So, we’re all in agreement that intellectual property is a bad thing that should not exist. What about plain old property? If no one has a right to monopolize the use of an idea, is there a justification to allow monopolies on the use of a little bit of the planet?
First of all, let’s make a distinction between possessions and property. Nobody is arguing that you don’t get to keep the shirt on your back, or your toothbrush, or your laptop. What I’m concerned with is the exclusive right to land, and to the structures built on that piece of land.
One problem with claiming a monopoly on an idea is almost the opposite problem of claiming a monopoly on land. Ideas are a non-rivalrous good, in that one person’s use of an idea won’t take it away from anyone else (actually, Nina Paley suggests they might be anti-rivalrous). However, ideas can often be attributed to a specific creator. Land, on the other hand, is definitely rivalrous, but nobody created it. It was always there, before any of us were born. So how can anyone justify claiming to “own” any land?
Some philosophies justify land ownership based on who works the land. If you work the soil to make a thriving farm, if you build a house, that labor belongs to you. But here’s where the similarities with intellectual monopolies start to appear. It’s wrong for a publisher to restrict distribution of a book long after they’ve stopped producing and selling it. So if you put in all this work into your land and then abandon it, do you still have the exclusive right to control the land?
This is what the game Monopoly is about. Originally called The Landlord’s Game, it was invented by Georgist game designer Elizabeth Magie as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” The actions of players are meant to represent absentee landlords, who buy up properties not to use for themselves, but to charge other people to use them. The landlords make money by siphoning value off of anyone who needs to make use of the land, even when they’re not present or making use of the land themselves. Then Parker Brothers co-opts the game, slaps a trademark on it, and invents the concept of irony.
We’ve all played Monopoly, right? It’s not fun. It’s not a fun game at all. I have no idea why anyone ever plays it for enjoyment. But that was supposed to be the point: landlordism sucks.
It’s doubly ironic that Parker Brothers picked an even more Georgist name for the game than Magie did. Georgism’s chief position is that society should only charge one tax: a land use tax. Not property tax — use tax. It’s not a tax on owning the land, but on restricting the rest of the community from using it. This clearly frames the situation not as a property right, but as a monopoly right granted as part of a bargain with the public. You’re granted a monopoly in exchange for contributing money to the public. Just like the copyright monopoly is supposed to be: a limited-time monopoly on an idea in exchange for releasing it into the public domain afterward.
How different is it to claim land than to claim a monopoly on an idea? Is it right for one person — who lives in their own house, all by themselves — to extract money from people living in completely separate dwellings? Is it right for one person to claim acres and acres of land as their own just to walk around on, and not allow anyone else to build or develop anything on it?
Well, of course it’s not right to abuse one’s power like that. The real question is whether it’s preventable. Apologists for the copyright monopoly say that it’s a necessary evil to allow ideas to be locked away from the public – but we know how wrong they are. Social mores end up achieving much of what the copyright monopoly is supposed to be good for: discouraging plagiarism, getting (enough) people to compensate the artist, and encouraging new creativity. Are social mores enough to prevent someone from squatting in your house, even in the absence of property law?
So why are these questions even relevant? Why rock the boat on who gets to control land? Two reasons.
First, the present issue of homelessness and inadequate housing. In the United States, there are 24 empty homes for every homeless person as of 2012. These homes are owned by real estate speculators and banks, going unused because the property holder finds it more profitable to lock them up than to let anyone live there. China has its famous ghost cities, built for no reason other than to hit GDP targets. Vast, empty apartment complexes that analysts say would be perfect to house China’s 250 million rural poor, but none of them can afford to move in. Countries all over the world have empty developments, perfectly good homes there for the taking, if only it weren’t illegal to just break and enter. There’s no “lack of demand” keeping these homes empty; more like a lack of supply of money held by the people who need them.
This is another great reason why we argue for a universal basic income, but that brings us to the second reason why land ownership is a pressing question. So the government gives everyone enough money for “a rental one-bedroom apartment in the medium-far suburbs of a relevant city” — who collects that rent? If we still have private landlords, doesn’t that mean the rentier class will unfairly benefit from basic income, and that the government is effectively subsidizing them? But if the government owns all of the apartments, isn’t that a Soviet scenario that’s open to corruption and all of the problems with central planning? There has to be another option besides feudalism or Leninism.
There isn’t an easy way to answer this question, but it may be one of the most important of this century. With densely-populated cities becoming the only viable way of life, it’s going to be harder and harder to find an uncontested place to live, to set up shop, or to assemble. We know that we can trust neither central governments nor corporations and aristocrats to act in the public interest where the Internet and culture are concerned, so how can we trust either one with the power to throw us out of our own homes? But at the same time, don’t we need protection from other people invading our homes and private spaces? Or can we learn to share?