Eastern Economic Association Conference

Harold Kyriazi

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, March-April 2006]

Prior to being invited by Dan Sullivan to speak at a session he was organizing, I was only dimly aware of the existence of the EEA, and never heard of the USBIG (United States Basic Income Guarantee) Network. So, I looked forward to seeing what it was all about.

My presentation

Half of my lecture was to be about material contained in my book (Libertarian Party at Sea on Land), and the other half, from my book chapter on Murray Rothbard's criticisms of Henry George's Single Tax (Chapter 31 of The Critics of Henry George, 2nd Edition). Roughly, the main messages for the first half were that a) libertarians throughout history advocated equal rights for all, including a right to the use of the earth, b) due in part to the overwhelming influence of Ayn Rand on libertarians in general, and Murray Rothbard on the Libertarian Party platform in particular, most libertarians today believe instead in absolute and unrestricted rights to land, which translates into unequal freedom, i.e., privilege, c) libertarian principles are not consistent with any such privileged ownership of land, and d) based on my experience in Pittsburgh, about 50% of libertarians become land value tax advocates when presented with these ideas.

From my book chapter, "Reckoning with Rothbard" (also published in the Journal of Economics and Sociology, April 2004), I wanted to present my analysis of George and Rothbard's essential disagreement, show where each side erred, and how their views could be nicely reconciled. George made what I consider a minor error, which unfortunately gave rise to enormously bad consequences (his proposal being rejected by some as communistic or socialistic). The error was in sharing not only Nature's and government's contributions to land utility with everyone (individually or collectively, by way of paying for the expenses of government), but also the part of utility created by productive individuals. In my opinion, the latter should, if justice be served, go only to those productive individuals. Sharing it even with hobos living down by the railroad tracks, for example, whose presence probably decreases land values, constitutes theft from the creative and giving to the merely needy.

Similarly, many of George's followers erred by saying "population gives value to land" without distinguishing how it does so (by creating utility, on the one hand, or merely by increasing demand, on the other), allowing for the conflation of the two contributors to land price, and the communistic (and anti-George) notion that need confers ownership. Famed anarchist Benjamin Tucker successfully criticized Single Taxers on this ground, and Rothbard echoed Tucker.

Rothbard erred more egregiously, though, in giving all land value, including that created by Nature (he would reply, "the owners paid for it"), government ("there shouldn't be a government, and, in my anarcho-capitalist utopia, owners would pay for these services"), and neighboring individual land users ("landowners don't benefit more than anyone else from capital expenditures and inventions from our fellow men both past and present"), to the individual land title holder.

Conference impressions

Regarding the conference itself, there were, as one might have expected, both highs and lows. The highs, for me, were all found in the USBIG sessions, which is what I mostly attended. This was their fifth gathering, and was titled "Resources and Rights", which gives away its Georgist leanings. There, I found scholars and activists alike united in advocating a BIG/Citizen's Dividend, and using natural resource rents to pay for it (although many also wished to continue considering income and sales taxes).

Listening to USBIG organizer Karl Widerquist (Oxford University, UK), I was so thrilled that I thought I must be dreaming. Why? He spoke at length on the distinction between left and right libertarianism (echoing my own talk), and mentioned that he has an entire chapter on Locke in his latest book, where he discusses weak and strong interpretations of the Lockean Proviso (that land could rightfully be engrossed by individuals only so long as enough and as good was left to others). The Georgist movement's own Nic Tideman was a big hit in giving the USBIG keynote address, which was a concise presentation of the geo-libertarian view of justice in land. Nic discussed late Harvard philosopher John Rawls' influential "veil of ignorance" criterion for determining the morality of public policy, and concluded that it was perhaps a necessary, but certainly not a sufficient criterion for achieving socio-economic justice.

The main downer was experienced in a regular session, on Fed and ECB (European Central Bank) monetary policy. Presenters argued for a 2% inflation rate target, and discussed the Fed goals of stable prices, maximum employment, and moderate long-term interest rates, while the ECB focuses solely on achieving a 2% inflation rate. I could only suppose the slightly positive inflation rate was felt necessary to promote the borrowing and spending needed to prop up a debt-based currency system (and avoid the "disastrous" savings and reduced spending that might occur with a deflation, where one's money is worth more in the future than at present), as though production and consumption are always good, and it is the role and duty of government tinkerers to manipulate mankind like so many pawns on a chess board. Nowhere did I hear any glimmer of concern for people's rights to be free of government meddling -- no hint that a truly free market would sort out production and consumption in the most humanly beneficial way, without the need for centralized, authoritarian tinkering. I got the feeling that, for this group of professional economists at least, all they thought about was the mechanics of how, for example, changes in interest rates affect the economy, with no thought at all about what is right or wrong.

In stark contrast to the professional economic tinkerers, I was delighted to hear a talk entitled "Comparing USA Work Activity, both Helpful and Harmful, to Other Nations" by A. R. Rowe, in which she discussed, among other things, the harmful effects of using GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a measure of economic activity, when it doesn't distinguish productive activity from wasteful and even harmful activity (for example, marketing cigarettes counts toward GDP, but raising a child safely to maturity does not). She also spoke about subjects dear to my (minor political party-oriented) heart, such as the need for proportional representation and run-off elections to break the major party stranglehold on our democracy, and the adverse affects of the horribly high U.S. incarceration rate (#1 in the world) on the health of (largely minority) families of prisoners. (We libertarians are always railing against the "War on Drugs" and how it results in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of non-violent, productive people.)

Ms. Rowe's talk was in a session moderated by our own Jeff Smith, entitled "Gradual Steps Toward a BIG," which was one of my favorite sessions of the conference, as it also showcased an excellent talk by Margy Waller of the Brookings Institution on transportation ("The Long Journey to Work: Transit, Cars, and Income"), who likes the idea of mass transit, but finds that poor people without cars suffer unduly under our current system.

Also memorable was Brazilian Senator Eduardo Suplicy, a tall and distinguished gentleman who not only talked about policy (Brazil's "Bolsa Familia" program, which provides a basic income to the poor) but philosophy, speaking at length about Thomas Paine, and also mentioning a second Thomas I'd never heard of -- Thomas Spence, author of the 1797 "The Right of Infants."

My other favorite session was titled "How to Pay for a BIG: Part Two." Alanna Hartzok gave a tour de force performance about how the U.S. always seems to engage its military, both overtly and covertly, in favor of world natural resource monopoly. Dan Sullivan gave a very practical, activist-oriented presentation, detailing why he is now working to establish land value taxation at the municipal level, who our natural allies in this task are, and why the political dynamics favor such action, as opposed to attempting anything at the state or national levels.

I feel confident that the capital the many Georgists in attendance invested in this conference will pay large dividends for many years to come.

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