Who should own the land?
As natural resources rapidly drain and the wealth gap grows ever wider, the question of ownership becomes increasingly urgent
In 1973 the economist E.F. Schumacher made a startling observation — startling because it was entirely obvious while at the same time having the most dire consequences for the future of humanity:
“The modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economist, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income.”
Basically, we’re consuming the earth as if it were an unlimited source of income, but it’s not — it’s a limited asset. When it’s gone, it’s gone. And it’s not just a question of how society will function without precious metals or fossil fuels, but how anything will survive once we’ve destroyed most of our topsoil, our forests, our plant and animal species.
But if world leaders also found Schumacher’s observation startling, they didn’t show it; instead they’ve stayed the course for the last 50 years. But we can no longer stay the course — we can’t keep pretending the earth’s resources will last forever — so what should we do about it?
The question of how we treat the land is intimately connected to the question of who controls the land — who owns it and who should own it? If we can actually make sense of this question, if we can see it with greater clarity, then perhaps we’ll also find the will to take a different course.
Unfortunately, our ability to even ask this question is severely limited by the razor-thin narrowness of our ideas. The question of who should own the land has been reduced to the most simplistic binary: either it should be privately owned or publicly owned. This was the crux of the battle between capitalism and communism and, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, capitalism was declared the victor. From now on everything should be privately owned. Case closed. As Nancy Pelosi put it, “We’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is.”
Except: we’re not always so sure. For instance, whenever the economy is in crisis, dyed-in-the-wool capitalists often sing a different tune. During the 2008 recession there were few (if any) economists who thought that the government shouldn’t prop up the failing banks and auto industry. Some even spoke about nationalizing them, at least temporarily.
And it’s the same today in terms of the energy crisis. Many governments (such as Germany and Poland) have already started nationalizing their gas and oil companies in order to steer their way through a difficult winter, and America is starting to discuss the possibility as well.
And there are other trends that have left people thinking communism is alive and well. For instance, the proliferation of services like AirBnB and Uber have contributed to the view that we won’t actually own anything in the future, but instead rent everything. That trend very loosely relates to the quasi-socialist picture of a “sharing economy” (that for instance, it isn’t sustainable for each of us to own a lawnmower so instead we should just borrow one from the local library), but of course AirBnB and Uber are hyper-capitalist companies. Yet they point to a future where we own far less, which sure sounds like communism…
Add to this the fact that global organizations like the World Economic Forum have been promoting such ideas in the creepiest way possible, publishing stories like “Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy And Life Has Never Been Better” and perhaps you can understand why some people think Big Brother is lurking right around the corner.
But what’s the answer then? Should we stick with capitalism in its current form? Are our only options government overlords or corporate overlords, and if so, should we go with corporate overlords because at least there’s some possibility of carving out our own little niche? Are there any other options out there?
First of all: when we’re looking at property, the focus on articles of consumption (homes and cars) is actually misleading. That’s not where the real power lies, nor where the real destruction takes place. We have to take a step further back.
When capitalists and communists used to argue about ownership in the 19th century it was never about articles of consumption but means of production — the resources that enable us to produce goods in the first place. Not residential land, but commercial land. And not just land, but businesses in general. The debate wasn’t over “Who gets to own this shirt?” but “Who gets to own the factory where this shirt was produced?” It’s this form of ownership which is the source of so much of our systemic inequity.
So what exactly were their arguments?
Ever since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, capitalists have held that the best way to raise everyone’s living standards is to give free rein to individual initiative. If people want to produce goods, let ‘em! Get out of the way! They’re job creators, benefactors to us all. We need people with grit and initiative to figure out how to feed, clothe, and shelter an ever growing population.
Such entrepreneurs need easy access to resources — they need to be able to go out and buy them. If they can’t get the land or machines they need, then they can’t produce the goods we all depend on. If they’re forced to wait around for some government bureaucrat to allocate resources, nothing will ever get done.
But there’s another view. Starting in the mid-1800s, Karl Marx described capitalists not as benefactors, but as parasites. Open the doors wide to any factory and you’ll see: you won’t find the entrepreneur producing goods — workers stand at those machines! It’s the masses of underfed, underpaid workers who produce the goods from start to finish (perhaps no longer in our backyard, but now in China and Vietnam). All the entrepreneur did was get the ball rolling and now they simply sell the fruits of other people’s labor. There they sit in their upstairs office, fat cats slyly stealing the profits from those who sweat and toil below.
And why exactly do these capitalists own the means of production? How were they able to buy it in the first place? Was it because of their hard work and determination, or the good fortune of their birth? Recent research has shown that over half of England’s land is owned by less than 1% of its population. If you think most of it was newly bought by up-and-coming entrepreneurs you’d be wrong; most of it has been in the hands of the same aristocratic families for centuries.
So who’s right then? Are capitalists benefactors or parasites? Do they deserve to own the land — the resources, the means of production — or should the government own these things and distribute them however they think fair?
But that question is itself the problem. We’re confronted with a false dichotomy, a false choice. We’re forced to see capitalists as one thing or the other — trustworthy or untrustworthy, helpful or harmful. But are they?
Of course not. The truth is that both sides are partially right: entrepreneurship can be wonderful when people are inspired to produce the goods we all need, and it can be terrible when it turns into a position of power that lets people siphon off the profits from other people’s labor.
This is obvious really. We don’t need to look far to confirm it. The businesses on Main Street are a mix of such motives — some people are trying to meet vital needs, and others are just trying to make a buck. And we can look even closer to home, to our own experience: from day to day (and minute to minute) our own motives change — sometimes we want everyone to win in our dealings with others, and sometimes we just want to get the best deal for ourselves.
It’s never just one or the other. Human beings are both social and antisocial. So what’s needed is a way of working that can promote the social aspects of ownership and guard against the antisocial, an approach based on a true picture of human nature.
The person who saw this need most clearly was the 20th century philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Instead of advocating private ownership or public ownership, Steiner advocated “circulating ownership” — a form of ownership that circulates the means of production “from the capable to the capable,” transferring it before it becomes antisocial.
Because it’s true: we do depend on initiative-takers. We need people who want to start farms and bakeries, and they have to have access to land and machines. But when those people no longer want to farm or bake, they shouldn’t be able to sell those resources to the highest bidder (or just give them to their children), they should go to the next person who wants to farm or bake.
The fact that ownership currently hinges on wealth makes no sense from a societal perspective. If we want society to benefit from people’s hard work, then resources shouldn’t move from the rich to the rich but from the capable to the capable. Every initiative-taker who can serve the community should have the chance to do so. Being born into money doesn’t say anything about a person’s inherent character or capacity, so why should they own the resources we all depend on?
The question many will likely ask about circulating ownership is how do you do it? Well, it can be done in different ways.
For instance, if a community wants to see its land continue to be farmed and not just bought up by wealthy developers, it can buy the land itself and create a Community Land Trust where the land is affordably leased to new farmers on a long-term basis. This takes the land off the market and transfers it from farmer to farmer.
Or if the owner of a mission-driven company wants to see it continue to serve a social aim after they’re gone (and not just be squeezed by shareholders and venture capitalists) then they can use the model of “steward ownership” to transfer ownership to a trust that will continue to direct the company according to its original purpose.
Or one could implement the economist Thomas Piketty’s vision of “temporary ownership” where an exceedingly high tax rate discourages wealthy people from owning too many resources and so returns those resources, over time, to the community.
Or, or, or. There are any number of possibilities, the important thing is to recognize the healthy dynamic and find the best way to achieve it in any given situation. Steiner gave the broad outlines for this in his book Towards Social Renewal. There he described how the transfer of the means of production from entrepreneur to entrepreneur should only be assured by the government (they should create the necessary property regime so the transfer takes place) but the actual transfer should be overseen by cultural institutions made up of individuals who know the resources and needs of the community.One could imagine a broad network of nonprofits set up for this purpose — to steward resources and make sure they’re transferred into the best hands possible as the need arises.
Ideas like circulating ownership can seem naive — like some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ solution baked up by an idealist with his head in the clouds. But really there’s nothing more practical.
What’s naive is the blunt over-simplification of private and public ownership. What’s naive is advocating or dismissing economic ideas based on one’s political affiliation, or thinking that, because the West won the cold war, somehow capitalism was proven ‘true.’ What’s naive is watching the wealth gap continue to grow, because the rich control the resources, and thinking it won’t end in disaster.
The truth is our social ideas and forms have to match the underlying reality, otherwise they simply won’t work. And reality is much more dynamic than we usually admit. For instance, we usually treat articles of consumption and means of production (the shirt on our back and the factory that made the shirt) in the same way — as commodities that can be bought and sold. But are they the same? Here’s Rudolf Steiner on the difference:
“[Today,] the employer who buys the [manufacturing] plant has the right to sell it again, just as he has the right to sell a suit of clothes second hand. But these rights are not really of the same kind; they are not equally just. For it is a man’s own concern whether he sells a commodity which he alone uses. But he is not the sole user of the plant; indeed it would be valueless to him unless he had a body of workers to work it. Hence, in a just and reasonable social order, rights of property cannot attach to means of production in the same way as to genuine articles of consumption... for their disposal may seriously affect the lives of those producers [the workers], and it may also dislocate the lives of the consumers who depend on the articles they produce.”
Such observations actually match the underlying reality. It’s simply the case that resources such as land and machines are different from normal articles of consumption. To treat them the same creates all sorts of social disturbances, including harming the people who depend on them (the consumers and the workers in the factory).
It’s also simply not an efficient way to manage the earth’s resources — it’s not economic. It’s incredibly wasteful to let wealth be the determining factor, to let rich people extract as much as they can without thinking about the whole of society.
As Schumacher pointed out in the 70’s, our resources are limited. If we want to ensure that they’re used sustainably for the benefit of all, then we have to work efficiently and consciously with them. We can’t be led to believe that a “blind hand” will somehow miraculously stop us from making a desert of the earth. It won’t.
Ultimately the earth “belongs” to all of us, because we’re all a part of it. As conscious inhabitants we have the power to steward it or destroy it — to make it into a garden or a desert. What we do is up to us. Every community decides its own property laws, they’re not ordained by God or nature. We decide. So we can let capitalists do with it as they will, with little or no oversight, or we can have government officials decide every little way that its used (though if you think they won’t fall prey to corruption, you’ve got an unpleasant surprise awaiting you).
Or we can create clear, strong property laws that give people ownership of the resources they need in order to serve the community, and then transfers that ownership when they no longer wish to serve. We can work to see the underlying reality of ownership (and not just ownership but all aspects of social life) and then chart a new course that isn’t stuck in all the polarities of the past. We can try to find a third way.
POSTSCRIPT: As should be clear, shifting our laws around ownership isn’t the silver bullet that will solve all our social woes, it’s just one aspect. What’s needed is to try to take a holistic approach to every aspect and see how they’re all related. In this respect, I wanted to point to one other aspect that’s closely related to the whole question of inequity — how people are paid for their labor. You can read more about this question here.
And the extent of this pilfering can be astounding. In 2014, according to the most conservative numbers, CEOs made 373 times what the average American worker made. Once you add in bonuses and perks, that number rises to 1000 times. Do they deserve that big a piece of the pie for their contribution? And do their co-workers deserve that small a piece?
A few additions to this picture:
Government officials shouldn’t oversee the transfer of property because then they’re making decisions without the necessary expertise (they simply can’t judge who should be the next farmer on a piece of land as well as other people involved in agriculture can). Government should be like the referee in a game — it should make and uphold the rules, but not play in the game itself.
Also, I’ve purposely said that cultural organizations should “oversee” and not “direct” the transfer, because Steiner sees the entrepreneur as the best candidate to decide their own successor. They obviously know the work most intimately and so they can best judge who might take it up fruitfully after them. Nonetheless, a group of knowledgeable individuals should oversee the process and make sure it’s “above board” (for instance, it’s quite possible the next best person to run a business is the entrepreneur’s child, but a group of experts should ensure it’s not just being transferred out of nepotism).
Rudolf Steiner on March 3rd, 1920, which can be found in the article “Land, Means of Production, and Commodities.”
Thanks for raising these important questions, Seth - I mean questioning whether the system under which we now operate is perhaps the naive point of view in contrast to the idea of being stewards of the land and arriving at good ways to determine who gets the use of the land 'for now'.
Beautiful, Seth. You have invited us to an amazingly practical picture way beyond the dichotomy of communism (socialism) vs capitalism. The question you resolve so well (with Steiner's help) is how can we find a way to continually have the best people in charge of the resources that produce what the community at large needs? Meritocracy sounds too much like a government scheme that can be tricked. Electing management via a smart mob would be prone to false advertising. Passing on leadership from capable to capable sounds worth exploring... a hybrid solution where everyone with good will wins!