Property Rights Essay

Amazing what flood gates a few words may open. The words? “The government now considers all property to be theirs, viewing individuals as nothing more than temporary caretakers until the bureaucracy ‘wants it back’. “

An interesting thought, that, looking at some recent cases, carries a good degree of validity. In the USA, the land of the free, the supreme court has upheld the use of eminent domain laws to transfer ownership from one private citizen to another – the government simply claiming their guy will put the land to better use than you’re doing. And if the owner wants to put up a fight? The government funds their side from every other taxpayer’s wallet, supplementing shortage with a money printing presses, or today, digital entries in a computer.  Yes, that’s a one-sided fight

And so, I thought it might be worthwhile to make a short note about how I see the issue, describing why I think individuals are compliant in the face of property rights violations. Alas, along the writing path, the short walk became a marathon, a journey that tries to answer why we are afraid to act, why we tolerate having to ask for permission in order to do the most mundane of things, and how we became so tolerate, and how we could finally break those incarcerating chains.

Partially, confusion is rampant because the concept property is a huge concept, making it difficult to assimilate properly. Noteworthy, real estate or land, comes immediately to mind and usually is the core of any discussion on property rights. That’s why it’s necessary to show that the concept of property encompasses a wealth of diverging materials and intellectual goods. Its true meaning has been obfuscated, often deliberately, and to serve as a treasure trove for a multitude of pirates.

But, though property is much more than land, it’s still the best place to start. Knowing how things came to be as they are today is the basis of understanding what is wrong with our current view. In this essay, I attempt to link a number of ideas and tie property rights to our world, our lives, and our society in a cohesive theme.

Unravelling some of the misconceptions with respect to property requires that we delve into history. Scarcely two hundred years ago vast tracks of land lay unclaimed, wide open to any adventurous soul willing to put out the effort necessary to draw sustenance from raw land. If, when that land, despite clearing, ploughing and irrigating failed to support life, the farmer or rancher would move to a different piece of vacant land, there being plenty to go around. While a national leader or government may well have claimed the land, in the far-flung frontiers there was no bureaucracy for rule enforcement to keep someone off the land.

Not so today. Today most people accept that any land not taxed, is communally owned and held in trust by the government. Trespassers will be prosecuted. Governments monitor land use and strongly enforce standards, in the name of the common good. The tax system puts a little icing on that communal ownership claim – don’t pay taxes on private land and see who sells the property. But even more restrictively, today’s environmental movement has exercised control of land use as never before. Multitudes of restrictions are enforced to maintain land in its native, undeveloped state. Human usage is often denied for the sake of a fish, bug or bird with no consideration given to the fact that development may well be extremely beneficial to humans.

Further, with few exceptions, resource extraction is done under a government permit with a ‘royalty fee’ paid for tonnage mined. Clearly, we’ve accepted that land and mineral claims fall into the ‘government or communal ownership’ sphere. And control of water rights truly limits what development may take place on a piece of land. But it isn’t only raw land that falls under bureaucratic dictates. In the case of developments, from office towers to factories to houses, the non-payment of taxes results in foreclosure. So, is the opening sentence really very far from the mark? And how did we come to accept the communal ownership of all? What has happened to that once-held concept of an individual’s right to his own property?

Thinking back, at the discovery of North America, the simple act of being the first to set foot on a piece of land was considered a valid claim to that vast territory, irrespective of the size of the landmass. In effect, of course, it’s always been the willingness and ability to defend a claim that is the final determination for ownership. But ownership is a concept that is applicable only in a free society. Failure to understand freedom means we’ve lost the means to morally evaluate an individual’s place on the earth or relationship to all other individuals. So let’s first elaborate a bit on those early claims to allow the fundamental idea to sink in.

The early Spanish and Portuguese explorers laid claim to the entire north and south American landmass in the name of their respective kings. In those days the sanctifying authority was the Catholic pope, with his ‘power’ to send dissenters to a fiery eternity being a strong incentive for compliance. That held until the other European kingdoms realized there was land and treasure to be had, and they also set sail, in time establishing colonies where previous land claims weren’t being strongly enforced. And that papal edict of purgatory had little clout with the non-Catholic world.

Prior to and including the exploration period, the rule was; that kings grabbed land and held as much as they could, extracting bounty from the serfs working the land. Nations mainly went to war over conflicting territorial claims. Often though it was a ruse simply to harvest that fertile garden planted next door. But did it start with kings? Have the strong not always grabbed what they could?

Consider a world with but a few people and little social structure. Can we agree there is but a single, clearly-visible, self-evident truth that we can state with certainty about the lives of those individuals – that only by finding and consuming food from this one earth could they sustain those lives? The rule of their day, eat or be eaten, applied to all living things. We’re here because our ancestors exploited the earth, eating what they could, and often before it could eat them. Life requires sustenance and the earth is our only source of any sustenance. Pretty simple back then but of course, far more complex now that we invented society and the division of labour has loaded grocery stores with, difficult to source-trace, bounty. But neither the meat, the potatoes or the beer get there without a lot of productive individuals remaking the stable chemicals found in nature, mixing them up, packaging and transporting them, creating this food abundance. And all that bounty gets there because of, you guessed it … property rights.

And here, after reading an early draft, a friend, Jeffery Small made a few suggestions, one of which was to elaborate and that caused a good deal of the growth of this essay. He gave me a rather fascinating reading list on the history of property rights and I’ve included some of the conclusions and the obstacle past scholars observed. Especially informative were the centuries-old writings of both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. I begin with them.

My theme echoes much of what John Locke stated with respect to each of us having the right to use the earth to sustain life, ideas he documented that have permeated our society in almost a universal way. Some of his words, John Locke, Second Treatise;
“God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.”

Further he justifies ‘communal ownership’, deviating from clear individual rights, hence;

“And though it be common, in respect of some men, it is not so to all mankind; but is the joint property of this country, or this parish.”

He thus implies a communal ownership with restrictions placed on individuals by a governing authority. His argument leaves us with property rights being a ‘grab and hold’ communally dictated affair with so-called, a central authority to decide for all.

Further he also states;

“And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of conveniences of life from ten acres, than he could have from a hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of a hundred lying in common. I have rated the improved land very low, in making its product but as ten to one, when it is much nearer an hundred to one………”  

… as a justification for the enclosure or applying ‘no trespassing’ signs on a piece of the earth. He is absolutely correct about the efficient use of land, that farming is incomparably more productive in supporting human life than hunting and gathering. In fact, there is no valid argument for his claim that the man choosing to farm removes himself from the hunting competition, leaving more for the hunter. But the hunter usually only sees a diminishing hunting territory.

Though it may be valid to ignore the claims of the hunter-gatherer, without understanding agriculture, those displaced will feel shortchanged when modernization removes land from traditional hunting territory. If we all have the right to life, none can be denied the right to use the earth to support life, but we do however need to establish which things are out of bounds. That is where a clear definition of both property rights and man’s effort comes into play.

For it is interesting to see the view taken by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh who insisted that the Fort Wayne treaty was illegal; he asked Harrison to nullify it and warned that Americans should not attempt to settle on the lands sold in the treaty. Tecumseh is quoted as saying,
“No tribe has the right to sell [land], even to each other, much less to strangers…. Sell a country!? Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn’t the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”


“….the only way to stop this evil [loss of land] is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided.”

He went on to say the first man to spread his blanket had the right to that piece of earth as long as he needed it, implying some form of ‘temporary ownership’. He saw land as something one moved over and used but didn’t settle on. He obviously didn’t support john Locke’s enclosure reasoning but that could well be because he couldn’t visualize being able to live off a small parcel of land. Of course, his thinking could well have been influenced by the encroaching ranching settlers, who, often were not satisfied with less than all the land.

And that brings us to Mr Jefferson who saw a world becoming far more crowded than seen by Mr Locke. Thomas Jefferson visualized a time when a populated world would run short of arable land, a quandary that he raised in a letter to James Madison, after spending time with poor people in France,

“The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, and tradesmen, and lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands?”
And further…

“Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on.”

Thomas Jefferson personally foresaw a land enclosure system that locked some people out of any possible life support system from the land and reduced others to begging from those who’d laid claim to all land. But Mr Jefferson was a product of his time and his purchase of half the continent, see the Louisiana purchase, from France reinforces the central idea, that governments have the right to claim or for that matter to buy and sell, to communally own, property. But considering Mr Jefferson’s statement, it seems he would also have endorsed unrestricted land use by the citizens of the USA.

Again the picture that just won’t leave my mind, is of a Christopher Columbus or a Francis Drake stepping on a piece of land and claiming it exclusively for the kingdom. I believe there is an unacknowledged fallacy in approving claims on any part of the raw earth.

The earth itself, the raw material that it is made of, is an endowment for all living things.

All of us are born with the need to use the earth to sustain our lives for as long as we live. Be it trees, bugs, fish or fowl, all things living share the earth. And with but one fundamental choice, eating and being eaten.

The effort of sustaining life is the unique attribute of each individual life form and in that vein, I have a great problem accepting even the idea of anyone claiming ownership of the raw earth in any way, fully extending to the idea that a government can grant a license to someone with the idea of granting excluding access for any piece of this earth. But let’s be very clear here. When I say raw earth, I mean anything truly in its natural state. The modifications made to nature are a very different thing.

And here it’s a good time to return to John Locke and to pluck another gem from this wise man’s writings.
“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, thereby making it his property.”

Those words, thought clear enough when written by Mr Locke, were distorted by the ‘new speak’ father of socialism, Karl Marx into claiming that labour is the only entitlement to property. Mr Marx has managed to convince a number of generations that the mind doesn’t exist, his followers proving daily, that there is a good deal of validity to his brutal claim.

Here I diverge, I find fault with so much that is claimed. All too often the words on labour theory written by both Locke and Marx are ridiculed or denounced, and even by followers of Ayn Rand no less, for failing to regard intellect and concentrating on physical labour. I cringe when hearing this.

All human labour is an intellectual achievement. The product of man’s muscle originates in the brain directing the hand. Just because that individual’s mind is following orders given by another mind changes nothing. The product of that labour is owned by the doer until paid for. Yes, the factory owner provides the facility, the machines, the raw material, etc. but until he pays the workers, his claim to owning their output lacks validity.

It is the contractual exchange of reward or payment for work that establishes ownership. Work not paid for belongs to the individual that performed it. That is the base of property rights, you own your effort, both the intellectual and physical aspects. See my essay on work, jobs and effort.

Furthermore, ownership also carries with it a component of responsibility and a commitment to defend it against infringement. Property not defended again becomes free to any user. And so it is that when I may choose to relinquish my ownership of something, I carry the burden of disposing of it appropriately. See my words on money and ownership


Though it’s not so recorded, primitive tribes show us the strong characters usually decide that it’s far easier to beat up the weak people and make them do the gathering and growing while the strong go hunting. Well, the strong seldom trust the weak with weapons and besides, they were mostly pregnant anyway and couldn’t’ run all that fast. And I’m guessing that’s how we got the tribal chiefs. But some of the not-so-strong but brighter gals and guys learned psychology and realized guilt was a far better way to control people than beating them up. Those witch doctors learned that guilt could manipulate people into doing things for others without expecting any earthly reward and without incapacitating broken bones, a condition making those plebes unfit to do much work.

Read Ayn Rand , Faith and Force article for a full elaboration.

And so it is that our history books describe any number of past societies showing us that along with the skill of killing animals for food, many learned that killing humans and taking their food was a lot easier. Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were but a scant few of those firmly believing that foraging for human bounty beat growing food for themselves.

The hereditary ruling lineage of pharaohs and kings, the tithing to priests, popes and a wealth of other ministries have farmed the fertile pasture of human energy for centuries. Of course, all turn into pikers when compared to modern governments. Along our journey to civilization, we absorbed some very bad ideas. A couple of them, the belief that some people are more equal than others and that life support is an entitlement for anyone not willing to work is pretty obvious and any rational discussion defeats them rather easily. But the big one that still fools almost everyone and causes much of our grief, is the belief that the ownership of property is actual ownership of a material thing.

It’s not and now I’ll try to explain it sensibly.

Let’s try a little mental exercise. Using only your imagination and a bit of logic, slip back to the very beginning, just you and the world and only a single thing is given to you – time, to find the things you need in order to stay alive. You’ve got a few hours to find water, a few days to find food and until the next big storm to find shelter. Just you and the raw earth with all things on it, free for the taking. In the wild, the animals still do just that – take what they can in order to survive.

But clearly think of one thing, it’s not the physical land but how we apply our efforts to it that gives the sustenance that supports life. The concept ‘property’ is too easily applied to the ‘place where’ rather than the ‘action of’ sustaining life. It is in that context that we need to understand how we arrived at where our ancestry starts.

When a few people got the idea that cooperation would make things easier, they realized we needed rules. Society is the result. The problem is, somewhere we were sold the idea that we are part of a collective and individuals must seek approval from the crowd for the right to sustain life. Humans began as individuals and at some point in time, decided it would be advantageous to work together with others in order to live a better life. It was not to be worse off than our forefathers that we developed societies. Yet in the process, many fallacies hitched a ride on that ultimate truth.

The belief that we are born into bondage, that humans are divided into rulers and servants, was not really trashed until done so by the thinkers who lead the American revolution. That “born equal” phrase carried a mighty punch. Yet many people who agree on the ‘birth equality’ and the ‘earth as the source of all sustenance’ arguments, fail to consider another destructive communal theme – approval from others for our actions.

While a bird building a nest is considered natural but men building bridges or skyscrapers or hydro dams or factories is classed as despoiling the environment. The action of digging things up, refining and extracting what we can use and despite placing the remainder out of harm to man, is labelled polluting. Even the action of digging and moving dirt a few feet from where nature placed it now requires approval from people paid to keep things undisturbed. We’ve largely accepted the idea that the earth belongs to all of us but no one may disturb any part of it without getting permission from the gatekeepers.

We’ve accepted the idea of communal ownership of the raw earth through a government body. We are expected to seek approval to sustain our lives – the might of numbers can smite the exceptions, individuals may be thwarted by crowds … and so we’ve discarded the right of an individual to the product of his own effort.

Here is the clarity of Ayn Rand on the subject, that; there is but one fundamental right, the right to life, that carries necessarily the corollary right, the liberty to sustain that life, to take the actions needed to do so.

She goes on to say about rights; Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law. The act of civilizing humans is really one of stopping us from eating each other. And that’s a lead-in to another ignored idea. Civil means being peaceful, with restrictions on the use of force.

By keeping an eye in the rearview mirror, to that time before we formed societies, it is obvious that birth gives us life, that life can and will go out of existence. Failure to take in the necessary sustenance is one way to cease existing, to die. Another is for the clock to simply run out. In between birth and death, we have time and by spending the time productively we can maximize both the distance and the pleasure achieved in that fleeting time between birth and death.

Time is the prime attribute of a finite life. Killing another human robs them of all their time but stealing a little of their time is the equivalent of killing them slowly or shortening their lives if you will. This is the way that taxation violates the right to life. Stealing any part of the effort a living entity puts out, is robbing them of a part of life, and really, an unacceptable thing to do if we comprehend the reciprocity rule – you are not entitled to what you deny others.

And so it is that our effort is the basis of all property. And here would be a good time to clarify, as much as possible, all that we ever do is move molecules around, also learned from Ayn Rand – when we mine, farm, build and even when we write or speak. Atoms being the fundamental building units of all things, they form all the molecules we use to sustain our lives. Those atoms are available in nature. They surround us, they feed us, we breathe them in for life and they make up our bodies. They are not owned and never were or ever will be. But there is a characteristic that we are responsible for – modifying those molecules into something not found in nature. Be it tools, machines, houses or art or even the written and spoken word, all at the base of everything mankind will ever do is modify molecules.

And clearly, at birth we weigh but a few pounds with, over the course of some twenty years ingesting tons of food, our bodies take out the molecules it wants and need to sustain our lives, discarding the remainder as waste, proving irrevocably we are self-made and we are not who we were born. While I’ve not done the science, I’ve read that in the course of some ten years the body exchanges its cells that is our molecular makeup, further proof that we are in a state of ever reconstructing flux. But back to the story.

By grabbing some molecules that have been lying around since time began and changing the order or rearranging them we set the terms of ownership. It’s that rearrangement that is uniquely ours. It is our property by way of both our intellectual and physical effort. In nature, we find many variations of Fe_O_ with the glaring fact facing mankind that in that particular form it is nothing but a rock to lob at something, hoping for a meal. It becomes a valuable billet of steel when much of the ‘O’ is removed and some other ingredient added. It then gets rearranged into automobiles, tableware, nails, and steel beans.

An interesting aside: On August 31, 2122, I listen to a Micheal Shermer podcast with Marion Tuppy and Gale Pooley. Mr Tuppy stated the same thing … all we ever do is rearrange molecules. Gratifying to hear words of sanity.

We can take things a bit further and deduce that we have the right to trade away that ownership to another individual. We may name the price. If they want the same thing without paying you, they have the right to seek out some raw nature on their own and rearrange the molecules themselves.

The idea of an ownership characteristic in money is an idea I elaborate on in another essay. I’ll add a link when I post it, as it brings up a serious challenge to taxation and the role of government in all of our lives.

That brings up the sacred cow of patents and copyrights.

Let’s gore that scared cow next, for I made that point some time ago, the fallacy of invention. To be accurate, anything we build in the real world is a discovery. As Thomas Edison said of his light bulb, I’ve discovered 6000 ways that it won’t work. A patent is an idea describing how to build a thing. By patenting an idea your government can and should enforce your right to be the first to build and market such a thing, but there it should end.

Failure to build within a certain time opens access to the use of any idea. Even the idea that a government supports truly exploitive monopolizing is a questionable practice to me. An example is James Watt’s steam engine governor. The simple idea of using centrifugal force to open or close a valve limited competition in the engine building field. The length of time the patent process kept engine costs unreasonably high should have been shorter. As well, Patent Law shouldn’t stop you from building it for yourself, only prevent you from manufacturing and marketing as such. The Blackberry fishing expedition, of sitting on an idea and waiting until an application uses a similar idea and then suing for damages bothers me and maybe it should bother you. Was the original intent of the patent process to stifle invention or to encourage it? Is it gatekeeping or protection of rights? It’s been claimed to induce inventiveness but was it just some means of cashing in on inventiveness? I believe there are problems with our current understanding of how the process should work.

Copyrights and patents are means of protecting the originators of ideas from exploitation. Correctly, the inventor must be credited with their discovery of the process involved and with that, encouraged to take advantage of turning their idea into a marketable thing or scheme within an achievable time frame. I maintain that should they not follow through on development, they would have an entitlement to only a minor reward for just having the idea.

Properly, copyright prevents fraudulent claims of originality. Books, music and art are but some of the things subject to copyright. Even the original idea for a device is a subject of copyright with a patent being the legal right to determine the manufacture of said devices. It is a complex affair and bears elaboration, but the idea of not using a new process because someone has the copyright defies logic. If an individual does not wish his idea used, non-disclosure and silence is the correct path to take.

Parents picking up the tab for their kids could well be where the belief of ‘entitlements’ begins, serving to encourage dependency. Parental failure to teach responsibility may well pave the path for dependency on government-supplied entitlement to life support, of the attraction of socialism. That brings up the proper role of government.

Of interest is an analysis of both how the ‘ownership’ of property by the government then and now affected the individual then and now. Consider a continent far removed from a tiny island nation and a single adventurous individual, upon setting foot on that continent, claims that land in the name of a hereditary ruler in that far-off land. From where does the right to the land originate? Is it really a first come – first served type of situation? Can someone born yesterday grab all the resources and exact a levy on future generations who need the resources of this earth to sustain their lives? Can access to that which was openly available to one be denied to another?

These questions have been answered in the affirmative for many years. They have been woven into the fabric of our societies but are they right? Are these beliefs something we should be challenging?

In the claiming of the continent, I see no natural right being exercised. The situation boils down to one and only one factor – the claim is backed by the army of the claimant. It is both the willingness and the ability to drive out any other contenders for that territory that backs the claim to said territory. And so what we then have is all that raw material, that was openly available to all, now requires a king’s blessing to be used in supporting human life.

While the American Revolution obliterated the king’s claim, the consensus soon determined the new government must now hold the title to any open land. I have no easy access to determine when an entrenched bureaucracy solidified the idea that land was no longer going to be openly accessible to all who wanted it, but today parks and bugs and worms and rocks all have legions of bureaucrats dedicated to restricting human use of the material of this earth. We’ve come a long way from the words of Mr Locke and Mr Jefferson.

I contend, that the rationalization behind the multitude of rules we now live under begins with the idea that the country is collectively owned by all, that the government is the custodian and that only the bureaucrats can preserve and protect the resources of the country from the powerful few who would surely exploit and deny the less fortunate any way to benefit from living in this country.

How far we have come. What started as a simple land claim has become a tax on every bit of productive effort put out in the country.