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Book Review: Kevin Vallier’s Trust in a Polarized Age

Professor of political philosophy – and prolific libertarian-leaning author of books on the subject – Kevin Vallier’s biography page on starts with him acknowledging the Georgist roots of his birthplace of Fairhope, Alabama, a town founded as a demonstration of Georgist ideals. He notes that it is only fitting that someone coming from a town steeped in such a history of political-economic history should become a political philosopher. 

Vallier’s recent book Trust in a Polarized Age is a timely contribution to the analysis of American politics, and worth analyzing from a Georgist perspective.  Vallier’s conclusions about the sources and solutions to distrust and polarization differ from George’s to varying degrees, but the analytical frameworks he uses to evaluate primary rights are very helpful for explicating the way Georgists view property.

The last 12 months have demonstrated more clearly than ever the need for trust and unity of purpose in a society. The slow motion disaster of COVID fed on public distrust of health experts, which made public health orders impossible to enforce. What should have been a common societal challenge became a political question, as parties attempted to blame one another for the disease and control the narrative of whose mistakes were more severe rather than working together for a common cause. While blame tends to be focused at the top, , in reality there is only so much even an ideal government response can do when large swathes of the population don’t even believe there is a problem.

What is less clear is the fundamental cause of this distrust and the best steps that can be taken to alleviate it, and these are the questions Kevin Vallier attempts to answer in his book.The book attempts to explain why trust has eroded in the last several decades and how that erosion is related to political polarization, and to refute those who claim extraordinary changes are needed the basic liberal Democratic order to restore a trusting society. The definition Vallier uses of trust (and by extension of mistrust) is strikingly similar to George’s own description of a society in decline. For Vallier, political trust means the general confidence individuals have in their government agents to act in fair ways, motivated by moral reasons, and social trust is the people’s confidence in other individuals to do the same; for Vallier the two are linked. George notes in Progress and Poverty that “The most ominous political sign in the United States today is the growth of a sentiment which either doubts the existence of an honest man in public office or looks on him as a fool for not seizing his opportunities. That is to say, the people themselves are becoming corrupted.” Both agree that there is a connection between political trust and the operation of government and social trust, and that as the two decline together, society risks collapse. 

Vallier’s work contrasts with George’s on several key points, particularly George’s preference for purely material explanations for why corruption, crime, and other breakdowns of social order occur. However, Trust in a Polarized Age provides valuable analytical tools that can be used to conduct a more systematic analysis of property and egalitarianism than Vallier has space for in his wider ranging work, and this analysis can yield more robust explanations for why not all property rights are the same.

The basic hypothesis in Trust is that we are currently suffering from a ‘distrust-divergence’ cycle, in which a breakdown of social and political trust accelerates political polarization, which – via worsening government and other avenues – contributes to a greater breakdown of trust. Vallier proceeds to make use of several philosophical devices to determine which policies could instead produce trust for the right reasons, through policies that are publicly justified not simply, as in authoritarian regimes, by removing access to unflattering information.

To analyze what policies might appeal to such reasoning, Vallier uses the philosophical construct of a moderately idealized individual – a person with the same values and position in society as a ‘real’ one, but with a greater depth of information and time spent in contemplation. Society is not composed of such people, nor will it ever be – however, it is a level of contemplation that is actually attainable to a given individual, should they put the effort into doing so. A policy that appeals to moderately idealized individuals may not be popular in polling among people who have not thought about it or researched the question, but it is likely to be fair and trust-strengthening once implemented because it appeals to the best values and reasons the population has. 

Equipped with these tools and studies on the formation of trust, Vallier addresses various pillars of liberal society as well as several proposed solutions. The discussion is wide ranging, and proposes several useful reforms, but overall defends a conception of the state and society without radical departures from our current liberal democracy with a capitalist welfare state. The book argues that we need some kind of welfare state to combat abject poverty and provide social insurance, but that aiming for complete equal property ownership is inadvisable. Vallier approaches fiscal policy from a relatively libertarian standpoint, concerned about the coercion needed to collect adequate revenue to support the expansive welfare state some have imagined.  The constraints Vallier sees on the ability of egalitarianism to bring about trust are well summarized in two of his key constraints on productive legislation. Vallier argues that “Productive policy must not undermine sustainable economic growth… not merely because persons have primary rights to income, wealth, and capital, but because the principle of sustainable improvements requires that the economy be shaped so as to allow economic growth and to ensure that the benefits of growth redound to all”, and that “If productive policies increase coercion, they must meet fairly high standards of policy epistemology.”

One these counts, Georgists can find much to agree. George speaks passionately about the proper use of capital and the right to produce and own it; in “Justice the Object, Taxation the Means” he declares that “If I, by my labour, catch a fish, that fish is and ought to be mine; if I make a machine, that machine belongs to me; that is the sacred right of property. There is a clear title from the producer, resting upon the right of the individual to himself, to the use of his own powers, to the enjoyment of the results of his exertion; the right that he may give, that he may sell, that he may bequeath.” Indeed, George’s view of labor and capital seems even more expansive than Vallier’s. And the Georgist concern for wealth and suspicion of absolute egalitarianism also matches that put forth in Trust, arguing in the same essay thatWe cannot cure this evil of poverty by dividing up wealth, monstrous as are some of the fortunes that have arisen — and fortunes are concentrating in this country faster than ever before in the history of the world. But divide them and still there would not be enough.”

Vallier’s defense of property is expansive, and important, but does not differentiate between capital and land. However, the tools Vallier provides to analyze property and coercion can be used to more convincingly explain why Georgism could strengthen social and political trust, as George himself believed it could. Four of the reasons for protecting private property and markets laid out in Trust seem particularly convincing, and for each, there are reasons to doubt they apply as fully to land as to property. Property, the book claims, predates and can exist without legislation; it is necessary for a society to attain maximum economic growth; it allows for markets, which build societal trust; and it allows for the fuller functioning of other primary rights, like freedom of association. 

That some conception of the right to property pre-dates formal legislation seems undoubtedly true; markets and some sense of property have existed before formal states and outside formal states. As Vallier argues, “Property rights are indeed socially constructed in that they depend on norms, but these norms need not be legislated, nor even embodied in state law”, a position with which George would wholeheartedly agree. But, it is seems equally clear that this was not the case with land. Rather, it was the enclosure of land that required legislation. The commons in Europe, the hunting grounds and later open range of the Americas, and myriad other examples from around the world seem to indicate that human societies do not universally and pre-politically agree on ownership of land in anything like the modern sense. Rather, governments coercively, using legislation and force to defeat previously entrenched norms, enforced private land ownership to increase efficiency or reward political allies. In some areas of the world this pattern was seen very early on, while in others, like the United States, follow the legislative trail, including the Homestead Act and Dawes Act, that destroyed communal property norms and forcefully created a market for land. The act of declaring property in land is the initial coercive act, and that coercion has been recorded throughout history. It is true that among the general public land is thought of as property because it is conventionally treated as such, and many might initially view a tax on land capable of funding a welfare state or even redistributive state to be coercive; however, it is doubtful that a moderately idealized individual, fully aware of the history of land ownership, would come to precisely the same conclusions.

The necessity of property to produce economic growth is also well supported – but again, the argument breaks down when applied to land. Sudden or arbitrary land redistribution (as we saw in Zimbabwe in the 1990s) almost certainly produces economic catastrophe, but a public land ownership regime based firmly in rule of law – and with continued protection of other property rights – need not have the same effect.

If markets help to encourage trust in society, it seems like a stretch to assume the same applies to markets for land. Why should land markets serve to decrease distrust, while other markets increase it? Vallier’s own explanation for how markets increase trust provides the answer; he argues that “. By allowing people to interact for mutual benefit, markets promote trust through social contact with diverse persons” (emphasis mine).

The mutual benefit is a given in wealth-creating interactions: if I hire a contractor to adda room to my house, the net wealth of society has been increased, some of which accrues to me by my enjoyment of the room and some to the contractor in the form of wages.  Interactions involving land, on the other hand, even if they leave both parties satisfied, do not in themselves increase overall wealth.

Markets for goods and even capital tend to build up norms via natural consequences – if I mistreat contractors, I will be deprived of their labor; if a government gets in the habit of expropriating factories, it is likely that fewer will be built. Even in the absence of any legal ramifications, these consequences are natural, as coercion drives away the producers of wealth and capital, leaving the coercer impoverished as a result. But driving away the owners of land is in many cases the desired outcome for the coercer! It is thus unclear that markets for land would have the same effect on social trust as we observe in markets for other goods. 

The question of primary rights is a valid one. As land is needed for any human activity, public ownership of land could, in theory, grant a government the ability to prohibit any activity (religious, political, social) that they dislike simply by exercising their prerogatives as landlords. This is where George’s preference of a land value tax over redistribution or public ownership comes in. As he clarifies in Progress and Poverty, the goal is simply to make public land rents – “Let those who now hold land retain possession, if they want. They may buy and sell or bequeath it. Let them even continue to call it “their” land. We may safely leave them the shell, if we take the kernel.’”

If individuals can continue to buy, sell, and bequeath land, they can retain their primary rights to association and other actions with no diminution in their capacity to exercise their primary rights that require land.   Moreover, it sidesteps another potential pitfall of government capital ownership, redistribution, or legislation to require pre-distribution: As George notes, “Nor to take rent for public uses is it necessary that the State should bother with the letting of lands, and assume the chances of the favoritism, collusion, and corruption this might involve.”

Favoritism, collusion, and corruption are precisely the dangers Vallier points out in trying to introduce liberal socialism or property-owning democracy, because they are so fatal to social trust. Although Vallier does not make the distinction between land and capital, he provides helpful analytical tools to make that distinction.  His defenses of property are valuable, but examination and reflection will reveal that they apply only to labor and capital, and not, in most cases, to land. Thus, under the framework set out in Trust in a Polarized Age, it is quite possible to build a compelling case for land value taxation and using it to fund social insurance and poverty reduction needed to create a more trusting society while protecting everyone’s primary rights. 

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