Archive | May 18, 2012

Spencer, Hodgskin, and Land Rights

As “everyone knows,” Herbert Spencer was a reactionary defender of capitalism and an opponent of socialism, while Thomas Hodgskin was a proto-Marxian defender of socialism and an opponent of capitalism; so what should one expect from Hodgskin’s review (now online) of Spencer’s Social Statics?

The right answer, it turns out, is almost total agreement: “there are very few conclusions or remarks to which we are disposed to object.” And the one point for which Hodgskin does take Spencer to task is Spencer’s rejection of private ownership of land.

It’s almost as though traditional political categories are mistaken somehow ….

Herbert Spencer

Incidentally, although Hodgskin makes some good points in his discussion of land (some of which are reminiscent of Dave Schmidtz’s work), I don’t think he quite sees the force of Spencer’s arguments. Spencer worries that if private land ownership were permissible, the entire earth could theoretically fall into private hands, whereupon the nonowners would be at the mercy of the owners – since while on other people’s property you have to do as they say or leave, and when leaving is impossible all that’s left is doing what they say. (Note, by the way, that Spencer’s worry is not that this would be a likely result. His worry is rather that the principle of land ownership gives the wrong answer to the question of what would be legitimate in the described situation; it says that the owners’ demanding whatever they like of the nonowners would be just, while the Law of Equal Freedom says it would be unjust.)

To this Hodgskin replies that nonowners would not be at the mercy of owners, because there are other ways of making a living besides farming: “what use is possession of the land to seamen, locomotive carriage drivers, and waggoners?” But Spencer’s point is not merely that nonowners would need permission from the owners in order to cultivate the soil; his point is that nonowners would need permission from the owners in order to sit, stand, or move. Hence Hodgskin’s waggoners and locomotive carriage drivers will be at the mercy of those whose land they have to cross, as will seamen if they need trees to make their ships out of. (At any rate, the force of Spencer’s thought experiment should cover hypothetical situations without navigable waters.)

Hodgskin is also unimpressed by Spencer’s insistence that nonowners would be at the mercy of owners, since, as Hodgskin points out, we are all at each other’s mercy anyway. But this likewise misses Spencer’s point, which is not the pragmatic worry that nonowners would in fact be at the mercy of owners, but rather the ethical worry that nonowners would be legitimately at the mercy of owners. My life may depend on other people’s not killing me, but my right to life does not.

I think Spencer’s worry can be answered, but the key to answering it lies in challenging the claim that if all the earth were private property, the owners could then demand whatever they wanted of the nonowners. As I’ve argued elsewhere:

Even when A has a right to recover some property in B’s possession, there are limits to the harm A can inflict in exercising this right. If you swallow my diamond ring, I do not have the right to cut you open to get it out, possibly killing you or causing serious injury. If you are trespassing on my property, I do not have the right to shove you off my front lawn and onto the street at the precise moment that a truck is coming that would flatten you. … Hence Spencer is mistaken in thinking that under private ownership his hypothetical “lords of the soil” could legitimately deny nonowners a right to exist ….

Spencer argues against trying to solve the problem by building into property rights an exception clause for extreme situations. I don’t have quite the same horror of exception clauses that he has, but in any case my suggestion is not an exception clause, but rather a proportionality requirement that is always in force.

A point I’m surprised that Hodgskin didn’t raise is the difficulty of reconciling Spencer’s views on land with his “right to ignore the state.” If everyone pays rent to society for their land, who is authorised to collect that rent?

P.S. – I wish Hodgskin had elaborated on his “other points of difference” (he says there are a few, but none as major as the land issue).

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