Property rights and rural justice: A study of U.S. right-to-farm laws

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Abstract

Are property rights merely a tool of the market economy, disempowering those with the least in rural places and further lining the pockets of those with the most? Most rural scholarship, on the aggregate, argues that yes, property rights dispossess the many in favor of the few. We, though, find the situation to be much more nuanced in our analysis of U.S. right-to-farm laws, the first of its kind. An overlooked dimension of property rights—the capacity to claim trespass on property through nuisance—enables rural people to defend their rights to clean air and water and the use and enjoyment of their property in the face of large-scale, industrial agricultural operators. Our analysis of statutes in all 50 U.S. states finds that right-to-farm laws, while largely purported to defend family farmers, reduce rural people's capacity to protect their land through nuisance actions in defense of their environmental, health, and community rights. We argue that property rights, when properly protected from nuisance, can help rural people push back against the market economy in defense of their health and environmental rights when other political means falter. Recognizing as much helps reveal a relationship between property rights and justice that currently is overlooked by rural scholars.

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Ashwood, L., Diamond, D., & Walker, F. (2019). Property rights and rural justice: A study of U.S. right-to-farm laws. Journal of Rural Studies, 67, 120–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.02.025

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