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Private property ownership has nothing even remotely to do with political borders.

Here's an old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 7 years ago, in 2017, on the World Wide Web.

Private property ownership has nothing even remotely to do with political borders. Property lines are determined nonaggressively, they are subject to market forces, owners are strictly limited in what they can do by considerations of proportionality and equal liberty (if you smoke in my house or trespass on my lawn I have a right to throw you off my property; I don’t have a right to lock you in a cage or throw you out of the country). They are wildly different in scope and powers granted and processes by which they are established, enforced, divided and reallocated. One is a spatial expression of individual liberty and the other is a collective assault upon it. Equating the two is sophistry on a par with “Banks are a good place to put your money. The Mississippi River has two banks. Therefore, the side of the Mississippi River is a good place to leave your money.”

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  1. PRW

    Private property ownership has nothing even remotely to do with political borders.

    On the contrary, property is the state writ small.

    Property lines are determined nonaggressively,

    I take it you haven’t studied history at all; in just the US, any number of Native Americans or African Americans can point you to instances of their own forceful disposession to make way for the existing property allocations, and you’d have to look long and hard to find any other place on the Earth where similar disposessions and re-allocations have not happened.

    they are subject to market forces

    As are political borders, hence things like the Gadsden Purchase.

    owners are strictly limited in what they can do by considerations of proportionality and equal liberty

    Says who? Says the State, for the most part. Just try arguing ‘proportionality’ or ‘equal liberty’ in a company town.

    They are wildly different in scope

    There are private property claims in the US, Australia or Brazil that are larger than several European countries, where is this difference in scope?

    powers granted

    Granted by who?

    • Rad Geek

      I take it you haven’t studied history at all;

      You’d be wrong about that. But I take the implications of the history of land theft, and other forms of coercive dispossession, to be different from what you take them to be. Perhaps because I mean something different by “property” than what you seem to think I mean. If you think that when I describe normative principles of private property, I’m defending whatever current property allocations or property claims happen to be recognized by the State as private property under current law, then it might seem like my claim about private property lines being determined non-aggressively is easily refuted by pointing to the history of massive land theft, ethnic cleansing or dispossession. But my claim isn’t dependent on what the law recognizes; the view I’d defend here is the one outlined by Karl Hess when he says:

      The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.

      So you can rightly point out that current property allocations are shot through with massive historic injustices — among them the confiscation of land from indigenous people, the development of land using forced and uncompensated labor from African and African-American slaves, or a lot of things you didn’t mention, like the 19th use of fraud and ethnic terror to expel and expropriate land from Tejanx and other Chicanx landholders in what’s now the Southwest, or the 20th century use of federal urban renewal programs to systematically confiscate, destroy and remake homes and small businesses in inner city neighborhoods, especially predominantly black or Latinx neighborhoods — but I’m going to take those as examples of historical violations of private property rights, specifically the private property rights of the indigenous, black, Latinx, etc. people being attacked and dispossessed by the State or by private actors operating within the sanction of the State.

      The right solution would be to rectify the injustice as far as possible by restoring the property to the people it was stolen from or compensating them with appropriate reparations. I don’t think it vitiates what I said about private property norms in the status above any more than the fact that someone can steal car parts, and a fair number of car parts on the resale market may be stolen, shows you something deep about the aggressiveness of car ownership.

      You might respond that the normative account I have of private property in some sense or another doesn’t matter compared to the descriptive account of what the State actually recognizes as legal property; but if so, you’d need to tell me what purposes you think it does or doesn’t matter for, and offer some kind of argument in defense of that claim. As it stands, your claim rests either on a misunderstanding of my position or equivocation on the central term.

      As are political borders, hence things like the Gadsden Purchase.

      I am not sure what you understand subject to market forces to mean here. Do you just mean that money changed hands between the U.S. government and the Mexican government along with the redrawing of boundaries? If so, I don’t disagree with that — diplomatic power-politics often involve money changing hands; e.g. the U.S. government paid Mexico about $15,000,000 for the territory seized earlier under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — but that doesn’t make it an example of market forces in the way that the term is normally used in economics literature. You might look at the differences in the role of competition, profit-motive, market entry, the risk of market loss, exit/going out of business, etc. etc. here.

      Says who? Says the State, for the most part. Just try arguing proportionality or equal liberty in a company town.

      That seems like an instance where the State didn’t say that owners are strictly limited in what they can do. In towns like that, it was typically up to the workers to push back and insist on limiting the owners where they could. (So we could talk about the Mine Wars here as a series of instances of people doing that.) It’s true that in situations where a monopolistic owner has an immense concentration of effective political power, they often get away with murder. That’s a reason to think that the State is pretty bad at recognizing moral limits on ownership when the incumbent owners monolithically dominate the State. It’s not a reason to think that the State is right about that. (As a rule, I don’t think the State is right about much.)

      Granted by who?

      By who or what? would be the better question here. My answer would be that the just powers of legitimate owners are granted by the moral logic of the situation, not by personal or institutional authorities. People may recognize those claims, or they may not.

  2. Erica

    This seems to be a philosophical argument versus a commentary on actually existing situations, am I correct? Because I see a lot of parallels between private property ownership and political borders in the US.

    Here I am thinking of settlers “non-aggressively” appropriating land for themselves, not knowing or perhaps not caring it is someone else’s customary land. Or just shooting people for their land. Or excluding them. Now the property rights the settlers acquired don’t look aggressive to most people, but they are founded on aggression.

    • Rad Geek

      Hi Erica,

      You’re correct that this is a philosophical argument about private property norms. It’s not a claim that all current or historical claims of ownership are just, or are distinct from the territorial claims of states. I agree that the settlement history of the U.S. is full of things that look a lot more like military or paramilitary occupation (or just literally were military or paramilitary occupation — for example the State of Georgia’s parceling out of land seized from people in the Cherokee Nation, or the looting and parceling out of Tejanx land to Anglos in the Republic of Texas and after statehood). As you might anticipate, my view of those cases is that in those cases the looter-settler-occupiers don’t actually establish a rightful claim to own the land that they seize. I take it to be land theft rather than a transfer of land ownership, and subject to much the same philosophical attack that I would make against claims of territorial sovereignty by political states.

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