Land as Property

Locke next launches into the very difficult proposition of land as property. Somehow he sees land (ideally) as something that, like water (theoretically), is inexhaustible (a requisite for claiming something out of the common stock) and thereby rationalizes the ability of individuals to fence in land and claim it for their own.

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common. Nor will it invalidate his right, to say every body else has an equal title to it; and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot inclose, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners, all mankind. God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.

I don’t have a problem with Locke’s claim that man has a right to till and work his land for himself and his family, as long as his assumptions that allow us to take something from the common stock hold true; they don’t for land.

Subsequent political economists (liberal free market types like Smith, Say, and Bastiat) also would struggle to justify the acquisition of land as property. Smith states of the landowner: “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed.” Jean-Baptiste Say’s version is thus:

It is the province of speculative philosophy to trace the origin of the right of property; of legislation to regulate its transfer; and of political science to devise the surest means of protecting that right. Political economy recognises the right of property solely as the most powerful of all encouragements to the multiplication of wealth, and is satisfied with its actual stability, without inquiring about its origin or its safeguards. In fact, the legal inviolability of property is obviously a mere mockery, where the sovereign power is unable to make the laws respected, where it either practises robbery itself, or is impotent to repress it in others; or where possession is rendered perpetually insecure, by the intricacy of legislative enactments, and the subtleties of technical nicety. Nor can property be said to exist, where it is not matter of reality as well as of right. Then, and then only, can the sources of production, namely, land, capital, and industry, attain their utmost degree of fecundity.

Say puts it into the realm of philosophy to trace the origin of the right of property, thus divesting himself of any responsibility to justify the political economists’ pragmatic assumption that property exists and that ends the question. He adds that without the power of the state (the “sovereign power”) to enforce the laws, property isn’t the result of  “inviolable” natural law. It requires positive law in order to exist.

Historically all landed property is established by force of arms or force of laws (after arms have allowed someone the right to make laws). I know of no situation where this hasn’t been true. It seems that Locke’s attempt to justify the acquisition of private land property falls short of his own litmus test since it is the limited resource and cannot be taken from while leaving “enough and as good” for those who would follow.

Others have argued that with improving technology, there is no limit to the productivity of land. This may be true, but there is a finite amount that one can “own”. This inablility to have widespread ownership available to everyone sets up an exclusive aristocracy that creates many of the problems with our current version of capitalism and land is at the root of the problem.

One Reply to “Land as Property”

  1. Without thinking too hard about it right now, I’m just going to say, “Agreed,” to this post. Land as private property is far more problematic — and presents a far stronger basis for arguing a more Marxist view (no private property), if real equality is desirable.

    Just think, under democratic collectivism, we could elect to zone certain plots for industry, certain plots for residence, certain plots for agriculture…oh, wait. We already do something like that!

    The hitch is only that we don’t take it far enough — the private landowners still have too much property and too much power….

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