Is land ownership a fundamental lie?

Let’s explore a question. By what right does one person charge another rent? One can phrase this question in a number of different ways, utilizing different subjects and contexts, without changing its essence; for example, swap “put a price tag on a piece of land” for “charge another rent.” Though there is a simple answer, it is not one that immediately comes to mind, and reaching it takes some work. And, when we’re all done, we arrive at our civilization’s fundamental lie.

TERRITORIALITY HISTORICALLY

First, we step back in time and look at the concept of territoriality—not only for background, but also to track evolution and to consider different aspects. Though these are the cliff-notes of the cliff-notes, they serve our purposes.

Start with old empires. I use my Roman brothers as an example, yet we can easily talk in the same way about the Ottomans, the British, the Mongols, and on. Rome conquered huge chunks of three continents. Territories subject to its rule paid taxes to Rome, abided by certain Roman laws, had Roman overseers, and provided men to fight in the Roman army. Beyond these, local custom, law, and leaders ruled, and formal slavery existed.

Now consider the feudal systems of, say, Dark Ages England or 17th Century Russia. Ruling aristocracies of landowning families answer only to a monarch. Serfs or peasants are bound to the land, obligated by law to work it and serve in their lords’ armies. Taxes flow from the people, to the crown, through the nobility.

Next is the American South and West. An authority, the King of England and then later the American government, incentivizes settlement of these territories, and people flock to them, with some either being granted lands by royal decree or claiming lands for their own on a first-come basis. Large plantations and farms appear, and their owners are a de-facto aristocracy in these regions—even centuries after the Revolutionary War. In the earliest period, slaves work the land, and sharecropping is a common practice both before and after the Civil War.

Among tribal peoples, we see notably different practices in key respects. Simply put, the tribe occupies a certain territory, and its members share and share alike. The concept of land ownership is foreign. Land occupation is all there is, and tribes often war with each other to occupy certain lands.

LAND OWNERSHIP TODAY

Here, we consider both the modern American Empire and land ownership in the globalized world. The concepts are simple, and the statistics are important, even though the numbers are somewhat rough.

The American Empire differs from the old ones in that it is an empire by and of multilateral trade and defense, integrated economies, global organizations, military bases, and culture norms. The U.S. has six protectorates and military bases in thirty-one different countries. It is party to twelve bilateral trade agreements and two multilateral ones. It is a member of global organizations like the U.N., the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, often the dominating influence in them and always contributing by far the most to their budgets. Through all these avenues, the United States spreads what I call “McWorld” and, further, frequently—though not even close to always—promotes democratic forms of government.  

From here, we can call the U.S. and the countries touched in one or more ways by the American Empire the globalized world. And, across the globalized world, land ownership is, for the most part, the same.

A piece of land has a price tag. If you can afford it, you can buy it. Generally, some financial institution fronts the amount for the purchaser, who in turn pays the institution back over time, with the end result being that the land has two different types of owners for the duration. Laws say what can and cannot happen on certain pieces of land, everything from federal protection for national parks to zoning ordinances that limit the height of buildings in particular areas. Landowners can rent their properties, which they do in the form of apartment buildings, commercial space, and on, and they pay property taxes to the government.

In the U.S. today, 56% of all housing units are owner-occupied. Renter-occupied units make up 32%, and the remaining 12% are vacant. Yet, the first figure also includes housing units with more than one adult; if a person or couple owns their home, and both their twenty-year-old child and good-for-nothing younger sibling live their too, the house is still “owner-occupied,” yet the son and sibling are neither traditional owners nor traditional renters. This is to say nothing of the difficult-to-count homeless population. Further, of the 56% of housing units that are owner-occupied, 63% are subject to a mortgage.

Now let’s move from home ownership to land ownership more generally. There are 2.3 billion acres of land in the United States. Sixty-six million are considered “developed land,” essentially urban areas. Add the seventy-three million acres of “rural residential land,” which includes suburbs and small towns and the like, and you have 144 million acres, or roughly 6.3% of the land. Another 349 million acres is for crops, 788 million for ranges and pastures, and 747 for forests. The near 300 million remaining do not fall into any of these categories.

I had to do a lot of the following math myself, using the Federal Reserve’s data and a few other sources. These statistics are not readily available. Some of the numbers aren’t absolutely perfect, as data is somewhat limited; below, I note wherever there is a gap in information and describe the logical effects that these gaps have on our overall numbers.

Let’s start with agriculture. Overall, 3,412,080 Americans own agricultural land, with their collective holdings coming to 932,495,000 acres, for an average of 273 acres per owner. This means that 1% of the population owns agricultural land, with their collective holdings coming to 40.5% of the country’s entire landmass. Of course, some of this land is subject to a mortgage.

The estimated value of all privately-owned (read: owned by individuals, non-financial sector businesses, and nonprofit organizations) land in America is 14.5 trillion dollars. Non-financial sector businesses collectively own $6.7 trillion worth of land, or 46% of all private land wealth, and the structures on this land are worth $12.9 trillion. Households and nonprofit organizations own the other 54%, $7.83 trillion worth, and the structures on this land are worth $13.8 trillion. Yet, households and nonprofits also have $9.4 trillion in residential mortgage debt and $202 billion in commercial mortgage debt, and non-financial sector businesses have $3.45 trillion in overall mortgage debt. Thus, the $14.5 trillion worth of privately-owned land and the $26.7 trillion worth of structures on it—a total of $41.2 trillion in wealth, 35.2% for land and 64.8% for structures—is subject to $13.1 trillion in mortgage debt. Assuming the mortgages follow these same land-structure ratios, then $14.5 trillion in land is subject to $4.6 trillion in mortgage debt. This means that mortgagors have a claim to—in other words, own—32% of all privately-owned land wealth.

The federal government owns roughly one-third of the country’s 2.3 billion acres. Let’s assume that the remaining two-thirds is privately-owned by households, non-financial sector businesses, and nonprofit corporations; though the actual fraction is less because (1) state and local governments own land and (2) financial sector businesses own land outright, with “outright” defined as ownership not in the form of a mortgage, these two facts only strengthen the overall arguments here, even if they affect the numbers. This two-thirds of our country’s landmass, then, is valued collectively at $14.5 trillion, for an average of $6,300 per acre. Mortgagors have a claim to (own) 32% of land wealth, $4.6 trillion. At the average cost per acre, this means that mortgagors have a claim to 736 million acres, or 32% of the country’s entire landmass.

So now we know that the government owns one third of the land and mortgagors another third. Households, non-financial sector businesses, and nonprofit corporations split the remaining third. Of that third, the top-25 landowning individuals or families own nearly twenty million acres. This means that .000008% of the population owns .9% of the entire landmass and 2.8% of the third owned by households, non-financial sector businesses, and nonprofit corporations. If we open this up to the top-100, or 150, or 200, the ratio hardly improves.

Note that, due to limited information, we above made two reasonable assumptions and a third that we already discussed. The first is a near certainty; structure-land mortgage debt proportions logically track structure-land worth proportions. Though the second is slightly less solid, any uncertainty only operates in these arguments’ favor. We use the average cost per acre of all privately-owned land to calculate the percentage of American landmass that mortgagors own, and we do so knowing that land values vary greatly by location. Yet, it stands to reason that mortgages are more prevalent in places with above average land values: developed urban centers, suburban sprawl, commercial strips, condo buildings, even farms—you know, places where people live and work.

THE RIGHT

We started with a question and other ones similar to it. By what right does one person charge another rent for land space? To answer it, we first explored the concept of territoriality from a few different angles, using historical examples. Then we turned our attention to the modern American Empire and land ownership in the globalized world. Now we tie the last two sections together, spotting the thread common to both the old and the current while ultimately answering our original questions.

The Old Empires. The Feudal Lords. The Plantation and Farm Owners. All of these were founded on the right of conquest.

The right of conquest.

The first is the easiest example. Q: “By what right do you, Rome, impose your rule over us, taking our money and our sons, forcing us to abide by your laws and follow your leaders?” A: “We conquered you.” Here, we’re talking about territoriality in an absolute sense, and we see that the right of conquest is front and center.

Now the second. This example calls to mind Varys the Spider: “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.” The feudal lords leveraged blood lines into armies, and they used those armies to conquer territory. Already, the right of conquest. All in, the lords owned the land, and the lower classes were legally bound to serve them. If a peasant ran off, the law required his or her capture and return to the aggrieved lord, forcibly if necessary. 

And the third. Many of the early plantation owners received their land by royal decree. The King of England had their backs, and the King of England’s ability to give away this land and protect the people he gave it to was the result of his ability to conquer. The right of conquest. Slaves worked the land, the result of yet another type of conquest. As for the people who simply claimed swaths of land early on—lured by incentives and promises from authority and pioneering into uncharted territory—their ownership is the result of conquest too: expedition and risk-taking, coupled with society’s mutual respect for the person who got there “first.” This mutual respect for the first-come basis was, of course, backed by authority’s coercive and military power.

Is there really any doubt that our current land systems result from a modern exercise of the right of conquest as well?

Yeah, you’re not bound to work land. And you can move around. And the armies of aristocrats and emperors aren’t crossing borders to seize territory.

But try not paying your mortgage. The bank sues you, you lose, and men with guns kick you out. Try telling the federal government you are no longer subject to its laws. Do that, and it’s a roll of the dice as to which of a hundred ways they get you. Try going on to an owner’s land without welcome. He or she can call the police to have you removed for trespassing—and is able to use armed force in certain situations. Try being homeless and sleeping on a park bench. Enough said. Our modern land systems are still founded upon the right of conquest.

And when we talk about the modern American Empire, it becomes even more clear. Military might is the reason the U.S. has bases in so many other countries, and the fact that the U.S. has bases in so many other countries contributes to its military might. This is also why we’re so often the dominating influence in international organizations. Further, military might translates into economic successes, facilitating trade deals and the integration of economies while enabling us to fund the international organizations, which only increases our influence over them. All the while, we promote our own culture through these same avenues.

Our land systems are founded on the right of conquest. And, from here, they begin to crumble.

WHO WE ARE

The federal government owns a third. Whatever. Fine.

But banks owning another third, all because of numbers in computers? The banks didn’t make the land. They don’t improve it. They don’t work on it. They don’t even see it. They don’t give anything to anyone when the mortgage comes into being; all they do is punch some numbers and letters into computers. Further, let’s not forget who owns the banks themselves.

This is space we’re talking about. Land. It stands apart from almost everything else. Even food and water, for it is guaranteed to every single born lifeform—except humans, that is. Though a newly-hatched sea turtle can be eaten by a gull before ever reaching the sea, it is at least guaranteed space to hatch and scuttle towards a chance at a full life.

Supposedly it’s normal that banks and the like own a third of our country’s landmass, because of some numbers and letters in ledgers? We’re cool with trading a profound freedom enjoyed by every single other life form on Earth in exchange for . . . what, exactly?

And individuals owning so much more than they can ever personally use? Individuals charging other individuals to live on, use, run a business on, etc.? 

And let’s not forget what’s propping it all up, what’s lurking in the background: the right of conquest. Is that really who we are? “I can take/control this space, so I am going to, and the world sanctions my right to do so.” Yeah, the exercise looks a little different today. Still, the vast majority are paying and going into debt simply to have space on this planet.

We know that this is not entirely who we are. We punish thieves and murderers, and formal slavery is forbidden. Countries don’t go to war for territory anywhere near like they’ve done in the past. Today, our species collectively rejects and punishes many of the same exercises of the right of conquest that it has historically tolerated. Today, the right of conquest is a weak foundation.

NEW LAND SYSTEMS

Is it really so hard to imagine a world in which everyone is entitled to space to live and work? Of course not: think half tribal and half what we have now.

When it comes to the specifics, here’s one brainstorm session that is in no way complete. Every adult and household is guaranteed quality housing in accordance with their needs. Local authorities dispose of this housing, and it remains hereditary, so long as someone is living in it. To qualify for housing in any locale, one must swear to stay there for no less than one year, and, if one swears to stay for three or four, he or she can, within reason and at his or her own expense, rebuild the structures on their land as they desire, with “within reason” defined in relation to the nature of the property (e.g. tear down a house and build a new one, but don’t damage the space belonging to your neighbors in your condo building). Luxury properties are still available for purchase from the government in timeshare form, with said timeshares remaining hereditary, so long as someone is using them.

With respect to businesses, the same principle holds. If an individual or company has a viable business, then land to perform its functions is guaranteed. Businesses and the land they occupy remain hereditary, so long as the business functions. Once land for a business is granted, certain protections arise for the business owner; he or she can only lose the business land for criminality (owner breaks laws), consistent incompetence (owner doesn’t know how to own), or proven futility (public doesn’t want this business here so it performs poorly).

Remember, we’re only talking about the land here—not the structures. Construction remains a lucrative and vital industry.

“How do we pay?” “How can we trust the government with this responsibility?” Listen, the rent-seeking elites want us bogged down in these questions. What we propose here is a radical transformation of our society at a fundamental level. This type of shift does not happen in isolation, and the cascade of dominoes that follows enables us to both afford and administer. To go deeper here is to turn this piece into a much longer one.

And, philosophically, this tribal-modern hybrid land system fits so neatly! Space and time, essentially, are the fabrics of our universe—so far as we know. Every single lifeform on Earth, including humans, is guaranteed time. It does not matter if the life lasts one second or one hundred years; any born lifeform is guaranteed time. Though facts of life may dictate how we must use some of our time, we are still guaranteed it. And every single born lifeform other than humans is guaranteed space.

There are no other guarantees, except maybe air. So why not close off the last bit of life’s circle by guaranteeing humans space? Our land systems—they’re our civilization’s fundamental lie.


Featured image by Paulo Valdivieso via Flickr.