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How is Land Ownership Acquired ... Initially

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Swerve of Shore
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Here's a quick one ... OK, only quick by my long-winded standards.

How is the initial right of ownership in a piece of land rightfully acquired?

As I understand it, many Indian tribes did not think you could own land ... any more than you can own the air you breathe.

One historical answer is that it is whoever first claims and productively uses the land gets rightful ownership. But the Indians necessarily had to lose out on this game because they don't know how to play it.

This works with frontier land, but what about other situations? What would have been the proper way to privatize land upon the breakup of the USSR? Clearly not by giving it away to the most well-connected former communists. Is it by auction? But who has the money: the same well-connected former communists. Is it some sort of process to figure out who the property was stolen from? How about giving everybody an equal piece or a lottery?

As for stolen property, what do you think about "reparations" for the stolen labor of the American slaves? Should they have gotten their "forty acres and a mule" after the Civil War ... and should their descendents now get that plus interest?

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Here's a quick one ... OK, only quick by my long-winded standards.

How is the initial right of ownership in a piece of land rightfully acquired?

As I understand it, many Indian tribes did not think you could own land ... any more than you can own the air you breathe.

One historical answer is that it is whoever first claims and productively uses the land gets rightful ownership. But the Indians necessarily had to lose out on this game because they don't know how to play it.

Private ownership starts with the forming of a capitalist government, and an objective set of criteria for what actions constitute "taking ownership" of land, determined by this government.

This works with frontier land, but what about other situations? What would have been the proper way to privatize land upon the breakup of the USSR? Clearly not by giving it away to the most well-connected former communists. Is it by auction? But who has the money: the same well-connected former communists. Is it some sort of process to figure out who the property was stolen from? How about giving everybody an equal piece or a lottery?

After the 1917 Russian revolution, and after the 1944 Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe, most land was expropriated from its rightful owners. The proper action, after the fall of communism, would've been to simply give it back to those owners (in the case of Eastern Europe, most of them still alive) or to their heirs.

This was done in the countries which became democratic and semi-capitalist, not just with land, but with most confiscated homes, churches, buildings, etc.

As for stolen property, what do you think about "reparations" for the stolen labor of the American slaves? Should they have gotten their "forty acres and a mule" after the Civil War ... and should their descendents now get that plus interest?

Any objective restoration of material value, to the victims of theft/expropriation/slavery, or to their heirs, is also justified, on an individual basis. However, the values being restored must be the direct result of slavery (i.e. something built by slaves, that the current owner inherited from his slave owner ancestors), and the beneficiaries must be the slaves who built it (or their rightful heirs).

Not only do ideas like reparation and affirmative action never bother to figure out the specific criminals and victims these restorations are being taken from and given to, and for what specific crime (which would all by itself be nearly impossible at this point - mainly because most of the material values build by slaves no longer exist), but they don't even bother taking from criminals or giving to victims. They just take from random taxpayers, and give to random minorities, even though 99% of those taxpayers own nothing that was built by slaves, and most minorities aren't even black let alone rightful heirs of slaves.

In other words, the notion of reparations and affirmative action over slavery in the United States is irrational beyond belief. While "40 acres and a mule" was more reasonable, it wasn't exactly an objective act of justice either.

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Thanks, Nicky. What about the land in the USSR for which the previous owners could not be found (or which the previous owners - perhaps Tsarist officials - could be shown to have stolen themselves)? How do you think it could best be allocated?

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If the new government was of, by and for the people, in this specific example perhaps the land should have been placed in the public trust as in a receivership with the stated intention of selling the land at auction with procedes slated to funding the new appropriate government and its legitimate functions.

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How is the initial right of ownership in a piece of land rightfully acquired?

Good question. There has been some prior discussion about this: http://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?showtopic=23717

Nicky covers the Objectivist response well, but there remains some troubling issues to resolve. For example, Nicky is correct to say private ownership starts with forming a governing body with objective criteria for claiming property, i.e. rightful ownership requires the establishment of objective rights. However in the context of the American frontier, did the Indian's lack of objective criteria for claiming property justify removing them from it? Would objective criteria for claiming property have been sufficient, had Indian weapons been equal to or better than the Europeans??

I prefer John Locke's argument for acquiring property, but won't bother to rehash that here. I'll simply refer you to Chapter 5 of his Second Treatise for Civil Government if you're interested. Essentially the first acquisition of real estate is like plucking a pebble from a beach; so long as there remains an abundance of pebbles, no one cares. But the moment someone else wants your pebble, you need force to secure your right to it. The two maxims that always apply are: possession is 9/10ths of the law, and might makes right.

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Actually I think it is a myth that Indian tribes, by and large, had no conception of property (unfortunately Ayn Rand helped to perpetuate this myth), but actually there are examples of many tribes which had complex legal bodies and constitutions which upheld property rights in land.

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Nicky covers the Objectivist response well, but there remains some troubling issues to resolve. For example, Nicky is correct to say private ownership starts with forming a governing body with objective criteria for claiming property, i.e. rightful ownership requires the establishment of objective rights. However in the context of the American frontier, did the Indian's lack of objective criteria for claiming property justify removing them from it?

No. But "clearing up land the natives were living on" wasn't the reason for the conflicts and wars between natives and colonists, and later between native tribes and the American government. At the time of those conflicts, it would've been idiotic to try and take used land from anyone. There was plenty of unused land available.

Native American tribes were not property owners, they were territorial. The root of the conflict was that tribes claimed territories not based on individual rights but based on collectivist principles (much like governments do, today), and they regarded colonists as foreign invaders (much like some Americans look at illegal immigrants today). They looked at both used and unused land in their territory as rightfully under the full control of their tribe.

When you paint the picture of the conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans, and leave out any mention of Native American attacks on peaceful colonists who entered their territory, I can't help but be suspicious of your motives or knowledge of history.

Would objective criteria for claiming property have been sufficient, had Indian weapons been equal to or better than the Europeans??

Technological advances (including better weapons) are the result of Reason. Had North American natives been more rational than Europeans, they would've had objective criteria for claiming property in place already. Without objective criteria for claiming property, better weapons aren't just gonna fall from the sky.

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When you paint the picture of the conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans, and leave out any mention of Native American attacks on peaceful colonists who entered their territory, I can't help but be suspicious of your motives or knowledge of history.

I'm only attempting to respond to the OP's original question; not to cast blame. We can agree that legally defending a right to property requires the preexistence of objective rights and a governing body tasked with securing those rights. However this falls short of establishing any justification for the acquisition of untitled real estate (like that which existed on the American frontier) other than squatters rights defended by force.

My understanding is that Objectivism limits property rights to property created or earned by ones actions. So how does one become entitled to property that's created by nature's actions without relying on some measure of Locke's argument? If you argue that discovery of naturally created property is equivalent to earning it, e.g. that the European discovery of the Americas entitled them to conquest, that appears to shortchange Native American claims to territory they discovered but only held by a lesser force.

Technological advances (including better weapons) are the result of Reason. Had North American natives been more rational than Europeans, they would've had objective criteria for claiming property in place already. Without objective criteria for claiming property, better weapons aren't just gonna fall from the sky.

Are you familiar with Jared Diamond's work, Guns, Germs and Steel?

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I'm only attempting to respond to the OP's original question; not to cast blame.

You implied that Native Americans were driven from their lands for no reason other than that the white people wanted that land. Depending on what you mean by "their land", you're either parroting the blatant rewriting of history by leftist, anti-American propagandists, or are defining "their" wrong.

If by "their" you mean the land they were living and farming on, or if you mean their right to hunt and scavenge for food in some area they've been hunting and scavenging on before whites got there, then you're just repeating a lie. That's not what happened, that's the propaganda version.

If by their property you mean all of North America, or whatever territory lied under the control of any particular tribe the way territory is controlled by governments today, then you're missing the point of what property is. Property is the individual's right to self sustaining action, not the tribe's right to control whatever territory they can defend. North America isn't anybody's property.

My understanding is that Objectivism limits property rights to property created or earned by ones actions.

Not really. Objectivism holds that all property should be privately owned, man made or otherwise, but that property should belong to the people who earned it, not to someone who didn't.

That isn't a limit on property rights (everything can be owned, and is owned as soon as it is used in any way), it's a limit on theft of property and on gratuitous claims to property (i.e. I claim the Moon as my property, before someone with a use for it has a chance, and then use my "ownership" to hinder their efforts).

If you argue that discovery of naturally created property is equivalent to earning it, e.g. that the European discovery of the Americas entitled them to conquest, that appears to shortchange Native American claims to territory they discovered but only held by a lesser force.

You're misrepresenting the concept "property". I would never argue that a race of people has a right to a continent. Neither would anyone on this forum, except maybe one or two trolls.

Property rights are a right to self sustaining action, not a right to arbitrary territory or an entire continent. Knowing about North America doesn't give you the right to keep Europeans out of North America. That's not self sustaining action. Holding a large territory and doing nothing with it except keeping other people out, out of an irrational sense of collective pride or fear of strangers, is not self sustaining action.

Knowing about a piece of land that's fit for agriculture or gold exploration does give you the right to the use of that land, because that is self sustaining action. When I said that a government is needed to set up an objective framework for land ownership, what I meant is that there needs to be an objective criteria on what one must do to prove that he has the ability to engage in self sustaining action on a piece of previously unused land. For instance, fencing up a piece of land, or otherwise preparing it for agriculture, would be an objective criteria for registering the right to that land with the government.

[Note: I edited my post pretty heavily, and pretty late. So, if anyone's already typing a response as I'm typing this, I'm sorry.

Edited by Nicky
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Your understanding is wrong.

"Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values."

http://aynrandlexico...rty_rights.html

Care to elaborate? Unless you can provide some meaning to the statement cited other than the obvious one, my understanding appears to be adequate as stated.

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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Not really. Objectivism holds that all property should be privately owned, man made or otherwise, but that property should belong to the people who earned it, not to someone who didn't.

Fine, so what did European settlers (or Native Americans for that matter) do to earn untitled property created by nature? According to Objectivism there are only two options; create it (which they did not), or earn it (which everyone does by using it).

That isn't a limit on property rights (everything can be owned, and is owned as soon as it is used in any way), it's a limit on theft of property and on gratuitous claims to property (i.e. I claim the Moon as my property, before someone with a use for it has a chance, and then use my "ownership" to hinder their efforts).

Your statement that, "everything can be owned, and is owned as soon as it is used in any way," relies on Locke's argument, and certainly doesn't exclude territory claimed by Native Americans as hunting grounds or for seasonal agricultural use:

"Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others." ~ Sec. 27, Chap. 5, Of Property

http://www.constitut.../jl/2ndtr05.htm

Are you willing to admit this is what Objectivism relies on too?

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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Fine, so what did European settlers (or Native Americans for that matter) do to earn untitled property created by nature?

Maybe instead of following Locke's example by personifying nature, you should learn from some of the human knowledge that was acquired after he died, and understand what nature is. Then maybe you'll be more open to the answer I already provided.

Or you could read some of Ayn Rand's writings for a more complete answer. Either way, I'm not going to entertain the "created by nature" argument. Everything is nature, including our minds. If we need to earn nature first, then the concept "earn" is nonsensical. We can't "earn" nature without using nature, because we are a part of nature.

Nature is a given. What we earn we earn in the context of nature, not separate from it. (and, like I've repeated several times, what we earn and what we own is the right to action in a social context not objects or territories).

doesn't exclude territory claimed by Native Americans as hunting grounds or for seasonal agricultural use

So what? Are you actually arguing that Native Americans owned the entire continent because they were hunting on it?

Edited by Nicky
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The only thing I'm trying to point out is that Objectivism deals very nicely with the man-made but doesn't really respond to the OP's question regarding justifying the original acquisition of land. Locke at least attempts to assign some legitimacy to claiming land by applying ones labor to use it, which you appear to agree with: "everything can be owned, and is owned as soon as it is used in any way." That you choose to dismiss the original source of your argument by assigning the same premise to Ayn Rand is curious, given she's hardly added anything to it. Either you create the property, which doesn't apply in the case of land, or you labor to use what nature provides, and that's where it gets dicey if you try asserting a European claim to property already in use by Native Americans.

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Actually I think it is a myth that Indian tribes, by and large, had no conception of property (unfortunately Ayn Rand helped to perpetuate this myth), but actually there are examples of many tribes which had complex legal bodies and constitutions which upheld property rights in land.

What complex legal bodies, are there actual preserved written documents? I remeber reading Washington was respected by the tribes he dealt, though the respect was from fear, I think he name was village killer or somesuch. I also remember Franklin making comments on some aspects of perhaps the Lenape society, but i do not remeber any mention of viewing written documents, I always assumed they had no written language. I doubt they had the technological capabilities of paper making, but perhaps I am misinformed.

Edited by tadmjones
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Of course, one answer is: it doesn't matter. This line of argument follows from Rand's writings about inheritance. With inherited land, she holds that it is the rights of the deceased to do as he likes with his property, not the rights of the inheritor - who may be a wastral - that matter. If the inheritor is a wastral, however, Rand is confident that the wastral's property will dissipate over time anyway - that is to say, the property will eventually fall into the hands of those who can best use it. So, to return to the original question, even if the title to the land is marred by theft or has no rational basis in the first place, in the end it is the fact that it is recognized as property - and is dealt with going forward according to law and rights - that matters.

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The only thing I'm trying to point out is that Objectivism deals very nicely with the man-made but doesn't really respond to the OP's question regarding justifying the original acquisition of land.

No, it does, you just haven't read it. You're misrepresenting Objectivism left and right, so it's pretty obvious.

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No, it does, you just haven't read it. You're misrepresenting Objectivism left and right, so it's pretty obvious.

"My understanding is that Objectivism limits property rights to property created or earned by ones actions." ~ my statement from post #8

"Not really. Objectivism holds that all property should be privately owned, man made or otherwise, but that property should belong to the people who earned it, not to someone who didn't." ~ your response from post #9

"Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values." ~ the source of my information, cited in post #10

http://aynrandlexico...rty_rights.html

I fail to see any "misrepresentation" on my part...

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Of course, one answer is: it doesn't matter. This line of argument follows from Rand's writings about inheritance. With inherited land, she holds that it is the rights of the deceased to do as he likes with his property, not the rights of the inheritor - who may be a wastral - that matter. If the inheritor is a wastral, however, Rand is confident that the wastral's property will dissipate over time anyway - that is to say, the property will eventually fall into the hands of those who can best use it. So, to return to the original question, even if the title to the land is marred by theft or has no rational basis in the first place, in the end it is the fact that it is recognized as property - and is dealt with going forward according to law and rights - that matters.

"It doesn't matter" isn't a very persuasive answer in my estimation. It certainly matters if the first transaction of common land to private possession was legitimate, because failing that standard makes the current owner a receiver of stolen goods, and no amount of laundering justifies the original theft.

I've yet to find an answer that satisfies me on this issue. Locke seems to offer the best justification for privatizing frontiers where unclaimed land is plentiful. Objectivism seems to provide the best justification for transactions that follow. The next frontier is space and there's already a lot of interesting arguments and legal work being presented in anticipation of legitimizing claims to extraterrestrial property. The following statement is as good as any for justifying the acquisition of that which was neither produced or earned by man, but provided by nature instead:

"It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission." ~ Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

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Objectivism holds that all property should be privately owned, man made or otherwise, but that property should belong to the people who earned it, not to someone who didn't...

Knowing about a piece of land that's fit for agriculture or gold exploration does give you the right to the use of that land, because that is self sustaining action. When I said that a government is needed to set up an objective framework for land ownership, what I meant is that there needs to be an objective criteria on what one must do to prove that he has the ability to engage in self sustaining action on a piece of previously unused land. For instance, fencing up a piece of land, or otherwise preparing it for agriculture, would be an objective criteria for registering the right to that land with the government.

I see what you're saying, but.. why would I build a fence around 1 acre of unused land if I could build a fence around 10 or 20 acres of unused land? The person who can afford to build the most fencing is the one who gets the most land, ie: the richest people call dibs and everyone else just has to deal with it.

By your reasoning, when land is claimed for the first time (ie: when I fence 20 acres of land and call it 'mine' but can only make use of 1 acre because I spent all my money buying fencing), then the land is still 'mine' and I can do whatever I want with it.. use it for absolutely nothing, sell it, etc.

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I see what you're saying, but.. why would I build a fence around 1 acre of unused land if I could build a fence around 10 or 20 acres of unused land? The person who can afford to build the most fencing is the one who gets the most land, ie: the richest people call dibs and everyone else just has to deal with it.

By your reasoning, when land is claimed for the first time (ie: when I fence 20 acres of land and call it 'mine' but can only make use of 1 acre because I spent all my money buying fencing), then the land is still 'mine' and I can do whatever I want with it.. use it for absolutely nothing, sell it, etc.

That's not my reasoning. My reasoning is that there need to be objective criteria on what constitutes proof that a would be owner has the ability to use a piece of land.

Fencing it in was an example because in the context of virtually unlimited land being available (as it was the case in the early days of the American colonies), fencing in land is sufficient proof that the person doing the fencing isn't just trying to do what you're suggesting (fence in land and sit on it). If he did, it would just be a waste of resources (or, at best, he would be reimbursed by someone for fencing it in - but no one would buy land that's fenced in for more than the cost of that service).

Obviously if today some desirable land was opened up to private use by the eco-fascists, a one foot fence would not be sufficient to claim ownership.

As for "the rich would have an advantage", yes, of course they would. The rich have more resources and can achieve more than the poor. That means they will use more land, too. It's not the government's job to level the playing field between the rich and the poor, the government's job is to be objective in judging who can use some previously unowned resource, and protect their right to use it.

Remember, in Capitalism private individuals don't act by permission. When you walk up to a government office and register your land, you're not there to ask permission to that land. You are there to inform the government that you are taking possession of the land, and to provide them with the necessary proof that you are in fact taking possession, not just claiming to be taking possession. The role of the government is simply to objectively define what possession is, and then take note of who takes possession of what. Nothing more.

Edited by Nicky
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"Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values."

http://aynrandlexico...rty_rights.html

Care to elaborate? Unless you can provide some meaning to the statement cited other than the obvious one, my understanding appears to be adequate as stated.

That lexicon is supposed to be used as a reference by people who have read and understand Ayn Rand's writings, not as a replacement for bothering to read them.

And no, I don't care to elaborate. Care to make an effort and learn about something before you pretend to know everything?

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Fencing it in was an example because in the context of virtually unlimited land being available (as it was the case in the early days of the American colonies), fencing in land is sufficient proof that the person doing the fencing isn't just trying to do what you're suggesting (fence in land and sit on it). If he did, it would just be a waste of resources (or, at best, he would be reimbursed by someone for fencing it in - but no one would buy land that's fenced in for more than the cost of that service).

...

Remember, in Capitalism private individuals don't act by permission. When you walk up to a government office and register your land, you're not there to ask permission to that land. You are there to inform the government that you are taking possession of the land, and to provide them with the necessary proof that you are in fact taking possession, not just claiming to be taking possession. The role of the government is simply to objectively define what possession is, and then take note of who takes possession of what. Nothing more.

Short term it might be a waste of resources, but that land would be worth something in the future when less land is available.

My gripe is that today I can go out and buy an acre of land, and use it for absolutely anything I choose. I don't have to prove to anyone that I'm going to 'make good use' of the land. (To do so would probably constitute buying seeds, tools, maybe wood for a house, etc.) I can just sit on my acre if I want to, but I have that right because I bought it at a price set by the previous owner. If 50 years from now I find that I'm sitting on an underground lake of crude oil, I still have no obligation to use my land, because it's mine. But of course this depends on the fact that there is a previous owner I can buy the land from. You say there needs to be "an objective criteria on what constitutes proof that a would be owner has the ability to use a piece of land." But what makes you entitled to land while I am not? It shouldn't be about proving what you're going to do with the land.. because obviously, once the land is yours, you can do whatever you want with it. I think that what makes you entitled to land is the fact that you're actively going to the government and pursuing ownership, while I am not.

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My gripe is that today I can go out and buy an acre of land, and use it for absolutely anything I choose. I don't have to prove to anyone that I'm going to 'make good use' of the land.

1. The previous owner already proved that.

2. The fact that you paid money for it proves that it's useful to you.

I can just sit on my acre if I want to, but I have that right because I bought it at a price set by the previous owner. If 50 years from now I find that I'm sitting on an underground lake of crude oil, I still have no obligation to use my land, because it's mine.

I never said that the government should continue keeping track and protecting the ownership of an unused lot indefinitely. I don't see how it would logically follow, from the premise of individual rights to self sustaining action, that someone can sit on a piece of land and do absolutely nothing with it for 50 years or more.

(keep in mind that eminent domain laws, which I'm of course against, aren't used against people who do nothing with their land, it's used against people who are deemed by the government to be doing less than whoever they wish to give it to - big difference).

If 50 years from now I find that I'm sitting on an underground lake of crude oil, I still have no obligation to use my land, because it's mine. But of course this depends on the fact that there is a previous owner I can buy the land from. You say there needs to be "an objective criteria on what constitutes proof that a would be owner has the ability to use a piece of land." But what makes you entitled to land while I am not?

I'm not entitled to land. I have a right to self sustaining action on that land. You do too, if you get there first, and start that action before me (and of course register it with the government - which is the least you can do if you expect its protection; but, even if you don't, doesn't mean someone can simply register a piece of land you're already using, and now it's his - if he did, you could still go to court and win that land back)

It shouldn't be about proving what you're going to do with the land.. because obviously, once the land is yours, you can do whatever you want with it. I think that what makes you entitled to land is the fact that you're actively going to the government and pursuing ownership, while I am not.

If that were true, then I would be able to register the Moon with the government as well, even though there's obviously nothing I can do with it.

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... The role of the government is simply to objectively define what possession is, and then take note of who takes possession of what. Nothing more.

Just a recorder then, eh? No agency of man's self-defense with a monopoly on the legal use of force?? OK, let's test this...

You find a piece of unclaimed property and fence it in, then record your claim with government. I force you to abandon the property, then record my claim, and government just erases your name and adds mine.

Is that how it works, Nicky?

--edit--

... (and of course register it with the government - which is the least you can do if you expect its protection; but, even if you don't, doesn't mean someone can simply register a piece of land you're already using, and now it's his - if he did, you could still go to court and win that land back)...

Oh... OK, so now government has something more to do than simply record who takes possession... And using force is no little thing, is it Nicky? Particularly when the government representing European colonists had cannons, and whatever government represented Native Americans had bows and arrows...

But you still haven't established a credible European claim to Native American property by use, which is certainly what the Natives were doing at the time the Euros arrived. True, the Euros could legitimately barter for the Native's property, and often did so I'll give you that one. But where the standard of legitimate possession is actions that are self sustaining, what Locke refers to as a right to self preservation, the Euros had no greater claim to undeveloped property than the Natives; they simply had a greater use of force to back their claim.

Let us imagine the Natives and Euros arriving on the shores of an unpopulated continent. By the standard of claiming property with self sustaining actions backed by unequal force, e.g. arrows to cannons, do you suppose the distribution of property would have been very much different than it is today, i.e. Euro domination with small portions reserved for Natives??

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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