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The Land Question
"Solving the land question means the solving of all social questions… Possession of land by people who do not use it is immoral — just like the possession of slaves." — Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910)

Henry George published a paper called The Irish Land Question in 1881, just two years after Progress & Poverty. Within it, he pointed out that there was nothing specific to Ireland about The Irish Land Question — it was simply that the situation was a bit more visible, a bit more obvious in Ireland. Some years later, he retitled it simply The Land Question.

More genericly, "the land question" is perhaps the most important question we need to examine — and one which few educated people have ever been exposed to! No wonder we have the social problems we have.

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

But the real cause will be clear if you will consider that since labor must find its workshop and reservoir in land, the labor question is but another name for the land question, and will reexamine your assumption that private property in land is necessary and right. ... read the whole letter

Henry George: The Crime of Poverty  (1885 speech)

Do you know that I do not think that the average man realises what land is? I know a little girl who has been going to school for some time, studying geography, and all that sort of thing; and one day she said to me: "Here is something about the surface of the earth. I wonder what the surface of the earth looks like?" "Well," I said, "look out into the yard there. That is the surface of the earth." She said, "That the surface of the earth? Our yard the surface of the earth? Why, I never thought of it!" That is very much the case not only with grown men, but with such wise beings as newspaper editors. They seem to think, when you talk of land, that you always refer to farms; to think that the land question is a question that relates entirely to farmers, as though land had no other use than growing crops. Now, I should like to know how a man could even edit a newspaper without having the use of some land. He might swing himself by straps and go up in a balloon, but he could not even then get along without land. What supports the balloon in the air? Land; the surface of the earth. Let the earth drop, and what would become of the balloon? The air that supports the balloon is supported in turn by land. So it is with everything else men can do. Whether a man is working away three thousand feet under the surface of the earth or whether he is working up in the top of one of those immense buildings that they have in New York; whether he is ploughing the soil or sailing across the ocean, he is still using land.

Land! Why, in owning a piece of ground, what do you own? The lawyers will tell you that you own from the centre of the earth right up to heaven; and, so far as all human purposes go, you do. In New York they are building houses thirteen and fourteen stories high. What are men, living in those upper stories, paying for? There is a friend of mine who has an office in one of them, and he estimates that he pays by the cubic foot for air. Well, the man who owns the surface of the land has the renting of the air up there, and would have if the buildings were carried up for miles.

This land question is the bottom question. Man is a land animal. Suppose you want to build a house; can you build it without a place to put it? What is it built of? Stone, or mortar, or wood, or iron — they all come from the earth. Think of any article of wealth you choose, any of those things which men struggle for, where do they come from? From the land. It is the bottom question. The land question is simply the labour question; and when some men own that element from which all wealth must be drawn, and upon which all must live, then they have the power of living ose who do work get less of the products of work. ...

... Men are compelled to compete with each other for the wages of an employer, because they have been robbed of the natural opportunities of employing themselves; because they cannot find a piece of God's world on which to work without paying some other human creature for the privilege.

I do not mean to say that even after you had set right this fundamental injustice, there would not be many things to do; but this I do mean to say, that our treatment of land lies at the bottom of all social questions. This I do mean to say, that, do what you please, reform as you may, you never can get rid of wide-spread poverty so long as the element on which and from which all men must live is made the private property of some men. It is utterly impossible. Reform government — get taxes down to the minimum — build railroads; institute co-operative stores; divide profits, if you choose, between employers and employed-and what will be the result? The result will be that the land will increase in value — that will be the result — that and nothing else. Experience shows this. Do not all improvements simply increase the value of land — the price that some must pay others for the privilege of living? ... read the whole speech

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

... it is best that the truth be fully stated and clearly recognized. He who sees the truth, let him proclaim it, without asking who is for it or who is against it. This is not radicalism in the bad sense which so many attach to the word. This is conservatism in the true sense.

What gives to the Irish Land Question its supreme significance is that it brings into attention and discussion – nay, that it forces into attention and discussion, not a mere Irish question, but a question of world-wide importance. ...

I HAVE dwelt so long upon this question of compensating landowners, not merely because it is of great practical importance, but because its discussion brings clearly into view the principles upon which the land question, in any country, can alone be justly and finally settled. In the light of these principles we see that landowners have no rightful claim either to the land or to compensation for its resumption by the people, and, further than that, we see that no such rightful claim can ever be created. It would be wrong to pay the present landowners for "their" land at the expense of the people; it would likewise be wrong to sell it again to smaller holders. It would be wrong to abolish the payment of rent, and to give the land to its present cultivators. In the very nature of things, land cannot rightfully be made individual property. This principle is absolute. The title of a peasant proprietor deserves no more respect than the title of a great territorial noble. No sovereign political power, no compact or agreement, even though consented to by the whole population of the globe, can give to an individual a valid title to the exclusive ownership of a square inch of soil. The earth is an entailed estate – entailed upon all the generations of the children of men, by a deed written in the constitution of Nature, a deed that no human proceedings can bar, and no proscription determine. Each succeeding generation has but a tenancy for life. Admitting that any set of men may barter away their own natural rights (and this logically involves an admission of the right of suicide), they can no more barter away the rights of their successors than they can barter away the rights of the inhabitants of other worlds. ... read the whole article

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)

Note 2: In "Progress and Poverty," book viii, ch. iv, Henry George speaks of "the effect of substituting for the manifold taxes now imposed, a single tax on the value of land"; but the term did not become a distinctive name until 1888.

The first general movement along the lines of "Progress and Poverty" began New York City election of 1886, when Henry George polled 68,110 votes as an independent candidate for mayor, and was defeated by the Democratic candidate, Abram S. Hewitt, by a plurality of only 22,442, the Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, polling but 60,435. Following that election the United Labor Party was formed, the Syracuse Convention in August, 1887, by the exclusion of the Socialists, came to present the central idea of "Progress and Poverty" as distinguished from the Socialistic propaganda which until then was identified with it. Coincident with the organization of the United Labor Party the Anti-Poverty Society was formed; and the two bodies, one representing the political and the other the religious phase of the idea, worked together until President Cleveland's tariff message of 1887 appeared. In this message Mr. George saw the timid beginnings of that open struggle between protection and free trade to which he had for years looked forward as the political movement that must culminate in the abolition of all taxes save those upon land values, and he responded at once to the sentiments of the message. But many protectionists, who had followed him because they supposed he was a land nationalizer, now broke away from his leadership, and the United Labor Party and the Anti-Poverty Society were soon practically dissolved. Those who understood Mr. George's real position regarding the land question readily acquiesced in his views as to political policy, and a considerable movement resulted, which, however, for some time lacked an identifying name. This was the situation when Thomas G. Shearman, Esq., wrote for the Standard an article on taxation in which he illustrated and advocated the land value tax as a fiscal measure. The article had been submitted without a caption, and Mr. George, then the editor of the Standard, entitled it "The Single Tax." This title was at once adopted by the "George men," as they were often called, and has ever since served as the name of the movement it describes. ...

Q43. Is there any land question in places where land is cheap? In Texas, for example, you can get land as cheap as two dollars an acre. Is there a land question there?
A. There is no place where land is cheap in the sense implied by the question. Land commands a low price in many places, but it is poor land; it is not cheap land. It is true that in Texas there is land that can be had for two dollars an acre, but it would yield less profit to each unit of labor and capital expended upon it than land in New York City which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre. The valuable New York land is the cheaper of the two. The land question is the question in every place where land costs more than it is worth for immediate use. ... read the book

Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan: The Political Economy of Land: Putting Henry George in His Place

Land is the most basic of all economic resources, fundamental to the form that economic development takes. Its use for agricultural purposes is integral to the production of the means of our subsistence. Its use in an urban context is crucial in shaping how effectively cities function and who gets the principal benefits from urban economic growth. Its ownership is a major determinant of the degree of economic inequality: surges of land prices, such as have occurred in Australian cities during the last decade, cause major redistributions of wealth. In both an urban and rural context the use of land – and nature more generally – is central to the possibility of ecological sustainability. Contemporary social concerns about problems of housing affordability and environmental quality necessarily focus our attention on ‘the land question.’

These considerations indicate the need for a coherent political economic analysis of land in capitalist society. Indeed, the analysis of land was central in an earlier era of political economic analysis. The role of land in relation to economic production, income distribution and economic growth was a major concern for classical political economists, such as Smith, Ricardo and Malthus. But the intervening years have seen land slide into a more peripheral status within economic analysis. Political economists working in the Marxian tradition have tended to focus primarily on the capital-labour relation as the key to understanding the capitalist economy. Neo-classical economists typically treat land, if they acknowledge it at all, as a ‘factor of production’ equivalent to labour or capital, thereby obscuring its distinctive features and differences. Keynesian and post-Keynesian economists have also given little attention to land because typically their analyses focus more on consumption, saving, investment and other economic aggregates.

However, there is an alternative current of political economic thought for which ‘the land question’ is central. This is the tradition based on the ideas of Henry George. This article seeks a balanced assessment of the usefulness of George’s ideas in the modern context. It outlines how insights derived from Georgist thinking can help in dealing with contemporary economic, social and environmental problems, while noting deficiencies and additional concerns. Following a general summary of Georgist ideas and policy proposals, six themes are addressed:

    • the moral issue,
    • wealth inequality,
    • housing affordability,
    • environmental concerns,
    • urban development and
    • economic cycles.

In each case it is argued that Georgist insights provide a valuable but incomplete basis for analysis and policy. ... 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