Legal Rules Control Wealth and Poverty

Years ago as a philosophy grad student I got interested in the concept of property. Much to my amateur surprise I discovered that property does not consist of things and places, but rather the complex of legal rights and powers that enable one to use things, change and control legal rights and duties both of oneself and others. A central figure in the analysis of legal relationships had been Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld, an early 20th century legal theorist, who had developed a model of legal concepts well ahead of his time in its sophistication. Hohfeld’s death had only allowed him to complete 3 of 8 proposed essays in what was published in his book, Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied to Legal Reasoning, a book rediscovered and still in print.

What I found in Hohfeld is what every lawyer somewhat grasps — he who writes and controls the rules of law is likely to become the ‘owner’ of resources — too often to the exclusion of others. What we saw during the 20th century was a series of swings from the early period of greedy dominance by corporate wealth of our resources which spawned the great depression and then a swing back to a more just distribution of same under FDR and a further tilting once again back to the wealthy with Reagan’s attack on government controls of the rules of the game which had protected people not in a position to defend their own rights. We have been watching the climax of this grab of our resources in recent years with the advent of a war for control of oil in the Middle East, the widening split between poverty and wealth in the U.S., and now, perhaps, yet another great depression in the making.

See this as the introduction to a more detail series of comments to come on the abuses of rights and powers affecting specific areas of our economic and personal lives.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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