The left and an anti-rentier agenda

In a series of articles appearing on Salon last year Michael Lind argued that left and right alike are confused by a failure to distinguish productive businesses that sell innovative goods and services from “rentier” interests — landlords, lenders, copyright holders and others — which use their natural or artificial monopoly power to extract Boxing cartoonexcessive tolls, fees and other recurrent payments from the rest of society, including productive businesses. Lind made the case that the fees or rents extracted by these interests constitute a kind of “private taxation” and that this is the greatest threat facing the productive economy.

This line of thinking is essentially a Georgist one and it doesn’t sit easily on the tired old left-right spectrum that dominates mainstream political discourse today. Many who identify with the left, worried that growing wealth inequality is leading to complete domination of society by big moneyed interests, denounce “capitalism” and reach for socialist answers. Take for example the following policy statement from the newly formed LeftUnity Party in the UK:

We are socialist because our aim is to end capitalism. We will pursue a society where the meeting of human needs is paramount, not one which is driven by the quest for private profit and the enrichment of a few. The natural wealth, and the means of production, distribution and exchangeCapitalism isnt working will be owned in common and democratically run by and for the people as a whole, rather than being owned and controlled by a small minority to enrich themselves.”

This approach is born out of a flawed understanding of fundamental economic principles, namely the conflation of land with capital and the mistaken belief that privilege stems from ownership of the latter rather than the former. There is nothing wrong with wealth per se – after all we all want it! A top footballer or movie star who earns astronomical amounts by virtue of their unique talent isn’t preventing anyone else from prospering, so good luck to them I say! Similarly, creative go-getting entrepreneurs who make their money satisfying others needs in the market place should be free to enjoy the wealth they have created. Stealing their income and redistributing it to others smacks of envy.

The problem with wealth arises when it is possible to use it to buy monopoly privilege including control of natural resources, thus depriving others of access to the opportunities they need to get ahead unless they meet the payment terms of the owner. So in the aforementioned examples, the movie star and the entrepreneur who go on to invest their wealth in speculative real estate or shares in an exploitative oil company have crossed the line from wealth creator to parasite. In essence the Georgist solution is to cut off this possibility in a very simple and efficient way, leaving the economy to function as a true free market that benefits all.

I believe the best way to undermine the powerful elite vested interests that exploit the wealth of society and the planet is to drive a wedge between them and genuine wealth creators i.e. the industrious hardworking people that actually provide the goods and services in the economy. This includes lowly wage workers as well as high flying individuals who should actually be allies in this struggle. It certainly won’t be achieved with socialist rhetoric which unhelpfully perpetuates the sterile socialist-capitalist dichotomy and precludes the possibility of a broader anti-rentier agenda from taking shape. This plays into the hands of establishment interests that want to maintain the status quo, leaving them free to laugh all the way to the bank. Clearly much needs to be done to reshape the political debate in order to form a genuine coalition for change that works for everyone. Georgist education of economic principles has an absolutely vital role to play in this process of realignment.

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4 Comments

  1. Tal

     /  February 2, 2014

    I came across the ideas of Henry George after a few years which I spent by investigating and assimilating ideas which will be considered on the extreme left spectrum: anarcho syndicalism. Now anarchism as a whole is even more, I believe, misunderstood than Georgism but I can completely understand the ingrained fear in people of letting go of state institution and as a result I (and I would like to believe most anarchists) would like to see society moving towards the anarchists ideal gradually and slowly based on education and democratic processes. Stewardship economy is just that. Once inequality is tamed people and society, I believe, will be able to make a conscious decision about where do we go next. What I like about stewardship economy is it’s neutrality in many aspects. The fact that it doesn’t take any stands in anything but landownership is what will appeal to anyone who is not living of other peoples rent, weather he is a socialist true capitalist or anarchist. Only once inequality is tamed can we make sane decisions about society and the environment which are not based on fear.

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  2. If a ‘wedge’ is what it takes and we need a new enemy ‘the rentier’ to replace ‘the rich’ then I’m all for it (kinda). But maybe we don’t need that – and maybe we need NOT this approach to make this happen because we need home owners on board too. The left, as and when they can eventually shake off their obsession and loathing of the rich* will go with LVT because they’ve got nothing to lose.

    However, since Lloyd George’s time when defining the enemy as the Landed Gentry would have done the trick (had the very same not dominated the House of Lords) we have a massive number of people owning their own homes who have benefited, some enormously from stupid tax regimes that ignores the elephant in the room. How far do you think we’ll get persuading them if our opening statement is to be calling them parasites, as opposed maybe to asking about their children’s generation’s chances of being able to buy a home and asking did they realise the increased value in their own home happens as a consequence of all the activity of everybody (including public services) in their region?

    ‘Rent seeker’ is an historically correct and economics technical term. Please let’s use it as such and not as a weapon?

    tl/dr: Appeal to people’s sense of justice, instead of defining a new enemy

    * How many socialists do you know who would think it OK to differentiate between Google and Starbucks such that the former can run their businesses with virtually no tax by having their warehouses in low-rent areas with the latter ending up paying a fortune for prime locations?

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  3. “A top footballer or movie star who earns astronomical amounts by virtue of their unique talent isn’t preventing anyone else from prospering, so good luck to them I say!”

    Well, they are actually. The general public only spends so much on cinema tickets and football, so a small group of actors and footballers are fighting over the same pot. For each successful actor or footballer there are a hundred unsuccessful ones.

    But by the same token, the public is free to choose how much to spend on cinema tickets or football (in my case £nil on the latter), and they can choose which films to watch or which film to support, so the transfer is still largely voluntary.

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