Saturday, November 30, 2013

To whom does the land belong?

That is, as I see it, the real question.  I've argued in past posts that it is best for more people to own land, but how exactly do we get that?  Whose rights come first -- my right to own five acres, or my great-grandparents' right to sell away the family farm?  (Hypothetically.  I don't know when the last time was that anyone in my family owned land.  Even in the old country (England) they ran a drugstore.)

The average American thinks of property rights as a very simple matter.  You get a job, save up enough money to buy land, and once you've done so, it's yours.  If the seller wants to sell and the buyer wants to buy, the property changes hands and everyone is happy.  Once you own it, you can do what you want with it.

However, other traditions have different understandings of property rights.  In some places -- and in America before the colonists showed up -- it was not considered possible to own land.  You simply used it, and cultural standards dictated what you could and couldn't use it for.  There are regions in Africa where three different tribes share the same spot of land: farmers during the growing season, pastoralists in the dry season, and fishermen in the flood season.  There are ancient agreements about who uses it when and how to make sure it's not spoiled for the other users.

Of course there are problems when these two worldviews collide.  The colonists to America "bought" tracts of land from the Indians -- who thought it was funny that these silly white people gave them all these beads just for the right to hunt on their land.  When the colonists cut down the trees, laid fences, and started plowing, the Indians were understandably annoyed.  The same happens today when pastoralists find themselves fenced out of their traditional grazing land because the government gave that land to farmers.

So, despite what anarcho-capitalists say, I don't think property rights are a matter of simple fairness.  If you try to govern everything by the non-aggression principle (no one may aggress against another's person or property) you have to define "property," and there is no simple answer.  Is it my property if I own it, but don't use it?  Is it my property if I have farmed it for fifty years but I don't own a deed?  Is it my property if I bought it from someone who didn't know they were selling it?  Is it my property if my ancestors had it stolen from them by your ancestors?

Even the word "fair" has different definitions to different people.  A liberal will generally agree that it is unfair for Bob to have ten dollars and Joe to have ten million dollars.  If Bob is starving and Joe can help, it's unfair for him not to.  (And the Catholic Church would agree with that.)  A conservative will say that if Joe has ten million dollars which he has earned legally, it is unfair to take a red cent of it and give it to Bob.  (Oddly, I think there is a Catholic argument for this too.)

Perhaps they both are right.  Perhaps your opinion on fairness just comes down to whether or not you were forced to "share" at playgroup when you were two.  (That could be a whole different conversation!)

But rather than think of what is fair, perhaps we could ask, what would have the best results?  How can we ensure that all people have access to the goods the earth provides -- food, water, raw materials?  Because without this access, we don't have the ability to work for our own living.  To work, you have to have something to work on.  Being reliant on a corporation's willingness to give you something to work on and pay you fairly leaves you vulnerable.

I keep tossing around ideas in my mind.  What if we had a law that land couldn't be sold, only rented?  Each person had their own plot and if they didn't want to farm it, someone else would have to pay them to farm it .... and they could get it back whenever they wanted?  But what happens when they die ... could they still will it away?  Would it have to be to their sons, or could they will it to someone else?  Could they will it to ConAgra, in return for a cozy retirement?  Hmmm.  Anyway, is it fair to restrict what someone can do with their own land?

Or what if there was a law that no one could own more than, say, 100 acres?  Or 1000 acres?  The sort of land it was, and what they were growing, would make a big difference here.  But this way people could have the right to own land or not own land, but corporations would still have to rent land if they wanted to go big ... thus putting small owners at an advantage.

And yet both of these two solutions raise another problem: we are not starting from zero.  We are not starting with x number of people, y number of acres, let's divvy it up.  We are starting with land owned by a vast number of people and corporations, some of which was unjustly taken from the people who had it before.  Wouldn't it be just to give it all back to the Indians?

And yet the world's population has grown much too big by this point to be sustained by hunter-gatherer lifestyles or by pastoralism.  We rely on farming to live.  It seems unfair to let hunter-gatherers have 10,000 acres apiece (which they would need to sustain themselves), while farmers could make much more food with less.  But on the other hand, it is also unfair to take land from pastoralists or hunters who are using it and have used it for generations and hand it to farmers.

If I were the queen of my own little island, and all the land were mine, I'd let people have plots of it to farm and I would make laws that helped individuals own the plots rather than allow megacorporations to gobble all of it up -- even by buying it at the market price.  That's how you can tell I'm not really a true believer in the free market.

However, in a country like ours, where already so much of the land is owned by so few, the sort of land revolution that splits up the land more equitably seems unjust.  Isn't it just stealing from the rich to give to the poor?  And in every country that has done this, sooner or later the land gets concentrated in the hands of the few all over again.

I think we have to accept that those who currently have land, have the right to keep it.  That does not mean they have the right to laws that make it easy for them.  I believe the law should favor the individual over the corporation, and put the poor on at least an even footing with the rich.  Why else do we have law, but to keep the weak from being overpowered by the strong?

In another post, I'll talk about some laws that favor individuals, and some laws which we have today which cripple individuals so that corporations can flourish.  It does seem clear to me that there is no such thing as an ideal system; you can never make a system so perfect that there will be no need for individuals to choose to do the right thing.  There is also no system that everyone will agree is completely fair.  But I do think there are laws that can help -- and quite a few that can hurt.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Agrarianism is for the poor

Awhile ago, I read on a Catholic blog the comment that "luxuries" like Catholic agrarianism are the province of the rich.

At first it boggled my mind.  The whole point of agrarianism, as I see it, is that you shouldn't have to be rich.  Then I remembered the sort of agrarians and distributists I knew at Christendom.  They were aware of Catholic social teaching stating that property ownership ought to be as broad as possible, but there was quite a bit of fuzziness as to why.  I joined the Distributist Club for a bit, but we mostly muddled about trying to define property.  People seemed rather hazy as to what we were aiming for at all.  I don't remember the poor ever being mentioned.  And the more agrarian professors seemed mainly to be Luddites, griping over wristwatches and email, but it seemed clear enough to me that if they were in the employ of a college for their livelihood, they did not "own the means of production" in any of the senses we were talking about.

I recently read The Church and the Land, by Fr. Vincent McNabb. It's a fine bunch of diatribes, though not very specific on social programs.  (Belloc is better for that.)  The introduction was written by a favorite professor of mine, who taught me Latin and had the most acerbic wit I think I've ever encountered.  For all I loved his class, I felt his introduction focused on all the wrong things.  He points out that things have changed a lot since the early 20th century when McNabb wrote, and that some say distributism isn't needed anymore.

It is, he says, but not for the reasons I think of.  He talks about modern ease, comfort, commercialism, microwave dinners, and points out the loss of women's crafts, men's opportunity for physical toil, and family dinners.

Sure.  Fine.  I hate Wal-Mart too.  But I don't feel that women and men have to be bound into gender-specific jobs in order to be agrarian, and I don't think you have to be agrarian to have dinner together as a family.

The central tenet of distributism is this: as many people as possible should be able to own property -- defined usually as a farm or business.  Not that we should shun technology.  Not that women should cook and men should chop wood.  Not that families should have dinner together.  These things may be good or bad, but they have no real bearing on distributism as such.

And it seems to me talking about air-conditioning and SUV's and microwave dinners is ignoring the real problems of our world today -- the fact that many still are poor.  Poor not only in the sense of not having enough to eat or wear, but also in the sense of having very little control over their lives.  Knowing that a single pink slip stands between your family and ruin.  Knowing that if you are poor enough, you will have to go on welfare to feed your family.  Knowing that once you do, the government has you on a string just like your employer used to.

And that's only in this country.  The professor does mention, to his credit, that American prosperity is predicated on the exploitation of other countries.  We no longer have smoke-belching, unsafe factories, not because we have made the factories safe, but because we have moved them elsewhere.  All the poverty of England in the 19th century exists in Asia or Africa in the 21st.  Capitalism has generated wealth, but it has not eliminated poverty.  Neither have communism or socialism been able to do the same.

That poverty is inescapable without property ownership is clear from one example: the minimum wage.  The liberal view is this: A man can't live on $7 an hour at McDonalds.  We have to raise the minimum wage to $10.  To which the conservative responds: If we raised the minimum wage to $10, McDonalds still wouldn't pay the man $10.  It will fire him and buy an automatic burger-flipping machine.

The same in the third world.  The liberal cries, "This factory is cruel, it forces women and children to work in unsafe conditions for two dollars a day!"  The conservative responds, "But if you close the factory, they will be even worse off.  They wouldn't be working there if they didn't desperately need that two dollars a day."

They're both right, absolutely right, and that's the trouble.  When a man has nothing to live off of but a hope that a corporation will find him "worth" an amount large enough to pay for food and shelter, he is perpetually at risk for exploitation.  And if he refuses to work for the amount offered, he can't bargain the price up -- some other person more desperate will take the wages.  It's happening all over the market right now.  If you aren't willing to do work you're overqualified for, and put in extra hours for free, and accept a smaller paycheck and fewer benefits than you used to have -- well, there are people who are willing to do it, and they will have a job and you will have none.  No one has any bargaining power, because they all need to live.

But we are in this weak position because we are landless.  We cannot live without employment -- without convincing someone else we are "worth" a certain amount.  If we all had land, if we had a choice to live off that land or get a job in town, companies would have to offer a living wage if they wanted any workers at all.

A lot of capitalists are adamantly pro-business.  If the businesses prosper, we all will prosper.  Give businesses as many advantages as we can.  They don't seem to realize that if large corporations hold all the land, all the natural resources, all the capital, and all the machines, everyone else -- "the 99%," or the peasantry, as I like to call us -- have very little clout when it comes to opposing them.

Want proof?  Since 2008, what we call the recovery really only happened to the owners in society.  The income of the top 1% rebounded by 30% -- up to pre-recession levels.  The income of the rest of us rebounded by 1% -- less than inflation.  Of course there are many reasons for this, corporate bailouts being one.  But I also wonder if the recession wasn't just a convenient way to cut pay.  Since unemployment is high, people will work harder for less, and there was no reason to pass on the extra money to employees, so long as all the other employers were paying less too.  Certainly that has happened with John's job -- unless you have a competing job offer in hand (and here in the boonies, you're not likely to), you aren't going to get a raise.

Since the seventies, workers have produced 80% more in the same amount of time -- but wages have only risen 10%.  If minimum wage increased with higher productivity, it would be $21.72!  In other words, workers are working hard, producing lots of profit for their employers, but they are not sharing in the rewards.  In fact, it seems unlikely to me that they ever would share in the rewards, since workers don't set their salaries.  Those are worked out through supply and demand, so if you're unlucky enough to have a common skillset, your wages will be low no matter how hard you work.  It's only when you own your own business or farm that your increased productivity will result in a direct advantage to yourself.

Now, not everyone wants to work for themselves.  Some people would rather punch a clock and go home at the end of the day.  I don't think everyone needs to own property.  But the important thing is that property ownership (or, by extension, self-employment) should be within reach.  Prosperity can't be built on a shaky foundation of unstable agricultural policy -- and economic freedom doesn't exist where all the land is owned by a few.

This raises an even harder question: what to do when the land is owned by a few and property ownership is so difficult to obtain.  If I knew the answer to this, we'd own some already!  But my next post will give some thought to that topic.
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