The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter V


§4. There is no necessity that the appropriation of the surface of land should carry with it an exclusive right to extract the minerals which lie below the surface; and their existence is obviously not in any way due to the labour and care of the individual who has appropriated the surface, or of any subsequent owner. If, indeed, such minerals are of a common kind, it would be a needless and vexatious interference with the freedom of the owner of the surface to prevent him from appropriating them; since he cannot thereby gain any material advantage which might otherwise have been enjoyed by other members of the community. If, however, the minerals are at once so rare and useful that a considerable extra value is obtainable by the labour spent in extracting them, as compared with other labour, it is hardly in accordance with our principle, that this extra value should be appropriated by any one member of the community, to the exclusion of the rest; except so far as it is needed as a reward for the labour that has to be spent, on the average, in searching for the rare mineral. This last consideration is of course important: and since the owner of the surface is generally in the best position for ascertaining what lies beneath it---especially if he is allowed to extract common minerals---there is an obvious utility in allowing him to appropriate even the rarer and more valuable contents of the earth; since the total amount extracted will thus tend to be increased to the advantage primarily of the producer, but indirectly of others also. Whether this gain to the community is likely more than to compensate for the loss of the extra value of rare minerals which the government might secure, in whole or in part, if property in the surface were strictly separated from property in the contents, is a question which only experience can enable us to answer; and which may perhaps require a different answer in reference to different minerals, and different social and industrial conditions. The same may be said as to the expediency of providing for the contingency that the owner of the surface may not be well qualified either to ascertain the presence of minerals hidden some way below the surface, or to decide whether their extraction will be remunerative. Such provision may be made, in accordance with our principle, by retaining for members of the community generally the right of extracting minerals from land which, for ordinary purposes, has been allowed to pass into private ownership; under condition of paying adequate compensation to the owner of the surface, and avoiding certain parts of his land where their operations would be likely to cause special inconvenience.

The exact determination of the limits of private and common property in land is, as we have seen, a matter which has to be settled by the aid of special experience on a balance of conflicting considerations; it has, in fact, varied very much in different ages and countries in which private property in moveables has been completely established. There are, however, important and extensive portions of the earth's surface which individuals have never been allowed to claim for their exclusive use,---their utility being clearly greater when they are not appropriated. Among these are the portions which are covered by the sea or by navigable rivers. But since the boundaries of these portions are not permanently fixed, but in many cases change continually---though, for the most part, very slowly---a question arises as to the ownership of the strips of dry land that are from time to time won from this watery region: and it may be instructive to consider briefly the general rules for deciding this, as illustrating the limits of Individualism from a utilitarian point of view. If such accessions to terra firma take place by the mere action of natural forces, and cannot be materially aided by human labour, it is obvious that no individual can have a claim to them, and that the increment of value which the neighbouring lands receive through the change ought to belong to the community. So far, on the other hand, as the acquisition or maintenance of the new land requires labour, it is reasonable to let it become the property of those who are in the best position to apply the required labour---that is, generally speaking, of the proprietors of the neighbouring land,---unless uniformity of action is on special grounds desirable, as may be the case with low land protected by dykes.

[Back to:] [Elempol, Chapter 5, Section 3]
[Forward to:] [Elempol, Chapter 5, Section 5]
[Up to:]
[Elempol Intro and Table of Contents]