An idea common among conservatives — and surely an assumption of the protesters in Oregon — is that the past fully explains private property. For example, perhaps you paid for your phone or were given it as a gift. That’s why you are entitled to it. So in general we might say that if you paid for something or were given something, then you are entitled to it.Got that? It's hard to see how it's unjust for "the government or anyone else" to take your property.
But is that true? Suppose I steal your car and sell it to my friend Dugald. Is Dugald entitled to the car because he paid for it? You probably want to say “no.” Buying something doesn’t give you entitlement unless the seller was entitled to the thing first. So a transfer of property from one person to another is rendered illegitimate if the seller got the property through unjust means.
But now think back to your smartphone. What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none. The same can be said for the seller’s side of the transaction. Chances are excellent that your phone arrived in your hand only after the exploitation of workers, abuse of the environment, theft, fraud, human trafficking, or any number of deal-breaking injustices....
So despite its appeal to conservatives, the idea that history alone explains private property is hard to make good on. On this theory, the mere fact that we were given things or paid for things won’t determine whether we are entitled to those things. At worst the historical theory implies that no one is entitled to any private property. And if our property isn’t legitimately private, it’s hard to see how it’s unjust for the government or anyone else to take it from us.
So, should the government own all the land out West? Absolutely -- unless we give it back to the Native Americans.