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Land and Justice

by Lindy Davies
delivered at Chauttauqua, August 4, 2005

I'm here today as a "Single Taxer." If you don't recall quite what that is, let me first say that it’s NOT Steve Forbes’s “flat tax!” No. The Single Tax is actually a comprehensive program for economic justice and environmental sustainability. It was stated most memorably by the American economist Henry George in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty — and affirmed by a great many important thinkers, before and since. The idea is for society to collect the rental value of land for public revenue — and to abolish all other taxes on the production and exchange of wealth. It came to be known at the “Single Tax” because of this proposal that the rent of land should be the sole source of public revenue.

Single Taxers have been ridiculed somewhat, over the years, for peddling a panacea, offering a cure for poverty, depressions, urban blight, potholes, the common cold and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Well, I don’t claim to have a cure for every bad thing. But I do want to talk to you making the necessary economic arrangements to create a just society, in which there would be equal opportunity for all, and in which we could confidently look ahead to all our children’s futures.

Single taxers have also caught some grief for always saying “It’s all about the land!”

But I’m not going to apologize for that! I want to explain to you why the issues of economic justice and sustainability actually ARE all about the land.

The theme of this week’s program is Land and Justice. Those are two words that we use so often that we tend to take their meanings for granted. It might be helpful to stop and think about what they truly mean.

Justice is often seen as the fair retribution for something done wrong, as in "justice was done" when a criminal is sent to jail. George W. Bush vowed, for example, to bring the 9-11 terrorists to justice.

However, that conception of justice — in which one does good, in order to avoid the consequences of not doing good — is actually an immature one. In the stages of moral development identified by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, this is called the "conventional" stage. Maturity comes in the "post-conventional" stage, when we come to value doing good so as to contribute to our community, or, even, doing good for its own sake.

Jesus was hip to that, in his scorn for the loudly-praying pharisees on the street corners. They already have their reward, he said. He set much greater store by good deeds done without thought of reward: "whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you to do me also." And, even more to the point, the prophet Micah enjoins us to "Do justice and love mercy."

So, what is "doing justice," in this positive sense? If I do something nice for the least of my brothers and sisters, have I done justice? If I send them a handmade quilt?

Not really. I think the least of my brothers and sisters, cold though they might be, would resent my presuming to know exactly how to handle their problem; perhaps they'd rather make their own quilt, or build a fireplace, or move to a warmer place.

Justice must have to do with freedom. To do justice, then, is to secure, in Thomas Jefferson's words, people's inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The most basic of those rights is life. (In this day and age, though, even that is controversial... There's a great deal of passionate contention about the troubling special cases of the very beginning, or the very end of life — but it seems to me that we ought to pay more attention to every single human being's right to live!)

Be that as it may: we all pretty much understand basically what human life is, and what its basic requirements are: food, clothing and shelter.

In heaven, there is no beer... And in heaven, one does not need to work for a living. Heaven is usually seen as an entirely spiritual place, where we are freed from earthly suffering, aches and pains, and in fact, from all material needs.

(I've always thought Satan was a bit of a nut. I mean, why rebel in heaven? But, to each his own.)

Here on earth, anyway, we have material needs. (That's why we drink the beer here.)

Our food, clothing and shelter have to come from somewhere — and so the question of justice inevitably leads to the question of land.

Now, what do we mean by "land?" The land... it usually brings to mind scenes of nature's bounty: fields of whispering wheat... the mighty river... the rainforest... the good earth... the untamed savannah...

We tend to have a very romantic conception of land, in this day and age. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it has to do with how seldom modern people actually come into contact with the stuff of the earth itself. We deal with burgers... papers... toilets... Without thinking about the many layers of processing between hayfield and burger, between tree and paper, between flush and water table.

We think of dropping out of the modern plastic world to go "back to the land." "The land" is where we go on camping trips.

This romantic conception of land can lead to some dangerously fuzzy thinking. It leads us to think, for example, that perhaps land used to be absolutely vital to human life, back in some halcyon, underpopulated past — but modern technology has long since taken care of that.

Or has it?

Let's think about this question: what is our most valuable natural resource? Is it
— gold, diamonds, precious or strategic minerals? Nope, not even close.
— Oil? Well, it's highly important to industrial civilization, of course, a matter of great political import — but by no means the most valuable.
— Water? Now we're getting closer: necessary for life, to be sure, and thus a potential object of wars — but in terms of cost per cubic foot, not so terribly high, yet.

What is it? Our most valuable natural resource — by leaps and bounds, more valuable than all the others combined — is urban land. Our most valuable natural resource is land whose natural fertility is utterly depleted, it will yield no gems or minerals; its soil is full of toxins. There's nothing worthwhile about it, except for one vital attribute: where it is.

Technology has continually reduced the amount of land that each person needs to survive. But, of course, we do more, economically, than merely survive — and human society has continually demanded more land for all the stuff that people produce: all the gewgaws, gimcracks, thingamabobs and widgets...

It takes a whole bunch of land to produce — and transport, and merchandise — all that stuff. Nowadays we hear a lot about the concept of the ecological footprint: the overall area of land and resources needed to support a certain industry, say, or a certain region. The grossly huge ecological footprint of many communities (the United States, for example) leads to hand-wringing about overpopulation — goodness gracious, what if all the people in China and India start wanting to consume as much as we do!

We can analyze the ecological footprint in terms of its three distinct components:

  1. the subsistence footprint (what we must have to stay alive — which, as I said, tends to shrink with human progress)
  2. the wealth footprint (the resources needed to make the stuff we want, over and above what we actually need)
  3. the illth footprint ("illth" is a very useful term coined by ecologist and social philosopher Ralph Borsodi. It refers to the resources that are squandered on things we neither want nor need: pollution, waste, weapons, crime, preventable disease and malnutrition)

It is indeed possible to provide for the subsistence of more people, and to create more of the things we want — while cutting back on the output of illth. Compare today's London with the foul and unhealthy place it was in the nineteenth century. Or, consider the surprising re-emergence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of many threatened species whose habitats have returned in the United States. Indeed, it appears that environmental protection does not come at the expense of development — but rather gains strength as a society reaches a certain level of prosperity.

If we just look at the "ecological footprint," it's easy to be scared of the seemingly unavoidable damage we are doing to the earth. But seeing "the footprint" in terms of its components — subsistence, wealth, and illth — makes it clear that the fact of persistent and growing global poverty is not the inevitable result of population growth. I believe it’s true that the world cannot long support current levels of pollution, waste and habitat destruction — but these problems spring not from production itself — and certainly not from trade, itself — but from privileges, granted to individuals and corporations — things that we can correct, if we choose to.

To solve the problem of land and justice is to remove unjust privilege, by instituting an economic system that rewards production and prohibits extortion.

It’s all about the land: not only is land necessary for all life — land is also necessary for all production. So, as human population increases, and as the production of wealth gets more and more efficient, the demand for land goes up, and, of course, the land factories start cranking out more land!

Wait! They can't DO that, can they?

Wealth — products, widgets — these things are made by human beings. If customers are willing to buy more of them, then manufacturers will make more of them. But human beings can't make land. The supply of land cannot be increased. If the demand for land increases, only one thing can happen: its price will go up.

The owners of land see population and production go up, up, up — and no more land. So, they will only put their land to use if they have an immediate need for the cash. If they can afford to wait, they will wait, because they expect the land's value to increase with time.

That, in a nutshell, is the key to the land problem — the problem of poverty.

That is why millions upon millions of people who are willing and able to work cannot find work, even while millions upon millions of acres of useable land (city land, industrial land, farm land, you name it) are held idle.

This leads to no end of problems. In the United States, it brings urban blight and suburban sprawl, which disrupt communities, and waste energy and resources. You don’t think under-use of land is that big a deal? Consider the fact that in the five boroughs of New York City, 7.5% of its land, or 18.6 square miles, is vacant. That’s buildable land, not parks or streets. And, of course, a great deal more land in New York, as in every other city, is used somewhat, but far less than the local economy would support. New York City has about 80 people per acre of residential land. That means that New York’s vacant land could house another 956,000 people at current density levels, without even starting to use its vast stock of under-used land.

Even though downtowns are underbuilt, people want to move away from the high prices and high crime rates they often find there — so development leapfrogs, using far more land than is necessary, jacking up the price of farmland near the city — so that local farms can no longer compete. All this sprawl creates more and more need for roads — provided by tax dollars, of course. With all these roads, and all these cars, public transportation systems become less popular and harder to finance. This chokes the cities with even more traffic, making them even less desirable places to be. Meanwhile, all these subsidized highways are just great for the big trucks, burning subsidized fuel, carrying imported merchandise to all the big-box stores and franchise restaurants of suburbia. In other words: two of the hugest problems that progressives are trying to address today — the decay of communities and the rise of the corporate big box — are all about the land.

Around the world, it gives too much power to the banks, for land is by far the greatest source of collateral for loans, everywhere. The more money we have to pay for land, the more power we give to the banks. Although 66% of American families own their homes, the overall net equity of American home “owners” is only 18%.

It’s all about treating the land as an “asset.”

In "developing countries" it leads to a terrible vicious circle: peasants lose their land to one of two groups: either, first, to land-baron cronies of corrupt regimes — who hold land idle for the specific reason of not allowing peasants to use it, thus making sure they have no place to go, and are willing to work for subsistence wages — or, second, to multinational corporations, who run huge plantations to grow crops for export. The foreign exchange thus gained goes for debt service, which allows the ruling regime to keep playing by the IMF's rules, and stay in power. Meanwhile, the peasants gravitate to the cities, seeking nonexistent jobs, and end up in shantytowns that lack clean water and sewers.

We're told that two billion people live on less than two dollars a day. Now, certainly there is lots of poverty in the world — but that statistic troubles me. Two dollars a day? Consider your own basic needs, and ask yourself how far two bucks will go toward satisfying them. Nobody can survive on two dollars a day. Why haven't those two billion people just keeled over by now?

This sort of paradox led the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen to the studies described in his book Development as Freedom. Sen contends that the true measure of economic welfare — and therefore of development in any meaningful sense — can't be a matter of GDP and other conventional measures of "growth." Any true measure of economic welfare must have to do with the degree to which each person can set and achieve his or her own economic goals.

Economic freedom for the world’s poorest people is unquestionably all about the land. Let's say a peasant family has a goat and a garden, and, working carefully, can grow enough to feed itself. Occasionally a good harvest will yield some surplus which can be sold — there wouldn't be much of that, but let's say it brought in an average of two dollars a day. With thrift, enough for school clothes, maybe even books.

Now, let's imagine that the family lost their land — perhaps an injury or some other disaster made it impossible to keep farming it — and they had to go to the city, where they managed to find a combination of odd jobs, yielding them an income of $10 per day. Now, they had to somehow buy their food and every other necessity out of that ten dollars, and they had to live in a miserable shack, with open sewage running in unpaved streets — yet in terms of development numbers, their income had increased by 500%.

In which case did the family have more freedom? Which scenario is more conducive to development?

We were talking about the tendency for landowners to use land as an investment — a sensible thing to do — not to use it now if they don't need to, but to think in terms of enjoying its increase in value over time. We even identified that as the key to the problem of poverty. But — good heavens, what can we do about that? Isn't that just how the economy works? Isn't the private ownership of land a basic part of a modern economy? How can we do without such an important institution?

Or in other words — won't the poor always be with us?

Not necessarily. It has been plain, since very earliest days of civil society, that the private ownership of land leads to exploitation and great extremes of wealth and poverty. And, since the time of the Book of Leviticus, we have had a pretty good idea of what to do about it. In that book were recorded the words "The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is Mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me."

This ideal was codified into a remarkable three-stage program for economic justice and social harmony: the land laws of Leviticus. The stages were:

1. The Sabbath. Every seventh day was the Lord's day; people were enjoined to keep it holy and refrain from work. Now, we were told in Sunday school that this was all about going to church, but, as so often happens, our teachers missed the deeper significance. Kids who try to get out of, say, taking out the garbage on the Sabbath realized that the prohibition was really against gainful work; folks were still allowed to weed the garden and stuff.

What the Sabbath did was to force people to focus on things that had meaning beyond striving and striving to get ahead. Indeed, if one did work on the Sabbath, while one's neighbors did not, one could become wealthier, at their expense — which was why the Sabbath was a very big deal: one of the ten commandments.

2. The Sabbatical. Every seventh year, the fields were to lie fallow — thus recognizing the right of the earth itself to be protected against depletion and misuse. And, in the sabbatical year, debts were to be forgiven. A debt that could not be paid off after six years was well on the way to becoming a usurious burden, a guaranteed flow from the labors of one into the coffers of another. The canceling of debts in the seventh year was designed to ensure that nobody got too far ahead, or too far behind.

3. The Jubilee. Even seven times seven years (actually, every 50th year), each family could return to its original allotment, or heritage, of land — even if it had been sold in the meantime. Under biblical law, then, land could not be sold for ever — never for more than a single generation.

Now it is interesting to note that the economic vision presented in the bible is not a precursor of communism. Two of the ten commandments explicitly support the institution of private property, and the prophets consistently railed against landlords and rulers who robbed the people of the fruits of their labor. The laws of Leviticus, which Jesus said he "came not to destroy but to fulfill," envisioned a community in which everyone was secure in his own home and property, "beneath his vine and fig tree."

(Incidentally, the quote on the American Liberty Bell, from Leviticus, chapter 25, was a direct reference to these principles : "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the people thereof." It was a reference to the Jubilee, and the freedom it provided was from debt and servitude.)

The division is clear: there is to be a sacred right of private property in the things that are made by people. But people were not to own the things that were made by God. The 7th commandment sums up both principles in 4 words: Thou shalt not steal.

Modern society has looked away from these principles, calling them quaint, naive, inapplicable to the complexities of our time — yet, modern society finds itself mired in chronic economic and social problems for which it can find no solutions — and which threaten to pull down all the advances of civilization into a dark age — occasioned by some combination of war, financial implosion or ecological collapse.

If there is any way out of this dark future, it can only come by way of solving the problem of land and justice.

Fortunately, there exists a plan for that.

This plan takes the shape of a "fiscal reform", because it applies a definition of the relationship between the individual and the society that is consistent with both economic efficiency and moral law. It calls for us to respect the right of labor to create and to save wealth, and we acknowledge that the value of land is created not by its “owners,” but by the entire community.

Therefore, we will abolish all taxes on income, products and sales — and collect the full rental value of land and other natural resources for public revenue.

What would happen, if we did this?

Let’s consider the great problems we were discussing earlier.

Land in cities would be used efficiently. Cities would not become over-crowded; regulation of land use would still be in their power, as it is now. But urban blight and decay would be banished. Public transportation, like other public services, could be provided free, funded out of the value of locational advantages that it created.

The unnatural pressure on farm land near cities would be eliminated as development proceeded to “infill”. It would no longer be necessary to haul produce halfway across the world.

Wealth production and employment would be released from the burden of taxation that currently weighs it down. The banking system would be freed from its unhealthy dependence on land for collateral. Combined with the newly-efficient use of urban infrastructure, unemployment could be cut or even eliminated, even while inflation decreased!

But the best benefits of all would be in the developing world. If they were charged the market rental value of the land they hold, then neither the land-baron cronies nor the multinationals would hold onto it. Access to good farmland would be restored, and the disastrous migration of peasants to ill-equipped poor cities would be reversed. The resulting vitality would bring these poor nations new sources of domestic economic strength — no longer would they have to grovel to maintain foreign credit.

Despite the current flood of bad news on just about every conceivable topic — and although I do accept that many things in my children’s world will probably get worse before they get better — I am optimistic about our long-term prospects.

Eventually, I believe that human society will adopt the biblical and georgist wisdom, and organize itself as it must, to achieve justice, efficiency and sustainability.

Eventually we will have tried everything else. That's how Clarence Darrow — one of the reform's many prominent supporters — saw things. He said this: “The “single tax” is so simple, so fundamental, and so easy to carry into effect that I have no doubt that it will be about the last reform the world will ever get. People in this world are not often logical.”

True enough. Yet I have to believe that eventually the obvious truth will start to dawn on us.


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