Myth: No one has a right to my property.
Fact: Our property rights are defined by democratic government, which is the sovereign owner of the nation's territory.
Property is anything whose use is controlled, usually by threat of force. This may include land, objects, ideas, even people (slaves). Groups are more efficient and effective at defending property than lone individuals. Such groups use military force to protect property from external threats, and police force to protect property from internal threats. These groups (as represented by government) are the ultimate owners, since they exercise the force that protects property. As ultimate owners, governments create a subordinate property system for their citizens to use. Many governments have liberalized citizen's rights to use property to a high degree, but the ultimate owners still place limits on its use, in the form of zoning laws, property taxes, etc. Awarding citizens 100 percent ownership and control of their property would recreate the anarchic system of nations on a smaller scale, with land and business owners acting as the rulers of their own pocket principalities. Like all sovereign tribes, principalities or nations, this would result in instability and frequent war. Democratic government is the only other system allows everyone to possess the nation's property.
[Note: some of the arguments in this essay have been copied or borrowed, with permission, from the Non-Libertarian FAQ and some personal communications with its author, Mike Huben.]
Ultimately, all debates over taxation and regulation comes down to issues of property. What, exactly, is property? Who owns it? And does anyone other than the owner have a right to it?
As with the debate on rights, the debate over property is best divided into two sections. The first section describes the property system we actually have now, while the second section describes what property systems are ideally possible.
PART ONE: The Current Property System
Property is defined as anything whose use is controlled, usually by threat of force. For example, if you own an acre of land, you control how you wish to use it, who may be granted or denied access to it, and whether you wish to sell it or not. Your control of the land is protected by force, either by the police, the military or even your own protective measures, such as guns or dogs.
Land is only one example of property. Other examples include objects (like bicycles or personal trinkets), ideas (like intellectual property or copyrights), and even people (like slaves). Again, this is a description of property as it actually is, not how it should be in an ideal world.
Simply laying claim to property is not enough to make it yours. An owner's claim to possess something is only as good as the force that backs it up. If a thief steals property, or an invader pillages it, then it has changed hands. The former owner may continue to claim that the property is morally his, and we might entirely sympathize, but not all the claims in the world will change the fact of possession. Only force -- or its credible threat -- will.
Of course, it is possible that the original owner can reach an agreement with the thief to return it, or that groups of people can agree to form a cooperative system of property. But these social agreements -- otherwise known as the "social contract" -- are only as good as the force that backs them up. Not all the agreement in the world will prevent someone from seizing your property if they decide to dishonor it. Therefore, the basis of all property is force or the threat of force, and it is the topic we must first examine.
The relationship between property and force
Groups are more efficient and effective than individuals at controlling and defending property. One reason is the strength provided by numbers; another is specialization of labor. Groups are doubly efficient at defending property because families defending their homes are also defending their nation as citizens, just as soldiers who defend their nation are also defending their families' homes.
The purpose of any territorial group is twofold. First, it defends against external invasions, either through the use or the credible threat of military force. Second, it devises a subordinate system of property for its individual members, and defends this system against internal robbery through the use or the credible threat of police or private forces. Both efforts result in a more stable and secure system of property ownership.
Societies have long competed with each other for property, sometimes going to war to conquer it. They remain sovereign only to the extent that they can defend against their competitors' threats. Land purchases, treaties and other forms of property acquisitions have no "legal" basis in a higher court -- such a court does not exist in an anarchic system of nations. These agreements are merely symbols, and are only effective as long as they are backed up by the requisite force. Hitler, for example, simply ignored the Treaty of Versailles, calling it a "scrap of paper" as he moved his troops into the Rhineland. And for much of its history, the U.N. has passed resolutions that were completely ignored by most nations. It was only recently that its resolutions were given "teeth," with the creation of U.N. peace-keeping forces.
The same principle applies to the domestic policing of property. Property is safe only to the extent that domestic force can stop thieves. But, unlike most international force, domestic force is generally applied according to law. In our case, these laws are the result of a group agreement to allocate property and defend it in certain prescribed ways.
This gives rise to another dichotomy in the property system: ultimate property and subordinate property. Ultimate property goes by many names: sovereignty, absolute property rights, ultimate ownership, real ownership, etc. Those vested with this kind of authority have the power to create a subordinate property system for other people to use. An (imperfect) analogy is that of a landlord and tenant. The landlord is something like the ultimate owner of the property, who creates a subordinate property system in the form of an apartment complex. These apartments are rented out to tenants under the terms of an agreement, which mandate the exchange of rents for the tenant's use of the property. In fact, the agreement allows the tenant such liberal and private inhabitation rights that the tenant may frequently refer to the rented space as "his" or "her" apartment.
The government (which is merely a representative of the group) is the nation's ultimate owner of property, because it is the entity vested with the force necessary to control it. This is an inescapable conclusion: if other entities had the force, they would be the ultimate owners. (We will explore possible alternatives to the government's ultimate ownership shortly, but we should note that this is the system we actually have in use today.) As the controller of the nation's property, it sets the rules of the subordinate property system. Most modern governments have made the rules of property use quite liberal, allowing a high degree of personal freedom. But there are limitations nonetheless.
The limitations of property
U.S. citizens purchase their land encumbered by U.S., state, and local government rule, the same way that land might be bought encumbered by liens, without timber or mineral rights, etc. Individuals who own property might think it's all theirs, because, after all, they hold the deed and title. But deeds and titles identify property as recognized by U.S., state and local governments. This type of property often comes with limitations and requirements, both publicly and privately derived. Failure to abide by those limitations and requirements forfeits the support of the ultimate owners, and may cause them to side with other claimants or take direct action.
For example, private transactions may stipulate that property be sold without water, mineral or timber rights. Or property may be sold with easements, such as ones granting your neighbor the right to cross over it to reach a road. Or it may be sold with limitations to its usage: for example, the Adirondack State Park was bequeathed to the people of New York State with the stipulation that it remain forever wild.
Public limitations on property are not much different from private ones. Property is sold with zoning and tax requirements. A public equivalent of an easement is the Fourth Amendment, which allows the government to enter and search your property if it has a legal search warrant.
As noted above, many modern governments have made the rules of property use quite liberal; one example is the personal defense of private property. Although the police are charged with protecting property, the law gives citizens a large (but limited) degree of freedom in protecting their own. For example, you may use a sufficient level of force to stop a pickpocket, but you do not have the legal right to kill him. (If you do, the aforementioned police will pay you a courtesy call.)
The rules of property ownership also include definitions of what can and cannot be property. History shows us many forms of property that have been abolished (for example, ownership of slaves, women, and children) or forms of property that have been explicitly created (intellectual property) or forms of property that have been privately asserted, but defined by government as commons (control of air passage over private lands).
A person buys property already encumbered by the rules of the original or ultimate owner, and agrees to them as part of the purchase. The original or ultimate owner gets to determine the method of agreement, which can be either explicit or implicit. But once having agreed to these rules, the new owner cannot void them. For example, if someone buys property that comes with an easement allowing a neighbor to cross over it, the new owner does not have the right to cancel it. And the original sale may require that the easements be included in the next sale. In the U.S., all property is sold under the continuing provisions of its ultimate owners, the U.S., state, and local governments.
PART TWO: Possible types of property systems
Some people are dissatisfied with the current property system, claiming that better and more just property systems are possible. Alternatives exist at both the ultimate and subordinate property levels. Let's examine all the possibilities:
Ultimate property systems
There are only four possibilities of who may own the ultimate property: