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Vidi, vici: sightlines, feudalism, and property rights in the Garden State


In a blog post a couple of years ago at the blog of the Mises Institute, Roderick Long coined the extremely useful phrase “aristocratic left,” which he describes as

 left-wingers who have a particular vision of an idyllic society and are prepared to hammer into place anyone whose preferences or behavior don’t align with the vision; in effect they see other people as their property.[1]

That attitude is perfectly on display in an article (oddly placed in The Arts section) of yesterday’s New York Times, “EPA Backs Out of Role in Palisades Project.” The first three paragraphs convey the gist:

In a rare about-face, the Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn its involvement in the construction of a new corporate headquarters to be built in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., on the grounds that its height would disrupt “the natural beauty of the Palisades.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the Cloisters across the Hudson River, is among the organizations and individuals opposing the 143-foot-tall building. They say its height would damage the pristine vista that the Rockefeller family sought to preserve when it bought the New Jersey cliffs in the 1930s.

“This is not a step I take lightly,” said Judith A. Enck, the regional administrator for the agency, in a letter sent Tuesday to the building’s developer, LG Electronics USA. She added that her region had never taken such action before, but that “this view is so important that the adverse impacts of construction of high-rise building cannot be condoned.”

Palisades Cliffs, "pristine" view

Palisades Cliffs, “pristine” view

The controversy almost seems a parody of the casuistic questions that Robert Nozick asks of Locke’s theory of acquisition in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Locke views property rights in an unowned object as originating through someone’s mixing his labor with it. This gives rise to many questions. What are the boundaries of what labor is mixed with? If a private astronaut clears a place on Mars, has he mixed his labor with (so that he comes to own) the whole planet, the whole uninhabited universe, or just a particular plot?  Which plot does an act bring under ownership? The minimal (possibly disconnected) area such that an act decreases entropy in that area, and not elsewhere? Can virgin land (for the purposes of ecological investigation by a high-flying airplane) come under ownership by a Lockean process? Building a fence around a territory presumably would make one the owner of only the fence (and the land immediately underneath it). (p. 174)

To Nozick’s list we now have to add one more: if you mix the labor of your gazing at the horizon with everything between you and the horizon, do you own everything that your eye surveys?

Nozick’s questions are merely theory (you might say), but it’s worth remembering that the attitudes implicit in them correspond pretty exactly to the aristocratic practices of the Europeans who settled this continent.  Consider Christopher Columbus:

By the Divine Will I have placed under the sovereignty of the King and Queen an Other World, whereby Spain, which was reckoned poor, is to become the richest of all countries (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, vol. 1, p. 64).

Many Objectivists inexplicably admire Columbus, but consider how many Objectivist values are violated by that one utterance–and how few limits to Spanish sovereignty were intended by it.

Columbus’s attitudes, and that of the Spanish, were hardly unique, however. We often forget–American schoolchildren are typically not taught–that early North American settlement by both the Dutch and the English was ubiquitously feudal.

Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam jeweler and a stockholder of the [Dutch West Indies] Company, decided that fur trading alone would never make New Netherland a proper colony. In 1629 he persuaded the Company to issue a “Charter of Privileges to Patroons,” in order to encourage farming and settlement. A patroon was a person who, in return for bringing out fifty people, received a feudal domain on the Hudson, with a fifteen-mile river front, exclusive fishing and hunting privileges, civil and criminal jurisdiction, and the right to share the fur trade with the Company, which promised “to supply the colonists with as many Blacks as they conveniently can”….These privileges came nearer to pure feudalism than any other land system in the future United States. They continued under English rule and even outlasted the Revolution, ending only with the Rent War of the 1840s. (Oxford History, vol. 1, p. 119)

The what war of when which ended American feudalism how? You’d think that the end of feudalism in America would be an event worth marking and celebrating, but it isn’t, partly because it doesn’t fit well with the claims of “American exceptionalism” that motivate the teaching of history in this country.

But feudalism wasn’t just a Dutch import.

Charles II, restored to the throne of England in 1660, had many friends and relations to take care of. And he hated the Dutch, despite their courteous and liberal treatment of him during his exile. So he decided to give New Netherland along with other territories to the Duke of York, and to declare war on Holland.

All in a day’s work, evidently. As for the Duke of York:

The Duke at the age of thirty was now owner and ruler of a section of America destined to be the wealthiest of its size in the world. What would he do with it? His charter made him sole proprietor of this vast domain, unhampered by any requirements to obtain popular consent to his laws and regulations. The government was his to arrange as he saw fit; the unoccupied lands [!] were his to hold, sell, or lease as he chose. (Oxford History, vol. 1, pp. 120-21)

Actually, they weren’t “unoccupied.” Interestingly, the author of our passage doesn’t precisely tell us when feudalism fully ended. He ends his narrative instead with the observation that after surrendering feudal claims to the Crown in 1702, the history of land use in New Jersey ended up being “very complicated” (Oxford History, p. 122)–a claim  as indisputable as it is uninformative.[2]

Apparently, those feudal attitudes remain in place today–and not just by disputants in land-use squabbles but implicitly by the supposedly impartial journalists covering their disputes. One of the most telling features of the Times story is not what the reporter tells us, but what she fails to ask. According to the article, the Metropolitan Museum says that the LG building “would damage the pristine vista that the Rockefeller family sought to preserve when it bought the New Jersey cliffs in the 1930s.” Four or five unasked questions about this claim:

  • Do the Rockefellers still own the cliffs?
  • Did they ever own the vista?
  • What is the geographical relationship between the cliffs and the vista?
  • And why exactly does a building “damage” the vista?  In other words, what conception of “damage” is at work here?

None of these questions is asked, much less answered, in the article. But without answers to them, how are we to evaluate the disputants’ claims? And if the article doesn’t put us in a position to evaluate their claims, what was the point of writing it?

I’ll leave the first three questions of my questions aside to pursue the fourth and fifth. The implicit answer to the fourth/fifth is what explains why this item is in The Arts section. The topic here is not politics but aesthetics, and the implicit argument of the anti-LG side is roughly this: “Unspoiled” nature is prima facie more beautiful than humanly-altered nature. Beauty should, ceteris paribus, trump all other values. Since the proposed LG building (by its current specifications) is less beautiful than the Palisades Cliffs sans LG building, the LG building ought not to be built according to those current specifications.

I’ve attributed this argument to the anti-LG people in an act of dialectical charity. It’s a pretty bad argument, but better than anything that appears in the article. So let’s consider what they say in implicit defense of it.

This month four former New Jersey governors — Brendan T. Byrne, Thomas H. Kean, James J. Florio and Christine Todd Whitman — wrote a letter to the company, objecting to a building that would rise several stories above the tree line.

“The dramatic formation that inspired painters of the Hudson River School of American Artists in the 19th century has been protected for over 100 years through the efforts of citizens and elected officials,” the governors said. “We are concerned that this tower would not only interrupt the historic, natural vista enjoyed by millions, but would also set a precedent for greater building heights stretching northward along these iconic cliffs.”

The Palisades were designated a National Natural Landmark in 1983.

George Inness, Lackawanna Valley

George Inness, Lackawanna Valley

Aristocratic bipartisanship in this case.

As it happens, the Hudson River painters themselves often depicted the conflict between “pristine” nature and development in their paintings–and had an ambivalent attitude toward the issue itself–so why not see LG’s building as an instance of their theme, let LG build the building–and induce some latter-day heir of the Hudson River painters to paint or photograph the result? I don’t mean this suggestion frivolously. As it happens, a friend of mine, Charles Persky, a Bronx-based photographer and emeritus professor of English at Hunter, has taken and exhibited a series of Hudson River School-inspired photographs of the Palisades Cliffs as seen from across the river in New York City. In doing so, he’s always insisted on including contemporary alterations to the landscape within the frame of the photo–like subway stations–in order to stress the ambiguity of “beauty” in these supposedly pastoral, arcadian contexts. His photos are, to my mind, beautiful–even when they include the accoutrement of modern life.[3] Why is it so obvious that buildings are ugly, or that “pristine” cliffs are more beautiful than the same cliffs with buildings behind them?

In any case, puzzles about the meaning of “pristine” and “damage” aren’t just the reflection of some Objectivist fetish for industrialization or capitalism. Objectivists aside, not everyone shares the aesthetic values of the EPA, Scenic Hudson, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs, two conservationist residents of Englewood Cliffs–and four former governors of the State of New Jersey. Why should their aesthetic preferences hold up a $300 million dollar project?

We hear a lot nowadays about the need for “stimulus” in the name of job growth during our recent economic downturn. Apparently, however, when the Palisades are at issue, the need for jobs is easily trumped by a few people’s desire for a “pristine” sightline:

LG, which is based in South Korea, is a major employer and taxpayer in the area. At an April rally to support the $300 million project, the mayor of Englewood Cliffs, Joseph Parisi Jr., urged union workers to get on board, saying opposition to LG’s design has set the project back a year.

Too bad: if you were counting on a job with LG, look elsewhere, so to speak.

Here, however, is my favorite passage in the whole article:

This unusual decision reflects the real threat LG’s proposed building poses to the integrity of the Palisades Park,” said Mark A. Izeman, a director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has also objected to the height. “The vista 10 miles north of the George Washington Bridge is an American landmark and a rare stretch of unbroken beauty that is enjoyed by people on both sides of the river.

How is the “integrity” of the park threatened by something not in it? Better yet, if the LG building destroys the integrity of Palisades Park, why doesn’t the George Washington Bridge destroy the integrity of the Hudson River? If four governors and a bunch of conservationists thought the GWB ugly, should we dismantle it while ignoring the consequences for traffic and convenience? I didn’t expect the Times’s reporter to ask any of those questions, either. But someone should.

Could the damn thing be more in the way?

Could the damn thing be more in the way?

There is unintended irony in this passage as well:

The site is almost directly across the Hudson River from the Cloisters, the Met’s medieval branch in Fort Tryon Park, in Washington Heights, which was built in the 1930s using architectural elements from European cloisters constructed during the Middle Ages.

I guess they imported some feudal attitudes along with the medieval architecture.

Some stupid building obscuring the view of that tree back there.

Some stupid building obscuring the view of that tree back there.

Apparently, “LG had planned to begin construction on 27 acres this year and complete the project by 2016.” At this rate, don’t count on it.

One of the strangest features of American discourse on property is the simultaneous insistence one encounters on two incompatible claims: (1) Property rights are an irrational right-wing libertarian fetish. (2) The de facto property rights of the aristocratic/anti-libertarian suburbanite extend by right far beyond any physically delimited or delimitable boundary, and are thought to include such things as sightlines over pristine vistas and control over any factor beyond one’s legal property line that might affect the monetary value of the property itself (such as the “quality” and “character” of the neighborhood, and the “quality” and “character” of the people moving into it).[4]

The difference between the libertarian and the aristocrat is that while the libertarian wants to limit property within certain moral bounds, the aristocrat wants us to dispense with the language of property rights while extending property beyond any recognizable limit. So don’t believe the modern-day duke or duchess who waves property rights away as the plaything of “the rich, the selfish, and the greedy.” Consider the possibility that they wave property rights away not because they disdain the idea of property, but because they disdain the idea of rights. And consider the possibility that it’s not that they’d rather not discuss property claims, but that they’d rather not make a final determination about exactly where their property claims end.

As a matter of principle, both libertarians and Objectivists are well-positioned to criticize the incompatibility of (1) with (2), and (2) itself. In forthcoming posts, I’ll have more to say about all that as it applies both to exclusionary zoning policy in New Jersey, to Israeli land-use policy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and to the connection between them.


[1] I’ll reserve comment on Roderick’s larger point—how do we reach the left?—for the much-delayed third installment of my Objectivism/academic culture series. But my view may be predictable from the claims made on our “movement” page. I don’t think we ought to try to reach the left or the right qua left or right. Following a suggestion of Ayn Rand’s, I think we ought to engage in political activity with “ad hoc groups organized to achieve a single, specific, clearly defined goal,” choosing the groups on our own ideological terms, and integrating the goals similarly. This may involve making alliances with people on the left or the right, but it shouldn’t involve alliances with the left or the right.

[2] Actually, in fairness, the author discusses the “Rent War” (more informatively, the “Anti-Rent War”) in volume 2 (pp. 242-45), but even here he neglects to tell the reader whether land reforms were involved in breaking up the old feudal estates. Interestingly, his discussion of the Hudson River School of landscape painting comes four pages after his discussion of the quasi-abolition of feudalism. He sees no connection between the two subjects, even though the Hudson River painters were painting roughly the same landscape as the one being liberated from feudalism.

[3] Unfortunately, though Persky’s photographs have publicly been exhibited in galleries and shows in New York, none of them are online. I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that Persky necessarily agrees with my views on this topic.

[4] It’s also interesting that there is, to my knowledge, no philosophical literature on the appropriation of public property comparable in size or scope to the huge skeptical literature on the appropriation of private property. But why should the one thing be more controversial or skepticism-provoking than the other?

An exercise: find your favorite counter-example to private appropriation and apply it, mutatis mutandis, to public appropriation. Does the public nature of appropriation really make the problem posed by the counter-example go away? This thought occurred to me a few years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Adirondacks–some of the most “pristine” forestland in New York, all owned by the State of New York. Though it was the height of summer (or maybe because it was), I found myself thinking about Jeremy Waldron’s blizzard/cabin example and wondering what implications the same example would have for a state-owned ranger station, state-owned firewood, and state-owned provisions (the example is in “Welfare and the Images of Charity,” Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981-1991). There is, to my knowledge, more forestland under state-ownership than private ownership in the United States. Why then should Waldron’s example pose more acute a problem for private property than for public property?



  1. “There is, to my knowledge, more forestland under state-ownership than private ownership in the United States”

    And indeed, in the western u.s. almost all land of any sort is owned by the federal govt; see this chart:

    (And that doesn’t even include land owned by state govts.)

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks. Even in the Atlantic northeast, the amount of government ownership of open space (not just forestland) is astonishing. In north Jersey, at least, it’s often the case that what was once privately owned property reverts to state ownership because some heir of the original owner just got sick of managing the property and wanted to off-load it on some willing party–the government being an ever-willing party. I’m planning to a post on the politics of parks and open space at some point–lots of angles to it.

  3. irfankhawaja says:


    Thanks for that item; I’ve just gotten back from Jerusalem, so I just managed to read it. I happen to teach Roger Scruton’s “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction” in my aesthetics class, and Scruton offers similar arguments about the need to regulate development in London.

    The issue is even more fraught in Jerusalem (everything is), where every bit of territory–surface area, sub-surface area, airspace, and water–is hotly contested, but where property rights seem violable at will. Given the structure of ownership claims there, it would probably be impossible to build a high rise next to the Old City of Jerusalem that obscured the view of say, the Dome of the Rock, but here’s an interesting exercise: what if someone bought land outside of the Old City that obscured the view of the Dome of the Rock, and there was a riot over it? Should the rioters be suppressed and the building be allowed to proceed, or should the rioters be appeased and a cease and desist order be imposed on the builder? I didn’t have to spend very much time in Israel/Jerusalem/the West Bank to realize that questions like this can be multiplied indefinitely, and as far as contemporary libertarian (or Objectivist) theory is concerned, have no clear answers. There’s no question in my mind that in Jerusalem at least, the first option in my thought experiment–suppress the rioters and allow building–would be taken as a casus belli, and lead to war. We can be grateful, I suppose, that the analogous disputes in New Jersey or London don’t end up that way.


  4. […] a bonus, let me add a post I wrote last year on a (still-ongoing) controversy over the ownership of sightlines in New […]

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