I began to think about the concept of land ownership after reading two separate books, whose authors probably would not agree on the subject. The first was the final pamphlet in a series of writings by Thomas Paine called “Agrarian Justice”. The second is from a book I read about a year ago by Ron Paul called “Liberty Defined“.
Both Ron Paul and Thomas Paine are known for their outspoken “pro-Liberty” stance so I was interested to see such a dynamic exist between their ideas about land ownership. It also caused me to examine my own thoughts on the subject.
1. Opposing Views: Thomas Paine and Ron Paul on Land Ownership
In context, it may be helpful to quickly describe the two men’s views on the morality and right of land ownership and then my own thoughts on the subject.
1a. Ron Paul on Land Ownership:
Ron Paul is a champion of the Austrian school of economic thought. He believes that private land ownership is a pivotal component to a successful economy, personal liberty, and natural rights. Ron Paul is against public land ownership, especially ownership by the Federal Government, citing the misuse of public land in the abuses of eminent domain, lobbyist groups, and otherwise corrupt actions by Governments. On many of these points I agree.
“In a free society, the land is owned by the people, not the government…Total federal ownership is more than one third of the land mass of the fifty states. But that’s not the only problem…Taxation and regulations are so cumbersome that land owners are essentially renters with no right to the land…”
Ron Paul also hints and problems of facism and oligarchical control of land:
“Today’s corporations and private businesses ask local governments to condemn land in order to resell it to them. The promise is that the land value will go up, the business will pay more taxes, the municipality will benefit, and the new business will earn moremoney with its new, preferable location…This is a modern distortion and abuse of the principle of eminent domain.”
The part I do not believe Ron Paul addresses is the potential for private land owners and corporations to own and hold giant portions of land into perpetuity. If it is every man’s natural right to own land how can we justify one man or single corporation to own it all – leaving nothing for some people. Isn’t then, the perpetual ownership of massive amounts of land inherently immoral and contrary to liberty?
Thomas Paine addresses some of these concerns.
1b. Thomas Paine on Land Ownership:
Thomas Paine believed that, in a civilized state, individuals are entitled to the fruits of their improvements to land. And since it is impossible to separate the improvements made to land and the land itself property ownership is a right. Paine did however draw a distinction between the land itself (which everyone is entitled to) and the cultivation and improvement of that land (which the laborer is entitled to):
“And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation, from the earth itself, upon which that improvement is made, the idea of landed property arose from that inseparable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself that is individual property. Every proprietor therefore of cultivated land owes the community a ground-rent for the land which he holds…
The additional value made by cultivation, after they system [of property ownership] was implemented, became the property of those who did it, or who inherited it from them, or who purchased it. It had originally no owner. Whilst, therefore, I advocate the right, and interest myself in the hard case of all those who have been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property, I equally defend the right of the possessor to the part which is his…”
Thomas Paine offers the following solution to bridge the gap between the rights of land owners (those who own land and cultivate it) and the rights of non-land owners (those who have a right to the ground itself, but cannot use it because it is occupied):
“To create a National Fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of Fifteen Pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, The sum of Ten Pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.”
Many people equate Thomas Paine’s solution with the modern day property tax and Social Security payments.
2. My Thoughts on the Morality of Land Ownership
The biggest problem I see with land ownership today is the perpetual ownership of mass amounts of land by the wealth elites, government, and corporations. This system usually means that large plots of valuable land and it’s resources are owned by the same family, company, or the Government for centuries.
I wonder: Is the process of perpetual and infinite land ownership acceptable in a free society or is it a modern form of royalty – where power and resources are passed down from generation to generation by a group of powerful elites?*