Matt Bruenig: Land as Soil and Land as Space

Yves here. To add to Bruenig’s argument, ownership of land, at least as conceived in most advanced economies, confers the right to make use of the land. That includes its water and mineral rights, which can be sold. In New York City, you also have “air rights,” which is the right to develop vertically, which can be transferred. The rules are complicated. But in essence, making an original claim to land that formerly had no “owner” means taking control of a series of attributes which can be parsed out as legal rights (per Bruenig’s “space” observation, passage across the land is another property can be used to extract rents).

By Matt Bruenig, who writes about politics, the economy, and political theory, with a focus on issues that affect poor and working people. He has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The American Prospect, In These Times, Jacobin, Dissent, Salon, The Week, Gawker and at his home base of sorts: Demos’ Policy Shop. Follow him on Twitter: @mattbruenig. Originally published at his website

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.

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  1. Ned

    Did his family lose land to Mexican peasants seizing it in the Villa Revolution? Is he harboring a grudge? He claims the owner of the land only has a say about his scratchings about the surface, as long as it doesn’t blow, wash or get trucked away?

    If airplanes can fly above your land, now drones as low as 500 feet, so too can mining companies dig tunnels, cause coal fires, suck aquifers dry and allow cave ins under our feet as we sit in our castles? Real estate developers can build big buildings, cast shadows across your land and create new winds on it land as air currents hundreds of feet up shear off the side of their buildings?

    The opposite argument, that a land owner has control and possession of an upside down pyramid extending from the four property lines to a point in the center of the earth has some merit. Think of the geothermal resources! The extension of those pyramid sides into the air above the property would mean ownership of a very large bit of the atmosphere and eventually outer space. Can I charge rent for commercial airliners and satellites crossing into my air space?

  2. Wombat

    Interesting. Thanks for posting! I wonder how Interior Sec. Zinke’s opaque efforts to “give” our federal lands (public space) “back to the states” have been faring. Last I saw was Zinke’s cryptic letter admitting there would be carving against public sentiment but not telling us where. Once some states get these spaces “back”, I am skeptical that Orrin Hatch Et al. plan to keep the space open to all.

  3. Jamie

    The abstraction of land to space is the starting point for Daly and Cobb to discuss the problem of reification which they call “the problem of misplaced concreteness”, in their work For the Common Good. I am sympathetic to their argument and to Matt’s argument above, but I do see some justification for extending some rights over the space containing the soil. In arguing against the current system of property rights I would focus on the mixing metaphor. “Labor is not a substance, and so it cannot be mixed”, says, I think, all that needs to be said to end that particular line of reasoning. It won’t end the argument, but it will force the opposition to adopt more accurate and precise language, which will make everything clearer.

    The rationale for giving the owner of soil some rights over the space the soil contains need not be very complicated. If you have ever done any gardening, you know that foot traffic within your garden can be devastating to young plants, and the compaction of the soil, harmful to the garden as a whole. It would not make much sense to grant someone the right to the fruits of their labor on the soil while simultaneously granting everyone else the right to destroy those fruits to satisfy their own rights of free movement through un-owned space.

    If you support a system of property rights at all (beyond the property of “personal effects”), you will be forced to recognize some kind of “in situ” rights that include space and place (either implicitly or explicitly) for some resources that are difficult, even if possible in principle, to move. This may be clearer in the case of mineral rights. Mineral rights would be meaningless without the concomitant right to plumb the depths and alter the landscape above the minerals. Alterations can be limited by law, but cannot be outright forbidden without abrogating the benefit of the right.

    Pursuing Matt’s argument leads one to define a separate “space right”. (After all, if you put the topsoil on a truck and move it, you have to move it to some space (presumably owned by the owner of the soil), and while it is on the truck it must traverse a series of “spaces”, either owned by other individuals or held in common. This doesn’t solve anything. It just brings us back to the original problem… how does property ownership originate? And how can we have a just distribution of common resources?

    In fact, since the Earth is hurtling through space as we speak, the actual space “containing” the soil is constantly changing. We are not really talking about “space” we are talking about surface area and the volumes “above” and “below” that area, i.e. mathematical abstractions.

    1. Jerry

      You could add the importance of sunshine and rainfall reaching through the space to the soil. Even uncompacted soil won’t grow food with sun and water.

      1. Ned

        Think you mean “Compacted soil” won’t grow food with sun and water

        Water percolating through soil pulls oxygen after it in UNcompacted natural soil. Hence the importance of slow deep watering. Splashing water on plants every day even in the best soil means the sponge of the soil is constantly wet with no air.

        Run a tractor over good soil and a hardpan develops that prevents water and air infiltration, or traps water that rots whatever roots are down there in the absence of oxygen.

  4. Science Officer Smirnoff

    See what philosophers have been up to for the last forty years.

    Especially the general reader benefits from J. Mazor’s 2009 Harvard dissertation:
    A Liberal Theory of Natural Resource Property Rights
    [available for download recently]

    In particular:
    Chapter Two: The Libertarian Argument ……………………………………. 72
    2.1 Problematic Libertarian Equal Claims Foundations ………………….74
    2.1.1 The Theological Claim ………………………………………………….. 74
    2.1.2 Right to Substantive Self-Preservation ……………………………. 76
    2.1.3 The Initial Liberty Argument ………………………………………… 78
    2.2 A New Libertarian Argument …………………………………………… 85
    2.2.1 Labor’s Role ………………………………………………88
    2.2.2 Purely Natural Resources as Labor-Free …………….. 96
    2.2.3 A Presumption of Equality of Resource Claims ……………….. 97
    2.2.4 Refuting the No-Initial-Claims Position ………………………….. 99
    2.2.5 Combining the Premises ……………………………………………….. 108
    Conclusion …………………………………………………………………………. 109

    [emphasis added]

    1. Science Officer Smirnoff

      To add to Yves’ opening remark:

      [Wesley Hohfeld 1913 and 1917]

      First, by disaggregating such supposedly unitary concepts as “property”
      into their functional parts, Hohfeld implicitly revealed how intricate
      and changeable a thing ownership really is. Thus, party A could
      retain nominal ownership of Tara, but give away to B the right to live on
      the land during A’s lifetime, to C the right to farm the land, to D the right
      to mine it, to E the right to use it as a right of way to reach E’s own property,
      and to F the right to inherit the estate in its entirety upon A’s death.
      Picking up where Hohfeld left off, his fellow Realists showed that even as
      nominal owner of an undivided interest in Tara, Scarlett’s rights to use
      her property as she wished and to prevent others from using it were
      encumbered by law in a variety of ways. She could not, for example, use
      her land for a variety of purposes that might harm her neighbors, nor
      could she prevent the state from taxing the value of her land to pay for
      public services. That one could, as a matter of customary legal practice
      in liberal societies, be the nominal owner of property and yet be stripped
      of many of the rights of economic value in that property does not prove
      that there are no essential rights that ought to come with ownership. But
      it does strongly suggest that it will be no easy matter to identify what
      they are.

      Second, and more importantly here, by redescribing rights as a
      network of reciprocal powers and incapacities, Hohfeld showed that in
      enlarging any one party’s formal powers, we necessarily diminish everyone
      else’s. . .

      —Barbara Fried, Philosophy and Public Affairs

      Hohfeld gets an intricate discussion in Mazor I should add.

  5. TomDority

    Every factory, every
    store, every building, every bit of wealth
    in any shape requires labor in its creation.

    If, however, a man’s income is not
    made in producing wealth and employing
    labor, but is due to speculation, the case
    is altogether different. The speculator
    as a speculator, whether his holdings be
    mineral lands, forests, power sites, agricultural lands,
    or city lots, employs no
    labor and produces no wealth. He adds
    nothing to the riches of the country,
    but merely takes toll from those who do
    employ labor and produce wealth.

  6. Thuto

    Here in South Africa, land ownership rights specifically exclude mineral rights, which rest with the state. As such, the state owns anything of value below the surface that may be discovered following prospecting activity, meaning that land ownership rights essentially confer “above the surface” (space) ownership to private owners.

    1. Lyle

      The same is true in the UK and most of Canada at least and after Hitler in Germany that the state owns all mineral rights. So the piece needs to note that a lot of the comments are US centric. (note also there was a period late in the westward movement when federal lands were sold without mineral rights as well) But of course on federal lands if you find minerals even today you can file a claim and start mining.(Act of 1872)

  7. Alex

    It’s more important to examine the effects of various land use/ownership arrangements, rather than trying to derive the ideal structure as if it were a theorem

    1. nonsense factory

      I agree. This is also true for the oceans; the rules over local waters vs. international waters, and fishing rights and pollution laws, are what matter when it comes to the health and sustainability of the oceans and of fishing. This requires an understanding of the ecology of the oceans, an understanding which informed limits on fishing, the creation of marine sanctuaries, anti-dumping laws, sewage treatment laws, etc.

      There is no ‘theoretically optimal solution’ to the problem; it’s a matter of choosing the kind of world we want to live in. Economics is thus more about politics than it is about objective science. It’s obvious that a “mathematical theorem for determining an optimal political outcome” is meaningless drivel; for example, a “mathematical comparison” between representative democracy and authoritarian dictatorship could easily be twisted about to justify one’s (political) agenda by shifting a few assumptions.

  8. cocomaan

    I think that Polyani was much more graceful in theorizing land as a fictitious commodity. I like the spirit of this piece, though.

  9. Tooearly

    Fictitious commodity indeed. Seems we might learn a thing or two from our indigenous neighbors on these matters

  10. The Rev Kev

    Some of the legal twist and turns of legal arguments of land ownership can get really bizarre. I have a scfi novel by Robert Heinlein called “The Man Who Sold the Moon” ( that pushes one point in which the main character uses the idea that as there is no limit to the height over the land that you own when you have the land means that some people actually own the moon – mostly south America and parts of Texas -as it actually passes over them. He uses this fact to get the whole world to go into colonizing the moon.
    A really entertaining novel if you get a chance to read it but I do wonder if land ownership laws are still evolving. My guess is, based on what I have read about elsewhere, is that corporations would like it eventually set in law that people can rent or licence land but only corporations and governments can actually own land. That concept would fit the rentier society that some want to make standard law and one example of this you can read about at

    1. Lyle

      A couple of interesting thoughts: First it is established that you can not forbid airplanes from flying over your property (at least above 400 above the surface). Second I was watching a program on Sputnik that point out that it established that above 100 miles no state can forbid the passage of satellites over its territory. (It points out that this might have been a reason to not push the US satellite project, because the Soviets launching Sputnik which passed over the US made it hard for them to protest the US launching satellites that overfly the Soviet Union. States can control the airspace from near the surface to the edge of the atmosphere but not beyond.

  11. Anon

    Land (use) has been encumbered (restricted) in the USA since at least 1922: City of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty.

    Land is situated within a geography, a watershed, an ecological (as well as, social/political) environment. That’s probably why First Nations didn’t believe it proper to “own” it.

  12. Grebo

    Surely ‘mixing your labor with the land’ is just a silly way of saying ‘you use the land’.

    The improvements, crops and so forth you create are obviously yours and, to the extent that they are not easily moved, you are entitled to some sort of exclusivity or protection of the land they occupy.
    The problem comes when this notion is extended to one of ‘ownership’ of the land.

    Land is a ‘gift of nature’ not the fruit of your labour and to claim ‘ownership’ of it is to steal it from everyone else. In a ‘state of nature’ if you stop using it someone else should be able to move in and use it themselves.

    Obviously, in our state of teeming millions some system of management is required but it should be one that maximises the availability of land to people, not one that locks it all up in the hands of a few who then use it to live off the labour of others.

  13. Lambert Strether

    > 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.

    Just spitballing here (really), but I’m not sure we’re thinking about soil in the right way. Paul Stamets:

    “I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.

    The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.”

    The mycelium distributed throughout the soil, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like structures (known as hyphae) which absorb nutrients and decompose organic materials….

    It’s not clear to me, then, that soil “sits in” space. I suppose one could say that the brain “sits in” the skull, but is that a useful way to think?

  14. Norb

    It would be nice to admit that Humanity has made a wrong turn in its choices of social development and begin to make amends. However, that is going to take a revolutionary change in how we conceive our relationship to the world. The power of the State determines land use and distribution policies. In turn, the guiding principles of State Power determine the resulting character of the interaction of people to the land. Its all about the flow of Energy and Forces. How these flows are perceived and understood is the deciding factor. The legitimacy of the State is maintained as long as this flow of energy between the land, State, and people can be maintained. It is blindly obvious that unrestrained exploitation of the natural world is unsustainable- but momentum carries humanity onward.

    Native Peoples could not fathom the personal “ownership” of land. To be sure, their notion of Power and social hierarchy are intertwined with responsibility and connectedness to the Natural World. Power and worth were not gained from ownership but relationship. Such differing world conceptions as seen in the west and native peoples around the world are incompatible with each other, and makes sense as to why the Native Peoples had to be exterminated. Exploiters of land cannot coexist with stewards of the land, or people who see themselves as integral to the natural environment, their interests and modes of operation are opposed. In these terms, “civilized” is in the mind of the beholder and raw physical power is the determining factor as to which view prevails.

    The moral and ethical confusion that reigns today is directly related to the disconnection to the actual natural world in which we live. Where people once envisioned their connectedness to the natural world and all was One, today people on mass believe in abstract Gods, the Market being the greatest. They view themselves as separate or at the very least, live a life of confusion.

    Efficiently chopping up the world into smaller and smaller pieces in order to create zones of exploitation beneficial to a very few is where we are mindlessly heading- to the eventual detriment of all. When thinking in this way, the same battles are still being fought. The battle of Ownership over Relationship.

    Re-establishing that connection to the natural world seems the only hope, not clarifying the demarcation of personal property and rights to exploit. New forms of relationship are needed. A new definition of FREE labor and how that relates to the world. A very tall order indeed.

    1. Rod

      Native Peoples could not fathom the personal “ownership” of land. To be sure, their notion of Power and social hierarchy are intertwined with responsibility and connectedness to the Natural World. Power and worth were not gained from ownership but relationship. Such differing world conceptions as seen in the west and native peoples around the world are incompatible with each other, and makes sense as to why the Native Peoples had to be exterminated. Exploiters of land cannot coexist with stewards of the land, or people who see themselves as integral to the natural environment, their interests and modes of operation are opposed.

      Norb-i think you get right to the cause.
      The Earth is the greatest common for the good of all. So why are we mistreating it?–

      The moral and ethical confusion that reigns today is directly related to the disconnection to the actual natural world in which we live. Where people once envisioned their connectedness to the natural world and all was One, today people on mass believe in abstract Gods, the Market being the greatest. They view themselves as separate or at the very least, live a life of confusion.
      thanks for pointing out the real cause not the pesky details

  15. hman

    suggest the author read the milagro bean field war and other papers dealing with the tierra amarilla land grant and how the common lands were used..

  16. polistra

    No. This is nonsense. Soil cannot be moved to a different space and retain its value. The soil in one location is valuable for farming because of everything around and under it.

    Specific example: The Palouse south of Spokane is uniquely valuable for growing soft white wheat. The climate of the area, the unique shapes of the hills, the drainage patterns, and the soil itself all work together to make ideal growth for one crop. Farming on the Palouse is still a family occupation because the German families who settled there had the ideal mix of skills and temperament to keep the farms running and profitable.

    You could haul the volcanic soil to Ohio, but it won’t work in the warm moist Ohio climate. You can replace the German families with ADM and it won’t work because mass production methods can’t be applied.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      *Sign* This is not accurate.

      The Aran Islands, off Ireland, had virtually all of their topsoil ported in. One of my friends whose ancestors came from their joked, “It was beyond dirt poor. They had to bring in their dirt.”

  17. Scott

    Most often I have drifted to the use of the word Territory when describing what I want. I want to control the use of my Territory.
    From my point of view, the word “Territory” is most pragmatic, either philosophically or practically.
    All control of territory is temporary.
    Either through the use of force or the threat of the use of force is how territory is originally claimed.
    As an individual I am allowed to rent, lease, or own territory, though mostly it is called an apartment, or land, but wherever it is, it is a territory.

    To extend the control of territory one unites with others. First you are by blood united in the interest of control of your territory. Then as that is extended it is a band, tribe, chiefdom, and then a nation.
    At least that is how Jared Diamond put it.

    In all cases and in all nations individual rights are dictated by laws the state ultimately holds dictating how the territory may be used and by whom.
    Territory is either lower case or upper case, “under the jurisdiction of a ruler or nationstate.” -Oxford Dictionary In either upper or lower case the definition is the same.
    Terror is the root of it, acknowledging the role of force, which is labor, in securing any rights either of the united peoples of a territory or what is allowed to the individual.
    I could go on and on and on thinking of Rome and legionnaires, but this is just my comment reactively written in the moment explaining how I think about the subject of land combined with our human need to be in it physically.

  18. TG

    I’m not one of these people who think that Adam Smith is God, but here I think he called it.

    There are rents due to the right of ownership of property, and profits created by its intelligent management. Sometimes these are obviously separable – as in landless peasants and absentee landlords. Other times they may be mixed, as in a farmer that both ‘owns’ and works his/her own land. Still, they are distinct: land rents are not the same as labor, not even the labor of intelligent management.

    And on another note: private property is not sovereign. Unless you have your own private army and private courts and independent system of roads and waterways etc. – in other words, unless you are monarch of your own state – the land you ‘own’ is only valuable insofar as the state mechanisms of police and armies and courts and roads and currency etc.etc.etc. protect you. The land of a nation belongs (or should belong) to its citizens entire (not just the Koch brothers), and the rights of ownership – important as they are to avoid a tragedy of the commons – are always subordinate to the national interest.

  19. Chip Daniels

    I don’t think it is useful to search for theories of property that have as their goal some incontestable pre-existing right, as opposed to viewing property as a negotiated set of utilitarian rules.

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