As the pseudo debate about the resources rent tax continues to vomit forth, it’s striking how little we have changed even in the industrial age, and the challenges we have in protecting our philosophical gains.
When humanity began farming we entered a world in which prosperity became tied inextricably to finite land. Wealth and income would be higher or lower depending almost solely on access to that land and not any other contribution, and those that owned it would remain the most prosperous. The justifications for this became a chronicle of ugliness in human thought and society. We had appeals to and the creation of the cosmos and the divine, class, caste, race, genetics and innumerable others. All of which to support the idea that the receivers of rents have some virtue that justified their prosperity, and all of which caused inhumanity, division and bloodshed and in turn spawned counter ideologies that spawned yet more.
Whilst the rents themselves helped pay for the creation of such horrendous ideas, to a certain extent the mere fact that the rents were being received provided justification for their continuation. Having the rents gave one the status and authority for which to speak for one’s own deservedness and the perpetuation of those rents.
The industrial revolution provided new disparities in wealth. Whilst the new world was still ridden with rents, technological and institutional development meant prosperity began to return to aspects that were not land; to labour and to initiative and intelligence. These returns gave new voice to other ideas and the power of the landed began to diminish in thought and in society. Democracy became a winner as thought became less hostage to supporting unearned prosperity.
It’s quite disheartening then that even today, in an advanced economy like Australia, we haven’t moved too much from the dynamics of the past. Large rents, no matter how transparently unearned, still allow the shaping of debate in favour of continuing those rents. I can understand (whilst bemoaning) a lazy press corp that reproduces PR paid for by said rents, or a party reliant on donations from those rents. But we still have a tendency to give authority to those made wealthy by rent; to listen dutifully and respectfully as they tell us that it is for the good of all and only right that they continue to receive this wealth.
This might also be the first time since the colonial era that we have true conservatism as a major political force in parliament. Not the “conservatism” as we have come to know it, of market tendencies and “traditional values”. This is good old early industrial conservatism, dedication to the protection of vested rents and unshakable faith in the self evident cosmic rightness of them. The Bunyip Aristocracy have a major party. This isn’t helped by the fact that (astoundingly for a discipline so oft accused of being right wing) most of Australian economics seems to have joined climate science on the enemies list of the epistemically closed.
Even in the industrial age, rent is still the greatest enemy of enlightenment.