June 2, 2020 Reading Time: 2 minutes

If your goal is to prevent students from properly understanding an important topic, the best way to achieve that goal is to inculcate a central claim or formulation that makes a proper understanding impossible. 

If you drill into a child’s head the false (1, 2) belief that the New Deal saved the United States from the Great Depression, you have in one stroke ensured that she will never understand economics properly. 

If you train a student to speak of certain conditions of the current account as a “trade deficit” you’ve hobbled her understanding of international trade. 

And if you train a law student to think of property or ownership as a “bundle of rights,” you’ve helped to make her benighted about property.

The last is perhaps most devasting of all. If you undermine one’s understanding of property, you’ve undermined her understanding of liberty and the original arc of liberalism. You’ve thwarted her naturalization to liberal civilization.

I write to advertise a video lecture by me, expositing an understanding of property steeped in Adam Smith and David Hume. 

I discuss the connotations of “bundle.” From its etymological beginnings the word bundle—as in “bundle of groceries,” “bundle of sticks,” “bundle of cloths”—strongly connotes, even logically implies, that the objects that are bound together into a bundle: (1) are distinct, (2) are listable, (3) had been separate or apart, and (4) were bound together by someone; there is a bundler. 

Classical liberals might see that those connotations are pernicious to a sound understanding of the ownership of property. If property is a bundle of a finite number of previously separate use-rights, put together by government (the bundler), then in what sense does the government ever tread on liberty? If it says you cannot rent space to a tenant, wouldn’t that just mean that such a use-right is not in the bundle you have? On what basis would it violate liberty? 

Ownership is not a bundle. Ownership of property is a social norm you can claim as a right against others messing with the property. It is primarily a notion of exclusion of messing. Ownership is not a bundle constructed by government from a list of distinct and finite use-rights. 

Is the human body a bundle of organs? Does a piano enable one to play a bundle of tunes?

“Bundle of rights” is one among a pack of formulations that rose into currency after 1890 or so, along with “social justice” and “economic justice.” Once it had become fashionable, “bundle” was, alas, taken up and embraced even by leading classical liberals such as Ronald Coase and Richard Epstein, each of whom I treat in the lecture. Coase’s error on “bundle” relates to his error of undue causal agnosticism.

The lecture is here, the PowerPoint file is here, and an article upon which the lecture is based is here. I thank the Institute for Humane Studies for hosting the lecture.

Daniel B. Klein

Daniel B Klein

Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith.

He is also associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm), research fellow at the Independent Institute, and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.

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