|I wrote (to Merlin), "Is it your view that the Saudi government owns the land and therefore whatever natural resources lie beneath it, and that because they own it, they can demand a portion of the revenues gained from exploiting those resources?" He replied, |
Yes, with qualification. There was no prior existing ownership claim on the land. But more important, the American oil companies recognized it as the legitimate owner, and made a voluntary contract with it to pay said revenues. I believe one must accept some particular situation and time as a legitimate starting point, ignoring the history prior to then. If you don't, it usually leads to an infinite regress such as: Well, X is not a legitimate owner because X did this, or X is not a legitimate owner because X acquired it from Y, who was not a legitimate owner, and so on. According to Objectivism,
I wrote, "Your analogy with my owning land and making a deal with an oil company is bogus. Individuals have property rights to land and natural resources; governments don't."
It is the proper task of the government to protect individual rights and, as part of it, to formulate the laws by which these rights are to be implemented and adjudicated. It is the government's responsibility to define the application of individual rights to a given sphere of activity -- to define (i.e., to identify), not to create, invent, donate or expropriate. The question of defining the application of property rights has arisen frequently, in the wake of major scientific discoveries or inventions, such as the question of oil rights, vertical space rights, etc. In most cases, the American government was guided by the proper principle: it sought to protect all the individual rights involved, not to abrogate them.
A notable example of the proper method of establishing private ownership from scratch, in a previously ownerless area, is the Homestead Act of 1862, by which the government opened the Western frontier for settlement and turned "public land" over to private owners. The government offered a 160-acres farm to any adult citizen who would settle on it and cultivate it for five years, after which it would become his property. Although that land was originally regarded, in law, as "public property," the method of its allocation, in fact, followed the proper principle (in fact, but not in explicit ideological intention). The citizens did not have to pay the government as if it were an owner; ownership began with them, and they earned it by the method which is the source and root of the concept of "property"; by working on unused material resources, by turning a wilderness into a civilized settlement. Thus, the government, in this case, was acting not as the owner but as the custodian of ownerless resources who defines objectively impartial rules by which potential owners may acquire them. (Ayn Rand, "The Property Status of Airwaves," The Objectivist Newsletter, April, 1964)
Why is it bogus and why only individuals? Business corporations own property. No, and please accept my apologies for the poorly worded reply. What I should have said is that ownership begins with individuals' working to transform an unused natural resource into a useable product or service; it doesn't begin with a government's fiat claim to ownership of land or property that it has not earned through its own productive efforts, which is not to say that a government cannot legitimately acquire property by working an unowned natural resource or by obtaining property voluntarily from those who have. The point is that a proper government, according to Objectivism, has no right to property that it has not acquired by the same principles that apply to private individuals.
Did you really think that I was excluding business corporations from the category of "individuals"? If so, do you also believe that individual rights don't apply to corporations? For a refutation of the view that corporations are not voluntary associations of individuals, see Robert Hessen's In Defense of the Corporation. Are you saying that a government is not even entitled to own the land where it operates, such as a courthouse or military base?
And imagine a collection of people, all utilizing "communal property", decide to form a local government and turn the "communal property" into government property. Would that be illegitimate? No, not if the property were legitimately acquired, according to the above criteria.