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Occupancy-and-Use Reflects Moral Imperatives

Occupancy-and-Use Reflects Moral Imperatives
…Implied by Land’s Unique Scarcity, Kevin Carson responds to Jason Byas

Jason starts out by accepting my blurred lines between Lockeanism and occupancy-and-use, and agreeing that the difference between them is largely a matter of degree: Non-Proviso Lockeanism is just occupancy-and-use with a higher threshold for constructive abandonment. And the proper Lockean understanding of initial acquisition is simply putting something previously unused to use.

Jason also mentions in a footnote: “I think the best understanding of land not yet homesteaded is as unowned, not commonly owned. Carson has previously rejected this claim, but since he didn’t rely on it in his opening essay for this exchange, I won’t spend any time on it here.”

I won’t spend much time on it either, except to say the question of whether unappropriated land should be consider unowned or commonly owned strikes me today as the kind of unverifiable metaphysical question I wouldn’t venture into. I was impressed by Shawn Wilbur’s “gift economy of property” argument in his first reply to me, that the idea of being “unowned” might itself entail a sort of mutual relinquishment of claims to obstruct appropriation.

Jason also provides an interesting argument for framing constructive abandonment in occupancy-and-use terms.

Taking Lockean property norms as justified through an occupancy-and-use standard also helps us work through an area that Carson helpfully pinpoints in his lead essay: abandonment. Why is it that when I leave my bicycle in an empty lot without saying anything for several months, the person who decides I’m not coming back for it and just takes it isn’t stealing? One could say that that’s because while homesteading or voluntary transfer entitled me to permanent ownership of the bike, practical problems give us reason to allow for constructive abandonment. But that seems ad hoc, especially when we’re talking about an issue of rights. A better explanation is that there is no plausible reading of my actions under which I’m still using the bike. Even if I hunt you down later and tell you that the bike’s actually mine, you have a pretty good case for disagreeing. Like I said earlier with homesteading (converting something into property), I think we can justifiably extrapolate from our intuitions about abandoning (converting something out of property) with objects like bikes and toothbrushes to principles for abandoning land or the means of production.

Inheritance, likewise, is a form of “use” in the sense that the person bequeathing it is expressing her intentionality through it even after death.

This use understanding of Lockean property norms also helps to explain inheritance. As Aristotle observed in the Nicomachean Ethics, our plans and the actions we took to carry them out often outlive us. To the extent that that’s true, we can retain ownership over property long enough for some projects we put into action when we were alive to follow through. For instance, passing on our belongings to our loved ones can be the completion of our will that those objects go to them once we’ve died.

I would qualify this with the requirement that the intent of the person bequeathing doesn’t automatically translate into continued “use” after their death if that intent is not realized within a reasonable period of time by the intended inheritor’s agency in putting it to their own use.

On Ricardian/Georgist theories of differential rent, Jason writes:

I’m personally agnostic on the question. However, I don’t find anything in what either Carson or Georgists say about rent from land that gives us reason to treat land as different from any other sort of external object that we might justifiably convert into property. I’m not sure if Carson thinks that his response that economic rent is sufficiently taken care of by his occupancy-and-use norms only applies for his stricter view, or if it would also work for the kind of view I’m putting forward here — but I’m not sure that it really matters. Either way, though, to the extent that this is a discussion of rights, more needs to be said for such considerations to have any bearing on our strong presumption that putting something into use converts it into property. Because nothing about rent accruing from land seems to change the fact that that land is a part of your ongoing projects. I’m not sure that Carson is saying that economic rent would be a legitimate reason to enforce one form of property norms rather than another, but if he is, that seems mistaken.

I would frame it this way: Ricardian/Georgist differential rent is one expression or result of the unique nature of land, or rather of locations. But it’s that unique scarcity, coupled with the fact that a place to stand on is a condition for existence, that I see as the reason to enforce one form of property norms rather than another. But then again, as I argued at the outset, I think all principled property systems to some extent reflect the moral imperatives implied by that unique nature. I just see occupancy and use, with the requirement to demonstrate a real intent to maintain long-term occupancy in order to avoid constructive abandonment, as most suited to those moral imperatives.

Having gotten all this out of the way, Jason goes on to discuss his areas of significant difference with my views, starting with “what constituted ongoing occupancy-and-use.” He sees legitimate occupancy and use as fully compatible with absentee ownership, in the case of both tenant residences and businesses employing wage labor.

For example, when given some direct questions about what constitutes occupancy-and-use, Benjamin Tucker told a correspondent that those who provided security in an anarchist society “would not collect your rent, and might not even evict your tenant”. In the same response, he clarified that only those who personally work in physical labor at a work site can be said to be occupying and using it, and thus ownership by someone else would not be protected. I take these answers to be flat rejections that someone could own homes that they don’t personally live in, nor workplaces that they don’t personally perform physical labor in. If this is what Carson has in mind by occupancy-and-use, I don’t think it’s going to work.

Moreover, I’d say that the differences between that kind of view and a Lockean view is one of kind, not just degree. That’s because to the extent that rental properties and businesses owned by those who don’t physically labor in them are categorically ruled out, using property in those ways is taken to necessarily signal abandonment. A difference in the length of abandonment periods might just be quantitative, but this is qualitative.

The position attributed to Tucker regarding ownership by those working on a site is iffy. Although he expressed himself mainly in occasional pieces, and over a fairly long career, I believe his most typical position was that while absentee landlordism was illegitimate, absentee ownership of plant and equipment was legitimate. He was pretty much neutral on the existence of wage labor as such, so long as there were no state-enforced privileges to prevent wages rising to the full value of the worker’s product.

On the other hand, his practical views of how a community would cease enforcing the land monopoly varied considerably. In some cases he argued that landlord rent was morally equivalent to taxation, and that tenants should simply stop paying it and assert their ownership of the premises they occupied. In other cases he seemed to imply that absentee landlord rent to recompense the landlord for actual outlays on buildings and improvements would be legitimate, so long as gross rent did not include as a component rent on the site as such. Byas suggest this himself, mentioning active landlord involvement in maintenance and repairs and other services to the tenants as a requirement to avoid constructive abandonment:

That’s not to say that there aren’t be cases where those uses should be taken as abandonment. If I rent out a house, but literally do nothing but collect money from tenants, then it seems right to say that I’m not continuing to use it in any relevant sense, and that it should be treated as abandoned. Yet if I do continue to use it more substantively — pay for repairs, provide for pest control, or just generally work towards keeping the place livable for current and future tenants — I see no reason to not call this an ongoing use.

Of course in the both the latter variant of his view on absentee landlordism, and his view on absentee ownership of plant and equipment, Tucker never explicitly outlined just how the site rent component would be distinguished from the rest of gross rent. He did suggest that tearing down the enclosures of all vacant and unused land and opening it up to homesteading would, through market competition, drive most of the site-rent component of gross rent down to zero in occupied areas.

So that suggests a thoroughgoing Lockeanism, combined with low thresholds for constructive abandonment, would achieve most of the advantages of occupancy-and-use. And combined with his prediction that eliminating the money monopoly would with it eliminate the interest component of building rent, we can see a scenario roughly analogous to the prediction that absent artificial property rights and monopolies, the increased bargaining power of labor would cause the wage labor relationship to take on a de facto cooperative character where the boss/employer was simply a hired manager for the associated workers. Likewise, the elimination of absentee title to vacant/unused land and monopoly interest would result in total gross rent falling to a value equivalent to the salary of a property manager working on behalf of a tenant cooperative.

Finally, Jason concludes with skepticism about my pluralistic/panarchic model of multiple coexisting local land property systems.

As a practical question, he’s probably right — different communities will have some variation in what constitutes abandonment, and to preserve peace, it’s better for groups that deal in defensive violence to largely respect those. Even so, assuming that there are right or wrong answers to questions like the justice or injustice of rental property, it seems neither likely nor desirable that there will be a patchwork of communities with strong differences on qualitative issues. If I’m wrong, and those who follow Tucker in rejecting rental property are right, then anyone who ever gets evicted by a landlord is having their rights violated. If they’re wrong, and Rothbardians like me are right, then tenants who seize rental properties (assuming those rental properties were justly acquired, and the landlord has been sufficiently contributing to upkeep, etc.) are violating the rights of landlords. Tolerating either means tolerating injustice. Maybe that toleration (whichever it would be) would evolve out of a stateless legal order, and maybe it would be desirable in order to prevent greater injustices stemming out of conflict. But that’s not obvious.

It may not be obvious. But that’s at least the way the evidence points, I think. Because very little is obvious when it comes to practical land rules, in the sense of their being clearly and necessarily derived from obvious first principles. There are obvious limits, but the space within those parameters is huge. The different principled land property systems are not themselves self-evident, but are largely ad hoc ways of applying very general ethical principles based on experience and subjective judgement. So the alternative to coexisting on a basis of agreeing to disagree, where there is no basis for full agreement, is sectarian wars based on certainty.

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