Notes From Babel

Positing High-Minded, Egalitarian Alternative Systems of Economic Rights Has a Long History

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The ideological roots of the so-called “inheritance dividend” notion, famously advanced by Robert Heinlein (see here and here), go at least as far back as the writings of Henry George in the late 1870s and early 80s.  Here are the key passages from his The Land Question published in 1881.  Note that the first paragraph, while employing overly dramatized talk of “minimum of a bare living,” suggests an answer as to why man should never be excused from the need to work, despite our many modern technological advances.

Land is necessary to all production, no matter what be the kind or form; land is the standing-place, the workshop, the storehouse of labor; it is to the human being the only means by which he can obtain access to the material universe or utilize its powers. Without land man cannot exist. To whom the ownership of land is given, to him is given the virtual ownership of the men who must live upon it. When this necessity is absolute, then does he necessarily become their absolute master. And just as this point is neared – that is to say, just as competition increases the demand for land – just in that degree does the power of taking a larger and larger share of the earnings of labor increase. It is this power that gives land its value; this is the power that enables the owner of valuable land to reap where he has not sown – to appropriate to himself wealth which he has had no share in producing. Rent is always the devourer of wages. The owner of city land takes, in the rents he receives for his land, the earnings of labor just as clearly as does the owner of farming land. And whether he be working in a garret ten stories above the street, or in a mining drift thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, it is the competition for the use of land that ultimately determines what proportion of the produce of his labor the laborer will get for himself. This is the reason why modern progress does not tend to extirpate poverty; this is the reason why, with all the inventions and improvements and economies which so enormously increase productive power, wages everywhere tend to the minimum of a bare living.

. . . .

We could divide [the nation’s large surplus], if we wanted to, among the whole community, share and share alike. Or we could give every boy a small capital for a start when he came of age, every girl a dower, every widow an annuity, every aged person a pension, out of this common estate. Or we could do with our great common fund many, many things that would be for the common benefit, many, many things that would give to the poorest what even the richest cannot now enjoy. We could establish free libraries, lectures, museums, art-galleries, observatories, gymnasiums, baths, parks, theaters; we could line our roads with fruit-trees, and make our cities clean and wholesome and beautiful; we could conduct experiments, and offer rewards for inventions, and throw them open to public use.

Henry George, The Land Question: What It Involves, and How Alone It Can Be Settled (1881).

And to what great evil does all this waste and despair owe?  Only the notion that an individual might own property.  It is remarkable that, by positing the negative of just one of our great constitutional tenets, the entire balance of our political, social, and economic reality would be rendered utterly unrecognizable. Even were one not unpersuaded by the content of George’s ideas, one could not but tremble at the thought of casting away the entire philosophic cornerstone of society.  As my college physics professor liked to say, it is not the rate of travel that results in automobile collisions, it is the displacement in rates of the colliding bodies.  I might object to your traveling at 70 mph, but I only heighten the likelihood of our convergence by endeavoring, at a reduced rate, to concurrently share the same bit of asphalt.  In the same way, George undermines his stated objective to avoid tyranny and anarchy by suggesting we might better enjoy all the same accoutrements of American life if we only turn on its head that pesky notion of private ownership of property.  In fact, I can think of no surer way to arrive at such unmitigated dispair.

[As Richard Weaver put it, “any plan, however arbitrary, will yield something better than chaos—this truth is merely a matter of definition.”]

[Weaver again on profundity of shifting the definitions of noumenal concepts:

To one group “democracy” means access to the franchise; to another it means economic equality administered by a dictatorship. . . . What has happened to the one world of meaning?  It has been lost for want of definers.  Teachers of the present order have not enough courage to be definers; lawmakers have not enough insight.

. . . . Drift and circumstance have been permitted to change language so that the father has difficulty in speaking to the son; he endeavors to speak, but he cannot make the realness of his experience evident to the child.  This circumstance, as much as any other, lies behind the defeat of tradition.  Progress makes father and child live in different worlds, and speech fails to provide a means to bridge them.  The word is almost in limbo, where the positivists have wished to consign it. ]


Written by Tim Kowal

January 1, 2010 at 8:07 pm

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