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!


Anarchists for Elizabeth? A follow-up

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[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.

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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.]