Why is temporary injustice bearable?

In my last post, I argued that being required to pay rent to a private entity for housing is an injustice. However, as I was thinking about it, I couldn’t help but think of examples were rent is justified, or perhaps just a bearable injustice. Consider, for instance, travel accommodations—hotels, hostels, B&Bs. A person travelling to another city to attend a conference, or a wedding, or to perform, will, in many cases have to rent a room for the duration of their stay. This, according to my reasoning, could be considered an injustice, but few people would agree that the hotelier-guest relationship is the same as the landlord-tenant relationship. Or consider a longer-term rental—a person who moves to a city and, rather than buying a new home sight-unseen, opts to rent an apartment while they house-hunt. Again, my reasoning says that this is an injustice, but definitely a bearable one. Or perhaps a young academic is hired for, say, a two-year position in a city far from their home. In all likelihood signing a two-year lease will be less of a burden than buying a home only to have to sell it in two years.

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Amboy (California, USA) — 2012 — 4” / CC BY-SA 4.0

If rent is unjust, why is it bearable if it’s temporary? Or perhaps it’s only unjust when it’s a permanent situation.

Or consider a slightly more recognized injustice: wage labour. In his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, historian Eric Foner writes about the early development of the Republican Party in the mid-19th century. Most people familiar with US history are aware that the early Republican Party was anti-slavery, few people know that it was also anti-wage-labour. In fact, many Americans, including Frederick Douglass, considered wage labour to be not that different from slavery. Wage labour existed prior to the mid-1800s, as did the opinion that it was not that different from slavery—the wikipedia article on “wage slavery” notes that Cicero expressed this opinion—but something had happened so that a political party could be successful by being against wage labour. What happened was the industrial revolution. Previously, wage labour was mostly confined to farm-hands or apprentices. This situation was acceptable because it was understood that a farm-hand or an apprentice would save their wages to buy their own plot of land or workshop, thus becoming their own boss. The industrial revolution changed this. It was completely unreasonable to expect a factory girl to save up her wages to buy her own mill. The industrial revolution made wage labour permanent. So, wage labour wasn’t unjust enough to mobilize people, but permanent wage labour was so odious that resistance to it propelled a new political party to the White House.

Again, we have an injustice that is bearable when temporary, and unbearable when permanent. Why?

I don’t have a good answer, so the rest of this post is mostly me just thinking out loud.

What do you think?

It’s not that it’s temporary, it’s a means to an end

When we consider the temporary situations above, we can see that they are also all, a means to an end. You stay in a hotel so that you can attend a friend’s wedding. Someone new to a city rents an apartment so that they can properly look for a house to buy. An apprentice submits to an artisan so that she can become an artisan herself. Perhaps these situations are bearable because we can view them as a means to an end and temporariness is just a by-product.

Consider the following as corroboration:

  • Suppose the government instituted a new program: Every citizen’s first home will have to be a rental. They pay market rent to a private landlord for 8 years. After the 8 years are up, they are granted ownership of a home.
    • The most obvious objection to this would be to question why you would have to pay rent for 8 years. If you’re going to be granted property anyway, why not just skip the 8 years and start with the property.
    • This policy would become slightly more palatable if a portion of your rent went towards the property. That is if it changed from an arbitrary requirement to a means to an end.
    • Conclusion: An arbitrary, but temporary injustice is less bearable than a means to an end.

The bearable temporary situations are sometimes more brutal than the unbearable permanent situations.

There are still some vestiges of the old apprenticeship system today. The two that spring to mind are the restaurant business and academia. At the top of these sectors are highly respected professionals—chefs and professors—who have a degree of independence not widely found in the rest of society. But at the bottom you find people working highly demanding jobs for low pay and little esteem. As a grad student, my work and studies had the tendency to occupy my entire life. If a regular waged job did the same, I wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Hotel guests surrender a amount of privacy that no tenant would willingly surrender. If I knew my landlord was entering my apartment when I was out, or monitoring my internet usage and TV watching habits, I’d be tempted to take legal action.

The contrast between temporary and permanent is not well understood.

As philosophers and poets like to stress everything in this world is temporary. Buildings collapse, empires fade, everyone dies. Despite this, we still seem to innately divide entities, situations, states, and eventualities into permanent and temporary. A camp is a temporary settlement, while a town is permanent. Visiting is temporary, residing is permanent. A US War in Afghanistan is temporary, US rule in Afghanistan is permanent. What does it even mean to be temporary or permanent?

Maybe even these temporary injustices shouldn’t be bearable

In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber writes about the apprenticeship system in the pre-industrial anglosphere. Under this system, a male child of a certain age would be sent by his parents to apprentice with a master. The child would become part of the master’s houshold, meaning he would be expelled from his childhood household. Eventually, the apprentice would become a journeyman, get married, start a household of his own, and be considered an adult. Graeber points out that such a system was peculiar to the northwestern Europe and that southern European observers were shocked with the barbarity with which, say, English parents treated their children. In Italy, by contrast, adulthood wasn’t achieved through such arduous means. Young men spent their youth socializing until they decided to start working for themselves. So, maybe even the temporary wage labour of pre-industrial times was bad.

Similar things can be said about temporary rent. In many of the cases I cited above, we could think of a way of meeting these needs without charging rent. In most cases this could be achieved by some system of reciprocal hospitality. We often hear that one of the great virtues of some of the poorest agrarian societies was hospitality. I always heard that in Ireland, it used to be the case that if a traveller showed up on your doorstep, you would take them in and share your meager food with them. Such hospitality is still the norm in some sectors of society. Hospitality is generally expected of friends and family. Grad students often offer “crash-space” to visiting grad students. Same goes for many musicians.

Note, these are all quite informal, but it’s not hard to imagine how they might be formalized. I, for instance, am a member of a labour union (CUPE 3902). Suppose my union created reciprocal agreements with similar unions in other areas, such that if I was travelling through those areas, my union’s partner union would provide me with lodging and if a member of a partner union travelled here, we would provide them with lodging. Or suppose hospitality was made a municipal service, paid for by residents of a town or city, so visitors or new residents would not need to rent a hotel or hostel room in a city that wasn’t their own. I don’t think these are utopian ideas. In fact, I’d wager that if you looked, you’d find many historical precedents for them.

Is rent moral or just?

Rent strikes are occurring in many locations in response to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Many worker-renters have lost their income, and can no longer afford rent. The common response to a rent strike often to ask whether it is moral for tenants to withhold their rent. This, I think, is the wrong question to be asking, or perhaps, the wrong way to frame the question. The better question is the title of this post: Is rent moral? Or, put another way, is it just (as in justice) that a large portion of the people in our society pays a portion of their income to landlords? In this post I’ll argue that the answer to these questions is “No, rent is not moral or just.”

The structure of my argument is as follows:

  1. Housing is a human/civil right.
  2. A system in which access to a human/civil rights is subject to exchange is immoral/unjust.
  3. Rent is essentially payment for access to housing.
  4. Therefore, rent is immoral/unjust.

I will take the first point as a given. The second seems straightforward, but it hides some nuance that I’ll discuss below. The third is the most important, and perhaps least understood portion of the argument. The final point, I believe, follows logically from the first three.

It is immoral/unjust to charge for access to a human/civil right.

Human and civil rights are those rights which are inherent to all human beings and citizens respectively. We can and should inquire into and debate what those rights are, but that’s not the point of this post. Among the rights that most reasonable people can agree upon are the right to food and clean water, the right to free expression, the right to a fair trial, and the right to vote. The latter three tend to be explicitly laid out in the constitutions of most, and unless you are a fanatical free-market fundamentalist, you would likely object if your government explicitly gave the public square, the courts, and the voting booths to private actors who then charged an access fee to them. If, in order to defend yourself against criminal charges, you had to pay a fee to CourtCo, you would rightly feel that your rights had been violated.

In fact, there is a way in which many arguments about reforming civic institutions boil down to to arguments about whether the state or the private sector is effectively imposing access fees to those institutions. One argument in favour of breaking up companies like Facebook and Google is that these companies now control large portions of the public square and impose fees, albeit indirectly, for access the it. If this argument is correct, then we would have to say that Facebook and Google are restricting our right to free expression.

The right to food is perhaps a little more complicated because, unlike free expression, fairness, and voting, food is a physical commodity. Most people, I think, would agree that they don’t have their human rights violated every time they go grocery shopping or go to a restaurant. So why is it okay to exchange money for food and not for access to the ballot? Because many people laboured and invested money to produce that food and make it so we can walk into a grocery store and buy a piece of fruit, and the money you pay is to compensate for that labour and investment. Also because, in many ways, the market for foodstuffs is a quintessentially free market: If you’re not willing to pay the sticker price for filet mignon, you don’t have to buy it. You can buy a cheaper cut of beef, or a cheaper meat, or non-meat proteins.

This is not to say that the current system by which we distribute food and other necessities is perfect. Poor people do not enjoy the same access to nutritious food as middle and upper class people. Indigenous people in Canada do not have access to clean drinking water. Corporations engage in price-fixing and hold monopolies over seeds for necessary crops. Recent days have seen instances of price-gouging and hoarding of necessities. These all represent injustices resulting from flaws in our society that we should reform.

The point that you should take from this discussion is that commerce and rights are not necessarily morally incompatible. However, if the commerce that amounts to the buying and selling of access to those rights is an injustice. Next, I’ll argue that rent, at its core, is the buying and selling of access to housing, a human right.

What does rent pay for?

To answer this question, Consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose you are a renter. You rent your primary residence, a detached house, from the owner of that house. At the outset of your lease, everything is included in your rent: utilities, garbage/recycling collection, internet, cable TV, a landline telephone, etc. Suppose, then, that you decide you have no need for cable or a landline, (Everything’s on the internet now) so, you go to your landlord and ask them to cancel those services and reduce your rent accordingly. They agree and your rent goes down a bit. Suppose you then decide you want to pay directly for utilities, internet, garbage/recycling collection, etc. so you make another agreement with your landlord and your rent goes down again.

At this point, your rent is not zero so you ask your landlord why. They respond that they still have maintenance costs, property taxes, and a mortgage on the house to pay off. So you offer to take over the maintenance of the house, and tell your landlord that you’ll pay the property taxes directly and mortgage payments directly, and your landlord accepts.

Is your rent zero after this?

I think the answer is “no” here. Even if a renter directly payed every cost that their landlord incurred, they would still need to fork over a portion of their monthly income to the landlord. What is that portion for? It can’t be compensation for the landlord’s labour or capital investment—those have already been taken care of. The only thing that’s left is that the residual rent pays for access to housing.

It follows, then, that rent, being a fee for access to a human right, is unjust.

Note also, that rent is fundamentally different from condo fees, mortgage payments, and the purchase price of a house/condo. Condo fees pay for building upkeep and amenities, mortgage are temporary loan payments, and the purchase price of a home is generally negotiated freely between equal parties. And, of course, these descriptions are idealizations. There’s plenty of room for injustice in all of these transactions.

A radical conclusion? Hardly

This all might seem a bit radical, but on the contrary, none of it is even that new. Housing as a human right is in section 25 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it forms the basis of Canada’s National Housing Strategy. The immorality of charging someone for something that is rightfully theirs is a basic moral principle, but it’s been explored in a more nuanced way by philosopher Michael Sandel in his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy. Finally my analysis of what rent pays for was done better and more stridently by that radical economist—the one who taught us that the economic value derives mainly from labour, not capital, and that whenever capitalists get together, they conspire to undermine free markets—none other than Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter XI, recently highlighted in Existential Comics, #337). So, I don’t think anything I’ve written here should be judged new or radical, but I suspect that many people would have such judgements. This, I think points to a deeper problem in our current culture.

Postscript: Morality and justice

Thus far, I’ve blurred the line between morality and justice—two concepts that are related but distinct. Roughly speaking, the distinction between the two is linked to the distinction between individuals and systems. The actions of individuals can be moral or immoral, but systems can be just or unjust. But, as I said, they are linked concepts. For instance, many moral quandaries occur because they are embedded in unjust systems. Take perhaps the most basic one: “Is it wrong for a person to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving family?” Most people would acknowledge that stealing is morally wrong—though they might argue about what constitutes stealing—but justifiable when it’s necessary. Likewise, most people would agree that a society in which some families are starving cannot be a fully just society. Perhaps this gives a good functional definition of injustice as that which makes immoral acts justifiable.

In the society in which I currently live—Toronto, Ontario in 2020—a sizable chunk of people rent their homes from private landlord—either individuals or corporations. This is an unjust situation. But what can we say morally about landlords, who benefit from this injustice? I believe it’s safe to say that extracting rent from anyone for access to a basic human right is not a moral way to make a living. I believe that the existence of corporations whose sole purpose is to extract rent from workers and entrepreneurs is morally unjustifiable. I also believe that some landlord-tenant arrangements can be morally neutral or perhaps approach moral neutrality because they are, in fact, based on agreements between equals. Consider a situation in which a family takes out a mortgage to buy a home, but then has to move away for reasons of work. Suppose that family finds another family willing to rent the home and agrees that the rent will be entirely based on upkeep, taxes, and mortgage payments. And suppose that once the mortgage is paid off, the renters have the option of a reduced rent covering only upkeep and taxes, or switching to a rent-to-own arrangement. I think such a situation would be morally neutral. This, however, leaves a spectrum from neutral to unjustifiable.

But regardless of where a landlord might fall on this spectrum, they are harmed by the unjust system that they participate in. Being the beneficiary of an unjust system, I think, has a damaging effect on a person’s soul. In the case of landlords, we can see this when some landlords bemoan the fact that they are not free to enter rental units or evict tenants at will. They see this as an encroachment on their rights, but the rights being encroached upon are those that would allow them to violate basic rights of their fellow humans. We can see it when some landlords frame themselves as charitable benefactors, who grant their tenants the right to a home, completely ignoring the fact that they profit from their purported charity. And we can see it in how a number responded to the fact that their tenants are losing income in the current pandemic, not as an understanding equal, but in the same way that a gangster responds when a local shop owner can’t make payments. None of this behaviour should be surprising: Rent is an unjust system and unjust systems inflict moral damage on everyone within them.

Media analysis and voter preference: A parable

(This post is in response to a twitter argument I got into that was tipped off by an inane and glib tweet from a Bloomberg opinion writer. The gist of the tweet was that a Chomskyan analysis of the media coverage of a political campaign was useless. The results of an election merely reflects voter preference.)

Manoush finds herself staying in a hotel in a small city that’s not her own. One evening she is deciding where to go for dinner. She really has a craving for burgers, so she looks for some burger places in the vicinity and finds only one that’s open: Maria’s Burgers.

Being unfamiliar with the the area, Manoush asks at the hotel front desk about Maria’s. The desk clerk hesitates and gives a non-committal answer, “I don’t eat there, but to each their own.”

Manoush is perplexed. “Is there something wrong with Maria’s?” she asks.

The clerk then proceeds to give a litany of negative facts about Maria’s: It had a health code violation last year; Maria has a reputation of being a demanding boss; The head cook quit last month; etc. After listening to this, Manoush decides that she shouldn’t eat at Maria’s and goes to Sal’s Seafood across the street from Maria’s.

What can we say about how Manoush’s choice reflected her preferences? Did she really not want a burger? Did the desk clerk convince her that she didn’t want a burger after all?

Assuming everything the desk clerk said was factually correct, did Manoush make the right decision for herself? What if there was another side to all of those facts: Maybe, for instance, the health code violation caused Maria to completely rethink her cleanliness standards and since then, Maria’s is routinely the cleanest restaurant in town. What if Sal’s Seafood had similar issues that the clerk didn’t mention for some reason? Perhaps Sal was related to the hotel’s owner and had a fierce rivalry with Maria, Or Sal was in the habit of letting the hotel desk clerks eat for free?