Who owns the world?

Who owns the world?
20/01/2020 Karel Beckman

All the most pressing conflicts the world faces – immigration, nationalism, national sovereignty, cultural identity, environment, the climate, trade, civil wars, wars between states – revolve around who owns which part of the earth. Here I present a brief theory of land ownership that could guarantee all of us a place under the sun.

  1. Ownership claims of states

Who decides where anyone can live?

On what grounds can people, whether groups or individuals, legitimately claim ownership of a certain territory, build homes, workplaces, roads, farms and call them their rightful possessions?

By what right can they exclude others from their land?

The question of land ownership is the most fundamental of all political questions. It is the basic cause of most of the wars that have ravaged the earth throughout human history. Even today virtually all the most pressing conflicts the world faces – immigration, nationalism, national sovereignty, cultural identity, environment, the climate, trade, civil wars, wars between states – ultimately revolve around who owns which part of the earth.

Under the present world order, this question has been “resolved” very neatly. Ownership of the earth is claimed by some 200 states, which have divided up all the land and even a lot of the seas and skies over which they claim possession.

This order is rarely questioned. Most people regard it as natural or inevitable. They may debate how states should be run, they don’t doubt that states are rightful owners of the earth.

Yet there is no reason not to question the land ownership claims of states. Ownership of land implies power over all the earth’s resources and thereby the people living on earth. Why would states be the ultimate power holders in the world? Why couldn’t land for instance be owned jointly by individuals or by groups?

Of course if the present world order worked well, there would be reasons to maintain it. But who could seriously argue that the world is governed well?

It is true that, as has been observed by quite a few “optimistic” thinkers[1], life has been getting better for many people (not all), certainly in “western” societies, but elsewhere as well. But arguably the major reason for this has been technological advancement, starting with the Industrial Revolution, in combination with a certain degree of personal freedom and empowerment, not our political governance.

Whatever progress has been achieved we owe not to our rulers, but to the efforts and productive capabilities of ordinary people trying to improve their lives.

When it comes to governance, we are not seeing a lot of progress. Is the world becoming more just, our political leaders less corrupt, our governments less bureaucratic?

Are our pensions secure? Our monetary systems? Are our streets safe? Do our educational and health systems function well? Will our governments ever be able to pay their mounting debts?

Can we be sure that our gigantic armies with their huge arsenals of ever more sophisticated and deadly weapons will not involve us in another world war, this time truly a war to end all wars, because it will kill us all? Few people would answer these questions affirmatively.

To say that life has been getting better is one thing. To assume that it will continue to get better, if we simply keep on doing what we’re doing, is quite another.

*

On what grounds do states base their ownership claims? Really on one ground only: force. All states are based on acts of conquest or war.[2]

As anarchist writers have pointed out, until the rise of the first states, communal ownership of land was the norm among societies.[3] In the course of time, most communal land was expropriated by autocrats who used their military power to take what did not belong to them. The British King, for example, seized the lands that had been worked on by monks for centuries and simply claimed it as his own, and distributed it among the nobility.

Or take the United States. This (democratic!) state lays claim to a particular (rather large) piece of land. How did this come about? A bunch of people from Europe went over to America, and simply claimed they owned the land they found, although large parts of it were already occupied by people. Initially, the British King claimed he was the legitimate owner of the entire territory, later a small group of colonists got together, got rid of the King, and decided they were the owners.

They went on to draw borders and to set the rules everyone inside the borders had to comply with (“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; …shall be the supreme law of the land”). They also sold plots of land to new settlers from Europe (they first simply took the land and then sold it). All this time they waged relentless war against the Indians. This started in the 17th Century under British rule when you had King Philip’s War, King William’s War, and Queen Anne’s War and it ended after 300 years with the Leech Lake Uprising in 1898, the last official war against the Indians. They also took territory from the Spanish, the Mexicans, the native populations of Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, among others, and brought in slaves who were forced to work the land but were not given any land as their property.

Based on these acts of conquest, today, a group of people in Washington DC claim ownership of the entire space known as the United States. They even claim ownership of the seas around it and the skies above it. They decide who can enter their territory, they have disposal over all the natural resources, they decide under what terms their subjects can trade and communicate with each other and with the subjects of other states, and on hundreds of thousands of other rules those citizens have to obey.

Clearly the claims of the U.S. government have little moral basis. They are purely based on force. On the principle of might makes right. There certainly is no reason why we can’t question them.

Similar stories can be told of course for all the other states that exist in the world.

Defenders of the state may argue that, unlike the Kings of old, states represent the people who live within their territory, so it’s really the people themselves who are the owners, not the states.

It is not difficult to see that this is a myth. If the people were the real owners, a group of people could, for example, decide they had enough of the state officials who are representing them and form a new state or society of their own on the piece of land on which they live. However, no state allows this. How come if the people are the real owners?

Nor are so-called “public” resources, such as public buildings or public parks or public roads, really owned by “the public”. If you think you are the co-owner of any kind of government building, try walking into one and tell the officials you want to paint the walls another color.

People also do not have a “contract” with the state which gives them ownership rights. No such contract exists and no citizen or state official has ever signed any such contract.

It’s often argued that in a democracy the people are the real owners of the country, which is supposedly evidenced by the fact that they have the right to vote. But the right to vote is not the same as an ownership right. Say you have a right to vote for who will be the chef in a restaurant. That would not make you owner or co-owner of the restaurant. The elected chef could still decide the menu.

Some people may feel they are represented by their state. States all the time try to promote nationalist sentiments and do all they can to make the people identify with their governments. That’s fine, if people feel that way. But it still does not make them real owners of the land. They will find that out quickly enough if they ever try to act as owners.

  1. From self-ownership to land ownership

Is an alternative to state ownership of the land possible? I think so. But we need to rethink how we look at land ownership.

Virtually all current political reasoning takes the state as starting point. It views the state as the ultimate source of all rights, including land ownership rights. But when we think about rights, the starting point must be the self-ownership of each human being.

A moral political order must start from the assumption that all people are equal and have inalienable rights, antecedent upon the existence of the state. If there were no state or no government, people would still have a right, a moral right, to their own life. Government is only justified inasmuch as it acts to secure people’s rights, as the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence recognized (in theory).

How does the principle of self-ownership apply to the ownership of land?

If we recognize that people have a right to their own life, it must imply that they have the right to sustain their life. To be able to do so, people need to produce goods, to exchange goods with others and to establish relationships with other people, both private and commercial, based on mutual consent. If people can’t do this freely, they can’t be said to truly own themselves.

Imagine that you have the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, but no right to own or use any piece of land, no way of obtaining a place to live, no opportunity to move around and relate to other people. Clearly your “rights” would not do you any good.

Thus, if we say that people have a right to life, they must at least have some place to live and move around in, to be free to interact with others, and have some access to raw materials or resources. If people cannot access any property or land, and cannot freely exchange goods and services with others, because they are kept from doing so by others, they cannot exercise their self-ownership.

If self-ownership is to have a practical meaning, it must mean, then, that all people have a right to have access to land where they can live, be able to own property, and to have freedom of movement and freedom of trade.

This does not mean that people have a right to other people’s goods or property or a right to be free from the vagaries and limitations nature imposes on them. Self-ownership does not imply that people are entitled to be taken care of by other people. You have a “natural right” to your own life, since there is no good reason why anyone would own you. You do not have a “natural right” to a basic income or to education or housing to be supplied to you by others. That would turn others into your slaves in effect.

But self-ownership does mean that it is wrong if some people are able to seize all the land and make it impossible for others to find a place to live.

This is what we mean when we say someone is “born free”: not merely that they “own themselves”, but that they have the opportunity to choose a place to live, find some means to produce goods or services, to travel and associate with other people.

*

If everyone who is born has a right to live on the earth, in the way I described, what should be the principles then for deciding on land ownership and distribution of land?

Some argue that since no human being “made” the world, and people are all equal and born free, “the world belongs to everyone” – or to no one. We should all “share” it. Everyone should go where they want to go, be where they want to be.

This sounds sympathetic, but if no one could ever claim ownership of any piece of land, in some form, no one could ever be secure in their existence. No one could build a farm, a house, a workplace, and be sure that it wouldn’t be taken away from them.

The problem with the idea of collective ownership of the earth by “the whole of humanity” – a world without borders – is that it does not reflect the way human beings actually have evolved and live on earth. There is in fact no such thing as “humanity”. There are only specific individuals and groups who have cultivated and developed pieces of land together.

If you say “humanity” owns the earth, who would make the decisions about how to use the land? Everyone together? How would that work practically? A world government? That would be putting total power over the entire earth in the hands of a tiny oligarchy – an even worse prospect than the current world order. It would remove control of the land from the actual people living on the land to whoever would be able to claim they represent the whole of humanity.

What is needed to put the people themselves in control of their own lives is precisely the opposite: decentralization. Everyone should be able to become owner or co-owner of a piece of the earth.

This idea was first developed by one of the most influential thinkers on land ownership, the 17th Century English philosopher John Locke. Locke noted that to sustain their life, people must make use of the earth’s resources. As soon as they do so – take water from a spring, pick an apple from a tree – they effectively claim ownership of them.

Locke argued that since people have a right to sustain their life, they have a right to claim ownership of the land they use to produce their food and goods. He famously proposed that someone who first “mixes his labor” with the land becomes the rightful owner of the land.

There is a lot to be said for this idea. Most of us regard it as reasonable that those who come to a place first and settle there to work and live, have a claim to be owners of the place.

But it doesn’t answer all questions. How much land can they claim? How absolute is their ownership? Can they forbid the right of way to others? Can someone pollute his own land without regard for what effects this has on others? Can someone claim ownership of unique natural resources, such as Niagara Falls, or a unique beach, because they were the first to “mix their labor with it” – for instance, put a fence around Niagara Falls and sell admission tickets? And where does it leave “latecomers” if they find most of the world taken by earlier settlers?

Locke was aware of the limitations of his theory. For this reason he added a condition (later called “the Lockean proviso”) to his principle of initial ownership: people could claim exclusive use of land, he wrote, but only “where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

The Lockean proviso has been criticized by some libertarian thinkers on the grounds that it will never be possible to arrive at exactly equal conditions (“enough and as good left in common for others”) for everyone. The great libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard argued that Locke’s proviso “may lead to the outlawry of all private ownership of land, since one can always argue that the reduction of available land leaves everyone else, who could have appropriated the land, worse off.”[4]

This may be true if we apply Locke’s proviso literally. Nonetheless his stipulation does provide an excellent general limitation on land ownership claims. After all, if “latecomers” could not find any land to live on or claim as their own, their right to sustain their life would be denied.

So I think we should rephrase Locke’s proviso somewhat: it’s fine if settlers claim ownership of land they settle, but there should be “enough left” for latecomers so that they too are able to “sustain their lives”.

For example, when people move to a new continent – or wash up on an island – that’s already been settled, the settlers cannot simply turn them away, claiming they own all the land. If they could, it would imply that some people could be turned away everywhere and never be able to find a place to live.

At the same time, the newcomers cannot turn the settlers out either – they must respect their legitimate claims to their land. Some accommodation, then, must be made. On what basis?

Locke’s justification for private land ownership has an important implication. It means that for anyone to claim a piece of land as private property, they have to use it for the purpose of sustaining their life, i.e. they have to use it “productively”, to produce food or commodities on the land, or to use it as a workplace or as a form of shelter or housing.

These two principles – that land must be used “productively” if it is to be claimed as property, and that latecomers need to be able to secure a place of their own – give us some guidelines for the size and type of any piece of land that may be claimed as property.

The size must be reasonable both in terms of what is needed for someone to support their life, and in terms of what others need to support their lives, i.e. in relation to the prevailing population pressure. If there are many people and not much land, the size of land that can be claimed as property must be more limited than if there are few people and a lot of land.

No one can legitimately claim, as the King of England (and other kings and aristocrats ) used to do, that they own any piece of land they fancy. Nor can someone claim exclusive ownership of land which they don’t use for “productive” purposes. Contrary to what some libertarian authors claim, the mere act of “fencing in” a place does not provide justification of ownership.[5]

Ultimately any ownership claims to land must be derived from the principle of self-ownership – and this principle applies to everyone. Ownership of land must therefore always be based on the need for people to sustain their lives, which means to be productive, build a shelter and engage in personal and commercial relations with others, and must never be used to deny anyone else the opportunity to be a “free person” in this sense of the word. No one needs to possess the Niagara Falls or a unique beach to sustain their lives. There is no reason for people to accept anyone’s claim to ownership of such places.

Nor, for example, do people need to bar others from passing over their land to sustain their lives. On the other hand, people sometimes do need to travel over someone’s land if they are to live as free human beings, so they should have a right to do so, if they behave peacefully and don’t destroy anyone’s property.

*

This, then, gives us some basis on which to base recognition of (limited) ownership rights of land. People who first settled a piece of land and use it to sustain their lives, have legitimate ownership rights (subject to the conditions we noted).

These original settlers were more likely to be groups or families than individuals. Historically land was first settled by groups who “mixed their labor” with the land together and regarded land as the property of the community. In many cases they subsequently ceded parts of the communal land to individuals or families to use for productive activities (sometimes on the basis of long-term leases), while reserving another part as “public” space that all have a right to access. This is all perfectly in accordance with “Lockean” principles of course. There is no need to assume that land can be owned only by individuals.

“Lockean” principles of land ownership are instinctively recognized by people as fair. When we walk past a fruit orchard in Spain we have no problem to accept that it does not belong to us but to the farmer (or farmers) who work in it (assuming for a moment that the farmers are the descendants of original settlers). We also have no problem to accept that the public square in a Spanish village belongs to the villagers, in other words, that land belongs to certain recognizable groups whose ancestors settled it in the past and developed the land, and divided it in certain ways in the past.

On the other hand, it would not feel right if villagers claimed the land and kept all strangers out. There is a sense in which we all feel we have a right to move over the earth as long as we respect people’s property rights.

Groups of people who own land will usually also retain communal ownership of relatively unique places such as beaches and waterfalls, so that they can be enjoyed by all the members of the group. Such communal ownership – as contrasted to individual ownership or state ownership – seems the best guarantee for the preservation of unique places.

What about immigration? If people have a right to own or co-own land, that implies they have a right to keep out others from their land. Freedom of government does not mean people should accept unrestricted immigration. That would make any kind of permanent settlement impossible. People would continually run the risk of being displaced by immigrants. Self-ownership does imply, though, that people have a right to move over the earth to go where they are welcomed by others or to seek new lands to live on.

What if e.g. China suffers from overpopulation and famine? Wouldn’t the Chinese then have a right to move to another land, even if that was already settled by others? No, that is precisely the point: if they did have that right, there would be no check on their population growth or on the mismanagement of their economy. If people don’t have the right to displace other groups, they have an incentive to contain their own population and to properly manage their economy so they won’t suffer from famine.

In some cases rulers maltreat subjects who are forced to flee. It’s common decency in such a case to help refugees that seek a safe haven. But it’s also perfectly reasonable to only do so temporarily as a form of charity until the problem is solved.

Freedom of government – the possibility of creating voluntary societies – could do a lot to address the problem of refugees and mass migrations of people. Most people have no desire to leave the place where they are born and grow up. They do so because they flee from war or poverty, both of which are caused by the state.

The problem of poor people in underdeveloped countries is not that they are helpless and need “aid”, but that they are shut out from opportunities to make a living – pushed around, extorted, taxed, excluded from land and resources – by the people in power. If they could form their own societies, they might be able to get rid of the parasites that are destroying their lives, and they would not have to flee anymore. In the end the only way to solve the problems of refugees and immigration is to remove the criminal rulers who make large parts of this earth unlivable.

  1. Setting up free societies

How can we put these principles of land ownership into practice in a world where all land is already claimed as property by states?

I certainly don’t have all the answers to this huge question, but I do have some suggestions.

I believe it’s reasonable at least to start from the assumption that people who currently live in a particular place or are born there, have a right to live there, if they or their ancestors settled there peacefully in the past, or if they were admitted freely into that society later.

As Grant Mincy of the Center for a Stateless Society writes, people tend to feel a deep attachment to the place where they are born: “The concept of a human being having lasting roots and an area of land representing those roots exhibits deep human bonds and connections to the earth.”

This “sense of place”, notes Mincy, involves memories with family and friends, coming of age, solace, comfort, etcetera. In addition, people often “equate their land with their legacy. The commons are tied to land and space through unique historical and cultural traditions.”[6] Any state or power that denies or violates people’s right to live in their birthplace and remain connected to their “legacy” commits a flagrant injustice.

Since peoples and societies have evolved in particular places over the centuries, our starting point must be the present distribution of people over the earth, at least in those cases where this distribution is not controversial or disputed. This may seem to contradict my earlier argument that states aren’t legitimate land owners, but I am talking about the distribution of people over the earth, not states.

States are not the same as the people who live in the territory controlled by those states. “The state” consists of a small group of rulers of a territory. “The people” are all the people who live in that territory.

Just because a state is not a legitimate owner of the territory does not mean that the people in that state cannot be legitimate owners. They will often be the descendants of the settlers who first “mixed their labor with the land” and who cultivated and developed it. So, even if we don’t recognize the claims of states to land, we should recognize the rightful claims of the people living within those states.

Thus, if some people want to split off from the state they live in and form their own society, they should have the right to do so – as long as they respect the rights of those who may not want to go along with their scheme. This right is similar to the right of “national self-determination” referred to earlier, although self-determination should apply to any voluntarily formed group, not only to “nations”.

Here is how the great Austrian free-market economist Ludwig von Mises described this idea:

“The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state … means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. …. However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.”[7]

Mises suggested that secession and self-determination should be based on a plebiscite – a majority vote. That is reasonable, because, for people to sustain their lives they will normally need to own land as a group. They need to form a viable community which controls a piece of land together. Some form of voting seems the best method to arrive at an initial distribution of land that will be recognized as fair by people.

This does not mean that a majority has the right to violate the rights of minorities or individuals, only that they have a right to organize a new “administrative unit”, as Mises put it. That “unit” must still respect the rights of all the people living within it.

Thus, for example, if the majority of people of Catalonia want to secede from Spain and set up their own society, they should have the right to do so, but that would not give them the right to violate the rights of those who live in their midst and who may not have wanted independence, i.e. their right to live in peace, acquire property, establish voluntary relationships with others. If it is practically possible that this minority can in some way form a society and remain attached to Spain, they would have that right too.

The same goes for any other group of people anywhere else of course.

There are other forms that “freedom of government” could take. People could get together to establish “charter cities”, of which the residents would become co-owners. They could establish a constitution or covenant together as Europeans cities in the Middle Ages did. Or companies or associations could set up “free private cities” which people could join if they wanted to.

These options are interesting because most people nowadays live in big cities and a world of voluntary societies would very likely be a world with many independent, thriving urban agglomerations. In time, states may be willing or forced, under public pressure, to accord cities a large measure of independence, just as happened in medieval Europe.

How soon and where voluntary societies could be formed depends on the wishes of people. The more corrupt and repressive a state is, the stronger will be the call for change.

*

One question that can’t be ignored is whether injustices of the past should be repaired and how far back we should look to decide whether current landownership claims are legitimate.

Clearly many current land ownership claims, not just from states but also from groups, are based on force and conquest in the past or a mixture of force and legitimate settlement. There is no reason why these claims cannot be called into question.

If the claims of Catalonians, Palestinians, Kurds, and other groups that desire to be independent, are to be taken seriously – and they should be – the same should apply to the descendants of slaves or other victims of past injustice. There is no reason to accept the status quo just because it is the status quo. If we want to move to a world where every peaceful person can have a good life, we cannot ignore the consequences of past injustices.

One way to address past injustices is through “land reform” programs. This has been a long-time demand of social activists in many developing countries and rightly so. In many countries much of the land is owned by landowners with huge estates whose ancestors acquired their property illegitimately, e.g. by chasing away original settlers and using slaves to develop the land. Such arrangements should be critically evaluated and land should be redistributed if there are good grounds for doing so.

One example of successful land reform are the programs that took place in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea under U.S. guidance after World War Two. As Andro Linklater describes in his landmark book, “Owning the Earth – The Transforming History of Land Ownership”, in these countries owners of large estates (who usually did not even live near “their” estates) were dispossessed of their land, which was then redistributed among the people who actually worked on it. This led not only to a more just distribution of land, but also to much higher agricultural productivity. It is one reason why these countries did so well economically in the post-War years.

Of course this reform took place within state structures, but it was still a step in the right direction. In the post-World War Two, post-colonial period there were many other developing countries where people demanded similar land reforms. Unfortunately, under influence of the Cold War the U.S. government started supporting the dictatorial rulers of those countries (i.e. the status quo) rather than the reform movements, because it saw the reformers as communists, which in many cases they were not. In countries where socialists or communists did take power, people were even worse off, as the communists did not give the land back to the people but nationalized it and put it under state control, with disastrous results.

I am mentioning this bit of history because its consequences are still with us: land reform is a job left undone in many countries. I believe land reform programs could be an important intermediate step towards a world of voluntary societies.

However, we should not forget that justice must always be a process applying to individual human beings or groups of specific individuals, not to ethnic, racial or other kinds of “collectives”. If, for example, it can be established that specific descendants of slaves who once worked the land have in effect been cheated out of their rightful inheritance, justice must be done. But just because someone is black, for example, does not mean they have a right to compensation for slavery. Not all black people today were hurt by slavery in the past nor have all white people profited by it. Injustice cannot be repaired with new injustice.

How to decide when there are conflicting claims? The ideas of self-ownership and land ownership are abstract notions. There is no magical formula to translate them into reality. People will have to find solutions based on reason.

What may happen is that legal experts take the initiative to set up international tribunals and hear cases that people would bring to them. These tribunals could not enforce their decisions but their verdicts could be used by people trying to get their claims recognized by the states they live in.

Many conflicts in the world could be resolved if groups of people had the right to form their own societies. This is particularly true in artificial nations such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and many others where ethnic groups are fighting each other to gain possession of the state.

In this context it may be a good idea to set up a global organization of United Societies to displace the United Nations. The United Nations was set up by nation states to address problems between nation states. What we need is an organization that can address the problems caused by nation states.

Needless to say, I am only scratching the surface of an extremely complex topic, yet it’s a topic that can’t be ignored. Land ownership claims form the foundation of all our political and legal structures and the just distribution of land should be the foundation of any just world order.

This is chapter 5 of my new, as yet unpublished book, Freedom of Government

[1] E.g. Julian Simon, Matt Ridley, Hans Rosling

[2] Cf. for instance Jaryd Diamond’s account of the emergence of states: “Wars, or threats of war, have played a key role in most, if not all, amalgamations of societies….”, Jaryd Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, p, 291

[3] See e.g. Kevin A. Carson, “Communal Property: A Libertarian Analysis”, in: The Anatomy of Escape – a Defense of the Commons, Center for a Stateless Society, 2019

[4] Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 1998 (1982), p. 244

[5] Some libertarian authors, notably Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Stephen Kinsella, argue that anyone who first “emborders” a piece of land becomes its legitimate owner, because, they say, any other arrangement would lead to conflict, since land is scarce and there can be no two owners of the same piece of land. But obviously other land ownership arrangements are possible and have been in use which do avoid conflict, such as communal ownership and use.

[6] Grant Mincy, “Power and Property: A Corollary”, in: The Anatomy of Escape.

[7] Liberalism, 1927

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