1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/2502/states-cannot-own-property/

States cannot own property

September 21, 2004 by

MSNBC has a transcript of some events at a speech given by Mrs. Bush at a public hall attached to a firehouse (also see this article. A mother, wearing a shirt saying “President Bush, you killed my son”, started objecting in the middle of the event. She was arrested outside of the hall, while she was being interviewed by several reporters. It is clear that the reason she was arrested was to silence her (the charges were dropped). Some libertarians who have been discussing this online have argued that no-one has a right to protest on someone else’ private property. This argument would be valid if the event were held on privately owned property, and not on property positively controlled by the State. States cannot legitimately own land.

Due to the way that States are created, obtain their funding, and obtain their land — fundamentally, due to the nature of the State itself — it is simply impossible for a State to have a property right in anything. There are several ways that States can come to positively control land, none of which gives them a normative private property right in that land:

1. By buying the land from previous owners. Since usually States must be financed by taxes (stolen money), any acquisitions made by States are illegitimate. Even in the States of old that did not tax, they were still coercive monopolies on protection (that is, they violently prevent anyone from competing with them in the rendering of protection). Thus, we cannot claim that the money they obtained was legitimate — they wouldn’t have obtained that much if not for violently preventing competitition.

2. By decree. Unoccupied land is “declared” to belong to the State. This is not a legitimate way to come into ownership of land. To obtain a property right over something, you must first homestead it. Simply pointing around yourself in a 360-degree circle and saying “mine” doesn’t constitute homesteading. Actually working the land does.

3. By conquest. This is outright robbery.

4. By emminent domain. Again, outright robbery, except of the States’ own citizens.

5. By actually “working” the land. Still, this does not give a property right. Working land is one requirement for coming into ownership of it. The other requirement is that the tools you use to work it were rightfully yours in the first place. If I steal your plow to work a plot of land, that plot of land isn’t legitimately mine. If I enslave you to plow a plot of land, that land isn’t legitimately mine. In short, it is impossible for States to homestead land.

Summarily, because no State can ever possibly be legitimate, no State can ever possibly rightfully own (have a property right) in anything. Of course, States positively control things. In the same way, if I hold you up at gunpoint, and steal your money, I positively control it. That doesn’t mean I own it, or have a normative property right in it.


Anenome September 21, 2004 at 2:06 pm

This is an excellent explanation of the illegitimacy of the state’s ownership of any property. I, for one, have been dismayed by the amount of land and property ‘owned’ by the various states and the Fed itself. It’s appalling that, for instance, 80% of Nevada is owned by the government on all levels. And in California, it’s estimated that the gov on all levels owns 50%. This is an outrage! All of this land should be immediately auctioned off and the proceeds used to pay down the immoral public debts of these governments.

What we need is more private ownership by the citizens themselves, not more public-ownership. The gov does not, cannot own the oceans, the air around us, or the forests. This article clinches the case that the state cannot even legitimately own at all.

Charles Hueter September 21, 2004 at 4:24 pm

Do not also forget the problem of asserting a collective right to something. It makes no sense because rights cannot be held by a collective, only by a individual.

Lisa Casanova September 21, 2004 at 4:48 pm

This article confirms something depressing I’ve noticed in the news. Even if the property is private and the owner can exclude people, when did removing nonthreatening people who disagree with Bush at public events become a legitimate function of the Secret Service? Have they always done this for presidents?

Paul D September 21, 2004 at 6:03 pm

“It makes no sense because rights cannot be held by a collective, only by a individual.”

That’s correct as far as it goes, Charles. But I think it’s entirely possible for several people to cooperatively own and administer a piece of property. Rules for administering such a commons would be voluntary and contractual.

In fact, I think the idea of property (like parks and nature reserves) owned commonly (and *not* owned by the state) with commonly-agreed-to terms of usage can provide a basis for libertarian environmental stewardship. Environment degredation could be considered property damage, and penalties could be calculated in an economic manner.

Patri Friedman September 21, 2004 at 8:43 pm

What if the State establishes a special department which is completely funded by donations, and performs no coercion. If this department buys some land, isn’t it legitimately owned?

I admit that this is incredibly improbable, but it is not impossible. There are few absolute truths in this world, and statements like “no State can ever possibly be legitimate, no State can ever possibly rightfully own” are hyperbole.

Walt D. September 21, 2004 at 10:35 pm

Suppose, hypothetically, that the Supreme Court actually ruled that the Federal Government had no right to own property and that all federal land and buildings was public property. Any group of a few thousand or more could shut down the government by going in to the Capitol Building or IRS Offices, sitting down and refusing to leave. What would stop the DC homeless for sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom? (The absence of a $100,000 campaign contribution?  ) What right does the Mayor of San Francisco have to stop the homeless from sleeping in Golden Gate Park?
Many people have argued that the income tax is unconstitutional since it never obtained the three quarters state votes for ratification. Therefore, no one has a legal obligation to pay taxes. One could also argue that there is no legal obligation to repay a debt to a Brooklyn loan shark. However, I would not advise anyone to try not paying either!
When King Charles I was taken before the English Parliament to answer charges of treason, he made the unchallengeable legal argument “by what authority was I brought here?” (It is interesting to note that Saddam Hussein made the same argument at his pre-trial.) Nevertheless, Charles I was convicted and beheaded.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these things to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Nevertheless, slavery existed in the United States for another 75 years. Were these inalienable rights self-evident to Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, as they were shipped out in cattle cars to Auschwitz? Were they self evident to women under the Taliban or women in Nigeria?
My point is that rights cannot exist in a vacuum. Since rights can be taken away by violence or threats of violence, rights are meaningless unless there is some reciprocal threat of violence to those who would try to take them away.
We look to the Supreme Court as the ultimate protector of rights. However, the Supreme Court has an extremely poor record when it comes to protecting constitutional rights. (I believe that there is a book “Wanted, Dead or Alive” by Carolyn Kennedy? that discusses flagrant cases of the Supreme Court refusing to uphold rights, such as the internment of US citizens of Japanese descent in WWII. (The title refers to the question of whether a “Wanted, Dead or Alive” poster, violates the right to due process and a jury trial!)
So if a Secret Service agent insists that a person carrying an anti-Bush poster move a mile away from the route of the presidential motorcade in Boston, does this person have any more recourse that the Jewish lawyer in the Warsaw ghetto when confronted by armed Nazi soldiers?

Andrew Gleadall September 22, 2004 at 6:08 am

Hate to pour cold water on this but my local park was a large patch of land that was donated to local government. This example is effectively Patri Friedman’s counter argument of goverment purchase funded by donations.

Anonymous Coward September 22, 2004 at 7:53 am

If the state is not a legitimate entity to begin with (and how can it be?), how can it legitimately own anything? Doesn’t matter if it obtained the thing in question via donation; the donation can only have been made to the current “caretaker” (in the case of a democracy), so, let’s say, the mayor of your town at the time the donation was made has some claim to ownership of the park, but not “local government”

holycow January 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Where does a democracy come to play? We are a republic. Have you ever heard “Battle Hymn of the Democracy” played at an event? Have you ever pledged allegiance to the flag of US and the democracy for which it stands? A major difference when it comes to individual rights. It is urgent that Americans not be misinformed by media propaganda. http://www.garymcleod.org/republic.htm

Matt September 22, 2004 at 10:02 am

Doesn’t the government own ALL land in “their” country? Unless you have Allodial Title to your parcel of land (available only with the permission of government), you don’t have complete ownership of it the way you do with a pencil or a t-shirt. There are government imposed restrictions on what you can do with “your” property. If you buy “Real Estate”, you didn’t buy the “Land”; you don’t own the sky above or the mineral rights below.

In the end, the government CAN own land, not because it’s right, but because they will kill you if you try to stop them. They will resort to force to impose their laws. It’s only a free country as long as you don’t push your freedoms past where the government will allow, which means you have no freedoms, just permissions. Given enough permissions, we assume we have freedom, but we don’t.

Sorry for the bitterness, I’m from Canada, which has even less rights than the US.

Glen September 22, 2004 at 11:01 am

There are several things we might mean when we use the word “own”.

We might simply mean “has control over”, or we might mean “has a legitimate claim on (a property right to)”.

Like any thief, the state can control the things it steals. That doesn’t mean it has property rights.

Charles Hueter September 22, 2004 at 12:42 pm

You do have a point, Paul. That’s why I mentioned collective rights, not collective ownership. I see nothing wrong with unanimous consent driving the decisions regarding a property.

Caley McKibbin September 22, 2004 at 2:17 pm

Matt, I’m also from Canada. All rights are only what others allow. Freedom is a convention between people, that they allow each other to act independently. There are necessarily restraints, which arise from scarcity of resources that more than one individual wants to control. These restraints are called property rights. These rights exist only because and to the extent that people choose to acknowledge them.

Anyone can control anything out of shear might. That is a different matter.

Everyone wants the benefits of property rights, but nobody wants the restraints that it imposes. Naturally, a thief wants to be unrestrained in its acquisition of land, but simultaneously benefit from the property convention. It can’t be had both ways. Acting in a way that contradicts the restraints is a demonstration of rejecting the convention. Therefore, the thief is not subject to the benefits.

David Heinrich September 22, 2004 at 2:41 pm

I’d like to thank everyone here for the commentary.

Regarding the question of whether a State that was given property by someone, there are a few responses to that: (1) The State isn’t legitimate in the first place, so how can it possibly have a property right anything? (2) Talking about the State as if it can have a property right in anything is non-sensical, because there can be no “group rights” (this objection doesn’t apply to monarchy); (3) In the case of the person giving his property to the State, in that case, the State would immediately owe that property to all of its victims, as restitution/retribution.

I think some people here are confusing might with right, and committing the is-ought fallacy. Simply because someone can disrespect your natural rights doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. You have a right to your body and your property, whether States and criminals tresspass against that right or not. Simply because a criminal steals your $20 doesn’t mean that you don’t have a property right in it, and that he somehow does by the act of stealing it. This is like saying that because people do commit murder, talking about the immorality of murder is irrelevant.

plowman September 22, 2004 at 10:01 pm

Responding to several posts, I think a clarification is needed on the notion of a “right.” I’m not sure I can provide this, but I have some thoughts.

There is a notion that “rights cannot exist in a vacuum” – and I think this refers to legal rights. But this notion obscures the very meaning of “rights.” Isn’t a human right called so because it is morally or normatively right? If not, what is the origin of this concept?

It doesn’t matter whether or not it is possible to enforce or defend these rights, the right is independent of all action. A person’s right to his life and his property is absolute, and it is not abolished if it is denied. When a right is denied or violated, this is wrong, morally, ethically, normatively speaking.

I think a similar distinction has been blurred in the realm of economics when talking about a “good.” When civics teachers introduce elementary students to the phrase “goods and services” it ingrains this loss of meaning at a very deep level. A “good” in economic terms is anything that a consumer deems to be a good thing, whether that is some trinket or service or medium of exchange or anything else.

plowman September 22, 2004 at 10:09 pm

To actually make a point out of that last post: of course states can’t have property rights. The state is a fundamentally illegitimate entity, and if it were legitimate (voluntary, donations, etc.) it wouldn’t be a state! The State has no rights, only wrongs!

Robert February 23, 2008 at 5:53 am

The government owns all the land. This is an outright grab on all natural resources, trees, plants, water etc..the natural result of this is that we are all born into a type of debt seeing how we have human needs that can only be satisfied by obtaining land and resources.

The debt passes to our parents until we become adults. Meanwhile we are socialized to believe that this is a necessary and just practice and that there is no cause for outrage.

We take on the debt again once become adults. We are funneled into a wage based consume society where the value of our work and knowledge is now determined by employers, bosses, firms, supervisors etc…


Robert February 23, 2008 at 6:32 am

The government takes ownership of all the land. This is a grab on natural resources, land, plants, water etc..

We are now born into debt seeing that we have need of these resources but cannot obtain them without some type of payment.

The debt passes temporarily to our parents who supply us with our various needs while we are educated / socialized to believe in the necessity and fairness of these practices.

We re-assume the debt upon reaching adulthood . We are funneled into a wage
based consumer society that emphasizes purchase over produce and where the value of a days work is determined by employers, bosses, supervisors etc…

The proponents then use the small percentages who excel within this system as proof of it’s validity.

Raisi February 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm

States can only own or control land over those that reside or exist within the States jurisdicton; namely, State citizens and citizens of the United States.

Sovereign free-men and women on the land are not considered to be within this class.

This is why the State has to confirm that you are one of their subjects before it can claim authority over you. That said, understand that the State only controls those that voluntarily enter into its artificial world as State or United States citizens.

Chris June 10, 2008 at 1:20 am

David Heinrich-
You’re using the word “normative” incorrectly. You actually mean the opposite of normative, or “positive”.
“In philosophy, normative statements affirm how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, which actions are right or wrong. Normative is usually contrasted with positive (i.e. descriptive, explanatory, or constative) when describing types of theories, beliefs, or propositions. Positive statements are falsifiable statements that attempt to describe reality.”
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative>

TLWP Sam June 10, 2008 at 6:03 am

Did you know some other sites have a deadline to stop people reactivating ye olde blogs?

Max Wyman November 23, 2009 at 1:41 am

Interesting, though you haven’t really convinced me how a person can actually own property either.

How does a human, an animal physiologically akin to a wolf or a spider or a bird, come into philosophical ownership over a parcel of the earth? And what gives him or her the right to control that domain any more than any other territory-marking creature?

Furthermore, do you think mother nature cares about who “owns” that piece of property? Do you think foreign bodies or the illiterate care about it? Do you think an advancing asteroid, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a tornado, or a volcano cares about that piece of paper that entitles you to that domain?

No, ownership of property is an anthropomorphic, intellectual creation, and nothing more. And for that reason, I find the idea of property ownership itself patently absurd, despite being libertarian in other ways.

David J. Heinrich April 1, 2010 at 3:55 pm


Wow, thank you for the correction! I was indeed using the word in exactly the wrong way. Yes, you are absolutely right, “positively own” means “own with respect to what US courts decree, whether right or wrong”, while normative means in accordance with what is actually right or wrong. I sincerely thank you for your correction!

PS and note to any new readers: I corrected the original blog entry retroactively. Hence, the proper words are used.

Manuel Lora April 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I appreciate David’s intellectual honesty, accepting a correction several years after this was first posted.

Francisco Stallcup December 17, 2010 at 10:08 am

Good article, it’s real grand. I did a search on the issue and found most people will consent with your blog. Thank’s for you inform. My helpful hints on referral affiliate programs. I assume you made certain good points in features also.

Online Generic Propecia March 31, 2011 at 8:28 am

There is perceptibly a bunch to know about this. I assume you made some nice points in features also.

baseball sportsbook April 12, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Very nice info and right to the point. I am not sure if this is really the best place to ask but do you folks have any ideea where to hire some professional writers? Thanks :)

understanding iso standards July 8, 2011 at 2:36 am

Does your website have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some suggestions for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it expand over time.

Fadale August 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm

You are clearly right on with what you said. I cannot agree with you more! Great post!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: