Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Right to Land, The Right to Exist

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Land, Labor and Capital. Freedom. The relationship between the three main factors of production and the ideal of property determine what kind of society we live in. One institution produces a condition of slavery; another allows freedom. Each of these factors are different from the others; none is a "subcategory" of the other. As such, the rules of property are, and rightly ought to be, different with regard to these things.

I think any civilized person can agree that there is a proper limitation to the degree to which "labor" may be considered property. To say that a free man "owns" his labor is just another way of saying that a free man may choose what to do with his time and his abilities. "Labor" just happens to be a subset of those choices that is relevant from an exclusively economic standpoint. To say that a man has no right to purchase another man's claim to his own labor is only to say that a man may not sell himself into slavery. Two people can come to an agreement that one will labor on another's behalf in exchange for something the other can provide, but this condition is by necessity limited, whether that limitation be the six year limitation to the period during which an Israelite under the Law of Moses may hold another Israelite in a condition of slavery, or our own society's notion of "at-will" employment, wherein either party to the transaction may cease unilaterally at any time, for any reason.

Labor is a choice, not a "commodity." A free man is free to keep the fruits of his choices or dispose of them as he sees fit. A free man is also required to suffer the consequences of bad choices. For the most part, this is how our society treats labor, at least outside the tax code. People are not "owned" as objects are.

Capital is nothing more that the fruits of earlier labor which are applied to the efforts of future labor. As such, it (initially) belongs to the laborer that created it as surely as anything else. Any transfer of ownership in capital goods should be regarded as final as any transfer in ownership of any inanimate objects. Capital is a subset of material goods in general, distinct from consumer goods only in the use to which they are put. The very same object can be considered capital in one use, and a consumer good in another use.

For example, a drill press in a machine shop is a capital good. A drill press in some dude's garage for his personal use is a consumer good. Bread on the shelf at the store, waiting to be sold, is a capital good. Bread in the pantry, awaiting consumption, is a consumer good. A truck that is used to haul equipment from site to site is a capital good. A truck of the very same model used to haul camping gear into the mountains for a family camping trip, or for mud bogging, or for a trip to Disneyland, or the grocery store, is a consumer good.

It should be apparent that making the distinction between a capital good and a consumer good is an arbitrary process, a matter of subjective perception and not objective fact. Thus, capital goods are (outside the tax code) and ought to be be considered "property" in the same sense as consumer goods. And I think we can all agree that freedom requires ownership in consumer goods; thus, it also requires ownership in capital goods. Unlike a human being, inanimate objects are not "free" in a free society... though the individual is free to produce, purchase, sell, and/or own any kind of object.

Then there is land, the economic category being more properly expressed as "a legal claim to a monopoly over the use of a particular area of physical space." The relationship between the individual, physical space, and the law is of tantamount importance to the issue of individual freedom. Consider the ways in which one may be considered "unfree". One such condition is slavery, in which one person is legally owned by another, and thus required to obey his commands. But another unfree person is the prisoner, whose chief duty is to remain in a particular place, and not to go anywhere else unless he gets permission from someone else.

I will give a ridiculous example. Suppose you are a small landowner, the only such person in a region owned mostly by a large landowner. There are no roads leading from your plot of land to a place outside it. Assuming land ownership is considered absolute (and it is so to an increasing degree in our society), to legally travel from your island to another place you must acquire permission from the big landowner to travel across his land. He may legally demand whatever he wishes in exchange for this permission, or refuse outright.

I doubt there are any but "free market fundamentalists" (by which I mean people who have an unthinking devotion to the status-quo minus government) who would believe a society in such a state to be a free society. Increasing the number of owners can reduce the price of access to land by putting owners in a position where they can be underbid by other owners; however a society in which all land is owned by individuals is still a society in which many, if not all, human activities... even existence itself... occurs only with the permission of one's "betters."

For what is the fate of the landless in such a society? Suppose all the land is owned by someone, and nobody agrees to allow a particular individual access to their land. What is their option, to float through the air, or leap into the sea? We all occupy physical space, and a right to exist necessarily implies a right to occupy physical space.

And this isn't some nebulous threat that doesn't exist in reality. There have been many, many societies in which a few have owned most of the land, while a significant plurality, if not a majority, of the population lived under conditions that closely match that of slavery, even if they were technically not "owned" individually by the great landowners.

The question I want to ask is, where does the right to individual ownership of land come from? Because I can tell you where the fact of individual ownership comes from: conquest. Every land deed in existence today was purchased from someone who purchased it from someone who purchased it from someone, along a chain of buying and selling, until you reach the first person who received title from the government of the State... whether that person was a feudal lord who received his grant from his king in exchange for service, or a speculator who received it from a congress in exchange for money. That person or entity got the "right" to dispense of the land as they saw fit through conquest: the violent subjugation, or even expulsion, of the previous inhabitants.

If the police found your property in the hands of a person who purchased it from a fence, you would want it returned to you, correct? And if people are not pursuing claims to goods stolen generations ago, it is only because, ultimately, capital and consumer goods can be replaced; the reward is not worth the effort.

But land cannot be replaced. Land cannot be produced; land cannot be destroyed. It's utility for certain purposes can be improved through effort, and its utility for certain purposes can be reduced through negligence or destructive action, but physical space does not increase. A population alienated from the land can only migrate to progressively less valuable lands until all the lands are taken... and then they must secure permission from others even to exist.

The right to live requires access to land. Freedom of movement and travel require access to land.

This is not to say that individual monopolies over the use of land are unjust. There are many modes of production which require this to a certain degree. Farming conflicts with herding (lest the animals eat the crops before they can be harvested). Foundries and grocery stores really don't mix.

No comments: