Stuart Banner


On his book American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own

Cover Interview of June 06, 2011

In a nutshell

When Richard Newman died in Los Angeles in 1997, his body was taken to the county coroner’s office for a routine autopsy.  Two years later, Newman’s father learned that the coroner had removed his son’s corneas for transplant without asking the family’s permission.  He sued the coroner’s office for damages, on the theory that the office had violated the Newmans’ constitutional rights by depriving them of property without due process of law.

But were Richard Newman’s corneas a kind of property?  And if they were, who was their owner once he was dead?

This case, like many others, raises a basic question: what is property?

To decide whether a dead man’s corneas are property, one has to develop some idea of what property means and some method of distinguishing what should count as property from what should not.  To do that, in turn, requires some thought about the nature of property itself.  How does it originate?  What purposes does it serve?  What are its outer limits?

American Property is about the ways in which the answers to questions like these have changed over time.

One approach to understanding these changes is to look closely at the emergence of new forms of property in response to technological and cultural change.  Several of the book’s chapters are about such episodes: they examine, for instance, the development of property in news in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the emergence of property in sound in the early twentieth century.

Another approach is to look at changing ideas about the limits of appropriate government regulation of property.  Some of the chapters examine the rise of new kinds of regulation and the development of new ideas about the Constitution’s protection of property rights.

The basic message of the book is that our ideas about property have always been contested and have always been in flux.  Property is a human institution that exists to serve a broad set of purposes.  These purposes have changed over time, and as they have, so too has the conventional wisdom about what property is really like.