Markets: Getting Past the Debate
While there is a lot of discussion about whether to regulate markets or not, there is little talk about being outside of markets
September 7, 2016
Rich Nymoen

In our times, we have had a lot of discussion about whether to interfere with markets or not. Historically, this fixation on the operation of markets is strange; no other era seems to have focused so much attention on this particular place, the market.  After all, a market is just a place – virtual or real -- where people make commercial transactions. Why not focus more on other places: natural, sacred or enlightening ones?

Meanwhile, you hear little about a third option besides “free” or “regulated” markets:  being outside of markets.  For example, if land was treated as a commons -- so that, for example, any titles granted for it be in return for annual rent paid to the community – then much more land would exist outside the market, i.e. less land area would be titled. 

Economist Mason Gaffney has said, “Many upper middle class suburbs house people at 10,000 per square mile. At that density, 300,000,000 people can be housed in a circle with radius of about 100 miles. Greater L.A. and San Diego and San Francisco all reach out 100 miles, along with dozens of cities in 49 other states, and scores more worldwide.” 

Imagine how different the world would be -- if only environmentally -- had European settlement been confined to much smaller areas, leaving more of continents to indigenous ways.  Indigenous people, treating land as a commons through open-source arrangements, often live lightly on the land and treat it with reverence.

Continental and urban sprawl results from treating land as a commodity. If people had to pay communities rent for any land they individually held, they would only hold as much as they could use.  One reason Europeans settled the interior of the American continent is because speculators held millions of acres out of use that were nearer to the coast, forcing farmers to move farther inland to access farmland. This same dynamic occurs today when development is pushed into the countryside because speculators hold urbanized land vacant or underused. 

Moreover, there’s another factor that would benefit from being more outside the market: our time.  The vast majority of us obtain our incomes in the form of wages from being employed.  Because people largely compete for jobs and not vice versa, wages are driven to a minimum and people are forced to work longer hours to obtain sufficient incomes.  But if more people received income from land – in the form of equal shares of the land rent collected by communities – then they could spend less time at work. 

Just think of the many problems that could be solved if no one had to work more than twenty hours per week.  Work-life balance would exist naturally without the need for laws requiring paid leave.  More job-sharing would occur, which would lead to less unemployment.  Jobs would compete for workers, driving wages up without the need for minimum wage laws.

Since the beginning of the Modern Era, we’ve been caught in a vicious spiral.  As the era began five hundred years ago, people were pushed off the land in Europe, which forced them to work in mass-production operations for low wages.  Mass production creates cheap, disposable goods that can be afforded by lower waged workers.  Because the mass-production model was exported world-wide, the planet has been strained by the huge use of water, energy, and natural resources needed to maintain the system.

But the spiral can be reversed.  As more land rent is shared and wages increase, people will demand not cheap mass-produced goods, but individualized high-quality goods.  Such goods require craftsmanship, not mass production.  When production is shifted away from mass methods, humanity’s footprint will be reduced to a manageable level.

The debate over whether or not to regulate markets is getting stale.  We should move past it and start discussing how to shift more of our time and resources to being outside the market.  Let’s make the debate a moot one.

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Rich Nymoen

RICH NYMOEN is involved in Common Ground USA, an organization that affirms "that all persons have equal and common rights in the earth and its resources."