why bother using a private land registry in anarchy?

A few e-friends that I met via Prometheus Unbound and I chat in a private Google Group about anarcho-capitalism and writing.

I was questioned about the private land registries in my novel, and I explained how they might work, and why anyone would bother to use them.

This is, perhaps, of interest to people who care about implementation details that might arise in a David Friedman-style anarchy.

. . .

I was asked “why would anyone in a new virgin territory use a private registry service?”

I’ll turn the question around and ask: Why does anyone use godaddy.com ? Why does godaddy in turn use ICANN ?

Short answer:

Because registering with a service means that other people who use the service can find you, and further, the entries in the service’s “deed book” are valuable property that you can mortgage, sell, or trade.

Long answer:

Let’s imagine that we’re in an anarchy like HBO’s Deadwood.

You show up at the mining camp, see 50 different people erecting buildings (or panning for gold, or whatever), says to a friendly-looking sort “Hey, I want to pan for gold/build a house – what plot of land is free?” The man in the street says “Don’t ask me – but everyone who’s anyone drinks whiskey in yon saloon, and the barkeep knows what’s going on.”

So you wander into the bar and ask the barkeep “What land is free to build on?”

He says “Buy a beer before I answer that question!” (because homesteading unclaimed land might be free, but registry services aren’t!)

You do, and then he says “Wait. Why do you want to know? From the black-and-gold t-shirt you’re wearing, I’m guessing that you’re an anarcho-capitalist – so let me ask you, why don’t you just start building a house wherever you want?”

You look around the bar nervously at all the rough characters there and answer “Well…some of these folks don’t believe in the state’s monopoly on violence. If I built on land that they thought they owned, they might -“, you cringe a bit, “- they might HURT me.”

He nods. “Good answer. But there’s more to it than that. Next beer’s free if you can come up with a second answer.”

You think it over for a moment and answer “Well, it’d also be more efficient if I didn’t get halfway through building a house before learning that someone is already in the process of flooding the land for a mill pond he’s making for his factory.”

“Another good answer – here’s your free beer.” He pauses thoughtfully. “But don’t get used to free hand outs. Lunch at the bar is still $5.”

You take a sip. “OK, thanks. So, where can I build a house?”

The barkeep reaches under the counter and brings out a notebook with a map pasted in the front cover. He shows you all the allocated plots. “Build anywhere you want, but these 50 lots are already claimed.”

“Great!” You slam down the stein. “I’m off to start building.”

“Wait a second – tell me where you intend to build.”

You look at him. “Why should I?”

“So that someone else doesn’t start building a mill pond there after you start building your house.”

You think it over. That makes sense, so you tell him, and he notes it in the book.

As he’s doing this a banker wanders over from another stool in the bar, looks over your shoulder at the map, and hands you his card. “If you need a construction loan, come talk to me.”

“What’s the catch?”

He shrugs. “No catch…but you’re going to clear that acre of trees before you start building, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, a cleared acre is worth more than an acre covered in scrub. So once you clear it, I’ll loan you $1k for building materials, and we’ll get Al behind the bar here to note down on his map that I’ve got a lien on your property.”

“A lien? But there’s no government here. What happens if I don’t pay you back?”

“Well, then Al will erase your name on the map and put mine in. I’ll own the land you’ve cleared.”

You shrug. “Al’s just a bar tender. Who cares whether my name or your name is on the map?”

The banker looks at you like you’re dense. “If your name is on the map, you can sell it to anyone else in this bar, and they’ll hand you precious metal coin for the land. Or, rather, for the entry in Al’s map. If your name ISN’T on the map, no one in this bar will be willing to offer you anything for the land.”

You squint. “So, wait a second. Are you implying that there’s no such thing as TRUE ownership of property – there’s only a bunch of entries on Al’s map under the bar?”

The banker gives you a long hard stare. “Are you sure that you really want to live in anarchotopia?”

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3 Responses to why bother using a private land registry in anarchy?

  1. I had to mentally insert swear words in Al’s dialog … but I get what you mean.

  2. lelnet says:

    The only other form of ownership that makes sense is direct defense by force. You own what you can and will kill someone else for trying to take. But if you ever go far enough off the land that you can’t see trespassers anymore — or you go to sleep — then your ownership lapses. Not such a great system.

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