This Land Is Mine


There have always been those, even (or perhaps especially) within the libertarian movement, who have argued that land is a legitimate exception to the liberal presumption in favour of unencumbered private property. A number of different grounds, varying in cogency, have been advanced on behalf of this claim (the best one is Herbert Spencer's, though it doesn't persuade me ' I'll explain why in a future post). But the most common argument is that because we do not create land, but merely transform it, we are entitled only to the improvements we make on the land, and not to the land itself; hence our claim to exclusive control, based on the improvements we have introduced, must be tempered in light of our lack of exclusive claim to the underlying raw land provided by nature. The first thing to notice about this argument is that, contrary to what its proponents suppose, it would apply, if sound, to all physical property and not to land alone. Every physical product of our labour, from a comb to a car, is composed of material particles that we did not produce. Here too, we merely make improvements in what nature has provided; production is never creation ex nihilo. [Fun though irrelevant fact: ex nihilo is not strictly proper Latin; ex usually becomes e before a consonant, and more importantly nihil, as a non-declining word, should always stay nihil in the ablative rather than becoming nihilo. Now you know.] Rather than conclude that all property rights must now be 'moderated,' let's start at the other end, with the basic libertarian principle of self-ownership. Your right to control your own body surely includes the right to control the particles currently composing your body. (You didn't create them, but then you didn't create yourself either.) Now most of the particles in your body are not particles you were born with (since if you're like most of us, your body was much smaller at birth than it is now); instead you gradually incorporated pre-existing particles into your body by eating, drinking, and inhaling. In effect, what you are is mainly a series of improvements you have introduced into this shifting mass of raw material. But no libertarian would conclude that your exclusive claim to control those particles, once they are in your body, must be limited on the grounds that you did not create the particles. We are embodied beings, and self-ownership is meaningless unless it extends to the materials of which the self is composed. Now the process by which we acquire external property is simply an extension of the process by which we incorporate material into our bodies. As Wolowski and Levasseur point out, 'it is by labor that man impresses his personality upon matter,' thus giving rise to property, which is a 'prolongation of the faculties of man acting upon external nature' and 'participates in the rights of the person whose emanation it is.' Our relation to the products of our labour is simply an extension of our relation to our bodies; indeed, our bodies themselves are to a large extent the product of our labour (though the particles composing them are not), just as cultivated land is the product of our labour (though again the particles composing it are not). Not for nothing does Molinari speak of the 'production of land.' Thus one cannot consistently affirm self-ownership and yet cite the fact that we have not created land ex nihilo as a reason for denying or moderating property rights in land.

Your rating: None
Roderick Long's picture
Columns on STR: 22

Roderick T. Long is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University; President of the Molinari Institute; Editor of the Libertarian Nation Foundation newsletter Formulations; and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.  He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1992.  His last book was Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand; his next book will be Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action.  He maintains a blog on his website,