Finding One Way Forward
by turning Marx — and Locke — around
[This article began life as a Response to “Degrowth Needs Capitalism: Could There Be Another Way?” by Anthony Signorelli here in Medium.]
Karl Marx realized that historically the distribution of incomes had followed from the distribution of property. That undeniable fact informs his entire intellectual output.
He advocated for the elimination of private property. Another approach to changing the relationship between property and income is possible.
The distribution of property can follow from the distribution of income. That is the change, I’m saying, we can and should make.
In doing that (as I propose*) we would accomplish two things. We would make civilization environmentally sustainable — at the level of comfort to which those of us in so-called ‘first world’ nations are accustomed — and we would make society more just. [I rejected Marxism, not because he advocated eliminating private property (though I also don’t see how that in itself can be a practical solution to any material societal problem), but because he denied that justice is a real thing.]
If we do not change our ways in a big way we are going to lose everything. Civilization will collapse. Vast areas of the planet will be completely lawless; most survivors will essentially be captives (if not slaves) in enclaves ruled by the most ruthless person around.
We have reached a point at which to keep that from happening we must limit consumption. As things now stand every nation must seek to maximize total output in order to maximize employment, total income, and the amount of taxes collected (at whatever rates exist). We need to provide an income for people in a way that turns that relationship around: total income, determined by demographics, would determine total output. (In my proposal changes in total output would not affect the amount of that income or the number of people who could be paid it).
That can be accomplished justly: without violence, coercion, or manipulation. Indeed, my proposal could be implemented — in any nation — with a single legislative Act. Nothing anybody had would be taken from anyone.
Moreover, there is no need to change the economic system. All of the existing institutions would still exist; the economy would still function as it does at present.
If we were to make that proposed change we would, however, reverse the relationship between the distribution of income from the distribution of property. Eventually, the distribution of property would be reflected in that new and different distribution of income as a result of the functioning of the market-based economy with which we are all familiar. Yet, the economy as a whole and the distribution of property within it would be more just because the distribution of income would be more just.
[Actually, my proposal does allow people to make more than that amount of income — it is about justice, not some ideological commitment — but not by employing other people, paying them less than their time and effort are worth, and claiming the ‘profits’ for themselves. The (presumably, relatively few) people making more than the standard income would presumably have more/more valuable property than people paid that income would — which, again, would be the vast majority of people.]
As long as the distribution of income follows from the distribution of property, the former can only be just if the latter is just. As Robert Nozick pointed out [in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973)], for the existing distribution of property to be just it must be the result of an entire chain of just transactions, going back to the very first claim of any given piece of property.
Concerning property, Nozick was basically restating (using way too many words) the arguments of John Locke [Two Treatises of Government (1689)]. Locke formulated two conditions for justly making a claim of original ownership of property. It is important that both must be realized for such a claim to be just.
One condition is that such a claim can be just if a person had “mixed his (sic) labor with it.” Locke meant that the property had been thereby formed by the person, so the person had made the property “an extension of” ‘himself’. Thus the person could justly claim it as ‘his’.
That justification can apply to land as well as objects the person might have produced. The latter might seem more obvious, but to “mix” one’s “labor” with land is to transform it in erecting some structure of any kind on it or making it a place for growing crops or raising livestock.
The other condition for a just claim of original ownership of property is more of a problem. It goes more to what Marx called “the original appropriation of property.” Again, with objects a person might have created, it is not such an issue. For a just claim of ownership of land, however, it presents an insurmountable obstacle.
Locke said that for a claim of original ownership to be just there must be “as much and as good” left over for others. Thinking of the circumstances that existed when humans first started claiming land as property, if we are talking about a stone that would make a good point for an arrow or a tool of some kind, or a piece wood that would make a good shaft for an arrow or a tool, that can be a reasonable claim — though, really, for any finite amount of anything it cannot be possible to take any amount and leave “as much,” much less “as good” still there for others.
Why is this condition necessary for a claim of ownership to be just? It would be clearly unjust to claim for oneself something that one knew for a fact did not belong to oneself if doing so would limit the opportunities for others in the same position. Again, some little, found objects might reasonably be said to meet that criteria, but not land. Land is too precious of a thing.
Locke included owning property as a “Natural Right,” right up there with liberty and life itself, but to claim even an unoccupied (by other humans) chunk of land for oneself and denying other human beings access to it arbitrarily imposes limits on them, with all that can imply — even for their sustenance, much less their liberty. Any claim of original ownership could only have been a purely self-centered, willful, arbitrary exertion of power. Such an action is the very opposite of what justice is, according to Locke himself: he defined injustice as any person(s) being “subject to the arbitrary will” of any other person(s). I agree.
Again, I am not advocating for doing away with private property — but only because it is too ingrained in human existence at this point to do that. I am pointing out that the existence of private property is an injustice. Since the distribution of income that exists is the result of a historical pattern determined by the existence of private property, that distribution is also unjust. The best we can reasonably do, it seems to me, is to make the distribution of income just, with property distributed in accordance with that income over time, via the markets for various forms of property.
I have developed a monetary paradigm that can accomplish both of the goals identified at the start of this article. I emphasize that it is fully developed, not something I came up with this morning (though of course many details could only be decided in a nation’s political process leading up to the implementation of it). It would make the distribution of income just and would do so in a way that would allow demographics to govern, passively but effectively, total output — at a level at which people can comfortably survive in a civilized world.
*If interested, an overview of the paradigm, “To Preserve What We Have, What We Have Must Be Enough” is here in Medium (but not behind the paywall), with links for further reading (also on this side of the paywall).