How Land Comes to be Owned

Some years ago, I decided to cease any participation in online discussion forums. While such engagement was far from fruitless, it can very quickly become a net burden if, like me, one lacks the willpower to prevent all of the waking (and many non-waking) hours from being consumed by back-and-forth arguments on every single little detail of Austro-libertarian theory that happens to arise. Far more productive, I tell myself, to spend the time I have available reading and writing original material for outlets such as Free Life.

Unfortunately, I have recently suffered a minor relapse, although I have mostly managed to stick to reading the comments rather than engaging with them. A recent thread, concerning natural rights, caught my eye on Reddit on account of the many nonsensical objections posited by some contributors to the libertarian theory of original appropriation (“homesteading”) of land. I won’t waste time reciting every comment; the relevant part of the thread is available here for anyone who should be interested. Rather, I will consign myself to expressing the correct theory while addressing the main misunderstandings.

First, the virgin land of the Earth is no way held in “common ownership” by the whole of humanity. “Common” is inclusive; “ownership” is exclusive. You cannot have both. Ownership rights over property are enforced by some individual humans against other individual humans for the very purpose of excluding the latter from interfering with the owner’s use of the property. A right belonging to the whole of humanity could be enforced only against itself, which is nonsensical. It would be equally ludicrous to suggest that every single human in the world possesses approximately 1 seven-billionth of a share of ownership of every single plot of land, resource, mineral deposit, etc. across the entire globe. If this was the case, no good could ever put to use by anyone on account of the fact that one would have to undertake the impossible task of seeking permission to use that good from every other single person in the world. Such a state of affairs would quickly consign the human race to extinction. The correct view is that land, goods and resources, in their virgin state, are entirely ownerless.

One circumstance that is occasionally, but erroneously, raised as a counterexample is land which is subject to casual use by many people without actually having been appropriated. For example, suppose that there is an ownerless plot of land between a village and a stream. Over the years, the villagers have worn a path through the middle of this plot so as to access the stream. Surely this path, clearly of use to the villagers but belonging to no single one of them, should be considered their “common property”? Surely such land could never be appropriated by anyone so as to deprive the villagers of their access to the stream?

While casual use of land by multiple persons is certainly a complicating factor, it does not change any basic fact. Unless and until anybody attempts to appropriate the ownerless plot, then it remains common, not property, i.e. anybody can use it. However, a later appropriation is never precluded entirely. Rather, any appropriator would have to take the land as he finds it, an imperative which includes allowing the continued use of the path by the villagers. In terms of property titles, this would mean that the appropriator would own the land, but the villagers would gain easement rights over the path which the owner (and his successors in title) would have to honour. The land is no longer common; lawful use of it has now been subject to property rights held by specific individuals.

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