Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Reading James C. Scott's excellent Seeing Like a State. He gives, as an example of how land was traditionally held, the following: "Rural living in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Denmark, for example, was organized by ejerlav, whose members had certain rights for using local arable, waste, and forest land. It would had have been impossible in such a community to associate a household or individual with a particular holding on a cadastral map."

This is just an example of the way land was typically held before the current system of clearly defined freehold of lots was imposed by the state on a reluctant society, and not by any process of "mixing one's labor" with virgin land. Land was owned by communities first.*

* I fully anticipate the objection, "But communities can't own anything!" Like "Only individuals choose," this is an obvious falsehood which is embraced precisely because it defends radically individualistic property arrangements against the force of historical truths such as those noted by Scott.


  1. If communities can't own anything one wonders what all the fuss is over collectivism. Presumably we're concerned about collectivism because communities can own things and under a lot of circumstances it doesn't turn out so well! But if they can't, what's the problem?

  2. I don't think communal private property is in anyway inconsistent with libertarianism?

    If these communities are a self-identified group who own property together; why would this be inconsistent with libertarianism?

  3. Adriaan, I do not believe I mentioned libertarianism in my post.

  4. Nevertheless, Gene, Scott was certainly the termite in my libertarian edifice. That sly dog, Henry Farrell, getting me to read it.

    You did leave out the best part of Scott's account though: Historically, freehold tenure was imposed by the state to simplify tax collection.

  5. That is true, however, I hope you forgive me thinking that it was an implicit critique of the Lockean-Nozickean-Rothbardian idea of mixing labor to acquire private property - which is often associted with libertarianism.

    Anyway; so just as a random idea: this empirical truth doesn't contradict or conflict with the traditional homesteading idea, as far as I'm concerned.

  6. "Land was owned by communities first"

    Does the fact that a piece of land is owned by a community imply that it hasn't been homesteaded? I think it doesn't.

  7. Pedro, what is going on is clearly *different* than the Lockean homesteading process. If you want to call it another type of homesteading, that's fine.

  8. The other major takeaway from Scott's chapter on land use goes beyond a simple "community vs. individual ownership" - historically, what we think of as "property rights" under freehold tenure comprise an eminently disseverable bundle. The domiciling, transit, usufruct, extraction and gleaning rights to a plot - to name only the ones that come off the top of my head - can and have been allocated in piecemeal rather than unitary fashion.