essays

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1897

After Nestor: Liberty as the Great Equalizer

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

For Tucker, Liberty was The Great Abolitionist, smasher of profit, rent, monopoly, and any other social contrivance separating labor from its fruits.

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Part Four: Land and Rent

 

Economic Rent. 

(published in Liberty on November 5, 1892)

To the Editor of Liberty:

I have often seen it claimed that under the Anarchistic organization of society economic rent would disappear, or be reduced to an insignificant amount. But I have never yet been satisfied with any explanation of the way in which this is to be brought about.

Some speak as if the abolition of rent were to be an immediate result of the abolition of interest, apparently taking the ground that rent is a product of the selling price of land and the interest of money. But according to the accepted theory of economists (the only one that I have learned to understand), rent is the independent factor, and the selling price is the product of rent and interest.

I have also seen it claimed that under liberty there will be no great cities, and therefore no city prices for land. I can understand that liberty will make the masses richer, or that they will be better able to choose the home which pleases them; and that it will make them saner, so that they will better appreciate the attractions of country life. But cities will still offer the greatest opportunities for making money, and many social and æsthetic advantages. I cannot believe, therefore, that great cities will disappear.

As to the freeing of vacant land, I do not remember to have heard that this would destroy any but speculative rent. There might perhaps be a greater relief at first, while the vacant land was being taken up. But certainly within a short time—within a year, I should say—all land which had any special advantage over ordinary farming land would be occupied, and these special advantages would be in the hands of the occupiers.

On the other hand, it must be remembered that, if any economic rent is left, every advance in prosperity will naturally tend to increase this rent. And liberty is to cause an advance in prosperity.

Again, when vacant land is free, cities can be settled more compactly. This will intensify the peculiar advantages of city life, and thereby increase the demand for city and suburban land. The effect of free vacant land would, I imagine, be closely analogous to that of rapid transit, which was expected to decrease rent, but has instead increased it.

How, then, is economic rent to be got out of the way?

Stephen T. Byington

Liberty has never stood with those who profess to show on strictly economic grounds that economic rent must disappear or even decrease as a result of the application of the Anarchistic principle. It sees no chance for that factor in the human constitution which makes competition such a powerful influence—namely, the disposition to buy in the cheapest market—to act directly upon economic rent in a way to reduce it. This disposition to buy cheap, which in a free market is fatal to all other forms of usury, is on the contrary the mainstay of economic rent, whether the market be free or restricted. When, through freedom of banking, it shall become possible to furnish money at cost, no one will pay for money more than cost; and hence interest on money, as well as on all capital consisting of commodities which money will buy and to the production of which there is no natural limit, will necessarily disappear. But the occupant of land who is enabled, by its superiority, to undersell his neighbor and at the same time to reap, through his greater volume of business, more profit than his neighbor, enjoys this economic rent precisely because of his opportunity to exploit the consumer’s disposition to buy cheap. The effect of freedom is not felt here in the same way and with the same directness that it is felt elsewhere.

There are other grounds, however, some of them indirectly economic, some of them purely sentimental, which justify the belief of the Anarchist that a condition of freedom will gradually modify to a very appreciable extent the advantage enjoyed by the occupant of superior land. Take first one that is indirectly economic. I agree with my correspondent that great cities are not destined to disappear. But I believe also that they will be able to maintain their existence only by offering their advantages at a lower price than they now exact. When the laborer, in consequence of his increased wages and greater welfare resulting from the abolition of interest, shall enjoy a larger freedom of locomotion, shall be tied down less firmly to a particular employment, and shall be able to remove to the country with greater facility and in possession of more capital than he can now command, and when the country, partly because of this mobility of labor and partly because of the advances in science, shall continually offer a nearer approach to the undoubted privileges of city life, the representatives of commercial and other interests in the great cities will be able to hold their patrons about them only by lowering their prices and contenting themselves with smaller gains. In other words, economic rent will lessen. Here the disposition to buy cheap, not any special commodity, but an easy life, does exert an indirect and general influence upon economic rent. And, under this influence and yielding to it, the city may increase in prosperity simultaneously with the decline of economic rent. Nay, the increase in prosperity may accelerate this decline; for under liberty increased prosperity means also well-distributed prosperity, which means in turn a lowering of the barriers between classes and a consequent tendency to equalize the different localities of the city one with another.

Upon the sentimental grounds for believing in the evanescence of economic rent it is perhaps not worth while to dwell. I have an aversion to definite speculations based on hypothetical transformations in human nature. Yet I cannot doubt that the disappearance of interest will result in an attitude of hostility to usury in any form, which will ultimately cause any person who charges more than cost for any product to be regarded very much as we now regard a pickpocket. In this way, too, economic rent will suffer diminution.

I think my correspondent fails to understand what is meant by the freeing of vacant land. It does not mean simply the freeing of unoccupied land. It means the freeing of all land not occupied by the owner. In other words, it means land ownership limited by occupancy and use. This would destroy not only speculative but monopolistic rent, leaving no rent except the economic form, which will be received, while it lasts, not as a sum paid by occupant to owner, but as an extra and usurious reward for labor performed under special advantages.

But even if economic rent had to be considered a permanency; if the considerations which I have urged should prove of no avail against it,—it would be useless, tyrannical, and productive of further tyranny to confiscate it. In the first place, if I have a right to a share of the advantages that accrue from the possession of superior land, then that share is mine; it is my property; it is like any other property of mine; no man, no body of men, is entitled to decide how this property shall be used; and any man or body of men attempting so to decide deprives me of my property just as truly as the owner of the superior land deprives me of it if allowed to retain the economic rent. In fact, still assuming that this property is mine, I prefer, if I must be robbed of it, to be robbed by the land-owner, who is likely to spend it in some useful way, rather than by an institution called government, which probably will spend it for fireworks or something else which I equally disapprove. If the property is mine, I claim it, to do as I please with; if it is not mine, it is impertinent, dishonest, and tyrannical for anybody to forcibly take it from the land-occupant on the pretence that it is mine and to spend it in my name. It is precisely this, however, that the Single-Taxers propose, and it is this that makes the Single Tax a State Socialistic measure. There was never anything more absurd than the supposition of some Single-Taxers that this tax can be harmonized with Anarchism.

But I now and then meet a Single-Taxer who allows that the government, after confiscating his economic rent, has no right to devote it to any so-called public purposes, but should distribute it to the people. Supposing the people to be entitled to the economic rent, this certainly looks on its face like a much saner and more honest proposition than that of the ordinary Single-Taxer. But the question at once arises: Who is to pay the government officials for their services in confiscating the economic rent and handing me my share of it? And how much is to be paid them? And who is to decide these matters? When I reflect that under such a Single-Tax system the occupants of superior land are likely to become the politicians and to tax back from the people to pay their salaries what the people have taxed out of them as economic rent, again I say that, even if a part of the economic rent is rightly mine, I prefer to leave it in the pocket of the land-owner, since it is bound to ultimately get back there. As M. Schneider, the Carnegie of France, said in a recent interview with a Figaro reporter: “Even if we were to have a collectivist system of society and my property should be confiscated, I believe that I am shrewd enough to find a way to feather my nest just the same.” M. Schneider evidently understands State Socialism better than the State Socialists themselves. The Socialists and the Single-Taxers will have attained their paradise when they are robbed by officials instead of by landlords and capitalists.

In my view it is idle to discuss what shall be done with the economic rent after it has been confiscated, for I distinctly deny the propriety of confiscating it at all. There are two ways, and only two, of effecting the distribution of wealth. One is the natural operation of economic law; the other is to distribute it arbitrarily by authority in accordance with statute law. One is Anarchism; the other is State Socialism. The latter, in its worst and most probable form, is the exploitation of labor by officialdom, and at its best is a régime of spiritless equality secured at the expense of liberty and progress; the former is a régime of liberty and progress, with as close an approximation to equality as is compatible therewith. And this is all the equality that we ought to have. A greater equality than is compatible with liberty is undesirable. The moment we invade liberty to secure equality we enter upon a road which knows no stopping-place short of the annihilation of all that is best in the human race. If absolute equality is the ideal; if no man must have the slightest advantage over another,—then the man who achieves greater results through superiority of muscle or skill or brain must not be allowed to enjoy them. All that he produces in excess of that which the weakest and stupidest produce must be taken from him and distributed among his fellows. The economic rent, not of land only, but of strength and skill and intellect and superiority of every kind, must be confiscated. And a beautiful world it would be when absolute equality had been thus achieved! Who would live in it? Certainly no freeman.

Liberty will abolish interest; it will abolish profit; it will abolish monopolistic rent; it will abolish taxation; it will abolish the exploitation of labor; it will abolish all means whereby any laborer can be deprived of any of his product; but it will not abolish the limited inequality between one laborer’s product and another’s. Now, because it has not this power last named, there are people who say: We will have no liberty, for we must have absolute equality. I am not of them. If I can go through life free and rich, I shall not cry because my neighbor, equally free, is richer. Liberty will ultimately make all men rich; it will not make all men equally rich. Authority may (and may not) make all men equally rich in purse; it certainly will make them equally poor in all that makes life best worth living.

 

Liberty and Property. 

(published in Liberty on December 31, 1892)

To the Editor of Liberty:

I can agree with much that you say in your answer to my letter in No. 244 of Liberty, but I do not think you have proved your case.

In the first place, I object to your assumption that the plan proposed by Anarchists would realize equal liberty with regard to the land. You praise the idea of “letting wealth distribute itself in a free market.” I echo your praises; but I cannot see that they are anything to the point of this discussion, for you do not offer a free market.

It is part of my liberty to use any land that I can use. When another man takes a piece of land for his own and warns me off it, he exceeds the limits of equal liberty towards me with respect to that land. If equally valuable land were open to me, the importance of his invasion would be mainly theoretical; but when he shuts me out of a corner lot on lower Broadway, and asks me to console myself by taking up a New England “abandoned farm,” it seems to me that I am receiving a very practical injury. It might be a sort of reason in his favor if he were putting the land to better use than I could. His title rests simply on the fact that he was there first, either by accident or because he had better speculative foresight than I. The presence of his improvements on the land is the result of his invasion, and therefore cannot justify it.

The case of the man who receives what you call “the economic rent of strength and skill” is not parallel, for he has not gained his advantage by hindering another from using the strength and skill which were within that other’s reach.

Now, I say: “I am not willing to waive my rights in this land unless the holder will buy me off by paying a fair equivalent. I see no way in which I can collect this equivalent by myself, or through an organization representing only a part of the people. Therefore I consent that one board of authority shall assume to represent the whole people for this purpose, in order to prevent what seems to me a greater invasion on the part of the land-owner.” You say “I consent to this invasion on the part of a bona fide occupier, rather than to admit a compulsory tax; for I think that the latter is in itself a greater invasion, and also that it would be an entering wedge for the whole mass of government.” Each of us proposes to waive one part of equal liberty for the sake of preserving another part. The only question is on which side the maximum of liberty lies. Certainly any force which I might use in carrying out my principle would be “against force”; and I think that, if private possession of land is responsible for as much evil as I suppose, it constitutes an emergency great enough to justify me in overriding the opposition of those who do not agree with me.

I am not convinced by your objection that the single-tax money would be used up in paying tax-collectors’ salaries. There is nothing to hinder paying them by voluntary taxation. If I were enacting a law to suit my own fancy, I would confiscate rent, and then let every one who chose draw his per capita share, with no deduction for salaries or anything else. But I should expect comparatively few would choose to take out their shares under penalty of paying retail prices for privileges which would be free, or below cost, to those who remained partners in the large fund. Collectors’ salaries should be paid out of this large, undivided fund, which would be a voluntary tax on those who chose not to take out their shares. At any rate, whether this is possible or not, if the people believe that the advantages of confiscating rent are worth the sum spent for collection, they will be willing to pay that sum voluntarily; if they do not believe so, they will not confiscate rent.

Of course distribution at so much per capita is a terribly wooden way of trying to give every man his own, and I should be glad of a better. Aside from that, I cannot see how my plan, if carried out in good faith, would disagree with the law of equal liberty. I expect you to answer that it could not be carried out in good faith.

Your editorial makes two points against the single tax. You say first that the money would be badly spent. I answer, then let us spend it better. Then you say, very soundly, that it is idle to discuss what shall be done with the confiscated rent when the question is as to the propriety of confiscating at all. Your second point is that the single tax is authoritarian, and you favor liberty. I answer that you propose to use force to support the occupier of land in a plain invasion of my rights. You have no right to call that liberty. Perhaps it may be the nearest possible approach to liberty; I think not.

As to the relief that your system might bring, I object to your “sentimental” ground for expecting rent to diminish. If I understand you, you expect the occupier of valuable ground to sell his goods below competitive prices. The result might be that some lucky ones would get special bargains, while their neighbors must go without, or that people would stand in line before this merchant’s door till they had wasted time enough to make up the difference in price, or that he would employ extra men till the law of diminishing returns brought his prices up to an equality with others. In the first case the rent would simply be divided among a larger number, while others would be left out in the cold as much as before. In the second and third cases, it would be disposed of by what is equivalent to throwing it into the river. Neither way suits me. Of course, the result I should expect in practice would be a complex of the three in disguised forms.

Stephen T. Byington

Let me begin my brief rejoinder by expressing my appreciation of my opponent. Once in a great while one meets an adversary who confines himself to the question at issue, resorts to no evasion, reasons himself, and is willing to listen to reason. Such a man, I am sure, is Mr. Byington, though I know him only by his writings. It is pleasant to debate with him, after having to deal continually with the Merlinos, the Mosts, the Hudspeths, and the whole host of those who cannot think.

Mr. Byington’s erroneous conclusions regarding the confiscation of economic rent are due, as I view it, to his confusion of liberties with rights, or, perhaps I might better say, to his foundation of equality of liberty upon a supposed equality of rights. I take issue with him at the very start by denying the dogma of equality of rights,—in fact, by denying rights altogether except those acquired by contract. In times past, when, though already an Egoist and knowing then as now that every man acts and always will act solely from an interest in self, I had not considered the bearing of Egoism upon the question of obligation, it was my habit to talk glibly and loosely of the right of man to the land. It was a bad habit, and I long ago sloughed it off. Man’s only right over the land is his might over it. If his neighbor is mightier than he and takes the land from him, then the land is his neighbor’s until the latter is dispossessed in turn by one mightier still. But while the danger of such dispossession continues there is no society, no security, no comfort. Hence men contract. They agree upon certain conditions of land ownership, and will protect no title in the absence of the conditions fixed upon. The object of this contract is not to enable all to benefit equally from the land, but to enable each to hold securely at his own disposal the results of his efforts expended upon such portion of the earth as he may possess under the conditions agreed upon. It is principally to secure this absolute control of the results of one’s effort that equality of liberty is instituted, not as a matter of right, but as a social convenience. I have always maintained that liberty is of greater importance than wealth,—in other words, that man derives more happiness from freedom than from luxury,—and this is true; but there is another sense in which wealth, or rather property, is of greater importance than liberty. Man has but little to gain from liberty unless that liberty includes the liberty to control what he produces. One of the chief purposes of equal liberty is to secure this fundamental necessity of property, and, if property is not thereby secured, the temptation is to abandon the régime of contract and return to the reign of the strongest.

Now the difference between the equal liberty of the Anarchists and the system which Mr. Byington and the Single-Taxers consider equal liberty is this: the former secures property, while the latter violates it.

The Anarchists say to the individual: “Occupancy and use is the only title to land in which we will protect you; if you attempt to use land which another is occupying and using, we will protect him against you; if another attempts to use land to which you lay claim, but which you are not occupying and using, we will not interfere with him; but of such land as you occupy and use you are the sole master, and we will not ourselves take from you, or allow any one else to take from you, whatever you may get out of such land.”

The Single-Taxers, on the other hand, say to the individual: “You may hold all the land you have inherited or bought, or may inherit or buy, and we will protect you in such holding; but, if you produce more from your land than your neighbors produce from theirs, we will take from you the excess of your product over theirs and distribute it among them, or we will spend it in taking a free ride whenever we want to go anywhere, or we will make any use of it, wise or foolish, that may come into our heads.”

The reader who compares these two positions will need no comment of mine to enable him to decide “on which side the maximum of liberty lies,” and on which side property, or the individual control of product, is respected.

If Mr. Byington does not accept my view thus outlined, it is incumbent upon him to overthrow it by proving to me that man has a right to land; if he does accept it, he must see that it completely disposes of his assertion that “when another man takes a piece of land for his own and warns me off it, he exceeds the limits of equal liberty toward me with respect to that land,” upon which assertion all his argument rests.

I see an excellent opportunity for some interesting and forcible remarks in comment upon Mr. Byington’s concluding paragraph, but, desiring to confine the discussion to essentials for the present, I refrain.

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