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Joseph Milne



Joined: 17 Apr 2008
Posts: 331
Location: Herne Bay, Kent, UK

PostPosted: Fri Jul 10, 2009 10:13 pm    Post subject: Henry George Foundation Lecture Reply with quote

I was greatly honoured today by David Triggs and The Henry George Foundation by an invitation to present a paper on Natural Law, Aquinas and Henry George.

I would like to thank everyone who attended for their kind reception and stimulating discussion - and of course the pizza!

I attach a copy of the paper just as I gave it. Please forgive the lazy way the references are made and lack of a bibliography, but this is how it comes hot out of the forge.

Joseph



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Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

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Peter Fennell



Joined: 27 Sep 2007
Posts: 53
Location: London

PostPosted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 6:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
Joseph Milne starts with "the simple truth that the land cannot justly be claimed as private property"


That may be a natural law. But what constitutes public as distinct from private? For instance is a tennis club private? How about a house shared by students? Does it matter what they are studying? How about a monastery? Charity law recognises sport, education and religion as for 'public benefit'.

If the land is public then should not a legitimately constituted sovereign be entitled to endow the use of, or income from, a piece of it to, for example, a monastery in perpetuity? Or a school or university?
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Joseph Milne



Joined: 17 Apr 2008
Posts: 331
Location: Herne Bay, Kent, UK

PostPosted: Tue Dec 22, 2009 9:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Peter Fennell wrote:
Quote:
Joseph Milne starts with "the simple truth that the land cannot justly be claimed as private property"


That may be a natural law. But what constitutes public as distinct from private? For instance is a tennis club private? How about a house shared by students? Does it matter what they are studying? How about a monastery? Charity law recognises sport, education and religion as for 'public benefit'.

If the land is public then should not a legitimately constituted sovereign be entitled to endow the use of, or income from, a piece of it to, for example, a monastery in perpetuity? Or a school or university?


Please forgive me, Peter, for such a long delay in responding to your questions.

The problem with land does not lie in the distinction between private or public ownership, but between claiming to own it and ethical access to it. Henry George responds to this problem with the application of land value tax. This means that nobody actually owns the land, because in truth it cannot really be owned any more than the moon can be owned.

So the question becomes, what is the distinction between “property” and what nature gives freely? For all the efforts of the Enlightenment thinkers (Adam Smith, Lock, Mill etc.), they could not satisfactorily answer this question – because they held as a first principle that private property was the basis society and economics.

George responds to this by understanding private property as the fruits of one’s own labours, or something acquired from another’s labours through exchange of one’s own labour. Land cannot ever qualify as property here, either as a product of labour, or a legitimate product of exchange.

One needs to ask how private property can arise in the first place, in principle. For Aquinas, in principle nothing is privately owned, either the land or the fruits of labour, but all is held in common. This is the ideal, but it presupposes that society is wholly just and all citizens are wholly virtuous. This is fine in principle. In practice it is not presently attainable, and so a compromise needs to be sought.

Aquinas sees the beginning of this need in the neglect that occurs when all things are held in common. He suggests that individuals ought to be given direct responsibility for certain things held in common. This gives rise to institutions who take responsibility for common public functions. So for Aquinas it is the need to take care of things that first gives rise to private property for the common good.

Thus he concedes that people cannot take care of things for the sake of the things themselves, or for the common good, but tend to neglect those things they do not individually use or benefit from.

In the Enlightenment this argument became distorted, and it was argued that private ownership of land was for the general good, and that the land owner benefited society by distributing his wealth to those without land. The fact that this wealth he distributes comes entirely from the labours of others is passed over.

It is in response to this distortion that Henry George is responding. His aim is to assure that what belongs to Nature cannot be claimed as private human property, and to assure that the fruits of labour exerted upon Nature (land) remain with the labourer who produced them. This, the theory holds, is brought about through the land tax.

This tax also, in Aquinas’s terms, maintains the distinction between “common property” and private property, yet it also assures that the land tax is responsibly employed for the common good through responsible institutions. In this way “common property” is the increase in wealth generated simply through the presence of the community. So land does not become “public” property, but is not property at all. The land tax prevents the ownership of land in any form, public or private.

Given this, there is no problem with the tennis club or any other use of land. So long as the land tax is paid to the community, everything else the tennis club offers its members will be the products of actual labour or actual services.

This is why I suggest it is a self-evident truth that land cannot be private property. There is no way in which private ownership of land can occur except that it begins in merely asserting a claim upon it. The claim upon the products of labour, by contrast, begins with creating wealth through one’s own work or effort, and that wealth cannot be claimed by any other person than the one who made it.

Joseph
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Peter Fennell



Joined: 27 Sep 2007
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 24, 2009 9:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Joseph, Thankyou for responding. To pick up the main points in reverse order,

Quote:
In this way “common property” is the increase in wealth generated simply through the presence of the community. So land does not become “public” property, but is not property at all.


If there is no property, there is still someone in command of the rent. There is a distinction between rent payers (private persons) and the rent collector (public person). George was vague about that person but let's call him 'Government'. He is the collector and distributor. I suspect it may be a semantic distinction to say that he is not the owner (under God of course). However, I don't think it troubles the main issues that I have at present. So putting that digression aside, Government is also the Planner, deciding what are appropriate uses where.

So then there are private uses (rent paying) and public functions or uses (paid out of rent). The latter might superficially pay rent for the use of land but all their payouts are funded out of the rent collected from the private sector.

So the political question of what is to be provided as part of the public service and what is not remains to be decided by Government. Government must also be entitled to divide itself, to have local parts and to delegate. It would surely be entitled to institute a federal structure in which the rent of local regions were collected and disposed locally. And how far would you take the subsidiarity principle?

Quote:
the land owner benefited society by distributing his wealth to those without land


Yes, he was performing part of the role of Government. He was seen as doing so at the time alongside other government functions or services eg. sitting as local magistrate.

Quote:
yet it also assures that the land tax is responsibly employed for the common good through responsible institutions.


I would be interested to know how you support this assertion. The constitution of the institutions does not seem to me to be explicit in LVT. It is left to traditions of civil society. It is implied and assumed that these are democratic and that democracy will deliver wise government, that is, wise use of the rent.

Here is the nub of the question. Plato does not see that outcome as written in Natural Law and neither does the British Constitution. So there are non-democratic elements already as part of Government, supported out of the rent and disposing of it. In the past there have been legitimate bequests of land by legitimately constituted Government. When government does this it bequeaths part of its function and also the means of support of that function.

Returning to my list, the church, universities etc exercise public functions and were endowed with land to support those. LVT would take that away and require the rewriting of the legitimacy of every endowed institution.

Those who espouse it mean to be radicals rather than revolutionaries but does it not in fact entirely discard the principal of prescription (Burke)? I would be grateful if you would explain how the several institutions that I mentioned will be effected (other than the tennis club) and if their public function will have to be reassessed? And by whom?
Peter
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Joseph Milne



Joined: 17 Apr 2008
Posts: 331
Location: Herne Bay, Kent, UK

PostPosted: Mon Jan 04, 2010 12:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Dear Peter,

You raise some very important questions here, some of which are dealt with directly by George.

First, I do not think the distinction between private individual and public institution is vague. Government is not a “person” but and institution acting on behalf of the whole community. George makes many suggestion about how government would operate under the single tax. First, since its income is determined by land value, it cannot raise taxes arbitrarily. This of itself removes the possibilities of corruption and disciplines waste. It assumes a correlation between revenue and the proper duties of government.

However, there is a point beyond which we cannot determine what government would do in this situation, nor need we. At this point the really important thing is to grasp things in principle. The collection of rent as tax removes the most basic injustice in society, land monopoly, which deprives labour of its wages and stifles the diversity of the creation of wealth. In that situation many of the things we now consider a government needs to do are removed. For example, the welfare state would no longer be necessary. All the present functions of government which are there only to mitigate the consequences of land monopoly would no longer be required.

This raises the larger question of what are the essential functions of government, given that the cause of poverty is removed. George leaves this open, and rightly in my view. It is at this point that we enter the question of the potential of human society. And here Natural Law offers the notion of the proper end of society, the full flowering and perfection of being (Plato, Aristotle) or perfect justice and beatitude (Aquinas).

George suggests that it is only through justice that the ultimate good of society is possible, which he equates with the Gospels. Christian goodness is possible only upon the firm foundation of justice, and it is the attempt to leap over justice to that goodness which, in his view, creates one of the main obstacles to its attainment.

Here is where Natural Law is quite distinct from the various systems proposed since the 17th century. All the Enlightenment thinkers – Hobbes, Pufendorf, Smith, Mill, Rousseau etc. – build their systems and ethics on the presupposition that human nature is essentially selfish and individualistic, and so they see any system is a means to “force cooperation” between citizens. And that notion prevails still today as strongly as ever, or even more so with the secularisation of modern society.

Natural Law conceives human nature entirely differently. It conceives it as fundamentally in harmony with Nature as a whole, as essentially inclined toward the Good and the True, and ultimately towards the Divine. Thus there is a continuity and agreement between all natural human desires and aspirations from the most basic to the highest.

From this position the way in which a society governs itself is open-ended because justice and the good are themselves open-ended. One of the dreadful consequences of injustice is that it deforms or obscures that natural human inclinations. But also the lack of knowledge of justice does the same, and this is why Aristotle defines human nature as political, meaning by this the capacity to make good laws. In this way human nature surpasses the gregarious creatures and the rational beings. Human nature has the capacity to act on behalf of the universal good of all things (Plato, Aquinas).

It is from this perspective that your questions about government may most fruitfully be addressed. It was through the direct denunciation of this perspective that the atomistic or individualistic theories of society and economics arose in the Enlightenment, in particular the deliberate abandonment of the tradition of Plato and the Natural Law philosophy of the Stoics Aquinas.

What Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas presuppose is that a just society is also a virtuous society. It makes its laws and establishes its institutions and traditions on the basis of justice and practical reason, seeking the common good.

A great difficulty in our time is that the assumption that human nature is essentially good cannot be grasped through the prevailing philosophical notions of being and the reductive theories of sociology. The 17th century theorists and philosophers saw the good of society as against the inclinations of human nature, and therefore the establishing of laws and institutions were conceived in terms of curbing and constraining human nature. It was presumed that without the imposition of laws that human nature would revert to the state of a brute. Thus the essential idea of Natural Law, the seeking of the common good, got reduced to the desire for individual self-preservation. This idea holds as strongly now as it did when Pufendorf formulated it.

So the question always returns to the question of Justice and how justice operates in the nature of things, whether we know it or not. For Plato the possibilities of society lie wholly in the manner in which it addresses the question of the nature of Justice. That in itself is a defining law of society and human nature. This means that the true basis of social good is not so much democracy (the desire of the many) as the common concern for Justice and the mutual resolution to establish it.

It seems to me that your questions hang entirely on how justice can be found and established. And this amounts to asking what a virtuous society would be like. The assumption of Natural Law is that virtue would take care of practical ends as a matter of course, because the ends sought would always be in conformity with justice.

As to your direct question about how the institutions such as universities would function if the land tax was collected from them, there are two possibilities. First, that such institutions would be funded by the state. On the principle that all education should be free, it would be a duty of the state to provision all education. As things stand at the moment, the universities receive funding with one hand and pay it back to the state through all other taxes with the other. On the other hand, it may be that individuals would desire to pay for higher education directly, in which case the land tax would be collected for the universities just as with any other land user.

A great deal hangs on whether education is seen as a cost to society, as now, or as the flowering of society, as in the Middle Ages.

With best wishes for the New Year,
Joseph
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