A word on land ownership and proper titles

There are many left-libertarians who reject land ownership for one reason or another. It seems to me that they do realize that in a libertarian society not having a government to force people to act as the government demands is paramount, and yet they claim that all land should be owner-less. That position defies understanding since it positively invites violence and bloodshed. On the other hand, there are many left-libertarians who believe that property should have an owner, but decry the present day owners due to the fact that the present day owners may not have a clear and valid title to the property in their eyes. Today let us look at the issue briefly.

Rothbard wrote:

Without attempting here to develop the argument at length, it seems clear to me that neither society nor the State has a right – a moral or an economic claim – to ownership of land. Production clearly means to me that human labor works with nature-given material and transforms it into more usable condition. All production does this. If a man is entitled to the product he creates, he also is entitled to the nature-given land that he first finds and brings into productivity. In other words, land including water, mines, and the like – in an unused, primitive state is economically unowned and worthless and therefore should be legally unowned. It should be owned legally by that person who first makes use of it. This is a principle which we might call “first ownership to first user”.

It seems to me that this principle is consistent with libertarian doctrine, and that it is only the principle of first ownership that makes sense in terms of that doctrine. Now, the first-ownership-to-first-user principle is a method of bringing unused, unowned property into ownership – into the market. After this is done, it is clear that the property, having been mixed with the labor and other effort of the first owner, passes completely and absolutely into his hands. From then on, it is his property to do with as he wishes. It may turn out to be uneconomic to use the property after a few years, and it will lie fallow. To leave his land fallow, however, should be an owner’s privilege, for he should continue to have the unquestioned right to do with the property as he sees fit. Once the first user obtains the property, it must be absolutely his.

The above quote lays out the standard Lockean Homestead Principle. Today I’ll assume that my readers have read the many justifications for the principle and move on to the thorny problem of some libertarian’s belief that much land is today “owned” by people who acquired the land by force, fraud, or coercion. Rothbard anticipated the argument that property titles might be seen as invalid in the real world due to the tangled past. Some charge that much land was stolen or illegally appropriated by individuals, groups, or governments during human history and so no title can be considered valid. It is charged that it is now impossible to identify who the current just owner really should be.


But the point of the “homestead principle” is that if we don’t know what crimes have been committed in acquiring the property in the past, or if we don’t know the victims or their heirs, then the current owner becomes the legitimate and just owner on homestead grounds. In short, if Jones owns a piece of land at the present time, and we don’t know what crimes were committed to arrive at the current title, then Jones, as the current owner, becomes as fully legitimate a property owner of this land as he does over his own person. Overthrow of existing property title only becomes legitimate if the victims or their heirs can present an authenticated, demonstrable, and specific claim to the property. Failing such conditions, existing landowners possess a fully moral right to their property.

Under libertarian law, the party that thinks that he should have the title of ownership to the land may seek justice in any court of his choosing to have the matter settled. There would be no reason to have some “commission” redistribute the land acting as a quasi-governmental body. Perhaps someone did murder all the original owners of the land two centuries ago and took the land for himself or his family. And today we find that no part of the original family of rightful owners is left to accuse the descendants of those who committed the original crime — that sort of case would be most unfortunate but under libertarian law we must have someone to step forward and claim to be the rightful owner of the title.

What other plan could work in the real world? “Ownership” means control and someone or some group will ultimately control land. If not individuals, then some group claiming to represent “all the people” will control the land and we have government coming in the back door invited by the left-libertarian’s distaste for private property.

Libertarian theory, Austrian economics, and the example of the socialist USSR tells us that not having private ownership of property is a recipe for tyranny and disaster.



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