In this third installment of my short series on land and property rights (see my first and second installments), I aim to outline a rational, libertarian system of land ownership that simultaneously respects each individual’s private property and allows each individual ample opportunities to obtain land of his or her own. This is a system that allows every individual his or her inviolate sphere of action and control, while at the same time ensuring that no individual who strives to obtain land through sufficient exertion will be denied the ability to own landed property.
The rational criterion for how land may be initially appropriated from the state of nature is the first-occupier rule. The first person to transform a piece of land from the state of nature becomes that land’s rightful owner – but only if the land is substantively transformed and put to a use that can be reasonably expected not to terminate at any fixed time. In other words, a person may only initially appropriate that land which the person actually uses and does not expect to stop using entirely. The use may be sporadic and intermittent, but as long as the land is not abandoned altogether and the reasonable possibility of using it remains, the right to ownership remains with the person who first transformed it. A person can indirectly “use” the land by hiring others to work on it or manage it. As long as there exists an economic connection back to the owner, the use criterion is met. The land’s original owner may sell it to others or give the land as a gift. At that time, the new owner obtains the same prerogatives as the original owner had.
The use criterion prevents arbitrary claims over un-transformed land and also minimizes the possibility of conflict by reference to a criterion that relies on an ongoing state of use of the land. If a piece of land becomes completely abandoned by its owner, in the sense that the owner does not himself, or through the employment of others, perform or intend to realistically perform any physical actions on or pertaining to the land, then this land reverts to the state of nature and legitimately may be claimed by any subsequent first occupant. The use criterion distinguishes the libertarian view of land ownership from certain arbitrary legal precedents in many parts of the world – e.g., the “right” of kings in various Medieval and Early Modern European countries to all of the prime forests of those countries, which denied their subjects the ability to obtain any of the produce of the forests without special permission, or the “right” of certain Latin American potentates to vast tracts of completely undeveloped land, on which thousands of people have lived for generations as “squatters” who possess the land de facto but not de jure. The use criterion suggests that it may be the case that laws treat as private property land which should, in fact, be considered a part of the state of nature and opened to be claimed by future first occupants in substance. This could, in practice, result in considerable upward economic mobility and improvements in standards of living for many people.
In an ideal libertarian system, owned land is truly owned – i.e., it is free of any encumbrances that the owner has not voluntarily entered into. The owner has the complete right to utilize the property as he sees fit, as long as he does not infringe on others’ rights to life, liberty, and property. There may be some role for the law to restrict the use of certain activities that necessarily infringe on others’ rights, such as spilling sewage into a river that runs adjacent to numerous owned plots of land – or emitting disease-causing chemicals into the air. These activities with negative external effects may be permissible in some cases if the affected other individuals consented to their conduct (with their consent possibly accompanied by compensation from the person engaging in the negative-externality-causing activity). Furthermore, the first occupier of a region has a greater prerogative to engage in such activities if the adversely affected neighbors voluntarily move in after the activity was known to be underway. (In other words, the neighbors could have avoided the adverse effects by going elsewhere, but they knowingly chose to move in anyway.)
An ideal libertarian system would have no property taxes or any other taxes that depend on one’s present wealth in any way. Irrespective of what other taxes may exist (and I have elsewhere argued for a system that can fund the government without relying on compulsory taxation at all), the concept of ownership should not be tied with any ongoing payment, unless the property was purchased by means of assuming a debt obligation. Even with regard to debt obligations, foreclosure on a property should be prohibited until the purchaser’s equity has been reduced to zero by an accumulation of amounts equal to the sum of delinquent payments, plus interest at the agreed-upon loan rates.
An owner of land may agree to an easement on the land in the form – for instance – of allowing a utility to place its infrastructure there, or allowing public traffic through a portion of the land. This easement should be entirely voluntary on the part of the owner, and it is legitimate for the owner to request compensation for granting the easement if he wishes. Likewise, the owner may rent the property to others at a mutually agreed-upon price, or, at his discretion, allow others to use or live on the property at no cost. A contractually conferred easement or tenancy may limit the owner’s subsequent ability to deny certain prerogatives to the tenants or parties using the easement, and a free market would facilitate the evolution of contracts that allow such parties the ability to use the land, subject to certain basic conditions, without fear of unilateral or arbitrary cessation of an arrangement on which they rely.
How would roads be built in such a world? How would utility lines be laid? Perhaps a contractually irrevocable perpetual easement might be the way to facilitate such arrangements while fully respecting private property. Instead of being bullied by eminent-domain legislation to sell the land or grant the easement, the owner may be enticed to collect a perpetual stream of income from the private road company or private utility. The road easement would be priced at prevailing market rates – not through a judicial fiat determining “fair market value,” but rather through negotiations based on millions of data points regarding what owners of similar land used for roads have been willing to accept without any compulsion.
As Roderick Long points out, it is also possible for a libertarian view to accommodate a type of “common” land which is neither private nor governmentally owned. This category of commons could be created by means of a private owner opening his land to common use in perpetuity – as in a landowner designating his property a public park or thoroughfare. Such common land does not revert to the state of nature, because it continues to be used regularly – e.g., by means of moving through it. The latest private owner retains a certain degree of rights to the land, in the sense that his designation for how the land may be used must be respected. However, as long as this designation’s terms are obeyed, the latest owner has surrendered his discretion over any particular instance of the common land’s use. The ability of common land to arise could be facilitated by the formation of voluntary cooperatives that purchase private land and declare it to be common. These cooperatives could then also supply services to keep the land in proper order for the purpose to which it is intended to be put. An example of this might be a group of shop owners in a busy urban area deciding to render the street adjacent to the shops to be common, so that any person could approach the shops without paying fees to any party, or being otherwise restricted. The shop owners could form a cooperative to purchase the land constituting the street. The cooperative would then declare such land to be common and would provide maintenance and security services to ensure that the street remains clean and accessible, and that no one significantly obstructs passage.
A true libertarian system would likely lead to the creation of numerous common spaces that would give people without substantial wealth the ability to use land for certain purposes which may bring them economic benefit and enrichment. For instance, it is conceivable that a common working area could be established, where individuals may bring their tools and utilize certain space for the period of their presence – on a first-come, first-served basis.
A legitimate question may arise as to how far up and down a right to legitimately acquired land extends. Again, the boundaries of such ownership should be circumscribed by considerations of use, as well as considerations of personal safety. It is reasonable to conclude that one’s owned airspace does not extend 10,000 meters into the air – which would have restricted the ability of airplanes to pass overhead. However, it is also reasonable to conclude that airplanes should be prohibited from flying at 50 meters above a residential area – even if they do not directly damage any property during a particular flight – because the risk of such damage is too great. The precise amount of owned airspace cannot be given a priori through philosophical argument – but use and safety do set some minimum bounds for the owner to rely on, and a rational legal system would work out the implications of these principles for various types of situations and technological possibilities.
Similarly, to what extent could a land owner lay claim to resources underneath the land? Clearly, one owns the land on which one’s house stands, to a depth that is sufficient to ensure that the house would not subside into the earth. However, does a land owner have the right to a mineral deposit 5 kilometers underneath the land? Perhaps so, if extracting the mineral would require transformation at the surface of the land. However, if a vast underground cave network leads to the mineral deposit from an entrance external to the land’s surface – or if such an access route can be created without any risk to the land on the surface (or the health, safety, or comfort of the owner), then does the owner still have a property right to the mineral – particularly if the owner does not intend to do anything with it and lacks the technical skills in any event? This is again a question that can only be addressed fully by considering the technological possibilities at hand, as well as the circumstances of a particular case. The general principles of use and safety would, however, result in the land owner receiving some claim to most underground resources in most real-world situations.
A libertarian system would penalize violations of others’ private property using Murray Rothbard’s “two teeth for a tooth” rule. In other words, a person who has infringed on another’s rights to property owes the victim twice the amount of the economic harm inflicted. A person who steals a television owes the victim two televisions (or the market value thereof). A person who breaks a window owes the cost of replacing two windows. This treatment both fully compensates the victim and punishes the violator by having the violator forfeit an equivalent item to the item of which the rightful owner was unjustly deprived. Monetary compensation may often be an appropriate way to address this when the property damaged could not easily be conceived of as a discrete unit. It is important for the punishments for violations of property rights to be proportionate and only directed toward true violators. In other words, there are limits to the kind and degree of force that a property owner may wield to protect his property – depending on the circumstances and the nature of the threat. However, deadly force may be used if the property owner has justifiable reason to believe that his life or the lives of others on his property are threatened. When only inanimate property is threatened, incapacitation of the violator should be pursued instead of deadly force.
The great opportunity-promoting effects of a true libertarian system of land ownership would arise from the absence of any zoning laws and building restrictions – or restrictions of any sort on land use that does not pose negative externalities. Even private associations that attempt to foist such restrictions would be limited by law from prohibiting non-coercive, non-damaging uses of unencumbered property, over which the owner would remain sovereign. Thus, the tyranny of zoning and the tyranny of homeowners’ associations would both be absent in a libertarian system. Rapid economic growth and a flowering of individual expression on private property would result. Furthermore, more convenient economic arrangements would arise – such as the pre-zoning-era practice of a store owner living with his family on the second floor above the store he owns on the first. A libertarian system of true private land ownership would result in many more “mixed-use” areas arising, where functions of life and business are not artificially segmented from one another, but rather occur together in such a manner as is most convenient to the residents. Travel times to one’s place of employment would be greatly reduced, resulting in immense savings on transportation costs and improvements in personal safety. More rapid construction would occur, as building permits would not be required.
Under a libertarian system along the lines described above, much land currently in the state of nature would be converted to useful purposes, including the construction of residences for people who find the currently available stock of housing to be too expensive. The massive increase in the supply of housing would cause prices to fall to truly affordable levels for most. Furthermore, the freedom to build would result in an increased and accelerating rate of technological and design innovation – since no third party would be permitted to prohibit a structure for employing unusual esthetic elements or a method of construction that differs from what prevails in the area. More generally, esthetic criteria would never justify coercive prohibition of property use in a libertarian system; only physical harm to other persons would. Ultimately, the result of recognizing a genuine, rational regime of property rights would vastly enhance individuals’ standards of living not just through increased material prosperity, but through the improved satisfaction of living as a true master of one’s own sphere of life and activity.