Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Morality and Property Rights

Just read some interesting ideas from Marxist economics that have answered a conundrum in my mind - the morality of expropriating wealth to redistribute it and the infringements of liberty therein.

In an ideal society, tax would be progressive, in order to raise revenue for various welfare projects (schools, hospitals etc.). This would obviously involve a redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer. Let me make explicit this doesn't entail equal, merely a minimum standard for everyone which no one can fall below and thus a Lorenz curve that's closer to x=y.

Now the proponents of libertarian schools of thought proclaim that such tax is theft and an infringement of liberty. However, in a Marxist analysis; which I believe to be accurate, this ignores the historical and social relationships that resulted in the current state of affairs. The world was not created spontaneously in the present. What is now is not what will always be; there's causation to be considered - that is, historical reasons why we are where we are.

To quote Robert Freedman's excellent summary of Marx's idea of 'Commodity Fetishism'

"Bourgeois economists are prone to study the exchange relationship between commodities forgetting that was the relationships between material things really expresses is the social relationships between people. Thus when Ricardo and others speak of value, rent, wages, profit, interest etc. as though they were inevitable categories of economic life (without respect to time or culture), they obscure the class character of social relationships. These economic forms, really only characteristic of capitalism, appear to be eternal and therefore just. The superstructure which rests upon these forms - ethical, legal and social - also appears eternal and just, instead of being the manifestation of a special form of social organization in a particular historical period". [Freedman :p50]

This struck me as quite profound. I've come across Commodity Fetishism in my jurisprudence classes, however I've never thought of it as above. Perhaps this was because I'd not had the experience researching English legal history, as I now do. Which brings me to the evidence of Marx's theory:

Enclosure Acts in England

Prior to the rise of capitalism, great areas of land where used by free Englishmen (and women) to graze their live stock, take wood and glean land for crops. These lands had been used from time immemorial, and only for the purposes of each family and communities need. There was no expropriation of vast amounts of land by a single person. Once the aristocracy realised that a profit could be made from owning land they perused radical illegal agenda. Douglas Hay, the respected legal historian summarises it best:

"a law of 1769 suggests how the class that controlled Parliament was using the criminal sanction to enforce two of the radical redefinitions of property which gentlemen were making in their own interests during the eighteenth century. The food riot was an organised and often highly disciplined popular protest against the growing national and international market in foodstuffs, a market which alarmed the poor by moving grain from their parishes when it could compel a higher price elsewhere, and which depended on a growing corps of middlemen whom the rioters knew were breaking Tudor and Stuart legislation by wholesale trading in food... Some mills had been torn down in the nationwide riots of 1766 and 1767, and the 1769 act plugged a gap in the law by making such destruction a capital offence. If death for food rioters was an excellent idea, so was transportation for enclosure rioters. Within three days the bill was enlarged so that gentlemen busy on the expropriation of common lands by Acts of Parliament were as well protected as the millers." [Hay p21].

Indeed once their land had been stolen by Parliament (in the moral sense of course) people were unable to take wood, or glean it. Parliament enacted a wealth of capital offences criminalising such customary behaviour. 17th and 18th Century English legal history really shows us where the current elites garnered their power and John Locke's was their intellectual apologist justifying this property grab.

So, why it isn't an infringement of liberty to redistribute wealth? Private Property is a legal concept that is not immutable. Private property jurisprudence has changed radically over the years, as Hay showed prior to the 17th Century; its present form was unfathomable. A non-democratic Parliament thus pushed out common law rights and expropriated lands for new landed gentry. In turn, this is of course where the large corporations of today base their (realty) property rights. That is all it is – a legal basis stemmed from Locke’s jurisprudence. As Marx believed, “[t]he superstructure which rests upon these forms - ethical, legal and social - also appears eternal and just”. And there in lies the answer to the conundrum – our morality has been shaped by the current state of social relations. What seemed alien to the masses in the 17th Century, namely, vast amounts of private property, seems natural to us now. Why? Because Locke’s legal concepts have reflected back on morality.

It’s is an elementary moral truth that ‘stealing is wrong’. (I do not wish to indulge in Meta-Ethics, so let’s raise this to a postulate). Thus, massive amounts of wealth that are taxed by a truly representative democracy are, de facto, theft or an infringement of liberty. Traditionally this is justified on grounds that one of society’s aims – liberty - is justifiably infringed by another one of its core aims: equality. The current trend in scholarship tends to be that “politically important values like equality and liberty are in deep conflict with one another so that comprise among them is necessary” [Dworkin p26] However, I do not believe this is so, at least not in the case of massive amounts of property owned by colossal trans-nationals purely because such concentrations of wealth have only occurred because of the Enclosure Acts and via undemocratic means. The holder of vast amounts of property, who is complaining that redistributing some of it is theft has to prove he is the rightful owner, he cannot appeal to morality to do so because that land was immorally taken away from the masses – all he can do is appeal to a legal right, which inevitably changes over time.


Dworkin, Justice in Robes
Hay, Property, Authority and the Criminal Law in Albion’s Fatal Tree
Freedman, Marx on Economics

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