Common Rights vs. Collective Rights
by Dan Sullivan, founder, Geolibertarian Society, and past chair, Libertarian Party of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania
One of the great tragedies of socialism has been the confounding of common rights (natural rights common to each individual) with collective rights (those that have been delegated to the community or its government). Common rights are inalienable, individual rights -- the very opposite of collective rights. Classical liberalism was based on the idea of common rights.
Free Speech: A Surviving Common Right
Freedom of speech is perhaps the best contemporary example of a common right, because it is still recognized, even among socialists, as an individual right. In public places, each individual has a right to express himself, limited only by the equal rights of others. No person, no majority of people, and no agency of the community has a right to interfere with a person speaking within his rights.
It is when people shout down others, or monopolize a public forum to prevent others from speaking, that they go beyond the limits of their rights, for at this point, their speech denies others the similar right to speak, which right the others equally possess.
The legitimate role of government being to protect these rights, government acts rightfully when it insures that all may speak, but acts wrongfully when it decides, or lets the majority decide, who may speak or what may be said. In doing so, it subverts a common right into a collective right, effectively destroying the rights of those individuals who are excluded.
Common Property vs. Collective Property
A parallel confusion exists between common property and collective property, and the classical liberal concept of common property has been all but obliterated. An open park perhaps comes closest to the idea of common property, for anyone has an equal right of access to the park. However, restrictions on what one may do in a park, to the degree that they are arbitrary, render the park a collective property.
A government maintenance building, on the other hand, is truly a collective property. Nobody is granted a right to trespass except on government-sanctioned business. This is another distinction blurred by socialists, who refer to "common property," but who propose to put that property under the control of governments, collectives, and majorities.
Common Property and Common Law
Prior to the degeneration of common-law communities into feudalism, land other than royal estates (government property) was held, not collectively, but "in common." This meant that any person had a right to take up land and use it, and in so doing, hold it in his exclusive possession for as long as he continued using it. The limit to this right was that he could not hold land out of use, nor take up so much as to deprive others their own right to similarly take up land. "Lords" (literally "great people") were given responsibility to serve as land stewards, and to settle disputes over access to land. (The royal family name "Stuart" is an early spelling of "steward.")
Gradually, however, lords exercised more and more control over the common property, sometimes converting it into collective property, and sometimes allocating more land to themselves and their assigns, thereby converting it into private property. Much land that had not been claimed as property of the nobility was set aside "for the preservation of game" (a precursor of modern wilderness preserves). In both ways, they violated the common-law right of access to the earth.
The Lockean Proviso
John Locke's chapter "On Property," from his Second Treatise on Government, asserted that any person has a right to exclusive possession of land, "provided that there is enough, and as good, left to others." This is but another way of saying that the common right to hold land is limited only by the equal rights of others. As long as this proviso is met, the landholder has no reciprocal obligation to the community or its members, because his holding land has not prevented others from exercising their rights to do likewise.
Locke also noted that economies relying on private possession of land are vastly more productive than nomadic economies, and that it is in the public interest to grant possession within the limits of his proviso.
Locke further noted that his proviso referred to there being land as good as the unimproved value of the land already taken up:
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. [Sec. 34]
Locke went on to state that, when populations were sparse and the economy was not fully monetized, there was no incentive for people to take up more land than they intended to use, and so there was little violation of the rights of others. However, with the growth of population, good land became scarce, and with the introduction of money, it became profitable for people to take up land they had no intention of using, so that others would pay them to let go of that land. It is at this point that Locke's proviso was violated, and systems of land tenure had to be established by social compact.
Locke did not state what the particulars of social compacts should be, but it would be logical for him to advocate a compact that would be harmonious with his proviso that land should be accessible to others, and with his other proviso, that land should not be appropriated to be held out of use.
Herbert Spencer's Error
In 1850, when Herbert Spencer was relatively young, he wrote Social Statics, a truly radical work that challenged the authority of the state generally, and land titles particularly. In doing so, however, he argued that a person did not have a right to use land except by permission of the community. This assertion substituted a notion of collective rights for that of common rights.
In response, Henry George wrote A Perplexed Philosopher -- a thorough critique of Social Statics and of Spencer's later renunciation of his libertarian assertions. In this critique, George made a clear distinction between common rights and collective rights.
The fact is, that without noticing the change, Mr. Spencer has dropped the idea of equal rights to land, and taken up in its stead a different idea -- that of joint rights to land. That there is a difference may be seen at once. For joint rights may be and often are unequal rights.
The matter is an important one, as it is the source of a great deal of popular confusion. Let me, therefore, explain it fully.
When men have equal rights to a thing, as for instance, to the rooms and appurtenances of a club of which they are members, each has a right to use all or any part of the thing that no other one of them is using. It is only where there is use or some indication of use by one of the others that even politeness dictates such a phrase as "Allow me!" or "If you please!"
But where men have joint rights to a thing, as for instance, to a sum of money held to their joint credit, then the consent of all the others is required for the use of the thing or of any part of it, by any one of them.
Now, the rights of men to the use of land are not joint rights: they are equal rights.
Were there only one man on earth, he would have a right to the use of the whole earth or any part of the earth.
When there is more than one man on earth, the right to the use of land that any one of them would have, were he alone, is not abrogated: it is only limited. The right of each to the use of land is still a direct, original right, which he holds of himself, and not by the gift or consent of the others; but it has become limited by the similar rights of the others, and is therefore an equal right. His right to use the earth still continues; but it has become, by reason of this limitation, not an absolute right to use any part of the earth, but (1) an absolute right to use any part of the earth as to which his use does not conflict with the equal rights of others (i.e., which no one else wants to use at the same time), and (2) a coequal right to the use of any part of the earth which he and others may want to use at the same time.
It is, thus, only where two or more men want to use the same land at the same time that equal rights to the use of land come in conflict, and the adjustment of society becomes necessary.
If we keep this idea of equal rights in mind -- the idea, namely, that the rights are the first thing, and the equality merely their limitation -- we shall have no difficulty. It is through forgetting this that Mr. Spencer has been led into confusion.
In Chapter IX., "The Right to the Use of the Earth," he correctly apprehends and states the right to the use of land as an equal right. He says:
Each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants,
Here, in the first clause, is the primary right; in the second clause, the proviso or limitation.
But in the next chapter, "The Right of Property," he has, seemingly without noticing it himself, substituted for the idea of equal rights to land the idea of joint rights to land. He says (Section 1):
No amount of labor, bestowed by an individual upon a part of the earth's surface, can nullify the title of society to that part, . . . no one can, by the mere act of appropriating to himself any wild unclaimed animal or fruit, supersede the joint claims of other men to it. It may be quite true that the labor a man expends in catching or gathering, gives him a better right to the thing caught or gathered, than any one other man; but the question at issue is, whether by labor so expended, he has made his right to the thing caught or gathered, greater than the preexisting rights of all other men put together. And unless he can prove that he has done this, his title to possession cannot be admitted as a matter of right, but can be conceded only on the ground of convenience.
Here the primary right -- the right by which "each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants" -- has been dropped out of sight, and the mere proviso has been swelled into the importance of the primary right, and has taken its place.
What Mr. Spencer here asserts, without noticing his change of position, is not that the rights of men to the use of land are equal rights, but that they are joint rights. And, from this careless shifting of ground, he is led, not only into hypercritical questioning of Locke's derivation of the right of property, but into the assumption that a man can have no right to the wild berries he has gathered on an untrodden prairie, unless he can prove the consent of all other men to his taking them. This reductio ad absurdum is a deduction from the idea of joint rights to land, whereas the deduction from the equality of rights to land would be that under such circumstances a man would have a right to take all the berries he wanted, and that all other men together would have no right to forbid him. Indeed, so great is Mr. Spencer's confusion, and so utterly unable does he become to assume a clear and indisputable right of property, that, be has to cut the knot into which he has tangled the subject, and finds no escape but in the preposterous declaration that the dictates of ethics have no application to, and do not exist in, any social state except that of the highest civilization.
Locke was not in error. The right of property in things produced by labor -- and this is the only true right of property -- springs directly from the right of the individual to himself, or as Locke expresses it, from his "property in his own person." It is as clear and has as fully the sanction of equity in any savage state as in the most elaborate civilization. Labor can, of course, produce nothing without land; but the right to the use of land is a primary individual right, not springing from society, or depending on the consent of society, either expressed or implied, but inhering in the individual, and resulting from his presence in the world. Men must have rights before they can have equal rights. Each man has a right to use the world because he is here and wants to use the world. The equality of this right is merely a limitation arising from the presence of others with like rights. Society, in other words, does not grant, and cannot equitably withhold from any individual, the right to the use of land. That right exists before society and independently of society, belonging at birth to each individual, and ceasing only with his death. Society itself has no original right to the use of land. What right it has with regard to the use of land is simply that which is derived from and is necessary to the determination of the rights of the individuals who compose it. That is to say, the function of society with regard to the use of land only begins where individual rights clash, and is to secure equality between these clashing rights of individuals. [Chapter 4, "Mr. Spencer's Confusion as to Rights."]
The Nature of Rent
Clearly, the statements above assert that society or government has no right to withhold land from individuals, nor to arbitrarily impose rent charges, but merely to resolve disputes between individuals to protect each one's right of access to the earth.
Natural rent is the economic manifestation of conflicting desires for land. It is an expression of what people without a particular parcel of land are willing to pay in order to hold it. It exists without government and existed prior to government. The only question before government is that of who is the rightful recipient of rent.
Consider three fair-minded people who have come to inhabit an island, where sustenance is derived from fishing and from a small coconut grove. As there are plenty of fish and plenty of fine places from which one can fish, no conflict, and, therefore, no rent, arises. However, as the coconut grove is small, and all three people have an interest in possessing it, it becomes a matter of dispute, which can be most equitably resolved by the utilization of rent.
They could, of course, divide the coconut grove in three, but if it is inefficient for each to tend a third of the grove, they might resolve the dispute as follows:
One might say, "If you give me exclusive access to the grove, I will give you four coconuts per week per week to divide between you."
Another, who believes he is more talented at maintaining a coconut grove, offers five coconuts per week. Ultimately, the highest bidder gets the grove, and the other two get the rent. This rent is a natural rent, and is used to equitably resolve the clash of conflicting rights to land. Thus, the rent does not belong to "society," but the individuals who have given up their rights to the land itself. The role of government as an intermediary arises only when there are so many people that direct resolution becomes impractical.
Rent-sharing also lends itself to renegotiation should conditions change. That is, if one person dies, or a fourth person appears, or if it is realized that the coconut grove is more or less valuable than initially thought, rent can be adjusted accordingly.
However, a central principle is that each person rightly owns the fruits of his labor. It is therefore necessary to separate the value of improvements the holder had made to the coconut grove from the value of the grove itself. The technology of this is addressed elsewhere. Here we are concerned with ethics, and with the idea that unequal distribution of land can be made to conform to equal rights through an equal distribution of rent, leaving to the landholder the value of his improvements.
The term "rack rent" arose in Ireland, after English lords took possession of the country and held large tracts of land out of use. The artificial shortage of available land forced tenants to offer, not just a natural rent, but a "rack rent" of nearly all they could afford to pay.
Similarly, if joint rights are substituted for equal rights, access to land could be altogether denied by society or its agent; government could similarly rack-rent its citizens; and the rent could be arbitrarily retained by government instead of being returned to the people.
Although Henry George recognized this distinction between equal rights and joint rights, some of his followers do not. Geolibertarians therefore stress the following terms for rent-sharing:
Land value taxes had been a staple of common-law governments, and were considered reciprocation for the privilege of holding more or better land than was available to others. As these societies were not monetarily advanced, the taxes often took the form of direct obligations to maintain roads, provide for defense, etc.
Blackstone, the great chronicler of common law, wrote, "The earth, therefore, and all things therein, are the general property of all mankind, from the immediate gift of the creator.... There is no foundation in nature or in natural law why a set of words upon parchment should convey the dominion of land." [Commentaries]
Locke himself asserted that all taxes should be levied against the value of land, albeit for reasons more practical than ethical:
It is in vain in a country whose great fund is land to hope to lay the public charge on anything else; there at last it will terminate. The merchant (do what you can) will not bear it, the laborer cannot, and therefore the landholder must: and whether he were best to do it by laying it directly where it will at last settle, or by letting it come to him by the sinking of his rents, which when they are fallen, everyone knows they are not easily raised again, let him consider. ["Some Considerations on the Lowering of Interest"]
The erosion of land value taxes under feudalism, coupled with enclosure of land by the nobility and the shifting of taxation onto productivity, drove up burdens on ordinary land users while reducing obligations on the lords. The anarchist William Godwin wrote:
First then, legislation is in almost every country grossly the favourer of the rich against the poor. Such is the character of the game-laws, by which the industrious rustic is forbidden to destroy the animal that preys upon the hopes of his future subsistence, or to supply himself with the food that unsought thrusts itself in his path. Such was the spirit of the late revenue-laws of France, which in several of their provisions fell exclusively on the humble and industrious, and exempted from their operation those who were best able to support it. Thus in England the land-tax at this moment produces half a million less than it did a century ago, while the taxes on consumption have experienced an addition of thirteen millions. [Essential works of Anarchism, "Inquiry Concerning Political Justice," Bantam books, p. 17]
Meanwhile, the French Physiocrats (who introduced the expression "laissez faire" to the field of economics) advocated an "impôt unique," or single tax, on land values. They considered land rent to be a "produit net" or "surplus product" accruing to the landholder after all the payments to labor and capital had been made. (Marx erroneously attached this term to the profits of capital. His correction, which has been ignored by most Marxists, came too late, appearing in convoluted form toward the end of the posthumously published Volume III of Capital. Confounding land with capital is another of his distortions of classical liberal thought.)
Adam Smith echoed the French Physiocrats, writing,
A tax upon ground-rents would not raise the rents of houses. It would fall altogether upon the owner of the ground-rent, who acts always as a monopolist, and exacts the greatest rent which can be got for the use of his ground… Ground-rents… are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. Ground-rents… are, therefore, perhaps, the species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them.
Smith distinguished "ground rents" from the "ordinary rent of land," noting that the latter sometimes reflected improvements to the land, and that taxing improvements could discourage people from making improvements.
John Stuart Mill referred to the increase in land value as an "unearned increment," and proposed taxing away any increases in land values. Famed free-trader Richard Cobden wrote, "You who shall liberate the land will do more for your country than we have done in the liberation of its trade."
Bastiat is famous for his statement in "Property and Law" that, "Property does not exist because there are laws, but laws exist because there is property." However, he explicitly excluded property in land from this assertion:
First, let me state that I use the word property in the general sense, and not in the limited sense of landed property. I regret, and probably all economists regret with me, that this word involuntarily evokes in us the idea of the possession of land. By property I understand the right that the worker has to the value that he has created by his labor.... I do not really see how it can be alleged that, by right, the act of appropriation should be performed for the benefit of another individual than the one who has done the work."
William Penn advocated land value tax for Pennsylvania, declaring it to be a "commonwealth." Jefferson saw monopolization of land in Europe to be the cause of poverty there, and advocated taxing real estate to prevent similar monopolization here. Franklin lamented that large landholders who dominated the Constitutional Convention "are not yet persuaded that all taxes are finally paid by the land… therefore, we have been forced into the mode of indirect taxes." Paine advocated paying every citizen a dividend from ground-rent collections. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, and your title to yours, is at once vitiated," and Mark Twain equated land monopoly with slavery. Philadelphia's first tax law called for a single tax on land values, and the Articles of Confederation called for each state to fund federal expenses in proportion to the aggregate value of its land.
Marx's biggest error was to suppose that society could be improved by grand design: that the solution was to impose a new order, rather than to abolish privileges embedded in the existing order. His scheme actually rescued the aristocracy he had condemned, as it required an aristocracy to run it, and it pitted labor against capital, when, in fact, true capital is nothing more than the fruits of labor, and is a natural ally of labor against privilege.
Underlying his grand error were several specific errors of logic. The first of these was an expansion of Spencer's error, confounding joint or collective rights with common or individual rights, as if society could have rights independent of, and superior to, the rights of its individual members. However, to reconcile contradictions in his scheme, Marx fell into several other errors.
This error derived from ad hominem thinking, and was nowhere more obvious than in his chapter "Rent of Land," from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx noted that because large landowners had purchased capital from rent revenues, and capitalists had acquired land from their profits,
The final consequence is thus the abolition of the distinction between capitalist and landowner, so that there remain altogether only two classes of the population -- the working class and the class of capitalists. [p. 100, New World Paperbacks]
Such an assertion is inappropriate to understanding the dynamics of land and capital, for those dynamics fundamentally differ, regardless of who the owners are. One might as easily note that most car thieves have come from the ranks of auto mechanics, and that those who have not been mechanics will still learn mechanics in order to strip stolen cars, concluding that "the final consequence is thus the abolition of the distinction between mechanics and thieves." Such an absurd conclusion is accepted in the former case only because it taps an undiscerning hostility toward wealth.
Classical liberalism did not oppose wealth, but opposed class based on privilege (literally, "private legislation") by which some were enabled to get wealth at the expense of others. Marx used the term "class envy" to tap into the legitimacy of classical liberalism, but, having obliterated the distinction between wealth (capital) and privilege (land titles, etc.), he promoted an indiscriminate attack against wealth generally. In response, some landed aristocrats who were themselves threatened by classical liberalism threw their support behind Marx, while others, who had no good answers to the principled criticisms of classical liberals, seized the opportunity to rail against all criticisms as "socialist," "communist" or "Marxist."
As it happens, there is a close correlation between labor and value, but the cause-and-effect relationship is that value induces labor, rather than that labor creates value. That is, one labors (or hires labor) for a project that is "worth doing." The expected value of the results of labor exists prior to the labor itself, and is the directing force behind labor. If an enterprise is successful, and produces something of greater value than the effort entailed, then it is likely to be repeated and copied, until an equilibrium is reached. If the enterprise is unsuccessful, and produces something of lower value than the effort entailed, it is likely to be modified or abandoned.
Value is, therefore, a constant feedback mechanism directing labor toward its most economical applications, and not a result of labor. Marx saw this at times, but as his grand proposal called for political mechanisms to direct labor, he had to substitute the notion that labor creates value for the more logical idea that value directs labor.
The errors of anti-Marxists derive mostly from overreaction -- from denying whatever Marx asserted, replacing Marxist half-truths with equally false anti-Marxist half-truths. Often, in so doing, they fall into the trap of accepting underlying Marxist assumptions.
Many anti-Marxists deny common rights because they have bought into the Marxist confusion between common rights and collective rights. In doing so, they sometimes inadvertently embrace collective rights -- the very thing to which they are opposed. For example, many anti-Marxists propose upholding titles to land that had originated with the state and have no basis other than state issuance. Many even advocate that the state sell lands remaining under its jurisdiction. Unlimited property in land, which violates Locke's proviso and classical liberal principles generally, rests on the collectivist premise that the state has a right to assign land by selling it. This begs the question, "By what rationale can the state rightly sell what it does not rightly own?" In proposing that the state sell land, they turn the great body of classical liberal thought on land tenure against them while vainly asserting that they are the modern extension of classical liberalism.
While Marx treated land as capital to attack it, anti-Marxists treat land as capital to defend it. This not only accepts the Marxist redefinition of capital, but causes anti-Marxists to say absurd things about land that make sense only with regard to true capital.
Buying into the Marxist equation of wealth and privilege, anti-Marxists defend privilege as if it were wealth. They do this with regard not only to land, but to banking, incorporation, franchises, the overextension of patents, etc. While there are sometimes glimmers of theoretical distinctions, there is a near constant defense of those parties whose wealth comes almost entirely from capitalized privilege, and only minimally from true capital. Such errors defy logic, are inconsistent with classical liberalism, and are intuitively rejected by the unindoctinated.
In response to Marx's over-application of the labor theory of value, many anti-Marxists fell into the Austrian trap of confounding personal utility, which is subjective, with market value, and, asserting that value cannot be calculated, of thinking that they had invented an answer to Marx and to those who preceded him.
However, Adam Smith had anticipated (or experienced) this error, and wrote:
The word "value," it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called "value in use;" the other, "value in exchange." The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water; but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use, but a very great quantity of goods may frequently be had in exchange for it. [Wealth of Nations, book 1, chapter 4]
Henry George added that this confounding of personal utility with market value
has been carried to elaborate development by what is known as the Austrian or psychological school. This school, setting aside all distinction between value in use and value in exchange, makes value without distinction an expression of the intensity of desire, thus tracing it to a purely mental or subjective origin....
But all this elaborate piling of confusion on confusion originates... in a careless use of words. Nothing indeed could more strikingly illustrate the need of the warning as to the use of words in political economy which I endeavored to impress on the reader in the introductory chapter of this work than the spectacle here presented of the author of the most elaborate work on logic in the English language falling into vital error in what he himself declares to be a most fundamental question of political economy, from failure to apprehend a distinction in the meaning of two common words. [Science of Political Economy, Book 2, Chapter 10, "The Two Senses of Value"]
To illustrate this distinction, I note that the personal utility of my computer to me is tremendous. I use it daily to do things I could not do without it. It might well be that another person has a similar computer that is of no particular use to him. Perhaps it was left behind by someone else, and this person, who has no particular interest in computers, leaves it sitting in a corner, gathering dust. While the personal utility of these two computers to their owners differs vastly, the market value -- what these computers could command on the market, is about the same for each.
While the Austrian subjective-value argument is coveted by anti-Marxists who see it as a fatal blow against Marx's labor theory, it is belied by appraisers who make a living doing what Austrians insist cannot be done -- objectively deducing market values.
The true opposite of collectivism is not neoconservatism, but classical liberalism. The opposite of collective rights is not private rights purchased from the collective, but of common rights that precede the collective. The answer to attacking property as if it were privilege is not to defend privilege as if it were property, but to clearly distinguish between property and privilege. Most importantly, the answer to Marxist mythology is not to react with an anti-Marxist mythology, but to begin with principles of liberty and follow them wherever they might lead.
As Albert Jay Nock, founding editor of The Freeman and author of Our Enemy, The State, noted,
The only reformer abroad in the world in my time who interested me in the least was Henry George, because his project did not contemplate prescription, but, on the contrary, would reduce it to almost zero. He was the only one of the lot who believed in freedom, or (as far as I could see) had any approximation to an intelligent idea of what freedom is, and of the economic prerequisites to attaining it.... One is immensely tickled to see how things are coming out nowadays with reference to his doctrine, for George was in fact the best friend the capitalist ever had. He built up the most complete and most impregnable defense of the rights of capital that was ever constructed, and if the capitalists of his day had had sense enough to dig in behind it, their successors would not now be squirming under the merciless exactions which collectivism is laying on them, and which George would have no scruples whatever about describing as sheer highwaymanry. Free Speech and Plain Language, February 1935, p. 159