The Uselessness of Property Owned But Not Used

PostedThe more I learn about economics, the more I turn against capitalism. It isn’t that I’m against markets or business or property ownership. But for all of the rhetoric to the contrary, capitalism is a very inefficient system. And I really think that globalization has highlighted some of the problems. At one time, to own land meant to work the land. Land that wasn’t being used was available to those who would use it. That’s not true anymore. I look around at where I live in northern California and I see all kinds of land that has not bee used for generations. But if you were to start camping on it, you would quickly find yourself in a jail cell.

I want to talk about a different kind of property, because it is one I know a lot about and that makes the subject very clear: domain names. They are the internet equivalent of land. And I’ve been in the market for a little internet property. I want to start a site about blogging with WordPress. It would be similar in style to Frankly Curious — personal, friendly, broad. But it would be about all the aspects of running a blog: technical, management, writing. And my focus would be to help people make a blog that works and not one that they start and quickly abandon.

So I came up with the name WPUnleashed. So I did a little research. Back in 2008, someone put a ghastly little website on it, “Complete Video Course Reveals
WORDPRESS Money Making Secrets.” But just because I have taste doesn’t mean that others aren’t allowed to use their websites as they see fit. But after a year, the owner let the domain name lapse and it was purchased by WebFizz, Inc. I can’t find out much about the company. It doesn’t have an office — just a box in a UPS Store. But I assume it is one of these companies that just buys old domain names and sits on them. This is what looks like now:

At the top of the page it reads, “The domain is for sale. To purchase, call at +1 339-222-5147 or 866-836-6791. Click here for more details.” So this company has been sitting on this piece of internet property for over six years. And of course, I know what the capitalism boosters will say, “That’s their right! They’ve paid for the domain name all these years!” That’s true, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not questioning that this is the way that capitalism works; I’m questions whether this is a good way to run a society.

My assumption is that the owner will want something around a thousand dollars for the name. Sometimes the owners’ valuations are far higher. This sort of thing is so common that I’ve created a website myself, Not Realistic. But the point is, things like domain names or plots of land are not something anyone created. Yet we have created a society that is based on the idea that you can just grab a piece of property and do nothing with it. This strikes me as immoral.

Libertarians (and similarly minded free marketeers) think that private property is such an important value that it trumps all other values. But the idea of private property (and similarly, intellectual property) has always been that it makes the society better. We’ve clearly reached a point where this isn’t true. I have no problem with people owning this kind of non-created property if it is being used to improve society. But it isn’t. This kind of property ownership actually makes us all less wealthy. And the owners are just parasites who suck off the efforts of people who are doing real work — adding real value to the society at large.

The ownership of land is an even more extreme example of this. In the past, to own a piece of land was to work it. Now, to own a piece of land is to simply have a piece of paper that allows you to use the police and the court system to stop other people from using the land. We need to seriously rethink the idea that the simple fact of ownership is worth something. Ownership of land or domain names should be dependent upon the owner making good use of the property. We can debate what “good use” is, but I’m not so much talking about the law here but about the way we as a society look at things. The laws in the US over the last 40 years have been terrible. But arguably even worse is just the way we think about economic issues, where there is no social cost for being the kind of “greed is good” jerk that would have made you a pariah during almost any other period in human history.


I contacted the brokerage house and they said the domain name is available for $1,475. What a joke!

9 thoughts on “The Uselessness of Property Owned But Not Used

  1. I think it should be $14.95. And you already work 10-12 hour days so why yet another project that will simply stress you out?

    • Nope. But now I will! Old readers are now thinking, “Oh God! Now Frank’s gonna be going on about Henry George for the next year!”

      But it is certainly true that over the past few years, I’ve begun to see land as a special kind of property that can’t be owned in the same way that, say, a hammer can.

      • “Progress and Poverty” is a doorstop in the vein of “Debt” or Piketty’s “Capital”. Plus semi-archaic language and context. However a condensed and modernized version is available for free download from the Schalkenbach Foundation, or in hardcopy from Amazon. I’ve only read the original book but excerpts from the new version seem passable.

        From what I remember, George’s ideas about economic rents involved extractive industries and even “natural monopolies” in addition to land as such. A very key concept is that under our present economic regime, wage increases will be absorbed by economic rents. Serious implications for any Guaranteed Income scheme.

        You may have read some of Matt Bruenig’s stuff. I think he’s sort of a modern master when it comes to demolishing propertarian axioms using simple language.

        • Yeah, I love Bruenig. I would probably rather read about George, although I don’t actually mind the language of that period — as long as it is well written. But it’s like Keynes: I’ve read some of his stuff, but I’ve never made a dent in General Theory. But I’ll see what I can find.

          • By the way, I know you were kidding about “The Year of Henry George”, but his story is actually a rather interesting bit of history. Supposedly, at his peak he was the third most famous figure in America, behind Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain, yet few have heard of him now. Some old friends of mine hail from Fairhope, Alabama, which was founded as a Georgist community as was Arden, Delaware.

            • Interesting. I was reading a bit in Wikipedia and it said he was originally a Lincoln Republican but turned against it. This is a bit of history that I think most Americans don’t know. They think that the Republicans used to be the liberal party, but on economic issues, the Republicans were always the party of business. Roosevelt was kind of an exception, but only partly. And then look what happened to him.

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