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The Nature Of Property, Global Variation And Convergence, The Values Of Property, Contemporary Debates

"There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe" (p. 2). So wrote Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780), the great English jurist, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone exaggerated: romantic love, sexual desire, and spiritual purity engage human creative attention as much as ownership of things. Yet Blackstone does not overstate the importance of property among human institutions. Property joins the family, the state, and the church as the most basic and universal structures of human society; and among these four, it is likely the most indispensable. A society might persist without kinship, kings, or priests, but it will not survive without distributing to its members stable control over its resources.

The significance of property can be appreciated by considering whether there is anything around you that is not owned by someone. This book, certainly (although the owner of the paper and ink—or the computer screen—will not be the same person as the copyright holder). The chair in which you are sitting and all of the objects around you, the walls of the room, the surrounding building and the land on which it rests. Even the mineral deposits deep below and the airspace high above are owned by someone. Human beings themselves might be exceptions to this universal rule of ownership—although many think that there is a sense in which each person owns himself. And perhaps no one now owns the heavens. Yet if it is true that no one owns the planets and the stars, one feels that this is merely because humans have not reached them yet.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Propagation to Quantum electrodynamics (QED)