Geo-mutualism Represents a Middle Ground
William Schnack’s Reply to Jason Byas on Economic Rent
Jason Byas asks Fred Foldvary which territory is due the rent. “Do I owe rent to the territory roughly corresponding with Decatur, Georgia? Or is it something more like the size of DeKalb County? Or is it to something the size of Georgia?”
While there are some more objective aspects of land, such as those having to do with one’s bioregion, Jason is mistaken in tying the rent of the land to these objective phenomena alone, without recognizing the role that subjective human consciousness plays when it interacts with these objects. Supply and demand for the land shifts its value. Until metallurgy was developed, today’s precious metals were just another kind of dirt. Stone age people saw no value in bronze or iron ore. When a use was found for these metals, minable land gained in utility. By allowing for open bids on land, once one’s lease is up, its value is established by supply and demand. The rental value is simply the difference between desirable and tolerable land, and this is not necessarily entirely intrinsic to the land itself. Even Hotelling’s Law, which explains why competing stores set up side by side or across from one another, applies to the rent. The half-way point of an organically-developed market will have higher rent, and not due to the value of the independent shops or their owners’ efforts, but of their conglomeration, which is accidental, and not earned. It is likely that rent will be collected on many scales, from the individual on up to the bioregion and possibly even the world, in a nested network: The bioregion distributes the rent of the bioregion, the community the rent of the community, etc., as boundaries and supply and demand dictate.
Jason Byas brings Foldvary’s anarchism into question, suggesting that since he cannot take the government’s interests as his own, he likewise cannot find his interests congruent with any organization that collects rent.
Jason clearly comes from an anarcho-capitalist, individualist, strain of anarchism, which is not necessarily well-versed in the social strands of anarchism that see anarchism as synonymous with participatory decision-making processes, rather than simply voluntary association. Classically, anarchism has supported the association of workers into associations capable of overthrowing the state. Indeed, Nestor Mahkno’s Black Army was such an association, as was the National Confederation of Labor that overthrew the Spanish government. An anarchist society is characterized by free contract, and social anarchists understand that in order to overthrow the state, the forces of the working class must be concerted, and this requires large, but voluntary, associations under contracts that outline shared decision-making.
These associations, once established, can maintain control of their possessions, just as any firm can, and just as voluntarily. The only difference is that the efforts of the workers are not privatized, but shared cooperatively (not necessarily equally). A cooperative federation owning property should not be rejected under principles of voluntary association or property, any more than a capitalist holding property. The matter simply becomes one of which form of association has more demand: The top-down unilateral command structure, with remnants of feudalism found in capitalism; or bottom-up multilateral processes, emergent democracy, found in social anarchism? Do you like agreeing to contracts that say, “From here on out, I make the rest of the major decisions for you,” or those that say “You will be consulted regarding any major future decisions”? I dare say, unless one is a minion, they’d prefer the latter.
Voluntary cooperation is necessary for the overthrow of the state. The state is organized, and the workers too must be organized. Such organization requires the formation of associations that are capable of overpowering the state, and afterwards distributing property according to pre-agreed upon standards. That is, if the association is established for the purpose of expropriating state property (and under state property, I include all property of landlords, bosses, etc., as it could not exist without the state), it must then have a plan — agreeable to as many constitute a critical mass, at minimum — for how that property will then be distributed. Neo-Lockeanism is not agreeable to many, and for good reason. The same is true of communism’s to treatment of capital. Geo-mutualism provides a middle ground which some can be ecstatic about, while others from both sides of the spectrum can tolerate its balance more than the other extreme. Capitalists would at least enjoy the privacy of their lease, if not sharing their rent; communists would at least enjoy the sharing of rent, if not personal exclusion.
Jason then asks why rules are applied differently to land than to one’s person or goods. He admits that they are a little different, but suggests Fred owes reasoning as to why the geoist logic of rent is not applied also to natural abilities.
I’m not a strict natural rights advocate, as I believe that rights are emergent affairs, which proceed from the balancing of forces. In other words, rights are the result of egos which have settled on terms for their own best interest. The rights exist because they are efficient for individuals and their dependents. It is not efficient for a strong person to supply the weak by their own efforts, but it is efficient for the strong to buy the weak off with their rent (which is not an effort), so that their efforts may be respected by the weak, who otherwise covet their earnings, and see no benefit in respecting their own exclusion from them.
Further, a land lease is a place for storage of items. It is a perimeter, a boundary, agreed to by the community. Once the perimeter is secured, what goes on within it is a matter of those associated with it. It’s also important to recognize that once rent is collected from the land, goods produced from the land carry no rent, and so, as long as there is no interest or profit, which is another topic — the goods represent the actual efforts, and not the land-holding privilege, of the participants, and so they exist at no cost to anyone else. Natural endowments are not a cost to others, while rent is, because rent leaves less for others, while endowments create more.
Even according to most interpretations of the non-aggression principle, a person’s body is more valuable than their other property, as it is irreplaceable. As the principle suggests that one cannot increase or escalate the use of force beyond the level of the threat one is facing, we can suggest that it is rarely acceptable to kill an individual for the act or threat of property destruction, except in the case that this would result in more deaths, as by blowing up a dam by a city, or burning subsistence crops. This being so, the most conflict that can occur according to a thorough application of the principle, is a constant transferal of possession in regards to disputed property. Say a capitalist owns plenty of land for their family, and more which they use to grow food to trade for leisurely activities. Say that a communist comes along, and squats on some of the land furthest from the house, which is not necessary for subsistence. In the morning, the capitalist, facing no threat of physical conflict, has no protected action under the non-aggression principle to physically remove the individual, but only to take something of equivalent value from them, which is not currently occupied. At this level, a consistent application of the NAP does little to nothing to protect the interests of the landlord. However, geo-mutualism provides an incentive for possession to be respected by both parties. So long as the communist has other land to go to, they can be paid to go elsewhere.
Jason disagrees with me because I do not apply the same logic of rent to other disputed objects, such as our bodies. However, I actually do apply this logic — which is simply reciprocity of rights, or equality of liberty — in various other manners. In regards to rights themselves, I believe them to be a contractual obligation, a benefit which comes with duties. As one’s rights depend on the mutual enforcement by one’s fellows — a benefit — one likewise owes those ready and willing to defend one’s rights the same effort. When it comes to goods and services, the right to control one’s own goods and direct one’s own service is itself an exchange. It is a matter which costs society nothing — unlike relinquishing the rent of the land — while society as a whole gains from the stability and security of personal possession. It gains in respecting these rights, but loses in respecting the right to privatize rent.
It’s important to understand that rent is not necessary to induce production. Economic wages are the only return needed to incentivize work (including innovation). Society can claim rent without touching the wages. If the wages are taken, it halts production. This is what happens with communism, which would socialize wages as well as rent. Capitalism suffers the opposite vice, privatizing rent as well as wages. Geo-mutualism would socialize rent and privatize wages.
Jason suggests that competing institutions can provide the services relating to law and order just as well as any single institution. Here I am not necessarily in disagreement, except that I have a strong reason to prefer, nurture, and expect the success of participatory institutions over private landlords. The scale itself will be a matter of organic relations that I have no control over. If it is necessary to settle disputes on a world scale, which I find likely at rare times, then an association of some sort is needed to facilitate the smaller parts. If this is not necessary, even better, and we are in agreement here. My concern is what is to be done when these conflicts arise on the scale they will, whatever that scale will be, and less about assuming the scale (though I do think the existence of nation-states shows that force is naturally monopolized, and so the issue becomes a matter again of how that monopoly is managed). Whether it is between three people or fifty-thousand, I prefer participatory decision-making. The scale of necessary institutions or their alliances is a matter of circumstances, which have not yet been established (but which can be anticipated to some extent by looking at the way nations have naturally — that is, their scale is a part of nature, like it or not — been established).
Jason says, “If [Schnack] believes that the institution taken to represent the community should have the ability to prevent competitors, then his ideal society is one which I’d certainly find something still worth revolting against.”
What does Jason mean by preventing competitors? Certainly, his concept of neo-Lockean property would prevent competitors, and not even under voluntary contract. Competition for property is probably shot, under the premise that he was there first; that is, unless he is consistent in his application of the non-aggression principle, and understands that this would be an escalation of force, as any physical apprehension of the individual would be (so long as the individual’s “trespass” was not causing physical harm). If this is the case, he must admit some incentive is needed — be it a fence or compensation — to prevent the problem, in which case I argue that compensation from unearned rent is less expensive than the consistent replacement of unrespected fencing, and also a better incentive. My argument addresses the monopolization of land and rent, which neo-Lockeanism seeks to preserve.
 You can take issue with my use of the term “earned,” but I use the word to mean that a gain was due to an intentionally undergone cost. Setting up shop next to another person is not an extra cost, but a free benefit.
 Natural monopolies require mutual ownership between consumers and producers, with the producers sharing the economic interest with the consumers by way of dividends.
 Some capitalists may argue, perhaps, that an individual’s life-value is determined by their income, and so it is possible for an individual’s life to be worth less than another individual’s property. I do not reject this view on principle, but I do not think this describes a naturally-existing, non-state induced economic scenario. I believe such economic inequality depends on the enforceability of state dictate.