Land as soil and land as space

The argument that people can appropriate unowned land by mixing their labor with it has a lot of problems. Labor is not a substance, and so it cannot be mixed. Even if it could be mixed, it is not clear why mixing it with something transforms the unowned particles into owned particles. Even if you can get past the weird mechanics of mixing, such appropriation would seem to violate ordinary libertarian ethics of non-aggression because everyone except the appropriator has their previously-existing access to the land violently taken from them without their consent.

These are all problems that have been discussed extensively and advocates of the theory lack a convincing retort. But there is another fundamental problem that I have not seen discussed before. And that problem is this: “land” ambiguously refers both to “soil” and to “space” and the mistaken conflation of the two is what really drives the entire labor-mixing theory.

When you ask someone what they mean when they say that someone has “mixed their labor” with a piece of land, they usually reach for an agricultural example: a person mixes their labor with the land by cultivating the soil and planting crops. Insofar as agriculture was the overwhelming purpose of land at the origin of this theory, this makes sense. But the example does not explain how space comes to be own.

If someone cultivates the soil, then the labor-mixing theory should say that they own the soil, not the space the soil sits in. The space the soil sits in, which can be described by reference to lines of longitude and latitude or by drawing lines on a map, is not mixable. It’s a container. It’s territory. It’s not soil.

The difference between “soil” and “space” is very easy to see once you recognize that soil can be moved to a different space. The layer of topsoil a person has mixed their labor with could be shoveled into a truck and moved elsewhere. And, if that were to happen, the owner of the soil would not have had anything they mixed their labor with taken from them.

The same is true of any other labor mixed in any other space. A house built on some piece of land could be loaded onto a special truck and moved. I’ve seen them do it on TV. So could any other structure. For any given land claim, the objects that the labor was mixed with could be isolated and moved outside of the space.

So how does someone ever come to own the space itself rather than just the objects that were sitting in the space when labor was mixed with them? This is not a trivial question because it is in fact the space that is so valuable. That’s what land rents (these days especially) are being paid to: not to soil but to space.

As far as I can tell, the labor-mixing theory has no actual argument for how space can be owned, but has instead equivocated between different uses of the word “land” to move deceptively from “soil can be owned” to “space can be owned” without providing a separate argument for the latter.

  • This is not at odds with the communal principle that the first person to use a piece of land as a home or a garden owns it in a sense: under those systems, when the “owner” stops actively using it, someone else may take it over.

    But if you take over a right-libertarian’s unused garden, I’m guessing he’ll complain.

  • faceh

    Why do we care about the ‘space’ at all?

    If your body is taking up space, does the fact that you don’t own the space somehow entitle others to shove you out of said space?

    If 2 objects can’t occupy the same space at once, then it seems obvious that you can’t move somebody else’s property out of a given space without interacting with it.

    So the only relevant question is who is entitled to interact with the object, which the theory of property readily answers. The question of who owns the ‘space’ is never broached.

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    Not really. Consider the question of compensation. Sometimes you’ve got to move someone out in order to build a highway, do you compensate them for the value of the land (space) or just the value of the improvements? Is it adequate compensation to just provide the value of the improvements?

    Same issue occurs if the property is destroyed by some tortious act. How much compensation is owed?

  • faceh

    > Sometimes you’ve got to move someone out in order to build a highway,
    do you compensate them for the value of the land (space) or just the
    value of the improvements? Is it adequate compensation to just provide
    the value of the improvements?

    But that’s just it. The land isn’t ‘space,’ the land is what is *taking up the space,* as well as the improvements.

    The space is irrelevant other than the fact that someone else wants to fill the space with a highway and there’s something in the way.

    >Same issue occurs if the property is destroyed by some tortious act. How much compensation is owed?

    Generally, it depends on:

    A) How much of the damage is directly attributable to each person.

    B) How much it costs to restore the property to its previous state, if possible.

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    Huh? I think you missed the point. Suppose you spent $1,000 improving a plot of land, and the plot of land is worth $100k. Someone comes along and pollutes the plot of land with plutonium, making it completely worthless for the foreseeable future because of the radiation poisoning that results from the pollution (nobody can be on the land now).

    Does the person owe you $1,000 or $101,000?

  • The differentiation between land and soil is redundant because the conflict/disagreement is about property, private property and distribution of power or ownership in isolation.
    Rather I advise you to just skip this issue of soil vs land and focus solely on private property management like patents or other types of exclusivity by subcategory of private property.
    No need for argument about private property on a binary level it’s all politically economy about distribution of factors of production and money prices expressed in percent.

  • Ochotona_Princemps

    This take seems a bit willfully obtuse. Under virtually any ethics system, we’d agree its exploitative to force someone at spear-point to clear and till a field The labor-mixing position just notes that there is little-to-no functional difference between that and waiting for someone to voluntarily clear and till the field, then forcing them off the field at spear-point. In both cases you’ve taken for yourself the useful fruits of someone else’s labor.

    Semantic quibbles about whether “mixing” is a good term for the irrevocable application of labor to land to make the land more valuable, or whether the labor is embodied in the soil or in space where the soil is, don’t get at the substantive question.

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    You’re seeing this through the lens of a false dichotomy. Sure, we don’t want people to lose the investment of their labor. But it is absolutely not the case that the “labor-mixing” theory (which says that $15 worth of labor invested in a $1.5M plot of land entitles you to the $1.5M value) is the only way to ensure that people retain the value of their labor.

    In fact, in practice, the appropriation of land causes people to lose the value of their labor because people end up being forced to work in order to have sufficient access to land to survive. People are held at spear-point and forced to till the fields in order to have money to pay their rents; while people who do not till the fields (but merely own the fields) collect the product of that labor. The labor-mixing theory is not at all concerned with this, it is not a problem, because the owner of the land gets to set whatever terms he wants (no matter whether he gets more than the value of his own labor back) and owes no compensation to the rest of the world who is deprived of that land.

    The premise that we all accept is that “mixing” your labor with the land entitles you to the value _of the labor_, but the question at issue is whether it _further_ entitles you to the value _of the land_.

  • Lewis

    Relatedly, can I drive a hovercraft over the topsoil that you mixed your labor with? What about a helicopter, airplane or satellite? At some point above the ground your property right on space must end, and this point is obviously a construct in the same way that the duration of patent and copyrights monopolies are constructs. If that point is a construct, then take the limit as height goes to zero.

  • Bob

    Everyone has a wide range of “ethical intuitions” regarding justice in very specific interpersonal scenarios, and labor-mixing theories allegedly best explain most of these intuitions regarding when it is and isn’t appropriate to exclude people from things. Their alleged explanatory power is supposed to justify belief in them.

    In the same way libertarians can say labor in relation to soil simply does generate liberty and claims rights to that soil, they could say that labor in relation to the soil+space just does generate liberty and claims rights to the space containing it as well (so long as the space isn’t already justly owned by someone else and that there is “still enough and as good left.”)

  • aa

    you’re right on the general point that the notion of labor-mixing is an embarrassment, and i say this as someone in many ways sympathetic to libertarianism. you know it’s got to be in bad shape when an arch-libertarian like nozick dismisses it almost with a laugh.

    i wonder if it’s really true that acquisition of space poses a special problem for it, though. although locke is spectacularly unclear on the subject, he often seems to associate labor-mixing with doing something to increase the value of some resource. then there seems to be a tacit appeal to a notion prevalent among libertarians, namely that the person responsible for creating something valuable (in this case improvements, eg to land) is entitled to reap the rewards. this seems like maybe it could apply with respect to space as well: if i turn this soil into a farm, i improve the value of the soil, but presumably i increase the value of the space containing that soil, if only because for now at least you’d need access to the space to get access to the soil.

    of course you would be right to say that quite a bit of what we might have thought was built into labor mixing has dropped out of the picture here. its proponents sometimes seem to talk as though labor is a physical substance which we somehow infuse into the object. certainly as you say none of this stuff can possibly be going on in the case of space, and none of it is contained strictly in the act of increasing something’s value. but the lockean already has reason to drop the physical stuff: in the first place because it makes basically no sense, but also because it makes it impossible to assimilate things like intellectual property rights to their theory, which they presumably want to find some room for.

  • Mike Huben

    I think the actual way property is made is by mixing coercion.

    If you have invested labor or other sunk costs in something such as land, then you’re also willing to invest in coercion to make sure that you receive the proceeds. Or even if you simply want to extract rents, then mixing coercion is the way to go.