Bounty: Modern Enclosers Hinder Counting Rent
Controversy over public land makes tallying common rents controversial, too.
August 29, 2018
Jeffery J. Smith
“My shotgun terrified every picnicker in the park; guess the place is mine now.”

Countrysides are where the fewest people own the most land for the least money. Some billionaires in the wide-open West own spreads the size of small East Coast states. Their holdings make for an incredible overall concentration. The USDA figures 3% (not a typo) of Americans own 95% of the privately held land (“Land Rush” by Peter Meyer in Harper’s, 1979 January). That’s a far cry from the ideal of Thomas Jefferson who thought America should be a nation of small farmers.

Other ranchers would like to own more and set their sights on public lands. Some have christened themselves the Sagebrush Rebellion. Opposing them are the democrats (lower case—those who favor group participation in decisions) who resist losing public property, even if they’re unaware of the public nature of rent.

Angry propertarians focus on land, not on rent, since rent is the source of their fortunes; who wants others poking into their business? By making their claims strident, they make tallying the worth of Earth in America awkward. Not just because the claimants are rich and powerful but also they have individualism—now customary—on their side.

Land Sans Duty

While militating against paying the public for their land, sagebrush rebels and other rural corporations are not shy about taking public dollars. Agri-business gets most of the federal billions but also lining the trough are ranchers, loggers, and miners. States and localities also chip in in their own way with roads and tax breaks.

Land-grabbing gentry cast themselves as working ranchers defending the freedom to be a cowboy. In actuality, they tend to be absentee owners with multiple homes, one a fashionable address in town. And if only rural, for sure their lawyers are urban.

Cities are where opposition to landlords is most strident, given unaffordable housing and gentrification. Many of those who hang on to their apartments demand rent control. Aspenites won a tiny land tax to fund public housing. Less conventional people are resettling in land trusts more so every year.

While proclaiming their exclusive right (actually, privilege; rights are inclusive) to own any and all, land grabbers reject any requirement to be good stewards. Their villain is the environmental movement. Especially now are these “allodials” (owners owing nothing) bitter, now that many citizens—mostly city dwellers— protect the environment.

The belligerence of propertarians makes sense since claims to land are tenuous. Legal experts acknowledge that titles to land are never thoroughly clear. As they say, go back far enough and you’ll find that all titles are based on force or fraud.

Shared Spaces—Zilch

The more extreme rentiers agitate to abolish all public property and any vestige of the commons. Their ideal is reached when a private person owns the roads, national monuments, beaches, et al. Sidewalks would be gated—if any were to remain and not be ceded to automobiles. Ultimately, would the 1% own the rivers? The lakes? The atmosphere?

No shared spaces at all? Even if we are left in shock and awe at their audacity, this stance of the wealthy anti-communitarians runs gratingly against the grain of normalcy. However individualistic people may be, most citizens enjoy parks and the wilderness.

The loss of commons would likely accelerate the loss of community, further atomize humans into beings like dust motes in a cloud, detached from all others. Lacking trustworthy relationships, when troubles arises, it’d be Hobbes’s war of all against all.

That may be farfetched but the loss of civility and tolerance is not. Community is the context for morality. We learn our ethical lessons from the family, friends, and residents around us. The less community, the less morality. Unaware or indifferent, during the 1980s a politician across the pond claimed, “there is no society” (may she RIP).

Some of those who have benefited the most from what civilization has to offer oppose not just commons but society itself, reserving their sharpest critique for government.

No Shared Power, Either

On this side of the Atlantic, a TV actor/politician proposed shrinking government so much they could “drown it in a bathtub” (may he RIP). Somewhat inconsistently, those who oppose government take aim at public goods and social programs, not the police or military. However, if government lacked the force of arms, it’d hardly matter what laws they passed or what rulings judges gave or what fines the IRS levied. They’d have no way to enforce them.

To cut public spending, agencies pay others to perform their duties:

Meanwhile, contracting out the tasks of government has not downsized government. The state has not been withering away but expanding, whether beneficial or not. This expanding government sometimes oversteps its bounds:

Not exactly user-unfriendly.

Not surprisingly, victims of such abuse find appealing the ideas of shrinking and privatizing the role of bureaucrats and politicians in their lives. OTOH, citizens who’ve never experienced mistreatment and/or need their government jobs equate government with social cooperation. They see anti-governmentism as anti-social madness.

Those opposed to government had better be pleased with government policy because the part of the state expanding is incarceration,law enforcement, and the military. Opposition to policy could become hazardous. Beware of what you wish for.

Rural rentiers typically lack respect for “eggheads”. Perhaps the rift can be employed to win for gadflies some recognition from academics, as long as their rules are followed. Using their conventional definitions and methods, not corrected by reason or deep analysis, then what would a total for the worth of Earth in America look like?

This article is Part 32 of a series highlighting the forthcoming book, “Bounty Hunter: a gadfly’s quest to know the worth of Earth,” byJeffery J. Smith. To date, the experts have not risen to meet the challenge. Indeed, some have even stood in the way. Yet the payoff for knowing this datum is huge.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at