Owning Land

As far as I know, there is no sound and comprehensive theory of the right way to allocate control (or ownership) of the Earth's 150 million square kilometers of land among its seven billion human inhabitants. Since conventional theorists are not even looking in the right haystack, it falls to libertarian ones to make the attempt, and some fairly good ones have been made. The net result is outlined here. I hope it can be improved.

The subject is immensely complicated by the fact that today, virtually the whole land resource of the planet has been grabbed by governments. That's how they acquire title to it--they grab. The grabs may take the form of a solemn declaration: We, the State of Absurdity, hereby lay claim to the vacant half million km2 between the Nation of Nonsense and the Kingdom of Catastrophe; or they take the form of military force. We, Leaders of the Third Reich, need and hereby take possession of Lebensraum to our East. “Manifest Destiny” demands that We, the United States of America, press West and displace any and all occupants – including, in 1846, the government of Mexico. Then that of Spain, etc.

Jefferson, that hero of the minimal-government crowd, famously doubled the US land mass by stealing $15 million from residents and paying it to Napoleon, head of the French government, which had acquired it a century earlier by decree; thus, he was buying stolen land with stolen money. Later the resident Indians were cleared away with such gentle Christian sentiments as US General Sherman's "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux [Lakotas] even to their extermination: men, women and children."

There's nothing ethical about these methods of acquisition, though they are effective--and seasoned by thousands of years of history. It's how the original colonies here became part of the British Empire; the King decreed it so, and the first settlers came in his name and took possession by his permit. Thus, from the first day one of them landed in Jamestown, nobody here has owned any land; it is occupied only by permission of the sovereign, and on his terms. Any “homeowner” can test that statement today by refusing to pay the local sovereign the property tax he demands, and awaiting the result.

Ownership of land by real people, therefore, exists nowhere; neither here in the Land of the Free, nor anywhere else of which I'm aware. No wonder the world's in a mess. One reason it will be such a joy, after government has evaporated, to experience ownership for the first time ever, in the coming free society.

By “ownership” is meant “the right of exclusive use and control” of property, of which land is one vital example. How can it be acquired ethically and rationally?

A preamble is needed: Should it be acquired at all? For some say no, land is such a fundamental resource that it belongs to the whole human race and ought not to be under the control of anyone in particular – rather like the atmosphere. That needs settling first:


  • That view might lead to the absurdity of each human being getting allocated one share of the planet's land upon birth; a seven-billionth of 150 million km2 is 0.021 km2 per babe, or 2.1 hectares. Good luck with administering that.
  • Non-owned land is much like what the American Indian tribes and nations practiced; for them, there was so much land available the idea of pegging it with ownership rights hardly arose. They had not developed fixed agriculture. They herded and hunted; a shockingly inefficient way to produce food, but quite good enough when population density was so sparse. It's no longer sparse, so that's no longer good enough.
  • It's also what governments say, though they guard their own geographic domains jealously enough; but they deny ownership to any of the real people within those domains and claim to manage the land they “own” for the benefit of everyone. The remarks above about how governments get and use control of land areas should suffice to dismiss that one without further ado.
  • There is another school of opinion that favors communization of land: that of Henry George. This came up in my review of Tolstoy's attempt to solve the land-ownership problem in Russia – he appeared to favor George. As noted there, Murray Rothbard did not, and his reasons are well explained here. It seems clear to me that this non-ownership idea is simply not an option and that it indicates fuzzy thinking; land is a major (perhaps the major) resource so somebody must own it, in order to decide its use. The only alternative to individual ownership is state ownership, and in essence that is what George advocates; he calls for a “single tax” on land, and so completely fails to deal with the larger question of abolishing the state.

So yes, land has to be owned. Somebody must decide how to use it. Preamble over.

With respect to unclaimed land, the suggestion of John Locke seems sensible: land can properly by claimed and owned by the first person to “mix his labor” with it. This does suffer from a couple of weaknesses: (a) it's arbitrary, there's no obvious natural law that says it must be so. Then (b) it has a fuzzy edge; how large a claim can reasonably be made by this method? If I plant corn in one hectare, can I stake claims to the neighboring thousand hectares? Why, or why not?

There are some partial answers to those. First, it comes close to what's natural, and even reflects nature to some extent – many animals “mark their territory.” Second, the limits of reasonability have to do with how much land the claimant is able to work in the near future. This presupposes an arbiter, to resolve disputes.

So while Locke's idea is less than intellectually satisfying, it's the best I've heard of for practical use. In any case, however, there is hardly any more unclaimed land left, so the difficulty should not become a burning issue.

With respect to land already owned by someone real, if any, (i.e., not government) the answer would be easy: voluntary exchange, in a free market. After our society becomes free, that's the way ownership of land will be acquired and transferred.

Lastly comes the question of acquiring former “government” land, immediately after the State vanishes; and this will be a major issue because pretty well all land falls into that category, as we saw above. Within the global claim of sovereign ownership of everything within the borders of the state, there are also large special areas openly marked as “government property” or “state parks” etc. The map here shows such claims made by the Federal government – total, about 30% -- and then there are claims made by those of each state. Perhaps the total property to be transferred to real owners after E-Day will be approaching half, or over four million km2.

Transfer of land already nominally “owned” but by permit of the sovereign (his land in the more general sense) should be rather easy; titles already exist in conditional form, so it will be just a matter of changing words, so that titles become absolute and the conditions are removed. On that happy day, all “homeowners” will become actual homeowners for real.

Transfer of explicitly labeled “government property” will, I expect, involve something like the Lockean principle of staking workable claims. “Work” will not of course be merely agricultural; in my article on Ownership I took the example of a poison-gas depository and imagined I formed a company to clean it up safely and turn it into a residential estate. The claim “was” made by advertising it widely. Other cases might involve two or more competing claims, and the free market will find ways to resolve them; by arbitration sometimes, more often I think by negotiation and “quit claims” obtained by payment. This will bring the enormous advantage that all land will become owned by those whose intended use will maximize profits.

By the same free-market mechanisms, the concept of multiple uses for land will develop. For example, a field on the Plains could both grow corn and accommodate windmills for power (already happening) and underground drilling for oil, etc. Nothing conceptually new here, but the absence of government restrictions will make it much more common, with resultant increase in wealth for all concerned.

Communist readers will worry, no doubt, that when by such means all land has fallen irrevocably into private hands, the rest of the human race will be at the mercy of the landowner class, since everyone has to eat and land is the source of all food. (Actually about 350 million km2 consists of ocean, and seafood is plentiful and nutritious. But in due course the oceans too will be properly and privately owned, so the worry stands.) The worry springs though from a failure to reason: to obtain profit from his land asset, the owner must use it to produce something (often, food) and offer it for sale at market prices.

It's true that having acquired land, many families will seek to keep it through generations – to form “dynasties,” and I see that as a healthy ambition. However, because they will be in a free market with no government protection, they will always be subject to offers. And despite the best efforts of parents, children and great-grandchildren don't always inherit the keen business or farming skills of their ancestors. So in due course the Ewing estate will become shoddily run, and the family will start running short of gold, and the eagle eye of a better entrepreneur will fall on South Fork and make JR's descendants a very attractive offer; that's how the market works. It is the only way yet discovered to make – and keep, over the long term – the most profitable possible use of resources.

And in the event that food goes short, its price will rise and so provide immediate strong incentive to grow more; the usage of land will be in constant flux, to respond to demand. So although Locke's principle may lack intellectual tidiness and though we certainly can't predict all the ways the market will handle the allocation of land to owners, we can be sure there is no fairer way to do so than the operation of that free market. For me at least, that's altogether good enough.

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