A small farm future – the case for death taxes

With Russia invading Ukraine and the IPCC bringing out its direst warning yet about the existential threat of climate change, the past week has showcased what’s always struck me as the two most likely ways for the complacent ease of life in the wealthy west to end – geopolitical and strategic conflict, or climate catastrophe. Meanwhile, here at Small Farm Future HQ we’ve been worrying about … taxation.

You might think this is something of a first world problem in the present situation. But that, as I hope to show, is precisely the point – how can the disastrous consequences of orthodox economic growth and its associated inequalities and power politics be overturned in a world predicated on that very orthodoxy?

My aim here is to focus on one small policy redress to that bigger question, briefly explaining the case for death or inheritance taxes that I raised in my previous post, since it prompted a few requests for further explanation. I’ve long argued that if the world survives great power warmongering and eco-apocalypse then the future it faces is most likely a small farm future. Heavy death taxes would be one way to expedite that future, especially if they were accompanied by a suite of fossil energy taxes, finance taxes, gift taxes and capital controls.

I’ll try to explain the logic, but let me preface these remarks by saying that I’m not an economist or a policy wonk. Here at SFF HQ we’re visionaries, ideas people and gardeners, and we prefer to keep our politics at a level of airy generality appropriate to the uncertainty of the present world historical moment. What we’re certainly not is tax experts. Unfortunately, the income earned from our visioning and gardening doesn’t stretch to paying a professional economist, so I offer these remarks in the spirit of the amateur dilettante. Every concrete policy has its pros, its cons and its unforeseen consequences, so I’m open to counterarguments.

Recall that my death tax suggestion arose in the context of arguments about rural gentrification, and the tendency of richer incomers to help fuel price inflation that excludes locals from property. Gentrification is a particular case of what we might more broadly term ‘enclosure’. Actually, enclosure is a term I dislike, precisely because it’s a bit too broad a concept, with a bit too narrow an etymology. But all I’m referring to is situations where the ordinary majority is excluded from a resource by the social power of a minority. The only enduring way to avoid enclosure is to disperse social power (or, as I put it in a recent post about Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk – to distribute the means to violence widely).

I got the sense from some of the anti-gentrification and anti-‘globalist’ folk who’ve pushed back against my arguments that they’re quite happy with the basic machinery of capitalist society and its vaunting of individual property rights. It’s just that they don’t want rich folks muscling in on their hometowns. I’m afraid that’s not how it works. Capitalist societies accumulate and concentrate immense amounts of money, which in this accumulated and concentrated state is a form of social power and latent violence. And it’s in the nature of social power to go where it wants to go, geographically and in every other sense. Capitalism and enclosure, capitalism and gentrification, go hand in hand.

The essence of the death tax I propose is that when somebody dies, their realizable assets – the money and financial instruments they own, and the land and property they own, can’t be automatically passed on to their offspring or other designated heirs. Instead, it becomes the property of the wider community. The effect of this would be (or at least could be) to prevent monopoly rent, extractive landlordism and, in a nutshell, enclosure. It would prevent the inevitable tendency for some people and some families to accumulate vast fortunes over generations that give them an enormous social power disproportionate to other people and to the ability of the biosphere to furnish their demands, and the consequent tendency for others to get pushed into indigence or destitution. Imagine your life as just one or two circuits of the Monopoly board, before everyone starts afresh again at ‘Go’. How would you play it then? The incentive is to put capital to work to generate personal and community wellbeing, not to generate more capital.

I’ll now try to answer briefly some of the questions that were posed to me about this tax, firstly what becomes of the taxed bounty. The answer is that it would (1) be transferred from the dead to the living via a process of political decision-making controlled by the community of the living rather than in accordance with the individual wishes of the dead, and (2) be used to support whatever services and goods the community of the living decides to prioritize. Critical among these is access to farm and forestry land and its products. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

Next question: ‘How long will such taxes exist (once generational wealth is destroyed, what then)? Ideally, the tax would be levied indefinitely down the generations. It’s not a matter of destroying generational wealth, but of handing it on from the dead to the living and distributing it among the living.

Question No.3: ‘Will migration occur towards tax havens?’ Undoubtedly some people will try to evade or game the system. The questions are how many, and can it be prevented? Capital controls could prevent it. In the present world, there are few barriers to the flow of money but many barriers to the flow of people, despite much de facto human movement and many myths about the extent and ease of migration. In the kind of world I’m describing, there would be strong barriers to the flow of money, and this would disincentivize the flow of people – probably without the need for such draconian policies about the actual flow of people as we have today.

The kind of world I’m describing. So now we need to go a little deeper into what kind of world, or at least what kind of society, might opt for heavy death taxes. Thinking first of all specifically about farm succession, suppose you’ve homesteaded an acre or two and raised your kids on your holding. When you die, your holding returns to the patrimony of the wider community. But if one or more of your children and their partners want to keep homesteading it, maybe they get first refusal on the property (I believe Malcolm Ramsay, who used to comment on this site, laid out this idea here a couple of years back. Marty Strange’s writings on family farming in the USA develop similar themes). But your children will need to pay an entry fee or take out a mortgage on the property. Likewise, if someone wants to take on a larger farm to produce for the market. The mortgage would obviously have to be one they could realistically pay off in a homesteading or farming career, meaning that land and housing prices would have to be lower and food prices higher than at present. Generally, this would be no bad thing.

If your children don’t want to take on your homestead, then fine. Somebody else will, and your children can opt for another career. They won’t be stepping into the workplace with a wad of inherited cash, but neither will they face a mountain of student debt and a lifetime of cash transfer to extractive landlords. My guess is that many of the present generation of young adults might prefer the former option. The larger point is that surplus capital pools in rising land values and monopoly property ownership. Small farm societies need to find ways to stop that happening if they’re going to stay small farm societies.

Which brings us indirectly to the final question posed to me about death taxes: who administers the tax and decides how it’s allocated? The easy answer is same as any other tax – the government. Which probably rules it out as a realistic policy proposal any time soon, certainly in Anglophone countries like the UK and the USA. Would you willingly sign away your accumulated assets to Joe Biden or Donald Trump, to Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson? I wouldn’t.

But consider the oligarchic nature of the status quo. You can imagine the op-eds in the papers if a strong death tax were mooted – “the government is trying to steal your kids’ future!” Whereas for most ordinary people the truth is that the government is already stealing their kids’ future, and a well administered death tax would help make that future brighter. Instead, the government offers weak and increasingly unrealizable promises of economic growth in the vain hope of generating more jobs and higher salaries. It offers new forms of technology and entertainment to dazzles us. It offers bread and circuses. Meanwhile the big money accumulates elsewhere, in increasingly few hands.

So for a heavy death tax regimen to work, people would have to have a high level of trust in the government of a kind that’s signally lacking in our present world. For such trust to exist, government would probably have to be relatively small-scale and localized, and to be manifestly a government ruling for and through the consent of the governed, without falling prey excessively to the special or hidden interests of powerful people or schismatic interests. This would probably involve a citizenship-based, democratic republican political and banking/financial system. In such a scenario, not much money would bleed out to tax havens, mostly because not many people would want to engage in such low behaviour and compromise the polity. And people would trust the wider citizenry to look after their children and their descendants, rather than assuming it was their job alone.

Most countries today are a long way from any such scenario and the levels of trust they demand. There’s a kind of Catch 22 situation where it seems necessary to implement heavy death taxes and associated measures to develop strong and sustainable small farm republics, yet these measures are politically unlikely with the absence of precisely such republics. Probably the most likely way small farm republics will emerge in the future is in the same way civic republican government emerged in the past, through the chaotic fracturing of a larger political field.

If that happens, the case for death taxes may lose its force because there may not be much wealth available for accumulation. The situation then could be more akin to communities of ‘subsistence’ cultivators who organize local land access along kinship/clanship lines with no need for the clunky quantifications of money and taxes. But there are latent possibilities for developing landed social control in all human societies, so even in this situation people may see a case for de facto death taxes of some kind. All the more so if people are self-consciously constructing new agrarian republics out of the literal or figurative ashes of the contemporary capitalist world system, carrying with them a sense of political identity forged within that system, but also a knowledge of how the system ultimately failed.

No doubt there are many possible counter-arguments to the kind of death tax I’ve outlined above, and an awful lot of finer-grained questions of detail that I’ll be able to answer just as soon as I have an economist working for me. To close, I’ll just briefly pre-empt two potential objections that some may wish to make. The first is that my death tax proposals are a form of socialism – to which the answer is, no they’re not. The second is that they’re vulnerable to failures of politics – to which the answer is yes they are, just like every other tax and every other concrete policy suggestion.

51 thoughts on “A small farm future – the case for death taxes

  1. Hello Chris,
    Taxation can be a peaceful way of redistributing wealth and reducing concentrations. (Instead of revolutions with the typical slogan: “kill aristocracy, cancel the debts, redistribute the land”)

    Land does not have to be a “sellable property”. Throughout history, there have not always been “land markets”. In our current legal/political thinking, we can buy and sell land, but there are many other ways of distributing land to whomever needs/uses it. Throughout history there have been other mechanisms, like family holdings, clan lands, monastery grounds, feudal systems etc. etc.
    Again, I reference the most excellent book “The Invisible Hand?” about market economies by prof. Bas van Bavel.

    Where I come from, Sweden, in the 1700s land was kept in the family and the responsibility of the use was often shifted from generation to generation ahead of death. When the old generation “retired”, they stayed at the farm and someone in the next generation took over running the enterprise.

    I think that for most people in the modern world, transfer of wealth from one generation to the next is done too late. The older generation holds on to property out of fear of losing “safety”, which is a passive stance. IMHO, much wealth could be put to more productive use if transferred around the time of retirement instead of time of death.

    In twenty years from now, I will be at retirement age myself, and I am already starting to think about how I can transfer as much wealth as possible to the next generation when they need it the most. I wish to own nothing when I die.
    Let’s see how that goes.

    Peace,
    Goran

  2. Inheritance taxes are easy to get around. The soon-to-be-dead just give away their assets prior to death so that when they die they have nothing.

    I think what you are really seeking is a progressive wealth tax, where the richer you are, the more taxes you pay. This redistributes wealth and prevents accumulation at extremely concentrated levels.

    Aside from the issue of preventing wealth concentration, taxes are generally structured to modify behavior (as well as simply raising money for common expenditures). We like to tax things that are bad (alcohol, tobacco, for example) and spend the money on things that are good (e.g., educating children).

    So, imagining a tax system that does what we want it to is pretty easy. For example, just about everyone has thought that carbon taxes are a good solution to preventing climate change from carbon emissions. But like all taxes, they can be taken advantage of by free-riders. Countries that don’t tax carbon get cheaper energy and cheaper manufacturing than countries that do. Countries that don’t tax wealth get rich people flocking to their shores.

    Land can’t move, so land taxes don’t have a large free-rider problem. Hence also the attraction of Georgism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgism
    If we want a small farm future, just limit land taxes to parcels above a certain size so the small farm doesn’t have to generate income to pay taxes.

    I think progressive land taxes with rates at the top end sufficient to prevent large landholdings are the way to go. They will never be enacted, however. Our entire agricultural system, including timber lands, is geared to large acreages for advantages of scale and mechanization. And some large parcels will never generate enough income to pay the taxes except very infrequently (after timber harvest for example).

    The constant need to use machinery to move huge amounts of land products to cities means that modern cities and a small farm future are totally incompatible. We have to wait until cities are mostly gone before we can prevent large landholdings through taxation.

  3. I’m thinking about how this scheme could work with corporate ownership, to account for corporations owning property, as well as accounting for individuals owning shares of corporations. If stocks/shares of corporations revert to “the wider community” upon the death of the shareholder, then the wider community could eventually become the owner of all corporations (within 50-100 years or so).

    I’m also thinking about how the feasibility may depend on there being LOCAL control of the collection and re-distribution of the death taxes. Thus, all of the property in a locality could eventually have local ownership that stays local.

    Leasing might make more sense than taking out a mortgage on a property. With a mortgage, it seems the incentive would be to extend the term and repay as little as possible each month (perhaps paying interest only, as done in some countries), since completely paying off the mortgage may have no financial advantages (with potential heirs out of the picture).

  4. The first is that my death tax proposals are a form of socialism – to which the answer is, no they’re not.

    I’ll need a bit of help with this one. Perhaps my impression of socialism is to blame.

    But to a different dimension – I think Joe is right that wealth will find ways to avoid the taxes… it already does, and it has a monstrous motivation to continue to do so. Like an arms race (or evolution for that matter) – strike one move to impose change in a competitive landscape and new pathways will emerge to either totally circumvent or at least ameliorate the new difficulty.

    The Red Queen hypothesis for human beings.

    This is not to suggest there is no way forward, that all is hopeless. There is a tension between small and large… and I imagine there always will be.

    Joe said (and I agree):
    I think what you are really seeking is a progressive wealth tax, where the richer you are, the more taxes you pay. This redistributes wealth and prevents accumulation at extremely concentrated levels.

    This approach gets tarred with the label socialism… and for now at least I expect that I’d be among those who would be sympathetic to that description. Have we abandoned hope that *socialism* as a word can be employed in polite society?

    This still makes land a category like other asset classes, something Andrew spoke against (it was Andrew wasn’t it??). I’m still not persuaded that land should not be capital… but I’ll continue to chew on the notion. In the mean time, if there is less extreme concentration of any form of wealth then many of the ills we’re aiming at may shrink in significance.

  5. If we focus on land and farms, there is also the alternative that it is owned by the local community and can’t be traded at all, but with strong non-inheritable tenure. The beauty of that proposal is that it doesn’t need a strong central government. I tend to agree with others that there are numerous ways to trick the system – if you maintain a capitalist system. I do believe, however, that capital accumulation in private hands should be restricted by a whole set of policies.

  6. Is it OK if I collect this year’s harvest from you Chris (the bit we collectively decide you don’t need)?

    • No, because I’m not dead yet.

      Regimes of various kinds have decided – ‘collectively’ or otherwise – to expropriate the surplus from small farmers very frequently throughout history. Often this doesn’t go well for the small farmers, while sometimes it doesn’t go well for the regime. The aim of the proposals above is to limit such harms and uncertainties.

  7. Thanks for the comments. Discussing the rights & wrongs of concrete policies like this is hard because so much depends on the assumptions we make about wider politics & economics which aren’t explicitly included in the proposal.

    For example, my death tax proposals apply largely to situations where it’s easy to amass large amounts of capital that are convertible to money, and where this is seen as problematic. If that isn’t the case, then the proposals don’t make much sense.

    To some of Joe and Clem’s points – well yes, people can always find ways to evade taxes, and taxing authorities can find ways to try to prevent them (eg. levying gift taxes as well as death taxes). Ultimately taxation systems will succeed or fail largely in accordance with the popular legitimacy they command, which was something I discussed above.

    I agree with Joe that it’s easy to devise ideal tax systems and the real problem is the politics – which is why I tend to focus on wider politics and not specific policies here. It’s true of course that some taxation is geared to shifting money from bad to good ends (the merit good argument), but not always. In this case, dying isn’t a bad thing (at least from a collective perspective) and nor is wanting to provide for one’s family, but when the latter is entirely a private matter it can have bad collective consequences long-term, hence the proposals here.

    IMO there’s a significant distinction between a death tax and a wealth tax inasmuch as the former doesn’t tax personal wealth as such, it taxes the generational transfer of wealth. This has a bearing on the discussion about socialism.

    My issue with land value tax, even one with a lower size threshold, is that it’s intrinsically monetizing and commodifying, and requires fine political judgments about use categories which inevitably lack refinement and can probably be gamed. Taxes with a de-monetizing impetus seem preferable to me.

    But there are some things to be said for money. As various people above point out, land can be allocated and re-allocated locally through entirely non-monetary processes. That prompts questions about the processes and who controls them. Andro Linklater, no fan of private property, argues in his book ‘Owning The Earth’ that citizenship equality for people previously denied full civic rights in Europe and its (post)colonial extensions – eg. women, Jews and other religious/ethnic minorities – often followed on from property rights expressible in money. The abstraction of money dissolves the concreteness of ‘community’ boundaries. I think this is a difficult tension to balance.

    I’m happy with leasing rather than private ownership, provided the lease can be lifelong and come with a minimum of onerous conditions. Compare a homestead with an arable field or pasture let on a short-term agricultural tenancy.

    Steve’s points about corporations are interesting. I’d like to ponder them more. Certainly the idea of controlling capital and putting it to work locally is important – corporations as guilds? I’m broadly supportive of that, although it does raise other problems.

    • I’m sure some of my ancestors sold their land or houses to their offspring “for a dollar” — making it not a taxable gift, but the sale also not worth taxing. Getting into evaluating each such transaction to ensure they are representative of the nominal value of the land seems fraught.

      I’m not sure generational wealth is a complete disaster in a context where it doesn’t involve exploitation and poverty for people who don’t have such wealth. If I have two coats and someone else has none and needs one, I don’t know that I actually have a right to keep both coats, whether I got them by my own hard graft or by the randomness of inheritance. (I am not great at living by this but I do make some effort.)

      How does that apply to land? I’m not sure: but I know that if someone is hungry and I am growing enough food to meet my own needs, I have an obligation to help feed them. If I can, I’m going to get them involved in the work of growing the food, because chances are that many hands will in fact make light work (which is not how farming works now because of fossil fuels). And if we are all meeting our obligations to care for our neighbour then maybe it doesn’t matter, so much, who “owns” the land — as long as they continue to make use of their entitlements to also meet their care obligations.

      I suppose one question is are we more likely to face a shortage of land — in which case we run up hard against Malthus sooner or later no matter how convoluted the ownership pattern — or a shortage of labour? Have we used fossil fuels to manufacture a temporary apparent surplus of labour? And what does land ownership or land inheritance look like in the context of a labour shortage?

      And is there some balance where enough people take non-agricultural work (doctors, teachers, musicians, whatever) that land inheritance is a stable way to keep land use sensible and productive?

      Tangential, I know; but I took on an additional half plot at the allotment this winter partly because the chap who used to rent it is getting too doddery and unwell to work a full plot, and partly because I always want to grow more than I have space for. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eye on the other half, too, though this will depend on how well my neighbour recovers after an operation. Meanwhile the plot itself requires considerable inputs of both labour and material to be brought back to a state of productivity; it feels more like terraforming than horticulture at the moment, and I think this will be quite enough to be getting on with for the next year or two.

  8. ‘…so much depends on the assumptions we make about wider politics & economics which aren’t explicitly included in the proposal.’

    Indeed, we’ve been here before. Given that I agree with you more often than not Chris, I think it’s this reticence to include wider politics in your proposals that I tend to run up against the most. In this case, rather than worry too much about the specific mechanisms (like taxation) that might get us there, I’d rather focus on the end result. Setting aside other forms of wealth for now, let’s focus on land. Land:

    ‘would (1) be transferred from the dead to the living via a process of political decision-making controlled by the community of the living rather than in accordance with the individual wishes of the dead, and (2) be used to support whatever services and goods the community of the living decides to prioritize.’

    I think this is a great idea, and as Clem knows, I think that this describes a situation in which land is not treated like a capital asset at all. I’m not entirely sure what ‘ownership’ would mean in this context, and in any case we’ve been over this ground recently, but what this basically looks like is community ‘property’ placed in the hands of ‘tenants’ with very secure habitation rights (or as Gunnar says above, land ‘is owned by the local community and can’t be traded at all, but with strong non-inheritable tenure’).

    So in my mind the notion of tax here is misplaced, because it implies individual ownership where none, de facto, exits. Whether or not this is socialism depends on your definition, and I suggest we avoid that argument as the term seems sufficiently broad these days to encompass many different approaches. I would happily claim the term in polite society, but as the beginning of a conversation, not the end.

    Instead I think that discussion does need to grapple explicitly with the political and economic superstructure. I don’t really understand the point of the mortgage that farmers would have to take out in your proposal – what’s the point of putting them in debt? Secure tenure could be entirely secure – no strings attached.

    What’s needed, I think, is some notion of the local community as the corporate steward of its own landscape and farmers as community ‘servants’, in the sense that they seek to provide for themselves and others within a set of broad socio-ecological guidelines developed at community level. Every member of a community should have a notional share in its land – both as enfranchised member of the civic body with a right to contribute broadly towards decision-making, and as receiver of some kind of subsistence ‘dividend’. Perhaps the latter, a kind of debt owed by the community to its members, could be monetised, and set at a level tacked to the price-setting decisions of the community’s
    farmers, themselves formed into a kind of guild.

    Whatever the specific contours of the localised political structures that we might try to implement, it seems to me that core tenets always include dispersed decision-making on the one hand (so resistance to top-down management, secure habitation and husbandry rights, etc) balanced with responsibility/accountability to the community on the other (rights to basic sustenance for all, democratic decision-making where decisions affect everyone, and the impossibility of private acquisition/accumulation of land-based wealth).

    How we try to implement such plans is of course the crucial question. Uncomfortably for us in the global core it will certainly involve talking to each other about local issues a lot more and cultivating a willingness to commit to new forms of ‘ownership’ and democratic practice at that level. Building our local republics may certainly take a while.

    • Thanks for that Andrew – interesting points. I’ll try to reply as soon as I can but – talking of accountability to the community – I have a court appearance coming up imminently so I need to focus on that for the time being. If you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know it went badly 🙂

      Regarding the wider politics, I’ll try to provide a sketchmap in later posts, but I’m wary of over-specified futurology. I’m kind of with the Spartans in their reply to King Philip…

      One thing I’d say in defence of my existing futurology is that while I failed to predict the war in Ukraine, I did predict that current global over-reliance on breadbasket regions and point sources of fossil fuels is not a good idea. Not too hard a prediction, perhaps, though it seems quite beyond the capacity of most present governments. But whether it will lead to moneyless rural utopias, nuclear annihilation, or various points in between is both harder to say and necessary to determine in order to draw a picture of future societies. So it’s tricky…

      • Though it should go without saying, Chris, I was just thinking of commending you for your prescience – never more apparent than currently, when much of mainstream media, on radio or in print, seems like a spin-off of SFF themes, often a poor relation at that. So well done, and good luck in the dock. Sock it to ’em, Sensei

  9. Chris,

    Good luck with the court case.

    Looking at Death Taxes, the obvious point I might make is that Land and Property prices have increased massively in real terms. When I bought my first house back in 1986 – I was 23 then! (OK, a month before my 24th Birthday) average UK House prices were about 3x average earnings now they are nearer 10.

    What that means of course is that given that what most people inherit is a share in a house in real terms the value of inheritance has increased significantly at the same time as the difficulty of getting in the property ladder and all that means.

    Clearly if housing costs in the Peasants Republic of Wessex were linked to rebuilding costs and land values to what you could earn from it then I suggest that inheritance would be less of an issue.

    However what about looking at The Australian approach and tax the beneficiaries rather than the estate? I can think of a number of people who as a result if being the only child/children in their generation are set to inherit several houses worth of money compared with others who might only inherit a third or fourth share of a more modest home.

    My other suggestion might be to have some sort of share of collectively owned capital paid out to an individual at some stage in their life – for example a lump sum with the state pension.

    Finally I suppose in his blog, Tax Research, https://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/
    Richard Murphy has pointed out that building up large volumes of ‘savings’ isnt particularly rational from a wider perspective so perhaps we need an economy that provides for its citizens without needing excessive savings or borrowings, and hence build up of capital.

    My final suggestion however might be that our future small farmers might look to downsizing in later life so the sale of their farm provides for their retirement thus meaning that you dont have a large estate on death.

    • I think that in Section II, Mr Lazzo leaves out that taxes pay for the infrastructure that we all use. The township does a miserable job of grading the road (nobody ever mentioned crowning the road up to the grader driver ? ) bu there is a road there. Same with lots of other things.

      In Section V he leaves out the idea that there is no point in having too much wealth. Let’s say that you were scraping by on $100,000 per week (or even $10,000), how much of that is simply spent on vanity, conspicuous consumption and signalling status ? Not to mention that concentrating so much wealth in so few hands sucks it out of the rest of the society / economy.

  10. You note at the end that (full) death taxes are not socialism, but I actually think they are. If the government lays a total claim to private property which supersedes that of the family (which as a generational entity, has just as much a right and duty to pass down property between generations as a government does between transitions in its rulers), then it is a socialist property arrangement. Now, I think the government can certainly place death taxes on certain large estates (with a stated threshold) or types of assets, but it can only do this with appeal to its regulation of property for the sake of the common good, not as a universal claim on property. I also entirely agree that methods of regular generational redistribution are necessary, but I don’t think this is a wise one.

  11. I’m still not convinced that impoverishing entire families every third generation is a good idea. There has to be more to it than throwing grandma, the kids and the grandkids into the street when the farmer dies. And it is …. ?

    Hopefully all the charges are dismissed and they pat you on the back for realizing that business as usual is killing us.

  12. Thanks for another great set of comments. I’ll try to defend or further articulate my proposals in relation to various of the points raised, hopefully in a spirit of constructive refinement.

    First, while I’d make a case for inheritance taxes in contemporary societies as they currently are, I’m going to focus on the situation of a small farm future as outlined in my previous writings, where I propose cultivable land will be scarce, human labour (or the need for jobs) will be abundant, and money or liquid capital (along with easy energy) will be scarce. Land, labour, money – we’re talking about what Karl Polanyi called the three ‘fictitious commodities’, so the discussion will inevitably be tricksy.

    Nobody in this debate seems to be a full-on libertarian individualist of the ‘tax is theft’ variety, which is good. So some of our differences rest on rather fine distinctions which I don’t think need divide us too much, but I’ll try to elucidate some of them.

    Regarding my throwaway ‘socialism’ remark, like some others here I don’t see socialism as a dirty word and I can happily sign up to certain versions of it (other versions, not so much). Karl Marx’s communist slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is at least minimally recognized even by highly neoliberal governments inasmuch as they levy progressive taxes, but I’d argue that my death tax proposal isn’t socialist in the sense that it gives people substantial rights over the assets they generate through their own work over their lifetime. So it’s more “to each according to their work”.

    Yet right-wing encomiums to personal riches resulting from ‘hard work’ typically forget that the wealthy usually start from a position of inherited advantage, and that a lot of poor people work just as hard as the rich and end up with nothing. I think this is an oversight of the piece linked by Clem where Lazzo claims that inheritance tax is a “double tax on earned wealth” since much wealth is inherited rather than ‘earned’ – especially with a generous definition of inheritance encompassing a country’s historical capital, the riches it may have acquired through its conquests and colonialisms, the rule of law it’s created and so on. So while I’m quite relaxed about people keeping most of the assets they’ve genuinely accumulated through their actual work if they want to, when they die it’s a different story. If people’s assets are taxed away at death, it makes it easier for everybody to genuinely succeed from the fruits of their labour.

    On this point, I differ from Sean in that while I agree that families can be enduring and relatively autonomous entities, I don’t agree that intergenerational property transfer must be intrinsic to them (even though historically it usually has been). On this point, death taxes are surely double-edged. For every child who can say ‘why should the government take from me the wealth my parents accrued?’ there’s surely another (or more than one) who can say ‘why should that person start in life with the assets bequeathed by their parents while I, through no fault of my own, get nothing from mine?’ Families have a lot of other things they can pass on, and it might be a good idea to keep wealth out of it. I’m not necessarily opposed to thresholds and cutoff points, but these need to be set pretty low if we’re to avoid the problems death taxes aim to circumvent.

    Now to Andrew’s comments. I don’t have much of a quarrel with them, but perhaps we have some differences of emphasis or conceptualization. I don’t really mind if I as a small farmer am described as a landowner or a tenant provided I have a personal, lifelong right to generate a livelihood from my land as I see fit which is not subject to arbitrary variation of rent or conditions from my landlord/community, save intervention against severe forms of abuse or degradation of the land.

    But remember that in the future I’m imagining, land and money are scarce, while labour is abundant. As I see it, many – perhaps most – people will have at least some hand in farming and will need access to a (small) parcel of land. There will be a heavy onus on farming it well to provide a livelihood, and the outlook in the event of failure may not be great. Three things follow from that. First, there’s a serious generational responsibility in taking on a landholding – so a mortgage or an entry fine of some sort paid to the community might be appropriate. The point isn’t to saddle young people with unpayable debt, but to make them the conduit of collective community self-reliance. Likewise in terms of Lazzo’s points about inheriting a small business. The child of a blacksmith will have several human capital advantages if they want to take on the business – if they want the working capital stewarded by their parent as well, then they’ll need to pay the wider community for it.

    This might all sound rather mean and penny pinching – but the reality as I see it is that it’s expressive of care, neighbourliness and mutual aid in a community, yet in a way that attends to some of the tricky details of human interaction rather than a vague appeal to human comradeship of the kind that has so often come to grief in certain forms of socialism.

    Second point, while I can go along with Andrew’s idea of a subsistence dividend that the community owes to its members, in view of the way that economic power so easily extracts, exploits and abstracts, I’d prefer to say that the subsistence dividend that the community owes to its members must come largely in the form of access to land by which those members can provide their own subsistence. So rather than farmers owing subsistence to non-farming people, rather it’s a case of non-farming people who are doing other useful things owing service to farmers in return for getting fed and clothed. For this to work, access to land must be relatively easy and widespread, if a serious undertaking. Hence death taxes and mortgages.

    Third point, some farmers will inevitably fall on harder times than others due to bad health, bad luck or bad choices, even if the latter are made in good faith. I’d hope that the wider community would create collective welfare institutions to respond to this as generously as possible within its limited means, but it’s likely that its response would be shaped by a narrative around notions of the deserving/undeserving poor and free riders. I’ll try to come back to this in a future post.

    Moving on, I agree with John’s points – inheritance in a well-managed small farm society could be somewhat less weighty financially than it’s become, say, in contemporary Britain though possibly more weighty in terms of its community commitments. Which hopefully helps answer Greg’s point. This isn’t about throwing people out onto the street, but has the very opposite intention – though I accept you’d have to get the fine details right at the point of death and transfer to avoid some potential stresses. Hence the idea of a mortgage, though no doubt that brings its own problems.

    Greg’s point about the futility of accumulating a lot of wealth is also highly relevant. In the world I’m describing, and with these kinds of tax policies, the impetus to endless wealth accumulation would be missing. Which I think would be a blessing in numerous ways. And while some people would no doubt try to game it, this blessedness could be one reason why the policy would work and most people would go along with it. Hence, it would be easy for people to follow the kinds of social obligations Kathryn mentions. Plus land being much more visible and immoveable than money, it would be easy to stop obvious scams like selling it to your kids for $1.

    A major difficulty with all this is, as I mentioned above, that it suffers from a kind of ‘tragedy of the private’. With wide collective buy-in and trust in local collective political institutions I think these proposals could be implemented to the benefit of most people. But in the absence of that people fall back on family inheritance and financial accumulation, which probably will only benefit a minority.

    • I think we have a similar goal here: maintaining the security of private property in land, but preventing generational enclosure and landlordism from disrupting a Distributist society. I think our key disagreement is that I see something more essentially important about “the family” as an (nested) “society” which has an ontological distinction from the state. And as the family itself generates children (and the parents will always have a particular affection, duty, and right to care for their children and descendants), inheritance is natural.

      I think a much better method of redistribution can be drawn from the Jubilee of the Old Testament, in which every 50 years property in land was reshuffled to establish an original distributism (the text elsewhere states that the land was allotted according to the size/needs of each “clan”). A government which has a customary time-frame to reassess and grant land to the disenfranchised from the surplus of the wealthy is a kind of redistribution which doesn’t deny the natural familial desire to pass on an inheritance. (There are other helpful models of such customary redistributions, of course, this is just one example.)

    • The earned vs. unearned distinction is important. Unearned wealth can easily escape taxation (in the US, at least), a consideration which was not mentioned in the Lazzo article.

      Large amounts of unearned wealth are accumulated and transferred at death without any taxation. Capital gains (which are unearned) result when property (stocks, real estate, etc.) increases in value before being sold. There’s an easy way to avoid taxes on capital gains in the US: “The stepped-up cost basis means that it is relatively rare for heirs to pay significant taxes on any amount of inheritance.”

      “Consider the scenario that your grandparents bought their house years ago for $100,000. Today it has increased in value and is worth $500,000. If they were to sell the house, they would pay capital gains taxes on $400,000:
      Sale price ($500,000) – Original cost basis ($100,000) = $400,000

      “Instead, however, they die and pass the house down to you. At the moment you inherit, the IRS will consider the house’s original cost basis stepped up to current market value. This means that if you sell it immediately, you will pay no capital gains taxes:
      Sale price ($500,000) – Stepped-up original cost basis ($500,000) = $0.00 taxable capital gains

      “On the other hand say that you hold the house for a year, during which time the price of this house goes up by $100,000. If you sell it, you would owe capital gains taxes only on $100,000:
      Sale price ($600,000) – Stepped-up original cost basis ($500,000) = $100,000 taxable capital gains

      “The stepped-up cost basis means that it is relatively rare for heirs to pay significant taxes on any amount of inheritance.”

      https://smartasset.com/taxes/capital-gains-on-inherited-property

      • There certainly is a difference in how income is accounted for and taxed depending upon whether it is earned or unearned. But capital gain is not so simple as suggested here. An item can increase in value for many reasons, with inflation being one.

        The example Steve L quotes: “Consider the scenario that your grandparents bought their house years ago for $100,000. Today it has increased in value and is worth $500,000. If they were to sell the house, they would pay capital gains taxes on $400,000

        If the time from $100K to $500K is 60 years, there is a great deal of the $400K increase due to inflation alone. The house has a utility (likely a reduced utility if little were done to maintain the home) today on par with what it had at $100K – it can house a family. Does it make sense to tax the increase due to inflation? It is unearned, but there is no increase in utility.

        And not for nothing – any significant improvements to the home are added to the basis (not routine maintenance) and are not then subject to capital gains taxes.

        Stepped up basis does benefit heirs, but it isn’t so onerous as the example makes it sound when inflation is considered.

      • More relevant to this blog, let’s look at cropland, specifically how the value of cropland has increased since 1997 in the US. (The USDA “Quick Stats” didn’t go further back in time.) We will account for inflation, too.

        These are the per-acre values of cropland that’s kept as cropland (without considering any increases in potential value if the land is sold to developers.) The value of farmhouses, barns, and other buildings are not included here.

        First, here’s how the USDA is defining cropland value:
        “Cropland value: The value of land used to grow field crops, vegetables, or land harvested for hay. Land that switches back and forth between cropland and pasture should be valued as cropland. Hay land, idle cropland, and cropland enrolled in government conservation programs should be valued as cropland.”

        Year…$/acre (cropland value, US national average)
        2021  4,420
        2020  4,100
        2019  4,100
        2018  4,050
        2017  4,030
        2016  4,040
        2015  4,100
        2014  4,090
        2013  3,810
        2012  3,350
        2011  2,980
        2010  2,700
        2009  2,640
        2008  2,760
        2007  2,530
        2006  2,300
        2005  2,060
        2004  1,750
        2003  1,660
        2002  1,590
        2001  1,510
        2000  1,460
        1999  1,400
        1998  1,340
        1997  1,270

        https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/data/printable/D9990DD3-7211-3DB5-AB50-9F2DA2058902

        The value of cropland has more than tripled (3.48 multiplier) in only 24 years!

        If someone bought 1,000 acres of average cropland in 1997 (let’s assume the new owner leases the land to farmers as an annual source of *unearned* income), then 24 years later the land purchased for $1.27 million would be worth $4.42 million if it stays as undeveloped cropland, and the owner’s *unearned* wealth would have increased by $3.15 million because of this land value increase alone. This increase in wealth can be passed along to heirs tax-free, due to the stepped-up cost basis.

        Repeating a quote from the article linked above, “The stepped-up cost basis means that it is relatively rare for heirs to pay significant taxes on any amount of inheritance.”

        Of course, inflation can take a bite out of wealth, no matter how the wealth is held, whether it’s real estate or money under the mattress.

        The online inflation calculator (usinflationcalculator.com) says:
        “If in 1997, I purchased an item for $1,270 then in 2021 that same item would cost: $2,144
        (Cumulative rate of inflation:  68.8%)”

        Thus, the $1,270 per acre in 1997 would have increased to $2,144 per acre in 2021 due to the overall rate of inflation, which is only an $874 increase per acre, compared to the actual value increasing $3,150 per acre (resulting in $4,420 per acre in 2021).

        [A different discussion could consider the windfalls that farmland owners can reap by selling their land to developers, instead of keeping it in farming as I’ve assumed above. An AP article from 2019 says “selling the land is sometimes a no-brainer for farmers who can sell land for $60,000-$80,000 per acre because of the high demand for new housing.”]
        [cachevalleydaily.com/news/archive/2019/06/22/utah-farmers-agonize-about-selling-land-to-developers/]

        • Interesting analysis. Similar story of way-above-inflation farmland price rises here in the UK, though prices per acre are much higher.

          Land prices don’t work in the same way as the prices for most other commodities, tending to appreciate rather than depreciate – a point I discuss briefly in Chapter 13 of my book. I found a book by Josh Ryan-Collins et al ‘Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing’ pretty informative in terms of the issues underlying this.

        • The way-above-inflation increases in value also apply to other wealth-building investments that can similarly be transferred to heirs tax-free.

          In the previous example, if instead of purchasing 1,000 acres of cropland in 1997, the investor put the money into the stock market (S&P 500), by 2021 the value of the holdings would have similarly increased by a factor greater than 3. This is in addition to the resulting *unearned* income from dividends issued each year (analogous to the annual unearned income from leasing out the farmland in the previous example).

          What all these examples have in common is that, unlike *earned* income, large amounts of *unearned* increases in wealth can accumulate and be passed on to heirs without being taxed.

    • You write:

      “Plus land being much more visible and immoveable than money, it would be easy to stop obvious scams like selling it to your kids for $1.”

      How easy is this, actually, in a supersedure state? I suppose it depends on what level of community enforces the rules. Perhaps this is another argument for subsidiarity, in that I can certainly see how, say, the allotment society would take steps to prevent me having someone else working my plot for me, but I can’t really imagine Westminster getting involved with things on that scale. (It’s even harder, for me, to imagine how this works without a formal hierarchy, except that of course invisible hierarchies are almost always worse.) This is part of why the Church was so involved in government functions for so long here — they had people who were literate and competent administrators, they had a clear, mostly-functional hierarchy, they had a presence in many communities.

      I probably need to re-read the relevant section of your book to think some more about a labour surplus. I’m not sure that’s where we’re headed, at least in terms of the amount of work people are capable of, between pestilence, disability, war, and continuing increases in the price of fossil fuels. In particular, transitioning to a small farm livelihood has a certain start-up cost in labour: preparing land (that perhaps was mismanaged previously), learning to use and care for hand tools, learning which crops do well in your context and trying to figure out why and extrapolate from that to branch out into greater diversity… I know I don’t need to convince you that it can be a lot of work, and I know the work itself is very worthwhile, but I think people in the West really do underestimate how much easier everything is with fossil fuels. We get woodchips delivered to the allotment site, keeping woodchip paths would be much harder if we had to go and find the branches and chop them up ourselves (spoiler: I would probably not have woodchip paths in that instance; though eventually I do want to convert them to grass/clover paths, I’m currently still at a point of trying to compensate for decades of people removing more matter than the put into the soil). My coffee grounds delivering neighbour had access to a rental van the other weekend and moved not only several sacks of coffee, but nine pallets, assorted cardboard, three discarded doors with tempered glass windows, and various other bits and pieces. Now, I can move pallets on the bicycle using the trailer if I’m clever with the bungee cords, but… only one at a time, and it’s hard going (and foolhardy if it’s windy out), and so far I’ve never managed to convince myself to make the journey (when pallet-laden) more than once in a day. And of course the coffee grounds, the pallets, the cardboard, etc only get to London with fossil fuels in the first place, these are not exactly local resource flows that I’m tapping into. (The leaves are much better in that respect, but I still let the council bag them up and then I go nick the bags. I’m pleased that they seem to use a rake rather than a leafblower, at least.) I know who I would ask if I needed a particular tool made (local bike frame builders work with steel and could probably manage something), but most of my tools actually come from far away too.

      I guess if we have a serious shortage of labour then we have a famine problem almost immediately, so perhaps it’s self-regulating in that respect; and if people from worse-affected areas migrate to less-affected areas then I can envision there being a local surplus of labour. And there are certainly many people among those refugees who have already been doing the small farm subsistence thing and wouldn’t have the same start-up learning curve as I have. But even as I remain enthusiastic about the potential labour-saving of bicycle-powered threshing wheels or artisanal electronics made from scrap, I’m not sure that kind of population surplus actually translates to a labour surplus big enough to offset the loss of fossil fuels. (And if it does, you soon get the “migrants taking all our jobs” dogwhistle. Sigh.)

      The other thing I think about death taxes is that small farm labour is seldom done by only one generation; if my father owned a farm that I grew up on and I inherited the land at the age of 35 or 40 or even older, I would expect to have already spent a significant portion of my life labouring on and stewarding that land. Being forced to leave my home, whether because of some bureaucratic process that doesn’t acknowledge that work, or because of a more local community issue where I might be a scapegoat for one reason or another, wouldn’t be pleasant at all.

      • Regarding labour surplus, what I meant is that there will be a lot of human labour relative to the availability of land, and a lot of human labour relative to the availability of non-agrarian jobs – and this will have a big impact on the politics of land transfer. I didn’t mean that there would be a lot of labour to go round to do all the jobs that ideally we might like to get done. So I agree with you on the points you make in that respect.

        Relatedly, concerning the visibility of land transactions, I guess I’d say that if they’re no longer visible to a bureaucratic centralized state then they’ll be visible locally to people with an interest in access to land – which, as per my preceding paragraph, is likely to be most people. I can’t really see a future circumstance in which people could sneakily hand on land to a successor without it being easily noticed – except maybe in situations where land and not labour is surplus,

  13. In other news, Greg’s kind hopes have sadly gone unrealized and I’ve been committed for trial in May. Which sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is – I hope!

    Maybe I’ll write something here about these events after it’s all done and dusted, if anyone’s interested? I think it does raise a few wider issues relevant to the general themes of this blog…

  14. Thanks for the reply Chris, and best wishes for your day in court.

    I think this is a useful statement that sums up a lot: ‘I don’t really mind if I as a small farmer am described as a landowner or a tenant provided I have a personal, lifelong right to generate a livelihood from my land as I see fit which is not subject to arbitrary variation of rent or conditions from my landlord/community, save intervention against severe forms of abuse or degradation of the land.’

    But I’m still struggling with the mortgage. If it serves as an acknowledgment ‘paid to the community’ of the ‘serious generational responsibility in taking on a landholding’, then it’s essentially acknowledging that the community has an interest in the good management of the land that the farmer has a duty to observe. In which case, why confine the use of that payment, once received, to the board of a bank rather than to a board of trustees representative of the community? Moreover, in a world of limited capital, such a bank is likely to spend much of its investment making loans for mortgages on farmland, and so again it is the board of the bank who will decide the suitability of those to be offered the opportunity to farm, rather than a more representative body of locals who know their own landscape and what it takes to farm it.

    To indulge in a little more world-building, if the farmer’s acknowledgment of responsibility was monetised not as a mortgage payment to a bank but as a rent to a community fund, it could be used to offset the subsistence dividend paid out of the same fund by pegging both to the price of staple foods. Essentially the dividend owed to the farmer as a member of the community would be cancelled out by the rent owed by the farmer as custodian of the community’s land, assuming the farmer was essentially self-sufficient. In reality no farmer would be entirely self-sufficient in all subsistence needs and so the dividend would be a little higher than the rent. Moreover, non-farmers would use their dividend to buy food from farmers, enabling the latter to buy other useful services from the former.

    The advantage of this situation, it seems to me, is that it cuts out the bank, which represents an independent actor not necessarily committed solely to the prosperity of the community, and it doesn’t saddle farmers with mortgages. It may be a big responsibility to take on a farm, but surely if a farmer decides they want to give up that responsibility, it’s better to give them an easy way out (give up a tenancy) rather than introduce the problems of balancing the remaining mortgage against the sale price of the land (and indeed, the fact that the land would have to be a saleable commodity in some sense).

    The key to all this is money, and what its value is made to represent. By equating it with the subsistence debt owed by a community to its members I’m giving it a very narrow remit, and it may be that what I’ve described would require a specific community currency that might coexist with other forms of money working across larger regions. The latter, though, would have no purchase on land, which would instead remain tied up in community trusts. You need therefore not worry about death taxes, and people would be free to pass on whatever they were able to, as they would not be able to bequeath land or the ability to buy it.

  15. ” Moreover, in a world of limited capital, such a bank is likely to spend much of its investment making loans for mortgages on farmland, ”
    And as such they would control the price of land it’s no good lending out limited money and at the same time asking or agreeing to a price that means it because if the quality / productivity of the land can never be paid back .

  16. My thanks to Steve, Sean & Andrew for the further comments. I’ll try to further clarify my position in respect of some of their points through a series of numbered contentions. Further thoughts welcome, of course:

    1. There are individual people, families/households and communities/polities. They are semi-autonomous but mutually implicated – you don’t really get one without the other two, or if you do it doesn’t usually last long. Operating at the level of any one of them involves potential harms which ideally require mitigation, usually at the level of one or both of the other two.

    2. Individuals and families generate goods (material or otherwise), but only by virtue of endowments from a wider community that precedes and surrounds them. They do not necessarily have an intrinsic claim to exclusive possession or inheritance of these goods over and above the community.

    3. There is, nevertheless, a good case for emphasizing family inheritance in many situations. However, I don’t think a climate/energy and land-constrained small farm future is one of those situations. Even so, I’ve made provision for some familial succession as best I can in my proposals above.

    4. An over-emphasis on familial succession leads to tensions between families and communities of the kind I discussed in my original post. It can also lead to tensions between families and individuals – so I’d argue for some mitigation there too, which my proposals also address, albeit rather drastically.

    5. I’m not convinced that periodic jubilees are the best way of mitigating family-polity tensions, at least in a relatively steady state agrarian economy. Effecting a community-wide equalization every two or more generations seems to me less just than effecting it every generation.

    6. The question of money shadows the whole discussion of goods, values, inheritance, rent, mortgages etc. but I prefer not to confront that here – I hope to do so in the future. For the time being, I suggest it’s better just to think of this discussion as one about how people relate to each other and to the material world over periods of time exceeding their own lifespan.

    7. In practice, my mortgage-based proposals for a small farm society and Andrew’s rent-based ones may function in quite similar ways. But there are some conceptual differences which to my mind are important. An aspect of mortgages that I like is that they make manifest the truth that when we produce goods we are borrowing from the past and from the future, which I think instils a better time sensibility than the eternal present of a rent.

    8. Effectively paying the full ‘rental’ value of land to the community upfront through taking out a mortgage and assuming land title has the additional advantage of giving the mortgage holder stronger autonomy from the polity, mitigating potential abuse originating in the latter. If the polity is always acting as the landlord and rights-holder in respect of land, I’m nervous about its excessive power to dominate families and individuals, especially through political factionalisms.

    9. On the farmer side of the equation, I worry that for the same reason a rental approach would struggle to inculcate a long-term approach to farming as a lifetime project. And it could penalize the polity in making it too easy for farmers to abandon their holdings, leaving the polity to pick up the pieces of landholdings littered with incomplete or badly completed projects. Arrangements around mortgage termination seem to me preferable in this respect, even if a little more complicated.

    10. I don’t imagine that the bank involved in a mortgage-based system would be like a modern commercial-capitalist bank, with autonomous freedom to invest. I imagine it as more like a community credit union. In that sense, it would indeed be answerable to the polity. But I would prefer an arms-length arrangement, with direct political interference in its operation kept to a minimum, for the same reasons I mentioned above about the overbearing polity.

    I hope to expand on some of these points in future posts.

  17. Chris, these recent thoughts are, in my mind, incredibly well worked out and reasoned. Thanks for them, all the more since you’re contemplate a trial! I’m sure I’ll learn more from the comments of others, but under the premise we all seem to be running (i.e., energy descent and climate crisis coupled with the un-sustainability of the current arrangement) your arrangement is something I can envision working.

    It’s certainly something worth trying. And leaving money until a later discussion seems wise, particularly if we imagine money serving as an instrument (i.e., not having independent worth).

    But, anticipating modifications others may suggest, I’m reminded of the notion of the need for a culture of small experiments. Whenever we can’t be sure what will work, it seems useful to conduct (many?) small experiments. It is certainly a more humble approach than normal (i.e., the “I’ve got THE only answer worth pursuing” approach) and maybe that’s why it’s rare.

    I think the small experiments notion works best if it comes after the step of envisioning (which is what I think you’ve just done for us). According to Dana Meadows, the order of events is key: envision first, then problem solve. She found academics in particular have a very hard time coming up with a shared vision; they immediately jump to problem definition/problem solution step (Meadows, 1994, “Envisioning a sustainable world”).

    The steps to conducting small experiments have been explored by Kaplan and Kaplan ( [a] Kaplan R (1996) The small experiment: achieving more with less. In: Nasar JL, Brown BB (eds) Public and private places. Environmental Design Research Association, Edmond, pp 170–174. and [b] Irvine KN, Kaplan S (2001) Coping with change: the small experiment as a strategic approach to environmental sustainability. Environ Manag 28:713–725.). But their ideas haven’t been widely shared.

    Then again, I wonder if we have the time needed for deliberate (small) experimenting followed by careful reflection? The sort of experimenting society that Donald Campbell advocated for probably worked when the society wasn’t accelerating toward biophysical limits. At the very least we’ll need to be conducting many simultaneous small experiments right soon now, and reporting about the successes and failures right quick.

    • Thanks Raymond, and Joe. Yes I agree that experimentation and fine tuning is a good thing, and I also wonder if there’s enough time for it to be done prior to piecemeal, disaster response scenarios. A further problem is that it’s in the nature of the global capitalist economy to overwhelm all resistances and alternatives to it. It would be pretty hard to run an experiment with death taxes on a subset of the population, while everyone else carried on with business as usual.

      The articles Joe linked on The Farm were interesting, although a bit tangential to the issues I’m discussing in this post, perhaps? A brief summary of a few key points from them, as I see it –

      Tried collective dwelling & polyamorous relationship structures but soon shifted to single family households and monogamy.

      Tried delinking labour from rewards to labour but soon reverted to linking them.

      Tried a fully collective mode of social life under the leadership of a charismatic guru, but soon decollectivized and demoted the guru.

      All in all, it looks to me like a pretty good advert for the tried and tested mores of traditional agrarianism, though it’s not quite as simple as that. But it seems they worked through the issues more thoughtfully and amicably than is often the case with such ventures, so fair play to them.

      One thing to add in relation to the Saturday work money issue – when people say that gaining a fair personal reward in money or whatever else for work that they’ve personally done is an example of “capitalist, free-enterprise philosophy” it makes me want to scream. There’s nothing remotely ‘capitalist’ about it. Our widespread modern failure to understand this point is one reason why we find it so hard to imagine viable alternatives to capitalism, and why alternatives to capitalism so often founder.

      • It would be pretty hard to run an experiment with death taxes on a subset of the population, while everyone else carried on with business as usual.

        As mentioned in a previous comment – the 50 US states all administer their own tax systems in this playing field. I can’t speak for the 25+ nations in the EU, but imagine they form a similar sort of economic laboratory. These two groups of semi-autonomous polities can be compared within and between. The BRICs can be assessed in a similar fashion.
        The difficulty then comes down to interpretation. What data to collect and how to evaluate them.

        Migration might be one proxy, but certainly a very messy one. Another avenue may be to assess measures such as the Human Development Index or Gini Coefficient against taxing schemes.

        There is a difference between difficult and impossible.

      • Clem, thanks for linking the various informative resources you have in relation to death & estate taxes.

        Regarding experimentation, here we get into questions about the philosophy of the social sciences that I’m reluctant to plumb too deeply. In a nutshell, I’d say that it’s rarely possible to do social science experiments in the way you can in the natural sciences, because it’s hard to set up controls and limit the factors bearing on variables of interest. Plus the objects of the experiment (people) themselves can have varying objects which compromise the possibilities for determining the experimental object.

        In the case at hand, while existing variations between US states no doubt tell us useful things, to determine whether my proposals about death taxes are sensible I think one would have to run an experiment over multiple generations with taxation levels far higher than in any existing US state and in a situation where people were struggling to make do in a land and energy challenged future – and then compare it with some other situation.

        Supposing that other situation involved a society of serfs and overlords, and a future social scientist went to evaluate the two situations. The death tax paying petty proprietors might say they loved their system because they were free, while the serfs might say they loved their situation because they received security and protection from their overlord. Maybe the social scientist would measure outcomes like life expectancy or nutritional status to determine which system ‘worked’ best. But I’m not sure there’s any definitive way to decide.

        So yes, there’s a difference between difficult and impossible. But sometimes it’s a close-run thing.

        More generally, I usually avoid making specific policy proposals because the ones I feel I’d have to advocate sound so extreme. One hundred percent death duties! A £100 per litre petrol tax! We’re so very far from where we need to be. Maybe my role is like a court jester’s, saying ridiculous things with a serious underlying intent. The difference of course is that in my case the king isn’t listening.

        Still, I appreciate both you and Andrew pushing me toward greater specificity. As I see it, the world I’m trying to conjure isn’t an idealistic fantasy but a realistic vision of the issues people will have to grapple with soon enough. I like to think it helps to address right now some of those imminent difficulties. Though of course how it will all play out is quite beyond me, or anyone.

  18. Thanks for the earlier reply Chris. I hope you don’t mind if I take up some of your points again – you must let me know when I’m starting to cling onto things like some kind of argumentative limpet and you just want to move on!

    I agree that the mortgage and rent-based systems we’ve put forward here would look quite similar at a day to day level, and it’s partly for that reason that I disagree with some of the points you make. Taking them by number…

    7. I’d want to put in a good word for the eternal present here. We’ll get to notions of freedom in a moment, but one element I find important in any political system is the ability to seek changes in the present where they appear necessary, rather than find oneself tied into institutions anchored to ideas of past or future that don’t permit such change. More specifically, I don’t think one needs to have the knowledge that ‘when we produce goods we are borrowing from the past and from the future’ instilled through the potential burden of difficulties in extracting oneself from one’s commitment to a specific piece of land.

    8 (and 10). Most mortgage holders don’t pay the value of the land up front – the bank does it for them, and they pay a monthly installment just as they would if paying rent. So the autonomy of a mortgage is an illusion – the farmer is still potentially dependent on an institution. I too am nervous about the overbearing potential of institutions. My rent-based proposal would replace the bank with a community land trust in which everyone has voting rights, but its main objective would be the safeguarding of land from any potential alienability and the organisation of a subsistence dividend – a local ‘polity’ certainly, insofar as that term encompasses much, but not one with the kind of governmental power we associate with today’s states. Of course, it’s a fiction, an idealistic ‘what if’, but perhaps no more so than your community credit union. Its advantage lies in keeping land away from the need to value it (in order to buy and sell it).

    9. I think ‘a rental approach would struggle to inculcate a long-term approach to farming as a lifetime project’ in today’s global core, due to rampant and predatory landlordism. But remember my proposal ensures very secure tenancy subject only to very general community-generated guidelines on landscape development – a kind of locally-based zoning. Perhaps more importantly though, I’m a bit worried about the idea that we sholdn’t make it ‘too easy for farmers to abandon their holdings’ for fear that we’d ‘penalize the polity’. Related to my comments on 7 above, I wouldn’t want to inculcate a sense of duty by imposing burdensome consequences on taking the ‘wrong’ path – nor would I enjoy the prospect of a farmer unhappily sticking it out because the implications of leaving were even worse. To be honest I think it a bit curious that in this case you’d prefer the strictures of what might be called an ‘overbearing’ institution to the ‘autonomy’ of a more freely managed rental agreement.

    6. I’ve saved this one till last because I think it’s perhaps the most important. If your own proposal relies on buying and selling land, albeit through a community credit union with more progressive ends than an investment bank, then I think you have to consider the monetary system alonhg with it – your policy proposal in one area will end up necessitating further proposals in the other. Unless money is to be simply a stamped commodity with its own intrinsic value (like gold or silver) then its use will require a ‘monetary sovereign’ of some kind to guarantee its liquidity, and that has the potential to be far more overbearing than the board of community land trust. My proposal is geared towards keeping land away from any kind of monetary valuation, with rents and subsistence dividends assessed according to the price of consumables in a local currency restricted solely to those roles, whetever other monetary systems acting in other roles might coexist with it. I’ve no real idea if it would work (!), but I think keeping land and subsistence away from any kind of more flexible and widespread monetary system is ultimately crucial to protecting the autonomy of its farmers and the others it supports.

    Anyway, as you can probably tell I’m thinking this through as I type it, and I’m really enjoying the way this blog opens up this kind of discussion, so thank you!

    • Andrew,
      If I may, I’d like to push back a bit against a couple points here…

      Renting farm land, at least as it typically occurs here in the States, can be fraught with problems – usually for the land itself. There are many different mechanisms through which land is actually rented, and there are better and worse outcomes associated therein. Some renters are good stewards, some not so much. The Land itself varies so much from one biome to the next, and the immediate needs of a specific community will vary from one season to the next. Long term acquaintance with a particular patch of earth is perhaps the very strongest and most ideal way to participate with our environment. Now that Chris has been on his farm for many years I expect he can corroborate this notion.

      The mortgage mechanism(s) I’m aware of here in the States seem to me less onerous than you’ve described. It is true that one essentially enters into a relationship with the mortgage holder, but there are typically ‘outs’ for a borrower – refinance with a different lender for instance – if the initial relationship starts going sideways.
      The benefit to my mind for the mortgage is that it enables entry into a market for younger and less wealthy participants while simultaneously providing some longer term security. With less wealth to hand one has less security – regardless of the direction they might choose (cobbler, smith, lumber jack, etc.). So in some respects there are startup matters for any young person wishing to support him/herself in most any walk of life. But for me, land stewardship is both business and profession. By this I mean that working the land is a labor for wages (sustenance), but it should also be an effort for a greater cause. Long term viability for the land and all creatures great and small that inhabit the immediate landscape. This latter “obligation” tends to be less significant where rent is the only financial matter on the table.

      I’m not particularly wedded to the concept that ‘mortgage good/rent bad… ‘ but until I see the longer term commitment to stewardship somehow encapsulated in how one comes to have the opportunity to work the land I’m sticking to what appears to me the better approach.

      The locally based zoning you’ve mentioned has some merit in my eyes. This could be further developed in our conversation.

    • I agree with Andrew about the advantages of community land trusts instead of individual mortgages. A community land trust “gives the community the ability to offer long term, secure, and equitable tenure to local farmers, and to require healthy farming practices” etc.

      “In the farming context, community land trusts generally work to ensure community stewardship of land by ensuring permanent access, control, affordability, and stewardship of the land for the community and future generations.”

      “Community land trusts are generally designed to ensure land is used to benefit the local community where that land is located. In the farming context, community access to farmland and forests owned by a community land trust is generally provided to farmers through a long term lease.”

      “Agricultural land held “in common” by a community land trust can provide many benefits.

      • Takes land out of the real estate market and thus limits investors’ ability to speculate in land;

      • Provides for ownership and stewardship by the local community in which the agricultural land is situated;

      • Gives the community the ability to offer long term, secure, and equitable tenure to local farmers, and to require healthy farming practices;

      • Can allow for significant interaction between the local community and local farmers in a shared space in which everyone is invested.”

      https://farmlandaccess.org/land-trusts/

    • Clem, I’m not minded to disagree with much of anything you say here. I think the difference in our perspectives is their respective goals. For better or for worse I’m indulging in speculative world building, which at worst is just bad science fiction, but at best helps envision something worth building towards and thus worth acting on in some way.

      However, in current conditions your perspective seems to me very sensible, and I’m all for the value of long-term stewardship.

      Interesting link Steve. It seems to me the big task right now is to get communities interested in this kind of thing – not an easy one I fear, but worth the attempt.

    • Andrew, I don’t mind you engaging at all – like you, I’m thinking about this as we write, and finding it very helpful, so thank you. I will need to move on to other things soon, but I want to devote more thought to this and come back to it in the future.

      In the meantime, a few off the cuff responses.

      I differ from you on how important it is to specify the monetary system here. True, to implement this as a fully worked up policy in a given real world situation you would have to do that. But at the level of generality we’re operating at here, I think money is something of a red herring. What’s more important is a more general issue: what you get from your predecessors and what you give to your successors so as to create an enduring and functional agrarian society. Money and land trusts with community voting rights are two different ways of alienating and mobilizing land socially for this purpose, with different pros and cons. The pros and cons of money in a localized, small scale agrarian future would be different from the present ones (so while I also agree with Clem and Steve’s points , just as you say I think I’m sketching a different kind of world here to the present one that they’re describing). Anyway, I’m not sure it’s illuminating to view the decisive difference between my proposals and yours as respectively a monetary/non-monetary one. More importantly, I think we may differ on how we weight tradition or longue duree time consciousness vis-à-vis immediate political imperatives. I don’t discount the latter, but possibly I accord greater weight than you to the former.

      Regarding security of tenure, agreed that ownership rights are basically a social fiction – as indeed are tenant rights and even, as I argued in a recent post, rights asserted through violent expropriation. All the same, I think different forms of tenure establish different mentalities about livelihood-making that are important. Just to gloss our different approaches briefly, I’d say the onus on livelihood-making in mine is that of the individual-in-community, while yours seems to be the (present?) community embodied in the individual.

      I agree with you that inculcating a sense of duty by imposing overly burdensome consequences on taking the wrong path would be problematic – the trick is to inculcate a sense of duty that’s just burdensome enough! Maybe I could invoke a parallel with the duties and burdens of marriage. IMO it’s not a bad idea to inculcate a duty to marriage that stops a couple from splitting after a single heated row, though also good not to overstress the duty to the extent that people spend years locked in misery. Though maybe if the inculcation of duty is done well it could minimize the incidence of enduring misery?

      But I do have a question about the easy come easy go kind of farm tenure you’re proposing. In a neo-agrarian future many or most people will have to spend a good part of their time working the land, and the options for non-agrarian work will be a lot more limited than they now are. Making it easy to quit farming is all well and good, but finding other work may not be so easy – and land will be under severe pressure and will need to be farmed well. So I think developing institutions that set up farmers not to fail or quit too easily will be important. I’m not convinced that yours will do this, nor that the community will have the spare resources to underwrite farm failure and the livelihoods of erstwhile farmers as easily as I think is implied in your approach.

      I’m currently immersed in a reading program involving Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre and others prompted by Sean Domencic. If Sean is reading this, I’d be interested in his thoughts since I can see elements of an Aristotelian view in both our positions. But maybe as a medieval historian you have your own views on this, Andrew!

  19. Thanks Chris. I’ll leave money alone for the moment – a kind of local subsistence currency is important within my proposal but I appreciate it’s not essential to the elements of your own proposal you’re discussing here.

    I like this: ‘I think we may differ on how we weight tradition or longue duree time consciousness vis-à-vis immediate political imperatives. I don’t discount the latter, but possibly I accord greater weight than you to the former.’ I’m less sure about the distinction you make between the individual-in-community and community embodied in the individual, but largely because I don’t quite grasp the meaning – I’d be interested if you wanted to expand on it.

    To answer your question, I don’t advocate an easy-come-easy-go attitude to farming, but I would insist on the possibility of easily coming and going. I’m not too fond of an externally imposed duty, but I would encourage a freely given commitment to the long-term stewardship that Clem described. Desire rather than duty. Your characterisation of the shape of employment opportunities in a new-agrarian future seems plausible to me.

    I’m sure you’re right to see the stirrings of natural law and theology behind our respective positions, as in so many ostensibly modern perspectives, and I’d be interested in Sean’s thoughts. My own approach probably owes much to roots in various Protestant inheritances, although as a medieval historian I’m certainly not going to underestimate earlier influences!

    I’m not a fan of the teleologically-derived communitarian duties of natural law, but I appreciate the discourse of natural rights, or perhaps natural liberties, that emerged from it. The kind of democratic politics that attracts me may have indirect roots in the kind of ecclesiastical conciliarism that emphasised limits to the power to govern. But I wouldn’t insist on any of this as a justification of my own perspective, even if it has proved influential in some form on the way I think, because as you rightly say, I’m pretty dismissive of the authority of tradition. I’m more interested in a politics that emphasises an updated take on seventeenth-century ‘liberty of conscience’. A Leveller at heart!

    • Thanks Andrew. I think I’m going to leave it here for the time being, but I hope to come back to some of the important questions you’ve raised in due course, so hopefully we can revisit some of these themes.

      One thing I will just note – where I wrote ‘tradition’ you rendered ‘the authority of tradition’, and I agree with your scepticism concerning the latter. But I’d argue that nowadays we too easily reduce the concept of tradition to a kind of conservative Burkean deadweight dragging joylessly on the living. Alasdair MaIntyre writes “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed, when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead …. A living tradition … is a historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods that constitute that tradition”.

      I’m wondering if you find anything of value in MacIntyre’s definition? The local political community that you conceive, striving hard to prevent the alienation of its land, doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to me outwith some such notion of tradition…

      …which is where I’m fearful of its constitution as a democratic land trust. As an example, the enclosure of open field systems in England is invariably rendered outside specialist historical writing as a top-down action of grasping landlords, but was sometimes a collective choice of the open field farmers themselves – perhaps with unforeseen longer term consequences that they might have regretted. This touches on one part of the answer I hope to make to you about the difference between an individual in community and a community embodied in an individual. So against your proper suspicion of the authority of tradition, I’d counterpose my own suspicion of basing political decision-making around revealed preference, plebiscites and such like.

      • Tradition and plebiscites don’t have to be as mutually exclusive or antagonistic as they seem to be portrayed here.

        Based on my experience with intentional communities, I’d say that a small-scale “local political community” (such as a “democratic land trust”) could base its decisions on “plebiscites” while maintaining the benefits of “a living tradition”. The key would be to make decisions based on consensus instead of the “tyranny of the majority”.

        At the time of such an organization’s creation, new traditions could be conceived, and some older traditions could be rehabilitated, informed by (and hopefully improving upon) the existing traditions of the larger culture.

        The organization’s early consensus decisions, including the founding purposes and all subsequent agreements, become part of this local community’s living tradition. Changes to this tradition would require consensus, not just a majority. The decision process could include some type of near-consensus provision as a last resort to avoid “tyranny of the *minority*” situations.

        With full disclosure of past decisions, newcomers who weren’t part of the earlier decision-making can be considered to have consented to the existing decisions (traditions) when they freely joined the organization. New members could be required to agree to abide by the existing decisions as a condition for membership.

        Changes to the status quo can still happen, just at a pace that doesn’t end up stepping on too many toes.

      • Thanks Chris. Is the MacIntyre quote from ‘Soil and Soul’? I read it many years ago and remember being quite taken by it, but I’d have to re-read to properly engage – something I’ll gladly do if you’re going further down this route.

        In answer to your question, I’m pretty sure I’d find his definition valuable, but it’s almost certainly not what I had in mind when writing above (the Burkean definition may well be more appropriate). MacIntyre’s definition may encompass much though. If tradition embodies an argument, then presumably the community’s activities are to some extent about resolving that argument, and if so, they will want to develop (a tradition of?) techniques of resolution that everyone can be feel happy with – so local direct democracy can be ‘traditional’ too, no? Steve’s notion of consensus is interesting, although I worry about the extent to which the pressure to find consensus can sometimes impose on the dissent of a minority. Still, I appreciate the need to watch out for a tyrannical majority.

        More broadly, I’m not sure I see any value in ‘political decision-making’ that isn’t based in some way on ‘revealed preference’ – what else could it be based on other than some form of dead hand? I would also argue that even plebiscites have their place, although as a tool to be used carefully.

        I take your point about the history of enclosure and its misrepresentation. But those farmers who agreed to enclose common fields and pastures by consent empowered themselves to end common right in a way that I don’t think should be possible in a community land trust – the trustees’ authority derives solely from their management of the trust confided in them, they would not have the authority to dissolve the basis of their own authority. I think here I’m emphasising the distinction between unconstrained collective agreement (enclosure by consent) and collective agreement within the bounds of a constitution (the land trust). I don’t deny the possibilities for foul play here, but that’s where democratic oversight of the trustees comes into play. Ultimately, I suppose, I believe that the political decisions of one particular moment can only be made by those present in that moment, informed by their (momentary) understanding of past, present and future.

        Anyway, I’ve really appreciated this one – look forward to picking some of this up again in future discussions.

        • Argh – just realised I’ve confused a MacIntyre with a McIntosh – how very English of me! Anyway, would still appreciate the MacIntyre reference – After Virtue?

    • Indeed, Alasdair MacIntyre ‘After Virtue’ p.222. I hope to say more about his book in due course.

      With ‘revealed preference’ I’m invoking a kind of Hayekian radical utilitarianism of the ‘everyone is buying Coca-Cola so that’s what dictates our politics and any higher political good is bunk’ kind of approach. It’s not entirely clear to me what ground the position you’re staking out has to mitigate against that. For sure, at a more granular level we need to consider direct democracy, voting systems etc. and the kind of procedures you and Steve have been talking about are to the point. But if a land trust has a constitution that its members are not authorized to revoke, wherein lies the authority of the constitution? Are you not implicitly relying on some notion of tradition or the potentially dead hand of a higher authority?

      Anyway, likewise I appreciate you probing at these points, and I hope to come back to them.

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