Economics/Class Relations

When Is a Land Title Criminal?

Murray N. Rothbard Mises Institute
The Problem of Land Theft

A particularly important application of our theory of property titles is the case of landed property. For one thing, land is a fixed quotal portion of the earth, and therefore the ground land endures virtually permanently. Historical investigation of land titles therefore would have to go back much further than for other more perishable goods. However, this is by no means a critical problem, for, as we have seen, where the victims are lost in antiquity, the land properly belongs to any non-criminals who are in current possession.

Suppose, for example, that Henry Jones I stole a piece of land from its legitimate owner, James Smith. What is the current status of the title of current possessor Henry Jones X? Or of the man who might be the current possessor by purchasing the land from Henry Jones X? If Smith and his descendants are lost to antiquity, then title to the land properly and legitimately belongs to the current Jones (or the man who has purchased it from him), in direct application of our theory of property titles.

A second problem, and one that sharply differentiates land from other property, is that the very existence of capital goods, consumers goods, or the monetary commodity, is at least a prima facie demonstration that these goods had been used and transformed, that human labor had been mixed with natural resources to produce them. For capital goods, consumer goods, and money do not exist by themselves in nature; they must be created by human labor’s alteration of the given conditions of nature. But any area of land, which is given by nature, might never have been used and transformed; and therefore, any existing property title to never-used land would have to be considered invalid. For we have seen that title to an unowned resource (such as land) comes properly only from the expenditure of labor to transform that resource into use. Therefore, if any land has never been so transformed, no one can legitimately claim its ownership.

Suppose, for example, that Mr. Green legally owns a certain acreage of land, of which the northwest portion has never been transformed from its natural state by Green or by anyone else. Libertarian theory will morally validate his claim for the rest of the land—provided, as the theory requires, that there is no identifiable victim (or that Green had not himself stolen the land.) But libertarian theory must invalidate his claim to ownership of the northwest portion.

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