07 October, 2009

How Do We Achieve the Wider Distribution of Land?

This will undoubtedly be considered very controversial by modern capitalists. While there are other aspects of our economic society that must also be addressed, land is the foundational component of all means of production. Under capitalism, as practiced in the modern world, there is practically no limit on the accumulation of land. A single person or company can accumulate vast amount of land, thereby gaining a disproportionate control of the primary means of production. Some may argue that smaller businesses can always rent land, but the requirement to do this puts them at the mercy of the land owner being willing to rent the land for their business. The distributist ideal would allow as much economic independence, and corresponding freedom, as possible. Therefore, we prefer that land ownership be as widely distributed as possible. It is better for the small proprietor to own the land on which he conducts his business, than to be dependent on the willingness of another to allow the use of the land. Therefore, in order for distributism be implemented, some means of establishing the wider ownership of land must be established. We must have a means of getting us from where we are to where we want to be.

One thing to consider regarding this is perfection. Just as neither capitalism, nor socialism can attain what they propose as a perfect society, we must not promise more than can be reasonably expected to be delivered even if we were given a free hand. Perfection in distributism would only be achieved if every family owned their own land for living and providing a living. This level of perfection is not likely to be attained in any human society. We must be prepared when our critics try to discredit our system on the basis that it cannot be implemented to perfection. No human system can achieve absolute perfection. Therefore, as Hilaire Belloc asserted, the practical goal would be to establish a wide enough ownership of land to set the overall tone of society. This must be admitted up front. We proclaim the ideal, and try to achieve it as far as possible. The reality is that, due to various situations and decisions, some will own more land than others and some will be landless. In economic activity, however, there will generally be a wide ownership of land. This is the practical view of distributism.

Another thing to consider is justice. The main reason for wanting to establish the wide distribution of land ownership is that we believe doing so will create an economic environment that will be more just (as well as more stable). However, the method of achieving this end cannot itself be unjust. The laws that govern our current economic environment have favored big business over small for so long, that vast amounts of our country's wealth have been consolidated to a huge degree. (Apologies to all of the die-hard capitalists out there, but we DO live in a plutocracy here in the United States of America.) The means of reversing this will take time. It will not only require changes in our attitudes, but also changes in our laws that might be considered “unfair” to those who have been raised to accept monopolies. Do I therefore advocate some sort of revenge? No, but, just as laws favor big businesses in societies that favor big businesses, laws must favor small businesses in a society that favors small businesses. What changes can we make to laws, and what policies can we implement, to achieve the widest possible distribution of land without being unjust?

Not all possible methods of achieving a widely distributed ownership of land are just. Many, if not all, of them will have some negative effects that must be weighed against the positive outcomes we are hoping to achieve. It is therefore necessary to become familiar with the principles of double-effect. When an act necessarily has two results, one of which is good and the other bad, careful consideration must be given to both results. Therefore the methods actually employed to achieve a widely distributed ownership of land must be carefully considered. Once put in place, they must be monitored and re-evaluated in case the outcomes are not what was intended.

The act itself cannot be unjust; that fact outweighs other considerations including the desired result. There must also be due proportion between the two results; the just outcome must be greater than the unjust one.

There are those who believe that property tax is inherently unjust on the grounds that it effectively eliminates true ownership (turning the owner into nothing more than a renter from the state). If this view is accepted, we could not then claim that it is acceptable to impose a property tax on large land holders. However, could one be considered on the “excess” portion of their land. I have trouble with that.

Could we force them to sell land for a “just” compensation, similar to “Immanent Domain?” My own opinion is that Immanent Domain is an idea that can not be viewed as a general solution. It should never be applied to benefit private businesses. Even when it is considered for the “common good,” it should only be a last resort.

Could we restrict the ability to use excess land for profit? For example, could we allow the rental of property for housing, but not for businesses? How about establishing tax incentives to encourage them to sell? Could we impose a progressive tax to discourage new accumulations of large amounts of land, as Belloc suggests? Should we prohibit foreign ownership of land? I think so.

These are the questions with which we must struggle in our efforts to convince others of the wisdom of our system. Without such answers, we will never succeed in convincing anyone. After all, we are in a society that accepts monopoly so completely, that games extolling monopolistic practices have been created for our children. The perfect example is the game by the very name, Monopoly. The goal of the game? Buy up everything, drive your competitors into bankruptcy, gain control over the whole board. As you progress, you even get to drive up the prices by adding more houses or upgrading to hotels, or by owning a greater share of the rail roads or utilities. That, my friends, is a perfect example of the type of economic system under which we currently live.

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