Sunday, September 6, 2015

The State and Land

The continuing conversation regarding immigration has moved on to some of the finer points – at least finer for me.

Can the State “Own” Anything?

I think I have played a little fast and loose with the term “own” when it comes to its application to the state.  I have previously defined the term “own” as control, use and disposition.  If left at this, I believe it is safe to say that the state owns F-16 fighter jets, aircraft carriers, the White House, etc.

But “own” implies legitimacy in possessing the object.  A thief certainly possesses the stolen goods; a thief has the control, use and disposition of the stolen goods.  Is it appropriate to conclude that the thief “owns” the goods?

I think not.  As the state possesses its goods via the theft of taxation and inflation, I think it is inaccurate to say that the state “owns” anything.  More accurately, the state – like a common burglar – is in possession of stolen goods.  The state “possesses” but does not “own.”

What Does it Mean to “Own” Land?

From my understanding, libertarian theory regarding ownership begins with the homestead principle:

The homestead principle is the principle by which one gains ownership of an unowned natural resource by performing an act of original appropriation. Appropriation could be enacted by putting an unowned resource to active use (as with using it to produce a product), joining it with previously acquired property or by marking it as owned (as with livestock branding).

To discuss homesteading, the starting point is John Locke:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

When it comes to land, what does it mean to mix his labor with the land?  If there is an objective standard, I cannot come to it.  Certainly if one clears the trees and farms the cleared land regularly, this seems straightforward.  What if he has a ten-year plan for land-clearing, regularly clearing one portion at a time?   What if he leaves one section fallow for a season?

Then there is the homebuilder – he clears the land and builds a home.  What if he leaves some land on his “property” in its natural state?  Is it open to anyone else to homestead?  Then again, just because he claims an entire continent – building a home but otherwise leaving virtually all of it in its natural state, is it deemed that he owns it?

It seems to me that even putting a fence around property could be sufficient to meet the principle of mixing one’s labor with the land.  I say could, because it is easy to imagine a situation where it is rather unreasonable.  For example, what if it was claimed that the fence captured all the land outside of it rather than inside? 

Imagine the first individual to cross into Oklahoma at the time of the land rush of 1889 (yes, I know he wasn’t actually the first…and I know the example isn’t perfect).  What if, the moment he crossed into the region, he dropped a fence of one foot in diameter: “All outside of this boundary is mine!”

So I imagine custom has something to do with this. 

Allow me to extend this: does mixing labor with land have to be literal?  Imagine the libertarian dream – an island, under the jurisdiction of no state.  I show up and claim the island and immediately sell parcels to many of my libertarian friends.  I record these in a book of title.

Some of my friends build homes; others plant crops.  But many of them do nothing – and may not for some time.  Neither I nor they have mixed any labor with the land.  Do they own it or don’t they?

Well, the custom on the island – accepted by all to whom I have sold a parcel – is that a proper filing is sufficient for ownership.  We decide it would be silly to require each parcel owner to come to the island once a month (or once a week or once a year) and turn over a bit of dirt with his hand (pretty literal for “mixing”) in order to demonstrate ownership.

My point is: filing title could be reasonably sufficient evidence of ownership – a mixing of labor with land.  What is the local custom?  In any case, what seems quite clear to me is that there is no objective way to define mixing one’s labor with the land in order to come to an understanding of property in land.

There is only one objective way to come to an understanding regarding property in land – or property in anything else.  What do you possess that you can defend?  Even this doesn’t work satisfactorily: it does not clarify “ownership”; after all the possession might be as a result of theft. 

So I am left with…custom.

Can the State “Posses” Land?

So, the state – like a thief – cannot own anything, but it can possess many things.  It seems undeniable that the state possesses F-16s, as one example, or a university campus as another.  What of land?  Can it be said that someone in the employ of or under contract to the state has mixed his labor with the land in the Rockies or in the deserts?

I will offer one example of mixing: zigzagging across the Rockies and the deserts are many roads – some paved, some gravel, some dirt.  Did God place them there?  Does God maintain these?  Is it necessary that every square inch is covered with road in order for the mixing of labor to qualify?

Roads aren’t enough (although I don’t know how this can be objectively concluded)?  How about the Department of the Interior?  Take a look at the number of operating units.  They spend over $13 billion (2016 budget).

The U.S. Department of the Interior is a Cabinet-level agency that manages America's vast natural and cultural resources. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell heads our department, which employs 70,000 people, including expert scientists and resource-management professionals, in nine technical bureaus and various offices.

That’s a lot of me paying for labor to mix with land.

I conclude that the state can possess land.  It possesses stolen goods – my money paid for the labor that was mixed with the land.  Not enough mixing for you?  That’s a subjective issue, subject to custom.  I say yes, there is enough mixing – I am perhaps biased as I paid for it.

Since the State Doesn’t Own the Land…

So the state can possess land but not own it.  Does this mean that the land is available for anyone to homestead?

My construct begins with the fact that the state only possesses goods that it has stolen; the state does not own the land.  Setting aside the complexity of acquisition by war and conquest, which defines much of the experience for all states – the labor that was mixed was labor stolen from me (and you, if you are a net taxpayer).

If someone steals something from me, he is certainly in possession, yet I am the owner.  Does this not apply to the possessions of the state?

Among the many arguments for open borders and free immigration is one that suggests that land in possession of the state is available for homestead – and the homesteader need not be a citizen or legal (or whatever term you want) resident of the jurisdiction.

Well, not quite this, because a state university is not subject to this same concept – it has been improved.  Vacant land in the Rockies or deserts, however, is fair game according to this view. 

But, there has been improvement – you might feel not enough, I might feel otherwise.  When it comes to the mixing of labor with land, well there is no objective measuring stick as to how much is enough.

It is true that the state is not the valid owner.  So who is?  I see two – and I am pretty sure only two – possibilities: either the squatter owns it or the person who paid for the mixing-labor owns it. 

If I consider state-possessed property as stolen, then the only proper conclusion is that the owner is the person who paid for the labor-mixing – me (and you, if you are a net taxpayer).  Receipt of stolen goods doesn’t make the squatter the owner.

So, Who Does Own the Land?

This land is your land, this land is my land.  Well, if you are a net taxpayer.

I own it, even though I do not – today – possess it.  That the state – and all law enforcement agencies – today conspires against me and precludes me from exercising my rightful claim does not change this reality.

A squatter does not own it.  He is in receipt of stolen goods – always subject to be returned to the rightful owner. 


This Means What, Exactly?

The land is not available for just anyone – foreign or domestic – to homestead.


  1. Bionic,

    There is a somewhat objective standard for answering "how much". It's the minimum relevant technological unit. (This is Rothbard's concept, although I can't recall exactly where he discusses it.)

    To take your example of roads. Building a road would give you ownership of the road, and whatever of the adjacent land is reasonably required to maintain it. Building a road across Alaska would not make you the owner of Alaska.

    Another example that probably better illustrates the concept is mineral rights. Building a house would give you the surface rights to some reasonable (according to this is not completely objective) area of land around your house. However, if there are valuable mineral deposits under your house, and someone else can figure out how to extract them without interfering with your use of the surface, then they are free to do so. Of course they would be fully liable if they cause your house to collapse into a giant sinkhole.

    I think the relatively objective answer as to whether someone is violating your property rights in land is whether they are interfering with previously established usage patterns. Granted, there are still a lot of gray areas where custom is going to come into play, but I think this principle reduces these gray areas substantially.

    1. Thank you Todd.

      I don't suggest it is all gray, only that it is not all either black or white - and that this condition of "not all either black or white" is applicable to lands in the state's possession due to the mixing of labor - labor that I paid for.

      In other words it cannot be said - I believe - that NO ONE owns state-possessed land. I attempt to interject some significant amount of gray in this assertion.

      Further, I also don't believe the same *somewhat* objective standard will be accepted in different regions - even different regions of similar climate and geography.

      I do suggest that both fence building and some system of filing title *could* also be useful in both establishing and determining ownership.