land ownership cow in pature

Voluntaryist land ownership

Matthew, a recovering social democrat asks about voluntaryist land ownership

He writes…

I’ve been learning about voluntaryism. It seems agreeable. As a Christian, I detest violence and I can see how statist principles are intertwined with violence. I’ve had to re-examine my “social democrat” beliefs. But I have some specific questions about land ownership.

Land is a finite resource necessary for sustenance, and no one chooses to be born. Should not each person have the right to some amount of land necessary to sustain himself? What right does a man have to simply claim land, beyond any conceivable need of his, while his neighbor is homeless? How is the right to own land as far as the eye can see greater than another individual’s right to life?

Further, as technology advances, the average person has less value to offer in exchange for the fruits of the land. It seems to me that each person should have a right to enough land to sustain himself. What is the voluntaryist perspective on this?

land ownership cow in pature

My approach to voluntaryist land ownership

Matthew’s questions assume two things…

  • Some degree of statism might be necessary to improve on current land distribution or to prevent unfair allocations in a voluntaryist society
  • Land ownership is the primary source of wealth

Let’s stress-test these assumptions.

How did land ownership begin?

Criminal warlords known as Dukes, Earls, and Kings once usurped all land ownership. They then extended this practice to the New World. The monarchs of Spain, France, and England granted vast tracts of already occupied land, in the Americas, to their political cronies. The United States Congress later assumed the same general ownership of all land. So…

How would voluntaryists have handled land allocation differently?

Something called the Homesteading Principle is the key to voluntaryist land ownership

Voluntaryists assume that land starts out being owned by no one. Neither Kings nor congresses nor individuals can simply presume to own land. How then can ownership be established?

If you clear forests, construct a dwelling and barns, build fences, plow land, plant crops, and create cisterns, water wells, and irrigation channels, then you have added value to the land. This arguably gives you ownership and control over the small slice of territory that you have improved. This is the Homesteading Principle of land ownership.

Please notice that this approach to land ownership is inherently self-limiting. While Kings and Queens could empower one person to own millions of acres with the stroke of a pen, the Homesteading Principle limits individual ownership to the amount of land one person can improve through his or her own efforts. This does not preclude the assembly of larger combinations of land through later sales, but it does create a front-end brake on land monopolization. In other words…

The statist approach employed by Kings and congresses fosters land aggregation while the voluntaryist approach retards it. Voluntaryist land ownership leads to wider wealth distribution.

How would voluntaryist land ownership handle squatters?

What if someone decides to squat on land you claim to own under the Homesteading Principle? How will you defend your claim?

You could use a gun to remove the squatters, but the violent approach could go against you. Even if you prevail, your actions might be called into question. You would have to hope that a jury would agree that you acted in reasonable self-defense. This danger suggests that it would be better to simply take the squatter to court, but that has risks too. The verdict could go against you. This is why entrepreneurs created title insurance. That way, if you lose a contested ownership claim your loss will be compensated.

No insurance company will protect your title unless they agree your claim is strong. So your title insurance represents both evidence of your claim and financial protection for that claim. Plus, your insurance company will also aid your case in court because their money is at stake too.

The importance of courts and juries in a voluntaryist system

Please notice that the voluntaryist approach to land ownership relies on courts and jury verdicts, but NOT on legislatures, legislation, and bureaucratic enforcement. Courts and juries are the foundation of voluntaryist governance, whereas legislatures and bureaucrats are the substance of statism.

This brings us to the second assumption we want to stress-test. Is it really true that all wealth relies on land? This was surely true for most of human history, but is it still true now?

Wealth then and now

Prior to the industrial revolution, most wealth came from agriculture and mining. Both endeavors depended on land ownership. Only a small part of wealth came from craftsmanship or trade. There were no real factories and few machines. If you wanted more wealth you either had to buy more land or steal it. This incentivized warfare. That’s why all land came to be owned by criminal warlords (called Dukes and Earls and Kings), and those warlords constantly attacked each other to increase their holdings.

But this all changed during the industrial revolution. Now it was KNOWLEDGE that created most of the wealth.

Knowledge replaces war

A Duke might own vast farmland and numerous mines, but he couldn’t turn his raw materials into a car or computer. He could only sell his unimproved resources to people who knew how to make something with them. Eventually, it was the people who knew how to make things who made most of the money. Today a computer programmer can earn six figures without owning any land at all.

This change divides human history into two parts – before the industrial revolution and after.

One result is that today we have fewer wars of conquest. Twentieth Century wars gradually became less about territory and more about ideas – democracy vs. monarchy and capitalism vs. communism. And even those wars are fading, as Steven Pinker shows in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” War is no longer economic. It makes people poorer, not richer. And please notice that there are no more land-based Dukes and Earls and Kings sitting at the top of the social hierarchy.

Will automation reverse these trends?

Will land become more important again as robots do more of the work? The trend has been the opposite. We’re learning how to do more and more with less and less. Even agriculture is producing more food using less land. Wildlife habitat is actually increasing in the developed world. People are richer than ever before and have to work less. That’s because wages rise and costs fall as production becomes more efficient. Automation will accelerate this trend.

The eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek are both under pressure. Increased automation will shorten workdays and workweeks. Automation will increase leisure, NOT unemployment. Unless the politicians find a way to screw it up, which they are perfectly capable of doing. That’s one more reason why we need voluntaryism.

To summarize, land just isn’t that important anymore. You don’t need to be a farmer or a miner to earn a living or to get rich. And the voluntaryist Homesteading Principle allocates property more fairly than did the violence-based approach of the Dukes and Earls and Kings, or the presumptive land ownership of the modern state.

Perry Willis is the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project.

Show Comments 12


  1. Farming used to be mining the fertility out of the soil. Commercial farming still is. This is unsustainable, self-defeating, a net loss for all. However, with the ‘net a paradigm shift in managing land has put the focus on the soil. This requires a respect for the ultimate environmental impact. But it all begins with nature’s lessons and the soil. Science can and has been myopic here. The undue influence of politics, business as a short term profit mechanism, and massive public funding indebted and directed the agriculture research, corrupting the reports. Without govt. money, less regression in agriculture practices would have certainly occurred.

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  2. You say, “If you clear forests, construct a dwelling and barns, build fences, plow land, plant crops, and create cisterns, water wells, and irrigation channels, then you have added value to the land.” But that is not necessarily true. There is great argument for leaving land along in its natural state and doing no violence to the land.

    Further, with the knowledge that God does exist and that He is loving and kind, whereas the devil is the opposite and the causer of all our problems, the real necessary focus of any societal movement is not to be concerned with land or politics, but rather be preparing for God’s return when He will set all things right again.

    God will return and relatively soon, but the idea of no land ownership will never happen.

  3. Perry, you say that “the voluntaryist Homesteading Principle allocates property more fairly” – using “allocates” in the present tense. Really, how meaningful is that in the present day? Know of any homesteading opportunities open right now? The real issue is not ‘state title’ versus ‘homesteaded title,’ but simply: How to advance private property. In practical terms, that means advancing (a) allodial titles and (b) secession.

    Obviously all will concede that knowledge is nowadays more important than land ownership, but this is a sterile acknowledgement. It profits nothing to suggest some vague ‘voluntarist’ sense of private property. The ultimate goal drives the thought, drives every resource to its realization; and that goal is a society of TOTAL private property ownership, a society where ALL public goods have been stripped from the state and returned to private owners.

    I have provided the vision of that future society of total public property, in spite of the fact that it will pass unnoticed in the current blizzard of tweetings and jabberings. It’s here – but for godssake, DON’T READ IT: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2016/12/terry-hulsey/capitalist-culture/

  4. Excellent piece!
    When do we become the Peace, Common Sense or Zero Aggression Party?? OR – should we give up on a political party solution and simply become a charity for scholarships to train Libertarian lawyers? Thank you for all you do and have done!

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      Thank you!

      I believe the political party could work if only libertarians would do the work to identify the 30-60 million Americans who numerous studies say already hold libertarian views, or who identify as such. Nearly all of these people are passive or else voting defensively in the major party contest. They won’t join together for common cause until they are all assembled in a master database. When/if that happens libertarians could achieve visibility and funding parity. This would make them competitive in all areas – elections, lobbying, education, etc. Alas, this task has been proposed to the current crop of libertarian activists many times, and it never gets any response. Most of us seem to prefer complaining, faction fights, and windmill tilting as our favorite activities. Things that would actually work, such as supporter identification efforts, and the kind of lobbying done at Agenda Setters by Downsize DC, never receive sufficient support.

      Meanwhile, the Zero Aggression Project will continue trying to share the Zero Aggression Principle with as many people as possible.

  5. Nice summary by Perry Willis. A point I’d like to make is that most of the push for expanded robotics has come from politicians and bureaucrats, who tax money away from the common people and subsidize universities and corporations to build these machines. Most are built with warfare in mind. Inspired by Mideast suicide bombers, our pols and bureaucrats that claim to protect us, are building killing machines that automate the job of killing, just in case they cannot find anyone willing to do the deed for them. Healthcare rationing systems like Britain’s NICE, and some imitators who envision a similar role for the CDC, rule on who is allowed to get “free” healthcare to continue living, and who gets no help at all. They do this by writing computer algorithms that make the deadly decisions for them, so nobody must actually tell the patient, “You cost too much to keep alive”. A killing machine makes the decision for millions of us, based on an algorithm written by a total stranger who was hired by un-elected bureaucrats.

    Take back the power to decide what politicians and bureaucrats do to and for people, and these problems become much more transparent.

  6. You don’t have to be a farmer or miner to need land. If your job requires you to live within commuting distance of a factory or medical clinic or car wash, you need to own or rent valuable land in (often) an urban area. Similarly, if you’re trying to make a living owning and operating a restaurant or a drugstore or other business in a city where there is a concentration of potential customers, you need to own or lease the land.

    The Homesteading Principle leads to problems. For example, if Tom clears forty acres of land and cultivates the topsoil, does he also acquire the mineral rights? Can Pete homestead a patch of woodland even though it is part of the Narragansett tribe’s traditional hunting, gathering, and woodcutting grounds? And was a managed forest, not primeval wilderness? If Joe homesteaded forty acres of land near the trading post of Chicago, and I bought the land from Joe’s grandson, do I now have right, without performing any work myself, to charge people substantial sums of money for building lots in what is now a Chicago suburb? And can land be preserved from homesteaders because it is valuable, at least to some people, for nature preserves, trees to absorb pollutants and produce oxygen, wetlands to filter wastewater and prevent flooding downriver?

  7. Articles of Property consist 9/10th Possession an Originates from of a simple equation.
    Materials X Idea X Labor = Property. Ensample: Cut a tree & fashion a table.
    Real Property Consists of 9/10th Occupation with Improvements by Ideas and Labor.
    Clear the land & plant a garden. If all owned a forty acres surely most will waste opportunity by idleness. Very soon much would be consolidated by sale to a fewer who are more industrious. Fortunately human labor produces far more than we can consume. So the more People that we can populate the Earth with the cheaper & more abundant & efficient & better goods & services we will have. If certain lies turned out to be true like ‘peak oil,’ we’d just develop other fuel sources & more efficiently use this source.

  8. Very interesting, and I love the history lesson from such a new angle, thank you!
    What if a person wanted to allow the area around their home to return to nature; would that mean they can lose it to those who do? Thanks for being here teaching.

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      You ask a good question re letting land return to nature. I suspect that a jury would respect ownership in that case too so long as said owner was taking steps to preserve it as habitat (as with the Natur Conservancy) or to enjoy it aesthetically as natural habitat. It’s a trickier proposition, but I bet such arrangements could find jury support.

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