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Who has a right to your property?

By Henry Lamb
web posted May 17, 2004

In response to a recent column, a reader asked:

"I couldn't tell how you view land ownership in terms of property right. Is the earth the birthright of all, with title to parts of it to be determined by payment to the community of its annual rental value, or does the purchase of a parcel by one person from another satisfy the right of all other people to enjoy the earth?"

This question reveals a generation of environmental education in this country, that is devoid of understanding the fundamental principle of property ownership, and of the relationship between property ownership and freedom.

The reader assumes that property rights attached to ownership arise from the "payment to the community of its annual rental value."

Property rights do not arise from the "community," nor from the government. The right to hold and use property is endowed by the Creator. Every member of every species has the right to claim, hold, and use any land - until a more powerful competitor takes it. This is the undeniable law of nature.

For centuries, humans claimed, held, and used land like all other animals - until a more powerful competitor took it. Over time, people devised ways to claim, hold, and convey land without bloodshed. In most of the world, the patriarch, and later the king, was accepted as the owner of the land, and entitled to dictate how it would be used, and by whom.

This view of land ownership was embraced by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed that the king should own all the resources in order to assure appropriate distribution of the land's resources to the people. This is the philosophy from which modern socialism emerged.

John Locke rejected this view, and taught that land belonged to its first possessor, who confirmed his ownership by mixing his own labor with the land and its resources to sustain his own life. This is the philosophy from which modern capitalism emerged.

In the early days of America, land ownership was sacred. Once owned, no person, or government, could take the owned land without just compensation. Over time, the sanctity of land ownership has been compromised by policies based on the socialist philosophy - as reflected in the reader's question. That all people have some claim to the land, and its resources, is a socialist belief that now permeates all U.S. land policy.

This belief is articulated in the U.N.'s policy on land use, established by the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements in 1976. It is at the core of Agenda 21, and the policy recommendations of the President's Council on Sustainable Development. It is the basis for the rash of "visioning" projects undertaken in communities across the nation, and it is at the heart of virtually all of the state and local "comprehensive planning" initiatives.

The idea that a land owner is, in fact, only empowered to use some part of the land by virtue of the "annual rent paid to the community," while all other people retain some interest and claim to the non-rented portions of the land, is abhorrent to the philosophy of John Locke, to capitalism, and to freedom.

Still, in every community, comprehensive plans are being adopted that take the fundamental right to use privately owned land away from the owner, and vest the authority to use private property in the hands of community "stakeholders." In policies that flow from laws such as the Endangered Species Act, and many other environmental laws, agencies of the federal government assume the power to dictate how private land owners may use their own land.

The right of a private owner to use land and its resources is being systematically stripped from the American system of government. In its place has grown a socialist system of "community" control of private property, enforced by government. This transformation has already had severe social and economic consequences, and has placed America on a course that will inevitably follow the failed Soviet experience.

Despite the howls and screams of environmental organizations, American lawmakers - at every level of government - should reject comprehensive plans and land management policies that replace private ownership with public control of land use. Private ownership of land is meaningless without the authority to use it. The definition of ownership, after all, is the "power to control use." Power to control the use of property is freedom to control. There can be no freedom when the community, or government has the power to control use of private property.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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