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Moses and Mosaic Law

Henry George: Ode to Liberty  (1877 speech)

WE HONOR LIBERTY in name and in form. We set up her statues and sound her praises. But we have not fully trusted her. And with our growth so grow her demands. She will have no half service! Liberty! it is a word to conjure with, not to vex the ear in empty boastings. For Liberty means Justice, and Justice is the natural law — the law of health and symmetry and strength, of fraternity and co-operation. ...

They who look upon Liberty as having accomplished her mission when she has abolished hereditary privileges and given men the ballot, who think of her as having no further relations to the everyday affairs of life, have not seen her real grandeur — to them the poets who have sung of her must seem rhapsodists, and her martyrs fools!  ...

It is not for an abstraction that men have toiled and died; that in every age the witnesses of Liberty have stood forth, and the martyrs of Liberty have suffered.

We speak of Liberty as one thing, and of virtue, wealth, knowledge, invention, national strength and national independence as other things. But, of all these, Liberty is the source, the mother, the necessary condition. She is to virtue what light is to color; to wealth what sunshine is to grain; to knowledge what eyes are to sight. She is the genius of invention, the brawn of national strength, the spirit of national independence. Where Liberty rises, there virtue grows, wealth increases, knowledge expands, invention multiplies human powers, and in strength and spirit the freer nation rises among her neighbors as Saul amid his brethren — taller and fairer. Where Liberty sinks, there virtue fades, wealth diminishes, knowledge is forgotten, invention ceases, and empires once mighty in arms and arts become a helpless prey to freer barbarians!

Liberty came to a race of slaves crouching under Egyptian whips, and led them forth from the House of Bondage. She hardened them in the desert and made of them a race of conquerors. The free spirit of the Mosaic law took their thinkers up to heights where they beheld the unity of God, and inspired their poets with strains that yet phrase the highest exaltations of thought. ... read the whole speech

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

Each recurring year brings a day on which, in every land, there are men who, gathering about them their families, and attired as if for a journey, eat with solemnity a hurried meal. Before the walls of Rome were traced, before Homer sung, this feast was kept, and the event to which it points was even then centuries old.

That event signals the entrance upon the historic stage of a people on many accounts remarkable – a people:
  • who, though they never founded a great empire nor built a great metropolis, have exercised upon a large portion of humankind an influence, widespread, potent, and continuous;
  • who have for nearly two thousand years been without country or organised nationality, yet have preserved their identity and faith through all vicissitudes of time and fortune;
  • who have been overthrown, crushed, scattered; who have been ground, as it were, to very dust, and flung to the four winds of heaven;
  • yet who, though thrones have fallen, and empires have perished, and creeds have changed, and living tongues have become dead, still exist with a vitality seemingly unimpaired.
  • They are a people who unite the strangest contradictions; and whose annals now blaze with glory, now sound the depths of shame and woe.

The advent of such a people marks an epoch in the history of the world. But it is not of that advent as much as of the central and colossal figure around which its traditions cluster that I propose to speak.

Three great religions place the leader of the Exodus upon the highest plane they allot to humankind. To Christendom and to Islam, as well as to Judaism, Moses is the mouthpiece and lawgiver of the Most High; the medium, clothed with supernatural powers, through which the divine will has spoken. ...

No matter how clearly the descendants of the kinsfolk, who came into Egypt, at the invitation of the boy-slave become prime minister, maintained the distinction of race and the traditions of a freer life, they must have been powerfully affected by such a civilisation; and just as the Hebrews of today are Polish in Poland, German in Germany, and American in the United States, so, but far more clearly and strongly, the Hebrews of the Exodus must have been essentially Egyptian.

It is not remarkable, therefore, that the ancient Hebrew institutions show in so many points the influence of Egyptian ideas and customs. What is remarkable is the dissimilarity. To the unreflecting nothing may seem more natural than that a people, in turning their backs upon a land where they had been long oppressed, should discard its ideas and institutions. But the student of history, the observer of politics, knows that nothing is more unnatural. Habits of thought are even more tyrannous than habits of the body. They make for the masses of people a mental atmosphere out of which they can no more rise than out of the physical atmosphere. A people long used to despotism may rebel against a tyrant; they may break his statutes and repeal his laws, cover with odium that which he loved, and honour that which he hated; but they will hasten to set up another tyrant in his place. A people used to superstition may embrace a purer faith, but it will be only to degrade it to their old ideas. A people used to persecution may flee from it, but only to persecute in their turn when they get power. ...

The outlines that the record gives us of the character of Moses – the brief relations that wherever the Hebrew scriptures are read have hung the chambers of the imagination with vivid pictures – are in every way consistent with this idea. What we know of the life illustrates what we know of the work. What we know of the work illumines the life.

It was not an empire such as had reached full development in Egypt, or existed in rudimentary patriarchal form in the tribes around, that Moses aimed to found. Nor was it a republic where the freedom of the citizen rested on the servitude of the helot, and the individual was sacrificed to the state.

It was a commonwealth based upon the individual – a commonwealth whose ideal it was that every man should sit under his own vine and fig tree, with none to vex him or make him afraid. It was a commonwealth:
  • in which none should be condemned to ceaseless toil; in which, for even the bond slave, there should be hope; and
  • in which, for even the beast of burden, there should be rest.
  • A commonwealth in which, in the absence of deep poverty, the many virtues that spring from personal independence should harden into a national character–
  • a commonwealth in which the family affections might knit their tendrils around each member, binding with links stronger than steel the various parts into the living whole.

It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code. Its sanctions are not directed to securing the strong in heaping up wealth as much as to preventing the weak from being crowded to the wall. At every point it interposes its barriers to the selfish greed that, if left unchecked, will surely differentiate men into landlord and serf, capitalist and working person, millionaire and tramp, ruler and ruled.

  • Its Sabbath day and Sabbath year secure, even to the lowliest, rest and leisure.
  • With the blast of the Jubilee trumpets the slave goes free, the debt that cannot be paid is cancelled, and a re-division of the land secures again to the poorest their fair share in the bounty of the common Creator.
  • The reaper must leave something for the gleaner;
  • even the ox cannot be muzzled as he treadeth out the corn.
Everywhere, in everything, the dominant idea is that of our homely phrase: "Live and let live!"...

Its lessons have never tended to the essential selfishness of asceticism, which is so prominent a feature in Brahmanism and Buddhism, and from which Christianity and Islamism have not been exempt. Its injunction has never been "Leave the world to itself that you may save your own soul" but rather: "Do your duty in the world that you may be happier and the world be better." It has disdained no sanitary regulation that might secure the health of the body. Its promise has been of peace and plenty and length of days, of stalwart sons and comely daughters.  ...

In the full blaze of the nineteenth century, when every child in our schools may know as common truths things of which the Egyptian sages never dreamed; when the earth has been mapped and the stars have been weighed; when steam and electricity have been pressed into our service, and science is wresting from nature secret after secret – it is but natural to look back upon the wisdom of three thousand years ago as an adult looks back upon the learning of a child.

And yet, for all this wonderful increase of knowledge, for all this enormous gain of productive power, where is the country in the civilised world in which today there is not want and suffering – where the masses are not condemned to toil that gives no leisure, and all classes are not pursued by a greed of gain that makes life an ignoble struggle to get and to keep? Three thousands years of advances, and still the moan goes up: "They have made our lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service!" Three thousand years of advances! and the piteous voices of little children are in the moan. ...

Over ocean wastes far wider than the Syrian desert we have sought our promised land – no narrow strip between the mountains and the sea, but a wide and virgin continent. Here, in greater freedom, with vaster knowledge and fuller experience, we are building up a nation that leads the van of modern progress. And yet while we prate of the rights of humanity there are already many among us thousands who find it difficult to assert the first of natural rights – the right to earn an honest living; thousands who from time to time must accept of degrading charity or starve.

We boast of equality before the law; yet notoriously justice is deaf to the call of those who have no gold and blind to the sin of those who have.

We pride ourselves upon our common schools; yet after our boys and girls are educated we vainly ask: "What shall we do with them?" And about our colleges children are growing up in vice and crime, because from their homes poverty has driven all refining influences. We pin our faith to universal suffrage; yet with all power in the hands of the people, the control of public affairs is passing into the hands of a class of professional politicians, and our governments are, in many cases, becoming but a means for robbery of the people.

We have prohibited hereditary distinctions, we have forbidden titles of nobility; yet there is growing up an aristocracy of wealth as powerful and merciless as any that ever held sway.

We progress and we progress; we girdle continents with iron roads and knit cities together with the mesh of telegraph wires; each day brings some new invention, each year marks a fresh advance – the power of production increased, and the avenues of exchange cleared and broadened. Yet the complaint of "hard times" is louder and louder; everywhere are people harassed by care, and haunted by the fear of want. With swift, steady strides and prodigious leaps, the power of human hands to satisfy human wants advances and advances, is multiplied and multiplied. Yet the struggle for mere existence is more and more intense, and human labour is becoming the cheapest of commodities. Beside glutted warehouses human beings grow faint with hunger and shiver with cold; under the shadow of churches festers the vice that is born of want.

Trace to its roots the cause that is producing want in the midst of plenty, ignorance in the midst of intelligence, aristocracy in democracy, weakness in strength – that is giving to our civilisation a one-sided and unstable development – and you will find it something which this Hebrew statesman three thousand years ago perceived and guarded against.

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.  ...

The life of Moses, like the institutions of Moses, is a protest against that blasphemous doctrine current now as it was three thousand years ago, preached oft times even from Christian pulpits – that the want and suffering of the masses of humankind flow from a mysterious dispensation of providence, which we may lament, but can neither quarrel with nor alter. Let those who hug that doctrine themselves, those to whom it seems that the squalor and brutishness with which the very centres of our civilisation abound are not their affair, turn to the example of that life. For to them who will look, yet burns the bush; and to them who will hear, again comes the voice: "The people suffer: who will lead them forth?"

Adopted into the immediate family of the supreme monarch and earthly god; standing almost at the apex of the social pyramid which had for its base those toiling millions; priest and prince in a land where prince and priest might revel in all delights – everything that life could offer to gratify the senses or engage the intellect was open to him.

What to him the wail of those who beneath the fierce sun toiled under the whips of relentless masters? Heard from granite colonnade or beneath cool linen awning, it was mellowed by distance to monotonous music. Why should he question the Sphinx of Fate, or quarrel with destinies the high gods had decreed? So had it always been, for ages and ages; so must it ever be. The beetle rends the smaller insect, and the hawk preys on the beetle; order on order, life rises from death and carnage, and higher pleasures from lower agonies. Shall the human be better than nature? Soothing and restful flows the Nile, though underneath its placid surface finny tribes wage cruel war, and the stronger eats the weaker. Shall the gazer who would read the secrets of the stars turn because under his feet a worm may writhe? ... read the whole speech

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

Your use, in so many passages of your Encyclical, of the inclusive term “property” or “private” property, of which in morals nothing can be either affirmed or denied, makes your meaning, if we take isolated sentences, in many places ambiguous. But reading it as a whole, there can be no doubt of your intention that private property in land shall be understood when you speak merely of private property. With this interpretation, I find that the reasons you urge for private property in land are eight. Let us consider them in order of presentation. You urge:

1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (RN, paragraph 5) ...
2. That private property in land proceeds from man’s gift of reason. (RN, paragraphs 6-7.) ...
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (RN, paragraph 8.) ...
4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (RN, paragraphs 9-10.) ...
5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned by Divine Law. (RN, paragraph 11.) ...
6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private property in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (RN, paragraphs 14-17.) ...
7. That the private ownership of land stimulates industry, increases wealth, and attaches men to the soil and to their country. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
8. That the right to possess private property in land is from nature, not from man; that the state has no right to abolish it, and that to take the value of landownership in taxation would be unjust and cruel to the private owner. (RN, paragraph 51.)

5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned by Divine Law. (11.)

Even were it true that the common opinion of mankind has sanctioned private property in land, this would no more prove its justice than the once universal practice of the known world would have proved the justice of slavery.

But it is not true. Examination will show that wherever we can trace them the first perceptions of mankind have always recognized the equality of right to land, and that when individual possession became necessary to secure the right of ownership in things produced by labor some method of securing equality, sufficient in the existing state of social development, was adopted. Thus, among some peoples, land used for cultivation was periodically divided, land used for pasturage and wood being held in common. Among others, every family was permitted to hold what land it needed for a dwelling and for cultivation, but the moment that such use and cultivation stopped any one else could step in and take it on like tenure. Of the same nature were the land laws of the Mosaic code. The land, first fairly divided among the people, was made inalienable by the provision of the jubilee, under which, if sold, it reverted every fiftieth year to the children of its original possessors.

Private property in land as we know it, the attaching to land of the same right of ownership that justly attaches to the products of labor, has never grown up anywhere save by usurpation or force. Like slavery, it is the result of war. It comes to us of the modern world from your ancestors, the Romans, whose civilization it corrupted and whose empire it destroyed.

It made with the freer spirit of the northern peoples the combination of the feudal system, in which, though subordination was substituted for equality, there was still a rough recognition of the principle of common rights in land. A fief was a trust, and to enjoyment was annexed some obligation. The sovereign, the representative of the whole people, was the only owner of land. Of him, immediately or mediately, held tenants, whose possession involved duties or payments, which, though rudely and imperfectly, embodied the idea that we would carry out in the single tax, of taking land values for public uses. The crown lands maintained the sovereign and the civil list; the church lands defrayed the cost of public worship and instruction, of the relief of the sick, the destitute and the wayworn; while the military tenures provided for public defense and bore the costs of war. A fourth and very large portion of the land remained in common, the people of the neighborhood being free to pasture it, cut wood on it, or put it to other common uses.

In this partial yet substantial recognition of common rights to land is to be found the reason why, in a time when the industrial arts were rude, wars frequent, and the great discoveries and inventions of our time unthought of, the condition of the laborer was devoid of that grinding poverty which despite our marvelous advances now exists. Speaking of England, the highest authority on such subjects, the late Professor Therold Rogers, declares that in the thirteenth century there was no class so poor, so helpless, so pressed and degraded as are millions of Englishmen in our boasted nineteenth century; and that, save in times of actual famine, there was no laborer so poor as to fear that his wife and children might come to want even were he taken from them. Dark and rude in many respects as they were, these were the times when the cathedrals and churches and religious houses whose ruins yet excite our admiration were built; the times when England had no national debt, no poor law, no standing army, no hereditary paupers, no thousands and thousands of human beings rising in the morning without knowing where they might lay their heads at night.

With the decay of the feudal system, the system of private property in land that had destroyed Rome was extended. As to England, it may briefly be said that the crown lands were for the most part given away to favorites; that the church lands were parceled among his courtiers by Henry VIII., and in Scotland grasped by the nobles; that the military dues were finally remitted in the seventeenth century, and taxation on consumption substituted; and that by a process beginning with the Tudors and extending to our own time all but a mere fraction of the commons were inclosed by the greater landowners; while the same private ownership of land was extended over Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, partly by the sword and partly by bribery of the chiefs. Even the military dues, had they been commuted, not remitted, would today have more than sufficed to pay all public expenses without one penny of other taxation.

Of the New World, whose institutions but continue those of Europe, it is only necessary to say that to the parceling out of land in great tracts is due the backwardness and turbulence of Spanish America; that to the large plantations of the Southern States of the Union was due the persistence of slavery there, and that the more northern settlements showed the earlier English feeling, land being fairly well divided and the attempts to establish manorial estates coming to little or nothing. In this lies the secret of the more vigorous growth of the Northern States. But the idea that land was to be treated as private property had been thoroughly established in English thought before the colonial period ended, and it has been so treated by the United States and by the several States. And though land was at first sold cheaply, and then given to actual settlers, it was also sold in large quantities to speculators, given away in great tracts for railroads and other purposes, until now the public domain of the United States, which a generation ago seemed illimitable, has practically gone. And this, as the experience of other countries shows, is the natural result in a growing community of making land private property. When the possession of land means the gain of unearned wealth, the strong and unscrupulous will secure it. But when, as we propose, economic rent, the “unearned increment of wealth,” is taken by the state for the use of the community, then land will pass into the hands of users and remain there, since no matter how great its value, its possession will be profitable only to users.

As to private property in land having conduced to the peace and tranquillity of human life, it is not necessary more than to allude to the notorious fact that the struggle for land has been the prolific source of wars and of lawsuits, while it is the poverty engendered by private property in land that makes the prison and the workhouse the unfailing attributes of what we call Christian civilization.

Your Holiness intimates that the Divine Law gives its sanction to the private ownership of land, quoting from Deuteronomy, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his house, nor his field, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything which is his.”

If, as your Holiness conveys, this inclusion of the words, “nor his field,” is to be taken as sanctioning private property in land as it exists today, then, but with far greater force, must the words, “his man-servant, nor his maid-servant,” be taken to sanction chattel slavery; for it is evident from other provisions of the same code that these terms referred both to bondsmen for a term of years and to perpetual slaves. But the word “field” involves the idea of use and improvement, to which the right of possession and ownership does attach without recognition of property in the land itself. And that this reference to the “field” is not a sanction of private property in land as it exists today is proved by the fact that the Mosaic code expressly denied such unqualified ownership in land, and with the declaration, “the land also shall not be sold forever, because it is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with me,” provided for its reversion every fiftieth year; thus, in a way adapted to the primitive industrial conditions of the time, securing to all of the chosen people a foothold in the soil.

Nowhere in fact throughout the Scriptures can the slightest justification be found for the attaching to land of the same right of property that justly attaches to the things produced by labor. Everywhere is it treated as the free bounty of God, “the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” ... read the whole letter

Robert Andelson and James Dawsey: From Wasteland to Promised Land (synopsis)

In the book of Joshua, we find that although the Promised Land is a gift from God, it is a gift that has to be claimed. Even before the actual conquest of the Promised Land, the Mosaic Law prescribed a method whereby possession of land was to be rendered pleasing in God's sight. The Canaanites' claim was forfeited by their idolatry, with human sacrifice and temple prostitution, and by their exploitive, monopolistic social order. By contrast, Israel, to make good its claim, had to institute a social order that would guard against the desecration, pollution, and injustices of which its predecessors were guilty, and would secure to each family and to every generation within the Hebrew commonwealth the equal right to the use of the land, of which the Lord was recognized as the sole absolute owner.

They began with a census of the tribes and families before the conquest (Num. 26:1-51). Every tribe, excepting Levi, and within each tribe every family, was to receive its proportionate share, according to size (Num. 26:55-56), and ultimately, to ensure fairness, by lot (Num. 34:16-29). The actual distribution, according to these provisions, was concluded at Shiloh (Josh. 19:51). According to ancient historian Josephus, the territory was not divided into shares of equal size but of equal agricultural value. The landmarks that protected these allotments were protected by the public and solemn denunciation of a curse against anyone who should dishonestly tamper with them (Deut. 27:11-16; 19:14).

As discovered again in our own century, it is easier to devise a one-time fair apportionment of land that it is to keep the system from falling apart. This is why the ancient law established the Jubilee year. At the end of every fifty years, any alienated lands -- given away, sold, or lost from unpaid debts -- would be restored to the original families. Temporary possessors were to be compensated for any unexhausted improvements they may have made on the land. Concentrated landownership, and the division of society into landed and landless classes, was thereby prevented from creeping into the system. The Jubilee effectively took the profit out of landholding as such, leaving no incentive for speculation. When it was observed -- and historical records indicate that it was observed for long periods -- the Jubilee system successfully removed the root cause of poverty from the Jewish society.

The influence of the Jubilee idea upon early Pennsylvania colonists is evidenced by the inscription on the Liberty Bell of the biblical words enjoining the Jubilee year: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." (Lev. 25:10) The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, advocated that all men be "tenants to the public", and to defray public expenses instituted a tax on land.

Environmental concern also goes back to biblical land laws. To prevent the exhaustion of the soil, a periodic fallow was ordered. "During one year in every seven, the soil, left to the influences of sun and frost, wind and rain, was to be allowed to 're-create' itself after six years' cropping, exactly as the tiller of the soil renewed his strength, after six days' work, by his Sabbath day's rest."

As noted, the tribe of Levi did not share in the equal division of the land, since it was charged with carrying out religious and public duties. Its members were entitled to an indemnity from the eleven tribes who received the land that otherwise would have gone to them. This indemnity was the tithe -- one-tenth of the product from the land occupied by the eleven other tribes.

Here, in principle, is the formula for a just land system in almost any time or place. The compensation to the Levites maintained the substance of equal rights to land, alongside of and compatible with unequal physical division of the land itself. As Frederick Verinder pointed out in his book My Neighbour's Landmark, joint heirs of a house may share it equally by occupying it equally or unequally but "paying the rental into a common fund, from which each draws an equal share; or they may let the whole house to someone else and divide the rent equally." So it is with land. Sharing equally in the economic rent or value of land through the application of that value to common uses from which all benefit, renders private ownership and unequal partition of land morally and pragmatically benign.

The modern equivalent of removing one's neighbor's landmark is thus not the private ownership of land per se, but rather the private appropriation of land value. "The profit of the earth is for all" (Eccles. 5:9). The Old Testament ethic, to assure everyone the same natural opportunity, asserts that all people have an equal right to economic rent, and the Levite tithe demonstrates that the socialization of rent offsets the ethical and practical harm resulting from private land ownership. But there is another basis for its advocacy: Rent should be taken by society because it is a social product. Rent arises in large measure from two societal phenomena: the mere presence of population, and community activity in a particular area. More people means more demand for space on which to live and work. Community activities such as roads, schools, protection, parks, sewage, utilities and other public services, as well as the totality of private commercial and cultural operations, all make land more productive or desirable. It follows that a community which funds such improvements out of its rent fund will be provided with a stable and growing fund with which to maintain and improve them. And unlike conventional taxes, the collection of this fund will enhance, not penalize, the production of wealth.

Individuals, in their bare capacity as landowners, do nothing to produce land value. By withholding sites from use, whether for speculation or for other reasons, they may generate scarcity, artificially inflating rent, but this does not reflect any positive contribution to production on the part of landowners. ... read the whole synopsis

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




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