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Nic Tideman: Peace, Justice and Economic Reform
These components of the classical liberal conception of justice are held by two groups that hold conflicting views on a companion issue of great importance: how are claims of exclusive access to natural opportunities to be established?
John Locke qualified his statement that we own what we produce with his famous "proviso" that there be "as much and as good left in common for others." A few pages later, writing in the last decade of the seventeenth century, he said that private appropriations of land are actually not restricted, because anyone who is dissatisfied with the land available to him in Europe can always go to America, where there is plenty of unclaimed land. Locke does not address the issue of rights to land when land is scarce.
One tradition in classical liberalism concerning claims to land is that of the "homesteading libertarians," as exemplified by Murray Rothbard, who say that there is really no need to be concerned with Locke's proviso. Natural opportunities belong to whoever first appropriates them, regardless of whether opportunities of equal value are available to others.
The other tradition is that of the "geoists," as inspired if not exemplified by Henry George, who say that, whenever natural opportunities are scarce, each person has an obligation to ensure that the per capita value of the natural opportunities that he leaves for others is as great as the value of the natural opportunities that he claims for himself. Any excess in one's claim generates an obligation to compensate those who thereby have less. George actually proposed the nearly equivalent idea, that all or nearly all of the rental value of land should be collected in taxes, and all other taxes should be abolished. The geoist position as I have expressed it emphasizes the idea that, at least when value generated by public services is not an issue, rights to land are fundamentally rights of individuals, not rights of governments.
There are two fundamental problems with the position of homesteading libertarians on claims to land. The first problem is the incongruity with historical reality. Humans have emerged from an environment of violence. Those who now have titles to land can trace those titles back only so far, before they come to events where fiat backed by violence determined title. And the persons who were displaced at that time themselves had titles that originated in violence. If there ever were humans who acquired the use of land without forcibly displacing other humans, we have no way of knowing who they were or who their current descendants might be. There is, in practice, no way of assigning land to the legitimate successors of the persons who first claimed land. And to assign titles based on any fraction of history is to reward the last land seizures that are not rectified.
The second fundamental problem with the position of the homesteading libertarians is that, even if there were previously unsettled land to be allocated, say a new continent emerging from the ocean, first grabbing would make no sense as a criterion for allocating land.
It would be inefficient, for one thing, as people stampeded to do whatever was necessary to establish their claims. But that is not decisive because, if we are concerned with justice, it might be necessary for us to tolerate inefficiency. But the homesteading libertarian view makes no sense in terms of justice. "I get it all because I got here first," isn't justice.
Justice -- the balancing of the scales -- is the geoist position, "I get exclusive access to this natural opportunity because I have left natural opportunities of equal value for you." (How one compares, in practice, the value of different natural opportunities is a bit complex. If you really want to know, you can invite me back for another lecture.)
Justice is thus a regime in which
persons have the greatest
possible individual liberty, and all acknowledge an obligation to
share equally the value of natural opportunities. Justice is economic
reform--the abolition of all taxes on labor and capital, the
acceptance of individual responsibility, the creation of institutions
that will provide equal sharing the value of natural
opportunities.... Read the
Fred E. Foldvary — The Ultimate Tax Reform: Public Revenue from Land Rent
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper