Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Tuesday, 27 August 2002

I finished going through marked-up mss with the Clarion critiques of the story I'm going to rewrite. I didn't actually start on the rewrite, though, because I watched most of "Gilmore Girls" and all of "Monk," which pretty much took up the evening.

One of my co-workers posted something in praise of absolute property rights, in response to an article in the Sunday New York Times about how rich property owners were trying to limit access to public beaches.

I went through my own libertarian phase when I was younger, supporting a relatively absolute view of property rights. But I've softened my views quit a bit. I posted this essay in response:

Of course property rights are a relative thing, especially when it comes to land.

On the one hand, there are a lot of reasons for having clear rules of ownership and being able to provide some sort of final settlement for disputes over land and its use. Without such a system it becomes unfeasible to invest in the stewardship of the land and make improvements on it; value cannot be unlocked via mortgages; old disputes are raised over and over again with the resolution changing whenever the political winds shift. Basically, it's bad for business.

On the other hand, there is no parcel of land that hasn't been taken by force over and over again. (Exceptions may include a few places that are simply uninhabitable without modern technology, such as Antarctica.) That makes an unambiguously clear title impossible to justify. Further, things that happen on a plot of land affect people elsewhere, and society recognizes that those people's interests are properly taken into account.

Western societies have settled on the current compromise. We have a system of titles, registration, deeds and so on, that lets us act for most purposes as if clear and final title can be provided, while also limiting ownership rights in a wide range of different areas (zoning, land-use rules related to wetlands, rules about drainage, easements, public use, etc.)

If you follow the rules, you own the land in a way that is well-understood and reasonably reliable. (Much more reliable than historical systems, where your ownership rights might have been much more absolute, but could also be overturned in an eye-blink if your neighbor became especially good friends with the king.) You can mortgage the land, build on it, plant crops or timber, and be reasonably confident that any attempt to deprive you of the land will follow rules that are well-known and generally considered to be as fair as we've been able to make them so far.

Just how absolute do you think land ownership ought to be? Should you be able to build a 100-story building that extends to within six inches of the borders of the lot where your house is now? Should two owners on opposite sides of a river be able to agree to dam it, without consulting people downstream? Should you be able to flog trespassers? Manufacture explosives in your basement? All those things are things that have been considered rights that went along with land-ownership at various times and places.

It has long been considered good public policy for owners of land-locked parcels have a way to obtain access to their land. Extending that notion so that it applies to giving the public access to publicly owned land doesn't seem like a huge jump to me.


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