The Land Belongs to God

The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is Mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me.

--Leviticus 25:23

Libertarians believe that we own ourselves, that we are not owned by master, king, government, society, or The People. Therefore, we as individuals have a full claim on how to work, how much to work, and how to dispose of the products of our labor. Thus, income taxation to transfer wealth from one person to another is theft or slavery by government proxy.

As a Christian, I realize that the products of my work are not fully mine. The tools that I work with, my body, my mind and the natural resources I work with, were not created by me. As such it is reasonable to pay rent to the One who created them. The first tithe serves this purpose. I have no objection to this “income tax.” (And since this “tax” is purely self-assessed, there is no need for the burdensome paperwork of a government-imposed income tax.)

However, neither the government nor The People have such a claim to my income. I categorically reject the socialist notion that The People own the national income and have the right to distribute it as they see fit. To be a slave to the mob is only marginally better than being a slave to a single master, as Russian history has shown.

A radical libertarian would take this concept and say that no taxes are justified. As a realistic libertarian, I would note that preserving the natural rights of life and liberty are not free. I do not object to paying reasonable taxes for this valuable service. Given the economies of scale of police protection and national defense, paying protection money to a government is generally cheaper than hiring your own henchmen to guard your castle.

But does this principle rule out all government-induced wealth transfers? Is the only moral government that minimal one advocated by the Right?

8. And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.

9. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.

10. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

11. A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed.

12. For it is the jubile; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field.

13. In the year of this jubile ye shall return every man unto his possession.

14. And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour's hand, ye shall not oppress one another:

15. According to the number of years after the jubile thou shalt buy of thy neighbour, and according unto the number of years of the fruits he shall sell unto thee:

16. According to the multitude of years thou shalt increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of years thou shalt diminish the price of it: for according to the number of the years of the fruits doth he sell unto thee.

17. Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the Lord your God.

--Leviticus 25

Consider the biggest wealth transfer mandated in the Bible: the law of the Jubilee. Every 50 years there was massive land redistribution. And given that this was in a land-based economy, this was a major redistribution.

The legal principle was this: that the land belongs to God and that we are merely leasing it [Leviticus 25:23]. At the time of the conquest of Canaan, the land was divided roughly equally. From then on, the land was to be passed down through inheritance alone. There was no primogeniture, so all sons inherited land. Farmland could not be sold outright. Parents could not sell away their descendants birthright. Everyone had a right to some property.

At this point we are looking at an inflexible system. It would have no provision for those who want to live in the city instead of being farmers. It wouldn’t allow farmers to mortgage their farms in order to pay for capital improvements.

The Jubilee law fixed this. Farm owners were allowed to sell a leasehold on their property. Since this leasehold had value, it could be used as collateral. But there was a limit on the duration of such leaseholds. You could not disinherit subsequent generations. All leaseholds terminated at the same time – in the year of Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years (seven Sabbath year cycles plus one). Thus, a lease that started right after the Jubilee was more valuable than a lease that started late in the 50 year cycle. While having all leaseholds terminate at the same time was a bit inflexible, it greatly reduced the need for paperwork to track such things.

29. And if a man sell a dwelling house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year may he redeem it.

30. And if it be not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be established for ever to him that bought it throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubile.

31. But the houses of the villages which have no wall round about them shall be counted as the fields of the country: they may be redeemed, and they shall go out in the jubile.

—Leviticus 25

While some libertarians might object to such restrictions on what you could do with the land, it should be noted that this system prevented the feudal system of large estates and landless peasants – hardly a model of liberty. Also to be noted was the fact that land in cities could be sold outright [Leviticus 25:29-31]. In cities, most of the value was man-created, and thus allowing full ownership is in accord with libertarian principle. (Note also that the tithe quotes only refer to agricultural products; not crafts, so possibly the tithes could fall under this principle [Leviticus 27:30-33]. Then again, this could be simply a reflection of the agricultural economy of the time.)

With a 50 year cycle, most people would have a chance at some time in their life to live on their share of the family estate rent free at some point in their life. Having a lazy, stupid, or unlucky ancestor was not a sentence to wage slavery.

That’s right, I said wage slavery. While this sounds like a modern lefty term, it is worth noting that the language in the Bible partially equates being free with being your own boss.

References: Leviticus 25:1-34; 27:14-34

See also: Really Natural Rights

Modern Application:

While the old system was easy to track, it lacked flexibility. It tied people to their extended family. Perhaps this was a good thing, but it would be difficult to implement in our mobile society, especially in the U.S. which was mobile from the start.

But the underlying principle of the land belonging to God, and each person having an equal right to a share can be applied in other ways. Modern proposals go back to Thomas Paine at least. They continue through the writings of Henry George on to modern “geolibertarians.”

Modern proposals generally run as follows:

  1. We all deserve equal share of the natural world’s natural resources – things not created by Man. This includes such things as land, metals, oil, coal, broadcast spectrum, hunting rights, fishing rights, and right- of-ways.
  2. Unequal ownership of natural resources does have economic advantages. Not everyone is destined to be a small farmer. There are economies of scale, especially in mineral extraction.
  3. Therefore, unequal division of natural resource ownership should be allowed, but those who own more than the per capital value of all such resources should pay rent in the form of taxes to those who own less.

The actual implementation would be a flat rate tax on the inherent value of land and other natural resources (before human improvement), and a per person rebate of the tax on the average share. That is, those who own less than the average would get back more than they pay – a citizen’s dividend.

The rebate could be in the form of cash, government social services or something in between such as school vouchers for minors. The more libertarian form would be cash; paternalists would prefer something less flexible.

For example: suppose the total value of the land, mineral rights, broadcast rights and pollution rights of the United States were $30 trillion (a completely made up figure for illustrative purposes; the real figure is probably higher). Divide this by 300 million people and you get $100,000 of property for every citizen, roughly. Tax this at 3% and you average $3000 for every person. Give every person $3000 of dividend and/or government services and you have the owners of “excess” natural resources paying a net amount of tax while those without property effectively receive rent from the owners of natural resources.

Besides the moral arguments I have given, there are many other advantages to replacing our current maze of income taxes, labor taxes, inheritance taxes and so forth with a flat rate tax with rebate on natural resource use/ownership:

  1. Such taxes would be far easier to assess than income or sales taxes. Private property has to be registered at the county land office to even exist in the first place.
  2. There would be no need for tax prisons. The maximum penalty for not paying taxes would be loss of part of the property being taxed.
  3. Despite being “flat,” property taxes are more progressive than income taxes. Income taxes hit those getting rich. Property taxes hit those who are rich. There is no need for a progressive rate with all the bookkeeping that entails.
  4. There are fewer economic distortions. Instead of discouraging labor, sales, or thrift, such “land” taxes discourage what economists refer to as “rent-seeking” – economically unproductive activities.
  5. The citizen’s dividend would be unconditional. You would not have to prove poverty to qualify. There would be no disincentive to work, save or marry.

Many conservatives and libertarians are uncomfortable with the idea of rent on above average natural resource ownership. They feel that once paid for, such resources ought to be owned outright without further fee. This view suffers from several flaws:

  1. No land title is perfect. Go back far enough and you will find conquest. “All property is theft.”
  2. Even ignoring the problem of conquest, there is also the problem of unjust distribution of wealth at the time the land was first put up for sale. For example, African American slaves and their descendants were at an unfair disadvantage when the American frontier was put up for sale.
  3. Much of land value is unearned windfall. The farmer whose farm happens to sit on an oil field did not create the oil.
  4. Perpetual contracts suffer from the same moral problems as the “social contract” theory of government. They give people the right to sell away the natural rights of their descendants.

Points 1 and 2 bring up the whole issue of reparations for past injustices. The perpetrators are dead, but the effects of their crimes still show up as differences in inheritance. The concept of rent on excess natural resource use/ownership answers the reparations issue for all past injustices.

Further Reading

The idea of treating land ownership as different from ownership of human created wealth does have a strong following. Do a web search on "Geolibertarian" or "Henry George" and you will find a wealth of links. Here are a couple to get you started.

  • The Thomas Paine Network. Articles promoting a dialog between Georgists, geo-libertarians and others that advocate this more generalized theory of natural rights and those who advocate the classical theory of natural rights. Some good historical information on early advocates of extended natural rights, including Thomas Paine.
  • The Progress Report. An online magazine with articles from an extended natural rights perspective. Plenty of other links here to other sites of a geolibertarian nature.