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BHL Symposium on Libertarianism and Land April 23-27

Libertarians believe in self-ownership. But what about the ownership of external resources? Can individuals legitimately acquire permanent bequeathable property rights in land by “mixing their labor” with it? Or does putting a fence around a piece of land and calling it one’s own amount to an act of theft – stealing for oneself what properly belongs to mankind in common?

Next week, April 23-27, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog will provide the answers to all these questions, and more!

Well, maybe not. But we’ll give it a shot! And we’ll have a lot of help from some terrific, exciting thinkers. Because next week is BHL’s first-ever symposium on the topic of “Libertarianism and Land!”

The five day event will explore different libertarian perspectives on questions pertaining to the moral justification of and limits on property rights in land. Each day will feature a keynote post from one of our main participants. The other main participants will have the opportunity to respond with posts of their own. We encourage our readers to participate in their own blogs, or in the comments thread here.

We have a terrific lineup for this event. Our main participants will be:

  • Eric Mack – Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University
  • Hillel Steiner – Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Manchster
  • Fred Foldvary – Lecturer in Economics at Santa Clara University (with comments from Zachary Gochenour, graduate student in economics at George Mason University and Research Assistant at the Mercatus Center)
  • Kevin Carson – Blogger and author
  • David Schmidtz – Professor of Philosophy and Economics at the University of Arizona

Join us next Monday for the lead-off essay from Eric Mack. This is going to be a terrific conversation on a immensely important topic!

UPDATE: See here for an introduction to the symposium, author bios, and links to the papers as they appear.

  • There’s usually not enough room on “No Trespassing” signs like the one shown in the picture above, so they usually just abbreviate by stating “Private Property — No Trespassing.”

    But what these kinds of signs really should say is something like: 

    “This demarcated piece of land presently contains privately-owned buildings, vehicles, machinery and equipment. The owner is actively using this property to make the land as habitable, useful and productive as s/he can, and to such an extent that it gives him/her exclusive access rights to the land.”

    In other words, although it’s unlikely that people will stop referring to land as “private property,” areas of the earth are really always common property and can never be owned, but only deemed to give the inhabitant ownership-like access and use rights.  Land can no more be owned than one can “own” parts of an ocean, a lake, a mountain, sections of the atmosphere, areas on a moon or planet, etc. 

    This is why land should always be taxed independently of the buildings or structures attached to it, and especially taxed when land is held for speculation or controlled by absentee landlords.

    And this will kill most libertarians, but additional taxes should be levied on: (1) “income derived from property sources” for the extracted resources and productive capacity of the land; (2) on “income derived from non-property sources” for land held under corporate privilege; and (3) on “income derived from non-property sources” where the “owner” is using an income-tax regulated currency.

    • j_m_h

      That applies to some but you’ll also see such signs on completely vacant land — in some cases even unoccupied land — that says the same. 

      I think you are in a minority, and not only within the group of people calling themselves libertarians, in claiming lans is never privately owned.

      Whether or not that’s the “correct” view is a different matter.

      • Yes, I’m definitely in a minority with this view of land, even among geo-libertarians, who should support it.

        However, in my defense, the common problem I’ve found with Georgists is that they want Henry George’s land value tax without considering the very significant changes that occurred in income tax law after George died (in 1897).

        In fact, if you think of income taxes as a two-lane highway — taxes on income derived from property sources vs. taxes on income not derived from property — one lane was actually closed down when Henry George died. (Taxes on income derived from property sources were unconstitutional between 1895 and 1913.) 

        •  That’s not entirely correct, AFAIK. Putting aside the issue of how something can be constitutional one day and not the next (absent an intervening amendment),  the issue was that such taxes needed to be apportioned among the states by population, making them almost impossible to administer. The dreaded 13th theoretically made a national LVT without apportionment possible.

          Frankly, nothing makes my head hurt more than 19th century legal language. I barely understand what you’re saying half the time, but I might just agree with you if I did.

          My own “personal” Georgism is a bit simpler. I start with the meta-ethical proposition that some things are morally forbidden, some are morally required, and others are morally permissible. When I apply that to taxation they naturally fall out into the categories of income — rent, wages, and interest — from land, labor, and capital. Morally, taxing rent is mandatory, wages forbidden, and interest is optional. The last would correspond to regulating currency.

          Hopefully that was clear; probably not since there’s a lot more to unpack there, but I have a headache. Good evening.

          • No need to respond, but I’d like to briefly explain because the U.S. made a significant departure from British tax law by striking down an 1894 income tax in Pollock (1895), when taxes on income derived from property sources were declared unconstitutional (because they might be a direct tax on property in violation of the Direct Tax Clauses’ apportionment and proportionality requirements).  

            I also believe the Court was influenced by Henry George’s work, and the importance he attributed to the taxation of the productive capacity of land, labor and capital. But the trick was, how to tax income derived from the property sources of land, labor and capital without also causing a direct tax on land, labor or capital.

            Under British tax law a tax on rent was considered to be a direct tax on real estate, a tax on interest or dividends was a direct tax on capital, and a tax on profits from hiring labor was a direct tax on labor. Simply stated, the 16th Amendment was needed to show that the U.S. would refuse to continue following this view. 

            But, yes, you’re correct that taxes on wages received by a natural person employEE should be forbidden, or only allowed if the feds follow the inconvenient rules of apportionment and proportionality under the Direct Tax Clauses. (But again, taxing an employER for wages s/he is paying out to employees is a different story. That is a permissible indirect tax, i.e., indirect on labor.)

  • The fact that this blog has “social justice” (i.e. the doctrine that all income and wealth is rightfully owned by the collective, “the people”, and should be “distributed”) as its tag line, should tell libertarians all we need to know about the site. However, that Kevin Carson (the smash-the-rich “libertarian”) is on the list of speakers is added evidence (if any additional evidence is needed). As for land – if all land is controlled by the collective then liberty dies. Whether one calls private control of land “ownership” or “freehold” is a verbal thing – what matters is whether the “evil rich” (such as Jon Huntsman Senior and YES Charles and David Koch) control some land – or whether the collective controls all of it. As for “free markets” – there never has been a big country with a totally free market, but some interventionism does not justify more interventionism. Nor is private property somehow not legitimate if the country it is in does not have a totally free market – for that would put all private property up for grabs (as Comrade Carson well knows). “Bottom line” – in real life one is either on the side of the collectivsts, of the “Occupy” movement of Black Flaggers (communal anarchists) and Red Flaggers (Marxists), or one is against the collectivists. Libertarians stand with private property AGAINST the doctrine of social justice. So the people behind this site face a choice – drop “social justice” (Kevin Carson, the “Occupy” movement and on and on) or drop  the word “libertarian”. Sorry but the collectivists already stole the word “liberal” (back in the 1920s) you can not have the word “libertarian” as well.

    • ” . . . ‘social justice’ (i.e. the doctrine that all income and wealth is rightfully owned by the collective, ‘the people’, and should be ‘distributed’) . . . ”

      The earth/universe is owned by the collective, not “all income and wealth.” Also, only the part of income taxed belongs to the collective. What’s left over becomes “private property” (which can mean many things, depending on the circumstances).

      Also, “social justice” should mean a system which allows both opportunity for self-ownership of one’s mind, body and labor, and also one which does not bar reasonably regulated redistributive policies for those who truly cannot work.  One without the other doesn’t count as “social justice” in my mind.

    • Damien S.

       If all land is owned by one person, or a few people, liberty also dies.

      • Tom Burroughes

         If all land is owned by one person, that sounds like a state dictatorship to me. What is wanted is what Hayek called “several property”: property owned by a number of people so that no one jurisdiction was under the ownership of one will, but under several. And so long as there is a market in land, and prices reflect supply and demand of land, I fail to see the problem from a libertarian point of view.

        Land is not, as the Georgists claim, somehow different from any other factor of production in terms of how we should think of property rights and the claims made for it. Land is fixed, people say. Not quite so; land is scarce but only in relation to other factors, such as labour. In the US in the early 19th century, land was plentiful, but labour was not. In densely populated Holland or the UK, this is different. And the relative prices of such factors will vary as a result. Our approach to these matters needs to always remember that scarcity is relative.

  • Guest

    There’s an excellent discussion of this topic in the current issue of “Basic Income Studies” (Volume 6, Number 2). The contributors include Pete Boettke, Mike Munger, Peter Vallentyne, Daniel Moseley and others.

  • foldvary

    Bryan Caplan and Zachary Gochenour in their paper “A Search-Theoretic Critique of Georgism” claim that “no locality fully dedicated itself to Georgism, making it impossible to evaluate his plan empirically.”  Not so.  The German colony in China, Kiaochow (Tsing Tao), had a single tax on land value of six percent from 1898 to 1914.  This small fishing village developed into a splendid city during those years.

    • Zac Gochenour

      That’s interesting, and I’ll make an edit in light of it. It’s just one small data point though, over a short time period, and I do not see it as very convincing.

  • foldvary

    Bryan Caplan and Zachary Gochenour in their paper “A Search-Theoretic Critique of Georgism” use a physical definition of land rather than an economic meaning.  Like Frank Knight, they claim land is produced by exploration, extraction, and improvements.  The economic meaning of land is natural resources, and these activities are labor and capital goods.  The value added to a site from exploration is a capital good, not the original natural resource.  Hence their critique is based on a fallacious meaning of “land.”

    • Zac Gochenour

      All the value is created from exploration, extraction, and improvements, or the potential to build these things (including just knowing what to build). If what we use is a fallacious meaning of land, then land is a term literally without meaning – it’s all capital goods and labor. I think we make this point rather clearly in the paper, but I’ll be expanding on it a bit in my upcoming post.

      • Capital goods are good that have been produced but not yet consumed. Land is not produced; it is prior to human action. Spatial land, for example, exists regardless of stuff located in it. How is that meaningless? And to you think that the taxation of labor has the same economic effect as taxing land value?