I’m a bleeding-heart libertarian!

by John Holbo on November 9, 2012

For a day.



William Timberman 11.09.12 at 3:39 pm

Confusion to our enemies. By the time they’re finished trying to figure out what you’ve said, we’ll have had at least an entire generation free of their carping and plotting. (And they will try to figure it out. They’re libertarians, after all.)


John Holbo 11.09.12 at 3:41 pm

It is compressed.


rea 11.09.12 at 3:51 pm

Surely you meant to propose giving people themselves plus a dollar, plus a pony . . .


Jerry Vinokurov 11.09.12 at 4:03 pm

I think you broke some brains in there.


Chris Marcil 11.09.12 at 4:12 pm

John’s typo: “Or by passing Obamacare, to ensure that the person each person gets gets healthcare” is diabolical genius, because it implies that people get Obamacare twice — a certain red flag to the libertarian.

For people who don’t click links, this to me was the money phrase in the article: “if you want to keep some group down, libertarian market means might be the ticket. “


rootless (@root_e) 11.09.12 at 4:30 pm

So wonderful.
And all the anguish it provokes only makes it better.


mpowell 11.09.12 at 4:39 pm

I love the stuff you’ve written pointing out the problem with libertarian beliefs not being able to find a suitable, stable ground between the thick version of liberty they abhor (but we liberals love) and the thin version of pathetic liberty that they are therefore forced to commit themselves to philosphically (usually without wanting to admit it).

But I’m not sure how much it means that libertarianism has been good ground for those looking to continue oppressing the oppressed. Sure, Barry Goldwater. But that was a long time ago. Most of the folks with that agenda don’t bother to try and hide in a libertarian cloak anymore. Mostly because it turned out to be completely unnecessary. There used to be some self-described libertarians who were pretty clearly conservatives who didn’t want to call themselves conservatives. But then they built an entire internet community around how being a rock-solid Republican was a perfectly fine thing to be and now they don’t appear to bother with the charade anymore. I just don’t find this line of attack very persuasive. The thing about libertarians these days that I notice is that the only liberty they really seem to care about that’s actually on the table (the drug war stuff isn’t for now, maybe this movement will be more useful in 20 years when legalizing heroine is a possibility), is lower taxes for themselves. And a steady tendency to ignore that their criticisms of government power apply just as well to corporations and at least we can vote for our government.


rootless (@root_e) 11.09.12 at 4:45 pm

So wonderful.
And all the anguish it provokes only makes it better.

Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom. Real freedom consists of having one’s government chosen by CIA and Army and one’s eyes gauged out if one does not appreciate it. (Constitution of Liberty/Chile edition)


Barry Freed 11.09.12 at 4:59 pm

I think you broke some brains in there.

Evidence for your assertion, sir: What that fuck is this shit? <– currently highest rated comment on the thread.


rootless (@root_e) 11.09.12 at 4:59 pm

The funniest thing about Libertarians, however, is their fundamental bureaucratism – Libertarianism is the natural home of the paper shuffler.

Scene: family is violently thrown out of their home of 40 years by armed representatives of the state and left bleeding and weeping on the side of the road.

Meaning A under Libertarian Ideology: there is a properly stamped document in the county courthouse confirming their ownership of the home
Meaning B under Libertarian Ideology: same scene, same people, no document.


William Timberman 11.09.12 at 5:24 pm

It is compressed.

Delightfully so, IMNSHO. There’s nothing so gladdens the heart like a well-laid liberal minefield.


Daryl McCullough 11.09.12 at 6:51 pm

Absolutely! Conservatives have the belief that liberals favor government solutions because they love power, and love to control other people’s lives. But if there is a plausible proposal that can make a serious dent in the amount of misery in the world that doesn’t involve the heavy boot of the state, liberals would be completely on board.


Daryl McCullough 11.09.12 at 6:58 pm

I’m sure this is not original with me, but it has always struck me that the feudal system of lords and serfs is the natural state of property-rights libertarianism. If the lord owns all the land, the serfs will naturally agree to work for him in return for being allowed to not starve. No coercion is needed, just property rights.


rootless (@root_e) 11.09.12 at 7:10 pm

Daryl McCullough @13

You have just described Hayekian Paradise.


Jacob T. Levy 11.09.12 at 7:18 pm

Daryl McCullough @13

The lack of resemblance between what you describe and actual feudalism is , I think, important and telling. Serfs were not formally-free-and-equal persons who merely lacked de facto freedom because they wanted to not starve. As Marx understood very clearly, they were not proletarians in bourgeois civil society. In order to retell feudalism as libertarianism, you have to distort feudalism pretty badly.


Linnaeus 11.09.12 at 7:28 pm

The lack of resemblance between what you describe and actual feudalism is , I think, important and telling. Serfs were not formally-free-and-equal persons who merely lacked de facto freedom because they wanted to not starve. As Marx understood very clearly, they were not proletarians in bourgeois civil society. In order to retell feudalism as libertarianism, you have to distort feudalism pretty badly.

Okay, it’s neofeudalism, then.


Daryl McCullough 11.09.12 at 7:32 pm


Okay, what is the difference, in practice, between being a serf and being a property-less worker where there is only one employer?


rootless (@root_e) 11.09.12 at 7:51 pm

the prototypical mutually beneficial exchange, under the assumptions of standard micro, goes much more like this:

MAN ON HORSEBACK: I have just killed the previous man-on-horseback of this village. Give me half of whatever you grow, or I will kill you, too.

PEASANT (wearily): Your worship is the soul of honor.

Cosmo Shaliz


seth 11.09.12 at 8:52 pm

While I agree with the cheering here, it was a great minefield over there. I kinda agree with the commenter there that says something about guests pooping on our doorstep. So… I am looking forward to the upcoming Libertarian guests here on CrookedTimber.


Mike Huben 11.09.12 at 9:48 pm

I was delighted to see the “haggling” argument. I’d been thinking along those lines for a while: especially since the foundation of all rights and property is coercion. Libertarians sanctimoniously aver they abhor coercion, despite the fact that their entire ideology is rooted in it.


bianca steele 11.09.12 at 10:07 pm

That’s what left-libertarianism is?

I was going to say that John’s post almost makes me feel bad about any mean things I may have said about libertarianism, and that I should remedy the error by writing something nice, right now. Then I read the intro post. That isn’t what I thought left-libertarianism is. But my guess would be that BHL get that a lot.


Linnaeus 11.10.12 at 12:08 am

That’s what left-libertarianism is?

I’ve long doubted the existence of such a thing.


Eric Titus 11.10.12 at 1:43 am

Hah! Although I can’t say I approve of trolling in general, maybe it will spur some thought?

Regarding mean libertarianism, I think it’s clearer where it comes from if you look at the historical roots. While class-based movements often argued against the state as an instrument of the dominant class, libertarianism’s intellectual history is more closely linked to the English gentry, who wanted to maintain their property in the face of popular movements and wanted the state to stamp out movements that they saw as threatening their interest. That’s the intellectual roots of libertarianism: groups wanting the state to help them defend the status quo.

I do think that new (and old) movements that call for more bottom-up economic power, for want of a better term, are generally in the right, but it would be a mistake to term these libertarian (or to equate them with authoritarian socialism). But even this sort of market-based socialism or anarchism might accept a role for the state in providing a safety net and (perhaps) reducing economic cyclicality.


Craig 11.10.12 at 1:52 am

Yes, John, very much yes. I can’t tell you how this essay made my day.

You can agree or disagree with Kant on many things, but for me, the most important lessons he taught us are that metaphysics flows from epistemology, and ethics flows from metaphysics. We can’t ask “what should I do?” without forming some fuzzy response to the first question “what is there?” And the fuzzier that response, the messier our ethics are liable to be. Libertarian ethics are a dog’s breakfast for just that reason.

As you puckishly point out, the whole libertarian notion of “self as property” is an impossible mess–the self is not property in the way that anything else is property. “I own myself” doesn’t mean–for almost all libertarians–the same thing as “I own this 2009 Honda Fit.” So why use the same word for both concepts? There is a ten-foot gap between self-ownership and thing-ownership, and I’ve never seen better than a nine-foot bridge built across it.

Kant, again, had an idea that had its problems but was infinitely better than anything any libertarian thinker has ever come up with. (This should surprise no one.) It is not that we “own ourselves,” but that we must be regarded as “ends in ourselves,” rather than means to some other end.

How much that solves at a stroke! I can sell my car to you, but not my person–because if you own me, I am no longer an end in myself. How about babies? In Libertopia, confining self-owning infants to cribs and playpens must be a felony, but in Kantland, we understand that a child growing into its faculties must at times have its freedom limited to allow for its ultimate flourishing. And we can go on.

Libertarianism fails if we take it seriously enough–if we suppose a maximally owned world in which every inch of ground and every breath of air is owned by someone. (The air I exhale as I climb a mountain–have I not mixed my labor with it? And if you don’t like the carbon dioxide I’ve added, well, to heck with you–I don’t like that fence you built around the virgin forest. Why does your judgment beat mine?) That should be enough to damn any philosophy. But comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted has always been a profitable trade–and that’s all libertarianism is in the last analysis.


Nine 11.10.12 at 2:19 am

Jacob T. Levy @15
“Serfs were not formally-free-and-equal persons who merely lacked de facto freedom because they wanted to not starve.”

“Merely” lack freedom to “not starve” ? Where do i sign for immigration to Libertaria ?


rootless (@root_e) 11.10.12 at 3:48 am

People used to describe themselves as Communist Libertarians. That strain of thought was in Anarchism and zero to do with American Libertarianism.


rootless (@root_e) 11.10.12 at 3:57 am

” my considered opinion is that libertarianism is, in the psychic life of US society and culture and politics, at least as often a confabulatory reflex against freedom as it is an impulse on its behalf”



Both Sides Do It 11.10.12 at 4:34 am

The Seinfeld references in the first few comments dampened my schadenfreude for them a bit, but only a bit. Great stuff.

It might be tightened up a bit by using “non-domination” instead of “positive liberty”, since non-domination fits a little more tightly with Chartier’s opposition to bossism and deprivation. But that’s pretty niggling. And, as you say: compressed.


Chris Bertram 11.10.12 at 10:04 am

It gives me enormous pleasure to see that John has annoyed Jason Brennan immensely, as all good posts should.


John Holbo 11.10.12 at 12:48 pm

I honestly feel a bit bad about annoying Jason Brennan that much. I didn’t actually intend to be THAT annoying. But here we are. I am happy, at least, to have given you pleasure, Chris.


David J. Littleboy 11.10.12 at 12:53 pm

I take it you were pulling a Sokal on them?


novakant 11.10.12 at 1:16 pm

Well, there is a Wikipedia entry and there’s Chomsky. A general distrust of concentrated power (be it state or corporate), a strong anti-imperialistic stance combined with respect for civil liberties and human rights is what does it for me. Neither “liberals” nor the statist left care about these matters (or if deep in their hearts they do, they are willing to swallow way too many toads which amounts to the same thing).


novakant 11.10.12 at 1:16 pm

above in response to #22 – sorry


bianca steele 11.10.12 at 3:27 pm

I kind of like Brennan’s paraphrase. It’s the only thing by him I’ve finished.


William Timberman 11.10.12 at 4:46 pm

John’s point about libertarianism as she actually exists is a good one, and is as often ignored by what he calls high theory libertarians as he claims it is. It’s also true, I think, that liberals are more sensitive to the coercive dangers inherent in what libertarians deride as the nanny state than libertarians are to the John C. Calhouns in their ranks, who never tire of warning everyone who will listen that the Yankees want to take away our freedom to own slaves.

Democracy was intended to be a just, if not necessarily objective, arbiter of subject-object dualities in politics. Under what circumstances does an individual get to call the shots, and under what circumstances must he submit to having the shots called on him? Democracy is supposed to provide us with some sort of workable answer to this ancient question. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily do anything of the sort. That leaves us plenty of room for low practice as well as high theory.

And here we are.


Bucky F 11.11.12 at 11:31 am

Where is Jason Brennan’s response?


Chris Bertram 11.11.12 at 12:36 pm

It seems to have been taken down.


Watson Ladd 11.11.12 at 1:25 pm

rootless, you seem to forget that all rights are as illusory as property rights. A man goes to vote. He is prohibited because a thing with his picture on it says a number that is too high. Another one can! One cannot because his picture is on a thing of a different color then another’s because of where he was born. A third committed an act that we regard as a felony, while his friend only committed a misdemeanour. What exactly makes these examples less metaphysical then property rights?

Craig, Locke would not defend that on the basis that there has to be a admixing of labor to create property interests. What labor can be admixed with air? There are also thinkers who would say that because these rights are hard to enforce, we shouldn’t for economic reasons. All philosophies have their limits: that is not a reason some are better then others.


Hidden Heart 11.11.12 at 6:00 pm

Watson, I started to answer “What labor can be admixed with air?” with “C’mon, you don’t think that pollution just spontaneously generates, do you?” But now I’ve got a Rule 34-esque fear that some libertarian has claimed that polluting emissions, as the byproduct of the transformative admixing of labor, give the polluter a claim on the natural resources being polluted.


GiT 11.11.12 at 7:07 pm

If we weren’t stealing their poisoned air and water, we wouldn’t be getting hurt in the first place!


Craig 11.12.12 at 12:50 am

My first claim–and I’m not 100% certain it’s a joke–is that I have mixed my labor with the air by transmuting oxygen to carbon dioxide. If you doubt the utility of that transmutation, just ask any tree. My orchard will not flourish unless I work to give it usable carbon. But again, even if you want to dispute the value of my CO2, what right to you have? If you dam a stream, you may get a lovely mill pond but wipe out the fish that were supporting my family. If you dynamite off the bits of Mount Rushmore that don’t look like George Washington, I might think you’ve made the place less beautiful than it was before. So again, what rational standard do you propose for what sorts of labor qualify in generating property? Nozick giggled over this sort of thing for a couple of paragraphs, but gosh darn it, these are real problems.

Anyhoo, to get beyond the case of simple respiration, let’s try this: I build a compressor and start filling SCUBA tanks with air from the common. You can now rent those tanks from me and go on a lovely dive with the fish and turtles and whatnot. Labor and property, yes? But now it is only a problem of scale for some super-villain to build a compressor in a dormant volcano or something that removes all the world’s oxygen supply. What do you think about that, Mister Bond?


bianca steele 11.12.12 at 1:48 am

After reading the comments at BHL, I feel like the post must have been taken down because I was stealing from them by reading their posts without contributing anything of my own in return. But it’s probably more like when I find a cereal I like and two months later the store stops carrying it.


js. 11.12.12 at 2:12 am

Nozick giggled over this sort of thing for a couple of paragraphs, but gosh darn it, these are real problems.

In Nozick’s defense though, he gives up on the “mixing labor with” criterion as essentially hopeless and relies solely on (his version) of the proviso as both the criterion of legitimate acquisition and the only limit on it. In other words, his position ultimately is that it doesn’t matter what does or does not, or would or would not, count as “mixing one’s labor with X, such that one could acquire a property right in X”. As long as my appropriation of X doesn’t make anyone worse off than they were prior to my acquisition (nor worse off than what they would have been had the ex ante situation continued), my appropriation is legitimate.

(Promise to self: this is the last time I will write or utter the words: “In Nozick’s defense”.)


js. 11.12.12 at 2:14 am

the whole libertarian notion of “self as property” is an impossible mess

On the other hand, I am completely and totally with you on this, and indeed on pretty much all of #24. (Assuming that Craig at 24 is identical to Craig at 41.)


Fu Ko 11.12.12 at 3:53 am

“As long as my appropriation of X doesn’t make anyone worse off than they were prior to my acquisition”

Which is patently never the case for any resource of any value; for example, oil, arable land, potable water, etc.. The acquisition of any thing makes acquisition by others of that thing illegal. It always imposes an opportunity cost, both on everyone currently existing and everyone who will ever exist in the future (excluding whomever inherits the acquired resource). There is literally no exception to this rule: the deprivation suffered by others is directly proportional to the value of the acquisition.

Where on Earth does Nozick find the magical case where this does not apply?


Bucky F 11.12.12 at 5:24 am

I rescued Jason Brennan’s response from the google cache:

My Response to Holbo’s Post

Holbo’s argument, charitably reconstructed, is:

1. Bleep, zam, boop!
2. Hermeneutics of suspicion, man.
3. <plays the Beatles’s “Revolution” while twiddling thumbs>
4. Therefore, Narveson bad.

I take strong issue with premise 3, which I regard as false. Instead, I argue:

3*: <plays the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” while tapping feet. Almost whistles.>
4*: Therefore, Nozick okay, if not my brand of l.

(Apologies if the html fails. There’s no preview.)


Z 11.12.12 at 9:31 am

What I find historically interesting is that all these discussions are replays of the original round, which took place somewhere around 1830. What I find historically worrying is that the original round took place in the context of the western societies dominated by inherited wealth and rente, as they increasingly are today and that not much good actually came out of it.


Craig 11.12.12 at 9:37 am


Whether the Craig at 24 is identical to the Craig at 41 is also a hugely interesting question, but one I have to admit is beyond my ability to answer in a satisfactory way. I think there is an important kind of continuity from the first Craig to the second one to the one writing this comment. You and I are probably justified in calling them “identical” for practical purposes.




reason 11.12.12 at 1:44 pm

Fu Ko @45
Yes, that immediately occured to me as well. Somebody must be misinterpreting him. He has just rules all private property (at least private property involving natural resources) philosophically impossible.
So is Nozick really a Georgist?


js. 11.12.12 at 4:26 pm

Re fu Ko (45) (and reason (49)):

Right, so I’m pretty sympathetic to this. What Nozick wants to say is that there can be compensatory mechanisms that can and often will outweigh the opportunity and other hence, overall, will not leave anyone worse off.

You can do this in terms of rational preference—this is how G.A. Cohen interprets Nozick for example. In Cohen’s example, I might appropriate a section of a beach that was originally free to use and start charging people a $1 for access; if though I also clean up the beach, etc., others might consider the new arrangement preferable, or at least no worse than what was existed before. Nozick, as far as I can tell, doesn’t seem to appeal to rational preference, and wants to rely on something, um, more “objective”? And then, towards the end of the section dealing with the proviso, there’s some hand wavy stuff about how almost all value is added by labor anyway, and something etc., so too also.

Again, I’m not defending any of this, but that’s the view.


Fu Ko 11.13.12 at 7:57 am

Well that’s just nonsense. If any rental value at all is extracted by the appropriator, then the beach-goers are still worse-off, since — even if the beach-going experience is improved by the $1 fee — the opportunity to be the one collecting the money, rather than one of the ones paying it, is lost to them. They get a cleaned up beach; the appropriator gets a cleaned up beach and a profit proportional to the value of the beach real estate.

The opportunity cost is simply unaccounted for.


Fu Ko 11.13.12 at 8:20 am

Actually, I suppose if the opportunity to be the owner of a beach is worth less than the opportunity to pay $1 to visit the same beach, and will remain so forever, then everyone is better off. But this requires beach-front real estate to be almost worthless.

…However, under frontier conditions, assuming an abundance of free land of every quality, I must admit that it is possible… if you assume the frontier will never close…


reason 11.13.12 at 8:37 am

Fu Ko
“But this requires beach-front real estate to be almost worthless.”
(Henry) Georgian taxes will exactly account for this. So again I ask – why isn’t Nozick a Georgian. He sees the problem, then ignores it.


Fu Ko 11.13.12 at 9:37 am

Well, as to the general question, Why don’t libertarians become Georgists? I think the answer is given in the latter half of the essay linked in this thread.

Related: http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/how-can-herbert-spencers-1892-revisions-to-his-social-statics-help-us-understand-conservative-opposition-to-the-individual-mandate/

Also, linked from the above, here is Henry George himself, weighing in on the issue: http://www.wealthandwant.com/HG/APP/PIV_Conclusion.htm

“Given a wrong which affects the distribution of wealth and differentiates society into the rich and the poor, and the recognized organs of opinion and education, since they are dominated by the wealthy class, must necessarily represent the views and wishes of those who profit or imagine they profit by the wrong.”


Tim Wilkinson 11.13.12 at 11:19 am

Nozick mentions George in ASU, but only very obliquely by referring to ‘objections simiilar to those that fell the theory of Henry George’ (a memorable phrase, partly because of the word ‘fell’ and partly because I nevr got what he meant). IIRC the context is his dismissal as impracticable of ‘value-added’ schemes for limiting entitlement, to which he adds that the further mystery George-felling argumentsalso apply.

The thing (one thing) about real left-libertarianism is that it rapidly becomes something like welfare-state capitalism, since limitation of ‘entitlements’ can only be done by reclaiming fungible goods (money) and money can’t just be returned to some natural unowned state to be homesteaded by pioneers. And in fact the welfare state involved would probably have to be very extensive, depending on what baselines one arbitrarily sets, etc etc.

This is all the more so since Nozick’s theory falls to objections like those that he thinks ‘fell’ value-added schemes: all the ridiculous compoications involved in trying to base redistribution on calculating entitlements and their other-regarding limitations would make such a scheme unfeasible. (I would suggest that if one were to base design of a real society by allusion to some notional unfeasible model of entitlements, one should use the most defensible such model which would set appropriative entitlements at min(value-expended,value-added), but whatever.)

To avoid the consequence of ending up with a welfare state, Nozick seems to conclude that since a strict calculation of just entitlements is unfeasible, the best thiong to do is forget about it and revert to telling stories about how there’s nothing obviously evil about Wilt Chamberlain.

BTW the characters on that website – from a very cursory look- don’t seem to be any kind of left-libertrian in the philsoophical sense: they appear to be just right-libertarians with a bit of spin based on emphasising the standard Panglossian fictions. not that this is surprise, particluarly.


reason 11.13.12 at 4:28 pm

Fu Ko
I like the Rorty Bomb link. Particularly the bit about Monopoly. But he is wrong, there are fair rules. If taxes (jail, community chest) are high enough and the inflow of money from passing go is enough, the game can eventually give everybody a chance.

In fact, I keep asking conservatives – what happens in monopoly if you cut down or raise the money for passing go. How long will the game last without that inflow of money? Does nobody play monopoly anymore? (I’m a citizen’s dividend – ok basic income if you like – guy.) They never seem to get it.


Fu Ko 11.14.12 at 12:54 pm

Thanks for the info on Nozick, Tim.

I just want to add for the record that even Georgist libertarianism is actually pretty terrible. It might plausibly eliminate a lot of economic rents due to resource ownership (although not rents having to do with privileged spots in organizations or markets), but it abolishes all democratic influence over resource allocation, and imposes on every resource-consuming endeavor the same requirement of short-term competitive profitability that makes capitalism so soul-destroying. Concretely, Georgism abolishes the land-grant university. Personally, I want to see more of Earth’s territory resemble that institution, rather than less.


Rob 11.14.12 at 2:12 pm

Fu Ko @57: “Concretely, Georgism abolishes the land-grant university.”

I’m not sure about the logic here. Let’s generalise slightly and consider any situation in which a benefactor (the state, in this case) gives a grant of land to some other institution or person. Under our current system, this is a pretty generous thing to do – it’s a straight transfer of wealth, comparable to giving gold bars or piles of cash or valuable copyrights and other such things that people commonly donate to universities. Under Georgism, it simply wouldn’t be all that generous – the donor would be giving away land, but the recipient would ultimately end up paying for it via land taxes. You’re really comparing a situation in which someone donated a kilo of gold to a university with one in which someone donated a kilo of, well, something a lot less valuable than gold.

The solution to your problem is pretty simple: the grant to the university should take some form other than land. Giving land worth $100m in our world would be equivalent to giving $100m worth of [other stuff] in Georgeworld, and the university would be able to use the $100m worth of stuff to acquire the land (for a relative pittance, since the value of land should be low due to the tax it attracts) and pay the requisite taxes. There would undoubtedly be some wrinkles to this, but it’s not self-evidently obvious to me that the Georgeworld scenario is worse than the ourworld scenario.

Now, my argument works pretty well for considering how we might establish future grant-based universities – I simply propose to give them something other than land. How we deal with existing land-grant universities is trickier, because they’re already dependent on free land for their continued existence, and wouldn’t be able to raise the funds to pay the taxes if instituted (or we wouldn’t want to live in the world where they did what’s necessary to raise the funds). Your view about this should probably be determined by the probability you attach to the state doing the right thing by the university; the state could recognise that the university is taking a massive loss due to the collapse in land values, and compensate it, either by offering cash or by offering a tax exemption (which comes to the same thing). You might say this is unlikely, but it’s no more so than the original land grants themselves. I suppose it’s possible to argue that the state was just much more enlightened about this kind of thing in 1862 than it is now, but by that point you’re making an argument that doesn’t have a lot to do with Georgism.


Chris Bertram 11.14.12 at 2:21 pm

_BTW the characters on that website – from a very cursory look- don’t seem to be any kind of left-libertrian in the philsoophical sense: they appear to be just right-libertarians with a bit of spin based on emphasising the standard Panglossian fictions. not that this is surprise, particluarly._

Actually, there seem to be three sorts of people on that site: (1) standard-issue Cato types with optional faux-weepy mood music (Brennan being the most right-wing); (2) a bunch of anarcho-hippies with a soft spot for markets (Chartier, Vallier etc); and (3) Jacob Levy. Obviously, I simplify.


Fu Ko 11.14.12 at 4:29 pm

Rob, if you’re using tax receipts to fund public universities which don’t have to be financially self-sufficient, that’s just not libertarian.

The “geo-libertarian” position is not just that “the Single Tax is the best tax.” It’s that the Single Tax removes the need to have the government do any spending. I.e., with the citizen’s dividend granting everyone equal financial power over land, the market is now supposed to decide whether there will be universities, and what they will be like, based on whether people will pay for them, and which ones they pay for. The ability for the people to vote with the dollars of their guaranteed income relieves them of the need to decide how to allocate resources with the ballot.

What I’m saying is that the universities that this system produces will not be the safe-havens from capitalist profitability constraints that they can be in a system where democratic processes allocate resources for the public interest. And they will suffer for this. Of course, universities are only one example; the other immediately obvious example is public parks. But what I meant to imply was that more of public space, and more of the world’s resources, ought to be allocated according to institutional models that were more “public service” and less “for-profit” — more under democratic control, and less under investor control.

On the other hand, Libertarianism (Georgist or otherwise) wants everything to be a for-profit corporation, whose social value we should measure by how much cash it can rake in.


Rob 11.15.12 at 10:37 am

Fu Ko, I concede the point that if one sticks strictly to “geo-libertarianism” then funding universities through taxation would not be possible. I’m not sure Henry George advocated this precise position, but I can see the logic.

What you’re saying, though, is that the state under a libertarian system has no right to go around granting land, money, or anything else to anyone, for any reason. Your criticism is very much levelled at the “libertarian” part of the deal, and does not seem to me to be effective against the “geo” part, that is the notion of land taxes.

I don’t really feel qualified to judge whether a geolibertarian world would be better than the one we have (or others that we might plausibly have), but if the basic income is high enough (and is sustainable at that level), it feels to me as though it certainly would be better, and any downside would be outweighed. But that’s probably because we differ on the basic question of whether the problem with market exchange is the intrinsically corrupting nature of the beast, or the fact that it presently occurs inside a framework of institutionalised inequality. I suppose you lean toward the former, and I lean toward the latter.


Fu Ko 11.16.12 at 11:25 am

[This post became very long! My apologies.]


I do think that a basic income would be a big improvement, but only
because it would abolish the power of individual persons to cut off
the income of other individual persons.

However, I still consider the moral theory underlying Georgism
to be severely flawed, in much the same way as that underlying
libertarianism. (They are, of course, very similar.) My earlier
post only hinted at this, but I can explain it more further.

I also believe that the economic theory of Georgism suffers from a
severe flaw, which is very much connected to the flaw in its moral

The foundational principle of Georgism is the idea that “the fruits
of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” So
far so good. But from here, through a set of libertarian-style
assumptions, a conclusion is reached that mere economic compensation
to the public can satisfy the full public interest in the use of a
resource. This is mistaken.

The underlying problem, I believe, is that Henry George was unable
to conceive of the economy as a network structure. The truth is,
he almost had it, and his almost having it is just what led to his
insights — but he still did not quite get it. Otherwise, he would
have had to generalize his theory, and get off his obsession about

So, in George’s mind, each plot of land has a certain value, which
is not fixed or inherent in the nature of the land, but is primarily relative
to the value of what surrounds the land. If the local community
invests in streets, a railroad terminal, police, various public
services, and so on, this increases the value of the land; but of
course the owner of the land, who has the power to rent out this
value, is not the person who created the value. (This is a dubious
assertion if those services are funded with property taxes, though;
this hints at the problem.)

This paints a picture of land value that is a simple sum of the
pre-existing bounty of nature, which has its own pre-existing value
— plus the value added by labor. The problem, in George’s model,
is the accumulation by the land-holder of these labor-generated
externalities. That is, the problem is that the laborer who adds
the value cannot capture the value he adds.

The reality though is that land value is not a function of labor-added
value. Land value is a product of its position within the social
network. There is no way to add up labor inputs to get to the
value.* An example can demonstrate this.

[*] Or anyway: if you can, the accounts won’t balance; more value
will exist than labor and resources, because there are always more
ways to seek rent on the same fixed value. You end up having to
count the same labor and resources multiple times — once for each
use of land that could potentially seek a rent from it.

Georgism, in theory, would allow a single monopolist to buy up the
entire waterfront of the Mississippi River, and to pay for this a
fair rent to the state. What would that rent be? Assuming we are
pre-airplane, the owner can build bridges which effectively monopolize
the connection between east and west. How much can he charge? The
market price of crossing the bridge is proportional, not to the
cost of erecting and maintaining the bridge, but rather (in the
direction going East) to the value of the entire East of the USA
— to all the benefits offerred by that entire region, whether as
a market, a tourist destination, a staging point on the way to
Europe, or an opportunity to communicate with any of its population.
And going West, similarly, the fee which the bridge operator can
charge is proportional to the value of the entire Western USA.

Here you may think: “Aha! This is just what George is talking
about. Only here, the entire country is the ‘community’
which is entitled to extract the land-value from the bridge-monopolist.”

But you would be wrong. I explain by two directions:

(1) Consider, instead of that river, an equivalently sized and
shaped piece of land just one mile to west of the Mississippi.
Another monopolist could choose to buy up this thin sliver of land,
and there to erect a wall, a border, and to exercise the very same
monopoly privilege, becoming a “market-maker” between East and West.
Erecting a wall promises just as much profit as a erecting a bridge.

Does this theoretical possibility imply that the land one mile West
of the Mississippi ought to
command the same land-value ground-rent charged to a monopolist bridge-builder?

And what if the river is not owned by a single monopolist, but
divided into 10,000 parcels — do each of the 10,000 owners have
to pay the same rent (per acre) as the bridge-monopolist would?
Clearly, the monopoly value is not in the individual parcels of
land, but rather in the fact that a certain set of parcels are
controlled by a single agent, effectively constituting a single “node” on the
network grid of roads (economically if not physically). More on what this implies, below.

(2) The land-value of the river-front might either, (a) be considered
to include the value of the monopolist’s “market-maker” power; or
else (b) we might consider this power to be part of the value-added
by construction of the bridges. Neither possibility can rescue

(a) If the choke-point power is considered value-added by
the bridges, then the situation is morally absurd. The
profit returned from the land is proportional to the entire value
of the continents, not the value of the bridge as artifact.
Thus, in this case, Georgism’s power to curtail rent-seeking
is shown to be extremely lacking.

(b) If the choke-point power is considered part of the
land-value, then we have the situation that finally reveals
the economic flaw of Georgism — at which I hinted earlier.
Because in this case, the owner of that land is charged a
ground-rent which requires him to charge monopoly
prices for the crossing of the bridge. He is bound, as
if by law
to extract the maximum value from the
community, only in order to surrender this same value back
to the community.

But this is no benefit to the community at all: the community
has set up an artificial scarcity in order to create a
monopoly power, which it then exercises against itself.
The sane solution is that the bridges charge a fee, if any,
proportional to the cost of bridge maintenance. But Georgism
fails to see the social need for this kind of arrangement.

Of course, a similar bridge situation does not require such a drastic
monopoly as control over the Mississippi. Any bridge at all is
some kind of local monopoly. It can charge a price proportional
to the cost of seeking the next-best route — not a price
proportional to the cost of bridge maintenance.

Bridges (and railroads, etc.) are only the most obvious, physical manifestation of the
network grid of society. The copper wires over which telephone communications
are sent are laid out much like roads. But the greatest monopoly
power in that network is held by the people who control the
telephone number namespace. The IP namespace, as well as
the internet domain namespace, are equivalent. These are completely
“bridges”: one can have a physical copper line, a
physical connection to the physical global network, and yet still
be effectively disconnected from the internet, merely be the refusal
of some remote person to allocate you an IP address. (Unlike most
of these monopolies, ICANN, which allocates these numbers, is a
non-profit — but it still collects a whole lot of cash. And back
when it had a different name, it made a few people into billionaires
by contracting out its monopoly powers.)

Similarly, the owner of an operating system controls its ABI — a
choke-point sitting between the application developers and the
users. Thus it can charge to its users a price proportional to the
value of all applications developed on its platform rather
than a price proportional to the value added in OS development.
The application developers, in turn, are the choke-point between
users and user data in application-specific formats — whoever
controls the format of your office suite effectively gets to sell
access to the value you create with it. And again, whoever controls
the web browser sits in the position of a choke-point between the
users of the web, and all of the value created by all of the people
who run web sites. (In the 90s, the web browser was “the new OS,”
the next big monopoly, and investment money flowed accordingly.
But open web standards mostly de-monooplized the “browser as
platform.” An exception: Flash.) And this is also true of whichever
web site is the “home page” of the web browser: in a certain respect,
it sits between the user and all other web sites. At any rate, a
search engine can monetize (for itself) the value created by millions
of web content authors, because of its network position, sitting
between them and their audiences.

(Also: In the network graph of corporate cash flows, the CEO is a
choke-point connecting all cash flowing between investors and
employees, in either direction. Department heads immediately below
the CEO similarly connect entire departments’ labor-product to the
CEO in the same fashion. The manufacturing firm as a whole is the
node connecting laborers to the accumulated machinery and, effectively,
the (physically-manifested) technological knowledge of the past
tens of thousands of years of cultural accumulation.)

So, “the bridge situation,” in its basic structure, is not at all
limited to land, and would rarely be addressed by a land-value tax.
But even in the cases where it would be addressed, it would not be
adequately resolved.

The reason Georgism does not allow for a sane resolution to the
bridge situation is that it fails to see the possibility for property
owners (or, alternatively, the public through democracy) to choose
for themselves the shape the graph will take. Since it fails to
truly “see” the graph, it defaults to an assumption that the graph
somehow pre-exists, or exists outside, human agency.

Georgism assumes that a resource has, within its very nature (or
the nature of its situation), a certain rent-seeking potential —
rather than recognizing that humans can choose to use resources to
implement networks with different structures — choosing between structures featuring choke-points which permit rent-seeking, or
structures with redundant connections,
allowing alternative routes to any node, thus preventing monopoly. We don’t merely occupy the structure — we create it.

By demanding, in principle, that the most profitable possible
use be made of any resource, Georgism encourages rent-seeking.
And by assuming that the damage that rent-seeking imposes on the
community is necessarily off-set by the return of the rent “to the
community,” Georgism makes a severe economic mistake.

Libertarianism’s moral mistake is to think that rightful ownership
carries no social obligations whatsoever. Georgism’s moral mistake
is to assume that rightful ownership carries no social obligations
that cannot be settled by a check.

Alternatively, real economic democracy would limit property rights by a
principle that the people are owed a say in how resources are used
— not just a share in the profits.


reason 11.16.12 at 4:15 pm

Fu Ko,
yes you are right, and indeed I have argued elsewhere that the problem with Georgism is the single tax fanaticist it attracts who think LVT is by itself the solution to all the world’s problems. (And George himself tended to that view.) But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a point, or that it doesn’t have a specific point against Nozick’s philosophy. Land Value Tax is still a very economically efficient tax and has some good economic consequences. It is however, very hard to introduce in a land owning democracy.

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