In this small series on land and private property, I hope to counter the claims of Henry George and his contemporary followers, who generally support a libertarian view with respect to all property except land – which they do not consider to be legitimate property. I, on the contrary, see the ability to own property in land (based on a true Lockean understanding of “mixing one’s labor” with rightfully owned land, or legitimately acquiring it from those who did) as indispensable to the existence of other property rights – as well as, more generally, to the expression of human individuality and the improvement of the human condition.
Why is property in land essential for the exercise of all other property rights? In this first installment, I provide six arguments.
Argument 1: Use of Personal Property: If there is no property in land, one cannot be guaranteed the ability to set one’s personal property in any location for its use and enjoyment. This means, ultimately, the use and enjoyment of one’s personal property is always at the discretion – and with the permission – of whichever governing authority or collective decision-making would supplant the right of private property in land. This is not liberty; the best that it can be is a kind of benign neglect from the persons or committees who have the power to dispose of the land and what is on it.
Argument 2: Complete Ownership: If there is no property in land, then there is never an ability – even in theory – to enjoy the use of land “free and clear” – without paying some sort of rent or “usage fee” to someone. Ignoring property taxes (whose absence is wholly conceivable and would be tremendously beneficial – even if other types of taxes are kept in place), it is possible today for people to pay off any mortgages and liens on their property and to enjoy it outright, without fear of losing the property if they do not pay a continuous stream of money to a third party. The greatest value of private property comes about precisely when the ownership of that property is absolute – not contingent upon future services or payments rendered to other people.
Argument 3: Opportunity to Choose Leisure or Work: If there is no property in land, and one must continuously and inescapably pay a stream of money to a third party in order to avoid losing the property, then this means that one must continuously earn a sizable income to support that stream of payments. The ability to lead a life of leisure (after having made adequate provision for one’s other needs) is forever closed off to most people (unless they are beneficiaries of trust funds or a fortuitous investment strategy). Whatever the relative merits of work versus leisure might be in any particular situation, a libertarian would hold that the choice to pursue either (or any combination of each) should be up to the individual. Restrictive institutions should not permanently foreclose individuals (in multiple senses of that word) from pursuing one of these alternatives or the other. My own ambition, for instance, is to pay off the mortgage on my house while I am still relatively young. I would continue to engage in paid employment (and hopefully earn decent money) for many decades thereafter, but a lot of the economic pressure would be removed by getting rid of the largest recurring expense, and the same amount of earnings could achieve a much higher standard of living in other respects.
Argument 4: Incentives for Improvement: If there is no property in land, then there is little incentive (other than sheer benevolence) for the occupant to improve the land by the addition of permanent fixtures, for someone else (or “the community at large”) would capture the values of the improvements, while the occupant would spend his personal resources on the improvements. This is the classic case of a “positive externality” not being realized – or, alternatively, a “tragedy of the commons” situation arising from the community laying claim to a resource that becomes over-exploited and insufficiently maintained. If one wishes for private residential lots to begin to resemble the public roads of a large city in appearance, then doing away with land ownership is an excellent means to that dubious goal.
Argument 5: Individuality: Only through the exercise of the right of private property can a person truly actualize his individual aspirations and distinctive esthetic. True private property enables an individual to act within his own realm as he pleases, as long as he does not infringe on the identical prerogatives of all others with their property. Only private property in land can give an individual the unfettered ability to paint a house with the colors and patterns of one’s choice, to determine the surrounding landscaping, to select the appliances and amenities therein, and to decorate it (which is a right that should not be undervalued, lest we lose it in the age of draconian busybody “homeowners’ associations”). An individual who owns land can truly turn the land and the improvements on it into reflections of himself, rather than just another barren, drab, or cookie-cutter plot (though any of those are within his prerogative as well, if he wishes to be unimaginative). True innovators are always in the minority and always unconventional. If they do not have a sphere where they can act unfettered, then many of their creations may never come to be.
Argument 6: Owned Land versus Land in the State of Nature: While I do not support arbitrary claims of ownership to undeveloped land, I do hold to the Lockean view that a person comes to own land by mixing his labor with it as the first occupant – and only to the extent that he does so. Locke himself argued that a person’s legitimate claim to land extends only to whatever land this person (or others acting on his behalf, through the voluntary exchange or offering of their services) was able to transform with his labor and put to use. Any other (undeveloped) land remains in the state of nature, free for others to claim. This is why Locke opposed arbitrary claims of the King of England to all of the prime forests of that country as the King’s “hunting grounds”. Likewise, one might question whether a Lockean view of property rights would allow national governments today to lay claim to vast undeveloped territories and to preclude development thereon (or sell “development rights” or “resource rights” to those territories). A fully libertarian system of property law would recognize the right of the first occupant and user of a property to be its owner, but only with respect to the land which is truly inextricably involved with such occupancy or use – i.e., land that has been improved and transformed. This is a consistent and universalizable standard for legitimate ownership, and it is a standard that follows directly from the desire to use and transform objects in nature for the improvement of human well-being. Such improvement and transformation are precisely what differentiates owned land from land in the state of nature. Owned land is much more usable and often dedicated to specific purposes, whereas land in the state of nature remains to be adapted to human needs. In practice, the two would look quite different and would enable natural demarcations of private land holdings.