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Property in All the Wrong Places?, 114 Yale Law Journal 991 (2005)


"'Good fences make good neighbors,'" New England's poet laureate Robert Frost famously observed. But something must be going on in Williamstown, Massachusetts to make some New Englanders think differently. The two Williams College academics who wrote these fascinating recent books are clearly skeptical of Frost's nostrum, at least insofar as he implied that clearly defined property rights might help to keep the peace among the quite different players in the two studies. Michael Brown is an anthropologist at Williams, and in his book Who Owns Native Culture? he is so skeptical of property rights that he appears to reject his own title, asserting that the central issue about indigenous cultural productions is not ownership but rather dignity. More on that subject shortly. Meanwhile, over in the history department, Karen Merrill has written Public Lands and Political Meaning, in which she similarly decries what she sees as a baleful but growing tumor of property talk, which has spread its tentacles into the century-and-a-half-long relationship between ranchers and public land officials in the Western United States. Both authors seem to wonder, Why can't everyone just talk it over, without all this posturing about who owns what? Wouldn't that be better for people who at the end of the day have to find some way to live with one another?

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