Sunday, January 1, 2017

Untangling Government Property

Walter Block performs an invaluable service whenever he openly answers questions posed to him by readers of his work.  I only pipe up when I find some nit to pick, some disagreement with his conclusions.  I will do so now.

Part One

A question is raised by BS, a former laborer at Ft. Ord; this fort was just turned into a national monument by Obama.  BS painted, cleaned and otherwise worked at the site in the past.  Does the government have legitimate claim on this property such that Obama can decree whatever he chooses about its disposition.

Dear BS: I agree with you. There is no such thing as legitimate public property. Since you put in some labor into this project, I think you are one of the legitimate owners of it, not the government. However, I think it would be very dangerous for you to press your suit in this matter. I expect that the statist courts will have very different ideas on it.

I will work through this, one line at a time:

There is no such thing as legitimate public property.

I believe I am on safe ground in assuming that Walter’s meaning is that government cannot legitimately “own” property; this is because government can only be in possession of stolen goods.  Possession of stolen goods does not make the thief the owner.

Walter might (in fact later seems to) say that government, on its face is illegitimate, and for this reason alone there is no such thing as public property.  This may be good in theory, yet in fact we are left to deal with the reality that government is in possession of significant property – both land and improvements.  I do not say this makes things right; I only say we must deal with reality.

Since you put in some labor into this project, I think you are one of the legitimate owners of it, not the government.

Likely wrong.  Did BS get paid for his work?  If so, I suggest that the individual(s) who paid him (aka “the taxpayer(s)”) are the legitimate owners.

Did BS not get paid for his work?  In this case, there are two possibilities: first, if BS volunteered his labor on property already owned by another (the taxpayer) without prior agreement as to compensation or transfer of ownership, that’s too bad for BS; second, if it was virgin land when BS arrived on the scene…only in this case is Walter right.

Was it virgin land when BS began his labor-mixing?  Ft. Ord was first used by the military in 1917.  The first construction began in 1940.  So, unless BS did his work beginning about one century ago, I suggest he is out of luck and also that Walter might reconsider his response.

The taxpayer is the legitimate owner, not BS.

However, I think it would be very dangerous for you to press your suit in this matter. I expect that the statist courts will have very different ideas on it.

On the possibility that BS is about 120 years old, I wholeheartedly agree with Walter on this point.  However, if he is less than 120 years old, BS has no standing to sue in any case; he did no initial mixing of labor with land.  Walter’s cautionary advice would then be unnecessary.

Part Two

In a follow-up question, another individual, PL, offers a query tangentially along the lines of my primary objection above:

I’m thinking in particular of the uninhabited Atlantic islands discovered and settled by the Portuguese government as part of the exploration programme initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator….

Walter’s response focusses on the idea that since he sees no government as legitimate, he sees no means by which the government can own property. 

As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a legitimate government. The leaders of the “public sector” are all criminals. Thus, even if one of them does actually homestead some land, he cannot be the licit owner of it;

I have, in the past, offered to relieve Walter of the entirety of his compensation and pension / retirement as a professor at a publicly funded university.  After all, even though I personally do not consider Walter a criminal, his “public sector” “leaders” most certainly are.  Therefore, Walter – by working for criminals – stands in the unfortunate position of having no legitimate claim to basically anything he owns.

My point is not to take Walter’s stuff; my point is that this argument of his is weak as I believe Walter’s gains from teaching belong legitimately to Walter (I know that there are libertarians who disagree on this point; a topic for another time).  I will guess that Walter also believes this.

…since he is a criminal, libertarian law would compel him to give it up to his creditors.

Why not give it up to the people who funded the exploration in the first place, the taxpayers?  In fact, PL raised this possibility in his question and with this example:

It can’t even be argued that these discoveries “really” belong to the taxpayers who funded the effort, as no taxpayers did that; it was funded by church revenues previously set up for pushing back Islam, once Portugal ran out of a land frontier with Islam, as this effort was considered to be a maritime extension of the same cause…

This raises an interesting possibility.  What if the church voluntarily gave funds to the government for this purpose (I do not know if this was, in fact, a voluntary funding and for this purpose, but will assume it to be)?

Madeira and its archipelago, the Azores, the Cape Verde islands, São Tomé y Príncipe, Annobón, and arguably Fernando Po (later transferred to Spain, and renamed Bioko since independence, but probably already inhabited when discovered by the Portuguese).

This is an interesting, and difficult, point.  The starting point for me: were these lands occupied or otherwise claimed / developed by others before the Portuguese arrivals?  One example will suffice to portray the difficulty of the situation.

From a portolan dating to 1351, and preserved in Florence, Italy, it would appear that the islands of Madeira had been discovered long before being claimed by the Portuguese expedition of 1418. In Libro del Conocimiento (1348–1349), a Castilian monk also identified the location of the islands in their present location…

Of course, identifying or discovering it and legitimately owning it are two different things.

However, humans never recorded the discovery of Porto Santo Island or the other Madeira islands until 1418, when Porto Santo was accidentally discovered after captains were storm blown into its sheltered harbor.

It is 1420 when settlers first arrive on the scene.

It is this event to which PL refers.

What does this example offer?  A private organization – the church – presumably voluntarily funded an exploration.  The exploration resulted in the discovery, settlement, and development of previously unclaimed and undeveloped lands.  As long as all funds were voluntarily contributed, what objection can a libertarian theorist raise? 

The “government” in this case presumably acted in a non-violent manner – no violation of the NAP occurred in any step.

Is the answer different if the exploration was done by actors in no way affiliated with the government?  Just take away their “badges” and this changes black to white?  Is the result illegitimate if taken by voluntarily paid government employees vs. legitimate if taken by voluntarily paid private sector employees?  (Be careful, the wrong answer here might twist you into a logical pretzel).


I return to a statement by Walter: “As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a legitimate government.”

In this specific example – and assuming that all that I am assuming is correct – what is not “legitimate” about this “government”?  I caution: before you answer the question, don’t get hung up on the word “government.”

We libertarians who consistently apply the NAP to all individuals – no free-passes for murder, theft, and the like for those with government badges – must, I believe, consistently apply the NAP to all individuals.  In other words, just because the explorers had a government badge – paid fully by voluntary contributions – does not mean that their actions are automatically a violation of the NAP.

Of course, a professor at a publicly funded university stands on even weaker ground than these explorers: a good portion of the funds for a professor at a publicly funded university are not supplied voluntarily.

If Walter disagrees with this reasoning I will send him wiring instructions, as I am prepared to help alleviate him of his ill-gotten gains.

1 comment:

  1. As always, I appreciate your parsing of Dr. Block's LRC blog post. I have to scroll past his entries there because I find his writing unbearably tedious, his blog entries often consisting of the entire email conversation he had with someone.

    As I read a long time ago, the secret to being boring is to tell everything.