Over the weekend, I was putting together a new shelf and, for entertainment while I was doing it, fired up Netflix and turned on a Ken Burns documentary about the West from a few years ago. (Yes, Amy also razzed me for my choice of background entertainment.)
It had, as you might expect, a healthy dose of “Native Americans were here first but Europeans did not regard their claims very highly.” That is an uncomfortable topic. In the past, I thought it was uncomfortable simply because it feels a lot like you’re blaming me for the sins of my fathers. I’m supposed to feel bad, even guilty, for the bad things that happened to people 150 years ago?
But, it’s not just guilt. I don’t have a lot of patience for the shaming of white people. In the case of the Native Americans, in a lot of cases, we took it from people who had taken it from others not that long ago. But, it’s valuable to think about, I think, because it puts front and center questions about the nature of property. And I think that’s another reason we don’t like to think about it. We get uncomfortable looking under the hood and examining the nature of property. It’s something magical and fairly immutable.
But, with some exceptions, title to real estate in the U.S. originates with a grant from the United States Government. The government got it by taking it from someone else or sanctioning, after the fact, the taking the grantee had already accomplished. Property does not exist without the framework set up by the government and without its sanction. Without the legal framework, you don’t have property, you have stuff you have managed to acquire for awhile and which no one has yet taken from you.
Americans, by and large, get very uncomfortable with the idea that property is a blessing of government. We like to pretend that government is a necessary evil (sometimes not even that) and don’t like to recognize that government is a fundamental underpinning for our whole way of life. When it comes to property, you’ll get some happy talk about natural rights or being endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. But such talk is entirely inadequate for explaining why it is that the Native Americans don’t dominate the real estate market. The reason is that we alienated the hell out of their right to property and nature’s law didn’t lift a finger to stop us.