How to think about the public good.
Today’s column continues the theme of last week’s, about Public Affairs and Social Control. To better illustrate my conception of government as defining and protecting rights to life and to land, as opposed to controlling economic and personal behavior, think about what you would do if you woke up tomorrow and found out you were King of America.
By King I mean, for simplicity, absolute ruler over America (although few kings ever had absolute power). No feudal aristocracy, no legislature; just you and the governors and administrators you appoint. You would be the ultimate owner of the land, the lord of all landowners. You want your children and children’s children to continue the family’s dynastic rule. You view the land as yours, that you are entitled to it. You are not especially kind or altruistic; your policies are dictated by your self-interest. But your monarchy has no religious or traditional foundation in the culture; you can‘t rely on the people‘s blind loyalty to your government. They’ll accept your rule only if it is effective. How would you rule?
Hans-Hermann Hoppe wrote in Democracy: the God that Failed that Kings sought to increase their capital stock - their wealth. Mike Curtis, a disciple of Henry George, who saw that the problem of economic justice was a problem of land rights, writes, “In fact, the only way by which we can really measure the merits of a city government is the value it creates in its land.” A well-governed country is one that people would want to live in.
This is one way of asking, “What policies do you believe are in the nation’s best interest?” But there’s a difference between a voter in our democracy asking the question to himself, and a King asking the same question. Presidents get away with governing with barely half of the nation’s support; our King probably couldn’t do that. Presidents can start wars against tiny countries that posed no threat to us, like Yugoslavia and Iraq. A King, again, probably couldn’t do that - not in today’s world.
That’s because our soldiers, and our citizens as a whole, are not particularly loyal to the current President, but rather to the system, to Democracy. They would be highly skeptical of a King that taxed and regulated half as much as the federal government does now. There would quickly be a revolution.
And that would be the one thing a King would want to avoid. His priority is to stay in power in the face of a skeptical public. His incentive isn’t necessarily to please everyone all the time, but to set conditions that most would find satisfactory. The injustice involved of the King owning all the land would have to be abated somehow. Since life is never fair, the question would be to give the people the best deal possible.
How can this be accomplished? The first thing is to look at reality. A State can control land, can determine who gets exclusive rights to this or that natural resource. But a State can not control people. It can only try to make as many people loyal, obedient subjects as possible, but that is inefficient at best and wishful thinking at worst.
So if I were King, I would probably deal with the “renters,” those whom I have granted exclusive control over some piece of land or natural resource. Following the Georgist model, I would likely extract taxes, which could be called rent, from those whom I grant exclusive or monopolistic control. This would probably include the control of broadcast channels, and may include also patents and copyrights, and taxes on those who want the privilege and protection of incorporation. The house you build on a piece of land would not be taxed, only the land it is on. The manufacturing company would not pay taxes on its income, and its workers will not pay taxes on their wages - only the land that the factory sits on would be taxed.
And then I would use the money collected on rents and other title rights for national defense, law enforcement, and some combination of public services, scientific research (for which I would get money back through future patent royalties), and dividends to all the citizens. Most likely, I would dispense as much as I could to local governors and administrators to fund whatever is most necessary in their area, whether it is to improve rail service or provide poverty relief.
I would provide law enforcement against the real crimes of violence, theft, and fraud. I would preserve the right to keep and bear arms, trial by jury, and a free press. In fact, I would rely heavily on a free press so that my government would know the concerns of the people. I would tax the value of land owned by churches, but otherwise leave them alone.
I would rather be the King of a country in which a sick person died taking a new drug at his own, willing risk, than be the King whose government prevented a drug from reaching the market and thereby prevented the saving of many other lives.
Just as I wouldn’t be foolish enough to assume that a house costs the same in New York City as in rural Mississippi, so I wouldn’t pretend that a national “minimum” or “living” wage would be equal throughout the United States. I wouldn’t impose one.
In short, I would view governing the country as a for-profit enterprise; I would prosper as my country prospers. And as the country prospers, and as the people enjoy more of every kind of freedom, the more likely they would want to keep me around.
I mention all of this not because I think I should be King, but to provide an illustration. If we had a King, the only remotely just or fair form of government we would have would be a fairly libertarian one. Since the King wasn’t elected, he’d have no right to tell you what to smoke, or drink, or prevent you from marrying whoever or whatever you wanted. He’d have no right to tax the fruits of your labor. He’d have no right to subject your child to psychiatric tests without your consent, or prevent you from taking the pain-relieving medication of your choice. He wouldn’t have the authority to punish you, as a parent, because your child is obese, or assume the parental responsibility of monitoring the video games that child plays. He wouldn’t send the nation into debt by going to war, or by attempting to lower the price of education and health care (and by so doing, actually increase the price of both). Whatever he does or doesn’t do about the nation’s poor, he wouldn’t bankrupt the nation by sending a paycheck to all of the nation’s elderly, many of whom don’t need it or need far less than they’re given. A King wouldn’t need to cater to the beliefs and interests of the people of Ohio, and pretend that that is a nationwide mandate.
No intelligent or remotely decent King would tax us the way we are presently taxed.
But we tolerate it. We tolerate it all. We don’t know how not to tolerate it. As Hoppe predicted, no one in a democracy governs with a sense of ownership. There is a theoretical ownership of the land by the “community,” but that’s divided up by the “dual sovereignty” of the state and federal government. Everybody owns everything, which means that nobody owns anything.
But it is the sense of ownership that is the basis for sound political judgment. If you owned the United States of America, literally owned all that land, you would think differently about how to manage it than you do now. Today, you want to use the force of government to rid the country, and perhaps the world, of the evils you abhor most. Perhaps it is greed, racism, and homophobia and gun rights. Or maybe it is terrorism, abortion, pornography and the “gay agenda.”
But government can’t control people. Each individual, as Rose Wilder Lane put it in The Discovery of Freedom, is in control of his energy, no one else. Individuals control themselves. The more resources we waste trying to improve the moral condition of individuals today through violent, punitive means, the less capital we have to build a more prosperous and safer world for tomorrow.
I believe the thought-experiment of what you would do if you got to have your way, what you would do if you were King, may motivate many of us to realize what it is we really want out of government and out of life. By imagining a sense of ownership in our country, perhaps we’ll see less of the “Culture War” and more sound thinking about economic and security affairs.