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Land as God's Provisioning

Our laws and traditions, if looked at closely, would reveal that we treat the natural creation as if it was rightly private property, the private treasure of whomever has obtained title to it, either by war, by gift or by purchase. But if we stop to think about it, even briefly, it is hard to justify the privatization of the economic value of the natural creation — either by allowing some to pollute what we all depend on or by allowing titleholders to privatize the vast majority of the economic value to the natural creation.

Georgists, however, be they religiously oriented or atheists, recognize the natural creation as our common treasure, and its economic value as a fountain whose flows belong to all of us, to be shared equally.

Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

As to the right of ownership, we hold: That —

Being created individuals, with individual wants and powers, men are individually entitled (subject of course to the moral obligations that arise from such relations as that of the family) to the use of their own powers and the enjoyment of the results. There thus arises, anterior to human law, and deriving its validity from the law of God, a right of private ownership in things produced by labor — a right that the possessor may transfer, but of which to deprive him without his will is theft.

This right of property, originating in the right of the individual to himself, is the only full and complete right of property. It attaches to things produced by labor, but cannot attach to things created by God.

Thus, if a man take a fish from the ocean he acquires a right of property in that fish, which exclusive right he may transfer by sale or gift. But he cannot obtain a similar right of property in the ocean, so that he may sell it or give it or forbid others to use it.

Or, if he set up a windmill he acquires a right of property in the things such use of wind enables him to produce. But he cannot claim a right of property in the wind itself, so that he may sell it or forbid others to use it.

Or, if he cultivate grain he acquires a right of property in the grain his labor brings forth. But he cannot obtain a similar right of property in the sun which ripened it or the soil on which it grew. For these things are of the continuing gifts of God to all generations of men, which all may use, but none may claim as his alone.

To attach to things created by God the same right of private ownership that justly attaches to things produced by labor is to impair and deny the true rights of property. For a man who out of the proceeds of his labor is obliged to pay another man for the use of ocean or air or sunshine or soil, all of which are to men involved in the single term land, is in this deprived of his rightful property and thus robbed.

As to the use of land, we hold: That —

While the right of ownership that justly attaches to things produced by labor cannot attach to land, there may attach to land a right of possession. As your Holiness says, “God has not granted the earth to mankind in general in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they please,” and regulations necessary for its best use may be fixed by human laws. But such regulations must conform to the moral law — must secure to all equal participation in the advantages of God’s general bounty. The principle is the same as where a human father leaves property equally to a number of children. Some of the things thus left may be incapable of common use or of specific division. Such things may properly be assigned to some of the children, but only under condition that the equality of benefit among them all be preserved.

In the rudest social state, while industry consists in hunting, fishing, and gathering the spontaneous fruits of the earth, private possession of land is not necessary. But as men begin to cultivate the ground and expend their labor in permanent works, private possession of the land on which labor is thus expended is needed to secure the right of property in the products of labor. For who would sow if not assured of the exclusive possession needed to enable him to reap? who would attach costly works to the soil without such exclusive possession of the soil as would enable him to secure the benefit?

This right of private possession in things created by God is however very different from the right of private ownership in things produced by labor. The one is limited, the other unlimited, save in cases when the dictate of self-preservation terminates all other rights. The purpose of the one, the exclusive possession of land, is merely to secure the other, the exclusive ownership of the products of labor; and it can never rightfully be carried so far as to impair or deny this. While any one may hold exclusive possession of land so far as it does not interfere with the equal rights of others, he can rightfully hold it no further.

Thus Cain and Abel, were there only two men on earth, might by agreement divide the earth between them. Under this compact each might claim exclusive right to his share as against the other. But neither could rightfully continue such claim against the next man born. For since no one comes into the world without God’s permission, his presence attests his equal right to the use of God’s bounty. For them to refuse him any use of the earth which they had divided between them would therefore be for them to commit murder. And for them to refuse him any use of the earth, unless by laboring for them or by giving them part of the products of his labor he bought it of them, would be for them to commit theft. ... read the whole letter


Henry George: Thy Kingdom Come (1889 speech)

Think of what Christianity teaches us; think of the life and death of Him who came to die for us! Think of His teachings, that we are all the equal children of an Almighty Father, who is no respecter of persons, and then think of this legalised injustice — this denial of the most important, most fundamental rights of the children of God, which so many of the very men who teach Christianity uphold; nay, which they blasphemously assert is the design and the intent of the Creator Himself.

Better to me, higher to me, is the atheist, who says there is no God, than the professed Christian who, prating of the goodness and the Fatherhood of God, tells us in words as some do, or tells us indirectly as others do, that millions and millions of human creatures — [at this point a child was heard crying] — don’t take the little thing out — that millions and millions of human beings, like that little baby, are being brought into the world daily by the creative fiat, and no place in this world provided for them.

Aye! Tells us that, by the laws of God, the poor are created in order that the rich may have the unctuous satisfaction of dealing out charity to them, and attributes to the laws of God the state of things which exists in this city of Glasgow, as in other great cities on both sides of the Atlantic, where little children are dying every day, dying by hundreds of thousands, because having come into this world — those children of God, with His fiat, by His decree — they find that there is not space on the earth sufficient for them to live; and are driven out of God’s world because they cannot get room enough, cannot get air enough, cannot get sustenance enough.

I believe in no such god. If I did, though I might bend before him in fear, I would hate him in my heart. Not room for the little children here! Look around any country in the civilised world; is there not room enough and to spare? Not food enough? Look at the unemployed labour, look at the idle acres, look through every country and see natural opportunities going to waste. Aye! That Christianity puts on the Creator the evil, the injustice, the degradation that are due to humanity’s injustice is worse, far worse, than atheism. That is the blasphemy, and if there be a sin against the Holy Ghost, that is the unpardonable sin!

Why, consider: “Give us this day our daily bread.” I stopped in a hotel last week — a hydropathic establishment. A hundred or more guests sat down to table together. Before they ate anything, a man stood up, and, thanking God, asked Him to make us all grateful for His bounty. And it is so at every mealtime — such an acknowledgement is made over well-filled boards. What do we mean by it?

If Adam, when he got out of Eden, had sat down and commenced to pray, he might have prayed till this time without getting anything to eat unless he went to work for it. Yet food is God’s bounty. He does not bring meat and vegetables all prepared. What He gives are the opportunities of producing these things — of bringing them forth by labour. His mandate is — it is written in the Holy Word, it is graven on every fact in nature — that by labour we shall bring forth these things. Nature gives to labour and to nothing else.

What God gives are the natural elements that are indispensable to labour. He gives them, not to one, not to some, not to one generation, but to all. They are His gifts, His bounty to the whole human race. And yet in all our civilised countries what do we see? That a few people have appropriated these bounties, claiming them as theirs alone, while the great majority have no legal right to apply their labour to the reservoirs of Nature and draw from the Creator’s bounty.

Thus it happens that all over the civilised world that class that is called peculiarly ‘the labouring class’ is the poor class, and that people who do no labour, who pride themselves on never having done honest labour, and on being descended from fathers and grandfathers who never did a stroke of honest labour in their lives, revel in a superabundance of the things that labour brings forth. ... Read the whole speech

Henry George: Salutatory, from the first issue of The Standard (1887)

I begin the publication of this paper in response to many urgent requests, and because I believe that there is a field for a journal that shall serve as a focus for news and opinions relating to the great movement, now beginning, for the emancipation of labor by the restoration of natural rights.

The generation that abolished chattel slavery is passing away, and the political distinctions that grew out of that contest are becoming meaningless. The work now before us is the abolition of industrial slavery.

What God created for the use of all should be utilized for the benefit of all; what is produced by the individual belongs rightfully to the individual. The neglect of these simple principles has brought upon us the curse of widespread poverty and all the evils that flow from it. Their recognition will abolish poverty, will secure to the humblest independence and leisure, and will lay abroad and strong foundation on which all other reforms may be based. To secure the full recognition of these principles is the most important task to which any man can address himself today. It is in the hope of aiding in this work that I establish this paper.

I believe that the Declaration of Independence is not a mere string of glittering generalities. I believe that all men are really created equal, and that the securing of those equal natural rights is the true purpose and test of government. And against whatever law, custom or device that restrains men in the exercise of their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness I shall raise my voice. ... read the whole column

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



Weld Carter: A Clarion Call to Sanity, to Honesty, to Justice
... Our problem today, as yesterday, and the days before, back to the earliest recorded times, is POVERTY.

There are times when this problem is lesser. We call these "booms." There are also times when the problem is greatly exacerbated. These are called "busts." But, as the Bible says, "the poor have ye always with ye." ...

Let us begin this study of the likely causes of our troubles by asking two questions:

  • Are we over-populated?
  • Are the earth's resources inadequate for this population?
Our stage, of course, for making this study will be this world of ours, for it is upon this world that the drama of human living is played out, with all its joys and all its sorrows, with all its great achievements and all its failures, with all its nobilities and all its wickedness.

Regardless of its size relative to other planets, with its circumference of about twenty-five thousand miles, to any mere mortal who must walk to the station and back each day, it is huge. Roughly ninety-six million miles separate the sun from the earth on the latter's eliptical journey around the sun. At this distance, the earth makes its annual journey in its elliptical curve and it spins on its own canted axis. Because of this cant, the sun's rays are distributed far more evenly, thus minimizing their damage and maximizing their benefits.

Consider the complementarity of nature in the case of the two forms of life we call vegetable and animal, in their respective uses of the two gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide, the waste product of each serving as the life-giving force of the other. Any increase in the one will encourage a like response in the other.

Marvel at the manner in which nature, with no help from man or beast, delivers pure water to the highest lands, increasing it as to their elevation, thus affording us a free ride downstream and free power as we desire it. Look with awe at the variety and quantity of minerals with which this world is blessed, and finally at the fecundity nature has bestowed so lavishly throughout both animal and vegetable life: Take note of the number of corn kernels from a single stalk that can be grown next year from a single kernel of this year's crop; then think of the vastly greater yields from a single cherry pit or the seeds of a single apple, or grape or watermelon; or, turning to the animal world, consider the hen who averages almost an egg a day and the spawning fish as examples of the prolificacy that is evident throughout the whole of the animal world, including mankind.

If this marvelous earth is as rich in resources as portrayed in the foregoing paragraph, then the problem must be one of distribution:

  • how is the land distributed among the earth's inhabitants, and
  • how are its products in turn distributed?

Land is universally treated as either public property or private property. Wars are fought over land. Nowhere is it treated as common property.

George has described this world as a "well-provisioned ship" and when one considers the increasingly huge daily withdrawals of such provisions as coal and petroleum as have occurred say over the past one hundred years, one must but agree with this writer. But this is only a static view. Consider the suggestion of some ten years ago that it would require the conversion of less than 20% the of the current annual growth of wood into alcohol to fuel all the motors then being fueled by the then-conventional means. The dynamic picture of the future is indeed awesome, and there is every indication that that characteristic has the potential of endless expansion. So how is it that on so richly endowed a Garden of Eden as this world of ours we have only been able to make of it a hell on earth for vast numbers of people?... read the whole essay

Martin Luther King, Jr: Where Do We Go From Here? (1967)

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here," that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this,

* you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?"
* You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?"
* You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?"

These are questions that must be asked. ... read the book excerpt and whole speech


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