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A while back, there was a fun article making the rounds about some dude selling people "rights" to own a plot of land on the Moon. There was another one selling plots in open ocean outside the coastal lines of any states.

Leaving aside current legalities and treaties between existing states, is there a "standard" position that the libertarian worldview would take on someone taking ownership of a piece of property that was "common", or "unowned", before?

  • Is it right/moral/ethical to take ownership of such property? (we are talking pure 100% ownership of a bare resource - assume that you as prospective owner have not done anything to develop it, or to make it available)

  • If it is, is it right/moral/ethical to expect to pay someone a tax/fee/purchase price on that resource, since you have - by claiming ownership - deprived someone of a possibility of using that resource which they had an option of doing before?

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    If you are expecting only libertarian views, isn't this question self answered? In my opinion this question is too localized, consider removing 'libertarian' from title? – Danubian Sailor Dec 15 '12 at 19:09
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    Libertarians are more likely than not to arrive at whatever position they do via logic that is very different from non-libertarians. I am unsure why it's "too localized". – user4012 Dec 15 '12 at 19:23
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    This is called res nullius. Related concepts are terra nullius and copyright restoration (US, EU) – Mechanical snail Jan 24 '13 at 21:05
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It may yet be too early to address the "moon base" scenario directly (unless of course you are Newt Gingrich), however, the concept underlying this discussion is not unlike the one the first European settlers in America (among other colonies) struggled with.

There appears to be two libertarian schools of thought on this subject.

The purist camp makes the claim that absolute property ownership does indeed deprive non-owners of their rights to that land, a fundamental resource of life that all have equal rights to. Subsequent transfers of owned land to other parties is permissible and just, even in this purist view of libertarianism, so long as the transactions are voluntary, non-coercive and non-aggressive. The trouble arises in the original transfer of ownership from "no one" to someone. The purist argues that since all people have rights to all land originally, that unclaimed land is not owned by no one, but by everyone.

At time 1, nobody owns anything, and everyone can access any piece of the world. At time 2, someone has “homesteaded” a piece of the world. This homesteading is done entirely unilaterally. Everyone else in the world is not consulted; their consent is not provided. [1]

This means that the original transfer of ownership was not voluntary and therefore unjust. Future transfers then inherit the original injustice. As such, it is only right/moral/ethical to claim the unclaimed land once consent has been gathered from everyone on the planet.


The second school of thought that was supported by the John Locke school of classic liberalism "recognized that absolute ownership of natural resources could deprive liberty, but classified the great amounts of land populated by indigenous peoples as "unsettled", avoiding the issue in theory, if not in practice. [2]" Essentially, they accept the position that unclaimed lands are truly unowned and can be claimed by anyone.

The crux of the difference is that this school of thought contends that the natural resources, while they do exist and everyone has an equal right to them originally, it is only through the labor of man (the owner) that can realize any value from those natural resources. For example, coal has no heating value to you merely by existing. Sitting next to a pile of coal will not keep you warm through the winter without someone acting on the coal to enable it to produce heat; this actor become the owner of the coal through their efforts in producing something of value from the coal. Finally, since no one was doing anything with the resource before the initial owner, no one owned it, no consent was required to claim ownership as in the first school of thought, therefore the initial claim of ownership and all subsequent ones are legitimate.

As to your question about the justification for paying someone an ownership fee to claim the land initially, this would only make sense in the purists vision and the someone would potentially be everyone depending on the terms of the transaction you as the potential owner would have negotiated with all other rightful claimants. The latter view would not expect payment for the initial claim as there would be no one to pay.

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    Good answer. One thing that's unclear about Lockeish view is what happens when the LAND is the resource? E.g. it has a good view, or strategic value to some military force. No resource development is applicable here. Another thing that is unclear, does the Locke's view then mean that someone who claimed ownership of land that was public and did NOT improve it in some way loses the rights to that land back to the public? – user4012 Jan 24 '13 at 16:37
  • Should those be separate Qs? – user4012 Jan 24 '13 at 18:17
  • @DVK The way I understand the argument is that once legitimate ownership is established, it can only be legitimately exchanged through a freely arrived at mutual agreement. Therefore, if the original owner did not develop it, and did not wish to give up ownership, he would be able to retain ownership. This is just my speculation though, so perhaps another question could be appropriate. – Michael Kingsmill Jan 24 '13 at 18:21
  • seems inconsistent, if the criteria for "not being owned" is "nobody developed it", then one can't claim ownership without development. – user4012 Jan 24 '13 at 18:23
  • @DVK: Someone who develops a formerly-unowned resource has a property right to any appreciation in the resource's value that is achieved through his efforts. If development increases the value of the resource tenfold, the strength of the developer's claim will be much stronger than any competing claim. If the developer has only acted to improve the value by 2%, the developer's claim would be much weaker. – supercat Nov 2 '14 at 21:13
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From my time in some Anarcho-Capitalist communities, I can tell you that the most common procedure that I've seen is that

  • if you've put time into building upon and improving a piece of land(construct houses, farms, etc), than you're considered to own that property.
  • Sorry, but I have explicitly excluded that situation in the question: assume that you as prospective owner have not done anything to develop it, or to make it available – user4012 Dec 27 '12 at 19:49
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    Interesting, but does seem to ignore the fact that some entities wish to own property for the explicit purpose of not improving it. – user1530 Mar 4 '13 at 17:57
  • @DA. IT does indeed – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '13 at 17:59

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