I emailed Walter Block the following question: Can a nature preserve exist in an anarcho-capitalist society? By the definition of this term, a nature preserve cannot have any human labor mixed with it. So it seems that it will always be unowned and therefore capable of being homesteaded (and developed, thereby ceasing to be a preserve) by someone else.

In addition, if it stays unowned, it will be unmanaged and uncared for and so may suffer the tragedy of the commons.

But what if a small preserve could be a profitable business if it could come to be owned? The owner could gain by selling tickets or licenses for outdoor activities, hunting, or scientific research on wildlife. What if such use is in fact the most socially valuable for a given lot?

He replied with a link to his paper addressing this very question.

Now first, my question assumes the correctness of the labor theory of property (LTP). In his paper, Block assumes this, too. I argued before that the LTP is not without serious defects.

The second assumption is that, even if the LTP is valid, it is the only way to homestead property. Block thinks so, but as we will see, perhaps not entirely sensibly.

Block defines a nature preserve as fully pristine and unspoiled wilderness. The owner “will not allow any customers to tread upon his territory, since to do so would be incompatible with a pure nature preserve. He will charge them a fee for keeping the land untouched; they will benefit from the mere contemplation of this offering.”

He then goes through and rejects several possibilities of how one can mix labor with this land without “imprinting a stamp of his own person,” as Rothbard put it, onto it. Placing popsicle sticks all over the grounds, sending out cows, planting trees all involve untoward interference with nature. Block concludes with the following prescription: the homesteader is to capture and immediately release “beetles, frogs, ants, worms, snakes, butterflies, caterpillars, and other such species” within the area. We capture them

either with birds we have trained for this purpose or by utilizing nets with long poles. Thus we homestead and thus come to own these creepy, crawly creatures. Subsequently, we release the members of these species we have previously homesteaded and thus now own to do our homesteading of the land for us. …

We own these living things, they now “work” for us, whether they know it or not. …

We release these creatures right back where they came from, where we got them from, thus obviating any objection on the ground that we are upsetting nature in this terrain.

Hilarious. I suppose it’s an amusing exercise. But let’s be honest: the recommended procedure seems like a meaningless ritual. Labor is being mixed but without any discernible goal. In fact, there is no goal at all other than formally to satisfy the letter of the homesteading law; it’s a complete waste of scarce resources.

This magical incantation is in its spirit completely unlike what Block writes earlier. Normally, homesteading involves the following work: “For agricultural purposes, he must clear the tree stumps, move away the big rocks, plow the land, seed it, and gather a crop from these efforts of his. For urban areas, he must build a road or a house or a factory on it,” and so on. The process of homesteading in this manner creates wealth. It contributes to society both in itself and as a sign that the development and improvement of the land will continue in the future, once the title to the property is granted.

The process of homesteading a nature preserve described by Block actually harms society. Even as a sign, it signifies only that precisely no improvements will ever be made.

Would it not be simpler to add a special proviso to the LTP instead: another way to homestead wilderness is to go to the local temple of Zeus and sacrifice an ox to him. It would be just as effective — or rather as ineffective and absurd — but possibly less costly.

An admitted virtue of Block’s solution is that the amount of work it requires to create a nature preserve may deter greens from stealing huge tracts of land from the people by making them so obviously unproductive. On the contrary, making a sacrifice to Zeus does not specify which land is to be homesteaded or how much of it. It’s too easy.

Well, one possibility is to make the number of oxen to be sacrificed proportionate to the “fair market value” of the land, if there is such a thing. This way, if maintaining a nature preserve is truly the most profitable use of the land, its homesteader will need to pay the opportunity cost of this use measured in the cost of the sacrifice.

At any rate, I did not have in mind the fanatical greens who want to keep the land 100% untouched. I was thinking about a piece of wilderness that on the one hand is somewhat removed from a park but on the other allows plenty of human activities. Perhaps there is a mountain there for climbing or extreme sports, or herds of deer for hunting (who will need to be carefully conserved by the owner), or ways to engage in a study of plants and wild animals. Although in this case, even such a place will probably need some “paths, lighting, bathrooms,” and so on which will be sufficient for ordinary homesteading.

The implicit libertarian view of nature which I personally share here is that nature is to be fully conquered and subdued. The Garden of Eden is to be ultimately recreated on the global scale. Perhaps the proper answer to this problem is that nature preserves are vicious and inhuman institutions which have no place in a civilized and perpetually economically improving society that libertarianism promises to all people.

As a result, that the labor theory of property appears to prohibit keeping any parcel of land forever idle is a virtue of the theory, not its weakness.

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