[edit: Since writing this post, my views on this topic have changed. See the edit at the bottom of this post for my updated take on this topic.]
Yesterday I published an article on Mises.org defending the Queen from the misinformed faux-outrage of British leftists, who have recently been complaining about the pay rise she will enjoy next year. I argued that it was wrong to view the Queen’s income as a form of welfare from taxpayers’ money, as she is actually paid from the profits of the land she owns, known as ‘the Crown Estate’. I further argued that the world would be a better place from a libertarian perspective if she used her power to veto laws by ‘withholding the royal assent’ more frequently.
However, I then went on to claim that the Queen was a hero of liberty for having vetoed a few laws and that she was a victim of state oppression because the profits from her £12 billion worth of land go to the Treasury before she gets her 15% cut. I then finished the article by demanding that all principled libertarians should join me in an impassioned “God save the Queen”.
These latter remarks were obviously tongue-in-cheek, as was the article in general, a fact that should have been clear from the accompanying picture of a monarch posing in front of an anarchist flag. The not-entirely-serious nature of the article would have been made even more obvious had it been entitled ‘Why Anarchists should Support the Queen‘ as I had initially hoped. However, the editor decided to run it under the less obviously humorous title ‘For Libertarians, The British Monarchy is the Least of our Worries‘ in order to broaden the appeal, which threw people off the fact that it was intended as something of a joke. The irony was even further lost after the article was later shared under the title ‘A Libertarian Defence of the British Monarchy‘.
An increasing number of readers who completely missed the joke began leaving angery comments on the article, accusing me of being an idiot, the Mises Institute of being neo-feudalist sellouts, and so on. Such humourless people can be expected to come out of the woodwork whenever anything is posted on the internet, and it was abundantly clear that many of them had not read the article to begin with, so for me to waste my energy trying to persuade them of my opinion would be folly.
However, there was a second group of commenters who had clearly read the article and agreed with it for the most part, but who kept making the same objection. Their comments tended to go along these lines: “Given that the Crown lands came into the possession of the monarchy unjustly, how can you lament that the Queen suffers from state encroachment into her property? Shouldn’t we take all her land away from her, seeing as it’s unjustly acquired?”
Putting aside the ironic aspects of my original article, I actually tend to agree with this objection. To the extent that the Crown lands were acquired by conquest and coercion by the state, mostly after the invasion by William the Conqueror, it is true to say that the monarchy acquired them unjustly. However, even if we assume for the sake of argument that all the lands the Queen currently owns were originally acquired unjustly by previous monarchs during previous centuries, does this mean that the Queen’s ownership of them now is unjust? I don’t believe that logic necessarily follows, and to explain why it will be helpful to engage in a thought experiment.
What would happen to the Queen’s land under a Rothbardian legal system?
In his book The Ethics of Liberty (1982), the great Austrian economist and anarcho-capitalist philosopher Murray N. Rothbard devoted a considerable number of pages to explaining how just property claims would be preserved and distinguished from unjust property claims in a legal system based on the Non-Aggression Principle: the central moral precept of libertarianism. For example, Rothbard outlines a scenario wherein his NAP-based propertarian legal system would have to determine what would happen to a person, A, who inherited a piece of property from B which, unbeknownst to A, had been stolen by B from its previous owner, C. A has done nothing wrong in this scenario, but how would an NAP based legal system deal with this?
We can apply Rothbard’s solution to this problem to our own issue with the Queen and the Crown lands. Let’s assume for ease of argument that all of the Crown lands that the Queen now owns were acquired for the Crown unjustly by William the Conqueror, 1000 years ago. How would the NAP based legal system solve this problem, according to Rothbard?
Let’s say that Mr. Jones believes that a given parcel of the Queen’s land once belonged to his ancestor 1000 years ago and would belong to him now if it hadn’t been unjustly expropriated by William the Conqueror, and then eventually passed down through inheritance to the Queen. Mr. Jones would therefore take the Queen to the NAP-based court, alleging that she is in possession of stolen goods which rightfully belong to him. Firstly the court would have to determine whether the parcel of land really had been acquired unjustly by William the Conqueror. Assuming that they did determine this, it would therefore be assumed that the Queen’s claim to ownership of the property was unjust, and her claim to the property would no longer be legally recognised or upheld. Then it would be the prerogative of Mr. Jones to prove in the court that the property right in the land was rightfully his. If he was capable of doing this, the land would become his, and would therefore have been restored to its rightful owner. However, in the specific case of the Crown lands, there is an unusually long distance of time between the original expropriation and the present day, making it extremely unlikely that Mr. Jones, or anyone else, would be able to prove in court that they were the rightful owner of the property. If neither Mr. Jones nor the Queen is deemed to have a right of property in the land, then the court would declare the land unowned. The unowned land would then become the property of whoever first homesteaded it by mixing their labour with it; in other words, the person who was using the land most recently, the Queen. Therefore a libertarian, propertarian legal system would most likely determine that the Queen is indeed the just owner of most of the Crown lands, given that the original expropriation was so far back in history that it would be impossible to restore the land to the heirs of its rightful owners, meaning that the Queen has technically homesteaded it from an effectively unowned state.
Therefore, just because the monarchy first acquired the Crown lands unjustly, hundreds of years ago, it does not necessarily follow that the Queen is not the rightful owner of that land today. Assuming that she is the rightful owner of at least part of the Crown lands, it cannot therefore be argued from a libertarian perspective that she deserves to have the land taken away from her or out of her full control.
So in conclusion, upon further impartial investigation into this matter, I have determined that I was right all along, and everyone else is a idiot.
God save the Queen!
[edit: Some months after writing this, my friend Chris Calton messaged me to point out an error in my interpretation of Rothbard, in this post. I was happy to admit that Chris and Rothbard were right where I had been wrong, and subsequently wrote another post on this topic, in which I updated my views accordingly.]