Property and Political Power

The legitimacy of political institutions in liberal-democratic societies depends upon a clear split between the private and the public sphere. In early-liberal political philosophy this was expressed by the concept of property: the state’s exercise of political power is legitimate to the extent that it protects private property, which is then left alone. However, the contemporary economy is diverging from this image due to several interpenetrations of the private and public sphere. This risk hollowing out liberalism’s claim that political institutions are well equipped to protect public interests. This project investigates whether and how liberal political philosophy should be updated to take account of these developments, focusing on the need for a new conceptualization of property and its function in the legitimation of the exercise of political power. The research project “Private Property and Political Power in Liberal-Democratic Societies’ (2017-2022) is funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The project is based at Utrecht University and led by prof. dr. Rutger Claassen. For the contributions of the other team members, please visit the project website.   

In my own work, the starting point was to construct a justification of the institution of private property in terms of autonomous agency. To the extent that property helps make people into autonomous agents, is is justified. This thought was worked out in the context of the capability approach [1] and contrasted to views about ‘social property’ [2]. It also comes back in discussions about the movement from ownership to access [3].    

This kind of justification, however, does not automatically take into account the spill-overs of property (especially in the context of property concentrations and large wealth inequalities) into the political sphere. In my inaugural lecture [4] and in [5], I bring these themes into the picture. Large property risks creating what I call (following others) a ‘neo-feudal’ situation, in which property and political power are mixed with each other, in ways reminiscent to feudalism. Liberalism’ attempt to neatly split the private form the public sphere is thus undermined.  

In 2022, I co-edited a large volume, Wealth and Power [6] with 15 different contributions discussing various ways in which ‘wealth’ (economic power) intersects with political power and democratic decision-making. In [7] we outline the main themes of the book. In 2023, I co-edited a special issue on Jean-Philippe Robé’s book Property, Power and Politics [8], with a contribution on the concept of property as an ‘office’ [9].    


[1] ‘The Capability to hold Property’: in: Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 16(2)(2015): 220-236. DOI/PDF.  

[2] ‘Justice as a Claim to (Social) Property’, in: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 21 (5)(2018): 631-645.  DOI/PDF
Reprinted as: ‘Justice as a Claim to (Social) Property’, in: Margaret Kohn & Avigail Ferdman (eds.), Solidarity and Public Goods, (London/New York: Routledge, 2020), pp. 87-101.

[3] ‘From Ownership to Access. A Philosophical Perspective on the Rise of Access-Based Consumption’, met Yara al Salman. In: Ars Aequi, jaargang 67, juli/augustus 2018, pp. 566-576. WEB/PDF.  

[4] Private eigendom, publieke macht. Op weg naar een nieuw feodalisme? Boom, Den Haag, 2020. 60 pp. ISBN 978-94-6290-779-9. PDF.   

[5] ‘Property and Political Power: Neo-Feudal Entanglements’, in: John Christman (ed.), Positive Liberty: Past, Present, and Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). Pp. 217-235. DOI/PDF.   

[6] Michael Bennett, Huub Brouwer, Rutger Claassen (eds), Wealth and Power. Philosophical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2022), 

[7] ‘Introduction: The Wealth-Power Nexus’, co-authored with Michael Bennett and Huub Brouwer, in: Michael Bennett, Huub Brouwer, Rutger Claassen (eds), Wealth and Power. Philosophical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 1-22. DOI 

[8] ‘Introduction to Symposium on Jean-Philippe Robé’s Property, Power and Politics’, with Tully Rector, in: Journal of Law and Political Economy, 3(3), 558-563. Philosophical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 1-22. DOI 

[9] ‘Property: Authority without Office?’, with Larissa Katz, in: Journal of Law and Political Economy, 3(3), 570-575. Philosophical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 1-22. DOI