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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11 Responses to Spencer, Hodgskin, and Land Rights

  1. Roderick May 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    I also linked to this piece at BHL. That doesn’t seem to merit a separate “Cordial and Sanguine” entry.

  2. Anon73 May 19, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    A news story that points out an interesting twist in the Spencer Scenario: http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/man-fathered-30-kids-needs-break-child-support-140439765.html

    Part of the force of the objection to Spencer is the assumption that people have a right to have children; after all, we can imagine everybody on the planet volunarily assenting to a private property regime, so then only their children would seem to have any standing to challenge the “Lords of the Soil”. But this turns the tables, for what if one person decides to have as many children as he is able to father? With cloning and in vitro technology, one man could hypothetically increase the population of a country by 50% in a year. This puts the “Lords of the Soil” in the position of either going broke supporting this many children or else just letting them starve to death. In the latter case people will agitate for the cruel institution of private property to be abolished, and then follows a mixed economy like we have now.

    Of course I think a sane world would put the responsibility on the mega-father for that outcome, but that’s not very “bleeding heart” of me.

    • Roderick May 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

      Who’s providing him with all this cloning technology and laboratory space, if the Lords of the Soil own all the land?

      • Anon73 May 19, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

        Where did the Lords of the Soil get the (unlikely) assent of all property owners to sell?

        Adult males can breed small villages if there are enough partners available, so Star Wars-style cloning facilities wouldn’t strictly be necessary. Or we could stipulate it’s a population with a higher birth rate. What I was getting at is that newborns would be the only people who could challenge the Lords since everybody else would be subservient; but if there’s a just way to have a one-child policy on private property then that wouldn’t work either and the Lords of the Soil would reign supreme.

        • Roderick May 19, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

          Where did the Lords of the Soil get the (unlikely) assent of all property owners to sell?

          But I wasn’t making a practicality/plausibility objection — I was pointing out a means whereby the Lords of the Soil could prevent the scenario you describe.

          That doesn’t address the rest of your point, of course.

      • Anon73 May 19, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

        No matter how powerful the Lords are their control doesn’t extend to individual bodies (ex hypothesi), so we can just assume a (very healthy) subgroup decides to multiply to excess. I’m not sure if there are historical parallels to what I’m saying here, but it resembles the paranoia you sometimes hear about Muslim families in Europe having higher birthrates than native people.

        Thinking it over, I guess my argument is relies on a contract-centered approach whereby only newcomers who are not bound by contract would have the right to claim some land themselves. But then the same would apply to visitors from another planet, which doesn’t seem right. Further, Spencer’s argument is fiendishly clever: people would need permission to “stand, sit, or move”, so logically that would seem to justify a one-child policy as well!

        • Roderick May 19, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

          visitors from another planet

          But that’s the solution! The Lords of the Sith, sorry, of the Soil, can just shoot trespassers off to another planet with the instructions “learn the local language, become a mighty warrior, impress the local prince or princess of your choice, and become the warlord of your new planet. Oh, and don’t let the Van Allen Belt hit you on the way out.”

  3. Scott Root May 22, 2012 at 1:01 am #

    How ’bout the people of each county hold the all of the land in that county in common – charging land rent for each parcel of land based on supply and demand and return 100% of the revenue generated back to every man, woman and child equally in the form of a yearly Land Dividend. The rent on the average (based on supply and demand) piece of land exactly equals the yearly Land Dividend. Dividing total usable Land in the county by the county population gives a “basic right” of Land that cannot be taken by higher rent. If I have 100 acres and another has none they can bid on some of my Land and either I pay the higher bide amount or forfeit the Land to them but only to the point where the threshold of my family’s “basic right” is reached upon which the Land can’t be taken by increased rant bidding. The Land everyone holds is their to do with as they wish but they must pay their yearly Land Rent to the community. Land becomes both “private” and “communal” and we each have equal ability to access Land. Land is removed from pure commodification and returned to it’s rightful function as a principle of Life and returns to mankind one of the foundational elements of material Liberty.

  4. Scott Root May 22, 2012 at 1:03 am #

    sorry about the typos-)


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