Friday, October 16, 2009

The wind and wave theory of property

A recent post of mine over on the Blog at

The wind and wave theory of property
Jim Fedako

sandcastle_2.jpgThere is nothing like a week at the beach to relax and refocus. The water, the waves, and the fun are a vacationer's dream, creating the perfect place to drift between musing and being amused.

I really enjoy observing individuals interacting, using scarce means to obtain very personal ends. Many times, these observations lead to greater understanding, reinforcing or challenging beliefs and ideas.

For me, our family trip to the beach this summer provided such an opportunity - it provided an opportunity to study the process acting man uses to establish property rights absent government interventions.

Consider the beach in the early morning sun. The sand is rippled but devoid of form, with evidence of yesterday's labor wiped clean by the nightly action of the wind and wave.

As individuals, families and groups begin migrating to the empty expanse on the edge of the surf, the first arrivers homestead, what is for them, the very best spot. They stake out a claim by planting umbrellas, unfolding chairs, and spreading blankets and towels. And as pails are emptied of plastic shovels and tools, adults and children begin mixing labor with sand and water to form castles, trenches, and other structures and designs.

Subsequent arrivals naturally note the delineated property lines established by those who arrived beforehand. As these folks begin staking out their own claims, volleyball nets appear and Frisbees take flight.

All of these activities further define and refine property boundaries as acting man and women homestead in a peaceful and orderly process, without the need for interventions from the state, nonetheless.

None of what follows is theory or law; it is simply observations of human action. But, if what are sometimes referred to as natural laws are truly natural, they should be found guiding the natural course of human action. And they do.

No one owns his view

This is easy to observe. The early homesteader sets up his chair some distance from the water, but in full view of the pounding surf. As latecomers stake out their claims, both early and late arrivals understand that a view cannot be homesteaded. A latecomer can set up anywhere between the early-occupier and the surf, as long as existing property boundaries are respected.

Furthermore, all beachgoers understand that if someone wants a continuous, open view of the water, he had better place his chair at the edge of the surf and make ready to move with the tide - that is if he can relocate to a space not already homesteaded.

Finally, anyone has the right to stop and stand in front of your chair - though outside your borders - for any length of time, for any reason.

You can homestead more than your physical property

While it is true that the early-established volleyball court is defined by it boundaries (either physical boundaries furrowed in the sand, or assumed boundaries created by the footsteps of players), the owner of the volleyball court also homesteads the right to have his ball bounce in then-unoccupied areas. Latecomers therefore have to accept the occasional errant bounce, but earlier homesteaders have a right to complain.

The same holds for the tossed Frisbee, etc. Homesteaded property rights include more than just visible boundaries.

Mixing your labor defines your property

If you want to secure rights to an area of sand, build a castle or other physical structure. On the beach, such structures provide secure property rights, until they are abandoned or the wind and waves once again erase them from view.

Usufruct rules

While you can homestead areas of sand, you cannot enforce secure borders. In other words, you cannot stop folks from entering your property as they move about the beach. This does not provide for aggression or destruction, just the free movement within your borders. Of course, your physical structures are secure from intrusion; no one can step into your castle grounds unless invited.

Abandoned property is subject to homesteading

If you physically leave the beach area, you have abandoned your property and your property rights. This opens up your area to homesteading by anyone. The same holds when the incoming tide has destroyed your castle. Once the tide recedes, the area is again open to homesteading by all.

It all just conventions

What I have described are not laws, they are self-enforcing conventions. And I have seen them in actions on every beach I have visited, in many different countries of the world.

Just as important, while sitting on the sand, I have never seen someone appeal to the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion to settle a property dispute.

Of course, observations on a beach do not define and justify an ethical system of property rights (such as that proposed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe). But neither do those observations disprove the existence of an ethical system of property rights. They simply show that, absent interventions by the state, acting man, left to his selfish ends, tends to organize his means in a way that agrees with the concept of property.

In this, we should not be surprised.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely awesome. To me nothing is more relaxing than the beach. All God's beauty if we just take a moment to look. Something about a beach takes ones cares all away and the mind just wonders. As one walks the beach, they soon forget how far they walked until time to go back. Just to see the laughter, families, friends, and strangers interact is hard to put into words. Let alone just looking for shells to see all the different types that intermingle together.

As always such a wonderful job. This world needs more people like you.

God bless you for taking the time. As always I lift my prayers all the time to God. Through God all things are possible.

Joy Piper

Paul said...

Jim: Interesting illustration. I wonder if there is a difference in beach behavior in different cultures around the world? Does the behavior change depending on something like population density?

You see the same kind of behavior at things like the Red White and Boom, and parades. Indeed people set up their law chairs and lay out blankets, but seem to be much more territorial. Some go so far as to set up little fences - perhaps made only of plastic tape, or a line of lawn chairs - but still a clear message that passage through their area is not welcome.

It seems that one of the consequences of a lawless situation is that all it takes is for one person to build a fence, and the whole thing starts to break down. Others want a fence, and the next thing you know it looks like so many suburban neighborhoods - like a collection of little forts. I suspect that the only neighborhoods without these fences are the ones in which zoning laws or deed restrictions prevent it.

An Indian friend of mine says that in his hometown of Mumbai, the wealthy folks are moving back into the inner city because the hassle of commuting in from their rural estates has become unbearable. But if you build a house in the city, the homeless folks will just come up and sleep on your porch, or build shanteys against your wall of your house. So if you are one of these rich guys and decide to build in the city, you put up a high wall on your property line to keep all the poor folks from squatting on your land. The rich folks can't count on law enforcement to protect their property - it's an overwhelming challenge. So they just build walls.

In the pioneering days of the west, well away from the reach of law enforcement, these battles raged between the cattlemen, who wanted open grazing ranges, and farmers who would fence off their fields to keep the cattle from eating and trampling their crops.

I think the beach behavior happens as you describe only because the beach has been declared public land, and permanent claims are unlawful.

I think it may be in the next life that we are finally freed of these human traits of selfishness and greed. Meanwhile, we can treasure the beach as one of those places where we get a little Heaven on Earth.


Jim Fedako said...

Paul --

I'll disagree with your assertion that lawlessness is the driving force for the need (desire) to build fences.

Folks live in gated communities and fence their backyards in standard developments for various reasons.

I do not find a necessary evil in fences.