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.

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