What would Rothbard do about the Crown Estate? A follow-up to a follow-up…

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Several months ago, during my stay at the Mises Institute this summer, I wrote an article for Mises.org wherein I argued that increases in funding for the Royal Family should not be regarded as an extra burden on the taxpayer, because the Royal Family’s money comes not from tax revenue but from the profits of the land owned by the Queen, known as the Crown Estate. I then highlighted how the historic expansion of the English and then British state over the past 1000 years has eroded the monarch’s control over the Crown Estate and its revenues, with the result being that the Queen now effectively suffers an 85% income tax. This led me to conclude that libertarians should actively support rises in the Royal Family’s funding from this source, as it would represent a heroic rolling back of the state’s encroachment on the Queen’s property rights.

Although that latter sentiment was expressed with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I did follow it up with a more serious-minded post on this blog, in which I explained why I thought that an NAP-adhering legal system in an anarcho-capitalist society, along the lines of what Rothbard described in his great work The Ethics of Liberty, would uphold the Queen’s right to property in the Crown Estate. To briefly summarise my argument, I conceded that most of the Crown Estate lands were probably initially acquired by the Royal family illegitimately, by exercising coercion against their rightful owners. However given that this all took place hundreds of years ago, it would be very difficult to work out who the present-day heirs to those rightful owners are, likely making it impossible to return that property to its present-day rightful owners with any degree of certainty. In the legal system Rothbard describes in The Ethics of Liberty, an NAP-adhering court would therefore declare the Crown Estate to be unowned land, meaning that the person who has been using it most recently should be regarded as having homesteaded it, and therefore should be regarded as the new rightful owner, as per libertarian theory 101. My error came when, in my blog post, rather than carefully thinking through who this ‘person who has been using it most recently’ would be, I instead automatically assumed it must be the Queen, as she is nominally the current owner of the Crown Estate and has been renting it out. Therefore I believed that a Rothbardian legal system would uphold the Queen’s right to property in the Crown Estate, even though the English/British Monarchy initially acquired most of those lands illegitimately.

However, some months later my good friend Chris Calton, who was also a Mises Institute Fellow in Residence in the summer of 2017, wrote me a message to challenge this view. He brought my attention to a passage on pages 66-67 of The Ethics of Liberty, wherein Rothbard addresses this very problem almost directly. Here is that passage:

(For some reason it wouldn’t let me copy and paste the text from my PDF of Rothbard’s book, so instead I’m including screenshots of the page. Hopefully they won’t be too low-resolution to read.

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TL;DR: My interpretation of what a Rothbardian legal system would do in the case of the Crown Lands was correct up until the point where I assumed that the Queen was the person who had been ‘using’ the land most recently, and therefore should be regarded as having homesteaded it. In fact, Rothbard believed that the people currently renting the land and operating their businesses on it/living on it etc. are the people who have been ‘using’ it, and therefore should be regarded as having homesteaded it.

Thanks for correcting me, Chris!

By the way, if any of you aren’t familiar with Chris Calton and his work, I’d heartily encourage you to familiarise yourself with his stuff. Aside from being a brilliant scholar, he regularly writes popular articles for Mises.org, as well as writing and hosting the Mises Institute’s ‘Historical Controversies’ podcast, which is by far and away my favourite podcast of all time! He also has a great YouTube channel where he discusses libertarian and anarchist topics. If you’re at all interested in libertarianism and/or history, you owe it to yourself to check his stuff out!

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