The Journal of Economic History


The Mystery of Property Rights: A U.S. Perspective

Naomi R. Lamoreauxa1

a1 Professor of Economics and History, Yale University, 27 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven, CT 06520-8269; and Research Associate, NBER. E-mail:


Economic development requires both secure property rights and the ability to reallocate property in response to technological and other changes. Significant reallocations have occurred repeatedly throughout U.S. history and have often been involuntary. This essay considers the question of how property rights can be subject to frequent involuntary reallocation and still be considered secure.

“Upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends—the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.”

Andrew Carnegie

(Online publication June 06 2011)

This article has benefited enormously from the comments and suggestions of Ruth Bloch, Leah Boustan, Price Fishback, Louis Galambos, Avner Greif, Timothy Guinnane, Carol Heim, David Lamoreaux, Margaret Levenstein, Sumner La Croix, Gary Libecap, Claire Priest, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Ross Thomson, Francesca Trivellato, John Wallis, Mary Yeager, and many attendees at the 2010 annual meeting of the Economic History Association.