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Review of Libertarian Party at Sea on Land

Libertarian Party at Sea on Land, by Harold Kyriazi. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 2000. Paperbound, 122 pages. Click here to order.


reviewed by M. R. O'Mara

Land Justice: The Forgotten Pillar of Freedom

Many of today's advocates of individual liberty, referred to as libertarians, seem to have lost their connection to a basic principle of justice that libertarians had traditionally considered to be essential: the need for land justice. Who has a right to own the land and its natural resources, and how much land does a person have a right to own?

That missing connection between liberty and land justice is the subject of Harold Kyriazi's book, Libertarian Party at Sea on Land. As Kyriazi shows, most of the famous libertarians throughout history, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and others, recognized that ownership of land should be treated very differently than ownership of human-made products, such as cars and houses, because no person made the land (meaning locations and natural resources).

Traditionally, the most common libertarian proposal for land justice was to require owners of large amounts of land to pay compensation to other people, based on the rental value of that land ("ground-rent"). Some libertarians now refer to that tradition as "geo-libertarian," a term which Kyriazi also uses.

Many geo-libertarian authors and economists have advocated using the ground-rent payments to fund government services, while others, such as Thomas Paine, have suggested using the ground-rent for paying direct compensation to individuals. Henry George suggested the possibility of a combination of those two uses for the ground-rent.

Beyond Left and Right

But in recent decades, many libertarians and many libertarian organizations no longer directly address the question of land justice. Kyriazi notes that for some years he held similar views of land ownership, but gradually arrived at a geo-libertarian position.

As a result, says Kyriazi, "A major benefit of this transformation I've undergone is that, for the first time, I could have an effective dialogue with liberals about economic matters."

Previously, he had "thought 100% of our economic problems came from their so-called 'Progressive' Movement." But now, he could see that there actually was such a thing as monopoly that was not caused by government, and that there actually was a problem with our form of capitalism, which allows some people to monopolize natural resources (p. xii).

That system leads to harmful consequences, such as: the high cost of land and housing; wasteful land speculation; less job creation; urban slums; suburban sprawl; environmental problems; income taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes on labor and production. It makes no sense to refer to a "free" market if land justice is not upheld.

The Silent Takeover

Surprisingly, the major shift in the libertarian view on ownership of land was not the result of any careful or deliberate debate among libertarians. In fact, Kyriazi notes that "The only well-known libertarian writer whom I know to have explicitly, and at great length, opposed the idea of community collected user fees for natural resources is Murray Rothbard" (p. 57).

Rothbard, a libertarian economist, offered his views on the land issue in some of his books, and also played an influential role in producing the platform of the Libertarian Party, which was formed in the early 1970s, and is one of the most visible libertarian organizations today. Kyriazi suggests that the majority of modern-day libertarians "are more properly called Rothbardians, rather than true, historical libertarians, who uniformly favor some form of community collection of ground-rent" (p. 62).

In his writings, Rothbard stated that his views are related to John Locke's principle, where a person can become the owner of some land by mixing labor with it, such as by building a house, growing crops, etc. But unlike Rothbard, Locke said there is a limit on how much land a person can rightfully claim: each person is obligated to make sure there is "enough and as good left" for others.

Otherwise, if some can claim unlimited amounts of land with no obligation to compensate others, then landowners can charge for access to all that land, and just live off of others' labor.

Liberty and Land

Kyriazi's book fills a special niche: it is one of the few libertarian books in recent decades to integrate libertarian principle with land justice. In the 1930s and 1950s, Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov had written some books on liberty and land justice, as did Max Hirsch earlier.

Chodorov is quoted by Kyriazi as saying that a mistake made by Henry George, the famous land justice advocate, was that he did not pay enough attention to the "tendency of political power to encroach on freedom". "Even as taxes are used to accumulate power, so could the rent of land."

However, Chodorov concluded that "the plan might work well in a small community" (pp. 45-46). And that is similar to what Kyriazi advocates: local control, with minimal government, whose powers should be strictly limited by a constitution (or better yet, a contract). Municipal governments would control the funding of any larger levels of government, and contractual communities would be allowed to compete with municipalities for providing services.

Kyriazi favors a gradualist approach to reform, in which, as a first step, municipalities could start shifting taxes off of production and instead collect ground-rent, as is being done in several cities in the U.S., and in some other countries, with successful results.

His book addresses a number of common objections and questions that libertarians raise, such as how land values can be assessed separately from the value of improvements.

He makes the distinction between giving the ground-rent to government in return for services versus giving ground-rent directly to citizens, as direct compensation. Yet he chooses to use the term "land tax" to include the funding process for both, although the term "land tax" would seem to be more appropriate only for describing the first case, referring to a payment to the government. Use of that term might hinder communication with some libertarians, because many of them are immediately turned off by any talk that sounds like it is endorsing a tax.

While the title of his book refers to the Libertarian Party, his basic points also apply to most of the other major libertarian organizations as well. So, the book could just as appropriately have been titled: "Libertarian Movement at Sea on Land."

Although the book focuses on the traditional libertarian ground-rent proposal, it would be useful to compare that proposal with alternative solutions to the land question, such as the approach of Benjamin Tucker, who rejected the ground-rent proposal and instead favored a principle similar to "squatter's rights" to unoccupied land. It's possible that some other approach, or a hybrid, might be compatible with land justice and libertarian principle.

Kyriazi has done an admirable job of addressing the connection between liberty and land justice, by pulling together information and views from widely scattered sources in articles, books, and internet discussions. The book is highly recommended, not only for libertarians and those who are curious about libertarian views, but for anyone willing to break out of the cubbyholes of "left and right."

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M. R. O'Mara is a prominent liberty-oriented thinker and geolibertarian. You can order Libertarian Party at Sea on Land from the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation web site.


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