Humans Have a Moral Claim on Land and its Resources
… and This Necessitates the Rental of Both
Jason asks the important question of who is the relevant community to whom rent would be paid in a geoist (Georgist) system. Land rent comes from three basic sources: Natural features, commerce, and civic works. Regarding the rent due to nature, the geoist premise is that human equality implies that human beings have an equal moral right to the benefits of natural resources. That benefit is measured as market land rent. Thus, ideally, the rent due to nature should be distributed to persons in equal shares. Jason asks how we could handle another humanoid species on another planet.
The best answer I can think of is that humanoid (or equivalent) persons have an equal natural right to the benefits of their indigenous territory. This is a concept that Georgists have not fully addressed. Since much of the earth has been conquered, few areas have a purely indigenous population, and so equality implies that all persons of conquered territories have equal rights to the natural benefits of all those territories. For example, while the Amazon Indians should have full rights to the lands they have occupied, immigrants and heirs of conquerors have created a global community of persons who should equally share the natural benefits of conquered land, which is most of the planet.
As to the rent that originates in commerce and its associated population, ideally the territory would be organized in neighborhood contractual communities, such as homeowner associations, condominiums, cooperatives, land trusts, and proprietary communities. These organizations would join a higher-level (or broader-level) association. Given that the members agreed with the geoist concept of equal benefits from land, their governing process would set the details of the borders and amounts of rent that would be collected and distributed to the various levels of governance, in accord with the general principle that the communities that generate that rent would keep it.
Finally, there is a rental generated by public works and civic services. That rental is not pure land rent but a return on the works that are tied to the territory. The rental would be paid to the contractual providers of the services, whether it be the governing association or an outside private firm. For example, a residential association could provide a local bus service, paid for from the association’s assessments, or a private firm could provide it for fees from both the association and the users.
Jason disagrees with forcibly collecting rent from tenants or title holders. By geoist ethics, the rent properly belongs to the people in equal shares. If a tenant refuses to pay that rent, force is justified because the rent is not his property. Think of a house fully owned by the title holder who rents the land from a landlord. The owner dies, and the heir now owns the house, but inherits the leasehold. He can be forced to either pay rent or transfer the leasehold to someone else, because his right of land possession was conditional on paying the leasehold rent.
The “natural opportunities” geoists speak of are those of natural resources, which are prior to and apart from human beings and human action. Since, in geoist ethics, human beings are morally self-owners, the aspects of personhood that come from nature, such as one’s genes, belong to oneself. Thus the equal benefits are only of non-human natural resources, and not from products of human action.
The fact that paying rent puts land to its most productive use is a benefit of geoism, but it is not a justification of collecting the rent. After all, a doctor who chooses to work only part-time would be pushed to work full time if his leisure time were taxed, but geoism rejects that.
Jason asks for “an argument that justifies drawing a hard moral distinction between property in land and property in other things.” The premise is human equality, by which each person is equally a self-owner, and therefore owns his labor, wage, and products. But self-ownership does not apply to what the self did not create — land. Thus equality implies an equal ownership of the benefits of land, which is measured by rent.
The moral alternative is the homesteading principle. Geoists should give homesteading some respect; the problem is that homesteading is used to justify the status quo and eternal property rights that derive from conquest. Outside of native Indian lands, the current title holders of land in California should not be able to claim all rights to the lands they hold just because the natives were all murdered long ago. Human equality thus justifies an equal sharing of the rent by all who occupy conquered lands, with the rent due to nature shared globally and the rent due to local conditions shared locally. Since politics now prevents the global ideal, the next best option is for the natural rent to be shared as widely as feasibly within existing institutions.