When Conservatives Accidentally Destroy Capitalism

I found a bit of a gem in the spam filter – a drive-by comment in which somebody really didn’t think through all the implications of what they were saying.

I’ve released the comment back into the wild here:https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/the-other-kind-of-alt-history/#comment-8754 It was in reply to my post about the politics of calling the invasion by Britain of Australia in the 18th century an “invasion”.

“Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.”
Those people died a long time ago. Nobody stole from the ones alive today.
By the way, where are my reparations for the Highland Clearances? I’m sure somebody owes me a bundle, by your reckoning.

And wow – no sarcasm but those are nearly good points but which collectively stab right at the heart of modern capitalism.

I’ll nit pick first: “Nobody stole from the ones alive today.” I assume this is just ignorance on his part. Australia’s indigenous population was robbed in living (and deeply painful memory) of many of its children https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Generations I assume that wasn’t what he was thinking of – he meant land/territory and of course even that is debatable.

But let’s look at this point by point:

  • Those people died a long time ago. Let’s accept that for the moment. A long time ago, in this case, means the 18th century which is a long time ago but well within the time of Britain as a state, the institution of property rights, the rule of law, the establishment of core elements of modern capitalism (including share ownership, financial institutions etc).
  • Nobody stole from the ones alive today. Ignore for the moment any more recent theft and think about what this is saying – it requires that a theft from A is not a theft from the heirs of A.
  • where are my reparations for the Highland Clearances? This is another good example of an 18th-19th-century land grab. It is also intertwined with the losses suffered by indigenous people in Australia and elsewhere, as the clearances fueled emigration from Scotland to other lands – including Australia, New Zealand and North America.
  • I’m sure somebody owes me a bundle, by your reckoning. And the question might be asked – who is the somebody?

That last point is a way of sarcastically attacking the notion of restitution for historical theft by pointing to the impracticability of paying people back but again, I’ll park that issue to one side for a moment.

Instead, let’s flip this around. The Highland Clearances were a long time ago. The people who did the stealing are also long dead. So, nothing to see here move along? No. Scotland STILL to this day has some of the most inequitable land ownership in Western Europe.

Scotland-map-blue2

This image is from a Guardian article entitled (unsurprisingly) Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the west.  That inequity continues and causes real damage to people’s lives – and be warned the story and the quote below includes a case of suicide.

“Last October, on a farm near Edinburgh, the body of Andrew Riddell, a tenant farmer, was discovered. He and his family had worked on the farm for more than 100 years and then, one day, he was given notice to quit by his landlord, Alastair Salvesen, billionaire and Scotland’s third-richest man. The notice followed a year-long legal case which finally found in favour of Salvesen. The judge ruled that the protections Riddell thought he had in the tenancy arrangement were trumped by the landlord’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. He killed himself after collecting his final harvest.”

This inequity stems from land taken in the 17th century onwards. The land was taken and then the wealth passed down by inheritance. The original grab may have been theft (if not legally then morally and by modern standards) but then the people who gained by that wealth were sure to demand the protection of the laws of property right and inheritance AND STILL DO.

The idea that it was all so long ago only works as the basis for ignoring the issue when considering the theft. The benefit of the theft remains protected by inheritance. To say nothing was stolen from those alive today requires us to discount any wealth/land/territory they might have otherwise inherited. Perhaps we SHOULD discount that but then it would need to be discounted for all surely? Would the commenter argue for the abolition of inheriting property? Now there’s a radical notion. Need we go that far? After all, IF IT DOESN’T MATTER if the person is dead then taxation of inheritance is not only not theft by legal standards but presumably isn’t theft even by the standards of the conservative defenders of property rights.

The impact of the theft is still visible today, even in a modern developed nation such as Scotland. The original crime still has an impact, and we can see, by looking at Scotland and the Scottish people how this has played out over the centuries and how, despite otherwise very different situations regarding culture, freedom of movement, and political rights between the displaced land workers of 17th century Scotland and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia that there are outcomes in common:

  • The descendants of those who gained from the theft, on the whole, continue to gain from the theft.
  • The descendants of those who lost from the theft, on the whole, continued to suffer (to some degree) as a consequence.

That isn’t to say every possible individual must fall into one of two camps or that many descendants of the Scots who emigrated to the new world haven’t prospered. Economics isn’t a zero sum game and the historical theft of land is not the only thing in play. Where Australia’s indigenous peoples would not gain political rights until late in the twentieth century, emigrating Scots found new opportunities and new political rights in the new nations that grew around the colonisation by Europeans of Australasia and North America.

But, maybe it is the last point alluded too that matters. Maybe it is all just too hard to undo. You can’t fix history and you can’t possibly work out who owes who what?

Well let’s go back to the 18th century and ASK somebody.

 

440px-Thomas_Paine

Agrarian Justice Warrior

In 1795 Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet called “Agrarian Justice“. It was written in response to what was then a major piece of privatisation – the sale by the crown of royal and common land. While that land had not been directly owned by ordinary people, it was land that they typically had use of. This shift of land from common use to private ownership had been occurring for centuries (Paine argues that has been occurring since the beginnings of agriculture) but it has also been creating poverty for some. In Paine’s time, that creation of poverty was painfully visible in Europe – causing a population shift from the countryside to the cities.

 

Paine’s pamphlet is far from perfect but it has some deep insights. Firstly he identified this loss of access to land as a cause of poverty. He also identified INHERITANCE as a force that then makes that split between poverty and wealth generational. Finally, his solution feels breathtakingly modern: tax inheritance and use the money to pay an old-age pension for everybody.

“In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. “

Paine is often portrayed as a proto-socialist but his arguments typically rest on principles that sit closer to modern libertarianism:

  • Private property is a good thing.
  • Capitalism (he doesn’t use the term) is a good thing.
  • Modernity (again not a term he uses) is a good thing.
  • Material/technological progress is a good thing.
  • Rule of law, good government is a good thing.
  • Individual rights are a good thing.

His thinking is still the thinking of somebody shaped by the 18th century and the Enlightenment (e.g. Rousseau-like notions of a kind of positive natural state for humanity). What makes him feel modern is his tendency to focus on practical social-policy solutions to problems of economic inequity i.e. he draws on ‘classic liberalism’ to reach conclusions that are currently seen as leftist.

Agrarian Justice essentially argued for a kind of Universal Basic Income funded by inheritance tax. The moral justification being one based on notions of property and justice.

Is this the best way to address the debts of the past? I don’t know but it certainly is a way. By providing for all it does not require to identify who lost what and when. By taking only from inheritance it addresses only that wealth that can be inherited. Everybody is paid and everybody can (in principle) pay. The inequities of old crimes are not resolved over night but the approach limits their effect on further generations. Nor does this approach prevent other more specific ways of compensating the heirs of those who were robbed of land, opportunities and rights.

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21 comments

  1. Kat Goodwin

    “Nobody stole from the ones alive today.”

    And all the Aboriginal peoples in Australia today just laughed and laughed at that. And went back to their court cases and activism against discrimination in still imperialistically white supremacist Australia. (And America, Canada, etc.)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. greghullender

    We have statues of limitations for good reasons. There comes a time when litigating the past just makes no sense. It’s also impossible to fight the argument that says “just because somebody–not me–did something really terrible to someone else–not you–does not mean that I owe you anything.” Historical reparations are one of those ideas that no politician can advocate and still get elected–with very few exceptions. It may be a fun intellectual exercise, but nothing can ever come of it.

    I favor the idea of a graduated wealth tax, say 1% above $10M, 2% above $100M, and 3% above $1B. That plus a 50% inheritance tax should be enough to make those inherited fortunes melt away over time.

    Like

    • Curtis

      I dislike the idea that 51% of the population who pay no taxes and vote can dictate things like that to the 49% that do pay taxes. I favor a 10% across the board (all must pay) tax. Let us see how the People feel about government wasting THEIR tax $ on worthless programs, public art, welfare queens, farmers paid to not farm, etc… We might see some real economies in our government spending, for once.
      You make it 50% inheritance tax and everybody will do what the Kennedy did so long ago and offshore THEIR money and lock it up in an unassailable trust. Net gain in government revenue, ZERO$.
      What was it Jefferson said? “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild, and government to gain ground.” This has turned into, A government big enough to give you whatever you want is powerful enough to take everything you have.” You want that? srsly?
      I don’t.

      Like

      • camestrosfelapton

        I don’t know of any developed country where 51% of the population pay NO taxes. I do enjoy fantasy novels and your speculative fiction premise sounds interesting. In the real world lowering taxes for the wealthy has only further entrenched inequality and led the US to increasingly becoming a nation with substandard infrastructure.

        Liked by 4 people

      • Delos

        Indeed. When you look at the tiny amount of federal taxes paid by the citizens of states that get huge amouns of federal support (shown here https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/which-states-are-givers-and-which-are-takers/361668/), it’s clear that some states are parasitical – these states like South Carolina, North Dakota, Florida, Louisiana, etc., that are so much in debt to the rest of us (let’s call them “red states”, for lack of a better term) should definitely be cut off, by the tax-paying states in the Union like New York and California (just to pick two of the most populous tax-paying states).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lurkertype

        @Delos: It’s really only fair. The majority of us are financially supporting the subsidies for a dependent minority, and yet the minority has a disproportionate amount of political power. That’s just wrong. They’re voting in what they want, not what the majority wants.

        Red states, because their budgets are full of red ink, right?

        Like

    • Curtis

      What was left unsaid was “income” taxes. Let us by all means recognize that the poorest and most ignorant pay exorbitant taxes because the vast majority of those who don’t smoke have imposed $5 to $7$ tax on each pack of 20 cigarettes sold in America. God knows what it’s up to in Canada these days. That doesn’t sound regressive to me and besides, it’s for their own good! Why don’t people let us bully them about everything we dislike about them and then hit them with ridiculous taxes or simply outright bans on things like 20 ounce sodas in NYC?

      Like

      • camestrosfelapton

        Yeah, Curtis we get that you left off “income tax” – the problem is that your point pretty much rested on some people not paying taxes in general. You are now changing the point you are trying to argue.

        It is tiresome. If you can’t commit to the points you are making then why should ANYBODY care about them?

        Liked by 1 person

      • JJ

        Well, that’s the most impressive set of strawman arguments and goalpost-moving I’ve seen since Phantom earned himself the banhammer. Where do you find these rocket scientists, Cam? 😀

        Liked by 2 people

  3. thephantom182

    This is rich, Camestros. You use my comment for a blog post, then you block my comments. Classic.

    One might almost think that questions of personal responsibility would be inconvenient for your argument.

    Like

  4. Kat Goodwin

    “There comes a time when litigating the past just makes no sense.”

    Except that it isn’t again litigating the past but instead litigating the present. Most of the discrimination and repression of Aboriginal peoples in Australia is still going on. Reparations is a way of establishing current precedent based on the evidence of that long cycle of on-going oppression. It forms the basis of the complaint of white Australians/current white Australian controlled government continuing to steal, invade, harm and discriminate against Aboriginal people. Which they are, big time. And the enormous advantage that they currently have from the past and on-going repression and harm of Aboriginals, from the land, resources, wealth and careers they’ve acquired and continue to acquire at the expense and exploitation of deliberately blocked Aboriginal peoples — that’s what is being corrected with reparations. It means you have to give up some stuff to the people you are crapping on, which has allowed you pirate style to succeed. Because some of your wealth is theirs which you forced them to give you or kept them from, and white Australians keep doing it. So reparations is giving Aboriginals their cut, which was taken/kept from them in the past and currently. It is acknowledging that this is going on, has been going on and has created a currently unjust, bigoted society and rigged economy that is making a small attempt to change that.

    People who oppose giving up some of the wealth they steal in the tradition of their ancestors, who oppose losing the advantage of power, control of government and business due to white supremacy, and who want to continue to exploit and repress Aboriginal peoples — those folks are naturally going to be very against using the word invasion to describe the history — and the culture — of Australia. Because it helps the Aboriginals make their case in court litigation, in government and law, and in the economy — in what is supposed to be a rule of law democracy. To deny the word invasion is to deny, discredit and erase the real history and the current situation of Aboriginal peoples in the country. And that’s worked for them so far. Saying that figuring out reparations to the Aboriginals for current and past injustice is too hard, etc., is just keeping the repression going and pretending that doing that to the Aboriginals wasn’t part of making current society what it is today.

    Basically, if you tax the wealthy in Australia, great, but that tax money won’t be going to the Aboriginals who are unjustly kept from the money and from being able to accrue wealth and power in the system in the same way white Australians can. It’s going to go to the white controlled Australian government who will spend it on the white Australians and helping white Australians increase their wealth — at the expense of the Aboriginals. It just continues the cycle. Reparations, on the other hand, is a specific attempt to have tax money actually go to the people who were harmed and continue to be harmed.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Delos

    @Lurkertype:

    “Red states, because their budgets are full of red ink, right?”

    Well, that and their communist orientation – draining the wealthy, productive states like New York and California to subsidize the less productive states. Remember, one of these red states is explicitly socialistic – the state taxes the job-creators heavily, so that every citizen of the state gets a minimum income (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Permanent_Fund). Fortunately, the vice-presidential candidate associated with that state was defeated by a candidate supported by the heavily taxed states.

    Like

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