The Problem of Property

There’s been a lot of controversy about the Bundy Ranch situation, and like basically every other high-profile news event, there’s an awful lot of hype associated with it. I’ve been following the story, but I haven’t dug into all the details. However, this article from the Mises Institute is a thought-provoking exploration of property rights in the West.

While the 19th century “Wild West” was in some ways an excellent example of anarcho-capitalism, this freedom was eventually overshadowed by the federal government’s intrusion into the West and its claim on much of the land. Just as one could point to the railroads as a prime example of entrepreneurship, the story is much more complicated. Most of the railroads in the Midwest and West were subsidized by the federal government and turned out to be black holes of inefficiency and waste. Libertarians have done a good job reclaiming the heritage of the free West and demonstrating that the absence of extensive government intervention did not result in chaos and mayhem—contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal. But the West certainly was no libertarian paradise, considering that 93% of federal land is in the 13 Western states. Just like the railroad tycoons welcomed government subsidies to give them advantages over potential competitors, those with larger ranches and businesses welcomed government ownership of land as a way to keep their smaller competitors from expanding.

The issue of property simply becomes very complicated when it is public land. From controversies over carrying firearms on public property to grazing cattle on state land, there is no end to the controversies over land usage. It is almost deceptively simple—and yet revolutionary—to propose that all land be privately owned. I think few people recognize the lack of ownership as the root cause of so many problems in our day, and so it seems irrelevant to suggest private ownership as the solution.

But I suggest this: The next time you hear about a disagreement or politically charged situation, consider what would happen if every square inch of land in America was owned by individuals. My guess is, you’d  be surprised at how many problems this would eliminate. Of course, there are a lot of implications and questions about how it would work for land to be privately owned, but the first step is to recognize the philosophical soundness of the idea. As the story goes, when a free market economist met with a Communist dictator, the dictator asked him to predict how many shoes would be produced if his country became free. We laugh at the short-sightedness of this question, realizing that no one can decide the future this finitely. In a similar way, it is important to embrace the principles of liberty and let the choices of free individuals determine what our future looks like. That’s really what freedom is all about.

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