Property has fallen out of fashion. Although people are as concerned as ever with acquiring and defending their material possessions, in the academic world there is little interest in understanding property. To some extent, this indifference reflects a more general skepticism about the value of conceptual analysis, as opposed to functional assessment of institutions. There is, however, a deeper reason for the indifference to property. It is a commonplace of academic discourse that property is simply a "bundle of rights," and that any distribution of rights and privileges among persons with respect to things can be dignified with the (almost meaningless) label "property." By and large, this view has become conventional wisdom among legal scholars: Property is a composite of legal relations that holds between persons and only secondarily or incidentally involves a "thing." Someone who believes that property is a right to a thing is assumed to suffer from a childlike lack of sophistication – or worse.
One might think that law and economics scholars would take property more seriously, and at first glance this appears to be true. Analysis of the law from an economic standpoint abounds with talk of "property rights" and "property rules." But upon closer inspection, all this property-talk among legal economists is not about any distinctive type of right. To perhaps a greater extent than even the legal scholars, modem economists assume that property consists of an ad hoc collection of rights in resources. Indeed, there is a tendency among economists to use the term property "to describe virtually every device – public or private, common-law or regulatory, contractual or governmental, formal or informal – by which divergences between private and social costs or benefits are reduced."
In other times and places, a very different conception of property has prevailed. In this alternative conception, property is a distinctive type of right to a thing, good against the world. This understanding of the in rem character of the right of property is a dominant theme of the civil law's "law of things." For Anglo-American lawyers and legal economists, however, such talk of a special category of rights related to things presumably illustrates the grip of conceptualism on the civilian mind and a slavish devotion to the gods of Roman law.
Or does it? In related work, we have argued that, far from being a quaint aspect of the Roman or feudal past, the in rem character of property and its consequences are vital to an understanding of property as a legal and economic institution. Because core property rights attach to persons only through the intermediary of some thing, they have an impersonality and generality that is absent from rights and privileges that attach to persons directly. When we encounter a thing that is marked in the conventional manner as being owned, we know that we are subject to certain negative duties of abstention with respect to that thing – not to enter upon it, not to use it, not to take it, etc. And we know all this without having any idea who the owner of the thing actually is. In effect, these universal duties are broadcast to the world from the thing itself.
Thomas W. Merrill & Henry E. Smith,
What Happened to Property in Law and Economics?,
Yale L. J.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/411