The land question

Lately I’ve been reading Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection. The novel, Tolstoy’s last, is about a dissolute Russina nobleman named Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff who undergoes a kind of spiritual reawakening when he encounters a woman he had wronged in his youth. She’s a defendant in a criminal trial in which he is sitting as a juror, and Nekhludoff seeks to make amends by trying to overturn her unjust conviction.

Though living the life of a decadent aristocrat, as a young man Nekhludoff had been a devotee of certain radical political ideas. He had been convinced by reading Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics that the private ownership of land was unjust and went so far as to give away a small part of his inheritance to the peasants who worked the land in a fit of idealism:

It was pleasant to feel that he had power over so large a property, and yet disagreeable, because Nekhludoff had been an enthusiastic admirer of Henry George and Herbert Spencer. Being himself heir to a large property, he was especially struck by the position taken up by Spencer in Social Statics, that justice forbids private landholding, and with the straightforward resoluteness of his age, had not merely spoken to prove that land could not be looked upon as private property, and written essays on that subject at the university, but had acted up to his convictions, and, considering it wrong to hold landed property, had given the small piece of land he had inherited from his father to the peasants. Inheriting his mother’s large estates, and thus becoming a landed proprietor, he had to choose one of two things: either to give up his property, as he had given up his father’s land ten years before, or silently to confess that all his former ideas were mistaken and false. (Book I, Chapter 3)

The argument of land reform proponents like Spencer and Henry George was that land was a finite resource and that it essentially belonged to humankind collectively. As such it was unjust for anyone to claim exclusive rights over something which they hadn’t produced from their own labor. George proposed a land tax which would enable the community to recoup the value of the land (as distinct from the improvements that might’ve been made on the land) that was being exclusively held by a private individual. This would be accompanied by an abolition of taxes on labor and “the fruits of labor.”

These ideas seem to share some common features with the notion of “the universal destination of goods” in the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church:

2402 In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.

2403 The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. (from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

This seems to imply that, however pragmatically useful the private ownership of land (and other natural resources) may be, it’s subject to limitations and easements in the interest of the common good. Modern day adherents of George’s ideas also tend to oppose what they regard as unjust state-supported monopoly privileges such as patents and copyrights.

All this is opposed to the pure “Lockean” theory of property rights in land (embraced by most libertarians and conservatives) which says that simply “mixing one’s labor” with a piece of land is sufficient to secure exclusive property rights to it. (Though Locke’s famous “proviso” about leaving “enough and as good” for others would seem to entail some limits to unrestricted acquisition of land.)

2 thoughts on “The land question

  1. Kevin Carson

    Nice post.

    Roderick Long distinguishes between “Proviso” and “Non-proviso” Lockeans, with the former being closer in spirit to land radicals like Henry George and J.K. Ingalls.

    Myself, I’m more partial to the occupancy-and-use standard of Ingalls and Tucker. But despite Tucker’s Stirnerite perversions of the doctrine, it has a lot in common with the Georgists. Most individualist anarchists would probably agree with the Georgists that land is a common patrimony, in the limited sense that we all have an equal and several right of access. For Tuckerites, though, this right is much more residual, extending only to a refusal to recognize exclusionary land claims by someone not actually using the land himself. For Georgists, the common right is more active, with the community as enforcing agent for the several rights of equal access.

    But even though I don’t buy into the main Georgist idea as an end state, it has a lot of validity as a transitional measure. Even non-Georgist free marketers have tended to view a tax on land rent as the least market-distorting form of taxation.

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