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“Commodity and Propriety” by Gregory Alexander Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Feb 16th, 2021

Summary of the author’s arguments

Gregory Alexander’s book Commodity & Propriety is aimed at discussing various meanings of such a concept as property in the legal tradition of the United States (1997, p. 1). In particular, the author wants to dispel a common misconception according to which property was regarded only as a form of commodity since this definition is incomplete. In turn, the author believes that property was also perceived as a means of imposing and preserving social order (Alexander, 1997, p. 1). Gregory Alexander argues that it is not permissible to look at this concept only from the economic perspectives. In fact, for many people, the possession of land or other goods was a way of securing ones welfare against economic instability (Alexander, 1997, p. 4). More importantly, it was a source of power for an individual. This is one of the reasons why Gregory Alexander introduces such a notion as propriety which can be interpreted as conformity to a certain standard of behavior or norms. These are the main issues that Gregory wants to examine in his book.

In order to elaborate his arguments, Gregory Alexander refers to various legal sources. For example, one can mention the writings of Thomas Jefferson according to whom individual autonomy was based on his/her property rights (Alexander, 1997, p. 44). In turn, the task of legislators was to protect the property rights of a person. Furthermore, one should remember that property was essential for the political power of an individual. For instance, until 1821 people had to meet specific property requirements if they wanted to participate in the elections as voters or political candidates (Alexander, 1997, p. 108). To a great extent, the association between possession of goods and legal status of people was critical for American legal theorists at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These cases indicate that in the legal tradition of the United States, property cannot be reduced to the mere status of the commodity since this assumption overlooks the development of the country and the evolution of its political system. Apart from that, Gregory Alexander describes the views of pro-slavery ideologists. These people emphasized the importance of property rights because in this way they tried to legitimize their possession of slaves (Alexander, 1997, p. 214). In other words, property rights were critical for maintaining the social order that suited the needs of these people.

Apart from that, Gregory Alexander strives to discover the factors that changed people’s perception of property and evaluate the implications of this process. First of all, the commodification of property implied that the legal status of a person could not be determined by his/her wealth. This trend was particularly noticeable in the writing of the twentieth-century lawyers (Alexander, 1997). This view has become extremely popular, and because of this trend many people began to overlook other meanings of property.

On the whole, Gregory Alexander eloquently demonstrates that in the course of the U.S history, property could play various roles and acquire different meanings. One should not suppose that this concept was viewed only as a form of material goods. For a long time, property was a tool for preserving the social order, and it was a source of a person’s political power. This issue is important for understanding the transformation of the American law with time passing.

The concept of property presented in the book

This book can significantly increase readers’ understanding of property and the historical development of this notion. In particular, this work demonstrates that the possession of material goods was closely associated with the prestige, legal status of a person and the political power. Therefore, it was an important factor that influenced the American society. Moreover, it enabled the ruling elite to create and maintain the social order. It should be noted that such a view on property has not fully examined. So, one can say that Gregory Alexander fills an important gap that existed in the academic literature. Apart from that, this book shows that property is a very dynamic concept, and its interpretation has changed dramatically in the course of the U.S. history. This point can be important for lawyers and economists. Finally, this source shows modern legislators interpret property mostly as commodity, but they also know that the lack of property deprives a person of the opportunity to protect his/her right. This issue is important for people who study the development of American law in the course of its history.

The ability of the market to internalize the costs and values of public interests

The discussion presented by Gregory Alexander gives rise to several questions about the role of the market and it ability to internalize the values of public interest. Overall, it is possible to argue that the market is important for the promotion of the public welfare. It should be taken into account that market transactions are vital the creation of personal wealth; more importantly, they offer individuals opportunities to increase their welfare, for example, by using property as a commodity. Furthermore, the market competition facilitates technological and social progress. This is one of the main issues that should be considered. Nevertheless, one cannot argue that market relationships are always consistent with public interests. The problem is that public interests can be very difficult to identify, and separate individuals or groups may not be concerned with them. Some of them may not attach any importance to public welfare. In turn, the different interests of people cannot easily be reconciled. This is one of the key challenges that should not be overlooked by policy-makers. In his book, Gregory Alexander (1997) addresses this problem by showing that some people are excluded from market transactions.

These limitations emphasize the necessity for regulators or the organizations which ensure that the private self-interest do not harm the welfare of others. As a rule, this role is performed by the state. In many cases, the state strives to empower those groups of people who were historically disadvantaged (Alexander, 1997). The goal of this institution is to make sure that people can benefit from the work of the market. Provided that this goal is achieved, a greater number of people will be able to maximize their wealth.

The themes of poverty and property in Gregory Alexander’s book

Overall, one can say that Gregory Alexander’s analysis can throw light on the relationship between poverty and property. This issue is of great concern to many other scholars; for example, one can mention Nicholas Blomley’s (2009) article which suggests that property can produce both wealth and homelessness at the same time. In the opinion of this author, a great number of people are deprived of the opportunities that can help them acquire property, especially housing (Blomley, 2009, p. 581). In contrast, people, who possess property such as housing, have been able to maximize their wealth in the course of the last three decade (Blomley, 2009, p. 581).

Such a trend has been observed in the United States and Canada. In turn Gregory Alexander also focuses his attention on this problem. From his perspective, property is indeed instrumental for making profit; nevertheless, many governmental programs do not help poor people acquire property and use it as a means for increasing their wealth (Alexander, 1997, p. 362). They are only allowed to sustain themselves, but they cannot overcome poverty. Additionally, this author mentions the so-called social responsibility of property owners. For example, homeowners are supposed to respect the rights of tenants who were often powerless, especially at the beginning of twentieth century (Alexander, 1997). This is one of the main aspects that can be identified.

On the whole, this theme is of great interest to legal scholars. For instance, Jane Baron wants argues that many poor and homeless people are placed in the position when they are forced to respect property rights, but at the same time, they virtually no rights of their own (Baron, 2004, p. 273). This is the paradox of legal traditions in many countries, including the United States. It significantly contributes to the continuity of homelessness and poverty. This issue attracts the attention of Gregory Alexander who speaks about the experience of homeless people. In particular, his example demonstrates that these people have no opportunity to uphold the rights, especially when they interact with governmental officials (Alexander, 1997, p. 372). This is one of the reasons why they cannot take part in social or economic life. This problem should be considered by legislators and policy-makers.

Gregory Alexander does not argue that property rights contribute to different forms of inequalities existing in the United States. However, he emphasizes the necessity to create opportunities for the acquisition of property. Moreover, his work illustrates that even now the legal status of homeless people is not protected in any way. Overall, his book suggests that there is a strong connection between the property, poverty as well as homelessness. This theme is important from both legal and economic perspectives. By reading Gregory Alexander’s book, one can better understand various aspects of this problem. This is why this book should not be overlooked by legal professionals.

Geographic dimensions

Another aspect that should be considered is geographic dimensions of property. This question is important for understanding Gregory Alexander’s book, but he does not explicitly focus on this question. This issue is explored in the article Legal Geographies written by Nicholas Blomley (2007). In particular, this author points out that the poor people’s rights to property are not properly protected by the state. In fact, in many cases, one can observe the distinct disrespect for these rights. For instance, according to this author, the neighborhoods populated by racial minorities are more likely to be the subject of eminent domain (Blomley, 2007, p. 7). In other words, the government can force them to abandon the property, mostly housing, only because it is needed for the economic development of the society (Blomley, 2007, p. 7).

However, governmental officials do not provide sufficient justifications for their use of eminent domain. This is one of the trends that scholars identify. Furthermore, in most cases, these neighborhoods are extremely impoverished. In his book, Gregory Alexander also touches upon this question. In particular, his work shows that impoverished people, especially those ones who have no property, are segregated from the rest of society and they are not always treated with the respect that is granted to owners of material goods (Alexander, 1997, p. 362). In most cases, these individuals are excluded from public life. This is one of the main problems identified by this author. Still, one can say that geographic dimensions are only implicit in his discussion.


Overall, the book Commodity & Propriety is a valuable source that can help readers better understand the historic role of property in the legal tradition of the United States. Gregory Alexander is able to demonstrate that property cannot be viewed as a mere commodity. Such a view does not take into account the complexity of this concept. One should not forget that property is closely tied to the legal status of a person and the preservation of the social order. Furthermore, the discussion of various themes suggests that property leads to the maximization of wealth, but at the same time, it can act as a barrier that prevents people from overcoming poverty or homelessness. Additionally, there is the so-called geography of property which means that the possession of material goods determines the legal status of an individual. The analysis that Gregory Alexander provides an in-depth analysis which can be of great benefit to both students and professional lawyers.

Reference List

Alexander, Gregory. (1997). Commodity & Propriety: Competing Visions of Property in American Legal Thought, 1776-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Baron, J. (2004). Homelessness as a Property Problem. The Urban Lawyer, 36(2), 273-288.

Blomley, N. (2007). Legal Geographies – Kelo, Contradiction, and Capitalism. Urban Geography, 28(2), 198-205.

Blomley, N. (2009). Homelessness, Rights, and the Delusions of Property. Urban Geography, 30(6), 577-590.

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