LT Essays #1:

Ownership

ow does one get the right to own something? A pair of shoes? A work of art? A set of tools? A piece of real estate? A patent on an invention? A slave? It was once legal in the United States to own people, but most people agree that slavery was never morally right. What is the moral basis of ownership?

Most people in this culture tend to agree that one has a right to own what one produces with one’s own labor. If I build a house, or make a pair of shoes, or grow a crop, why, then, I own that product. Put this way — in the most basic terms — one is hard pressed to find any disagreement.

Is there any essential difference in this moral relationship when things are produced for exchange, not directly for use? How could there be? I build a house — am I not entitled to sell it to someone else? If I sell my pair of shoes, or my crop, am I not entitled to what I receive in fair exchange for those goods? So we see in these simple examples that, considered economically or morally, exchange is part of the production process. Exchanging the product of one’s labor for something is essentially the same as producing that thing.

Perhaps, in fact, I can obtain the best return by relinquishing the things I produce and merely selling my labor to an employer. Are not my wages still my very own to spend as I will? And the things I buy with those wages — are they not the product of my labor, as much as if I had made them myself?

If, however, I buy, with my wages, something that has been stolen — a TV set, say — is that TV set rightfully mine? No! It belongs to the person who produced it, or who received it in a fair exchange — not to a thief!

But suppose I exchange my wages for a piece of land. The person from whom I buy the land has legal title to it and the sale is carried out without fraud or mistake. So, is that piece of land mine — morally? Clearly it is not — no more than a slave I may have legally bought. What is the origin of the legal title that I have purchased? No doubt, the last owner purchased it from someone else, who, perhaps, inherited it from an ancestor who received a grant of land from a Sovereign who... originally... claimed it. Or conquered it. But certainy did not produce it!

It is not possible for human beings to produce land. We can improve land, we can build things on land, and we can take entrepreneurial risks in putting it on the market or not — but the natural opportunities are not created by us. The title to a piece of land never came from production. It came from the legally-granted privilege to hold the natural opportunities that are needed for all production — needed, in fact, for all life — and charge a fee for access.

If we agree that the moral basis of ownership is the product of one’s labor, then the private ownership of land — the collection of rent for one’s title to the land itself — is immoral, every bit as immoral as slavery — in fact it is simply slavery in another form.

Modern-day (neoclassical) economics glosses over or ignores this fundamental distinction. Because it has so little to say about the moral basis of ownership, it tends to hide behind a screen of being “value-free”, refusing to make any moral judgements whatever and claming that such things are outside the purportedly scientific realm of economic studies. Inescapably, however, this refusal to “take sides” on the question of ownership is, in itself, a moral judgement. Natural laws cannot be broken, only disregarded — and the consequences of that disregard are brutally clear, all around us.

For Henry George — and in the economic laws of the Old Testament — the moral basis of ownership is clear: we have the absolute right to own what we produce, and no right at all to claim title to the gifts of nature.

However, we may want to go into the question more deeply. What is the moral basis of this seemingly inviolate right to keep what we produce? In fact, only people like Georgists and Libertarians hold this right to be inviolate; modern societies compromise it quite a lot. US citizens work until mid-April, on the average, to pay their tax burdens. Most people accept, if grudgingly, the responsibility for paying public expenses out of the wealth that individuals have created. (What they forget is that the real beneficiaries of those public services, the landowners, end up paying little or nothing for them!)

The only alternative commonly presented is the famous dictum of Marx, “From each according to ability to each according to need.” Here, the community collects all surplus and individuals have their needs met, even if their own production is insufficient to meet them.

Westerners should think for a moment before they recoil in horror at this notion. Compelled by a seemingly intractable boom-and-bust business cycle, as well as massive concentrations of wealth and deep poverty, modern democracies have already gone quite a ways in the direction of socialism.

They have done so for pragmatic reasons. Modern “welfare state” policies were enacted in response to labor unrest that threatened to become explosive under the stresses of the Great Depression. And while they did seem to smooth out the worst savagery of the boom/bust cycle, they did nothing to repair the underlying maladjustments that caused them. And now such policies, after two decades of right-wing pressure, seem to be in full retreat.

And what rhetoric have conservatives used to win support for the dismantling of the welfare state? The resentment of one’s wealth being taxed away stems from that old, basic awareness of the right to the fruits of one’s labor. It just seems right.

Part of the reason it seems so right is that work itself can have a spiritual value. To economists, work is merely toil, exertion, something to be avoided. But our work is an extension of ourselves, in ways that are personal and complex. Almost any job has some level of natural enjoyment — work for its own sake. In strictly economic terms work that provides us with joy, work that we would do even if we weren’t paid for it, isn’t work at all. But we all need to make a living. The level of toil or natural enjoyment is a large factor in how various jobs are compensated. Many people choose jobs that they enjoy doing, even though they could earn higher wages doing something they found more toilsome. And, workers in unpleasant, boring or dangerous jobs are often able to demand top dollar for their labor. (This becomes less true, naturally, as unemployment rises!) Practically everyone who works for a living feels some sense, at some time, of satisfaction in being a competent and creative producer. There can be elements of creativity in even the most mundane jobs, and the damage that prolonged unemployment does to self-esteem can be great.

It seems to me that the “fundamental right” to own what we produce with our own labor is based on this identification with one’s work, this value that we feel in accomplishing, contributing or providing. But: that satisfaction can quickly erode, if we feel that we’re being taken advantage of, and our accomplishments or contributions are not being fairly compensated!

Much of the satisfaction that workers might have in their work is obviated by the competition for scarce jobs which pushes wages down. Spiritual satisfaction in one’s work is a motivator, but it is hard to sustain, to say the least, when we watch others get rich without working.

“Rich” and “poor” are relative things. Justice does not require that every worker be paid a lot; justice requires that workers not be compelled to toil endlessly for mere survival while their fellows, who do no work at all, live in luxury. More to the point: justice requires people who are willing and able to work not be denied the opportunity when useful resources are being held idle by their “owners”.

Ultimately, society has four possible choices regarding property rights:

1) complete private ownership of everything; 2) community owns all means of production and all surplus; wealth is doled out on the basis of need; 3) some mixture of the above; 4) community owns the natural opportunities and monopolies; individuals own the wealth they have created.

In pragmatic terms: #’s 1 and 2 are exceedingly radical, and #4 has not been tried. But, if we really believe in the right to own the products of one’s own labor, then #4 is the only justifiable choice. Society has been running from an all-important question. As the globe gets smaller, the day gets nearer when we will be forced to turn and face it.

— Lindy Davies