This paper formed part of the Green Institute Report ‘Rebalancing Rights: Communities, Corporatations and Nature’.
Property rights are a social construction, embodied in law and enforced by the coercive power of the state, represented by police, courts and prisons. This fact is so obvious that it ought to go without saying, but it is routinely denied by many on the right of politics and some on the left.
Nothing illustrates the spurious nature of claims about natural property rights more clearly than the set of rights central to modern business enterprise, centred on the concepts of bankruptcy and limited liability. These rights are not natural in any sense, although two centuries of experience has made them seem so to many. They were created following fierce political debate over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Over the course of the 20th century, the rights of corporations have been expanded and the status of the corporation as a ‘legal person’ has come to be taken for granted by many. Among the most notable expansions of corporate rights are the Investor State Dispute Settlement procedures routinely included in international agreements on trade and investment, and the expansion of ‘intellectual property’ rights such as patents and copyrights.