Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part 8: Intellectual Whoring for the Planter Aristocracy
As DeLong points out, Chavez's land reforms are considerably more cautious than those of, say, Arbenz in Guatemala fifty years ago. (Not that the latter were unjustified; even from an orthodox Lockean standpoint, let alone a Tuckerite or Georgist one, the claims of the great landlords there didn't bear much looking into.)
DeLong describes the general outlines of Chavez's policy:
The goals of this legislation were as follows: to set limits on the size of landholdings, tax unused property as an incentive to spur agricultural growth, redistribute unused, primarily government-owned land to peasant families and cooperatives and, lastly, expropriate uncultivated and fallow land from large, private estates for the purpose of redistribution. On the last and most controversial goal, the landowners would be compensated for their land at market value....
After a slow start, the Chavez government has redistributed about 2.2 million hectares of state owned land to more than 130,000 peasant families and cooperatives (1 hectare = 2.47 acres). So far, although not one acre of private property has been expropriated by the government, tensions are beginning to mount as Chavez extends his reform program from government-owned land to the latifundios (large, privately owned estates of more than 5,000 hectares, roughly 12,350 acres).
Naturally, all hell has broken out on the Right. A Washington Post editorial referred to Chavez as "a disciple of Castro" and warned in hysterical terms of his threat to "democracy and free enterprise" (for an idea of the kind of "democracy and free enterprise" the U.S. government and its lapdog press would like to see in place of Bolivarianism, check out this quote from the opposition leader). Carlos Ball of the CATO Institute, in a predictable vulgar libertarian exercise in mirror-imaging, characterized the land reform policy as “Chavez’s Land Grab,” and asserted that for Venezuela “Private property is history.”
Given the origins of the landed elite's holdings in state grants rather than appropriation by labor, it would be more accurate to say that legitimate private property in land will exist for the first time with the breakup of the quasi-feudal latifundia.
In Venezuela roughly 75 to 80% of the country’s private land is owned by 5% of all landowners. Regarding agricultural holdings, that figure drops to a mere 2% of the population owning 60% of the country’s farmland, much of which is fallow. Because these stark statistics do not help one understand the extraordinary levels of both rural and urban inequality in Venezuela, perhaps the following analogy will. Imagine if in this country a handful of families owned the entire state of California. There is no California Coastal Commission, no limits on the amount of land that may be purchased, no zoning laws, no government oversight of any kind, nothing of the sort. But none of this really matters to the average citizen because California, as a conglomeration of large, privately owned estates, will never be seen by most US residents (excepting itinerant laborers). In other words, try to think of one of the most beautiful state in the union as one giant gated community. Meanwhile, the country’s landed oligarchy owns the vast majority of the land, most of which lies fallow because they prefer to sit on it for the purpose of land speculation rather than use it for agricultural production. With most of its arable land unused, your country is the only net importer of food on the continent and is forced to purchase more than two-thirds of its foodstuffs abroad.
The alleged "free market" libertarians who defend such a system of land ownership are not advocates of private property--they are what Jerome Tuccille called "anarcho-land-grabbers" in a 1970 article in The Libertarian Forum:
Free market anarchists base their theories of private property rights on the homestead principle: a person has the right to a private piece of real estate provided he mixes his labor with it and alters it in some way. Anarcho-land grabbers recognize no such restrictions. Simply climb to the highest mountain peak and claim all you can see. It then becomes morally and sacredly your own and no one else can so much as step on it.
That, or something like it, is pretty much how most of those "private property" titles came into existence in the first place--if they even saw the land at all, rather than having it granted sight-unseen by a pope or king drawing a line on the map. In all such cases, the so-called "owner" is nothing but a feudal lord, who with the state's help is in a position to collect tribute from the first person to homestead it with his own labor. In other words, a tax farmer who robs the legitimate first owner.
As that old disciple of Castro, Ludwig von Mises, put it in Socialism:
Nowhere and at no time has the large-scale ownership of land come into being through the working of economic forces in the market. It is the result of military and political effort. Founded by violence, it has been upheld by violence and by that alone. As soon as the latifundia are drawn into the sphere of market transactions they begin to crumble, until at last they disappear completely. Neither at their formation or in their maintenance have economic causes operated. The great landed fortunes did not arise through the economic superiority of large-scale ownership, but by violent annexation outside the area of trade.... The non-economic origin of landed fortunes is clearly revealed by the fact that, as a rule, the expropriation by which they have been created in no way alters the manner of production. The old owner remains on the soil under a different legal title and continues to carry on production.
More recently, in The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard explained that
...THERE ARE TWO types of ethically invalid land titles: “feudalism,” in which there is continuing aggression by titleholders of land against peasants engaged in transforming the soil; and land-engrossing, where arbitrary claims to virgin land are used to keep first-transformers out of that land. We may call both of these aggressions “land monopoly”—not in the sense that some one person or group owns all the land in society, but in the sense that arbitrary privileges to land ownership are asserted in both cases, clashing with the libertarian rule of non-ownership of land except by actual transformers, their heirs, and their assigns.
Of course, as a mutualist I don't share Rothbard's Lockean views on property in land. The point, though, is that by either Lockean or mutualist standards, a great deal of existing property in land is completely illegitimate.
There is, believe it or not, a free market libertarian tradition that defends justly-acquired property, rather than reflexively identifying with the onwers of all large property holdings as "our sort." As Karl Hess put it in another Libertarian Forum article from 1970,
Because so many of its [the libertarian movement's] people... have come from the right there remains about it at least an aura or, perhaps, miasma of defensiveness, as though its interests really center in, for instance, defending private property. The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.
Much of that property is stolen. Much is of dubious title. All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system which has condoned, built on, and profited from slavery; has expanded through and exploited a brutal and aggressive imperial and colonial foreign policy, and continues to hold the people in a roughly serf-master relationship to political-economic power concentrations.
Come to think of it, Rothbard referred with approval (in a footnote to the chapter quoted above) to the proposed "privatization" of Southern plantations by giving "forty acres and a mule" to former slaves.
Unfortunately, as Joseph Stromberg points out, the school of "libertarianism" that usually wins out under state capitalism is the one whose idea of the "free market" translates into "Them pore ole plantation owners need all the help they can get":
Slavery had been abolished in Jamaica some thirty years earlier, but not everyone was happy with the resulting society. The 13,000 whites – out of a population of 440,000 – lived in constant fear of a revolt like that in Haiti (1791-1804). Many blacks, understandably tired of gang-work on plantations, even as free men receiving low wages, "squatted" on land in the hills, where they raised crops to support themselves. Rather than seeing this as a creative instance of Lockean homesteading, the British authorities lectured these would-be peasant farmers on their proper role in the market economy, which was to work for their former masters. When that didn't work, soldiers burned the squatters' villages from time to time, to encourage them to enter the real market – as defined by the authorities and the planters.
Fortunately, the authorities and planters of today have the CATO institute to put it all into scholarly language for them.
Incidentally, the right-wing furor to date has been a response entirely to Chavez's distribution of government land to peasants. Given such a strong reaction on the American Right to homesteading of government land by actual cultivators, one has to wonder how the so-called "Sagebrush Rebels" would react to the U.S. government opening up its lands to small-scale homesteading, instead of continuing to allow preferential access by mining, lumber, oil and agribusiness companies at heavily subsidized rates. A coup d'etat, perhaps? The irony is that they'd probably get Milton Friedman to advise them, and the neocon think tanks would praise them to high heaven for restoring the "rule of law." They'd certainly get the imprimatur of Carlos Ball and other vulgar libertarians, whose idea of "market liberalism" is whoring for whatever benefits the rich.