Are You A Real Libertarian?
Or, a ROYAL Libertarian?
Dan Sullivan is Vice Chair, Libertarian Party of Allegheny
We describe ourselves as the party of principle, and the principle
upon which we base property rights is that everyone is entitled to
the fruits of his labor. Land, however, is not the fruits of
anyone's labor, and our system of land tenure is based not on labor,
but on decrees of privilege issued from the state, called titles.
In fact, the term "real estate" is Middle English
(originally French) for "royal state." The "title"
to land is the essence of the title of nobility, and the root of
The royal free lunch
"The widow is gathering nettles for her children's
dinner; a perfumed seigneur, delicately lounging in the Oeil de
Boeuf, hath an alchemy whereby he will extract the third nettle and
call it rent." --Carlyle
When the state granted land titles to a fraction of the
population, it gave that fraction devices with which to levy tolls
on the fruits of the labor of others. Those who have no land
privileges must either buy or rent those privileges from the people
who received the grants or from their assignees.
According to royal libertarians, land becomes private property
when one mixes one's labor with it. And mixing what is yours with
what is not yours in order to own the whole thing is considered
great sport. But the notion is filled with problems. How much labor
does it take to lay a claim on land, and how much land can one claim
for that labor? And for how long can one make that claim?
According to the classic liberals, land belonged to the user for
as long as the land was being used, and no longer. But according to
the royal libertarians, land belongs to the first user, forever. So,
do the oceans belong to the heirs of the first person to take a fish
out or put a boat in? Does someone who plows the same field each
year own only one field, while someone who plows a different field
each year owns dozens of fields? Should the builder of the first
transcontinental railroad own the continent? Shouldn't we at least
have to pay a toll to cross the tracks? Are there no common rights
to the earth at all? To the royal libertarians there are not. But
the classical liberals recognized that unlimited ownership of land
never flowed from use, but from the state:
"That the lands within the limits assumed by a nation
belong to the nation as a body has probably been the law of every
people on earth at some period in their history. A right of property
in moveable things is admitted before the establishment of
government. A separate property in lands not till after that
establishment.... He who plants a field keeps possession of it till
he has gathered the produce, after which one has as good a right as
another to occupy it. Government must be established and laws
provided, before lands can be separately appropriated and their
owner protected in his possession. Till then the property is in the
body of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson
Indeed, the current land tenure system virtually nothing to do
with use, but is a product of the state's selling of our common
heritage. Less than 2% of the privately held land traces to
Phony Laissez Faire
"AFTER conquest and confiscation have been effected, and
the State set up, its first concern is with the land.... In its
capacity as ultimate landlord, the State distributes the land among
its beneficiaries on its own terms." --Albert J. Nock, Our
Enemy the State
The English free-trader Cobden remarked that "you who free
the land will do more for the people than we who have freed trade."
Indeed, how can anyone speak of free trade when the trader has to
pay tribute to some favored land entitlement holder in order to do
"This imperfect policy of non-intervention, or
laissez-faire, led straight to a most hideous and dreadful economic
exploitation; starvation wages, slum dwelling, killing hours,
pauperism, coffin-ships, child-labour--nothing like it had ever been
seen in modern times...People began to say, if this is what State
abstention comes to, let us have some State intervention.
"But the state had intervened; that was the whole
trouble. The State had established one monopoly--the landlord's
monopoly of economic rent--thereby shutting off great hordes of
people from free access to the only source of human subsistence, and
driving them into factories to work for whatever Mr. Gradgrind and
Mr. Bottles chose to give them.
"The land of England, while by no means nearly all
*actually* occupied, was all *legally* occupied; and this
State-created monopoly enabled landlords to satisfy their needs and
desires with little exertion or none, but it also removed the land
from competition with industry in the labor market, thus creating a
huge, constant and exigent labour-surplus." --Albert J.
Nock, "The God's Lookout" February 1934
State land vs. common land
One of the distinctions that is lost on royal libertarians is
between common property and state property. Common property is that
to which we all have inalienable rights. State property is that
which the state actually owns, and can dispose of as it sees fit.
For example, a public right of way is literally a *right* of way.
Under principles of common law, nobody, not even the king, could
close a travelled road and make it private property. A state
maintenance truck, on the other hand, is state property, which can
be sold if it no longer suits state purposes.
"The earth, therefore, and all things therein, are the
general property of all mankind, from the immediate gift of the
Creator." --William Blackstone
It is the royal libertarian notion, and not the classic liberal
ideal, that recognizes land as state property. For if land did not
rightfully belong to the state, how could the state grant it to
favored citizens? And, for that matter, how could there be favored
citizens in a democratic republic?
It is the classic liberals, and not the royal libertarians, who
deny that the state has a power to appropriate our common rights to
the earth and allocate those rights to privileged individuals on
favored terms. It is also the classic liberals who hold the key to
abolishing taxation, by suggesting that the community (not the
state) charge a user fee to landholders based on the value of the
The ultimate user's fee
The classic liberals recognized that exclusive access to land, and
especially to more than a citizen's share of land, was a privilege
that should be paid for, thereby eliminating the need for taxes. It
is not a fee for using land, but a fee for the state privilege of
denying use of that land to everyone else.
"Men did not make the earth.... It is the value of the
improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual
property.... Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent
for the land which he holds." --Tom Paine
"Another means of silently lessening the inequality of
[landed] property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain
point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical
progression as they rise." --Thomas Jefferson
Today's land value tax advocates consider graduating the tax to be
unnecessary and problematic, leading to artificial subdivision (and
phony subdivision) of land. The point is that Jefferson, to whom
libertarians pay homage, considered land monopoly a great evil and
land value tax a remedy, as did many other classic liberals.
"Ground rents are a species of revenue which the owner,
in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own.
Ground rents are, therefore, perhaps a species of revenue which can
best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them." --Adam
"Landlords grow richer in their sleep, without working,
risking, or economizing. The increase in the value of land, arising
as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to
the community and not to the individual who might hold title."
--John Stewart Mill
Two different kinds of indirect taxation
One of the most perverted twisting of concepts is reflected in
what Hamilton called "indirect taxation." To him and to
many royal libertarians, indirect taxation is "hidden"
taxation, as a value-added tax or sales tax that is buried in the
price of purchased goods. This kind of indirectness is hardly
admirable, and is similar to the kind of indirectness involved in
chicanery and duplicity. Small wonder Jefferson called Hamilton a
The Articles of Confederation embodied an entirely different
concept of indirect taxation. The United States was to levy a tax,
not on individual property holders, but on each state, based on its
aggregate land value. The assumption was that each state would levy
a similar tax on each county, and so on down to the individual. In
this way, the individual would never have to face a federal tax
agent directly, and if the federal government did not have the full
support of the states, it could not bully them as easily as it could
Unfortunately, states did not support the federal government to
its satisfaction from the beginning (being strapped from the war).
Rather than working things out patiently, Hamilton introduced
power-centralizing measures into the new Constitution. One was the
other kind of indirect taxation, the mosquito-bite kind that you
don't see happening. Royal libertarians trumpet this covert taxation
as a virtue over direct real estate taxation, even when it means
that "free trade" is being taxed.
The classic liberal distinctions between land, labor and capital
were greatly confused by socialists, and particularly Marxists, who
substituted the fuzzy abstract term, "means of production,"
for all three factors. They also blurred the distinction between
common property and state property, for socialists believed, as
royalty also believed, that they *were* the people.
Today, the confusions between land and capital and between state
property and common property are shared by socialists and royal
libertarians, and only classic liberals keep these distinctions
clearly defined. Yet royal libertarians frequently duck the land
issue by suggesting that it is the classic liberals, not the royal
libertarians, who have embraced socialist ideas.
John Locke is often misrepresented by royal libertarians, who
quote him very selectively. For example, Locke did say that:
"Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature
hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and
joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his
But Locke condemned anyone who took more than he needed as a "spoiler
of the commons."
"If the fruits rotted, or the venison putrified, before
he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature, and
was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbour's share, for he
had no right, farther than his use called for any of them, and they
might serve to afford him conveniencies of life.
"The same measures governed the possession of land too:
whatsoever he tilled and reaped, laid up and made use of, before it
spoiled, that was his peculiar right; whatsoever he enclosed, and
could feed, and make use of, the cattle and product was also his.
But if either the grass of his enclosure rotted on the ground, or
the fruit of his planting perished without gathering, and laying up,
this part of the earth, notwithstanding his enclosure, was still to
be looked on as waste, and might be the possession of any other."
Locke also limited appropriation of land with the *proviso,*
ignored by royal libertarians, that there must be
"still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet
unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less
left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that
leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take
nothing at all."
Now if the situation is that there is enough free land, and as
good, left after you took and cultivated your land, than your land
has no market value. For who would pay you for land that is not
better than land that can be had for free? So besides the fact that
Locke's justification of privatizing land is far more limited than
royal libertarians portray it to be, it is irrelevant to the
question of land value tax, as it applies only when land has no
Furthermore, Locke based this scenario on pre-monetary societies,
where a landholder would find that "it was useless, as well as
dishonest, to carve himself too much, or take more than he needed."
With the introduction of money, Locke noted, all land quickly
became appropriated. Why? Because with money, those who can do so
suddenly have reason to take more land than they can personally use,
for between them they will have taken all the land, and others will
have to pay rent to them. So, with the introduction of money, the
Lockean rationale falls apart, even according to Locke. And while
Locke did not propose a specific remedy to this problem, he
repeatedly stated that all taxes should be on real estate.
The tragedy of the common misunderstanding
In their search for excuses to deny any common right to land,
royal libertarians are fond of citing Garrett Hardin's work, "Tragedy
of the Commons." Or at least they cite the title, which is all
most royal libertarians are familiar with. Hardin is himself an
advocate of land value taxation, and has criticized
misinterpretations of his work with the lament that "The title
of my 1968 paper should have been 'The Tragedy of the *Unmanaged*
Commons.'" [Emphasis Hardin's]
Thoughtful Libertarian Party leadership
Fortunately, the bias toward royal libertarianism has been shaken
off by many of the philosophical leaders of the party. Founder David
Nolan supports land value tax as the only funding mechanism that
does not fall on productivity, and the late Karl Hess often
described land value tax as the one tax to levy until the state
could be abolished entirely. It is mostly the Austrians, the
Objectivists, and the wishful thinkers who adopt the royal
rationalization that they can hoard all the land to themselves with
The red, red herring
Royal libertarians are fond of confusing the classical liberal
concept of common land ownership, particularly as espoused by land
value tax advocate Henry George, with socialism. However, Frank
Chodorov and Albert J. Nock (the original editors of The Freeman)
were both advocates of George's economic remedies as well as lovers
of individual liberty.
"The only reformer abroad in the world in my time who
interested me in the least was Henry George, because his project did
not contemplate prescription, but, on the contrary, would reduce it
to almost zero. He was the only one of the lot who believed in
freedom, or (as far as I could see) had any approximation to an
intelligent idea of what freedom is, and of the economic
prerequisites to attaining it....One is immensely tickled to see how
things are coming out nowadays with reference to his doctrine, for
George was in fact the best friend the capitalist ever had. He built
up the most complete and most impregnable defense of the rights of
capital that was ever constructed, and if the capitalists of his day
had had sense enough to dig in behind it, their successors would not
now be squirming under the merciless exactions which collectivism is
laying on them, and which George would have no scruples whatever
about describing as sheer highwaymanry." --Albert J. Nock "Thoughts
Ayn Rand comes sooo close!
Several times Ayn Rand sees the distinction between land and
capital, and sees it in terms of common vs. private property, but
then falls back into confusion at other times. She rightly chastises
the Encyclopaedia Brittanica's definition of capitalism that
confuses land and capital, which she quotes as follows:
"Fundamental to any system called capitalist are the
relations between private owners of nonpersonal means of production
(land, mines, *industrial plants*, etc., collectively known as
capital)" [emphasis Rand's]
Then she quotes a John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged in which Galt
states sarcastically, "A factory is a 'natural resource', like
a tree, a rock or a mud puddle. By Jove, I think she's...
But are the heroes of Atlas Shrugged real capitalists? The
inventor John Galt is, and perhaps Hank Reordin of Reordin Metals
is, too, although one wonders where he got his ore and fuel. But
Taggart Railways enjoys extremely valuable right-of-way privileges
from the state. (Once land is parcelled out, it is virtually
impossible to build a railroad without either land value tax or
Then there is Francisco D'Anconia, who owned the world's richest
copper deposits, and who took delight in blowing up his mines and
driving the price of copper through the roof--something only a
resource monopolist could get away with.
Could you imagine the laughter from competitors if Bill Gates got
into a snit and blew up Microsoft?
The economics of Galt's Gulch
Most revealing of all is the Randian utopia, Galt's Gulch, which
was financed entirely from, yes, land rents. Midas Mulligan owned
the whole place, and was, in essence, the government. All the common
services, from Galt's magic energy machine to Hank Reordin's village
railroad, to their defense system (some sort of jammer that made the
valley invisible to passing planes) were financed from ground rents
collected by Mulligan from the landholders. Although politically
Galt's Gulch was a monarchy, economically it was a Georgist
Single-Tax community, with all community services paid for from the
rent of land.
Who is the community?
Many libertarians struggle with the question of how a governing
body achieves rightful jursidiction in a community. However, royal
libertarians raise the question selectively and rhetorically in
regard to community land rents. They acknowledge that there must be
courts to settle, among other things, property disputes. It seems
rather obvious that whatever entity has authority to rule on who
gets the land also has authority to rule on who gets the land rent.
Fear of a funded government
There is also a well founded libertarian concern that land rent
would provide funds enough to support a corrupt and oppressive
government. Most libertarian supporters of land value tax therefore
fall into two camps. One would give the people power to limit how
much money the government can take, but would stipulate that all
such money come entirely from ground rents and natural resource
severance royalties. The other would take the full rent, but would
stipulate that the government can still only spend what the citizens
authorize it to spend. The rest would be distributed on a per-capita
Ending excuses for big government
Much of the government spending to which libertarians strenuously
object is made necessary by its taxing productivity instead of land
values. The property tax falls mostly on improvements, so less
housing is built, giving the government an excuse to build public
housing. Profits are taxed, leading to less employment and giving
government an excuse to spend money on economic stimulus projects.
Family income is taxed to the point that they have difficulty buying
a house or sending their children to college, so government
institutes subsidized mortgages and student loans.
Even the indirect effects are substantial. Land speculations gone
sour chew up inner cities, so poor people turn to crime (if drugs
and prostitution be crimes) and the government gets an excuse to
beef up the police state. Politically connected real estate
interests see that they can buy up land in the boondocks for a
pittance and then get other taxpayers to build them a superhighway,
increasing the value of their holdings by orders of magnitude. With
land value tax they would have ultimately paid for their own highway
or more likely would not have had it built in the first place.
Even welfare increases do not stay in the hands of welfare
recipients, but are quickly greeted by higher rent demands from
ghetto landlords. (The War on Poverty did little to end poverty, but
it did a lot to enrich absentee owners of poor communities.)
"All goes back to the land, and the land owner is enabled
to absorb to himself a share of almost every public and every
private benefit, however important or however pitiful those benefits
may be." --Winston Churchill
Isn't there some other way?
There are two models that tie land ownership with use. One is
replacing all taxes on productivity, that is, on land use, with
taxes on the value of land itself. The other is the Lockean
pre-monetary system. It would have to rely on a judicial mechanism,
whereby you assert your claim to land by demonstrating that you are
using it. While the latter method does not provide any community
funds (a mixed blessing perhaps), it does subject your landhold to
the discretion of that judicial mechanism. It is far less intrusive
into your business for the community to assess the market value of
land than to assess the validity of what you are doing on that land.
Can't we get away from the government?
There are, in fact, proprietary communities operating on the
single tax model. Arden, Delaware, with a population of 4900, has
had no local taxes since 1900. The Arden Corporation collects a fair
market rent on land, which is reappraised annually. (They actually
collect only about a fourth of the rent to which they are entitled.)
From that they not only pay for all the municipal services, but
rebate all property taxes levied by the county and school district.
There are excellent reasons for libertarians to prefer the land
trust route over the political route. Private communities can be
built on explicit contracts (leases) with the citizens, can have
internal democratic processes that are vastly superior to electoral
democracy, can be far more flexible and free of state intervention,
and can be downright profitable (even with trust investors pocketing
a mere fraction of the rent). Most of all, dealing with investors is
far more pleasant and self-affirming than dealing with politicians.