Authority Again: Responding to Aretae

Aretae responded to my last post here. Aretae primarily object to my claim that finite resources plus continued population growth ensures that virtually all resources in the world will be used.

Aretae writes: “*Population Growth is negative in all rich countries, I believe. This is at very best not-obviously true.*”

Population growth has only gone negative in countries in which almost all economically useful land is being used, like Japan, England Italy (with a possible exception of Russia – I don’t know enough about Russian land use). It’s possible that population growth will continue to decline and perhaps someday land will not be as scarce anymore. It’s also possible that population growth will reverse as ultra-religious subgroups start making up a larger portion of the population.

Aretae also adds in his reply: “Obligatory Julian Simon reference. Which makes this doubly nuts.”

I didn’t remember who Julian Simon was. So I checked this wiki page, and found he won a bet about falling resources prices. Yet on that page is this graph. Looks like Julian was pretty darn lucky with his end points of the bet. On the whole our most important resource has significantly risen in price in the last 40 years.

Are continues “I agree with Rand that the normal state of affairs is NOT that person A must lose if person B wins, as per the case where all land is owned. We are so far from that point now that we might as well be talking Danegeld.”

In my last post, I wrote, “Right now, virtually all the natural resources of the United States are occupied or being used (or else being set aside as preserves for future people).” To which Aretae replied: “This is an absurd (false) claim as stated. Could every adult in the US get 40 acres of fertile land from government holdings? I’m not sure, but it’s close.”

What?? The federal government owns 650 million acres. That’s 3 acres per working age adult, a far cry from 40. And of course, much of that is not fertile/arable. A very large portion comprises the tundra of Alaska, the deserts of Nevada and New Mexico, and the Rocky mountains. Millions of acres are used for logging, which is needed to build homes and maintain homes for 300 million Americans. Could this land be used more efficiently? Yeah, probably some it could. I’m sure there is some decent farmland that’s unfairly restricted. But I doubt there’s a huge amount of land that would be profitable.

Even in the breadbasket states, 40 acres of land will apparently yield about $10k in revenues. You’d be better off working at McDonald’s than homesteading a 40 acre farm.

My original point is not that there is zero surplus land in the United States that could conceivably yield some amount of food. In fact, in no situation will this ever be completely true. In the most extreme case, land that produces less calories than the amount of labor energy burned to harvest crops will always lie fallow.

My point is that there is very little surplus land that could yield more than American median wages to a person working on it. But thankfully, the existing land of the U.S. is fantastically productive, the harvesting technology is very scalable, and the market competition between producers is quite strong. The net result is that as wealth trickles down (and is redistributed) from the owners of property to the typical worker, the working wage actually ends up being very comfortable.

Aretae’s original point was that property rights depended on their being surplus land. How is he defining surplus land? Is surplus land land that could produce income that was at least the median wage? Half the median wage? Or land that is fertile enough to keep a person from starvation? By the first two definitions, the U.S. has little surplus fertile land. That’s the definition I was going by. By the last definition, the U.S. has considerable surplus land. But it would remain surplus, even if the government allowed it to be homesteaded.

When I stated the scenario in my previous point that the world was owned by 500,000 independent lords, and all viable land was being owned and used, I meant that all economically productive land was being used. We can imagine that some marginal land might be open for use by squatters or homesteaders for bare sustenance, but the land is so marginal that the working class population would rather work for wages, and so the land lays unused.

I originally asked Aretae, “Is it morally odious if a Lord Finbarr requires church attendance to everyone who moves into his land? Is it odious if he bans shopkeepers from selling heroin?”

Aretae responded that yes, both restrictions were odious.

I’ve clarified the scenario a little bit. The typical person who is seeking residence and labor in Lord Finbarr’s estate has thousands, or tens of thousands, or other fiefdoms where he could choose to move to instead, and earn a very comfortable, middle class wage. This isn’t really a lifeboat situation. Yes, almost all economically productive land is owned. But the 500,000 lords are competing for labor, and the overall land is pretty rich, so even the typical wage laborer can earn good money. The laborer may have plenty of other fiefdoms where he can earn a good wage, and not be required to go to church.

So Aretae, does this change your answers? Is it still morally odious for Lord Finbarr to require church attendance from residents? Is it morally odious to ban the sale of heroin?

If you’re answer to the above questions is no, it’s not morally odious, then would it be morally odious to ban heroin sales if all 499,999 other lords also banned the sale of heroin (thus meaning there was not actually any option or freedom for a resident to live in a city where heroin was legal)?

Aretae then asks me a couple questions:

Let me turn the question about to address standard moral intuitions. If there is one piece of productive land on an island…and Robinson Crusoe lands there and begins collecting food from the tropical orchard…and declares it his. The Swiss Family Robinson arrives the next week…and will starve unless they get some food.

1) How much must SFR suffer from RC before violating his property “right”? Sell their daughter (UPDATE: OOPS, no SFR daughter. Wife/Mom instead?) into sexual bondage? Their son? Just work 14 hour days (all of them) doing stuff for RC, so he’ll share a little fruit? Are you kidding?
2) How long must RC have sat on the unimproved land before the situation changes, and SFR has an obligation?
3) How much improvement must RC put into the orchard, before the situation changes, and there is some obligation on the part of SFR to respect his “rights”?
4) Does the situation change at all if there’s a 2nd Orchard next door that is unoccupied?
5) What if RC claims that Orchard 2 is “his” too, but he’s never been there?

To answer these questions, I’ll first have to very briefly explain my own moral framework. These principles are in order of precedence.

a) There is no moral obligation to sacrifice your life or martyr yourself. If it’s some sort of jungle law scenario where there is only enough water/food for one person live, it’s not immoral to fight for your own survival (nor is it moral, it’s just amoral).

b) Any moral principle or maxim which is not an Evolutionary Stable Strategy, is useless.

c) Each person has an obligation not to trespass against others – ie, not to kill, steal, cheat, etc.

d) Promises should be kept.

e) People have an obligation of charity with the means they have available. The obligation is strongest to children, then to parents, then to relatives, then to friends, then to neighbhors, then to community members, then to countrymen, then to fellow humans, then to primates, etc. People do not have a moral obligation to be so excessively charitable to another person that that person becomes more reproductively prolific than you because of your sacrifice. That would violate principle a).

f) Make the most of your life. Appeciate your blessings, overcome your challenges, don’t be miserable, find something useful and meaningful todo, etc.

The key moral issue we’re dealing with is property rights. My belief is that property rights in land and natural resources are justified by prescription – long standing use, general acceptance by the population, laches, etc. Rights via prescription is something that occurs within a society of some sort. The reason I support and advocate strong respect for property rights, is that well defined property rights is a good schelling point for a society to agree upon in order minimize violence and conflict, and to maximize investment and long term care of property.

But RC and SFR are not part of the same society. SFR has never made any promises to RC. This is a total jungle law situation.

Here are my answers:

1) RC just arrived a week ago. There is no tradition of long standing use, RC and SFR do not belong to a common society/tradition. RC does not have a property right that SFR are morally obligated to respect. If the land is fertile enough for the two, they should share. If not, it’s going to be a fight to the death.

2) RC has established long term use. But SFR and RC are not part of the same society, and SFR is not morally obligated to sacrifice their own family’s reproductive fitness. So if RC tries and claim the whole orchid, SFR is not morally obligated to respect this claim and starve.

3) Similar to 2), except that if SFR takes advantage of his labor, they should pay him back in labor.

4) This is identical to 2) except that RC is voluntarily ceding his rights, which is good. SFR should not take RC’s land, unless it’s not enough to support all five members of the family.

5) Same as situation 2.