Ken Ilgunas wants to open all land to hikers, campers and walkers. He has written an expansive treatise calling for public access to private property. His thesis, the United States has too much private property in the hands of too few and those owners typically forbid nature lover’s free movement to camp and roam. Government should intervene, he posits, to open this private land.
Ilgunas is the author of “This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back” (Plume, an imprint of Penquin Random House, 2018, trade paperback $14). He is the author of two memoirs, “Walden on Wheels,” and “Trespassing Across America.” This book is an expansion and deepening of “Trespassing.” The land was once ownerless, writes Ilgunas, and even what was owned could, without impediment, be crossed. The land of North America belonged to no one and everyone. He wrote about walking the proposed route for the Keystone Pipeline in “Trespassing”; it was that experience that compelled him to write “This Land.”
Ilgunas writes passionately about the restrictions private property places on the casual walker or hiker. The continent is so broad and the land so vast the he would like to see a return to the days of the 19th or 18th centuries when a person could walk without running into fences or no trespassing signs. Ilgunas calls for laws federal, state, and local that would amend access to private land and make it more in accord with the laws and traditions of European nations — Sweden, Scotland and England.
In these European countries, a person can walk, hike, or camp on almost any private land as long as such doesn’t interfere with or prohibit any activity the landowner may engage in. He sites Sweden’s allmansträtten as the ideal because it goes much further in allowing access than does anything in Great Britain, which he says reopened private property to roaming after great public pressure and a “Ramblers Movement.” Today so much of the land in America is owned by whites, especially rich whites, a Ramblers Movement is needed here, Ilgunas asserts.
Ilgunas has written a heavily footnoted treatise in which he quotes from or references virtually anyone and any document: Lenin to Leopold; Jefferson, Locke, and Rousseau; 17th century Pennsylvania law; selected attorneys; 19th century Native American leaders; Mill. He brings research to his argument. The only quote missing is the most famous among those who wish to turn private land over to the government, and that is “Property is theft,” by the mutualist anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose seminal treatise, “On Property,” inspired Karl Marx to write his “Manifesto.” And this is the real problem for Ilgunas’ proposal, that it is bloated, circular, and for all its passion nothing more that a lengthy paper written by a precocious freshman who just discovered the library and left wing thought in Political Philosophy 201. Ilgunas has read all the correct works and misunderstands all of them.
“Property is theft,” Proudhon believed. He believed that property was a natural right and given to the first occupier to produce only what he needed, no more than that. When he moved on, the property was no longer his and was simply available to others. Property, land, was an usufruct, was to be used but never owned. This is the basis of Ilgunas’ claim, even though he cannot articulate it.
He writes in circles continually, coming back again and again to the same premises and examples. He blames whites for owning ag and rural land. He blames billionaires for owning chunks of land the size of some states. He wants government to administer private land — without eliminating the sanctity of property rights — and this is where he falls into trouble. He doesn’t understand the economics of scale, the valuation of land, or property taxes, and how these eventually cause landowners, some generational, to give up their property because they can no longer afford to own it, or that government regulations drive landowners to ruin and in both cases they are forced to sell.
He mentions approvingly and in passing that Lenin wanted the state to control property, and then mixes in some Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. Mill he relies on extensively but quotes out of context frequently either to make the words fit his own ideas, or, more likely, he didn’t understand Mill was an utilitarian.
He quotes approvingly of Mill’s “the land of every country belongs to its people,” but doesn’t understand Mill’s not speaking about state ownership but of the power of taxation.
He also fails or plays short the government’s own role in land ownership and its history. Until the Carter Administration and the repeal of the Homestead Act, public land was still usufructuary in government and land was available to anyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, etc., over the age of 21. Government agencies are the new landowners.
Ilgunas hurts his own case early on by dismissing as stupid, ignorant, gun-happy radicals those who express the desire for the very liberty Jefferson, Mill, and even Proudhon — who escapes this purview entirely — demanded essential for a free people. He missed Mill’s axiom completely: He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.
Ilgunas is hazy (or maybe hagiographic) with regard to the history of property ownership and this continent. Let’s leave the argument of treatment of Native Americans to others for now (Ilgunas circles again and again to this topic) and get to his claim that ownership of the land was unknown and anathema to Native Americans. Well, private property rights were pretty much unknown in most of Europe and other regions and times where monarchs owned the realm and granted parts of it as reward for favors — and could just as readily revoke such grants. The right to property, the liberty to property, and the legal protections of individual private property rights began on this continent.
Native Americans had territories they held, and fiercely. They fought off neighboring tribes and invading Europeans. There were regions that separate tribes fought to control for hundreds of years, most notably Kentucky, and the Debatable Zone, the oak savanna that ran from Northern Minnesota through Wisconsin. Somehow, Ilgunas missed history.
In the penultimate chapter of his treatise, Ilgunas offers specifics for government taking control of private property, which run from simple local ordinance, to amending state constitutions, to amending the Bill of Rights. The problem is the takings clause. (Ilgunas talks to a couple of environmental lawyers who don’t see the takings clauses as an issue.) He says that we should be more like our European brethren, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, who “have achieved what we might call a democratic magnificence.” Among all the rights, Ilgunas wishes to impress there’s one of utmost importance to him: Houses and lawns are exempt. No camping in his suburban neighborhood.
What Ilgunas has written is nothing more than a manifesto calling for the abolishment of private property. His ignorance of philosophy, history, and economics are pronounced. However, this is an important book for every rural landowner to read.