Homesteadin' Is the Place for Me

So, let's take a look at John Locke's famous homesteading principle, the foundation of many libertarian theories of property rights. Locke begins by stating that in the commons, whatever one has mixed one's labor with is his: "Thus the law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it." Well, the law of reason may make it thus, but this is not the way hunter-gatherer societies work. Instead, we find a traditional manner of dividing up the deer amongst the tribe, with the hunter perhaps getting a prize portion, or something of the sort. And this traditional division might cite a "law of reason" of its own: without the tribe, the hunter wouldn't have lived past a day. Without the tribe, he would have no idea how to hunt. Without the tribe, he would not have a bow and arrow. I could go on, but you get the point.

Furthermore, ownership in land almost never came about in the way Locke contends give the institution its justification. Hunter-gatherers did not have private land ownership. And when it came about, it certainly did not pop up the day someone first planted a seed. No, private ownership evolved slowly out of communal ownership, an institution created by the community in question (although never with the intention of creating some desired endstate of ownership, but in response to the contingent situation). Ownership in private property is created by communities.

But the 17th-century English landowning class had a problem. They had been busy robbing both the English peasant and the American Indian of their land. To their credit, they couldn't admit openly to themselves that they had been doing so. While the Athenians could just say to the Melians that it was natural for the powerful to dominate the weak, or the Israelites could simply claim a land as God's chosen people, these options were not open to 17th-century English Christians. They needed a good justification for their theft. And Locke's homesteading doctrine is formulated very precisely to give them one: only when a man "tills, plants, improves, cultivates" some piece of land does he actually gain ownership of it. So, there you go! Just because some English peasants had grazed a pasture for a thousand years, or some "naked savages" had hunted it for five thousand years, that land wasn't really theirs, because they hadn't done with it what a member of the landed gentry would, which was to enclose it and farm it (or at least the part not reserved for the folly and the decorative fish pond).

So, there's the basis of the homesteading "principle": it's a good way to justify taking things from the weak! (And here, in what is surely a slyly ironic article by Jeff Tucker and Manuel Lora, they note how, after several hundred years of being taught that grabbing things first is the just way to get them, people actually start to act like this is natural!)


  1. I recall a Joseph Stromberg article on how inexplicably unfortunate it was that, after powerful railroad and other interests joined the government in recruiting large numbers of ordinary folks into the enterprise of divesting the American tribes of their holdings, the dominant parties to the effort did not play fair in divvying up the loot.

    There's also historically been a lot of willful ignorance about just how much "improvement" in even relatively narrow, Lockean senses, the prior inhabitants of the American continent actually engaged in. (Controlled burnings being only the start of it.)


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