Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Can a Person Own Land?

The following was posted in the comments section of “The Constitution’s Fatal Flaw.” 

A question that I ponder often is this: can a person really own land? And I don't mean in the sense that we really don't own land outright because if you stop paying property taxes the government will take it away from you. I mean in the more grand scheme of things.

I have chosen to address the question via this separate post.

I have read arguments that suggest that land cannot be owned.  There were a couple of feed-backers at The Daily Bell that took this view, although they seemed to build on different foundations.  What follows is my thought process, based on my views of property and free-markets.

In order to make some sense of this, I will start with my definitions of two words in your question:

1)      Person: could mean an individual, any form of corporate or legal identity, or government / state.
2)      Own: the right to control, use, and dispose

First of all, it seems reasonable that all resources (commodities, land, water, etc.) are either in a state of being owned (controlled, used, or disposed of) – or they are in an unclaimed state (un-owned), available for someone to control, use, and dispose.  I know of no resources where this isn’t the case.  Even the vast oceans fall under the jurisdiction of some entity (person), or are unclaimed.  All corners of the universe either fall in this state – or do not.  I see no third possibility.  I find no reason that land can somehow be uniquely exempt from this.

The “person” doing the controlling, using, or disposing (the owner) could be any of the “types” identified in my definition above.  But some entity determines control, use, and disposition of all claimed resources – and all unclaimed resources are available for some entity to claim.  The alternative is to say that there are some resources that no entity (person) can decide control, use, and disposition.  The next time there is such a void will be the first.  This has never been true for land.  Above all, the state has laid claim.

If an entity can control, use, and dispose of land – what does it mean to say it isn’t “owned”?  What else is there besides control, use and disposition?

There is likely some esoteric legal theory or concept that I have not studied.  However, I cannot get past the idea that all resources – including land – have some entity deciding on the control, use, and disposition.

If this entity isn’t an individual (or some private corporate entity made up of several individuals), then it will be the state.  But if it is appropriate for the state to have this authority, then it must be appropriate for an individual to have it – the state cannot be given license to act in a manner outside of the authority that the one granting the license has.  If an individual cannot own land, he cannot grant this authority to the state.

The more coherent arguments I have read in favor of the idea that land cannot be owned agree that – while not “owned” – the land can be controlled, used, and disposed by some entity (an individual, or whatever).  They even suggest that force cannot be used to extract property tax payments from the entity controlling the land (suggesting negative publicity or some other form of non-violent persuasion).

My struggle with this is I don’t know what “owned” means separate from “control, use, and dispose.”  If, in my lifetime, I have the right to use the land as I see appropriate, and during my life I am able to sell the right of use to another or upon my death I am able to pass the right of use to my heirs, I don’t really care what you call it.  To me, this is the definition of ownership.

And there is no acceptable theory of granting license that suggests an individual can grant license to another to do something which the individual is disallowed from doing.  Thus, the state cannot own land if “ownership” is not possible for the individual.

So, to make a long story short, I conclude land can be owned – and owned privately.


  1. Dear bionic mosquito

    Nice article. You have given me a new perspective on land ownership: “control, use, and dispose.” I would have said that "you don't own land but pay rent in the form of taxes." And, for some, the tax burden becomes so great that they are forced to dispose of their land. But there is also the issue, in my mind, of eminent domain. My thinking is that this would mean you own the land so long as it is convenient for the government.

    I do like your definition of ownership, I am just not convinced that it can be fully realized under our current form of government.

    I would like to mention that I have followed your comments on the Daily Bell and articles on LRC but this is the first time I have linked to your home page. I just read your article about "The Curse of Public Education." I am trying to get my grandkid out of public school. Not an easy proposition if you are financially constrained.

    1. Thank you for the kind comment.

      "I am just not convinced that it can be fully realized under our current form of government."

      It cannot, as long as the people feel theft through an agent is acceptable.

      "Not an easy proposition if you are financially constrained."

      The system is designed to drive people toward government for support in most aspects of life.

      With that said, I know several people on the strained end of the financial spectrum who make this choice. I think it takes the conviction of both parents to make it work.

      It requires financial sacrifice, but the biggest hurdle may be psychological - the required sacrifice of freedom, including the freedom used by the second parent to go work.

  2. My humble comment.

    If it were the case that some entity was preventing you from owning specific land (via your definition), then in as much as they were controlling the land (at least it's ownership status) then they would be the owners of the land (again by your definition).

    Now, potentially turning coat on my own argument: Can entities own portions of the sea currently? If not, why not. Who is preventing it? Countries claim a certain amount of coastal water outside their borders (I guess they own that). What about parts not covered by this? Is homesteading an option? Where do we sign up? And will we be stopped in this enterprise, and by whom?


    1. gpond, I do not know enough to answer regarding this specific issue. I suspect the vast oceans are covered by various international treaties. What is suggested or implied by these treaties regarding control and use of the oceans,I do not know. But they likely suggest or imply something.

      I am reasonably certain these treaties make it difficult for people like me and you to homestead, though!