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The Importance of Being Moral

…we should not neglect the moral  arguments.  Undoubtedly, the passion and fervor that have marked the single taxers through the years stems from their moral belief in the injustice of private ownership of land.  Anyone who holds this belief will not be fully satisfied with explanations of the economic error and dangers of the single tax. He will continue to call for battle against what he believes to be a moral injustice.

Well said, and I would have hoped Rothbard would expect nothing less, seeing as he opposed the validity of the state on much the same basis.  What moral arguments does he bring against LVT however…

Morality of Land Ownership

We have still to deal with the critical core of single tax moral theory—that no individual has the right to own value in land. Single taxers agree with libertarians that every individual has the natural right to own himself and the property he creates, and to transmit it to his heirs and assigns. They part company with libertarians in challenging the individual’s right to claim property in original, God-given, land. Since it is God-given, they say, the land should belong to society as a whole, and each individual should have an equal right to its use. They say, therefore, that appropriation of any land by an individual is immoral.

Right, finally some nitty-gritty.  We need to start though with a little caveat.  The principle is that “each individual should have an equal right to [the use of land]” but not because that land belongs to society.  This may seem a little thing, but it gets important later on.

We can accept the premise that land is God-given, but we cannot therefore infer that it is given to society; it is given for the use of individual persons. Talents, health, beauty may all be said to be God-given, but obviously they are properties of individuals, not of society.

I can’t help but feel that Rothbard is just being plain obtuse here.  Talents, health and beauty are God-given in the same way as our very existence is God-given, because they are synonymous.  This argument has no relevance to anything.

Society cannot own anything. There is no entity called society; there are only interacting individuals.

We’ll come back to this in a sec…

Ownership of property means control over use and the reaping of rewards from that use. When the State owns, or virtually owns, property, in no sense is society the owner. The government officials are the true owners, whatever the legal fiction adopted.

Whether the state needs to exist in order for LVT principles to be adopted is a controversial point (Geoanarchists, in particular, believe it does not).  In any case, the way to determine who the true owners are, is to see where the rents go.

With regards to government officials being the owners, it depends of what aspect of ownership is being discussed because there are several benefits of ownership that are actually separable.  One of the big ones is deciding how a plot of land is used.  Another is receiving payment for that use.  There is no fundamental reason why those two must be conflated, as Rothbard assumes.

I’m not sure at what point the single-tax movement included the Citizen’s Income as a possible use of LVT revenue.  I can’t think of any mention by Henry George, for example, and I don’t know if Rothbard was aware.  The CI does, however, close the loop on equal ownership of land.

Any attempt by society to exercise the function of land ownership would mean land nationalization.  Nationalization would not eliminate ownership by individuals; it would simply transfer this ownership from producers to bureaucrats.

Rothbard continues his dualist fixation.  As mentioned it is possible to separate the control of land from the receiving of rents for land.  When this is done under LVT, it is the rents that are nationalised, not the land itself.  That nationalisation indeed does not eliminate ownership by individuals, and the question then is what to do with the money…

Neither can any scheme exist where every individual will have “equal access” to the use of land. How could this possibly happen? How can a man in Timbuktu have as equal access as a New Yorker toBroadway and 42nd Street?

By collecting LVT and distributing CI.  That is how it is done.  Consider 2 people looking over a field, trying to decide which part each will use.  They both like the look of the side by the river, rather than the side by the hill, but only one can use it.

Rothbard would have us believe that the only civilised way of determining who uses the field is for the two to race down to the field and whoever gets there first has the right to use that field, and not just now, but forever.  On a basic level, this ‘Finders Keepers’ approach to the Earth can seem intuitive, but it is a deception.

Georgism says there is a better way. To find it, you have to question the assumption that simply using land gives you the right to nullify everyone else’s right to the same.  This was what Locke understood when he stated his proviso, even if he hadn’t worked out a practical means of its achievement, which practical means LVT/CI is.

The two people, having equal rights to use the land can bargain with this right between themselves.  One will forego his rights to use the contested land in exchange for a rental amount.  As long as each is willing to recognise the other’s rights, an equitable arrangement is possible.  In a small scale situation like this the amounts in question will be tiny, if needed at all, indeed it cannot go any higher than the paying party is willing, pretty much by definition.

When you scale up to large groups of people, the principle still holds, people pay for tenure of land, the proceeds of which are distributed evenly per capita.  When it’s added, this results in those using the desirable locations paying those who are using lesser locations to relinquish their rights of access.  Job done.  There’s nothing in principle from stopping this applying to Timbucktu as well as New York.

The only type of equal access, or equal right to land, that makes any sense is precisely the equal access through private ownership and control on the free market—where every man can buy land at the market price.

For this type of ‘equal access’ to make sense there has to actually be a free market and land markets cannot be free markets.  Free markets require there not be barriers to entry and land markets, by definition, are markets where the very barriers themselves are bought and sold, in a similar manner as markets in carbon emissions.  Competition is limited, both in a universal sense (as total space available is fixed) and in a local sense (different locations vary in value in ways that a landowner does not and cannot control nor replicate).  Indeed, the very purpose of landownership is the restriction of competition.  A free market in competition restriction?  Pull the other one.

Rothbard Takes the Biscuit

A man cannot produce anything without the cooperation of original land, if only as standing room. A man cannot produce anything by his labor alone. He must mix his labor with original land, as standing room and as raw mate-
rials to be transformed into more valuable products.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that was a direct quote from a Georgist.  You would think such an appreciation of the necessity of land would at least give Rothbard pause as to whether an all-out Anarchist approach is wise.  Apparently not…

Therefore, if an individual cannot own original land, neither can he in the same sense own the fruits of his labor. The single taxers cannot have their cake and eat it; they cannot permit a man to own the fruits of his labor while
denying him ownership of the original materials which he uses and transforms. It is either one or the other…Now that his labor has been inextricably mixed with land, he cannot be deprived of one without being deprived of the other.

<Sigh> MORE false dualism.  Let’s go back, yet again, to classical economics.  The factors of production have income streams attributed to them – labour gets wages, captial gets interest, and land gets rent.  Now let’s neglect land for a second and say that an item was produced without it.  Pure labour and capital.  Let’s say that the labourer and the capitalist are two different people and only one item has been created.  Who owns it?  In a philosophical sense you could say they both do, as they both contributed to it’s existence, but let’s say one of them wants it all to himself.  Indeed, they may have had an agreement where one of them accepts payment in advance in exchange for relinquishing ownership rights of the finished product (sound familiar? and in more ways than one!).  Would anyone claim that the one doing the paying does not have rightful claim to the item?  Does anyone think this scenario becomes philosophically problematic if, say, there were two labourers instead of one?  Then why does anyone think it would suddenly become hopelessly muddled once another factor (ie land) gets involved?

The contribution of land to production has an income stream, the rent.  As long as that is paid to the rightful recipient, then there can be no question of ownership of the product.  This whole argument is silly.

It is difficult to see why a newborn Pakistani baby should have a moral claim to ownership of a piece of Iowa land someone has just transformed into a wheat field.

In a practical sense, they may have a claim, but it’s generally not exercised and I’ll come to that in a mo, but the reason I quote this line is to point out some disingenuousness.  You see, while the fact that the child is Pakistani (and implied to be located in Pakistan) is intended as a rhetorical device, it invites some pondering on what Rothbard’s complaint about this rhetorical situation actually is.  Would Rothbard’s indignation be any less kindled against an Afghan child?  A German child? A British child? A Canadian child? A New Yorker? A Texan? An Iowan? How about someone born in that very field?  The short answer to all those questions is no, because while Rothbard makes the appearance of making an argument from remoteness, the location of the child is irrelevant to his position.

The pioneer, the first user of this land, is the man who first brings this simple valueless thing into production and social use. It is difficult to see the morality of depriving him of ownership in favor of people who never got within a thousand miles of the land, and whose only claim to its title is the simple fact of being born—who may not even know of the existence of the property over which they are supposed to have claim.

Why the worship of the pioneer?  For starters, pioneers can be a sign of something seriously wrong in the place they are leaving behind (eg. emigration to the New World – and I couldn’t mention this concept without mentioning the Mormon pioneers 😉 ), but in any case, pioneers receive their reward, and ironically it is time.  Rothbard claims to know a thing or two about time, so I’m surprised he missed this.

Before anyone else makes an appearance, the pioneer has free reign.  While in theory the Pakistani child has a moral equal right to utilise the space, rent doesn’t begin to appear (and thus no tax liability) until there is actual competiton.  Two people who are utilising two different spaces entirely of their own volition would not require an LVT/CI setup.  There is not ground rent, because there is no competition over the land.  So long as all parties have the particular plots that they want, that is the end of the matter.  (There is one complication when discussing the Pakistani child, and that is that when you consider the effects of far-flung peoples on local land rents you need to consider any restrictions placed on said peoples’ ability to join in the competition – ie border controls, working permits, that kind of thing).

Time spent without competition is the pioneer’s reward.  Why the anarchists want to make that time period infinite is beyond me.

 The moral issue will be even clearer if we consider the case of animals.

Oh, if only it were…but then Rothbard’s dualism isn’t capable of conceiving that maybe our relationship to the animal kingdom is simply more nuanced than he would find convient.  I’m not gonna pretend that I have any sharp insight here, but at least I will admit my ignorance (and hypocrisy) in the matter, rather than spout complete drivel.

Rothbard’s final appeal to ’eminent French economists’, is simply a restatement of the aforementioned ‘inextricably linked problem’ (which as also aforementioned, isn’t really a problem).  As it’s the end of the chapter, some of you might be thinking that this exercise had reached its end, but Rothbard has yet more nonsense to impart.  Onwards to chapter 20!!

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