Saturday, December 23, 2006

Letting go of left vs. right

Letting go of left vs. right

From: "Dan Sullivan"
Date: Sat Dec 23, 2006 9:03 am
To: The Land Café (

Bernard's post was just fine until the final, gratuitous statement, "All stand in opposition, of course, to 'right-libertarianism', one of the most shallow political philosophies ever."

I don't know what's worse -- lefties stereotyping righties out of ignorance or righties stereotyping lefties. The right wing of the libertarians might indeed have the most shallow philosophy, but the left wing of the socialists would give them a good run for their money.

It is so easy for people in one group or the other to lambaste the opposite group to the cheers of their fellow true-believers. To people who know better, however, their sweeping generalizations reveal a substantial ignorance of the legitimate concerns of the other side, and even an ignorance of the dynamics of how the other side, and their own side for that matter, remain unable to deal with their own shortcomings.

What motivates left-bashing by the right and right-bashing by the left is that both groups covet power and control, and each group harps on the shallowness other group as a bogey man to cover its own shallowness.

They are mirror opposites of one another. The extreme right wants to effectively control everything by privately owning everything, and the extreme left wants to effectively own everything by publicly controlling everything. The fact that each side's core accusations about the other is basically true must be compartmentalized, so that each side can avoid exposure to the mirror it tries to hold up to the other side.

Both sides also focus on taking over groups with balanced alternative approaches to liberty and freedom. Leftists take over politically by flooding an organization with members, getting hold of the political reins, and then redesigning the organization to suit its original agenda. If that fails, they create their own imitations of the successful groups and compete under dubious pretenses. Rightists simply buy the organizations and then pretend, for a while, to hold up the organizational ideals.

The US Greens, for example, voted repeatedly against forming a Green Party, rejecting proposal after proposal from a subgroup calling itself "The Green Left." So, the Green Left formed its own Green Party and eventually co-opted the Greens. Hence the Green Party is primarily a socialist party with an emphasis on environmentalism, with a platform that is wholly incompatible with its own "Ten Key Values."

Similarly, the libertarian right had been unable to prevail with regard to an excellent libertarian magazine, *The Freeman*. Its founders and first two editors, Albert Jay Nock and Frank Choderov, were ardent Georgists. Although the publication always struggled financially (especially when Choderov was jailed for civil disobedience), it had excellent articles and a large libertarian following.

Leonard Read, who became a friend of Nock and eventually bought the rights to *The Freeman," very much epitomizes the label "libertarianism sans single tax." Indeed, in his first letter to Nock, Read had written,

I've just read your *Our Enemy, the State*. It is a perfectly splendid book. But how can a brilliant man like you advocate the Single Tax?

Not surprisingly, articles praising the single tax or criticizing land monopoly dwindled and disappeared after Read took over. Eventually, they changed the name of the publication to *Ideas on Liberty*. I suspect this was partly a reaction to Georgists throwing Nock's views in the faces of right-wing libertarians and identifying Nock as the founder of *The Freeman*.

This does not mean that we should shun libertarians or socialists per se, as long as they are open to criticism of their fondness for economic monopoly or political control. The fact is that there are very reasonable people in both the socialist and libertarian camps -- people who are drawn to the truth and who resist stereotyping those who seem to be on the other side. However, we can ally ourselves neither with either camp, nor with people from either camp who compulsively bash the other camp with their own polarized nonsense.

Escaping the big lie of left vs. right requires that we constantly seek balance, rebuffing efforts to draw (or push) us into one camp or the other. Usually the same polarizers will do both. After trying to win people into their own camp and failing, they accuse those people of being in cahoots with the worst elements of the other camp. Thus I have dozens and dozens of posts by right-wing libertarians calling me a socialist, communist or Marxist, and a comparable number of posts by left-wing socialists calling me a libertarian, capitalist or fascist.

To show how mistaken this stereotyping is, let's use the Libertarian Party as an example. Stereotypers from the left might not know that its founders broke away from the Republican Party in 1972 on three issues: opposition to the Viet Nam War, imposing wage and price controls, and increasing the grip of bankers over the money supply through the Breton-Woods Act. Those are hardly right-wing objections.

David Nolan, the principal founder of the LP, advocates that land value tax should be the only tax.

The late Karl Hess, founder of the LP News, called land value tax "the one tax that should be levied until the state can be abolished altogether." Hess had been the speech-writer for Barry Goldwater, and had coined the ill-fated phrase, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

John Hospers, the first LP candidate for President, also supports land value tax and recounts an episode where Ayn Rand screamed "Let them buy it!" at him over the telephone when he had suggested that Peruvian land should be returned to the indigenous people.

The problem with the Libertarian Party, and with any party, is that party politics becomes dominated by the lowest common denominator. Thus the great thinkers who started the LP, and the great thinkers who started the Greens, are eventually drowned out by a cacophony of polarizing knee-jerk aphorisms uttered by throngs of superficial thinkers who only know that they are against whatever the other side is for, and vice versa.

There are flashes of brilliance among libertarians, and even in the writings of such extremists as Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. For example, socialists could gain greatly from their understanding of how crucial personal freedom is to human initiative, and how soul-crushing it is to be under authoritarian control. They just don't see (or at least don't talk about) how corporate monopoly is just as stifling and soul-crushing as government monopoly.

Similarly, many brilliant things are said by lefties about how soul- crushing private monopoly can be, without the caveat that the kind of big government they advocate poses the same dangers.

Also, even the libertarian right is not what I would call the extreme right. The Constitution Party, the John Birch Society and other groups known for their anti- socialist fanaticism have been quick to sacrifice liberty itself in their mad paranoia about the socialist menace. (They have rather seamlessly transported this mentality to the Islamic menace.) Libertarians have been attacked by them for refusing to go along with such nonsense as The Patriot Act. Yet even Birchers are saying valid things that need to be said.

I have sat for hours and hours of engaging conversation with local leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and of the John Birch Society (not at the same time). I worked with the Greens long and well enough to be made their county chair in 1991, and with the Libertarian Party enough to be made their county chair in around 1996. All the while, I listened attentively to understand their legitimate concerns, but stood up against unwarranted criticisms of alternative viewpoints.

Although I highly recommend the practice of having heart-to-heart talks with people in opposing camps, it requires a lot of "letting go," and this, for most people, requires serious practice in relaxation and meditation. However, those who do not "walk a mile in the other person's moccasins" should not sit in the comfort of their own camp and pass judgement from afar against people in the other camp. Such judgements from afar are not entirely wrong; they are just clumsy, heavy-handed and unbalanced.

It also takes more courage to confront inconsistencies in the philosophy of one's own core group than the philosophies of distant groups. One great book in this regard is *Libertarian Party at Sea on Land* by Harold Kyriazi. Harold is a long-time libertarian who realized that they were wrong on the land issue and took them to task on it. In doing so, he corresponded with as many prominent libertarian leaders as he could reach. I would love to see someone from the socialist camp do a similar critique of the socialist error, instead of trying to criticize libertarians from a distance. (He is now learning that they are wrong on the money issue as well.)

After all, what can a socialist say that would undermine the mistaken ideas of the libertarian right better than Harold's book (available from the Schalkenbach foundation) or my essay, "Royal Libertarian"?

The real battle is not between institutions, but within them.


On 22 Dec 2006 at 5:13, Bernard Rooney wrote:

Left-libertarianism seems to proceed largely in ignorance of the original libertarianism, libertarian socialism, and exist as a reaction to 'right-libertarianism' (you all know what that is), nevertheless, as a necessary counter, it is a healthy development worth watching and encouraging.

Steiner says "Left-libertarianism rests on two central claims: (1) full initial self-ownership for all agents, and (2) egalitarian ownership of natural resources." A Georgist will immediately see this as no improvement or even different from Georgism. Steiner's effort to formulate the principle is somewhat laboured and not really superior to George’s, and in the matter of improved or cleared land, that issue has been addressed by valuers long ago.

A lot of this theorising is not so much a matter of truth and logic as ideology and history. Thus, Georgism could be seen as the logical perfection and end-state of classical liberalism, at least in the question of property rights. But that of course is unacceptable to the ruling class. Various intellectual developments are explained by this. Late and Modern Liberalism (or Spencerism) becomes debauched into 'liberalism sans single tax', i.e. a systematic effort to wipe out not only George himself, but anything suggestive of a precursor all the way back to John Locke's 'proviso'. This morphs into or merges with the largely American phenomenon of 'right-libertarianism' or Randism.

On a separate development track is libertarian socialism (or anarcho-syndicalism). This is a largely Continental development with, obviously, socialist origins. This begins in socialism or common ownership and emphasizes local autonomy and dismantlement of hierarchy as most necessary steps.

Thus left-libertarianism begins with the individual ownership and moves to common ownership, while libertarian socialism does the reverse. Both could arrive at more or less the same place, which is more or less George's place also. Each strand of though however, has particular emphases and insights to contribute. All stand in opposition, of course, to 'right-libertarianism', one of the most shallow political philosophies ever.

Monday, December 18, 2006

User fees & paying for what you take

On Behalf Of Sean Brooks
Sent: Monday, December 18, 2006 5:15 PM

While economists may debate the existence of true public goods, there is no doubt that there are partial public goods. These goods have high capital and fixed costs in relation to their costs due to individual users. In fact most goods have at least a portion of goods that are not attributable to users.

We speak of charging user fees for roads, but the 'cost' of allowing a car to drive on a road is nearly negligible vs. the cost of allowing a heavy truck to drive on it, and very little compared to the capital costs and the damage done by weather. The individual driver in a passenger aute 'takes' very little from the public by driving down it. This changes slightly when the road gets croweded, and there's not enough capacity, and not as good, to go around. Paying for these road fairly would involve a mix of local LVTs, user fees on heavy trucks, and congestion fees for popular routes. Whether or not bonds are used, they must still be paid back from some source.

Many of the functions of local government are similar. Most aspects of Public Safety aren't directly attributable to individual people, and in any case, a great deal of the costs of providing public safety are relatively fixed. You may be able to find that benefits accrue to property owners in terms of their reduced insurance cost (which then may improve the value of land). You may find that commercial rents increase due to a safe pedestrian shopping area. Neither of these belie the justification for using LVT to pay for them. The fire department may be of intense benefit to the owner who's property was saved from a kitchen fire, but you'd probably not want to deal with the potential distortions created by a fee-for-use fire department, when general benefit can be attributed to the fire department.

Schools, which often comprise the bulk of local spending, are another issue altogether. Certainly no function of government seems to have an effect on property values more than the quality of the school system. It may be feasible to attribute a portion of the costs as variable costs, such that each student should pay a tuition. I disagree with this notion, in that once the capacity is built and paid for (E.g. the school district has X classroom spaces and Y teachers), individual students do not add appreciably to the cost of providing schooling. Furthermore, attendance is cumpulsory, so attempting to charge tuition-as-a-congestion-fee wouldn't work.

Rail transit has enormous fixed costs in relation to their variable costs, such that once a good level of service is offered, (e.g. trains in each direction every 7 1/2 minutes) it costs very little to add an additional rider. In fact the time cost in collecting such a trivial portion of the fee may severely outweigh the benefit. One possible exception would be a rush hour congestion fee, which, again, may or may not be worth it - especially in view of the tremendous increases in local land values due to rail infrastructure. (in fact, and in reply to the the .pdf regarding the london busses, the property value increase outweighed the public subsidy for the latest tube stations).

As for buses, their benefit depends on their use. If they are regularly used and provide all day service - in other words if they can be counted on as a means of getting around an area - they probably benefit property values quite a bit. For them to be counted on as all-day transportation, they have to run all day, regardless of ridership - which makes the variable costs of ridership moot.

On the contrary, if the buses are run in such a manner that the number of buses in service is a function of ridership, then the costs are attributable to the riders. This would be the case for intercity coaches, as well for very popular bus routes - where this fee would be indistinguishable from a congestion charge.

It is my opinion that when public transit is effective enough that a portion of people can do without cars, or a portion of families can do without a second or third car, then that nonspent spending capacity is generally reflected in local economies, and raises land values.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Etymological evolutions - economics and politics

A mail in from one of the active participants in our Land Café. Reactions? I suggest that you might add them both as Comments here, and copy to Dan via Eric Britton

From: Dan Sullivan []
Sunday, December 17, 2006 4:11 PM

I am interested in the evolution of English-language words, particularly when that evolution is related to political agendas.

George Orwell said that he developed *1984* by simply extending trends to their logical extreme. With regard to language, he wrote,

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees…, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted..., a heretical thought... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. This was done... chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings....

Economics, particularly, suffers from an ambiguity of terms that other sciences do not allow. Economists sometimes take pains to qualify their use of these terms for greater precision, but politicians glom onto the results while substituting misleading definitions. Some of the substitutions are as follows.

* "Invest" for "acquire" or "control." Encouraging investment is seen as a good thing, but this is in the sense of "putting something into," as distinct from "acquiring" or "controlling." A clear example of this usage is the parent who "invests in his child's education." In many cases, investment and control or acquisition go hand-in-hand, as when a person invests in his own business, etc. However, acquisition can occur without investment, as when one purchases stock without transferring money into the company purchased or property without making improvements to that property.

* "Income" for "earnings." "Income" used to mean "that which comes in," especially of its own accord -- what we now call "passive income." When people in the 18th and 19th century debated the merits of income tax, passive income is what they had in mind. Today we speak of the "earnings of stock" and the "income of labor," completely reversing the original definitions and thereby clouding the issue. Today's so-called income taxes are actually earnings taxes, and are to a significant degree payroll taxes.

* "Wealth" for "obligations." When Adam Smith wrote *Wealth of Nations*, he was careful to distinguish between actual wealth that made the entire nation more prosperous and obligations between one citizen and another that had no effect on wealth. Today we encourage "savings" of money in banks at the expense of inventory in warehouses. As some deposit money and others borrow it, we are increasing obligations, not wealth.

* "Value" for "utility." Smith was also careful to distinguish "value in exchange," or what we now call market value, from "value in use," or utility. Popular arguments that "all value is subjective" stem from confounding market value with utility.

* "Capital" for "assets." This is similar to the confounding of wealth and obligations. Economics is predicated on three factors of production, land, labor and capital. For capital to be intelligently discussed as a factor of production, its definition must, at the very least, distinguish it from other factors. Yet we frequently see all assets, including land and debt obligations, described as capital.

* "Human capital" for "labor." This is just an extension of the previously described ambiguity.

* "Labor" for "unions." As a factor of production, labor must include all people whose input, whether physical or mental, contributes to the productive process. However, both the supporters and detractors of labor unions use the term "labor" to mean "unionized labor," or, at least, "wage labor."

* "Spending" for "exchanging" or "rendering"

When a candle is spent, the candle no longer exists, but when money is spent, it is merely in someone else's hands. While increasing the circulation of money is considered to be good for the economy, spending money, which means exactly the same thing, is treated as bad for the economy. While wasteful government spending can indeed be bad for the economy, the presumption that spending money is a negative unto itself comes from this confounding of meanings.

* "Savings" for "loans." This is an offshoot of confounding money with wealth. Putting money in a bank is not saving wealth, but is making a loan to a borrower with the bank as an intermediary.

* "Rights" for "privileges." Rights in the sense of free speech, universal suffrage, due process, etc., are fundamentally different from privileges that are conferred, such as "the 'right' to operate a taxi, etc. Terms like patent rights, broadcast rights, contractual rights, property rights, etc., are given weight and sanctity by their sharing a term that also applies to universal human rights.

* "Privatization" for "patronage." Privatization is one of the more recent euphemisms. It rarely means government stepping out of the picture or even giving up control. More often, it means government hiring a company to provide a service instead of hiring individuals directly. Tammany Hall, the most notorious patronage machine in American history, was based almost entirely on contract patronage. The switch to direct employment and civil service was one of the great reforms of the progressive era.

* "Common" for "government" or "collective." Prior to Marx, "common rights" were individual inalienable rights that each person held as a human being and a member of a society that respected those rights. Both the left and the right are quick to confound the two. (I wrote an essay on this at:

* "Free market" for "status quo." The left and the right both refer to the status quo of business relationships as the free market -- one in attacking it and the other in defending it. One libertarian wag even argued that the emancipation of slaves was an interference in the free market, which would have solved the slavery problem on its own. The absurdity of a free market in slaves was lost on him, and less obvious ways in which the status quo cannot be called a free market are lost on many people from across the political spectrum.

* "Capitalist" for "landlord." An owner of a $9 million apartment building on a $1 million dollar lot is referred to as a landlord, even though his asset is 90% capital and only 10% land. Yet an oil company is referred to as capitalist even if its assets are 90% land and natural resources and only 10% capital.

* "Single owner" for "monopoly." The term "monopoly" used to refer to any asset that was controlled by a subset of the population to the detriment of the rest of the population. Thus, import tariffs gave domestic producers the ability to charge a monopoly premium, etc. Neoclassical economists deflected anti-monopoly sentiments by simply redefining the term. However, the original term is still understood in common speech, as when women complain that the louder, more aggressive men tend to monopolize the conversation.

This evolution of terms has a variety of causes, I think. In some cases, mere self-image concerns are sufficient to cause the substitution of a more flattering term. Certainly a person would rather describe himself as "an investor" than "an acquisitor." Other times it is common usage spilling into usage as an economics term, as when an apartment owner is referred to as a landlord. Sometimes it is ad-hominem analysis substituting for process analysis. Is a capitalist someone who owns capital or someone who believes in capitalism, and why is analyzing that person a substitute for analyzing the process in the first place? And, sometimes it is part of an intentional effort to deceive, as when the neoclassical school of economics was founded by people who had explicitly stated their interests in changing the debate from being pro or anti monopoly to being pro or anti socialist.

In any case, I am looking to trace these etymological changes back to their roots. Some words go back even farther, and are quite interesting:

"Mail," "impost" and "tax" were close synonyms. (The tax collector used to supplement his income by carrying letters and goods from one taxpayer to another, which is how the tradition of government employees carrying the mail began.) Those who could pay their taxes in silver were paying "white mail." As poorer people who had no money were taxed by portions of their goods being taken, it was called "black mail."

The OED says that "real," as in "real property" or "real estate" comes from the Latin "res," and is unrelated to "royal." Yet the word arose when real property was distinguished from the commons as "property held by the Crown" (or held by a landlord under the auspices of the Crown) at a time when "royal" was indeed spelled "real." It therefore seems odd that the obvious connection to royal property is not the recognized connection.

Similarly, the title to land originated as part of the royal title. For example, the lands of Sussex went to the Earl of Sussex, and when the king granted the one title, he automatically granted the other. My understanding is that the official ceremony, wherein the king laid his sword on the shoulders of the person being titled was called the "deed," from which the term of title deed arises.

These etymological evolutions and etymologies have a great deal to do with the fuzzy thinking that dominates economics and politics. If anyone has other examples, I would like to add them to this list. If anyone has ideas on how to further research the evolution of these terms, I would also be interested in that.

Sincerely, Dan Sullivan