I recently read some of Rick Falkvinge’s posts on Steemit. His posts focused on the idea of “decentralized voluntaryism” where land is owned by the State and the publicly-owned land is rented out to private possessors as a means of voluntarily funding government. At the outset, I thought Falkvinge was advocating a synthesis of Georgism and Voluntaryism—a sort of geo-voluntaryism. However, I quickly came to realize that his approach is not Georgist. I also came to realize that he fails to discuss details related to the nature of the particular government. It is quite clear that he wants the role of government to be limited, but what sort of government does he want? Does he want a republic with representative democracy or a benevolent dictator instead? And what means does Mr. Falkvinge propose to keep this government in check? My goal is not to tear apart his proposal or dismiss it, but rather to improve upon it.
To begin with, I would like to say that his observation that “[b]oth capitalism and communism have decentralized voluntaryism as their promised endgames” is quite astute. Additionally, it seems clear that he does not equate “voluntaryism” with “individualist anarchism.” These two facts indicate that Mr. Falkvinge is at least somewhat familiar with Marxism and Voluntaryism as espoused by the founders of these philosophies, which is more than can be said for most people who call themselves “voluntaryists.”
Falkvinge makes a distinction between tier-one and tier-two land owners. This ties in with the distinction between property and possession in mutualist and libertarian socialist writings. He points out that ownership of land is quite different from property rights as they relate to objects. The tier-one owner of all land is some State or government. The tier-two owner is the individual in possession of the land. The State has a “ledger (land register)” which recognizes me as the legitimate proprietor of my plot of land. If I rent out my plot of land to a third party, then the State still recognizes me as the property owner because my name is on the ledger, but the person occupying the land and in possession of it is a third party. Consequently, possession and property are not coterminous when we are speaking of land-ownership. Property is a legal recognition of certain privileges over a piece of land, whereas possession is merely a matter of fact. A tenant may be in possession of an apartment, but it is not his property unless he has the right to destroy the building and sell the land. It appears, therefore, that the State owns all land, and individuals are merely sub-owners. If all land is publicly owned, then it seems that the State has the right to lease it out and deposit the rent payments into the public treasury.
There is a real value to this approach. It is quite realistic and pragmatic. The bottom line is that all land is already owned by the State. The weakness of this approach is that it does not establish the justice of public-ownership of land. However, I think there are very good reasons to believe that public-ownership of land is just and that private-ownership is unjust. This seems to follow from the Lockean justification for property. Property as an institution is justified on the grounds that a man is entitled to the product of his own labor. This seems a legitimate justification for private property in objects in general, but land seems to be an exception. If I carve a simple statue out of a piece of wood that I found and sell the statue, I have sold the product of my own labor. The value of the object was produced by my own labor. If I am a speculator who buys land, the value of the land is not the product of my own labor but the product of other people’s labor. Suppose that I buy a plot of land in the middle of nowhere, then I just leave it for ten years and wait for the surrounding area to develop. Someone else builds a subdivision nearby, someone else builds a grocery store; roads, utilities, and schools are put in by the municipal government. All of these developments in the area increase the value of my property, yet not a single one of these things is the product of my own labor. When I sell or rent out my land, I am profiting off of the labor of all these other people. Socialists and reformers like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Henry George would argue that you are only entitled to “earned income” (i.e. the product of your own labor), but you are not entitled to “unearned income” (i.e. appropriating value produced by other people’s labor). Looking at it from this perspective, we can say that it seems that the value of land is the product of society. It makes sense that this value should be regarded as public property. So unearned income from increase in land value can legitimately be confiscated and added to the public treasury.
Adding the insights of Georgism and libertarian socialism, we can make a strong case for saying that public ownership of land is justified. As Falkvinge already noted, all land is already publicly-owned. Your ownership is conferred to you by the State, linked to some title or deed, usually with a fee-simple arrangement where you pay property taxes. The State is the real owner and you are a sub-owner who pays rent. If public ownership of land is already the case, and public ownership is legitimate and justified, it follows that leasing of land and charging rent (a “land value tax” in the terms of Henry George) is also legitimate. Not only is it legitimate, but it basically already takes place. However, it takes place only minimally and the land is leased out well below the proper rate.
Since all land is publicly-owned, the government has the ability to lease out the land. The government could, therefore, charge rent for the private use or possession of land. The revenue from this land rent could then fund the government, meaning that all other taxes could be abolished. There would be no income tax, not sales tax, etc. The only tax would be land rent owed to the government, and the land rent would be a totally legitimate tax since the State owns all land. If you don’t want to pay taxes, you don’t have to be a land-owner in this society. Thus, this scheme becomes a scheme for voluntary taxationism (voluntaryism). This scheme gives us a minimal State that has the least possible impact on the market. Falkvinge observes that “[t]he proposal also allows for the elimination of all state databases except the citizen registry and the land registry, drastically reducing bureaucracy,” etc.
I’d like to take the time to make some laudatory remarks on Falkvinge’s ideas. He makes a great case for the need of a social safety net, he supports Universal Basic Income, he recognizes that urbanization leads to more wealth, he recognizes that public-ownership of land can potentially be a solution to the problem of pollution, and he makes the astute observation that the lease ought to last until it is surrendered by the party renting. His posts on Steemit are well worth reading. If you find what I am saying to be even remotely fascinating, you really ought to check out Falkvinge’s posts.
Personally, I ascribe to Georgism. Henry George proposed a system of public-ownership of land where existing private owners (sub-owners) would continue to have possession of the land but would be charged a rent (“land value tax”) that would be used to fund government. George held that the value of the land alone should be taxed, excluding the value of buildings and such. More valuable land would be rented/taxed at a higher price. If a corporation wants to monopolize a gold mine or oil field, then they will pay taxes on the high value of that land. Falkvinge’s proposal is not Georgist and does not include a land value tax. Instead, he proposes that the amount of the government’s budget should be “divided across all current plots of land by area” without regard to the market value of land. Falkvinge even notes that “this may need adjustment to enter the ballpark of reason.” My proposal is that his plan be turned into a fully Georgist scheme, where the community taxes the land at a rate proportional to the value of the land on the market. I believe that embracing Georgism would make Falkvinge’s proposal more equitable and just. If I am a landlord and the value of my land increases due to public roads, utilities, and schools being added in the vicinity of my property, then I will be able to charge higher rent and make more profits. It is only fair that I should have to pay more taxes to fund such public services. If I am the owner of a gold mine and am allowed to exploit the natural resources of the community in order to profit, it is only fair that I should pay more taxes than my neighbors who do not have the same privilege. A flat tax is not a fair tax. In order to determine the rate at which to tax property, you need to take the government’s budget and determine what percentage of a tax on the value of land would raise enough revenue to cover the budget, but the rate of taxation should be a percentage of the value of the land so that more valuable land has a higher tax.
Falkvinge goes on to note that the creation of such a “Simplified Taxless State” might only be a “reset button on state power” and that the State might just expand again over time. I find it puzzling that Falkvinge didn’t feel the need to address the form or structure of his proposed government. He also neglects the subject of how we are to go about reforming the State and fails to address the issue of keeping the State from expanding again in the future. Given Falkvinge’s background, I can only assume that he must recognize the value of parliamentary action and electoral politics. There is something here to be learned from social democrats and Fabian socialists. You can use electoral politics and representative democracy as a tool for pushing your agenda. And this can be quite effective. We have better working conditions and higher wages than we used to because social democratic policies have been effective at reforming the system. At the same time, electoral politics has its limits. Electoral politics can hardly be the main avenue for radical and fundamental change. It seems to me that in order to attain or preserve such a geo-voluntaryist social order, some sort of “dual power” scenario would be necessary. This is why I advocate libertarian municipalism as advocated by Murray Bookchin. (Libertarian municipalism has also been referred to as democratic confederalism.) Bookchin’s general idea of libertarian municipalism is probably the only reasonable approach to revolution that's been proposed in decades. At the same time, I think the approach of Occupy Wall Street needs to be integrated with Bookchin’s vision. We need to form popular assemblies run on consensus-based democracy. These assemblies should create a permanent occupation in all major towns and cities. As capitalism progresses, industry will become more efficient. Machines will take over many jobs. Fewer workers will be needed. This will create a large class of unemployed people. In order to deal with massive unemployment, the government can either give out a Universal Basic Income or else double the minimum wage and cut the work week in half in order to bring back full employment. Either way, a lot of people are going to have a lot more free time. These masses of people with lots of free time ought to be mobilized into a libertarian municipalist political movement by community organizers. Community organizers ought to bring people together into popular assemblies of face-to-face democracy in every municipality. And these assemblies ought to be federated into a confederation of general assemblies at the regional level, and ultimately at the national level. This confederation should serve as a citizens’ union to do bargaining with the government. These popular assemblies of direct democracy will create a “dual power” scenario that will allow the people to force elected representatives to do what they want. If things aren’t going the way the people want, or the government is doing things that the people dislike, then these popular assemblies can be mobilized into occupations—imagine Occupy Wall Street in every city, with protesters outside the homes and offices of every politician! The assemblies would not just be protests but potential angry mobs. This would strike fear into the representatives and politicians. And this would give the people a means of controlling the government. So I envision a mixture of social democracy and libertarian municipalism. Perhaps the direct democracy of the democratic confederation and its popular assemblies will even replace representative democracy altogether at some point. This libertarian municipalism can also be a tactic for decentralizing government. Falkvinge proposes “decentralized voluntaryism,” and libertarian municipalism seems to me to be an appropriate method for achieving that decentralized vision. Libertarian municipalism shifts power to popular assemblies at the local level, giving us a decentralized democratic confederation.
So my proposal is a mixture of Georgism, voluntaryism, social democracy, and libertarian municipalism. Elsewhere I have referred to this as anarchist social democracy. And I even advocate social welfare programs, Universal Basic Income being the most important such program, because I can see no reason to oppose government spending on welfare measures if the government happens to be funded in an ethical manner that does not involve theft. Of course, the nature of the sort of welfare programs that the people choose to put in place must be determined through directly democratic processes. The people must determine how to spend public funds.