October 10 roundup

by Walter Olson on October 10, 2009


1 Timon 10.10.09 at 6:50 pm

A rare disagreement: the “squatter’s rights” law you cite is actually one of the most important constitutional, general anti-royalist, anti-aristocratic principles we have — it is called adverse possession and our laws on it are akin to the distinction between American easy bankruptcy and British debtors’ prisons. The idea is that if you just buy up a bunch of land and do nothing with it, put it to no productive use — and don’t even know what the hell it looks like, or what is going on in it, for a period of years (something like 7-10 in the US vs 30-60 in the UK), and someone else is doing something useful with it and taking care of it, then it is his. You actually don’t want people buying up lots of land and sitting on it against the interests of the people who live and work there, when they have so little interest in it that they don’t even know what is on it — it is unamerican.

There are a few other cases like this where we were better off sticking to these older principles like “squatters’ rights” — another example is the rule against perpetuities. Every time I drive by Stanford University, which is surrounded by miles and miles of unused land that the great scam artist/ politician Leland Stanford bought and then put some sort of “open space” deed restriction on — I get furious. This dead hand, literally a dead crook’s hand, is still deciding how we use the place we live.

Occasionally you get a libertarian (a la Richard Epstein) complaint that copyright reform is or would be “taking people’s property rights”. “The government invalidated my patent! What about my property rights!” Land should belong to the people who work it, like ideas to the people who do things with them, there is really nothing defensible about maintaining a claim to land you haven’t so much as seen in two decades.

2 Walter Olson 10.12.09 at 1:54 am

Just to note again for the record that when I include a news item in these columns I’m not necessarily implying that it came out wrong, resulted in a miscarriage of justice, etc. I do entirely see the point in the principle of adverse possession as a means of acquiring title through longtime occupation, though I might defend that principle differently than Timon (putting an end to conflict/improving the overall certainty of rights seem like the most relevant arguments to me).

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