People as Property: On Being a Resource and a Person


Property law facilitates the efficient use and allocation of scarce resources and recognizes and protects aspects of personhood – the bases of dignity and self-respect. Human beings, who are both resources for one another and the persons whose moral importance the legal system seeks to protect. This article explores how property law has addressed this paradox in the past and how might in the future.

I analyze two bodies of nineteenth-century law where the paradox was highlighted: the legal regimes of labor discipline for slaves in the antebellum South and for free workers in the laissez-faire Lochner era. The law struggled over how to regard laborers’ bodies as resources and how to understand them as persons. I then show how these jurisprudential problems tracked contemporary debates in political and economic thought about the nature of property in human beings. I argue that property regimes always define a boundary between personhood and resource value.

I apply this analysis to two areas: voluntary peer production in digital media and the entrance of Indian women into the paid workforce. Both demonstrate how changes in how people are able to approach others as resources – specifically changes in the direction of increased reciprocity – help produce a more robust conception of personhood and a more egalitarian and attractive social life. I offer the increase in reciprocity as a normative touchstone for assessing property regimes


Legal History | Property Law and Real Estate | Public Law and Legal Theory

Date of this Version

February 2006