The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How Much Property Is Ethical?

Mine. It’s mine. No one has the right to take anything from me. That’s theft.

It’s mine.

Property rights. What a mess.

In this age of oligarchy, the question of how much a few people, or corporations can own, or can control, is thrown into highlight again.

The novelist and priest Father Andrew Greeley used to write that the poor were not poor because the rich were rich. By the end of his career in the mid 2000’s, he was railing against greed as one of the seven deadly sins.

Property, taken widely to include money, is control. It confers the right to decide how both resources and people will be employed. It confers the right to choose a large chunk of social direction. For instance, under Jobs and Cook, Apple is a fiefdom; so long as the company stays solvent, it decides how a great deal of the activity of the best and brightest is spent. iPhones and Apple’s other innovations are great, but one can certainly imagine scenarios in which Apple employees’ time was better spent.

A more clear-cut case comes in the case of CitiBank, or any of the big banks and brokerages. These people have a LOT of money, and they control a huge chunk of the world’s resources and people–directly and indirectly. They do far more harm than good.

Property is the right to choose how resources, including people, are deployed.

Allowing private individuals and large groups to have large amounts of property is a decision to allow them to control large numbers of people and resources.

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It may be justified if they make the world a better place. It is hard to justify if they don’t. We may like what Jobs, or Cook, or Musk have done (or add your favorite tycoon, and yes, I know all of those are problematic), while admitting that most billionaires and large corporations are a pox on the world economy, restricting innovation and free enterprise; crushing wages and strangling growth until they get their share. Few will defend Monsanto or most pharmaceutical companies, most large banks or brokerages, more American health insurers, large agriculture, and so on.

Those who do defend them are generally either on the payroll or have been trained in the ethical discipline of economics, which is meant to justify concentrations of wealth and capital.

Justice Brandeis famously noted that America could have great concentrations of wealth, or democracy, but not both. Jefferson said he feared banks more than standing armies as an enemy of liberty, which is a radically strong statement if you think about it for two seconds.

It is worth understanding that our definition of property, which is historically close to maximal, is a historical, and pre-historical, outlier. In many hunter-gatherer bands, if you want something another person has, you admire it, and they hand it to you. The idea that one could own ideas, and disallow other people from using them is something which would have struck most of humanity, for most of history, as insane.

And it is not so long ago that land which was not being used could be taken by anyone who would use it productively, be damned whoever owned it on paper. You could not leave resources unused, this was considered anti-social; even evil.

Property is entirely a social construction, and for most of history, justifications for the concept of property came down to, “We got here first, so it is ours,” and, “It is to everyone’s benefit that we use it.”

Capitalism is the bestest system ever, and therefore, the inequality it mandates is acceptable. People who have more money deserve it because they work harder, and are superior people who make superior decisions. Other people wouldn’t work at all if they didn’t have to, they must be compelled by Marx’s whip of hunger, or they’d sit on their lazy asses. If they are poor, they must not work hard enough, possess poor character, are stupid, and don’t make good decisions. They haven’t followed the approved steps.

They do not DESERVE money.

The actual value of money is almost entirely a social artifact. A dollar’s value, what it can buy or what opportunities it makes available in the US, is not located in any individual or in small groups, but in society as a whole; in many cases, this value was created by decisions made and work done by individuals long dead. (For the full argument, read “It’s Not Your Money.”)

But at the end of the day, this is the bottom-line truth:

Property is what society says it is.

What you can own and how much you can have of it, and when it is taken away, is entirely a social decision.  It is the acquiescence of your neighbours, in the broadest sense, which allows you to keep what you have–especially when it grows to include far more than your dwelling, tools, clothes, and the land on which you actually work.

Libertarianism is an attempt to take a socially granted license to use resources which are primarily a result of society’s efforts, not yours, and say that it is an intrinsic, individual human right.

But you did not train the workers you employ. You did not raise them or bear them. You did not educate them. You did not build the roads you use. And so on. The value, the advantage, of living in an advanced society is having access to all the infrastructure and institutions you did not build.

Let us bring this back to ethics.

To create a good society, that work is all necessary. It’s necessary that we build institutions, that we have infrastructure, that we support scientists (all the key research and inventions which created the internet were publically funded, for example).

It is also necessary that the people who are making the decisions are making good decisions. Bankers were making bad decisions. When they lost their money, it should have stayed lost. They weren’t harmed, like GM, by a crisis caused by other people, they were wiped out by a crisis of their own creation.

For a society to run well, we must be able to say, “You are not using society’s resources and people well, therefore, we are going to take away your ability to command so much of society’s resources.”

The larger we expand the sphere of property, as with intellectual property and the right to patent genetic codes, the more we say, “Only person X can make decisions about what to do with these resources.” We had better be damn certain that that one person, or corporation, or whoever owns these resources, is at least making good decisions, and ideally making better decisions than would be made if those resources had stayed in the commons, available for use by many.

And when we give a very few individuals and corporations the right to control a plurality or majority of our resources, locking out virtually everyone else from real decision-making beyond the anemic level of “consumer” and the neutered level of “voter,” we had, again, best be sure that those few people are making better decisions, for everyone, than would be made if a larger number of people had control over those resources and were making the decisions.

In short, if oligarchs want to control what people do, they need to make a strong case that their stewardship creates better results than those arising from people making these decisions themselves.

This is a rather high bar, and the genius of capitalistic ideology is that it’s not usually understood this is the case which must be made. Instead we are told, “Everyone is free to sell their labor,” as if that is freedom. Freedom to make your own decisions means not needing to work for someone else, and having the resources available to do what you want.

Freedom is not possible if you spend your life working for others when you’d rather not, knowing that, if you don’t, you will lose your shelter, go hungry, be without health care, and probably eventually die from lack of resources.

Freedom is the ability to choose what you do from a range of meaningful choices. The choice to work for Oligarch A or Oligarch B is not a meaningful choice.

Maximal property definitions and maximal acceptance of property concentration, deprive most of the population of their freedom. It is that simple.

They also show a vast distrust of the people, suggesting that if people had resources they would use them badly. This argument has been made by every tyrant since the beginning of agriculture: “I know better, and I will not lead by choice, but by coercion.”

The choice to starve if you don’t work for an oligarch is not much of a choice.

A sane property definition allows people to own the resources they need to do their work and take care of themselves and any dependents. Larger concentrations of property, meant for big projects, are necessary, but they must not be allowed to balloon in oligarchical control of politics and economy.

And I will suggest to you that this is both a much nicer world to live in and a more vibrant one. A world in which we are not slaves, but have freedom, will burst with creativity and projects. A world where ideas can be used by anyone will be a world in flower.

If you want freedom, look hard at property. The larger the sphere of property, and the more it is concentrated, the narrower most people’s world will be.



Practical Theoretical Ethics


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  1. V. Arnold

    My wife and I have a home on a property comprising 88 wah square; you do the work on how much that is.
    It’s not much; but most importantly; when our home is paid off (coming soon), there is no property tax!
    So, paid off means we actually own it; free and clear!! Forever…
    How about them apples…
    You’all suck hind tit…

  2. EmilianoZ

    I’m all for setting a hard limit on how much wealth any one individual can hold. Something along the lines of:

    max(wealth) = k*min(wealth)

    where “k” is a multiplicative factor to be tweaked experimentally and with a minimum wealth guarantee. For instance, we could start with k = 1000 and see how it goes.

  3. Sanctimonious Purist

    What would be the mechanism to bring about the world you envision from this starting place of wealth and property concentration? I can see a few places to start-wresting control of intellectual property from the telecoms, PhArma, Big Ed./Scholarly Journals and putting it back in the public sphere or starting with a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). But the problem with the first is how to do it–Aaron Schwartz tried and that ended in tragedy, and the problem with the second as far as I understand (I am not well versed in economics), would be that if everyone had a certain amount of money gratis, the oligarchs would just raise prices. So a BIG only works with serious regulation and price controls (is that the right term?) or outright provision of necessities like food staples, housing, education and medical care (including provision of any drug necessary for treatment of addiction or other disease). The problem then is whether the graft cycle and wealth concentration would just start all over again when folks see the big subsidies coming out of the public trough. Grifters gotta grift. What to do? Where to start?

  4. different clue

    One could start by restoring the progressive income tax rates of the FDR-Eisenhower era. Once could restore the estate taxes existing at that time. Over time it would weaken the Overclass just enough that the Middle-And-Below class could then pick and win more battles against the Overclass. Eventually the non-Overclass would be strong enough to be able to decide and enforce its decision about how much private-property accumulation by any single entity is a danger to all the entities around it.

  5. Peter

    Sorry, but when I hear that we were all happier, more cooperative or better off in hunter-gatherer days, or in any subsequent idealization of the past, distant or recent, I have to wonder whether a reality check is called for.

  6. Hugh

    “Allowing private individuals and large groups to have large amounts of property is a decision to allow them to control large numbers of people and resources.” I like this. It works equally well whether we are talking property or wealth.

    “Justice Brandeis famously noted that America could have great concentrations of wealth, or democracy, but not both.” In some sense, a tautology, but still needs to be said. Great concentrations of wealth also are unproductive and even destructive. Once an individual like Gates or a corporation like Microsoft achieves a certain market share, the push is to quash the competition, stifle innovation, establish and enforce a monopoly, raise prices and lower quality. Jobs is another example. Apple would still have been insanely profitable, if its products had been produced in America with American workers. But this would have ignored that too much was never enough for Jobs and overlooked his contempt for Americans as both workers and consumers. He preferred to build glitzy gadgets in China in plants with suicide netting and power them with crappy batteries designed to give out after a couple of years. Great concentrations of wealth lead to monopoly, and monopoly leads to low quality and high prices. It leads to our society (i.e. us) which made this wealth possible and the workers who realized it being ripped off, looted. This is not a bug, it’s the whole point. Apple and Microsoft, Gates and Jobs, are not a few bad apples. They are the avatars of a corrupt and kleptocratic system. And this is not even the worst of it. Sam Walton did much the same in retailing. He died and left tens of billions to his heirs. I doubt one of them has done a single productive thing in their whole life. So where has that concentration of wealth gotten the rest of us, other to impoverish us that much more?

    Our whole economic model has ceased to be about producing (anything) for the many and about collecting rents for the few. Healthcare, pharmaceuticals, Monsanto, tech, intellectual property, hedge funds, private equity, it is all about maximizing the profit, not the product. Intellectual property is a particularly sore point with me because its current manifestation is the polar opposite of what its original purpose was. Copyright came into being as a way to encourage innovation by allowing creators to profit (for a while) from their creations and inventions. Now it is just an excuse for rents. For anyone alive today under 80 virtually every film, book, song, and paper since their birth will still be under copyright at their death.

    I caught a few minutes of the Grammies recently. A rich record producer was basically doing an ad within the show. He lamented how poor artists were only being paid pennies each time their work was being heard. Is this right? he said. Shouldn’t we be willing to pay more? What he wasn’t saying, of course, was that the vast majority of any increased royalties would not be going to these struggling artists but to fat cats like him and already rich artists like Taylor Swift. It was one of the more brazen examples of “Help the poor, give to the rich” I can remember seeing, but it captures the essence of the rent economy. Those who own (not produce but own), collect, and those who do not own, pay –for always.

  7. Hugh

    Great wealth results in social parasites, bizarre people leading bizarre lives, with no connection to or skin in the game of our health or that of our society. They become like island states within our country, you know like Florida, Gates, Georgia … Virginia, Waltons, Washington, etc. Reducing their wealth would not only be a lot healthier for us. It would even be healthier for them. It would tether them to reality and give them a shot at a meaningful life. Great wealth and meaningful are oxymoronic.

    Several years ago, in either late 2008 or early 2009, I started putting together a list of suggestions on how to reduce wealth inequality. What follows concerns how limits could be placed on wealth.

    1. A 40% tax rate for incomes above $300,000 going to 65% at $1 million.

    2. A marginal 95% tax rate for income above $1 million. All earnings here and abroad from whatever source to be declared and taxed as income. Any income undeclared to be confiscated and subject to additional financial and criminal penalties. (Taken with 1, this effectively caps annual income within the $180,000-$350,000 range.)

    3. A yearly 10% asset tax on household wealth above $20 million. Any wealth undeclared to be confiscated and subject to additional financial and criminal penalties.

    4. Current charitable foundations set up by families (think Gates, Buffet, etc.) to also be taxed at this same rate. Ban family foundations in the future.

    5. A 50% tax on gross corporate profits. No stock options for executives. All profits and assets here and abroad to be declared or subject to confiscation with additional financial and criminal penalties for both the corporations and their chief officers.

    6. 100% estate tax on all estates over $2.5 million per individual, $4 million for couples. Eliminate most trusts.

    7. No renunciation of citizenship accepted, past or future, until all tax assessments are paid and any assets in excess of $2.5 million returned to the American people.

    8. Any bank which hides or abets in hiding assets from taxes shall lose its charter to do business in the US.

    9. No lending interest rate in excess of 2% of the prime rate.

    10. No darkpools, no high frequency trading, 0.1% tax on all trades.

    The other side of this is what this wealth would be used for: meaningful jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, and fully funded Medicare for All, schools, and retirements, as well as a sustainable industrial base and energy and transportation infrastructure.

    You can adjust the numbers, I know I have over the years. This is meant to start the conversation not end it. 9 and 10 are new. I should have added them some time ago.

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