Radio Freethinker

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How do you own Land?

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 16, 2010

Recently on the show we discussed land ownership. Specifically, how do we determine who owns lands and who has the right to it? This is by no means an easy answer to this question. Philosophers have been debating the question of “ownership” since ownership was possible.

However I don’t think that should stop us from discussing the issue nowadays as there are several issues that this relates to in our modern world. Consider Aboriginal land claims, international borders, issues of occupation and war, and of course, property rights.

There are a lot of completely irrational arguments being made for why someone owns/doesn’t own a piece of land. It makes me wonder if any argument for land ownership can withstand skeptical scrutiny. It would be easy if the situation was cut and dry but that’s rarely the case in land disputes. If the government moved in and took your house, you can obviously make a claim as that was your property and it was stolen. But what about if the government didn’t steal your house but rather the home of your great-grandfather?

Many claims to why someone other than the people living on a given piece of land come down to assertions that “Our Ancestors lived here.”

This argument goes that the land belongs to one person/group because that persons/groups ancestors lived there. Essentially saying that land can be inherited.

Native groups have Aboriginal title, meaning they (in theory) have the right to land even after the assumption of sovereignty and settlement of or belonging to another nation. This derives from the Aboriginal peoples’ original possession and occupation of the land before the assertion of British sovereignty over the land.

The issue with this is how do we determine ancestry? All humans share a common ancestry if you go back far enough. In addition, what do we determine sufficient ancestry? Is it enough if a descendent had one parent from outside the group and one parent from inside the group? Do both parents need to be from inside the group? What if one of the parents had a parent from outside the group?

One attempt to codify ancestry

Before we can claim that a group of people can inherit land from their ancestors, we need to have a clear understanding of what exactly constitutes ancestry. Can anyone make a land claim anywhere based on it? Does it have to be within a certain “accepted parameters” of genetic relation? Is there a hierarchy within, so are some people more related than others?

What about when we are talking about ancestry to a group of people – but the link is only a few generations old, say 3 generations. Does the distance matter? If your parents had land taken by force, should you be able to legally claim it and receive it? What if it was your grandparents? Or your great-grand parents?

Because such claims often require a collage of reasons, there is typically a lot of fluidness to these claims. Often coming into play with the appeal to ancestry is the notion that “We were there first.”

The argument is phrased that either we, or our ancestors, were there first on the land in question, therefore through inheritance, we own it.

The problem with this argument is that the further back in time you go the more ancestors humans have. So 10,000 years ago when the America’s was settled, those people were ancestors of modern day first nations people but they were also ancestors of people in Eurasia and across the world, so who’s genetic link is more correct?

In addition, the further back in time you go the more populations you’ll find who inhabited a piece of land. There were more than one migration of humans into the New World for instance. How can you establish that you’re ancestors (and not someone else’s ancestors) were the first to settle on this land? What if they were nomadic? In many cases, you had one group of people come and perhaps linger in an area before moving out and perhaps having a completely seperate group settle there.  Therefore you’ll need to come up with some explanation as to why your group owns the land and not some other group.

This argument also risks a huge regress issue. In order to set right the world, we would have to reset everything because, except for Africa, humans moved to every other area on earth and unless they were the first ones there.

One avenue of claiming land is defining where your land ends and someone else’s begins. Consider international borders, is there some logic or reason to where and why they exist?  Many international borders are established by treaties (some of them centuries old) The problem with this is that many were established under duress, (threat of war) other were established by governments and groups no longer recognized as legitimate (i.e monarchies, Nazi’s, occupational forces) Does this invalidate them? There probably isn’t a satisfactory answer for that question. We might on an emotional level want to void any agreement made by the Nazis. However should we also void agreements made by non-democratic governments?

In addition to that, you sometimes have treaties between two groups but effect a third party – for examples treaties over land in North America by the British and French effected Native Americans.

For a long time, borders were considered quite fluid. They were established by precedent and tradition. It wasn’t until after the Thirty Years War in Europe that borders started to be more well defined. Warfare and changes of government resulted in lots of movements and shifts on the maps. After the First World War the international community solidified the borders of the world (until the next world war of course) but the decision was made not inclusively but by the powerful nations carving up a pie. Does this make borders arbitrary?

The big question quickly becomes, what constitutes grounds for claiming you own a piece of land? As we pointed out, it’s not an easy argument to suggest you were there for a long time or your ancestors were there for a long time.

What if you’ve worked the land? This was the argument made by John Locke, by spending time and energy you’ve made the land more valuable – historically this is relevant because native Americans made much of their land fertile and useful while white Europeans couldn’t. It also makes chunks of land valuable in war, consider how France wanted Germany’s industrial centres in the Rhineland annexed after the First World War.

The problem with this argument is that it can’t help us with land that is worthless. (Deserts, arctic, or inhospitable places.)

What about investing in the land? We’ve built a house on it. Maybe even you were the first to build a house on it, basically saying we were the first to chose this particular land as home.

Again if you make the appeal to the past saying you were the first ones there, you have to prove that you were and that someone else wasn’t there before you. You also have to prove that if there was someone there you are the rightful inheritor of the land.

One big question that eventually must be confronted is the issue of military strength. Does might equal right? This can be a questions posed to both the defenders and the aggressors. In one case you might have Daniel living on a plot of land and he has a gun. Chloe comes to live nearby but doesn’t have a gun. If she lives nearby she might compromise Daniel’s security/status/quality of life whatever, so by sake of having a weapon he owns it because he can drive off intruders.

Peace is our profession

Similarly, if Daniel doesn’t have a gun but Chloe does, she has the power to kill him and take his land by force. This is the most common way land has been taken over the years of human history. Most of us would agree that something taken at the point of a gun is stealing and isn’t legitimate. But what about defence? Is it legitimate to defend your land with a gun against an intruder who isn’t armed?

If you lack the military to defend your land, what does that say about your sovereignty? Should that even be a consideration? Is the ability to defend your land a necessary condition of owning that land?

An interesting way to look at this is what determines why Canada owns land in Canada. This ultimately comes down to a debate of Sovereignty, which has been debated from hundreds if not thousands of years.

To give a very cursory summation, nation-states have the borders they do because other nation-states recognize that border.  It’s a system with no real logical basis to it. It’s not like there’s a science or math that explain why the border is that way, except that, two or more nations have agreed upon it.

Where does this leave us? As I suggested, there doesn’t seem to be a right answer to this question. However it’s an important topic and one that skeptics should start to consider as our movement becomes more sophisticated and encompassing.

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