Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A sermon on poverty and hunger

At a recent church service, the sermon topic was poverty and hunger. After the obligatory weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the amount of poverty and hunger in the world, the preacher presented a comparison between Herbert Spencer and Jesus Christ. Naturally, in accordance with the Christian Party Line, the conclusion was that Jesus Christ had the True Answer. We must increase our charitable giving.

Herbert Spencer was a nineteenth-century English philosopher and political theorist who, upon reading Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, concluded that natural selection leading to the survival of the fittest applied just as well to human society. Give the poor nothing, he said. They're poor because they're less fit. Allow them to starve, and the next generation will be stronger and wealthier because the weaker members will have died without leaving descendents.

Spencer was, in principle, correct, except for one problem. The laws of his time, like the laws of our own time, grant certain people unnatural advantages because they've been born into positions of special privilege, or had the good luck to move into positions of special privilege. If fitness were the primary determining factor of wealth, Paris Hilton would probably be a homeless waif sleeping on steam grates and begging crumbs.

So I think we can safely dismiss Herbert Spencer's proposed solution. But did Jesus Christ really do any better?

We Christians love to think that Jesus was the Supreme Humanitarian. Unfortunately, there isn't much in any of the Gospels to support that view. Although he was a pretty nice guy in most of the Gospel stories, he really doesn't appear to have been particularly intelligent. He appears to have had no idea that poverty is caused primarily by legally enforced special privileges, leading to inequality of opportunity. Charitable giving was all he could think of, utterly ignoring the underlying injustice.

There is one thing that all human activities, without exception, require, and that is a location, a place to be while you are doing it. You can just about hear the real estate salesperson in the background, whispering, "Location, location, location." Food can be grown more easily on land near where strong people live to till the land, and near where hungry people live to eat the food, and people move around for various reasons and their needs and wants change with the seasons.

Our present laws treat land, that is, locations, as property. It doesn't work that way. A location is part of the world, not manufactured by any person, and its value is determined by the activities going on around it, not by anything the owner does. The law of supply and demand simply drives the price up to the point where land is difficult to buy and sell, but easy to own on a long-term basis. We can't just build another factory to make more land and ship it to anywhere we need it, the way we do with automobiles or refrigerators or whatever.

When a piece of land is very expensive to purchase initially but very cheap to hang onto once you've got it, it changes hands very slowly. However, the need for dynamic usage of land is very great. It must change hands frequently as society's needs change.

Therefore, we've got to think of some way to make land very cheap to purchase initially but very expensive to hang onto, in order to dump currently unused, underused, misused, and inappropriately used land onto the market priced for a quick sale. A variety of methods have been proposed, but the simplest approach appears to be to adjust real estate taxes to bear more heavily on the value of the location and more lightly, if at all, on the buildings. Perhaps other taxes, such as income taxes and sales taxes, can also be reduced.

But would our religious leaders ever think of anything like that? Well, it's been about two thousand years and they haven't thought of it yet.

Now, don't get me wrong. Charitable giving and welfare programs will still be needed. But the fundamental justice provided by dynamic land usage patterns is a prerequisite for any sort of charity to be effective.

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