Oz Blog News Commentary

Intergenerational Theft

March 19, 2019 - 01:16 -- Admin

Capitalism steals from the young and the
unborn. It’s time for a new system, that respects their rights

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 15th
March 2019

The young people taking to the streets are
right: their future is being stolen. The economy is an environmental pyramid
scheme, dumping its liabilities on the young and the unborn. Its current growth
depends on intergenerational theft.

At the heart of capitalism is a vast and
scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s
resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much
atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford,
regardless of who might be deprived. If you can pay for them, you can
entire mountain ranges and fertile plains.
You can burn as much fuel as you like. Every pound or dollar secures a certain
right over the world’s natural wealth. But why? What just principle equates the
numbers in your bank account with a right to own the fabric of the Earth? Most
people I ask are completely stumped by this question.

The standard justification goes back to John
Locke’s Second Treatise of Government,
published in 1689. He claimed that you acquire a right to own natural wealth by
mixing your labour with it: the fruit you pick, the minerals you dig and the
land you till become your exclusive property, because you put the work in.

This argument was developed by the jurist
William Blackstone in the 18th century, whose books were immensely
influential in England, America and elsewhere. He
that a man’s right to “sole and despotic
dominion” over land was established by the person who first occupied it, to
produce food. This right could then be exchanged for money. This is the
underlying rationale for the great pyramid scheme. And it makes no sense.

For a start, it assumes a Year Zero. At this
arbitrary point, a person could step onto a piece of land, mix their labour
with it, and claim it as theirs. Locke used America as an example of the blank
slate on which people could establish their rights. But the land (as Blackstone
admitted) became a blank slate only through the extermination
of those who lived there

Not only could the colonist erase all prior
rights, he could also erase all future rights. By mixing your labour with the
land once, you and your descendants acquire the right to it in perpetuity,
until you decide to sell it. You thereby prevent all future claimants from
gaining natural wealth by the same means.

Worse still, according to Locke, “your” labour
includes the labour of those who work for you. But why should the people who do
the work not be the ones who acquire the rights? It’s comprehensible only when
you realise that by “man”, Locke means not all humankind, but European men of
property. Those who worked for them had no such rights. What this meant, in the
late 17th century, was that large-scale landrights could be
justified, under his system, only by the ownership of slaves. Inadvertently
perhaps, Locke produced a charter for the human rights of slave holders.

Even if these objections could somehow be
dismissed, what is it about labour that magically turns anything it touches
into private property? Why not establish your right to natural wealth by peeing
on it? The arguments defending our economic system are flimsy and preposterous.
Peel them away, and you see that the whole structure is founded on looting:
looting from other people, looting from other nations, looting from other
species and looting from the future.

Yet, on the grounds of these absurdities, the
rich arrogate to themselves the right to buy the natural wealth on which others
depend. Locke cautioned that his justification works only if “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others”.
Today, whether you are talking about land, the atmosphere, living systems, rich
mineral lodes or most other forms of natural wealth, it is clear that there is
not “enough, and as good” left in common. Everything we take for ourselves we
take from someone else.

You can tweak this system. You can seek to
modify it. But you cannot make it just.

So what should take its place? It seems to me
that the founding principle of any just system is that those who are not yet
alive will, when they are born, have the same rights as those who are alive
today. At first sight, this doesn’t seem to change anything: the first article
of the
Universal Declaration
states that “all human beings are born
free and equal in dignity and rights”. But this statement is almost
meaningless, because there is nothing in the declaration insisting that one
generation cannot steal from the next. The missing article might look like
this: “Every generation shall have an equal right
to the enjoyment of natural wealth.”

This principle is hard to dispute, but it
seems to change everything. Immediately, it tells us that no renewable resource
should be used beyond its rate of replenishment. No non-renewable resource
should be used that cannot be fully recycled and reused. This leads inexorably
to towards two major shifts: a circular economy from which materials are never
lost, and the end of fossil fuel combustion.

But what of the Earth itself? In this densely-populated
world, all land ownership necessarily precludes ownership by others. Article 17
of the Universal Declaration is self-contradictory. It says “Everyone
has the right to own property”. But because it places no limit on the amount
one person can possess, it ensures that everyone does not have this right. I
would change it to this: “Everyone has the right to use property without
infringing the rights of others to use property”. The implication is that
everyone born today would acquire an equal right of use, or would need to be
compensated for their exclusion. One way of implementing this is through major
land taxes, paid into a sovereign wealth fund. It would alter and restrict the
concept of ownership, and ensure that economies tended towards distribution,
rather than concentration.

These simple suggestions raise a thousand questions. I don’t have all the answers. But such issues should be the subject of lively conversations everywhere. Preventing environmental breakdown and systemic collapse means challenging our deepest and least-examined beliefs.