Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

Loading Table of Contents...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Appropriating Ground Rent Is Aggression

The standard Libertarian dogma on the needy -- let 'em beg -- is simply wrong.  The best libertarian answer to poverty derives from correcting a standard Libertarian misunderstanding of property rights.  That misunderstanding consists in ignoring Locke's insight that excluding people from the commons -- i.e. enclosing unowned land for exclusive ownership -- is naked aggression if that exclusion does not leave "as much and as good" for others.  Land (i.e. space, locations, sites, sections of the Earth's surface) cannot be created or moved or destroyed by anyone's labor, and so is a different category of property than that created by re-arranging matter.  Land (i.e. spacetime) is the coordinate system, and matter (i.e. mass-energy) is what exists in the coordinate system.  Owning a set of spatial coordinates is fundamentally different from owning the matter that currently exists there.  This seemingly academic distinction turns out to be the key to rescuing libertarianism from self-imposed moral bankruptcy.

In the state of nature there are always marginal but productive sites available for use by the destitute, and faithful historical observation of the Lockean proviso (leaving "as much and as good") should have always ensured that this remained the case even to this day.  To the extent that it is no longer the case, excluding people from access to the natural productive opportunities on what used to be the commons is unjust -- i.e. is aggression.  Standard anarcholibertarianism seeks to institutionalize this aggression -- ironically doing so in the name of de-institutionalizing aggression. The aggression that it institutionalizes is a subtle one called the appropriation of ground rent.

Ground rent is the advantage you get from exclusive use of a site compared to the most productive available site that is not in use.  In effect, ground rent is the extra income a site earns because of the exclusivity of its location within the community, as compared to what such a site would earn at the edge of the community.  Technically, ground rent is is the extra income obtained by using a site in its most productive use, compared to the income obtained by applying equivalent inputs of labor and capital at the most productive site where the application doesn't require (additional) payments for use of the site. Thus ground rent doesn't include the income from any labor-based site improvements -- buildings, irrigation, swamp drainage, etc.  Instead, ground rent includes just the benefit a site derives from the surrounding community by forcibly excluding them from it.

Geolibertarians say ground rent should be considered part of the commons (like the atmosphere, EM spectrum, etc.), with each individual having an equal right of access to it.  In practice, the way to undo the aggression of site monopolization is through a land value tax.  This allows a government to finance both rights protection and aid to the indigent, all without any force initiation.   The fundamental principle is that each person has full rights to his body, labor, peaceful production, and voluntary exchanges, but he must compensate those whose access he impairs when he monopolizes, consumes, pollutes, or congests a natural commons.  Details and references are available at


Daniel Grow said...

The quote from John Locke's from 1689 Second Treatise of
Government, paragraph 27 is: "Though the earth, and all inferior creatures
be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person.
This nobody has a right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the
work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he
removes out of the state that nature has provided, and left it in, he
has mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own,
and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the
common state nature placed it in, it has by this labor something annexed
to it, that excludes the common right of other men. For this labor being
the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a
right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough,
and as good left in common for others."

You will neither be the first nor the last to grasp on to a
sentence here or there from Locke. Like Karl Marx and his discussion of
exploitation, it is easy to ignore the subsequent works that evolved the
ideas discussed by Locke, instead grabbing onto words out discussions of
much broader topics. Recall that Locke sought to avoid any conclusion
that property existed at the consent of society and that consent could
be withdrawn or modified by the society which sanctioned it originally.
Locke would also emphasize that the activity by which private property
is acquired is the very same activity which makes the earth more
supportive of human life.

It is Marx that adds the claims relating to rent being evidence of
surplus value created by the worker its expropriation by the property
owner. To Locke, interest and rents were market means of allocating
resources from less enterprising to the more enterprising. (See, e.g.,
Locke's "Some Considerations," p. 57) While it is not necessary to
equate the view of Locke's writings by Marx to yours, it is
plain that it is perilous to ignore the 300 years of discussion that has
occurred since Locke's words were penned while gripping tightly on a
single phrase.

And even if it is taken as true that the Lockean Proviso justifies
private ownership only to the point "where there is enough and as good
left in common for others," the proviso is easily revealed as an
absurdity. As explained by Brian Summers in 1981, if oil companies must
leave "enough and as good oil in the ground for others," where should
they stop? If the last barrel of oil must be left in the ground for our
children, then our children must - leave the last barrel for their
children, and so on. No one may ever take the last barrel. But if the
last barrel is permanently off limits, then anyone taking the next to
last barrel, would not be leaving "enough and as good in common for
others." No one may ever take the next to last barrel. Similarly with
all other barrels of oil. Pushed to its limits, the Lockean proviso
prohibits anyone from ever taking any nonrenewable scarce natural

Brian Holtz said...

Locke also wrote: "He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another's labour: if he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another's pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on, and whereof there was as good left, as that already possessed, and more than he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to."

For more on this topic, see "Common Rights and Collective Rights" by Dan Sullivan at

The Summers criticism is trivially rebutted. See the hint labeled "Resource Severance" at

Econ Amateur said...

If this isn't a sly ad-homonym attack then the reference to Marx is completely irrelevant. Since he admits the irrelevance, one can conclude the sly ad-homonym was the point.

However that being said, not even Marx was wrong 100% of the time.

We all agree that payment for scarce resources at market rates is needed to best allocate them. But there is no purpose served in having these payments collected privately. A small percentage can be left available to drive market evaluations. But since the condition for rent collection comes from initiated exclusionary force, those values belong to the people whose freedom has been restricted. Thus the demands of equal freedom and prohibiting the postive feedback to aggression, drive a need to minimize that market available rent to the smallest practical amount.

The point that Locke's proviso makes no sense in practice, is valid. But the practice of Lockes proviso is not its salient point. Locke was pointing out that not leaving as good for others is aggression. And this is true. It would take the Physiocrats, Thomas Paine, and finally Henry Goerge to point out that a payment for this aggression is sufficient to meet the needs of "as good for others".

Thomas Drumm said...

Thomas Paine's last writing, "Agrarian Justice," incorporated the notion of"ground rent." (1797)