24: Ryan and His Domestication of Natural Law *

By Andelson, Robert V. | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, April 2004 | Go to article overview

24: Ryan and His Domestication of Natural Law *


Andelson, Robert V., The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945), whom James Hastings Nichols speaks of as the chief theorist of social Catholicism in America, (1) devoted the bulk of three chapters in his great work, Distributive Justice, to a critique of Henry George's so-called single-tax doctrine. (2) Although Ryan, as a young man growing up amid agrarian ferment in rural Minnesota, was, if we are to give credence to Eric Goldman, (3) "electrified" by George's masterpiece, Progress and Poverty, his mature evaluation of George reveals no trace of this early enthusiasm.

George's system falls within the natural law tradition, and rests upon the Lockean premise that private property is ultimately justified by the right of the individual to his own person and to his labor as an extension thereof. Since land is not created by human effort but represents a fund of opportunity intended by God for the use of all, this argument for private ownership cannot apply to it. No one may justly arrogate to himself the goods of nature without fully indemnifying those who are thereby deprived of an equal chance to use them. Economic rent constitutes an exact measure of the disadvantage sustained by those who are denied the opportunity to use a given site because of its preemption by the titleholder; therefore, it should be appropriated by the community as an indemnity to it, and applied to public services that would otherwise have to be paid for largely by a levy on the income from its labor.

George characterized this as "the taking by the community for the use of the community of that value which is the creation of the community," (4) for he contended that rent is essentially a social product--the result of the presence of population, public demand, government services, and the aggregate activity of all the individuals in a given area, not of anything the owner, as such, may do to a particular site. He advocated that a tax (or more precisely, a public fee) approaching 100 percent of the annual unimproved value of land be collected by the government, and that all other taxes be abolished. (5)

First Occupancy as a Basis for Land Rights

Ryan begins his analysis by addressing himself to George's attack upon the idea that first occupancy establishes a valid original title to landownership.

   Priority of occupation [says George] gives exclusive and perpetual
   title to the surface of a globe in which, in the order of nature,
   countless generations succeed each other! ... Has the first comer
   at a banquet the right to turn back all the chairs, and claim that
   none of the other guests shall partake of the food provided, except
   as they make terms with him? Does the first man who presents a
   ticket at the door of a theater, and passes in, acquire by his
   priority the right to shut the doors and have the performance go
   on for him alone? ... And to this manifest absurdity does the
   recognition of the individual right to land come when carried to
   its ultimate that any human being, could he concentrate in himself
   the individual rights to the land of any country, could expel
   therefrom all the rest of the inhabitants; and could he thus
   concentrate the individual rights to the whole surface of the globe,
   he alone of all the teeming population of the earth would have the
   right to live. (6)

Ryan seeks to destroy this argument by saying that George attributes to the title created by first occupancy qualities that it does not possess and consequences for which it is not responsible. He claims that the correct interpretation of this title does not attribute to it, as George imagined, an unlimited right of ownership either extensively or intensively.

   There seems to be no good reason to think that the first occupant
   is justified in claiming as his own more land than he can cultivate
   by his own labor, or with the assistance of those who prefer to be
   his employees or his tenants rather than independent proprietors. … 

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