And if so: What should we do about it?
“Property is theft!”
Or so said Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the father of mutualism and anarchism.
People who are closed-minded will find the idea that private property is theft utterly absurd, and will usually screech “communism!” without even considering the argument.
But you, dear reader, are not one of those silly little people.
What did Proudhon mean when he said that property was theft?
Is private property really a form of theft?
If so, what should we do about it?
Let’s dig in…
If there’s one thing that surely everyone on Earth can agree on, it’s this:
The universe belongs to the universe.
You don’t own the sun.
I don’t own Mercury and Jupiter.
Your best friend doesn’t own the Pacific Ocean.
And none of us actually own the land on planet Earth.
To think that something as breathtakingly temporary as a homo sapien can own something as long-lasting as an ecosystem is laughable. The dirt and rocks under your house don’t belong to you. If anything, you belong to them!
What is ownership, then?
Merriam-Webster defines “own” as a verb:
“To have power or mastery over.”
Ownership, when you distill it down to its very essence, is just the monopolization of resources. Can we agree on that?
This, then, raises a further question: If all land and resources like water and trees and minerals were originally free for anything to use, how did they become the privately-monopolized “property” of the few?
And the uncomfortable answer is: Through appalling amounts of violence.
North America, as everyone knows, was stewarded by hundreds of tribes who held the land in common — and fought to the death to maintain their rough territories — until Europeans blasted them full of gunshot, smallpox, and measles.
Ditto South America (but yellow fever.)
And the private monopolization of land continues to be enforced with violence to this very day.
Need an example?
Imagine if a random stranger decided to move into your house without your permission. Like any sane human, you’d call the cops. They’d kidnap him (called “an arrest”), lock him in a cage (called “imprisonment”), and steal his stuff (called “civil forfeiture”.) That’s violence. You paid thugs (via your taxes) to enforce your right to monopolize the dirt under your house and the materials with which it is built. Admit it — under this current system, we’d all call the cops.
In other words, a deed of ownership is better described as “the communally-granted right of temporary monopolization.”
Clearly, it is morally wrong to use violence to exclude others from accessing natural resources. Every homo sapien on Earth — and every other living species on Earth — has just as much of a moral right as every other species to access the means of its survival.
But at the same time, neither you nor I want strangers moving into our house. Because you and I have done real work that is genuinely ours, regardless of the underlying biological materials that we ultimately excluded others from accessing.
The formula for creating real wealth is extremely simple:
Biological resources + human work = real wealth.
There are only two factors of production: Land and labor.
A farmer applies work to dirt and seed to grow wheat.
A miller applies work to wheat to make flour.
A baker applies work to flour to make dough.
A chef applies work to dough to make pizza.
But what happens when land is monopolized and people are cut off from the materials to which they share an equal right with everyone else?
They are robbed of one of the two factors of production. In other words, when resources are privately monopolized, workers are robbed of the ability to create real wealth.
So what choices do they have?
- They can borrow money with which to purchase land and/or its resources, and then pay back the lender with a hefty portion of the wealth they create as interest.
- They can borrow land and resources from a resource-monopolizer, and then pay back the land-lorder with a hefty portion of the wealth they create as rent.
- They can sell their time to a resource-monopolizer, who will take a hefty portion of the wealth they create as profit.
Because all land has been privately monopolized with violence, billions of landless people have to submit to economic exploitation in the form of interest, rent, or profit, just to access their own land and resources.
This is morally wrong. And unfair. And anti-meritocratic.
Monopolizing land with violence is our original economic sin.
The question is: How should we fix it?
Option 1: More of the same
The first option is to let people continue to use violence to protect their monopolized “property.”
Instead of giving everyone an equal 1/8 billionth access to Earth’s resources as nature intended, in our lifetime we’ll let millions die on the streets, three billion rot in slums, and another 4.5 billion struggle to stay sheltered and fed. This is the hyper-right libertarian corporatist dystopia that Silicon Valley rules-free-marketeers are always trying to sell the public.
But it won’t work, because this model is wildly unsustainable. Why? Because resource-monopolizers just use the profits they skim off others to monopolize more resources, which just drives up the price of resources and makes life miserable for the rest of humanity.
More of the same simply isn’t a moral or rational option.
Option 2: A Return to Nature
We’re talking total Mad Max anarchy.
The full abolition of “property” rights.
No one owns anything.
If you need food, you can grow it on any land.
If you need a house, you can chop down any tree or dig up any rock and build it.
Now, of course, everyone else will be doing the same, so good luck protecting your stuff from everyone else. You have to fight for your right to party/live.
Returning to nature would be a disaster, an ugly dog-eat-dog-survival-of-the-fittest bloodbath. First Nations ripped each other apart, murdering and looting and scalping constantly. I don’t want this option at all.
It’s also wildly inefficient. Instead of labor specialization, everyone has to do everything for themselves — do you have time to raise your own food, build and maintain your own house, make your own clothes, generate your own power, and supply all your own needs, all while spending half your time defending yourself from others?
In this silly scenario, we can see that “returning to nature” isn’t of much interest to almost anyone on this planet.
Option 3: Communism
The third option is the scorched-earth policy that hyper-left young people think will solve all their problems.
In this extreme scenario, we have a one-world government (or rather, a one-government world) that owns 100% of the planet, and in their divine wisdom apportions all of Earth’s bounty equally and we all live in utopia happily ever after.
This, of course, will never work because humans are so wretchedly and gloriously human — prone to greed, selfishness, and mental illness levels of private wealth hoarding.
It’s also not fair to all the people who’ve applied work to natural resources to create real wealth.
While it is obviously wrong to withhold the resources required for production on the one hand, it’s just as wrong to take away the wealth that someone applied to those resources via work.
If we want a true meritocracy, people need the right to access resources and the right to retain the wealth they create through work.
Option 4: Fairness
The monopolization of resources through violence is clearly theft.
We can’t have more of the same.
We don’t want to revert to nature and make it a bloodbath free-for-all.
We don’t want a tyrannical one-government commie-world.
What if we just got honest about what ownership really is?
Ownership is a communally-granted right of temporary monopolization.
So why shouldn’t people pay the public for the right of private monopolization?
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon declared that “property is theft.” Obviously, this phrase is self-refuting. After all, theft only exists if property rights exist! But in a way, he is right — perpetually monopolizing humanity’s resources without perpetually paying for the right to exclude others is absolutely a form of theft.
This is the foundational injustice upon which our entire resource-hoarding civilization is built.
The massively popular nineteenth-century economist Henry George had an idea on how to overcome this injustice without resorting to extreme ideas: Why not just make people pay rent to the commons for monopolizing our common resources?
George suggested we get rid of all other taxes and just have a single tax on land value. Instead of punishing work (in the form of income tax), he believed it was only moral and fair to tax those who benefited most from the monopolization of our common resources.
Under George’s regime, a builder wouldn’t have to pay tax on the skyscraper he built, just a fat tax on the land underneath it. Under George’s regime, you’d get to keep 100% of your paycheck and not pay property tax on your house, just a tax on the value of the land underneath it.
All the way back in 1885, George recommended we use the tax money to pay a “citizen’s dividend” to help the poorest people in society access their fair share of Earth’s resources.
Interestingly, people throughout history have loved the idea of a single tax on land value: Everyone from Gandhi to Churchill to Einstein and even that right-wing corporatist Friedman thought it was a good idea, as do left-leaning economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Hudson. Countries that have implemented land value taxes (like Estonia and Singapore) have seen homeownership rates skyrocket.
It’s an idea we should seriously consider today — all of Earth has been stolen by land-monopolizers and is being used to extract wealth from workers via interest, rent, and it’s high time we end this economic abuse of billions of people. It’s immoral, inefficient, deeply anti-meritocratic, and completely unsustainable.
With an aggressive annual tax on monopolized resources, society would not only give workers access to the resources that are currently monopolized, but would free workers from shouldering the burdens of interest, rent, profit, and taxation. If we want to eradicate poverty once and for all, a land value is where we start.
But of course, no one with any power actually wants to eradicate poverty. Without interest, rent, and profit, pensioners and investors wouldn’t get to steal unearned wealth from the wealth-creating working class. Without widespread economic exploitation founded on the monopolization of resources with violence, no one would get filthy rich or become a billionaire.
After all, “something for nothing” is the American Dream.
This article, by Jared Brock was posted on November 22, 2022, to Medium Daily Digest, an online publication that I subscribe to.