Thursday, 21 June 2007

Land

by Charles Pooter

Free societies depend on private property. Systems of private property, be they decided by custom, common law or statutes, allow individuals to decide who can make use of scarce resources without recourse to violence. Political theories that do not acknowledge the necessity of private property, if implemented, will cause misery and bloodshed. When states attempt to undermine the institution of private property, everyone suffers.

That said, it does not follow that the system of private property currently implemented is the most moral or economically rational.

Over at Devil's Kitchen, the Devil has been laying into the Milibot over his plans to extend the "right to roam" to all of Britain's coastline. Now I am sure the Milibot is just playing at cynical interest group politics here: throwing a bone to the ramblers at the expense of a few landowners. But even so, the proposal doesn't get me worked-up like it does the Devil. Here are a couple of my comments to his post. I apologise for their quality as they were rushed off pretty quickly, but I didn't want them to just languish in the ghetto of a comments page:

(in response to another comment):

“Who mentioned revolutions? And we all remember the anarchist paradise of Soviet Russia (what are you on?). We must build the new society (peacefully) within the shell of the old.

Property is theft and property is freedom. A free society requires the right to justly acquired private property. How do you justly acquire land? In my opinion, you "homestead" it: that is, you mix your labour with the land. Not only that, but you must continue to exploit some aspect of that land to retain a right to that land. Not only that, but exploiting one aspect of land does not prevent someone else from exploiting another (for example someone who hunts on a bit of land should not automatically be able to exclude someone from mining below it).

I can see that if you grow some apples, you should own those apples. I can see that if you earn cash and buy a computer you should own that computer. I don't see, morally or economically, why putting a fence around a field entitles you to exclusive ownership in perpetuity backed up by the force of the state. Why should it allow you to exclude anyone else from that field, pass it on to your descendants and charge money to anyone who wants to, for example, build a house in that field?

It's worse than that though, because in Britain titles were granted on land that was already in use. Most of it was stolen from common community use in a process known as enclosure.

Also, economically, it is completely unjust that, whilst land is concentrated in the hands of the few, we all pay through taxes on our income the cost of enforcing these totally unjust exclusive land titles.

We all want a home to call our own and many may want a few acres to cultivate or space for running industrial enterprises. In a capitalist liberal society with a state: squatting, trespass and forceful invasion are prevented by the police, courts and prisons. If I own a one bedroom flat in Clapham and Alan Sugar owns half of North London, are we getting the same value from the state? Is it not true that I am paying for the police to protect Alan's "investments"? Isn't this a massive subsidy to large land owners? Isn't the cost of protection a cost that the landlord has externalised (to use economic jargon)?

Land is not like other property: it is finite and it requires no labour to take "ownership" of it. Therefore it is governed by different moral and economic rules.”
Remittance Man responded:
“So according to Charlie I must apply labour and "exploit" land to call it my own.

Okay, then I shall mow the lawn, prune the shrubs and dead head the roses. That should meet the definition of applying labour.

And as for "exploitation" I take this to mean deriving some benefit. Well my benefit is the enjoyment I get by sitting undisturbed upon my freshly mowed lawn beneath a newly pruned tree while supping a long glass of Pimms. A benefit that would be ruined by hordes of unsightly, dayglo-clad "ramblers" wandering past or even setting up camp to brew tea.

So who is now in the wrong, Charlie?”
To which I replied:
“You don't get it. No one is suggesting your garden should be a free-for-all. You're making use of of it and I certainly would not want to be part of a community that didn't recognise the right of an individual or family to be secure in the freehold that they occupy. Even without a state, I would hope that the community would help enforce your claim against any aggressor. The common security of their own freeholds depends on such enforcement being fair and consistent.

But the moral claim of the Duke of Devonshire and his descendants (to take an example at random) to have exclusive right of access and enjoyment to half of Derbyshire just because one of his ancestors killed a Frenchman or bribed the King is very suspect. The granting of the original title was invalid because the land was probably enclosed commons land already in use and (even if we forgive historic injustice) the continued existence of the title is invalid because one individual (or family) cannot possibly exploit all aspects of such a large area of land.

Can you not see that there is a qualitative and well as quantitative difference between the moral and economic claim of an owner-occupier of a small freehold and the claim of an absentee landlord who has state-granted title to vast swathes of land?”

6 comments:

Devil's Kitchen said...

Charles,

I appreciate your comments; I would point out a couple of things though.

Ownership rights have developed a lot over the time since enclosures. I don't think that you can justify stealing now, simply because someone stole something 700 years ago. Apart from anything else, at the time that you are talking about, all land belonged to the Crown and ownership of that land was in the gift of the monarch.

Second, common land is not actually necessarily a good system. I take it that you have heard of the Tragedy of the Commons? If you want an example of it working today, simply look at the Common Fisheries Policy, which has so damaged fish stocks.

DK

Charles Pooter said...

I'm not just commenting on the original illegitimacy of the enclosures/theft of common land (btw I'm sure you're not defending the divine right doctrine there!), although I do think this is an important historical fact.

I'm also saying that the ongoing titles, with absolute exclusion of all others, to unoccupied and unexploited land, is morally illegitimate and economically irrational. When it comes to to land rights, sensible customary law would respect the usage rights of those who exploit different aspects of that land. For example, an individual who exploits a large area of previously unused land for hunting would not necessarily have the right to exclude a mining co-operative from extracting ore from the area. Obviously occupancy of land (e.g. a family home on a freehold) would be exclusionary in the vast majority of cases because secure occupancy precludes most other forms of exploitation.

I'm also absolutely not saying that all land should be commons if your understanding of "commons" is a free-for-all with no legal guide to who gets to exploit different aspects of the land.

Ownership through continued occupancy or rights through usage is the essence of my proposal.

This land theory is part of what some call "mutualism". For more along these lines, see Kevin Carson's excellent Mutualist Blog (Tag line: Free Market Anti-Capitalism), especially his "Vulgar Libertarianism" posts, which are linked on his side-bar.

Devil's Kitchen said...

I'm not just commenting on the original illegitimacy of the enclosures/theft of common land...

But you are, because part of your problem was the way in which the land was acquired in the first place. This is why you used the example of one of the landed peers, I assume.

I'm also saying that the ongoing titles, with absolute exclusion of all others, to unoccupied and unexploited land, is morally illegitimate and economically irrational.

Says whom? Who says that the Duke is not using his land? You? The state? You are in murky waters here. Property rights are property rights: you cannot decide that they apply in some cases and not in others.

If this is something that concerns you, may I suggest some form of land tax (a number have been proposed, not least by Henry George)? In this way, the Duke can decide to pay the tax, or sell/develop his land without the interference of a morally questionable state.

DK

Charles Pooter said...

OK, forget the historical injustice if you must.

Lets just imagine Derbyshire was a wilderness (yes, yes, I know, very funny) and John Smith puts a fence with "no trespassers" signs around it. He then retires to his house in London and collects rent from anyone who encroaches on his territory. The state, at our expense, enforces this claim. Is that economically sound? Isn't he externalising his sentry and enforcement costs? Isn't there also a huge "opportunity cost" (to use more economics jargon) equal to the potential production that could have been conducted on the land?

And, if you think Georgist land taxes are a good idea, then to be honest you have conceded the argument. You are acknowledging that land is different. As a libertarian I am ultimately anti-tax and anti-state. But yes, within the current liberal capitalist setup, a land tax is the least worst option and a reasonable way of achieving land reform. That is just an argument about tactics rather than principle.

I did find it strange that in one post you were slagging off Miliband for wanting land reform and then two posts later you were quoting Henry George!

Devil's Kitchen said...

And, if you think Georgist land taxes are a good idea...

As I recall, Georgist taxes were not taxes on the value of the land itself, but of the services delivered to that land. But Worstall is the man to discuss this stuff with.

"The state, at our expense, enforces this claim. Is that economically sound? Isn't he externalising his sentry and enforcement costs?"

You are employing a classic socialist-style us-and-them dichotomy here. What you are saying is that some people's possessions should be protected by the state agencies that we have appointed, but others should not. Why is that fair?

If John Average-Cityboy goes away for the weekend, is he not externalising his protection costs?

Why is John Smith not entitled to have his property protected by the same agency that John Average-Cityboy is? John Smith is almost certainly contributing as much tax as John Average-Cityboy; probably more. Why shouldn't his property be protected by the police?

Now, if you are talking about privatising law enforcement, then that is another argument altogether...

DK

Charles Pooter said...

As I recall, Georgist taxes were not taxes on the value of the land itself, but of the services delivered to that land.

You recall wrong, they are a tax on the value of the land. They specifically don't tax improvement or development.

You are employing a classic socialist-style us-and-them dichotomy here. What you are saying is that some people's possessions should be protected by the state agencies that we have appointed, but others should not. Why is that fair?

Nope, what I am saying is (to quote what Ive just posted on your blog comments): "The assumption would be that someone can start using a piece of land for any purpose. It would be up to another party to show that this infringes on their prior usage. You, no doubt, would claim that this would be a litigious nightmare, but I will disagree in advance. Common case law would make most examples pretty clear-cut. For example, nobody would bother to try to claim it was OK to burrow under you garden, which, by the way, CAN happen now with compulsary purchase/emminent domain."

These rules should be applied equally and to all within a community (yes even to the ex rent-seekers like John Smith ;).

Now, if you are talking about privatising law enforcement, then that is another argument altogether

Depends what you mean by "privatising" it. If you mean selling off something we've already invested in with our stolen taxes (like the privatisations if the 80s) then get lost. If you mean getting the state out of protection business, then bring it on. Of course, in a stateless society, with plenty of land to exploit, no state-granted limited liability and no massive hidden subsidies to large-scale organisations, I can't see anyone becoming a wage slave for your "Protection PLC" when they can just band together to protect their common interests.