Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Alternative Economics: Usufruct Zones

A few weeks back, I wrote a brief piece about how usufruct could/should work in a society with a different conception of property law. I made the assumption that it would be some sort of anarchist society, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

There are currently hundreds of millions of people around the world who live their lives by the unwritten laws of usufruct property. They're squatters. For the most part very poor, they live primarily in slums around the major cities of the world's poor nations. They have no land title. They have no deeds. And they don't have the kind of political power that allow them to manufacture such evidence of property. Remember, every title deed we now have is, essentially, a fantasy given force by a mixture of commonly held custom and government force.

Some economists have recently suggested that the best thing we could do for squatters (some of whom have built entire fairly nice squatter cities) is to give them title to their land. It would give them the ability to borrow against a new source of capital and help them to better themselves. This is, in fact, a good argument. But consider an alternative.

We could designate some areas as usufruct zones. Outside, normal property law would hold, thus pacifying the property-owning powerful. Inside (on land that nobody else wants anyway) usufruct would be the law of the land. With usufruct recognized by governments, the occupiers would have the advantages of ownership, including the ability to borrow against their new property. More important, they would have much greater security than they now enjoy.

This idea could have its greatest impact in the poor world, but don't discount the benefit it could give to people in the west, either. Remember, there are squatters aplenty in every western city, but they tend to take over vacant houses rather than building their own. Remember the people who work full time but have to sleep in their cars because they can't even afford rent. Or the homeless people, pitching tents and building shacks in ravines, being moved along constantly by the police.

We would have to give up a lot of control over usufruct zones to make them work. Building codes would have to be lightly enforced, if at all. But remember, well-built structures are in the best interest of the inhabitants. They'll get there eventually, if we give them a chance and time. And if we don't, then they'll still be living in tents in ravines, or sleeping in their cars. Which would you rather have, someone with a solid, if tiny, home of their own and clear ownership through occupancy, or someone who doesn't dare to own more things than he can carry in a shopping cart, and who doesn't know where he'll spend his next night?

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