Review of the Book:
Social Conflict over Property Rights,
edited by Harvey M. Jacobs
H. William Batt
[This book is published by University of Wisconsin Press, Madison,
The short answer to "who owns America" is -- no one
really knows! This is because there is no office with the powers
and/or responsibility to collect the data necessary to answer this
At one point in passing, one of the collected papers notes that
60 percent of the land area is privately owned and the remainder is
public land. But few contributors to this collection are willing to
take on the question directly.
The editor to the collection states in a wrap-up essay that what
studies have attempted to find out have come up with what amounts to
statistical garbage; there is simply no way to find out. Even if we
could obtain land ownership data, it would likely be by acre, not
terribly useful given the fact that some site have negligible value
and others are worth millions. So to this extent, the book's title
is strongly misleading.
Still it is a very useful book. The subjects of discussion range
widely over the nature of ownership what lawyers more often refer to
as a "bundle of rights" the legal cases on which such
rights have turned, and most especially the moral dimensions of a
system of land markets. There are chapters on the efficiency of land
use, particularly with reference to agricultural lands where it is
easy to exploit resources at the expense of the environment and
future welfare. There are penetrating chapters on the property
rights movement and the emerging field of ecosystem management. And
there is considerable discussion about the value system and the
tacit assumptions which sustain the structure of land use practices
in the American political and economic context.
The most interesting chapter to this reviewer is one by Daniel W.
Bromley entitled "Rousseau's Revenge." He offers the
thought that the posturing by various land rights organizations is
misplaced; this is because there are not two parties, the individual
and a predatory government in this plot. Rather, there are three
participants, . . . me, the rest of you, and that third party who
alone can mediate disputes between us. Property rights are not
dyadic, the individual versus government; rather, they are triadic:
my dreams for a piece of land I claim to control, your disgust at
the thought that I may actually be able to realize my dreams on that
land to your detriment, and this third party called "government."
In an earlier era, ownership of property was the guarantor of
personal liberties. Without the protection of land titles,
individuals were vulnerable to abusive importunities by the state.
Enlightenment thinkers were defenders of property primarily because
they were defenders of liberty. The author goes on to argue that
temporarily government still has a primary hold on land titles, but
one which in the long run is "destined to be broken. This is
Rousseau's Revenge." Social ownership of land will eventuate as
a matter of rational evolution of public policy. An interesting
The book is a potpourri of such tidbits, quite good actually. But
each article needs to be read for itself and the volume's title
should be ignored. One might hope that future conferences sponsored
by the University of Wisconsin Land Tenure Center will continue
exploration along these lines, as there now appears to be too little
thinking on such a grand scale as this book represents.