Owning Land

Column by Jim Davies.

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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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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


mjackso6's picture

"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."

The hunter/gatherer lifestyle is incapable of providing the ~quantity~ of food that agriculture is, but the quality, from a nutritional standpoint, tends to be much better. Hunter/gatherers get a far greater variety of vegetables and meats, and the meat that they get, meat 'on the hoof' rather than raised in a barn or pasture with limited room for exercise, tends to be of better nutritional value than domesticated meats.

Of course, as mentioned above, hunting and gathering cannot support huge populations, but the people who live this lifestyle tend to be much fitter (~lots~ of exercise) and nearly all surviving groups of hunter/gatherers who have been studied have presented almost negligible rates of 'civilized' diseases like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Not all of that is due to diet, I'm sure; most hunter/gatherers tend to meet their end before diseases usually associated with age can occur.

Another point is a kind of chicken-and-egg argument. The discovery of agriculture was apparently what allowed mankind to bloat up to his current numbers, but that in itself isn't an argument for efficiency, only quantity. It's far from certain that a great mass of humanity, most of whom live in poverty and almost never have enough to eat, is neccessary or desirable for the formation of a civilization. Granted, a certain number of people probably are required, but I would guess that number to be much lower, far less than seven billion. If there were only seven million people on Earth, each hunting/gathering on his/her own property, making voluntary associations and trading with whoever they wished, I don't think it would be such a horrible place.

I'm under no illusion that we can somehow 'turn back the clock', nor would I like to see 99.9% of humanity suddenly disappear, but I think that we all made a huge mistake back in the neolithic when we decided to take the quick and easy path of agriculture versus the harder but ultimately healthier path of hunting and gathering. Who knows? if we'd gone the other way and not crowded ourselves off the planet the way we have, maybe the statist model we're all so sick of never would have developed in the first place.

Jim Davies's picture

Very interesting, mjack, especially your final point. It does seem likely that government appeared shortly after harvested foods were first stored; one way or another, the chance to get food by theft and murder instead of by working for it was too tempting, and that has prevailed ever since.
I'd not agree that the many rich benefits of civilization are to be regretted, but that is a subjective view. Whether food is more nutritious now than ten millennia ago, likewise I'm unqualified to say - but (if we dismiss Old Testament tales of Methusela et al) I understand that longevity is far higher today than then, and better nutrition must be one factor causing that.
In any case, we do now have the chance to get the best of both worlds: all the comforts of civilization (and many more to come) plus the abolition of government. And when it's gone, nothing will prevent those who prefer that life style from going off and living primitive. They might have to form a club (no pun intended) to stake a claim to a large land area, but then it would be all theirs.

Paul's picture

Well, the main increase in longevity is due to knowledge (about germs, sanitation, etc.) which would apply just as well in any future non-civilized (or non-"syphylized" as Edward Abbey would put it) society, so I wouldn't credit agriculture with that particularly. Many think the agricultural diet - particularly wheat - is actually hard on our bodies. Also Cro-Magnon man was typically larger in stature than we are, according to the archeologists; larger means better fed.

"The only alternative to individual ownership is state ownership."

What if two people own land jointly? Is that a state?

There is no need really to argue about what form of land ownership is better. Let communists be communists, I say. If 99% of the people preferred a free market in land, and 1% wanted communism, there would be no excuse for the 99% to steal the land owned by the communists. All that is important is the imposition of one theory over another should be stopped.

Here are my ideas on property:

mhstahl's picture


Not just Cro-Magnon man, but Europeans during the semi-anarchic period known as the colloquially as the "dark ages" were also significantly larger in stature for the same reason. I believe I've read that nomadic Indian tribes tended to be larger that their sedentary counterparts who had the "benefits" of agriculture and structured government.

I recall reviewing Peter S. Wells' "Barbarians to Angels" for Liberty back when it was in print, which included discussion of social structure, violence (no one waved the "rights" wand to prevent it-instead they defended themselves), property, and innovation. The pdf is available here: http://www.libertyunbound.com/node/109

I highly recommend that book. It fascinated me so much that I've since become a full-fledged historian of the era (which is not "dark" at all.)



Jim Davies's picture

Mike, might you double-check that URL? - it didn't lead me to barbarians or angels.

mhstahl's picture

Opps, Thanks Jim. That was the link to the link to the pdf. Here it is...unfortunently they seem only to have the whole issue available-the title of the review is "Without a Central Government" and is on pg. 43, which for reasons beyond my comprehension is billed as "Rethinking the Dark Ages" on the cover...but oh well:



Jim Davies's picture

"What if two people own land jointly? Is that a state?"
No. They would be called a company or partnership, and each would have responsibilities defined in whatever agreement united them. They would be real people.
A State is a concept without such reality or accountability; Where's the State? has more. The thugs who call themselves a state acknowledge no restriction on their right to steal and harasss non-members, so whether they call themselves "communist" or something else, they will grab any opportunity they see to sieze land and other property owned by others. Non-grabbing statism is an oxymoron, an Utopia.

Paul's picture

Well, I don't much care about what things are called. If some people want to give allegiance to a "state" (however imaginary that is as a concept), that is their business. Anarchists would be no more justified in grabbing their land, than their state would be justified in grabbing anarchists' land.

But of course, the whole notion of something being "justified" is pretty tenuous. As always, the matter will be settled by force, or threat of force. That is something quite real. It's why I wish anarchists would get more familiar with firearms. Hard to take them seriously otherwise...

Glock27's picture

Cheers Paul,
Anarchists with guns? I can imagine that one! When [o]bama makes his move to disarm the American people I think that will be a point where there will be all kinds of mixed up poopy will happen. Some will gladly hand over there expensive weapons to the local police or local National Guard. I do have to find that piece I have where a Lt Colonel at an army base in Californication was taking a Masters Class in Business Management. For this thesis he did a survey. Some of the questions were asked of enlisted men on the post was “If the president makes an executive order to disarm the American public will you obey the command? Something like 67 said yes they would. Another was “If confronted with a home owner whom refused to turn over his firearm would you follow a direct order to shoot him and confiscate his firearms?” Something like 37% said yes they would. Supposedly this scared the crap out of the base commander and stated they needed to implement a program on base to the effect that solders are not to be shooting civilians of the United States. Something similar happened with LEO’s and the results were pretty much the same.
I also have a list somewhere that lists out all of the nations were states finally took away all the civilian firearms and the tallied the deaths of citizens afterwards and it was really scary. Time and time again the quote of the first thing a government has to do is to gather up all the citizen firearms before they can take total control of the country.

All of this says I agree with you, except that every American Citizen should be in possession of at least two firearms. Me and my house have something like 10, and I have lost count on how much ammunition I now have. Between practicing with my weapons and resupplying it is difficult to keep track anymore. So yes. Own a firearm.

Marc's picture

Land really isn't owned in the same manner that we own autos or boats, for example, because local governments can and will seize it for failure to make yearly rent payments they refer to as property taxes. A former local resident once angrily complained, "I don't mind paying for something once (he held up a new shovel that he was about to purchase in a hardware store) but I don't like paying for something over and over again." He was referring, of course, to his land holdings and the always increasing property taxes that he was forced to pay each and every year. The real owners or perpetual feudal lords are probably local public school systems because that's where the lion's share of property taxes are squandered. A real estate agent once explained it to me this way. "Buyers are ignorant. One doesn't really own the property although one does have the right (state granted privilege) to reside on the property and enjoy use of the property (in a state approved manner). One also has the right (state granted privilege) to benefit monetarily from the sale of the "title" to another party." In a way, so called private land has always been communally owned but, thankfully, privately controlled. Our system is certainly far preferable to that found in the developing world where most live as squatters on land that will never be sold but there is definitely room for improvement.

Paul's picture

Yes. The true owner of all land in the US is the federal or state or county governments (which is to say, those people who run those governments). Every US county collects property tax, which is just a euphemism for land rent or feudal quit-rent:


The wikipedia definition of quit-rent tries to make a distinction between that and property tax, but it is a stretch since the non-payment of quit-rent in the US ended in eviction from the property, same as the property tax. Or at least, attempted eviction. In the colonial period, the people were less willing to put up with crap from their "betters" than we are these days, so evictions rarely happened even though quit-rents were often ignored. Other times the penalty was jail time - until the neighbors broke the "offending" farmers out of jail.

Suverans2's picture

"In the colonial period, the people were less willing to put up with crap from their "betters" than we are these days, so evictions rarely happened even though quit-rents were often ignored. Other times the penalty was jail time - until the neighbors broke the "offending" farmers out of jail."

That's because in the colonial period most individuals just naturally, more or less, understood their inherent rights.

"All men have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights - among which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting, property..." June 2, 1784

Nowadays, we actually have some individuals who don't believe that we have any natural rights[1]. ;^)

[1] "Natural rights are rights not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable."

In-ālien-able, of course means that they cannot be "ālienated" from an individual by the laws of men.

"You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments, rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws..." ~ John Adams (1735-1826)

mhstahl's picture


Would it not be just as likely that during the early colonial period government was a drastically less organized affair outside of cities than it is today, and relied upon local militia primarily...making it extraordinarily difficult to effect either eviction or rent collection? Paul's cited article seems to outline just such a difficulty on page 499.

And, by the way....who has "natural right" to property-the person who has title to the land, who paid for it and invested in its development and provided for its defense, or the squatter who refuses to pay agreed rent? This is ESPECIALLY applicable since most of the colonies were private (sort of) for-profit companies...

I would point out as well that the system of cash-payment in lieu of feudal dues was still pretty new at the time of colonization, as was the idea of being subject to eviction-the old villeins (serfs) owed feudal dues in the form of crops (this itself in lieu of military service) but could generally not be evicted (among other "rights") though admittedly withholding rent in kind is not really practicable-cash is much easier to hide. I would suspect, though I did not see it in the Jstor article, that the new quit-rents were likely seen as excessive in comparison to those charged at home-where the amount had been fixed likely for generations and subject to inflation.

Also, if I recall correctly, cash payments tended to be-or become-fixed (and with inflating money...which stung the landlords in the end and ultimately drove colonization and marketization efforts) amounts, whereas in kind payment was generally a percentage of produce-meaning that a bad crop would generate tension that would not exist (or be far less) if payment in kind were made. Where the landlord had previously shared in bad years, with cash rents the landlord did not and could then threaten eviction...but the landlord could only collect a fixed-inheritable-rent amount subject to inflation so it's really an over all loss of land rights that is being opposed-by both tenant and landlord-rather than the "discovery" of natural rights. The Normans really screwed things up...:)

I do find it quite interesting that you quote one of the founders-and leaders-of the U.S., a state which has never had a single moments hesitation from the very outset on collecting taxes-property and otherwise-as an authority on "natural rights."

I really due understand your adherence to natural rights-and I respect your persistence, even if I disagree.


Paul's picture

"That's because in the colonial period most individuals just naturally, more or less, understood their inherent rights."

Nah. It's because they weren't inclined to put up with crap. :-)