizenship, any such person or persons who may, at any time, desire to return to the Nation, on memorializing the National Council for such readmission.

This means that land is always considered common property, and this goes hand-in-hand with the traditions of the Cherokee Nation. They view the relationship between land and human as intertwined, collaborative, and equal, whereas many Western legal codes and traditions argue that land is something that man must exercise dominion over. The domination is key to the Western definition of property, whereas that ethos is nonexistent in, for example, Cherokee legal code. 

Numerous philosophers over the centuries have attempted to define and delineate property in a concrete and agreeable manner – unfortunately, none of them succeeded. This is largely in part due to the complex nature of ownership, and the cultural conditions that come with it; one thing that remains constant, though, is their appreciation for the power that goes hand-in-hand with land ownership. 

Where philosophers failed, though, bankers succeeded. They threw out all of the complicated notions of property and ownership and simply began offering “high-risk” mortgages to non-noblemen, officially opening up the pathways to property ownership for millions of people. 

Real Estate and Property Ownership 

Property ownership is seen as a fundamental tenant of freedom: to own your property, at least in the West, means to liberate yourself from the whims of the land owner. It also opens homeowners up to the possibilities of growing their wealth, as real estate is one of the most popular investment methods. One of the oldest real estate deals was actually the Louisiana Purchase in the early 19th century. The first real estate agency was started in 1855, and the National Association of Real Estate Agents, the forerunner of today’s National Association of Realtors, was founded in 1908. The term “realtor” was coined by the association to distinguish members from non-member agents.

The Great Depression prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to announce the New Deal in 1938, which included the formation of the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae, which led to the development of real estate as an industry and an investment opportunity in the market capitalist economy. Fannie Mae also contributed greatly to the Suburban Expansion, which is the cornerstone of Americana and the American Dream. Multiple-listing services began to spring up across the country in the 1960s, and Freddie Mac, or the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Composition, was founded in 1970, transforming home ownership from a singular, attainable goal to an investment industry as well. 

The rapid changes to real estate and property have created a huge market, and now property ownership is more of a necessity than a luxury. To own property means self-determination, freedom, and success, especially in the West, so achieving that needs to be realized sooner rather than later for many Americans. 

Property is a historied subject complete with numerous implications. Power, wealth, politics, philosophy… all of these are so intimately tied to property and ownership that separating them alienates the word from its true nature. Property is not a universally decided term, and depending on your place of residence, your experience with property could differ wildly from someone in a neighboring state or nation. If you’re interested in learning more about property and ownership, visit Kalicki Collier in Reno, NV. They offer Nevada estate planning, tax planning, business planning, and estate law, so no matter what you or your property needs, Kalicki Collier has you covered.

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