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Seeing Just like a State, Progress and Poverty, and Owning Land

August 19, 2022

Negara mawi tata, desa mawi cara (The administrative centre has its order, the village its customs).

Javanese proverb

I’ve been recently reading Seeing Just like a State by James C. Scott, a book about ways that governments create simplified schemas to make complex systems legible; i.e. understandable, measurable, manipulatable. Its also about how exactly these schemas, applied by the energy of hawaii, actually find yourself shaping what they measure, usually such as creating an optimization process for the metric or narrow group of metrics being measured, often at the trouble of the machine all together. For example, in the event that you were circumstances owning a forest for lumber, you may track the amount of trees of a particular variety and their heights and diameters in an effort to understand how much lumber you may expect to have the ability to extract from the forest each year, and ignore specific things like the density and diversity of undergrowth, animals that reside in the forest, etc. However, this may cause you to begin planting rows of trees of all same species to displace the old growth forests you decrease, because based on the way you start to see the forest that is optimal for maximizing lumber. Your schema for seeing the forest ignores the need of its diversity, which results in a few unforeseen side-affect like disease destroying all of your crop of planted trees, or declining soil fertility which results in poor yields several generations down the road.

Scott applies this lens to land use, that is where this book gets excellent. Because the modern state developed, it had been tasked with somehow attaching every parcel of taxable property to a person or an institution in charge of paying the tax onto it to become in a position to collect taxes on land. This is not necessarily straightforward, because land use customs (not laws; these were flexible and not often written) varied so much across different localities and were ever-changing. He has an illustration of a hypothetical traditional land use scenario. Ill quote the whole lot because I came across it certainly interesting:

Why don’t we imagine a residential area where families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland through the main growing season. Only certain crops, however, could be planted, and every seven years the usufruct land is redistributed among resident families in accordance with each familys size and its own amount of able-bodied adults. Following the harvest of the main-season crop, all cropland reverts to common land where any family may glean, graze their fowl and livestock, and also plant quickly maturing, dry-season crops. Rights to graze fowl and livestock on pasture-land held in keeping by the village is extended to all or any local families, however the amount of animals which can be grazed is fixed in accordance with family size, especially in dry years when forage is scarce. Families not utilizing their grazing rights can provide them to other villagers however, not to outsiders. Everyone gets the to gather firewood for normal family needs, and the village blacksmith and baker receive larger allotments. No commercial sale from village woodlands is permitted. Trees which have been planted and any fruit they could bear will be the property of the household who planted them, irrespective of where they are actually growing. Fruit fallen from such trees, however, may be the property of anyone who gathers it. Whenever a family fells among its trees or perhaps a tree is felled by way of a storm, the trunk is one of the family, the branches to the immediate neighbors, and the tops (leaves and twigs) to any poorer villager who carries them off.

Land is defined aside for use or leasing out by widows with children and dependents of conscripted males. Usufruct rights to land and trees may be let to anyone in the village; the only real time they might be let to someone beyond your village is if nobody locally wishes to claim them. Following a crop failure resulting in a food shortage, a lot of these arrangements are readjusted. Better-off villagers are anticipated to assume some responsibility for poorer relativesby sharing their land, by hiring them, or simply by feeding them. If the shortage persist, a council made up of heads of families may inventory food supplies and commence daily rationing. In cases of severe shortages or famine, the ladies who’ve married in to the village but haven’t yet borne children will never be fed and so are expected to go back to their native village. This last practice alerts us to the inequalities that often prevail in local customary tenure; single women, junior males, and anyone thought as falling beyond your core of the city are clearly disadvantaged.

Seeing Such as a State, page 53.

Scott is quick to say that scenario itself is really a simplification, and creates the misconception these customs are fixed, if they are nearer to a full time income, negotiated group of practices continually adapting to ecological and social circumstances. Because this sort of thing cant be encoded in a couple of laws, and because customs varied so widely from village to village, in this manner of dividing and using land cannot be legible to hawaii. These fine-tailored and context-dependant land use practices are opaque to an outsider, so land can’t be managed from a centralized authority, also it can’t be taxed as effectively. In accordance with Scott: Indeed, the concept of the present day state presupposes a vastly simplified and uniform property regime that’s legible and therefore manipulable from the guts. To repair this, hawaii (Scott mostly targets Russia and France for these chapters) undertook a scheme to introduce individual freehold tenure, where Land is owned by way of a legal person that possesses wide powers useful, inheritance, or sale and whose ownership is represented by way of a uniform deed of title enforced through the judicial and police institutions of hawaii. This idea is actually quite familiar to a 21st century Western reader. Actually, any other method of dividing land feels quite foreign if you ask me, so that it was surprising to discover that this was a comparatively recent development.

Another book that I read recently is Progress and Poverty by Henry George, that is also about land use. George basically deconstructs our accepted ideas about land ownership. He claims they have no basis in nature, showing how traditional societies did not need an idea of single ownership of land (he uses Native American societies for his argument). He highlights there are no legitimate claims to land ownership; all land ownership has its origin in bloodshed, whether in the brand new World, where Europeans appropriated land that had traditionally been lived on and utilized by Indigenous peoples, or in the Old, where land ownership has always result from conquest and war. Georges philosophy is that man is entitled and then what he produces through their own labour, and since land (and the worthiness of land) isn’t developed by man, it can’t be the entitlement of anyone.

Unlike Scott, George is mainly centered on land used in modern, urban environments. George shows how, in cities, since new land can’t be created, land values increase because the wealth of the town grows. As a downstream consequence, rents will rise to consume up any upsurge in wealth made by the labour of individuals of this city. Land owners, while producing no wealth, can appropriate the wealth made by others because of their monopoly on land. This book is nearly 200 yrs . old, but this example been there as well doesnt it? Now, I dont know easily agree wholeheartedly here. It appears to me that when housing is abundant enough, say because land has been developed to raised intensification as the town is continuing to grow, then landlords will never be in a position to gouge their tenants, so long as the marketplace is competitive. Still, George makes a solid argument that land speculation and rent gouging will be the two main factors behind the economic ills of industrial, urban society. It is possible to read a a lot more detailed summary and overview of Progress and Poverty on AstralCodexTen by Lars Doucet, here.

Ok, so Henry George convinced me our system of land ownership is unjust; and George and Scott together convinced me that it isnt inevitable. So whats the choice? The type of anarchistic type of negotiated and customary land use described by Scott is will not easily translate to today’s industrial city setting. Besides, the peasants described by Scott still owned and had full control over their very own houses in the village, it had been the normal land whose use was more complex and communal. Im uncertain just how much this philosophy of the commons is pertinent to cities. In my own mind it creates more sense that an individual government representing individuals should determine how common land ought to be used. I do believe that privately owned land must have much more flexibility in how it really is used and built upon in urban environments, but that’s slightly tangential.

To solve the problem of private land ownership, Henry George proposes a land tax, which he says would eradicate land ownership used by rendering it impossible to profit from the value of land. The federal government would assess land values and tax land owners at 100% of the worthiness of the land. This way, people will be absolve to own land in the sense of having their name on a deed and autonomy over its use, however they would need to pay the worthiness of this land back again to the commons by means of a tax. We sort of already do tax land. We’ve property taxes. The difference is that property taxes are levied on the worthiness of the land and the improvements on the land. So, in the event that you buy land and create a house onto it, your goverment tax bill will increase because the property value has increased. Also, property taxes generally dont capture anywhere near 100% of the property’s land value.

I love this idea a whole lot, but I dont think it’ll ever be politically popular. People prefer to own land. It offers them a feeling of security and pride. Imaginable what sort of land tax could undermine this. For instance, say Im Carl Fredricksen from the Pixar movie Up. I purchased my house 55 years back, and in enough time that Ive lived inside it the town has developed around me so the parcel that the house sits on is currently extremely valuable. Inside our existing system of modest property taxes, I can continue steadily to live in the home so long as I could stomach paying a slightly larger goverment tax bill each year. Occasionally (like California), Im actually exempt from property tax increases; so it is most unlikely that I’ll ever have trouble affording in which to stay my home. EASILY had been taxed at 100% of the lands value, the pressure to market or make an effort to develop my land would become massive because the land value appreciates. Understand that Carls house is flanked on each side by high-rises, implying that a whole lot of value (by means of rent) could theoretically be extracted from his land. It really is safe to state that in a 100% land tax system, Carl will be forced off his land. This sort of possibility makes people very uncomfortable. The movie actually demonstrates a means that tension could possibly be resolved. Carl doesnt like surviving in a busy construction zone, but he could be emotionally mounted on the home he distributed to with deceased wife and cant allow it go. Because of this, moving the home accomplished in the movie by attaching a clump of balloons to it and rendering it float away eases the tension. Carl reaches keep his house, and presumably the land underneath it gets put to raised use.

Carl Fredricksen’s house in Up.

Carl Fredricksens house in Up.

So Scott shows us the way the modern state created freehold land ownership to create land use more legible for taxation. George starts with the system of freehold tenure, but shows us how exactly we might co-opt it and present the wealth back again to the normal good. A very important factor to indicate here’s that Seeing Such as a State is filled with historical types of governments expanding their power and wealth and utilizing their increase for not the normal good. Scotts book is rather cautious with large-scale government intervention generally, a sentiment supported by example after exemplory case of governments using taxation, or increased information regarding their citizens, to wreak havoc on social systems that are illegible in their mind. Can we think that a 100% land tax would, as George hopes, be utilized instead of all the taxes? George envisions that the revenues out of this tax will be committed to public works and distributed as a dividend to all or any citizens a universal basic income. Whether this might happen used I imagine Scott will be highly doubtful. Still, a land tax appears like the only method we’re able to eliminate land ownership without restructuring society.

To conclude how both of these books have changed my thinking on land ownership, I’d firstly say that both books been employed by together to convince me that the machine of land use and ownership that dominates the world today is in fact an historical anomaly (not land ownership itself needless to say, however the system of deeds and cadastral maps that people moderns are aware of). This opens the entranceway to accepting that current holders of land, and the laws that back them, aren’t standing firmly on a foundation dating back to to the dawn of civilization because they might want one to believe. That truth probably must have been more obvious if you ask me as a Canadian citizen; a nation founded on land that were used by other folks for thousands of years ahead of European settlement. Every land deed in this country must have the worlds largest disclaimer mounted on it. Yet, as Henry George highlights, the institution includes a shady history irrespective of where on earth you look. In this spirit, I believe our social discourse must have more willingness to explore alternate techniques our land could possibly be used and shared, with a philosophy that land should serve the normal good foremost.

Seeing Just like a State on Goodreads.

Progress and Poverty on Goodreads.

P.S. Scott Alexander (of AstralCodexTen) wrote a good book review & summary of Seeing Just like a State that I read a long time before I browse the actual book. You need to give it a read in order to understand the primary points of the book without reading the whole lot.

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