Exclusive Property

Once, long before shopping malls and airplanes and interest rates, there lived an honest farmer who spent his life working a plot of land on the border between the North and the South. Though he was not wealthy, the farmer always had enough to eat, enjoyed open spaces, and there was good hunting and fishing throughout the surrounding wilderness, so he lived happily. Once a year, in the fall, he would travel to a nearby village to trade some of his grains and beans and pumpkins for store-bought goods. Then the farmer would return to care for his plot of land, and spend another cycle of the seasons in happiness.

One harvest moon, the Northern armies invaded, bearing swords and shields. They overran the border territory, and the entire countryside was terrified--all except the farmer. He invited the leaders of the army to his home, slaughtered a pig, and served a fabulous feast. Well-fed and in good humor, the generals reflected on their conquests, grew content, and led the armies back to the Northern capital, so the farmer continued to live happily.

Several seasons later, the Southern armies won back the same territory, so the farmer invited their generals to his home for a feast. And, just as before, satisfaction worked its way into the stomachs and bones of the leaders, so they returned with their men to the Southern capital, leaving the honest farmer in peace.

And so turned the seasons of political fortune: first the Northern, then the Southern armies would conquer the borderlands. And the farmer answered each invasion with open arms, living as a free man for countless harvests.

Then one day, after the farmer had grown old, and all this had become a way of life, a young orphan boy was discovered wandering through the region. The villagers adopted him--allowed him to roam the village and grow up in their midst. But the child preferred the solitude and rustling trees of the wilderness, so he spent countless long days hiking through the countryside; and since few people worked the land in that region, he could not help but cross paths with the farmer. The two became well acquainted; and, despite a great difference in age, they grew to be friends. The boy learned of hunting and fishing, planting and harvesting, the proper care for livestock, and how to read tomorrow's weather in one's bones.

After a few years, the boy's visits to the farmer ceased. He had grown to manhood, and decided to take up agriculture himself. As a surprise for his lifelong friend, he set out on a journey to the North, to bow before their leaders and ask to be allotted a plot of land in the border region--a home--that he could call his own.

After he arrived in the North, the leaders were so busy preparing for war with the South that they had no time to speak with the young man. He therefore decided to take a short-term job in the city, but ended up waiting for weeks and months and years. And by the time the Northern leaders were finally able to hear his plea, the Southern armies had retaken the territory on which he wanted to farm.

So the young man journeyed once again, this time to the South. But, just like their counterparts in the North, the Southern leaders were far too engaged in the interests of war to give the young man a hearing. So he found a job in the Southern capital, and waited again for weeks and months and years. And by the time the Southern leaders were able to speak with him, the Northern armies had conquered the border lands.

And so turned his seasons of fortune: first pleading in the North, then the South, then the North again. After wasting many years in this way, the young man, limp with dejection, wandered back to his boyhood home. On the first day back, he hiked out to see the farmer.

But alas, when he arrived at the house, his friend--now terribly old--was on his deathbed. The young man fetched new bedding, a pillow, and a cup of water to make the farmer as comfortable as possible. Then he sat beside the dying man, and asked how he had originally received a plot of land, for the leaders of the North and South never stopped fighting long enough to apportion property to the people.

The old man was terribly weak, and his voice could hardly make a sound, so the younger party had to lean over and turn his ear toward the patient's mouth. Struggling to breathe out each and every word, the farmer responded, "You do not get land from other people. Nobody can sell or give you land, for it belongs to those who work it. Whoever cares for the earth, helps it to produce a crop, has a right to that land." His lifeless head went limp after he uttered these last words.

Weeping, with a sense of utter defeat, the young man buried his friend near their favorite fishing hole. He thought long and hard over the farmer's final words, and resolved that he was the right person to take on the duties of working the farm. After all, the old man had no family, and had also said that land belongs to whoever cares for it.

The young man moved into his friend's house and began farming. But no sooner had he harvested his first crop than the Northern army overran the territory. When they arrived at the farm, the young man was waiting with open arms, just as he had seen the old farmer do so many times before.

The general's icy response was driven to the hilt through the young man's chest, whose incredulous eyes glazed as he feebly pawed at the saber, his legs finally collapsing. Confused and dying, the would-be farmer motioned to his nemesis to come closer. The conqueror kneeled down, leaned over, and turned his ear toward the young man.

"Why have you killed me?"

"Because you have dared to work land that belongs to his majesty, the king."

"But I thought land belongs to those who care for it."

The general stood up, malicious with laughter. "Never in my life have I heard anything more sentimental! There's no magic bond between a person and land! Property is a relationship between a man and his neighbors--the only way to own land is to be strong enough to keep others off!"

The dying man mouthed a feeble, confused response, but was drowned out by the carousing of the army as they began ransacking and pillaging his home. His sight grew dim as he watched the soldiers carelessly destroy all he once held dear. It seemed as though he lay still for ages, watching vague forms hustle and bustle overhead--putting the spoils of war to their own use. Finally the young man summoned a burst of energy, and motioned his hand toward one of the forms, who moved closer and turned his ear toward the victim.

"I don't understand. Why does the king care to claim this land? He doesn't live here--he doesn't till the fields, plant the crops, or harvest."

"True enough, but so many subjects have been petitioning the court for land that the king decided to assert his God-given right of royal title. After all, property only has value once people are willing to pay for it."

But the young man could no longer respond, so the soldier quietly closed his eyes with a pass of the hand.

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