On Land Ownership

Anirudh asked in a comment:

I understand that the fruits of a person’s labor is his own private property and that he can choose to sell it, barter it, or choose to do with it as he wills. Then how does land ownership work, because a piece of land is not exactly “fruits of his labor”; what is produced on that land can be his property, but why should the land itself be his property?

This is a fairly complex and deep philosophical question. A lot of very fine minds have explored it and opinion is divided among reasonable persons. I will not be able to do it justice here. Furthermore, it’s outside the scope of this course. Fortunately, we have easy access to what has already been said about the topic.

Certainly land has not been created through anyone’s efforts. But land can owned. The ownership can be acquired through gift, inheritance or purchase – just like any other thing that people value. All land at some point was unowned. At some point, unowned land becomes the property of the person who first uses it. That’s just conventional.

Different societies have developed different conventions for that. For instance, in the US, if you own a piece of land which you don’t use, but someone else uses it and you fail to object to that for 21 years or more, the title to the land goes to the other person.

I will not go into any more detail on this matter because I want to focus this group’s attention to some basic principles that may be of more general interest.

Here are a few references for people who want to learn more about that. I recommend learning Henry George’s (1839 – 1897) work on land and natural resources (wiki.) George H. Smith’s 2013 article Herbert Spencer, Henry Georg and the Land Question is especially illuminating. Regarding rights in general, I am partial to Robert Nozick’s (1938–2002) arguments. See the article at plato.stanford.edu on Robert Nozick’s political philosophy. And Matt Zwolinski’s piece Locke  and Nozick on the Justification of Property. 

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

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