Property rights in US

To make a long story short, I had a conversation with a distant relative who is of the persuasion that (we) in the US don’t really own anything except at the pleasure of the government, whether state or local or whatever.

One example he chose to use were vehicle titles. “See there where it says ‘Certificate of Title’ it’s just a copy, the real title is held by the state…” yadda yadda. I suppose there’s a certain logic to this in his mind, but I didn’t pursue the matter further.

One somewhat related area that is increasingly problematic is the use of eminent domain of certain (low tax revenue) properties by municipalities for business ventures like shopping malls or a car dealership and whatnot, which is pretty scurvy in my opinion.

But before I hijack my own thread, do I really own my car, or not?

Yes, you really own your car if you have the title. The government has nothing to do with it.

I’m not sure how to properly cite this. Some things are too wrong to be rationally refuted! :slight_smile:

In a strict sense, nobody ever owns anything except by the power of the State. Without the power of government to “hold all in Awe” (said Hobbes) – and specifically, to put folks in jail when they steal other folks’ stuff – property rights are worthless, because the only people who hold property are those that can protect it, and the claim of ownership doesn’t actually assist you in protecting your property (unless it’s backed up by force).

Further, the State ultimately is in the business of deciding what kinds of property are ownable. F’rinstance – cocaine is generally not something private individuals are permitted to own. Neither are the grounds of a national park, or another human being. These are all things the State has refused to allow people to hold as property.

That all said, it’s really not anything to worry about in the abstract. Assuming you’re in the U.S., we live in a democracy where “the State” is nothing more than an expression of our collective will (and yes, I know this is an idealist view, but it’s close enough for pusposes of this discussion). Therefore, the State can be counted on to allow ownership of categories of property that we think should be ownable, and to prohibit ownership of categories we think are not ownable. Furthermore, despite the fact that you’re uncomfortable with some instances of eminent domain, the 5th Amendment requires that the government provide compensation when it takes property from private hands.


Or the registration in some states. Not all states issue titles for motor vehicles. When I moved from New Yorks State many years ago and wished to trade in my car on a new one they wanted the title on the old one. At that time New York didn’t issue titles. And probably still don’t.

Under some extreme situations, it can be argued that we don’t own anything -e.g, a sufficiently heavy property or estate tax. I don’t feel the US or any state I know falls into this categorym but it is potentially arguable.

In the late 70s, Sweden actually had a top tax bracket in excess of 100% (either 100.7% or 101.7%; I saw both claims made).s That right - if your accountants couldn’t figure out enough offsets (like that would ever happen) every dollar you made over a certain amount not only didn’t add to your net wealth, but cost you money. IIRC, it was quickly revoked as an error.

Similarly, at some sufficiently high real estate tax, you don’t own real estate, you effectively rent it. At a sufficiently high estate tax, all assets effectively revert to the government at death, making it debatable who really owns it.

I realize these are hot button issues for some people, and I don’t mean to politicize the issue in the context of current policy. I simply mean to note that, in the extreme, taxation of owned property (vs. income or transactions) represents a de facto prior claim on all assets – and since the exact threshhold is not clear, any taxation of existing static assets can be seen in that light. The difference between “pay a certain amount periodically or lose all rights of use” and a lease becomes purely semantic

Could this be what your friend meant to say?

Cliffy, posession is different from ownership. Thereby not in need of forced protection. Let’s say you steal my car. Even though you posess it, I still own it. Should you crash it, guess who gets the insurance check.

Also, as a general rebuttal to everyone that says we’re a democracy, we are not.

This is nitpicking, but the US is a Republic. HUGE difference.

One other thing. It’s a technicality, but pertinent to the reply. You mention cocain ownership isn’t allowed. But it is. Cocain is an illegal substance to posess, doesn’t have to be yours to land in prison. If you can’t own cocain, every dealer would be released tomorrow, as it wasn’t theirs. I hope that made sense.

Otherwise, I like your style of thinking of abstracts, maybe we’ll discuss some stuff over a beer sometime.

Well, yes. That’s how the conversation started - Taxes. There’s a certain logic at least. If I don’t pay the taxes on “my” land, it gets confiscated by the state.

My interpretation of eminent domain - it’s defensible for certain narrowly defined “common good” public works projects - interstate highways, for example. Increased revenue for the city does not qualify - booting out fixed income folks so a car dealership or strip mall can be installed does not qualify. They usually come in and declare certain areas “blighted” and that’s that. Nothing so odious as a low level beauracrat.

The title is held by the lending organization that holds the lein on your vehicle. You are given a copy so that you can show ownership for purchasing registration.

Herman, sounds like a good case can be made for the assertion that the bank ought to pay registration or taxation fees, since they own the vehicle, heh. In any case, I own my truck free and clear, but the title still says “certificate of title”, fwiw.

Under many classes of financing, the “bank” does (or did) pay the tax and registration, and include it in their charge to you. This was done primarily to assure that such fees were paid, so your possession and their lien would not be adversely affected by your carelessness. THis can be a bit intrusive, though: you have to notify the bank every time you move to another town (towns often collect excise taxes on cars), and heaven forbid you change states. Who wants a parking or traffic ticket to turn into an arrest or car confiscation because a a check written by a bank on the other side of the country was misaddressed, lost, or simply not written? It’s easier for most respsible people to handle such details on their own

But don’t confuse physical possession of the Title (car lienholders ) or Deed (home mortgagors) with ownership under the Title or Deed. You are still the listed owner. The lienholder simply holds onto the physical title to keep you from selling the underlying asset free and clear without paying off their lien. The rules vary by state and year, but keeping the physical title keeps them in the loop.

After all, the car is a pretty darn mobile asset, and its only fairly recently that consistent, reliable, instant coordination of records across all states and lesser jurisdiction could be trusted (as the many case files of interstate felons attest, even the FBI had problems doing this, and its their bread and butter) the law and contracts tend to lag behind the track record of current technical capability. Fortunately, in the 1940s/50s when auto makers made the big push to get consumers to upgrade early and often, even if we didn’t have the cash on hand, they had to make it as easy as possible, and they emphasized ‘trusting the customer’ to let more deals go through. Otherwise the system would be more onerous.

This financing tradition has had other, quite negative impacts on the US consumer and economy; and the trust allowed considerable loss and larceny which ended coming out of the consumer’s pocket – but that’s another issue entirely.

New York has been issuing titles since, I think, 1973. My first car was a '72 Dodge Dart which only had a registration. I was told that prior to 1973 there were no tiitle to transfer, only reggies.

The lender in a mortgage is called a “mortgagee” not “mortgagor.” It is the owner who mortgages the land to the mortgagee. And the mortgagee does not have possession of the land. The owner does. Different states give different interests in the mortgagee. Some say that the mortgagee is the owner until the loan is paid off. Some say that a “deed of trust” (“trust deed”) type of morgage vests title in the lender. In any event, it is the mortgagor who is in possession until the mortgage is foreclosed.

Some states have mechanics’ liens, which provide that a mechanic can hold possession of an automobile until the debt is paid off. A “mechanic’s lien” can also be the lien of a contractor, sub-contractor, or mechanic in the building of a home, and those types of liens need not be recorded since the purpose of recordation is to give notice to the public, and the public already has notice that construction is taking place (observatioon).

Technically, he has a point – a very emaciated, clinging-with-one-foot-on-a-banana-peel point, but nonetheless a point.

After 1066, all land in England belonged to William the Conqueror by right of conquest, and he parceled it out among his followers as fiefs, which they held from him as suzerain by right of feudal service. He had a claim against the land, which was after all his, loaned out to them, for a share of the usufruct (what it produces, in rough definition), and land forfeited (by rebellion, deith without heirs, etc.) reverted to him.

“Clear title” to land today is “fee simple” – in direct descent, by law, from the Conqueror’s granting of fiefs. The American people, in whom sovereignty is jointly vested, are corporately the suzerains from whom they individually hold land. (Actually the picture is slightly more complex owing to the Federal system, but that simplifies it.)

It is for this reason that heirless intestate estates forfeit to the state, that eminent domain and forfeiture of land for nonpayment of taxes can occur, etc. But to say that it’s anything but a legal fiction in this day and age is to exaggerate a historical connection beyond all reason.

Polycarp’s answer is historically correct but, as he notes, it bears little real relation to modern theories of property. The feudal concept of tenure, under which all land was held of the Crown – either directly, by landholders known as tenants in chief, or indirectly, by tenants whose rights derived from a tenant in chief or other mesne lord – eroded almost overnight in 1538 when Henry VIII dissolved about 400 monasteries and sold off their land:

Andro Linklater, Measuring America 11 (2002). When all land was held of the Crown, the concept of private property was meaningless. But when the Crown began selling off its interest in land, the concept of private ownership began displacing the old notion of feudal tenure.

Meanwhile, when George III began exercising his rights as their feudal overlord over the American colonies, the colonists began questioning the basis for his authority:

Id. at 57-58.

The newly independent United States explicitly rejected feudal tenure as the basis for land ownership. The Northwest Ordinance (1787), passed in order to regulate the vast land that passed into federal control when the states ceded their western claims to the Confederation, began with a section guaranteeing private ownership of land and its transfer by descent or sale:

The Ordinance also included among the “articles of compact between the original States and the people and States in the said territory” which would “forever remain unalterable” a provision (sec. 14, art. 4) that “the legislatures of those districts or new States, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil by the United States in Congress assembled, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona fide purchasers.”

Thus the modern concept of private land ownership has essentially abandoned the notion that all land is held from the state. The state enjoys the powers of taxation, regulation, and eminent domain but, subject only to those powers, a private citizen in the United States today can hold as clear and secure a title to the land that he or she owns as any human ever has.

Yes, in a state that recognizes the Rule of Law. But in the State of Nature, they are the same thing. (Or rather, “ownership” is an empty concept.) That is, the only reason that you can have ownership over a given item is because the state protects your ownership interest, even if the item is stolen.

Actually we’re both. Regardless, the difference is not that important to the discussion at hand. Arguably, a republican form of government is not quite as effective as an absolute democracy in converting the consensus will into positive law, but it still does the job.

Here, you’re the one who is confusing possession and ownership. The State makes cocaine contraband – you cannot own it, and the State may confiscate any they find without offering just compensation. The State also makes the possession of cocaine a jailable offense, regardless of who claims to own it or who actually owns it.


Hey, brian, that’s two citations to the Northwest Ordinance in a week! :wink:


Thanks for the update. My experience dates from the late 60’s.