The railroad and telegraph system of the country are
- Terence Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, Chapter 8, "Land, Telegraphy and Railroads," 1889
by Dan Sullivan
Chants at a transit rally
The Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network had been invited to speak at a rally to prevent severe transit cuts in Allegheny County, the county in which Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is located. PIIN is a faith-based, left-leaning, activist coalition of over 40 religious congregations and religious organizations. Leaders of their Tranist Task Force had been unable to attend, so they asked me to speak on their behalf. I had been working to help their task force prevent drastic transit cuts . My primary effort had been to provide economic analysis, but I have also been helping them organize.
Various speakers made good points, some about the hardships these transit cuts would place on the poor, and some about how devastating the cuts would be to the local economy. I briefly noted that transit increases land values by far more than the cost of the transit, and then described the important work that PIIN is doing.
The protestors broke into chants before and after each speaker's time to speak. The most frequently used chant was some variety of "Public transit is our right" followed by a verse with a few variants, each of which ended with the word, "fight." And, indeed, some of them were in a fighting mood.
It was no time for me to ask just why they thought public transit was a right. I thought calling transit a right was a losing tactic in the current political climate, and even my own first thought was, "Of course it's not a right." Still, it got me thinking a about the question from different philosophical perspectives.
A Marxist View of Rights
The rally was organized by a young, self-described Marxist, a student at the University of Pittsburgh. His friend set up a card table selling a few Marxist books and related materials. (Most of them had either "Marx" or "Marxist" in the title.)
Most opponents to Allegheny County's transit cuts are certainly not Marxist or even socialist overall, as they include such conservative, pro-business organizations as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. Indeed, PIIN itself is a coalition of religious congregations, and one cannot expect them to represent an ideology that is hostile to religion.
However, my many discussions with Marxists over the years have taught me that they at least have a theory of rights that they could apply to public transit, even if, in the United States at least, that theory is convincing mostly to fellow Marxists.
According to Marxist theory, "the people," (variously interpreted to mean the masses, the majority, or the working class) are the producers of all wealth, and have a right to whatever they can get government to take from the exploiting class for the public benefit. It is a more popular theory in continental Europe, which had made a seamless transition from degenerate feudalism to monopoly capitalism without the intervening period of relative freedom that Americans had enjoyed.
A Neolibertarian View of Rights
At the other end of the political spectrum, modern US libertarians (neolibertarians) espouse what they claim to be the classical liberal view of rights, generally the view of the country's founding fathers, and particularly the views of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, whom they regard as the icons of American classical liberalism.
According to classical liberals and to libertarians generally, all rights are individual, natural rights, deriving from the right of each person to his life and to the fruits of his labor. Moreover, libertarians say that these are "negative" rights, requiring only freedom from the violation of these rights. That is, the right to one's life does not mean that government must keep someone alive, but only that it may not take someone's life away or allow others to take it away. Similarly, government needn't guarantee the fruits of a person's labor to him, but must not take the fruits of his labor away or allow others to do so.
From that foundation, most neolibertarians would argue that there can be no such thing as a right to public transit. It certainly would not be a natural right, as there is no such thing as public transit in nature, and human beings existed without public transit for millions of years. Were rights being violated for millenia by lack of access to something that did not exist? Moreover, neolibertarians believe that the right to have transit (or health care, or almost anything else) provided to people means that others must be robbed of the fruits of their labor. That is, they believe other people's labor must be taxed in order to pay for the public transit that Marxists and some others claim as a "right."
Citing America's founders is certainly more appealing to most Americans than citing Marx is, but most neolibertarians are more anti-socialist than truly libertarian, and are as guilty of "stewing in their own juices" as Marxists are. The implicit neolibertarian conclusion, that poor people have no rights to anything but their earnings, is unsatisfactory to most people, and, in fact, an inaccurate interpretation of classical liberalism, of the founding fathers, and particularly of Jefferson and Paine. Classical liberals agreed with socialists that the poor were exploited, and only disagreed as to how they were exploited.
A Progressive View of Rights
The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism, but a socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism....
An intelligent approach to the problems of poverty and racism will cause us to see that the words of the Psalmist - "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" - are still a judgment upon our use and abuse of the wealth and resources with which we have been endowed.
- Martin Luther King
This is from one of King's last speeches, made in 1967, the year he died. It appears in his last book, Where do we go from here, Chaos or Community?, which was published posthumously by Corretta Scott King. Martin Luther King had recently been reading the works of the classical progressives, and particularly of Henry George, whom he paraphrased in several instances and cited in several others. George had become famous for driving home a key point that classical liberals had stressed and that most neolibertarians have missed: that the earth is a commons, and that those who hold title to the earth owe compensation to those who are denied access as a result.
The true classical liberal position is that a right to life implies a right to space on the earth on which to live, and that a right to the fruits of one's labor implies a right to to labor somewhere, without paying tribute to a private landlord.
The original progressive view, as well as the true classical liberal view, is that every person has an equal right to access land and natural resources. Therefore, those who hold the very best land, hold very large parcels of land, or, worst of all, hold valuable land out of use for speculative or monopolistic purposes, owe rent to the community as a way of compensating the landless, or even owe rent to the landless themselves.
The burden of paying this rent would do more than provide services to the poor and producing classes and relieve them of taxes. It would prevent land monopoly itself by making it unprofitable to hold land out of use.
According to many classical liberals, the right to government services such as transit or health care would not be fundamental rights, but compensatory rights - rights given in compensation for the denial of the fundamental right to labor the earth. Jefferson was quite explicit about this:
Another means of silently lessening the inequality of [landed] property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed.
- "Property and
Natural Right" Letter to James Madison, Sr.,
Jefferson the philospher understood that people had a fundamental right of access to the earth, but Jefferson the pragmatic politician also understood that this right would likely be denied them by powerful landed interests. The least landed interests could to is pay all the taxes and provide adequate employment for the landless.
Jefferson also feared that the growth of land monopoly would drive working people into cities, noting that, "When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe." Jefferson was exactly right, and the issue before is that, without transit, people who are crowded into poor neighborhoods in our cities are unable to get to jobs in other parts of the cities.
By curtailing public transit and preventing these "crowded" people from getting to where jobs are, we violate our obligation to "take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation." This violates their compensatory right and gives them the right to take up unoccupied land and use it.
Tom Paine was even clearer about compensatory payments from the landed to the landless:
[I]t is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.
Paine proposed that each citizen get an endowment at age 21 to start off in business, plus a payment each year beginning at age 50 as a sort of social security dividend, all from rent charged to those with land. It is similar to the dividends each Alaskan gets from royalties on Alaskan oil and minerals. Of course, this is not the exactly a right to public transit or other services, but anyone with a share of the nation's land rent would easily be able to pay for private services.
The Common-Law Right to Travel
Both classical liberals and classical progressives had profound respect for common law. Under common law, the right to travel is a fundamental right. Indeed, denying someone the the right to travel is essentially the same as declaring him to be under arrest. Once a road or even a footpath is in use, it is illegal to close it, or add tolls if it is free, or spend tolls from an existing toll road for any purpose other than paying off the expenses of the road itself. The state also has an obligation to maintain roads that are already under use.
The rationale for this is that people locate along a road with the reasonable expectation that they will continue to enjoy access to that road. They are robbed of the fruits of their labor if, for example, they can no longer get those fruits to market. Similarly, those who depend on roads or transit systems to travel to work have arranged their lives with the expectation that the road or transit system would continue to give them access to their jobs.
Under this principle, the people who have a right to transit are the ones who have enjoyed transit in the past, and whose loss of transit forces them to move their homes or their businesses. Tenants suffer a personal hardship and a financial cost for the remainder of their leases, and landholders suffer a loss of value.
In legal parlance, this is a "taking." Under common-law principles, it would be worthy of compensation. Indeed, it is more of a taking than are zoning laws that lower land values by prohibiting future uses. After all, those zoning laws only take away speculative land values, which economists describe as "unearned increments," while the loss of access through a closed road or lost transit line devalues already-constructed buildings, cost businesses their profits and cost workers their wages. The fact that our courts apply the takings principle to the taking of speculative land values and not to the loss of wages or profits of producers shows that our society, or at least our courts, respects privilege more than it respects earnings.
Everybody's Right at Some Level
It turns out, then, that our Marxist protester friends are right, that there is a right to transit, even if they blame wealth instead of privilege and capital instead of land, and even if they assume that the political power to implement something makes it a right. They none the less recognize that there is a profound injustice in a system that crowds people into colonies of poverty and denies them access, even to the menial jobs that are left to the landless.
Neolibertarians are right that there can be no such thing as a fundamental right to transit, even if anti-socialist blinders have made most of them fail to see what their forebears saw, that fundamental rights include a right of access to the earth, and that there are such things as compenstory rights when fundamental rights have been violated. They are also right that poor people would not need subsidies of any kind if their true fundamental rights had been respected, even if these neolibertarians have missed a few fundamental rights along the way. Finally, they are right that taxing other people's labor to fund transit is a denial of those other people's rights, even if most of them fail to recognize that there are taxes that can be levied against privilege without violating people's rights to the fruits of their own labor.
Classical liberals are right that there can be no such thing as a "free market" in a system riddled with privilege, and that titles to charge people for use of the earth are privileges.
But most of all, Martin Luther King was right, that the real truth lies in reconciling the truths buried within socialism and capitalism. King had rediscovered the classical progressives and classical liberals who had zeroed in on privilege, unfettered by the false struggle between monopoly capitalism and monopoly socialism.
So If Public Transit Is a Right, Why Can't We Afford It?
There are many reasons why we can't afford public transit, and none of them are just. We can't afford transit for the class that pays rent because we have spent hundreds of millions to buy stadiums for the class that collects rent. We can't tax small local businesses any harder because we have given hundreds of millions in tax breaks to entice big corporations to locate here and drive our local businesses out of business. And our elected leaders won't tax land values, even though transit increases land values by far more than the cost of the transit, and even though land value tax costs home owners less than any other broad-based local tax.
Every one of these excuses violates principles of justice, whether one views justice from the perspective of a socialist, a classical liberal, a neolibertarian, a progressive, or someone like Martin Luther King, who was always digging deeper, seeking truth wherever it may lie.
We can't afford transit because we have squandered our wealth on privilege, and those with privilege have the power to prevent proper transit funding and haven't the sense to allow it.
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