"Property Owner" by Andy Dixon
My first week of school was one of the longest weeks of my life. It began with Contracts at 9am in a big auditorium. The teacher is an older guy who looks like the "kindly drill sergeant" character in a war film--stern, unapproachable, ready to take you down for the good of the unit, but all about your growth in the end. He wants us to know words like "demur." We spend an hour on the idea of consideration, or the grounds for evidence that a contract was made. Consideration might include a promise for a promise, a performance, or a bargain. Gifts are not consideration. We look at examples of people caring for their neighbor's escaped bulls, of secretaries' pensions bestowed by grateful CEOs and rescinded by skinflint grandsons, of grandmothers who promise money to grandchildren on the condition they refrain from drinking and using tobacco. Professor Contracts interrogates several of us during the class, but his questions are fair, and if someone clearly does not know the answer, he moves on. He does not, thank heaven, call on me.
The next class is Property. It is taught by a woman who looks to be in her late thirties, a slightly hard femme, very corporate, skin evened out by the best cosmetics. Looking at her you do not have to be told that she worked for a major law firm, that she did the partner track, that she has handled important accounts and made bundles of cash. Professor Property did not make partner for some reason, though she seems like someone a law firm would find very useful. Like many lawyers who leave high-pressure firms for better lives, she is trying her hand at teaching.
From the start of the class it is clear that Professor Property believes in property. Although she passes out short readings (Bentham, Blackstone) reminding us that property cannot exist without the law standing behind it, property is for her far more than a legal fiction. Her eyes flash at the mention of encroachment, her voice loud and strong when she speakes of ownership.
I begin to realize that I actually think deep down in my heart that owning things is wrong. Especially land. Who in the world imagines that they actually own the earth? We are all caretakers, or should be. Pillagers, too often. But owners?
Yes, I believe I feel the gentle stirrings of rebellion in my heart. Still, once you have the system in place, you have to think about its rules. We discuss a case where somebody builds a wall on his property line, and his surveyor messes up, and the foundation stones of his wall jut one inch into his neighbor's yard. The neighbor sues and the court says either the wall has to come down, the one inch of land be sold to the wallbuilder, or the offending stones chipped down. The neighbor won't sell the inch and won't allow the builder to come over and chip away the stones, so the only thing left to do is tear down the wall. The judge, in disgust, splits the court costs even though the builder lost, largely just to penalize the cranky neighbor for being so difficult.
Professor Contracts asks who among us think such a small encroachment is still significant. I raise my hand. After all, an inch is an inch.
Then she asks who thinks it's no big deal, and a number of hands go up. She seems surprised. "Really?" she asks. Then after a moment,she says to the people still holding their hands up, "I'm just curious. How many of you are Democrats?"
I can't believe I heard that one right. I watch as a guy with his hand up who I know is a Mormon snatches his hand out of the air like he'd been burned. I don't think anyone has ever called him a Democrat in his whole life. Later I overhear him talking to another Mormon guy about starting a Republican Law Students club.
Professor Property laughs, pleased with herself. "I just like to test my theories sometimes," she says. I think about how her theories are wrong. After all, I'm practically a socialist, but I think encroachment is encroachment. Mormon guy is obviously a right-winger, but he thinks small encroachments can be handled reasonably between neighbors. You can't make generalizations about people's politics, and you really shouldn't make snide comments about people's religious or political beliefs in a classroom. But what do I know? I'm back to being a student myself, and my job consists of trying to tell professors what they want to hear on exam questions.
A friend of mine who went to an elite law school told me that there were things he liked about being surrounded by conservatives. He said it helped him define for himself what he really believed in.
I think I'm beginning to know what he means.