On July 14 of this year, Woody Guthrie turned 100. Guthrie is, of course, most famous today for the American classic “This Land Is Your Land.” What few people realize 100 years after its author was born in the tiny town of Okemah, OK (the headquarters of a Muscogee Creek tribe – more on that in a bit), however, is that this legendary song has several verses that don’t get sung much these days. When you read them, it suddenly becomes obvious why not:As I went walking I saw a sign there And on the sign it said “Private Property.” But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, That side was made for you and me.
During the Thanksgiving season, questions of land and private property both become highly salient in the light of history. And so in the wake of ThanksgivingI’m led to ask the question Guthrie poses in another of the “unknown verses”: was this land made for you and me?
John Locke would say so. Most Americans know Locke as one of the intellectual giants of the Enlightenment and a profound inspiration for the Founding Fathers. Indeed, his political theory, as expressed in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, is every bit as foundational to American thinking about law, government, and property as the Constitution is. It’s so foundational, in fact, that we tend not to question some of the (rather big) assumptions that underlie Locke’s writings.
These assumptions come out in full force in Chapter V, “Of Property.” Not the most widely-read section of the Second Treatise, at least by the general public; but perhaps the most important. For it is upon this section that the rest of Locke’s theory depends.
Locke opens with his first huge assumption: “God… has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.” (Sec. 25) In Locke’s eyes, God created the world for the use and benefit of human beings. So to Woody’s question, “Was this land made for you and me?” Locke would offer a definitive yes. From this opening assumption that “God, by commanding to subdue, gave authority so far to appropriate,” (Sec. 35) Locke derives his theory of private property and individual possessions, arguing that land that originally belongs to all human beings in common can be appropriated by individuals through the expenditure of individual labor.
That’s the general thrust of Locke’s argument. I won’t get into the thornier details, except to point out a troubling implication: if land exists for exploitation by human beings, and becomes private property by virtue of individual exploitation, and somebody (say, the original inhabitant of a patch of land) isn’t exploiting the land as productively as possible, then somebody else could theoretically waltz in and start cutting down trees or digging mine shafts or whatever. And both “natural reason… [and] ‘revelation’” (Sec. 24) would tell us that this is not only acceptable but in fact God’s explicit plan for the land.
This isn’t just abstract theory. This is the conception of private property on which our nation and its laws are founded. It is the conception of land ownership that justified the Pilgrims purchasing land in the Americas from the London Company when there were already people living on that land (the Wampanoags, to be specific), that justified the settlement of South Dakota and the theft of the Black Hills.
And it is a theoretical construct whose real, concrete ramifications we are still seeing every day in our very own state. For instance, the issue of Pe’Sla (or, as Anglos call it, Reynolds Prairie) in the Black Hills, which the Lakota believe is holy – and which they are trying to buy back. The Lockean claim that the earth exists for the sole exploitation of human beings was completely foreign to the Lakota people, let alone private ownership of land – a deficit in Lakota legal/political theory that made taking the Black Hills in the first place all too easy. Now, in order to protect one of their most sacred sites from commercial development, a group of Lakota led by the Rosebud Tribe must play by Locke’s rules.
Likewise, the notion that land belongs to those who put it the most productive use is alive and well in Colome, SD, where a court has ordered John Harter to give up his property so TransCanada can build the Keystone XL Pipeline through it. The formal legal rationale is that the pipeline is a “common carrier,” and so the land can be seized under Eminent Domain. It’s not hard though to detect the Lockean doctrine that the land belongs to those who make the most productive (read: profitable) use of it. And there’s no doubt that TransCanada will profit much more than John Harter out of this deal.
And so the reader asks, as well she might: what can we do? Should we abolish private property altogether in some communitarian pipedream? Not necessarily: the Tragedy of the Commons suggests that land that belongs to nobody will always be in danger. After all, when you own something, you have a stake in its upkeep, you have an incentive to take care of it.
What cannot be denied is that we need to move beyond the sense of entitlement that underpins Lockean theorizing about human beings and our relationship to the earth. The theories we use to understand the world have concrete impacts on the courses of action we choose.
Perhaps we are already seeing glimpses of new ways of thinking in the resistance to the XL Pipeline in Texas, where landowners and environmentalists are putting their bodies on the line in a Tar Sands Blockade. Perhaps we are seeing it in the Hot Springs City Council’s 5-2 vote to join the Clean Water Alliance, Defenders of the Black Hills, and the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center in opposing Powertech, Inc.’s Dewey Burdock uranium mine and the massive threat to public health it represents. Perhaps we see it wherever ordinary people, landowners, conservatives even, begin to rethink the relationship between land, property, and profit.
Maybe Woody had it right after all: this land was made for you and me, for John Harter and the Lakota too, for all of us. It is common property, not in the sense that nobody owns it, but in the sense that everybody owns it. And we all therefore have a responsibility to take care of it.
Or maybe he had it backwards, and you and I were actually made for the land. After all, we depend on it far more than it depends on us. It’s worth thinking about.