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Biblical Ethics

Henry George: Moses, Apostle of Freedom  (1878 speech)

Moses saw that the real cause of the enslavement of the masses of Egypt was – what has everywhere produced enslavement – the possession by a class of land upon which and from which the whole people must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified private ownership that by natural right attaches to the things produced by labour, would be inevitably to separate the people into the very rich and the very poor, inevitably to enslave labour – to make the few the masters of the many, no matter what the political forms, to bring vice and degradation no matter what the religion.

  And with the foresight of the philosophic statesman who legislates not for the need of a day, but for all the future, he sought, in ways suited to his times and conditions, to guard against this error.

Everywhere in the Mosaic institutions is the land treated as the gift of the Creator to His common creatures, which no one has the right to monopolise. Everywhere it is, not your estate, or your property, not the land which you bought, or the land which you conquered, but "the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" – "the land which the Lord lendeth thee". And by practical legislation, by regulations to which he gave the highest sanctions, he tried to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilisations into despotisms – the wrong that in after centuries ate out the heart of Rome, that produced the imbruting serfdom of Poland and the gaunt misery of Ireland, the wrong that is today filling American cities with idle men, and our virgin states with tramps.

He not only provided for a redistribution of the land among the people, and for making it fallow and common every seventh year, but by the institution of the Jubilee he provided for a redistribution of the land every fifty years, and made monopoly impossible.

I do not say that these institutions were, for their ultimate purpose, the best that might even then have been devised; but Moses had to work, as all great constructive statesmen have to work, with the tools that came to his hand, and upon materials as he found them. Still less do I mean to say that forms suitable for that time and people are suitable for every time and people. I ask, not veneration of the form, but recognition of the spirit.

Yet how common it is to venerate the form and to deny the spirit. There are many who believe that the Mosaic institutions were literally dictated by the Almighty, yet who would denounce as irreligious any application of their spirit to the present day. And yet today how much we owe to these institutions! This very day the only thing that stands between our working classes and ceaseless toil is one of these Mosaic institutions.

Let the mistakes of those who think that "man was made for the Sabbath," rather than "the Sabbath was made for man," be what they may; that there is one day in the week that the working people may call their own, one day in the week on which hammer is silent and loom stands idle, is due, through Christianity, to Judaism – to the code promulgated in the Sinaitic wilderness.  ... read the whole speech

Lindy Davies: Land and Justice

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. ... read the whole speech


James Kiefer: James Huntington and the ideas of Henry George

Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, argued that, while some forms of wealth are produced by human activity, and are rightly the property of the producers (or those who have obtained them from the previous owners by voluntary gift or exchange), land and natural resources are bestowed by God on the human race, and that every one of the N inhabitants of the earth has a claim to 1/Nth of the coal beds, 1/Nth of the oil wells, 1/Nth of the mines, and 1/Nth of the fertile soil. God wills a society where everyone may sit in peace under his own vine and his own fig tree.

The Law of Moses undertook to implement this by making the ownership of land hereditary, with a man's land divided among his sons (or, in the absence of sons, his daughters), and prohibiting the permanent sale of land. (See Leviticus 25:13-17,23.) The most a man might do with his land is sell the use of it until the next Jubilee year, an amnesty declared once every fifty years, when all debts were cancelled and all land returned to its hereditary owner.

Henry George's proposed implementation is to tax all land at about 99.99% of its rental value, leaving the owner of record enough to cover his bookkeeping expenses. The resulting revenues would be divided equally among the natural owners of the land, viz. the people of the country, with everyone receiving a dividend check regularly for the use of his share of the earth (here I am anticipating what I think George would have suggested if he had written in the 1990's rather than the 1870's).

This procedure would have the effect of making the sale price of a piece of land, not including the price of buildings and other improvements on it, practically zero. The cost of being a landholder would be, not the original sale price, but the tax, equivalent to rent. A man who chose to hold his "fair share," or 1/Nth of all the land, would pay a land tax about equal to his dividend check, and so would break even. By 1/Nth of the land is meant land with a value equal to 1/Nth of the value of all the land in the country.

Naturally, an acre in the business district of a great city would be worth as much as many square miles in the open country. Some would prefer to hold more than one N'th of the land and pay for the privilege. Some would prefer to hold less land, or no land at all, and get a small annual check representing the dividend on their inheritance from their father Adam.

Note that, at least for the able-bodied, this solves the problem of poverty at a stroke. If the total land and total labor of the world are enough to feed and clothe the existing population, then 1/Nth of the land and 1/Nth of the labor are enough to feed and clothe 1/Nth of the population. A family of 4 occupying 4/Nths of the land (which is what their dividend checks will enable them to pay the tax on) will find that their labor applied to that land is enough to enable them to feed and clothe themselves. Of course, they may prefer to apply their labor elsewhere more profitably, but the situation from which we start is one in which everyone has his own plot of ground from which to wrest a living by the strength of his own back, and any deviation from this is the result of voluntary exchanges agreed to by the parties directly involved, who judge themselves to be better off as the result of the exchanges.

Some readers may think this a very radical proposal. In fact, it is extremely conservative, in the sense of being in agreement with historic ideas about land ownership as opposed to ownership of, say, tools or vehicles or gold or domestic animals or other movables. The laws of English-speaking countries uniformly distinguish between real property (land) and personal property (everything else). In this context, "real" is not the opposite of "imaginary." It is a form of the word "royal," and means that the ultimate owner of the land is the king, as symbol of the people. Note that English-derived law does not recognize "landowners." The term is "landholders." The concept of eminent domain is that the landholder may be forced to surrender his landholdings to the government for a public purpose. Historically, eminent domain does not apply to property other than land, although complications arise when there are buildings on the land that is being seized.

I will mention in passing that the proposals of Henry George have attracted support from persons as diverse as Felix Morley, Aldous Huxley, Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Leo Tolstoy, William F Buckley Jr, and Sun Yat-sen. To the Five Nobel Prizes authorized by Alfred Nobel himself there has been added a sixth, in Economics, and the Henry George Foundation claims eight of the Economics Laureates as supporters, in whole or in part, of the proposals of Henry George (Paul Samuelson, 1970; Milton Friedman, 1976; Herbert A Simon, 1978; James Tobin, 1981; Franco Modigliani, 1985; James M Buchanan, 1986; Robert M Solow, 1987; William S Vickrey, 1996).

The immediate concrete proposal favored by most Georgists today is that cities shall tax land within their boundaries at a higher rate than they tax buildings and other improvements on the land. (In case anyone is about to ask, "How can we possibly distinguish between the value of the land and the value of the buildings on it?" let me assure you that real estate assessors do it all the time. It is standard practice to make the two assessments separately, and a parcel of land in the business district of a large city very often has a different owner from the building on it.) Many cities have moved to a system of taxing land more heavily than improvements, and most have been pleased with the results, finding that landholders are more likely to use their land productively -- to their own benefit and that of the public -- if their taxes do not automatically go up when they improve their land by constructing or maintaining buildings on it.

An advantage of this proposal in the eyes of many is that it is a Fabian proposal, "evolution, not revolution," that it is incremental and reversible. If a city or other jurisdiction does not like the results of a two-level tax system, it can repeal the arrangement or reduce the difference in levels with no great upheaval. It is not like some other proposals of the form, "Distribute all wealth justly, and make me absolute dictator of the world so that I can supervise the distribution, and if it doesn't work, I promise to resign." The problem is that absolute dictators seldom resign. ... read the whole article

Fred E. Foldvary — The Ultimate Tax Reform: Public Revenue from Land Rent

The concept of taxing land values for public finance is ancient. The Bible declares “the profit of the Earth is for all” (Ecclesiastes 5:9). Land rent financed government in England during the Middle Ages.9 During the 1700s, some French economists proposed an “impöt unique” or single tax on land value. Calling their theory “physiocracy” (the rule of natural law), they outlined a model of economic development that used land value taxes to finance public works, which increased the value of the land (and thus increased taxes paid to the treasury), resulting in an upward spiral of development and prosperity. The principal physiocratic economist, François Quesnay, wrote

Taxes ... should be laid directly on the net product of landed property, and not on men’s wages, or on produce, where they would increase the cost of collection, operate to the detriment of trade, and destroy every year a portion of the nation’s wealth. [Emphasis in the original.]10

... read the whole document



Bill Batt: The Compatibility of Georgist Economics and Ecological Economics

As with all nineteenth century moral philosophers, Henry George subscribed to a belief in natural law. The natural order of things as he saw it required that land be held in usufruct and that rent from such should be returned to society. The theory was inspired by his deeply religious roots and grounded in his reading of the prominent thinkers that predated him. The natural order was also a moral order, and the failure to comply with the order of nature and society as he saw it was a perversion of justice. The fruits of the land belonged to everyone, just as the fruits of one’s own labor were uniquely one’s own. Since one owned one’s body, one was entitled to keep the product of one’s physical efforts. Society had no more right to confiscate the earnings of one’s sweat and brow than it ought to leave in the hands of rich landowners the rent that was everyone’s inherent birthright to be shared. There were just and unjust taxes, and the only just tax was that which grew out of rent, of the unearned increment that visited certain land sites as windfall gains because of the efforts and investments by the community. Income and excise taxes were unjust and confiscatory — even theft, as especially were tariffs. Taxing or collecting land rent alone was the means of ending poverty and restoring progress. Indeed many Georgists reject use of the word tax entirely, preferring instead to talk instead about rent collection. There is even a lapel button Georgists use that says “Abolish all taxes; collect ground rent instead.”

Georgist Economics: Moral Premises
What distinguished Henry George’s views from those of his adversaries in the last decade of his life was his assertion that economics was necessarily a moral science. Unlike those who became the founders of the American Economics Association in 1885, most of whom were transitional figures to what would become neoclassical economics, the primary focus of George and his disciplines was economic justice. This is not to say that explanation was cast aside; indeed the subtitle of his magnum opus, Progress and Poverty, was An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth . . . The Remedy. Why, he asked, in the midst of such boundless plenty is there such abject poverty? He would dedicate his book, first published in 1879, “to those who, seeing the vice and misery that spring from the unequal distribution of wealth and privilege, feel the possibility of a higher social state and would strive for its attainment.” He had known poverty first hand when he was struggling to support his young family and establish himself as a printer, a journalist and a publisher. He could also see before him the fruits of land and nature easily available to be harvested but for its legal capture by monopoly titleholders. He wrote of all this in some six books and countless other essays, the focus always on the theme of economic justice.

Along with Robert Ingersoll, he was likely the most stimulating orator of his age, a fiery moralist at a time during which there were many others who might claim such a title. He traveled widely, was a champion of labor, the landless, and the urban poor, particularly influential in the struggle over the Irish land question and in the positions of the Liberal party in the early 20th century. His admirers among the great of the time were myriad: Sun Yat Sen, Leo Tolstoi, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Beard, Samuel Clemens, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and John Dewey to name a few. Forewarned in 1897 that running for mayor of New York a second time and trying at the same time to finish another authoritative statement of his philosophy would kill him, the prophesy was fulfilled nonetheless with his death four days before election day. In 1886 he lost a rigged election31 when matched against a scion of banking wealth Abram S. Hewitt, who was recruited by Seth Low, President of Columbia University, but he beat the third place finisher, Teddy Roosevelt. His funeral on the streets of New York drew the largest crowd of mourners ever assembled until that time, and until much later. No one doubted Henry George’s passionate commitment to justice.
31See “Capitalism by Fraud,” in Gustavus Myers, History of Great American Fortunes, New York: Random House Modern Library Edition, 1936, pp. 356-358, as well as biographies of George.

The heart of George’s economics was, in a way, Biblical. As the son of a religious book publisher born in Philadelphia, he had adequate opportunity to witness the early growth of the American republic in a unique way. On his own in San Francisco and responsible for a wife and child at a young age, his first effort at resolving the puzzles of injustice were a manuscript printed in 1871. But only after additional exposure to Ricardian rent theory was he able to refine his ideas such that they could form the basis of his Progress and Poverty eight years later. His Christian roots led him to a deep commitment to the basic moral equality of all people; his challenge was to find a way to ensure that this equality was manifest in economic fairness.

As noted earlier, the starting point of Georgist philosophy is that nature belongs to owners only in usufruct and not in freehold. Because any monetary wealth that accrued to that nature stemmed directly from the physical presence of people and was therefore social in character, the resulting added increment of value that constituted rent belonged in turn to the community that created it. Nature would have no economic price without people. Hence rent was the community’s entitlement and not that of individuals, and the land rent that accrued to parcels as a result of social investment should be returned to — recaptured by — the community. It was obvious to George that the wealthiest people in the nation usually owed their fortune not to the sweat of their brow or the inventiveness of their minds. Rather their position was due to their success as land speculators, to an increase in rent on land they had captured title to, land rightfully belonging to all. The earth and all its product, he argued, was the common heritage of humanity, a birthright of all people.  ... read the whole article

Alanna Hartzok: Ethical Land Tenure

I want to tell you the story of Charles Avilla. A while back I came across a book called Ownership, Early Christian Teachings. Avilla was a divinity student in the Phillipines. One of his professors had a great concern about poverty conditions in the Phillipines, and was taking students out to prisons where the cooks were the land rights revolutionaries in the Phillipines. Because they kept pushing for land reform for the people, they had ended up in jail. So they were political prisoners who were reading the Bible and were asking the question, who did God give this earth to? Who does it belong to? It isn't in the Bible that so few should have so much and so many have so little. In the theological world in this upscale seminary he was trying to put this together about poverty and what the biblical teachings were. He had a thesis to write and he was thinking he would do something about economic justice. One of his professors thought there would be a wealth of information from the church's early history, the first 300 years after Jesus. So he actually went back to read the Latin and Greek about land ownership and found a wealth of information about the prophetic railings of the people in that early time on the rights of the land.

Let me give you a few quotes from that early period.

Nehemiah 5:11, "Restore, I pray you, to them this day their lands, their vineyards, their olive yards, and their houses."

Ezekiel 33:24, "The land is given us as an inheritance."

Ecclesiastes 5:9, "The profit of the earth is for all."

And Isaiah 5:8, "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field til there be no place ..." Leviticus 25:23, "The land is mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with me." ... read the whole article


Alanna Hartzok: Who Would Jesus Tax? The Saga of Susan Pace Hamill's Alabama Tax Crusade

A University of Alabama School of Law Professor has asked God's forgiveness for the years she lived in the sin of ignorance about tax injustice. Susan Pace Hamill, a tax expert, business consultant, and dedicated United Methodist church goer, thought there was a misprint when she first read that personal incomes as low as $4,600 for a family of four were being taxed by the state, while timber owners holding 71% of the land of Alabama were paying less than $1 per acre in property taxes. Two hours later she found out there had been no mistake and that Alabama has the most regressive tax code in the country. Her righteous rage spawned a tax crusade that has reverberated onto the national scene. ...
While resoundingly condemning the current system (she uses words like "horrific" and "monstrous injustice") Hamill clearly articulates a tax reform approach which shifts taxes off of low wage earners and onto large land owners. Through a combination of her own reasoning, caring heart, and inherent sense of justice and a thorough investigation of Judeo-Christian ethics, Hamill arrived at a tax policy approach which bears remarkable similarities to the economic justice crusades of 19th century reformer, Henry George.

Her appeal is to the 93 percent of Alabama residents who call themselves Christians. Hamill challenges them to put their faith into practice. Her message fell on many already listening ears. The state's two largest denominations, United Methodists and Southern Baptists, had passed resolutions favoring tax reform in 2000. In 2001 the state's Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Catholics approved similar calls. The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and the Business Council of Alabama had long clamored for tax change. In fact, tax reform is now supported by most of the state's religious organizations, according to Charles Durham, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa.

What makes Hamill's work so compelling is her deep grasp of the Alabama tax code combined with her thorough documentation of the scriptural bases for economic justice. She quotes chapters and verses which proclaim that the poor should not be oppressed and that society should create conditions for their advance. Among her favorites are Jesus' words in Matthew 25:45: "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." Luke 16:19-31 is a parable of a rich man sent to hell because of his indifference to the disadvantaged and in Jeremiah 22:15-16, "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well."

While Hamill suspected she would be opposed by special interest groups like the Alabama Farmers Federation which represents big timber and agribusiness interests, she was not prepared for the attacks and underhanded tactics of the Alabama Christian Coalition under the leadership of President John Giles. While Giles agrees that tax relief to the less fortunate "is a noble thing" he says the care of the poor is the duty of private charity not of government and staunchly opposes tax increases. He tried to damage the Hamill campaign by smearing her personal integrity, pointing to her signing of a pro-choice petition as evidence that she therefore could not be a moral authority on tax reform. Opposing forces also called her a "Yankee carpetbagger" detailing her work history at two New York law firms. They said (wrongly so) that her tax proposals would bring huge property increases on the average home and business.

Bob Blalock, editorial page editor for The Birmingham News, says that the "real question about legitimacy should be aimed at the Christian Coalition. For whom does it speak when it attacks Hamill? Christians, many of whom would benefit from a fairer tax system, even one that raised more money? Or powerful special-interest groups (timber? agribusiness?) that want to protect their obscene tax breaks?" Blalock says there is no way to know because the law does not require the Christian Coalition to disclose what individuals or groups fund it. "When an organization places itself in the center of the debate over tax reform, citizens deserve to know who's funding its point of view." (3/14/03)

Hamill's conservative theology school responded to the attacks by firmly backing her stance. Faculty at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham passed a unanimous resolution endorsing her efforts. "We think what she has proposed is worthy support from the Christian community and we think it is in keeping with the evangelical community," said the school's dean, Timothy George (Anniston Star, 3/11/03).

Frank Thielman, Presbyterian Professor of Divinity at Beeson had this to say about their resolution: "Personally, I hope it does encourage dramatic tax reform that helps to relieve the burden of the poor. The reason I'm hopeful is because of my commitment as a Christian and my Christian vision. That is a vision that the poor should be dealt with equitably and fairly and that is a very biblical vision. It's because of my Christian commitment and the Bible and the word of God that I hope tax reform efforts succeed." (Anniston Star, 3/11/03) ... read the whole article


Nic Tideman: The Political Economy of the Gospels

The grand question of economic ethics, the question of whether capitalism or socialism is the more appropriate form of political economy, is another non-question from the perspective of the Gospels. Everyone who wants to live under socialism should be free to live under socialism, and everyone who wants to live under capitalism should be free to live under capitalism. In whichever group we fall, we will want to insure that those who want to organize their lives by different principles of political economy have their share of land and natural resources with which to do so.

A political economy based on the Gospels is a political economy based on love. As the First Epistle of John says, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear."17 To construct a political economy of the Gospels we must be free of fear: free of fear that others may rob us; free of fear that others may not contribute to the provision of public goods or to provision for those who might otherwise lack; free of fear that our incomes will be too low or the prices we face too high; free of fear that if we don't do something, someone will be exploited. Only when love has replaced all fear in our hearts will we be able to construct the political economy of the Gospels.read the whole article


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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper