Nicolaus Tideman: Resolving the Apparent Conflict between Land as Our Common Heritage and Land as Private Property. A presentation at the TheIU.org 2013 Conference 'Economics for Conscious Evolution', London, UK, July 2013.
Nicolaus Tideman: Resolving the Apparent Conflict between Land as Our Common Heritage and Land as Private Property
Nicolaus Tideman: Resolving the Apparent Conflict between Land as Our Common Heritage and Land as Private Property
1. Resolving the Apparent Conflict between
Land as Our Common Heritage and Land as Private Property
For the conference: “Economics for Conscious Evolution”
We understand, and we seek to lead others to understand, that land is
everyone’s common heritage, that we all have equal rights to the earth. This
understanding is central to our efforts to promote conscious evolution toward a
world that truly works.
When we try to persuade others that land is our common heritage, we often
encounter a barrier: People tend to see land as private property. This prevents
them from seeing land as everyone’s common heritage.
I propose to explore the foundations and the implications of both land as our
common heritage and land as private property, and identify the desirable parts
of these two ideas are compatible.
Land as Our Common Heritage
Land as our common heritage has its origin in the idea that there are valuable
“natural opportunities” that are not the product of anyone’s efforts.
Furthermore, people have an obligation to give equal respect to the wishes of all
persons to appropriate for their own uses the scarce opportunities provided by
nature. Thus we have an obligation to share natural opportunities as our
The idea of equal rights to our common heritage in natural opportunities is
not as simple as it may seem. It does not mean dividing the earth into equal
parcels for everyone on earth—some people have neither the talent nor the
inclination to take over their shares of the earth. Nor does it mean that we all
participate equally in a democratic process that decides on the use of every
parcel of ground. That would leave no scope for individual initiative.
If there were no scarcity of natural opportunities, then equal rights to natural
opportunities would mean that every person was allowed to use natural
opportunities in whatever ways he or she wished. The principle of equal rights
to natural opportunities restricts what people may do only when action by one
person limits the ability of one or more other persons to achieve their desires.
Scarcity alone is not sufficient for the principle of equal rights to be
applicable. There must also be less than perfect harmony. If natural
opportunities were scarce but everyone agreed on how they should be used,
then, whether the agreed allocation was equal or not, there would be no need to
employ a principle of equal rights. If there is no disagreement, then there is no
need to invoke equal rights.
It might be tempting to think of a principle of equal rights as emerging
historically, when humans first began to grow in numbers to where some natural
opportunities became scarce. But such a sequence is unlikely to have had any
historical relevance. It seems much more likely that there were scarcities of
natural opportunities before and while our ancestors were becoming human.
Our pre-human, partially human, and early human ancestors can reasonably be
presumed to have dealt with resource scarcity the way animals typically do: by
driving off or killing competitors. Selection through aggression is the way of
At the same time that early humans were, presumably, driving off and killing
competitors, they would have been under natural selection pressure to cooperate
with one another within groups: for hunting and other forms of cooperative
production, for child-raising, and for more effective fighting against other
groups. For many thousands of years, human success has entailed the
combination of cooperation and sharing within a reference group and the
opportunistic driving-off, enslaving, or killing of outsiders who were not strong
enough to resist.
Thus the idea of land as common heritage did not emerge as a way of dealing
with the initial human experience of scarcity of natural opportunities. Rather, it
emerged as a component of the moral evolution of humanity. When Thomas
Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness . . .” people felt the rightness of what he had written.
The resonance of these words helped to end slavery and to produce a world
where, today, virtually all civilized discourse presumes that women and
minorities must be accorded the same civil and political rights as men of the
ethnically dominant group in a society. These are important achievements in
This moral evolution has also begun to be understood to include a principle
of natural opportunities as a common heritage to which we all have equal rights.
A principle of equal rights is not the same as equality. “Equal rights”
incorporates recognition of our individuality, the right of each of us to pursue
happiness in whatever way he or she chooses. If we are not interfering with
others, we may do as we wish, and we may cooperate with whom we choose in
whatever activities are mutually agreed.
A complication arises from the fact that one of the ways in which we often
wish to cooperate with others is in the formation of communities that impose
standards of conduct that have no obvious necessity. Why should we be able to
specify the amount of clothing our fellow citizens must wear in public, or how
sober they must be, or what pornography they may consume? From the
perspective of equal rights to our common heritage, the answer is that we may
impose all of these restrictions and any others that we choose, because those of
us who want to live in a community with such restrictions have a right to use
our share of our common heritage to form the kind of community that expresses
our agreed idea of what a good community is. Those who don’t like such
restrictions can form their own communities somewhere else. Of course, this
presumes that there is an actual opportunity for every dissenter to have a share
of our common heritage on which to pursue his or her conception of the good.
Thus the idea of coming together by choice, and choosing to separate when
we cannot agree, is an integral part of equal rights to our common heritage. But
the right of people to form whatever kinds of communities they wish only
makes sense if there is an adequate opportunity for those who disagree to leave.
And it might happen that all of the space on earth was already occupied by
communities that had no interest in including the persons who wished to leave
their present communities. Therefore the idea of equal rights to our common
heritage must include the understanding that a group who are unhappy with the
rules of their community have a right to require that the territory of the
community be divided into a portion for those who are content with the rules of
the community and a separate portion for those who wish to live under a
different set of rules. Equal rights to our common heritage means recognizing
that dissatisfied minorities must have opportunities to live under the rules that
they choose. To deny this opportunity is unjustifiable tyranny of the majority.
Of course, splitting up communities will often mean losing economies of
scale. That is a loss that is shared by all who cannot agree on a set of rules by
which to live. It is the price of not agreeing and a stimulus to finding a
compromise that all can accept.
The principle of equal rights to our common heritage has an important
implication for justice among communities. A community’s claim to control
over the territory that it occupies is justified only if one of the following two
conditions is met:
1) The value of the natural opportunities that the community uses is not
disproportionately large in relation to the number of people in the
2) The community provides compensation, in the amount of the excess of its
appropriation of natural opportunities beyond the average that all can have,
for those who have disproportionately small shares of natural opportunities.
Then the question arises as to how one determines whether a community has
more than its share of natural opportunities. There can never be perfection in
answering such a question. The most that can be achieved is an unbiased,
serious effort. A community that wants to satisfy its obligation to respect the
equal rights of all people to natural opportunities can hire an appraiser who
would estimate the rental value of the natural opportunities appropriated by the
community and the rental value of the rest of the natural opportunities on earth.
Then, with the population of the community and that of the rest of the world and
a bit of arithmetic, one can calculate an estimate of the amount by which the
community’s appropriation of natural opportunities exceeds or falls short of its
share. If its appropriation exceeds its share, it would pay into a fund to
compensate the communities that had less than their shares.
When counting the natural opportunities that a community appropriates, one
would count such things as emissions of greenhouse gasses and other things that
pollute the air and water beyond its borders, and the community’s appropriation
of minerals, migratory fish and birds, fresh water that would be available to
other communities if not appropriated, the frequency spectrum beyond the
borders of the community, and geo-synchronous orbits. All resources would be
evaluated by the estimated loss to the rest of the world from the fact that this
community was appropriating these resources.
When appraising the land occupied by the community, the relevant question
would be, “What would the rental value of the territory occupied by the
community be if there were no community here?” The community would have
no obligation to pay for the addition to the rental value of its territory from its
infrastructure and development. To the extent that activities in the community
raised the rental value of land elsewhere, this would count as a credit against its
Then the question arises of whether an above-average birth rate counts as an
appropriation of natural opportunities. If a community has an above-average
birth rate, then in the next generation, the grown children of that community
will have a claim on a larger share of resources than their parents had. Other
communities will need to reduce the shares of global natural opportunities that
they claim. Thus there is a prima facie case for the proposition that having an
above-average birth rate represents an appropriation of natural opportunities
that requires compensation.
However, there are other considerations. A larger world population means
lower costs for software, movies, books, and anything else for which average
costs decline as output increases. It means more geniuses who benefit the world
much more than they are ever compensated. It means a greater variety of
associations with specialized interests. For all these reasons having a larger
population produces benefits while also reducing per capita resources, so that it
is not clear a priori whether the net effect of a larger population on average
income in the world is positive or negative. It almost certainly depends on the
level of world population. At low levels of population the benefits can be
expected to dominate, while at high levels the costs would dominate. So it is a
question for empirical inquiry whether an above-average birth rate is something
for which a community should compensate for or be compensated for.
So let’s review the foundations and implications of land as our common
heritage. From the understanding that there are valuable natural opportunities
that no one created, and that all people are created equal, so that we have an
obligation to accord equal respect to the desires of all to use natural
opportunities, there arises an obligation of individuals and communities not to
appropriate a more valuable share of natural opportunities than others can have.
“Natural opportunities” includes not just land, but minerals, wild animals,
water, the frequency spectrum, geosynchronous orbits, the capacity of the
environment to absorb pollutants, other harmful effects of communities on their
neighbours, and, potentially, the limited capacity of the earth to absorb more
people without having levels of well-being fall. Because we want to live in
communities that express our varying ideas about what a good community is,
we have an obligation to allow our territories to be divided up when we are
unable to agree on rules under which to live. These are challenging ideas, but
they have the potential to provide a framework for a world that operates much
more efficiently than the world we have.
Land as Private Property
The word “property” shares an origin with the word “proper,” going back to
the Latin word “proprius,” meaning “one’s own.” The idea that what one
produces is one’s own (is one’s property) serves the very important function of
ensuring that people will have the incentive to be productive.
Animals appear to have only a rudimentary concept of property, associated
with protecting territory. It was a very important development in human
evolution for the value of a person’s efforts to be protected by a shared social
concept of property.
The idea that the land that one occupies is one’s property has at least two
important functions. First, because some things that people produce (structures)
are highly immobile, having long-lasting control over locations serves to ensure
that people are able to benefit from their investments in structures. Second,
there is the idea that a man’s home is his castle. Having a parcel of land as
one’s property gives expression to the idea that there is a place where a person
can be the person that he or she wants to be, to do the things that he or she
wants to do, where no one else will interfere.
There is another consequence of land as private property that has an element
of efficiency. This is the fact that giving ownership of a resource to the person
who discovers it motivates people to discover resources that would otherwise go
undiscovered and therefore unused. The trouble with this argument is that the
reward is too great. Granting complete ownership to the discoverer motivates
people to invest excessively in discovery, to try to ensure that they are first.
Discovery is valuable, but to motivate efficient discovery one must offer a
reward of a size such that only the person with the lowest cost of discovery is
motivated to put resources into discovery. Granting complete ownership to
discoverers is not efficient.
Economists sometimes make the argument that those who have land are only
making normal returns on their investments. This is true, but this economic fact
does not mean that the institution of private ownership of land produces better
results than some other institutional arrangement under which one would also
find economic agents making only ordinary returns on their investments. The
fact that under competition people make ordinary returns on their investments in
land is not directly relevant to the question of what institutions are best.
Then there is the psychological fact that people tend to have a sense of
entitlement to the things that they have, especially if they sacrificed something
to obtain them. This aspect of human psychology is related to the phenomenon
of territoriality in animals. Animals tend to become aggressive when the
territory they regard as theirs is invaded. People tend to become aggressive
when the property they regard as theirs is threatened or when the economic
opportunities that they have come to expect are no longer available. This
psychological fact has implications for the cost and the political difficulty of
achieving reforms, but it does not affect the long-run value of reforms.
Summarizing the foundations and implications of private property in land:
Property can be presumed to have evolved from its value in motivating people
to be economically productive. Property in land makes it efficient for people
to make investments that are attached to land, and it provides a place where a
person can exercise individual liberty. Property rights in what one finds create
an inefficiently large incentive for discovery. In any competitive economy,
people make normal returns, on average, on their investments, but this has no
implication for the efficiency of institutions. Psychologically, people tend to
become aggressively unhappy when their ownership of property or their other
expectations of economic benefit are disappointed.
Resolving the Apparent Conflict
The apparent conflict between land as our common heritage and land as
private property cannot be completely resolved, but substantial parts of it can.
We cannot let people have complete ownership of indefinitely large amounts of
land while also recognizing the equal rights of all to land as our common
heritage. But we can recognize each person’s right to a share of land and other
natural opportunities. This recognition means that the idea of “a man’s home as
his castle,” the idea of a place where a person can exercise liberty, can express
his or her individuality, can pursue happiness in the way the he or she chooses,
is entirely compatible with land as our common heritage. In fact, to ensure that
all persons have liberty, it is essential to ensure that each person has a right to a
place where that liberty can be exercised. If some of the people have all of the
land, there will be no place for others to exercise their liberty.
A person’s share of natural opportunities is the amount that every other
person can also have. The addition to the rental value of land from
infrastructure and the economic growth of communities is not part of anyone’s
share; it is for the community to dispose of as it chooses.
If a person wishes to have his share of natural opportunities in a place where
infrastructure and the growth of the community add to the value of land, he
should expect to pay that much of the rental value of the land he occupies to the
community. If he wishes to have a smaller piece of land, his obligation to the
community will shrink and perhaps even become negative.
The benefit of private property in land in ensuring that people who build
structures will benefit from those investments can also be obtained in a
framework that recognizes land as everyone’s common heritage. All that is
needed is a continuation of the system of titles to land. The land title provides
social recognition of the right of the title holder to decide how the land will be
used into the indefinite future. If land is recognized as everyone’s common
heritage, then holding title to land also carries an obligation to pay to the
community the excess of the rental value of the land above a person’s equal
share of natural opportunities. This obligation does not interfere with the title
holder’s opportunity to benefit from any enduring improvements to the land that
he has made.
One might object: It could happen that a person builds a lasting
improvement, and then, unexpectedly, the rental value of the land rises because
of growth of the community. This rise in the value of the land and
corresponding rise in the rental value that the title holder must pay to the
community could destroy the value of the improvement. Yes, this can happen.
The economic way of dealing with this risk is by having improvers of land who
are worried about it buy insurance. An improvement is only truly worthwhile if
it has a positive return when one includes in its cost the cost of insurance
against a rise in land value that makes the improvement obsolete. It is not
necessary for the holder of title to land to have a guarantee that taxes will not
Then there is the issue of efficient motivation of resource discoveries. It is
difficult to devise a system that motivates people to spend efficiently on seeking
to discover resources. Some compensation is appropriate; full ownership of the
resources that are found is excessive and motivates wasteful expenditures on
Thus it is possible to incorporate the most valuable aspects of land as private
property into a framework that recognizes land as a common heritage, to which
we all have equal rights.