The Moral Irrelevance of Rent
Jason Byas’s Response to Folvardy, Schnack and Kirchner
In my initial response to Kevin Carson, I briefly asserted that rent from land is morally irrelevant in determining property norms. Three of the respondents in particular — Fred Foldvary, Robert Kirchner, and Will Schnack — clearly think differently. Thanks to their very interesting contributions, I’ve decided I need to say a little more on why I don’t think rent from land matters when we’re determining property norms.
Geo-anarchist economist, Fred Folvardy, presents a straightforward Georgist critique of Carson’s occupancy-and-use standard. For Foldvary, Carson’s standards for land ownership are simultaneously too strict and too loose. They’re too strict, he holds, because they arbitrarily disqualify several uses that seem to clearly be legitimate. I largely agree, but I do want to briefly note one place where I disagree with him in favor of Carson.
Foldvary says that “[i]llegitimate appropriation should be handled either by returning title to the previous holder, when feasible; or by compensation; or by recognizing the current title holder as legitimate so long as he pays the community rent.”
I’m confused as to when or why it would be just to recognize current title holders as legitimate so long as they pay rent (even with my more general worries about Georgism aside.) This, it seems to me, goes against the entire idea of justice in acquisition. Stolen items should be returned to the person they were stolen from, unless those objects have been destroyed, in which case monetary compensation is owed. Otherwise, we have effectively legalized theft.
Foldvary believes Carson’s standards are too loose because Carson’s occupancy-and-use doesn’t involve having land-owners pay rent to the community at large. He also notes that communal homesteading is fine, but that this community would still need to pay rent to the larger community.
One immediate worry, especially given the claim that communal homesteaders would have to pay rent to the larger community, should be obvious: Who exactly is the community, and who represents them? Do I owe rent to the territory roughly corresponding with Decatur, Georgia? Or to some larger community like DeKalb County? Or an even bigger community, like the State of Georgia? Or the entire North American continent? Or the world? If we discover another humanoid species of aliens on a far-away planet, do we all owe rent to an interplanetary community? Some answers here might be more reasonable than others, but it’s not obvious how we can have a principled, non-arbitrary way for deciding that.
Also, since Foldvary is an anarchist, he no doubt agrees that it would be silly to take the United States government’s interests and his own as really corresponding. Yet, the same is true of whatever organization he has in mind to collect rent. They too would have their own interests independent of whatever community they were supposed to represent, and this creates a problem for any anarchist or libertarian.
Most importantly, though, is that Foldvary’s philosophical justification for why anyone owes rent in the first place is unpersuasive.
As far as I can tell, he gives two arguments: First, “Georgism puts everyone in an equal status with respect to natural opportunities.” Second, “if the current occupant is not putting the land to its highest and best use, he is wasting a scarce resources and making others poorer.”
The first argument is unpersuasive because the claim that collecting rent would equalize people’s natural opportunities does not suffice to justify forcibly collecting rent. If it did work, then that would justify a much wider scope for confiscation than just rent from land. That’s because, contrary to Foldvary’s assertion, merely removing the effect of rent from land would not be enough to “put everyone in an equal status with respect to natural opportunities.” We all have a wide variety of natural talents and abilities, and if equalizing opportunities is a justification for confiscation, then that would work as a justification for taxing according to those as well. This would commit him and other Georgists to full-blown luck egalitarianism, which has its own share of problems. Foldvary could reasonably object, though, that our natural abilities and talents are a part of who we are, and are therefore not something that should be checked in the same way as rent from land. However, he would still need an answer for why his view doesn’t render confiscation to check against other sorts of natural inequalities of opportunity. For example, imagine that two people stumble on free cars, and one of them is significantly better than the other one. This seems to be a “natural inequality of opportunity” in roughly the same way as the land case, but it would be odd (at least for libertarians) to say that the person who’s received the better car owes anything to the person who’s received the worse car.
The second argument runs into similar problems. Without any reason to already take land as a unique case, Foldvary’s efficiency argument only works if he’s also willing to bite the bullet with other goods. In other words, if he’s willing to accept the claim that resources may be confiscated in order to compensate for goods not being put to their most productive possible use. Returning to cars, surely I would not need to compensate the community if my car wasn’t being put to the most productive possible use.
Without an argument that justifies drawing a hard moral distinction between property in land and property in other things, Foldvary can’t justify his claim that land-owners owe rent to the community in the first place.
Kirchner is not a Georgist, but he does believe that rent considerations give us reason to strongly favor occupancy-and-use mutualism over Lockeanism. Rather than land-based luck-egalitarianism or efficiency, though, he bases his argument for the relevance of rent in something else: Non-domination.
I think this is a very genuine concern, and if I agreed with him that rent from land led to domination, I’d be tempted to sign on to the rest of his argument. A Lockean account (or at least my own Lockean account) of property is based on a dimension of freedom (non-aggression), so it must be consistent with other dimensions of freedom (e.g., non-domination). This is because if our understanding of two dimensions of freedom are wildly out of whack with one another, then we’ve probably taken a wrong turn somewhere in our analysis. Both are important for a holistic, truly anarchistic picture of freedom, and both must be taken seriously.
That said, I see no reason to adjust my views on property, because I remain unconvinced that rent from land fosters domination. Kirchner asserts, but largely does not argue, for his claim that the “degree of stickiness [between Tuckerite occupancy-and-use vs. Lockean norms] precisely corresponds to how quickly and how completely the freed market runs off its rails back into capitalism.” Kirchner seems to believe that people who invest their time or money into getting land will always just keep making money off of that land indefinitely, with little to no effort. However, this assumption that no one will ever lose all that much money on a particular kind of investment sounds very strange, and needs to be justified.
This might be a reasonable assumption if we also assume away all of the costs associated with protecting one’s ownership of that land. Since this is a dispute between anarchists, though, that assumption is unfounded. As Jeremy Weiland, Anna Morgenstern, and others have observed, the cost of protecting one’s property naturally increases more and more the more land you have, and the more highly valued that land is. This creates a powerful check against large concentrations of wealth, and thus against domination. Therefore, it’s not at all clear that the extremely strict definition of “occupancy-and-use” that Kirchner favors is necessary to stave off domination.
Will Shnack places Kevin Carson “right of center on the issue of land, not because his position is not preferable to the current regime, but because it would leave something still to be revolted against.” What Schnack still finds revolting in Carson’s framework is that it “supports the privatization of economic rent.” Much of what I said with Foldvary and Kirchner also applies to Schnack, so I’ll resist repeating it here. Schnack also, though, presents a notably unique argument for the community collection of rent, which deserves a response of its own.
In short, he thinks (as I understand him) that since some level of community agreement is necessary for property titles to be stable, land-owners within the community partly owe their property rights to the community. Thus, the community is owed compensation. He especially presses this issue in terms of the need to settle difficult, seemingly indeterminate questions, like precise abandonment times.
I disagree with Schnack here on a number of fronts. First of all, surely what Schnack says about the defense of property rights in land is also true about the defense of other things we have a right over, including ourselves. Unless Schnack can pinpoint something morally special about land, it seems that he’s just reiterated the standard progressive claim that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.
Furthermore, I’m not sure why Schnack thinks that legal determination would come from giving the determining-power to a single institution that would also be able to collect rent. Rather, legal norms, with the strong rule of law that Schnack wants, could just as easily (if not better) emerge from several different, competing institutions. What exactly the institution representing the community is doing that’s all-that-special is unexplained.
Much of this hinges on what Schnack’s picture of law in a stateless society looks like, and unfortunately that remains unclear. If he believes that the institution taken to be representing the community should have the ability to prevent potential competitors, then his ideal society is one in which I’d certainly find something still worth revolting against.