The Fallacy of Excessive Premise Extension
The Fallacy of Excessive Premise Extension
October 4, 2016
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

The fallacy of excessive premise extension is the application of premises beyond the facts and meanings they describe or define, to arrive at false conclusions. An example is the premise that murder is morally evil, with the false conclusion that killing an attacker in self-defense is morally wrong, whereas in the premise, “murder” means killing not justified by defense.

The fallacy of excessive premise extension has been applied to the ownership of land. The premise is self-ownership, that each person owns his own body, time, and life. The self-ownership premise implies that a person owns his labor, and therefore also his wage. The theft of wages is therefore evil. But it is excessive to extend the self-ownership premise to land, because land is not a product of human action.

“Land” means all natural resources, all that is apart from human action. “Allodial” land ownership is the complete ownership of all rights to a plot of land, including the yield or rent of the land. Advocates of allodial land ownership base their moral claims on absolute homesteading, the proposition that a person who occupies unclaimed land may claim complete ownership, a title that runs with the land and lasts forever, including passing on the land and title to heirs, or selling the land to another.

One problem with allodial ownership is that most land ownership today originated in conquest. Property obtained by force is theft. The advocates of absolute homesteading say that if the original owners or their heirs have evidence of the theft, they should be able to reclaim their land. But if there no heirs of the original owners, then the land belongs to the present occupier, as implicitly homesteaded. But that implies that if the conqueror kills all the original owners, then the land properly belongs to the conqueror as current occupier.

Even the claim based on discovery and occupation of previously unowned land is unclear, because there is no logical qualification of what occupancy means: how much time is needed, what kinds of activities are required, and why ownership does not end when the claimer is no longer occupying the land.

The French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon opposed the complete ownership of land, such as derived from the law of the Roman Empire. He famously stated that such ownership is theft. But he was not clear about the alternative to allodial title. That task was left to the American economist and social philosopher Henry George, who separated the rights of possession from the rights to the yield of land. The rights of possession, the use and transfer of land, was rightly individual, but conditional on the payment of the yield of land to the rightful owners, the members of the local and global communities. Land rent generated by the local population and commerce remains with the local community, while rent generated by natural conditions (climate, soil, wildlife, minerals, water) ideally is owned in equal shares by humanity.

The philosopher John Locke based natural moral law on two premises: independence and equality. Independence means that each person thinks and feels as an individual. Human equality is based on the observation that there is in human nature no inherently superior class, race, sexual difference, or culture. Values are subjective to each person, and each human being has personal ethical beliefs about what actions are pleasing or displeasing to oneself. The origin of morality is subjective values, but the equality premise gives subjective values an equal moral standing. The use of force, the imposition of one’s will on others, makes the aggressor a master over his victim. Natural moral law makes each person an equal self-owner.

From the premises of equality and independence, John Locke derived the proposition that persons could own natural materials such as unclaimed fruit, as well as spatial land, so long as there is land of equal quality freely available to others. This is called the Lockean proviso. The implication was that if such land is not available for free, then the ownership of the yield must be equalized. Again, Henry George explained how this can be done. The yield is the market land rent, and equality is implemented by an equal distribution of the rent.

Henry George proposed that the government, as the agent of the people, collect the land rent, and use it for public revenue. The French economists of the 1700s, who called their theory “Physiocracy” or the rule of natural law, also proposed a single tax on land rent or land value. Adam Smith agreed that ground rent is the best source of public revenue. Today’s followers of Henry George propose that at least some of the rent be directly distributed to the members of the relevant community in cash. Exactly how the rent is collected and distributed is an institutional matter, separate from the foundational moral premise of proper land ownership.

Some critics of the equal ownership of land rent complain that the payment of rent to a government makes the title holders renters rather than owners. The morally rightful ownership is most clearly implemented when the tenants of real estate pay the ground rent directly to the administration of the community, rather than paying the title holders, and then the title holders  passing it on. The critics overlook that title holders are rent receivers, not payers. The payers are the tenants, not the title holders, in those roles. We are all both rent receivers and rent payers, and what the distribution of rent does is equalize the ownership of the rent.

There is, to my knowledge, no coherent argument against the equal ownership of the yield of land. Those who claim the supremacy of their culture commit the fallacy of excessive premise extension, and those who claim the supremacy of their land ownership do the same.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., (May 11, 1946 — June 5, 2021) was an economist who wrote weekly editorials for since 1997. Foldvary’s commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary’s areas of research included public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.