Developing An Intuition For Georgism

Atvbt’s bloggers, Uri and Jehan, just had a piece on land ownership and Georgism published in Wired.

Below are thoughts that were too weird for the Wired piece, but may belong here.

Georgism, in some sense, is the idea that no one really owns land, but instead, you rent its exclusive use from everyone else through Land Value Taxes.

Thomas Paine describes this notion in Agrarian Justice:

"Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds".

How do you get an intuition for this though? Owning land is so baked into our psyches that it’s hard to conceive of this as unnatural. Here are a few ways that have convinced me:

1) We find owning 1D or floating 3D space absurd, but owning 2D space perfectly natural.

If I claimed to own a 1-dimensional line that ran on the ground, and that you need to step over it, or that I owned a 6-inch cube floating off the ground, and you needed to duck under it, you’d rightly think I was insane.

However, if I own a plot of land, i.e. a 2D space on the surface of the earth, it’s considered either insane (or tragically primitive) to not believe in this.

(Yes, through air rights you own 3D space, but it generally has to be above 2D land, floating cubes still seem nonsensical).

2) You’re probably already a Georgist for other common goods.

“I contend that we are both atheists Georgists. I just believe in one fewer god ownership of common goods than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods ownerships of common goods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

-Stephen Roberts Atoms vs Bits

For example, most people don’t believe you can own a frequency, and neither does the FCC. For this reason, if you want exclusive rights to a particular radio frequency you need to pay for it at auction. It gets you temporary exclusive use of that frequency, but not perpetual ownership.

Radio frequencies are a common good similar to land in that no one created it, and no one destroyed it. It can even be seen as just physical space of another kind. Without any historical ownership precedent, it seems perfectly natural to divvy it up in this way.

Similarly, international treaties prohibit the ownership of the Moon or other celestial bodies, which sometimes applies to things like colors or beaches.

If you agree you can’t own any of these other examples, then why is land any different? I contend, as David Hume did, that there is no fundamental distinction, it is simply a societal convention.

3) A world where you must buy a deed for your brainwaves would seem dystopian.

Speaking of owning frequencies, your brain operates in cycles, or brainwaves, with frequencies of up to 35 Hz (i.e. 35 times per second). Now imagine being born into a world where 1) People could own frequencies and 2) All the frequencies your brain operates in were owned.

You’d suddenly find yourself having to buy, beg, borrow, or steal some frequencies for your brain to operate in. But do you need brainwaves to live? Tough luck, you’re born with that debt to the frequency-lords.

As strange as it sounds, this is the world we live in with land! There’s only a certain number of places a human being can exist in, but they’re already all taken and you have to hope to buy or rent some from those who have it. Landlords didn’t make the land any more than frequency-lords made the frequencies, but they control them now in order to sell your natural rights back to you.

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