Private Property

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Private Property

#1  Postby Clive Durdle » Mar 02, 2014 11:16 am

Since the Roman Empire developed the legal basis of property rights as we know them today, it is unsurprising that it also produced some of the earliest critics of property. In the third and fourth centuries, the early leaders of the Christian church were especially clear that the things of the earth were for all to share.

Ambrose wrote, “Rich and poor alike enjoy the splendid ornaments of the universe ... The house of God is common to rich and poor,” and “The Lord our God has willed this earth to be the common possession of all and its fruit to support all.”51 Elsewhere he writes that private property is not according to nature, for nature has brought forth all things for all in common. Thus God has created everything in such a way that all things be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation of private right.52

Others of the Christian Fathers, notably John Chrysostom, Augustine, Basil the Great, and Clement, weighed in with similar views, encouraging followers to follow Jesus’s teachings quite literally and give all their possessions to the poor. Theirs was not a detached philosophy: many of these leaders did exactly that. Ambrose, Basil, and Augustine had been men of considerable wealth before entering the clergy, and they gave it all away.

The teachings of its founders notwithstanding, eventually the Church itself acquired considerable property and allied itself with imperial power. The teachings of Jesus became otherworldly ideals that were not seriously recommended to anyone, and the Kingdom of God was transported from earth to Heaven. This was a major step in the conceptual separation of spirit and matter that has contributed to making materiality, and especially money, profane today. Even more ironically, most people today who profess to follow Christian teachings have turned everything inside out and associate socialism with atheism and private wealth with God’s favor.

The early Church fathers made frequent reference to the distinction between what people produce through their own effort and what was given to humanity by God for all to use in common. Many social and economic critics of the last several centuries echoed this early indignation at the appropriation of the commons and developed creative proposals to remedy it. One such early critic, Thomas Paine, wrote,

And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, upon which that improvement is made, the idea of landed property arose from that parable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.... Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds.53
The first economist to develop this idea fully was Henry George, in his eloquent 1879 classic Progress and Poverty. He started with essentially the same premise as Paine and the early Christians:

But who made the earth that any man can claim such ownership of it, or any part of it, or the right to give, sell or bequeath it? Since the earth was not made by us, but is only a temporary dwelling place on which one generation of men follow another; since we find ourselves here, are manifestly here with equal permission of the Creator, it is manifest that no one can have any exclusive right of ownership in land, and that the rights of all men to land must be equal and inalienable. There must be exclusive right of possession of land, for the man who uses it must have secure possession of land in order to reap the products of his labor. But his right of possession must be limited by the equal right of all, and should therefore be conditioned upon the payment to the community by the possessor of an equivalent for any special valuable privilege thus accorded him.54

Why should someone profit from the use-value of land by the mere fact of owning it, especially when the origin of that ownership is based on ancient injustice? Accordingly, Henry George proposed his famous Single Tax—essentially a 100-percent tax on the “economic rent” deriving from land. This was to be implemented through a tax on the value of land as distinct from improvements upon it; for example, land would be taxed but not buildings or crops. It was called “single” because he advocated the abolition of all other taxes, reasoning that it is just as much theft to tax legitimate private property as it is to profit from something that belongs to all. George’s writings sparked a massive political movement that almost got him elected to the New York mayor’s office, but of course the established money power fought him at every turn.55 His ideas have been sporadically adopted around the world (the two places I’ve spent most of my life, Taiwan and Pennsylvania, both levy taxes on the underlying value of land) and have greatly influenced economic thought.

One of his admirers, Silvio Gesell, proposed a near-equivalent to George’s land tax: the public ownership of all land, available for private leasing at a rate that would approximate the economic rent.56 Gesell’s reasoning is compelling and remarkably prescient in its understanding of ecology and the connected self. Read this extraordinary passage from 1906:
We frequently hear the phrase: Man has a natural right to the earth. But that is absurd, for it would be just as correct to say that man has a right to his limbs. If we talk of rights in this connection we must also say that a pine-tree has the right to sink its roots in the earth. Can man spend his life in a balloon? The earth belongs to, and is an organic part of man. We cannot conceive man without the earth any more than without a head or a stomach. The earth is just as much a part, an organ, of man as his head. Where do the digestive organs of man begin and end? They have no beginning and no end, but form a closed system without beginning or end.

The substances which man requires to maintain life are indigestible in their raw state and must go through a preparatory digestive process. And this preparatory work is not done by the mouth, but by the plant. It is the plant which collects and transmutes the substances so that they may become nutriment in their further progress through the digestive canal. Plants and the space they occupy are just as much a part of man as his mouth, his teeth or his stomach....

How, then, can we suffer individual men to confiscate for themselves parts of the earth as their exclusive property, to erect barriers and with the help of watchdogs and trained slaves to keep us away from parts of the earth, from parts of ourselves—to tear, as it were, whole limbs from our bodies? Is not such a proceeding equivalent to self-mutilation?57

Gesell goes on, with great rhetorical flourish, to say that this mutilation is even worse than the amputation of a body part, for wounds of the body heal, but the wound left ... by the amputation of a piece of land festers forever, and never closes. At every term for the payment of rent, on every Quarter Day, the wound opens and the golden blood gushes out. Man is bled white and goes staggering forward. The amputation of a piece of land from our body is the bloodiest of all operations; it leaves a gaping, festering wound which cannot heal unless the stolen limb is grafted on again.

I think this is a wound we all feel, not only as the rent built into the cost of everything we buy, but also as a spiritual disenfranchisement. Some time ago I was driving with a woman from France down the country roads of central Pennsylvania. The gentle mountains and broad valleys beckoned to us, so we decided to walk them. It seemed as if the ground was begging for our feet, wanting to be tread. We decided to find a place to pull over and walk. We drove for an hour, but we never did find a field or forest that wasn’t festooned with “No Trespassing” signs. Every time I see one I feel a twinge, a loss. Any squirrel is freer than I am, any deer. These signs apply to humans only. Herein lies a universal principle: the regime of property, the enclosure of the unowned, has made us all poorer. The promise of freedom inherent in that broad, verdant landscape was a mirage. Woody Guthrie’s words ring true:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, it said private property.
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing. ... k-text.pdf
"We cannot slaughter each other out of the human impasse"
Clive Durdle
Name: Clive Durdle
Posts: 4809

Country: UK
United Kingdom (uk)
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