Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Government Claims to Land are Illegitimate

I hope that everyone has been keeping up with the news about Cliven Bundy, his cattle, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  It's been quite a roller coaster ride and a lot of people might not realize how dangerous it truly was (is).  I won't go into detail about this particular episode here (but seriously go learn about it if you haven't already), but I think this is a good time to talk about land ownership and how that works in a free society.  Other liberty-minded people might think differently but I will try as best as I can to apply the principles of liberty.

Originally, before people were around, land was unowned.  Nobody was around to claim ownership.  Obviously, over time, that changed when people went pretty much everywhere they could.  Let's set up a scenario where we can imagine what it looks like to go from land unclaimed by people to a system of land ownership.  Quick, to the deserted island!

Let's say that Peter and Mary Jane end up on an island with no one else around.  There's no government and no one to buy land from so how do they claim land?  It's simple, really.  Each one just needs to homestead a piece of land.  Homesteading is basically the process of acquiring the rights to land by appropriation.  This happens by mixing one's own labor with a previously unowned natural resource.  Let's imagine that Peter is into agriculture and he decides to grow food on the island.  So he clears out a spot of land and begins to cultivate it.  Peter has just homesteaded some land.  We can also imagine that Mary Jane likes to fish.  So she utilizes a portion of the lagoon for these purposes by using nets, lines, and other methods of fishing.  Mary Jane has just homesteaded a previously unowned natural resource.  Homesteading is the only way to acquire land (or other types of natural resources) for original ownership.  After a piece of land has been homesteaded, all or some of the rights to the property can be transferred from one owner to another.  But now how do Peter and Mary Jane recognize each other's claims to land?  Different methods can be used for the purposes of recognizing claims on land.  In this specific scenario with only two people, the two of them can simply agree.  In more complicated situations with more people many methods can be employed including communal land clubs, private institutions that record titles to land, or potentially decentralized electronic public ledgers (similar to Bitcoin's block chain).

Now let us imagine that another person, Harry, comes to the island.  Peter and Mary Jane get into a dispute and they hire Harry to arbitrate.  Harry does this and then, after this experience, decides that this act of arbitration makes him the ruler of the island.  Harry decides to claim all uninhabited parts of the island for the purposes of administering the island.  Harry demands that Peter and Mary Jane ask permission and pay him for the use of anything not already under their control.  Harry informs Peter and Mary Jane that if they ever try to use any of "his" land without permission, he will use violence to evict them.

In such a situation Peter and Mary Jane would (or should) simply call Harry a bully and ignore his demands.  If Peter made a shelter in a previously unimproved part of Harry's "claim", and Harry came to kick Peter out and burn his shelter down, Peter would be completely justified in resisting these attempts and even using deadly force to defend himself and his shelter.

Many governments around the world and throughout history have done exactly what Harry did in our example.  Governments decide that they are more than just protectors or arbitrators; that they are masters of the people and all the land (what system of government does that remind you of?).  Governments usually try to claim all the land they possibly can, whether they can enforce those claims or not, and that usually means they claim all the land up until it runs into the claims of another government .  But governments don't homestead and improve land.  People and businesses do.  Therefore, any government claim to unimproved land is illegitimate and the first person or organization to appropriate it is the legitimate owner of that land.  Cliven Bundy is correct when he asserts that the federal government has no claim to the land on which his cattle graze.  But he's mistaken when he says that Nevada rightfully owns it.  If Bundy's ancestors were truly the first people to put the land to use, then the land rightfully belongs to the family, and no government can change that, even if tortoises are potentially threatened.  If any organization, whether it calls itself a government or not, tries to interfere with legitimate ownership of land, then the use of force, even deadly force, is justified to thwart the aggression.

You may have seen this fascinating map:

All the red in that map indicates "federal land".  The vast majority of those red areas are undeveloped and unimproved lands, which means that most of the federal government's land claims are illegitimate and should be available for homesteading (and remember that state claims to land can be just as illegitimate).  Of course it might not be advisable to attempt homesteading.  That is because the government will most likely use force to harm you and, since the government enjoys a monopoly on force and the perception of legitimacy, few people have the ability to oppose government actions.  But perhaps in the future when a critical mass of individuals understand liberty and are willing to act on it, there will be a lot of land available for homesteading.

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