“If a man owns a little property, that property is him.…it is part of him….in some ways he’s bigger because he owns it.”
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath,
Property rights are the most fundamental institution in any economy and society. They determine who makes decisions about valuable resources and who captures the economic gains from those decisions; they mold the distribution of income, wealth, and political influence; they set time horizons and investment incentives; and they define who will take part in markets. These attributes are well recognized among economists for spurring economic growth.
But economists have missed another equally important characteristic of private property rights that has long been emphasized in philosophical, legal, and historical literatures and is captured in the quote from John Steinbeck above. Individual owners are more confident, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial than non-property owners. Where access to property is widespread, politics are more stable. Owners have a stake in the existing political regime.