Smith explains Herbert Spencer’s fundamental objection to the private ownership of land.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In his lead article in A Symposium on the Land Question (1890), Auberon Herbert – one of the most consistent libertarians of the nineteenth century – wrote:

Some of my own friends who are Individualists whilst strongly defending private property in all other things, abandon it in land. I am now speaking as an Individualist to Individualists, and will try to point out the contradiction involved in such a position.

Using a common libertarian justification for private property in things other than land, Auberon Herbert went on to argue that there is nothing peculiar or unique about land that would exempt it from the same type of justification. In his concluding article in this Symposium, after being challenged by one of the contributors “to give the basis for private ownership in land,” Herbert began with the premise “Each man owns and possesses his own faculties” and proceeded to give a Spencerian defense of private property. This was no accident, for Herbert had been greatly influenced by Spencer. Nevertheless, Herbert did not agree with Spencer, George, and other individualists who opposed the private ownership of land. If, as individualists agreed, private property is justifiable, then private property in land must also be justifiable. Again quoting Auberon Herbert:

If then the open market results from the ownership of faculties, why is land to be the one solitary exception as regards the selling and the purchasing capacities of men? The soil and the sack of wheat cannot be shown to differ in essence from each other; and we can only ask what fetish is this which men set up in the shape of land, placing it above human faculties, and declaring, with a revival of the medieval and metaphysical spirit, that there is some special sacro‐​sanct quality about it, so that it cannot be sold or owned?

We see a similar tactic in Robert Flint’s Socialism (1895), which contains what may be the best contemporary critique of arguments against private landownership. For example, in Chapter VI, “Nationalization of the Land,” Flint considered the argument that land “so differs from other things that it ought not to be made property of like other things”; specifically, since land “is limited in amount, and the quantity cannot be increased, the ownership of it, we are told, is a monopoly to which no individual can be entitled.” Flint continued:

This is a very common yet a very weak argument. Only things which are limited are made property of; what is unlimited, or practically so, is not worth appropriating. Political economy does not concern itself about things the supply of which is unlimited. There is no social question as to the use of such things. But what articles of value are unlimited? What natural agents needing to be taken into account in the production of wealth are unlimited? None. Stone, coal, iron, wood, etc., are all as limited as the surface of the ground. Limitation is a condition of all wealth, not a distinctive peculiarity of wealth in the form of land. That land is limited is the very reason why there is property in land. It is no reason for concluding that property in land must be an unjust monopoly, or a monopoly at all. Those who affirm that it is, merely show that they do not know what a monopoly is. If every man be free to go into the sugar trade, selling sugar is not a monopoly, although the quantity of sugar in the world is not unlimited. In like manner, the limited amount of land cannot make property in land a monopoly, provided there is, as there ought to be, free trade in land.

In a subsequent essay I shall discuss this and similar rebuttals to the arguments against private landownership. I mention them now, in passing, to establish a context for the remainder of this essay, in which I discuss Herbert’s Spencer’s primary argument against the private ownership of land, as presented in Chapter IX of Social Statics.

As Auberon Herbert implied in a passage I quoted above, when individualists argue with other individualists about land, the defender of private property in land need not provide a comprehensive justification of property rights. Rather, since both sides in this debate agree that private property is justifiable (at least in things other than land), the individualist opponent of private landownership has the burden to show how land differs from other kinds of property, such that land should be regarded as an exception to the general rule. Let’s now turn to Spencer’s discussion, while keeping this crucial issue in mind.

Spencer begins by invoking his Law of Equal Freedom as the moral foundation for the case against private property in land.

Given a race of beings having like claims to pursue the objects of their desires – given a world adapted to the gratification of those desires – a world into which such beings are similarly born, and it unavoidably follows that they have equal rights to the use of this world. For if each of them “has freedom to do all that he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other,” then each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty. And conversely, it is manifest that no one, or part of them, may use the earth in such a way as to prevent the rest from similarly using it; seeing that to do this is to assume greater freedom than the rest, and consequently to break the law [of equal freedom].

There are a number of problems in this passage, most of which stem from Spencer’s unclarity about the Law of Equal Freedom. For example, if I cultivate a tract of land and thereby claim ownership of that land, how does my claim violate the equal freedom of others to cultivate and claim ownership of other tracts of land? Equal freedom, as Spencer understood, must be defined in terms of rights – and rights pertain to freedom of action in regard to certain objects. Hence to say that I have a right to my computer means that I have a right to use and dispose of my computer as I see fit. To say that everyone has equal freedom, and therefore an equal right, to own a computer does not mean that those who actually own computers have somehow violated the equal freedom of people who do not own computers.

Such criticisms are a bit premature, however, since Spencer wished to invest land with a special status not enjoyed by other forms of property. The following passage, the most significant in Chapter IX, contains his essential argument, so it needs to be quoted in full.

Equity, therefore, does not permit property in land. For if one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual, and may be held by him for his sole use and benefit, as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions of the earth’s surface may be so held; and eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held; and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands. Observe now the dilemma to which this leads. Supposing the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners, have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only. They are all trespassers. Save by the permission of the lords of the soil, they can have no room for the soles of their feet. Nay, should the others think fit to deny them a resting‐​place, these landless men might equitably be expelled from the earth altogether. If, then, the assumption that land can be held as property, involves that the whole globe may become the private domain of a part of its inhabitants; and if, by consequence, the rest of its inhabitants can then exercise their faculties—can then exist even—only by consent of the landowners; it is manifest, that an exclusive possession of the soil necessitates an infringement of the law of equal freedom. For, men who cannot “live and move and have their being” without the leave of others, cannot be equally free with those others.

Libertarians sometimes point to the unlikely nature of Spencer’s extreme hypothetical. Even if we suppose that the entire land mass of the earth were privately owned, it is absurd to conclude that landless men would be evicted, in effect, from the planet, since it would be in the economic self‐​interest of landowners to rent their land, or the facilities on their land, to non‐​owners. But this retort, however reasonable, fails to address the core of Spencer’s argument. Whether, as a practical matter, non‐​landowners could survive or even prosper in Spencer’s extreme scenario is incidental to his argument.

Spencer’s point is that in a world in which “the entire habitable globe” is privately owned, non‐​owners would exist as a matter of “sufferance,” not as a matter of right. Without the consent of landowners, non‐​owners would be “trespassers,” and as such they would not possess the same fundamental rights as landowners. If there exists no place on earth where non‐​owners could plant their feet as a matter of right – i.e., without the permission of someone else – then the right to pursue life‐​sustaining activities could not exist. Only landowners would possess the right to life, since only they would have a right to stand somewhere on earth. Therefore, according to Spencer, the private ownership of land is inconsistent with the doctrine of equal rights.

In dealing with a position with which one disagrees (as I disagree with Spencer’s argument), it is advisable to state that position in the strongest terms possible. I believe I have done this with Spencer’s fundamental objection to the private ownership of land. It now remains to consider possible replies to Spencer’s argument, but we shall first consider his other objections to private property in land.