The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter V


§6. Hitherto I have been treating of things that have not yet been appropriated. Whatever has once become property usually continues in this condition, so long as it has any value; being transferred, as we have seen, by sale or gift during life, or through inheritance at death. In exceptional cases, however, it may happen that what A has thrown away as useless may be thought useful by B; if this is the case, it is obvious that B should be allowed to appropriate it.

We have now completed our survey of the chief modes of legally acquiring rights of property,---apart from transfer by consent, and succession through bequest or intestate inheritance, with which the two following chapters will be concerned. But an important question still remains. Suppose a man is found dealing with a thing as his own without being able to prove that he has ever legally acquired property in it: what is to be his legal position? When we consider the numerous ways in which evidence of legal title may accidentally fail, it becomes evident that, for the sake of peace and security, the actual possessor of anything must be recognised as having the rights of a proprietor, unless there is positive evidence to show that it legally belongs to some other person or has been wrongfully with drawn from public use. And, for the sake of security, to free men from the apprehension of unknown claims at any. time arising, it seems necessary to go further, and recognise the claim of ancient bona fide possession, even against a title of a different kind, after a certain interval of time has elapsed during which no assertion of this other title has been put forward. This interval should be sufficiently long to leave ample time for the assertion of claims in ordinary cases, but not longer than is required for this purpose.

So far I have supposed the possession to be bona fide. Generally speaking, this condition should be strictly maintained, since there is no sufficient reason for ever putting an end to the insecurity of a consciously wrongful holder of property: if such a person desires the peace of an honest man, he should confess and repair his wrong. Only sometimes after revolutions or civil disorders even ill-gotten gains have to be guaranteed to the possessors, for fear lest a too widespread apprehension should lead to a renewal of the disorder.

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