There are people in the US who maintain that land ownership confers a God-given right to do anything you want with that land, and everything below the surface, and everything above the surface. Some go further - that the government should give to individuals all land not already in private ownership.

The fact is that such extreme ownership rights do not, never have and could not exist. Even countries do not attempt to claim sovereignty up past the atmosphere. And to claim down very far quickly means you run into the claims of others. As for use - Houston Texas has no zoning (land use) controls in the generally accepted sense, but you are not free to build a nuclear waste storage facility in your back yard. You do not even have the absolute right to keep land - the state can take it by eminent domain.

The very concept of individual ownership of land is western, fairly new, and not accepted in much of the rest world. (The Romans did have a form of private ownership, but that concept died out in the west with the Empire.)

In the US, what land ownership means varies a lot from state to state. You may or may not have mineral rights or water rights. In many states what you can do with the land has limits.

In other countries there are other wrinkles. Most of the buildings in the West End of London are not on private land, but leased land. After 100 years you might have to remove your house. In the Cappadocia region of Turkey the land formation leads to extensive underground construction. One hotel owner we know thought about extending down until he found that a winery down the hill was already there - cellars built for wine storage. In Sri Lanka about 25 years ago the government decided to widen the road from Colombo to the airport. The road was lined with houses and shops. The occupants were informed they had so many weeks to remove their property from government land or they would be charged with the cost of clearance. And in fact the land technically did belong to the government (commune). The people were squatters.

How then is land "owned?"

Boss owns everything

The classic feudal system was that some lord, king, prince, whatever, owned the land. He (and it was usually a he) would allocate much of that land to individuals (nobles) in exchange for their loyalty and some sort of payment such a military service. That noble might have sub nobles, with the people actually working the land in some extreme cases serfs - slaves who literally were part of the property of the noble. In the west, ownership by some lord often coexisted with ownership of some territory by the church - a situation which led to some interesting wars and finally revolutions. Feudal states passed leadership by birth, with civil wars the main option for selecting someone else. A modern version of the feudal (but without any hereditary succession except maybe in North Korea) was practiced in most of the communist world.

The community owns everything

A much more common situation was and is common ownership. A town, a tribe, sometimes larger groupings would have common rights to the land. Hunters would share the forest, agricultural lands farmed jointly and/or shared out in plots for some period. Grazing land was and is typically common, while crop land might be assigned to individuals for one season or longer - even life. Communal systems typically have leadership systems based on merit and selection, not birth.

Both systems typically treated buildings in permanent settlements differently - as private property. And in parts of the feudal world towns and cities were actually given self rule. The free cities of the Holy Roman Empire were ruled in a relatively democratic manner by representatives of rich merchants and (later) guilds.

Private or family ownership

About 1,000 years ago the concept of private ownership began to develop in parts of western Europe, although it did not really become widespread until various revolutions ended the system of feudal and church control. To the east (e.g. Russia) the concept has not been really established even today. In western Europe generally this has developed to the point where most developed land belongs to individuals.

But in no case does all land belong to individuals. Large pieces are common, or in modern legal terms property of the commune (town or city) or state. The common ownership is often reflected in the name of a piece of land - e.g. Boston Common. Large parts of the US west of the Mississippi, and most of Alaska, is still common. And it should belong to the people in general, who paid for the acquisition. (This ignores the expropriation of the lands from the Native Americans, but see below.)

The upshot

Now the problem: the last 500 years has seen the conquest of most of the common land world by feudal and then private property people. To take North America as an example, the Native Americans in the Spanish areas became serfs of the king/emporer, while those in the English areas simply lost their land because they did not have proper deeds. The entirety of what is today the Congo was considered personal property by Leopold II. Most of Indonesia was held in title for the Dutch East India Company, and then the Netherlands government. Much of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was property of an English company, and then crown property. The Hudson Bay Company had theoretical claim to much of Canada at one time.

The results of these conquests can still be seen today in many property records. The title to every bit of southern California goes back to one of a few families originally given feudal rights. (None goes any earlier.) Very large parts of many Latin American countries, few of which ever had a social revolution in the sense of the French or Haitian revolutions, remain in the hands of a few families.

This process continues today in Palestine. Israeli settlements are planted on common land owned by non-Jews - because the land belongs to no individual. (There has also been massive expropriation of the private property of non-Jews, but that is another story.)

Who owns U kozora?

By what right do you own land? Do you really have a right to it? Unless everyone agrees that some god gave it to you, you may have problems.

Much of eastern Europe is an extreme case. In this century much property was expropriated from Jews and others by the Nazi government, much given or sold to other individuals only to be expropriated again by communist governments. In many cases the immediate families of the original title holders were killed. To whom does such a house belong?

But I live in Massachusetts and bought my home legally. Yes, but - how far back does that title go? Remnants of Native American nations are suing for return of land stolen, or at least compensation, in many parts of the US.

Then there are those dispossed in various revolutions. No compensation was paid to the large landowners who left the US after the American revolution, or Mexico after its revolution, or Cuba after its revolution. Nor the surviving cousins of the large landowners (nobles) executed during the French and Russian revolutions. Or the Greeks forced out of what is now Turkey and Turks from what is now Greece during the local continuation of WW1. In most of these countries there are people who think they have legal title to the land so acquired.

(U kozora (the tomcat) was our favorite pub in Prague. What the status of the title to that building is, I know not.)

last update 9 December 2000

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