A topical issue in the global justice literature is territory. Mainstream writers have taken the position that collective entities, including states, are the ultimate title holders of land and resources (see here and here.) On this view, states may enforce a system of private property rights if they judge it the best way to create wealth, but the ultimate title to land and resources is in the state or other collective entity on behalf of the people, and not on individual owners. Global justice, it is thought, is agnostic among various property regimes. A state may permissibly be capitalist, socialist, or a mix of both. And, on this view, a legitimate state always has the sovereign prerogative of expropriating land and resources. (Writers attach various conditions, such as the need to respect basic rights, the democratic nature of the appropriation, and so on.)
As against this collectivist view of territory, Lockean liberals claim that the state’s territorial sovereignty can only be justified as a cluster of powers that individuals have delegated to the state (see here and here). All justified power is delegated power, and the power over territory is no exception. In the words of Hillel Steiner, “a group’s legitimate territorial claims can extend no further than the legitimate territorial holdings of its members or their agents.” There is no such thing as undelegated territorial sovereignty.
Following in these venerable steps, in a forthcoming article I define the territory of the state as the sum of (1) the privately-owned space over which owners have delegated executive functions to the state, and (2) the space, ceded by private owners, that the state needs to discharge its delegated functions, that is, public property in a broad sense (“The Mystery of Territorial Sovereignty,” Social Philosophy & Policy, forthcoming.) Internally, the territorial powers of the state vis-á-vis its citizens derive from the land rights persons have. Externally, the powers of the state vis-á-vis foreigners derive from whatever exclusionary land powers individuals have delegated to the state.
One consequence of my argument is that only persons can originally own material resources. There is no original collective title over resources. Another consequence is that principles of global justice cannot be agnostic among property regimes. Socialism and similar forms of collective management and allocation are unjust (this conclusion is supported by other arguments as well.)
But the most important consequence of the view I defend is that no actual state has legitimate title over territory, because no actual state exercises territorial powers delegated by individuals. States have come into existence through various forms of skullduggery –fraud and murder against outsiders and insiders.
In my judgment, by supporting the primacy of the state’s jurisdictional powers global justice scholars have gone awry in at least two respects. They have largely endorsed the statist status quo, and they have failed to recognize the value of private property rights for addressing precisely the problems they profess to care about.