Re: Land rights

From: Mike Lorrey (
Date: Sat Jul 28 2001 - 09:36:50 MDT

I William Wiser wrote:
> Here is a question that has bugged me off and on for years.
> What ways of handling property rights and especially land rights
> seem most reasonable for people who value individual liberty
> and the well being of people in general?
> This works fairly well for small items and stuff that involves
> a lot of labor. But what about large tracts of land, mineral
> rights, etc. If a small bit of land lays unclaimed and you claim
> it, work it, build a home on it etc. it makes sense to me that
> it becomes yours and stays yours as long as you do not forfeit
> it by abusing your neighbors in some way.
> I don't see why people get to claim large amounts of land unless
> they do something with it which gets most people in the area to
> decide not to contest their claim. Obviously this can be done
> with military force but that only last as long as the force lasts.
> Contracts and agreements can last longer because most everyone
> needs a good reputation to thrive in this world.

This only matters if you don't regard conservation as a meaningful
economic activity, or if you have something against the particular
economic activity of a particular large landowner (i.e. logging,
recreation, mining, maple sugaring, mushroom gathering, grazing, haying,
etc.) Typically when I see people making arguments against big
landowning, it is because they don't regard one (or all) of these
activities that are typical of large landowners as a valid use, some of
which require the landowner to own large amounts of land to make it a
profitable economic activity.

> I don't want to speculate on this to much because it may have
> been worked out well by others but I would like to have some
> clear conception in my mind. I think this makes for an important
> political issue. Whose land rights do I see as valid and what sort
> of land rights ideas do I want to propagate.
> If governments can legitimately claim land rights they have a right
> to do a lot of other things too. If the U.S.A. corporation or the
> California corporation owns the lands they claim, they may be
> entitled to charge fees, percentages, etc. for passing through their
> land. I doubt they do because something does not seem right
> but I want to have a better understanding of these issues.

Well, technically the US government cannot own land outside of the
District of Columbia. It can own buildings, but it is supposed to either
lease land from the states, or hold land in trust for the people. The
problem with this is that the 'trust' provisions have been abused
greatly of late (say, the entire 20th century) because the government
never winds up disbursing these trust lands to any 'people', so it has
changed from mere stewardship and management to de facto ownership,
contrary to the intent of the Constitution. What this has done is cause
a large segment of the population to live the equivalent of
sharecroppers or serf-like existences, never actually owning the land
they work. Thus, a feudal economic system has sprung up, primarily in
the western US, with the federal government as the lord, with a similar
relationship as a feudal lord to his serfs.

> I suppose land rights can also be conceived as space rights or
> more accurately spatial relationships rights. Some segment of
> space is yours. The space moves or rather you are always moving
> but you move in relationship to everything (or almost everything
> else) which is also moving. So how does one reasonably structure
> rights to a particular volume of matter moving through space. Land
> on Earth moves through space in relationship to other land on earth
> most of the time.

Land rights evolve as a sort of 'land patent', giving the 'owner' an
exclusive monopoly on the use of the resources within the boundaries of
that land, which they typically must develop within a certain time frame
or else pay property taxes. Failure to do so results in the deed
'patent' devolving back to the state.

Looking at things from a geological time frame is really rather
unreasonable. So far as I know no boundary disputes have arisen from
tectonic activity (beyond possibly dealing with lava and ash flows
disturbing boundary markers), although river and seacoast erosion does
have its own impact. So in this respect land doesn't move with respect
to other land. We are not a migratory people in the sense of nomadic
herders, so in that respect a shifting spatial rights concept really
doesn't fit well either.

> So, there are rights to matter/energy, and rights to move things on
> vectors. Another way to think of it is, rights to occupy a volume
> moving through space. The matter may be expanding along with
> most other matter associated with it.
> I'm not sure the science of it is relevant but it may help to think
> of things more physically. What I am after is political understanding
> to guide ethics and persuade people.

Well, one body cannot inhabit the same space as another body as a matter
of course. With the right to life being the most basic right, this
demands rights to air to live from moment to moment in a natural
environment in order to engage in economic activities to meet more
extended needs of living. If you do not confer an automatic right to
food and water, then you must confer any rights necessary to conduct
economic activities to allow the individual to acquire food and water,
etc. It follows that those who are not able to engage in these
activities have a right, then, to food and water, thus an ethical
mandate for individual altruism by those who are productive
economically. Because individual lives can take on a myriad of
possibilities, which cannot be easily reduced to neat equations,
altruism must remain determinable by the individual actor and not
mandated by some third party.

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