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Sharing an Inheritance

Why on earth do our laws and traditions permit some of us to privatize that which rightly belongs to ALL of us? There is enough to go around, but it isn't going around. It is getting stuck in the pockets of those who have claimed the economic value of our best land as their own treasure, and declared that others must pay the taxes which support our common spending (and thereby make the best land even more valuable!!)

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

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. ...

God’s laws do not change. Though their applications may alter with altering conditions, the same principles of right and wrong that hold when men are few and industry is rude also hold amid teeming populations and complex industries. In our cities of millions and our states of scores of millions, in a civilization where the division of labor has gone so far that large numbers are hardly conscious that they are land-users, it still remains true that we are all land animals and can live only on land, and that land is God’s bounty to all, of which no one can be deprived without being murdered, and for which no one can be compelled to pay another without being robbed. But even in a state of society where the elaboration of industry and the increase of permanent improvements have made the need for private possession of land wide-spread, there is no difficulty in conforming individual possession with the equal right to land. For as soon as any piece of land will yield to the possessor a larger return than is had by similar labor on other land a value attaches to it which is shown when it is sold or rented. Thus, the value of the land itself, irrespective of the value of any improvements in or on it, always indicates the precise value of the benefit to which all are entitled in its use, as distinguished from the value which, as producer or successor of a producer, belongs to the possessor in individual right.

To combine the advantages of private possession with the justice of common ownership it is only necessary therefore to take for common uses what value attaches to land irrespective of any exertion of labor on it. The principle is the same as in the case referred to, where a human father leaves equally to his children things not susceptible of specific division or common use. In that case such things would be sold or rented and the value equally applied.

It is on this common-sense principle that we, who term ourselves single-tax men, would have the community act.

We do not propose to assert equal rights to land by keeping land common, letting any one use any part of it at any time. We do not propose the task, impossible in the present state of society, of dividing land in equal shares; still less the yet more impossible task of keeping it so divided.

We propose — leaving land in the private possession of individuals, with full liberty on their part to give, sell or bequeath it — simply to levy on it for public uses a tax that shall equal the annual value of the land itself, irrespective of the use made of it or the improvements on it. And since this would provide amply for the need of public revenues, we would accompany this tax on land values with the repeal of all taxes now levied on the products and processes of industry — which taxes, since they take from the earnings of labor, we hold to be infringements of the right of property.

This we propose, not as a cunning device of human ingenuity, but as a conforming of human regulations to the will of God.

God cannot contradict himself nor impose on his creatures laws that clash.

If it be God’s command to men that they should not steal — that is to say, that they should respect the right of property which each one has in the fruits of his labor;

And if he be also the Father of all men, who in his common bounty has intended all to have equal opportunities for sharing;

Then, in any possible stage of civilization, however elaborate, there must be some way in which the exclusive right to the products of industry may be reconciled with the equal right to land.

If the Almighty be consistent with himself, it cannot be, as say those socialists referred to by you, that in order to secure the equal participation of men in the opportunities of life and labor we must ignore the right of private property. Nor yet can it be, as you yourself in the Encyclical seem to argue, that to secure the right of private property we must ignore the equality of right in the opportunities of life and labor. To say the one thing or the other is equally to deny the harmony of God’s laws.

But, the private possession of land, subject to the payment to the community of the value of any special advantage thus given to the individual, satisfies both laws, securing to all equal participation in the bounty of the Creator and to each the full ownership of the products of his labor. ...

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.) ...

3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (8.)

Your own statement that land is the inexhaustible storehouse that God owes to man must have aroused in your Holiness’s mind an uneasy questioning of its appropriation as private property, for, as though to reassure yourself, you proceed to argue that its ownership by some will not injure others. You say in substance, that even though divided among private owners the earth does not cease to minister to the needs of all, since those who do not possess the soil can by selling their labor obtain in payment the produce of the land.

Suppose that to your Holiness as a judge of morals one should put this case of conscience:

I am one of several children to whom our father left a field abundant for our support. As he assigned no part of it to any one of us in particular, leaving the limits of our separate possession to be fixed by ourselves, I being the eldest took the whole field in exclusive ownership. But in doing so I have not deprived my brothers of their support from it, for I have let them work for me on it, paying them from the produce as much wages as I would have had to pay strangers. Is there any reason why my conscience should not be clear?

What would be your answer? Would you not tell him that he was in mortal sin, and that his excuse added to his guilt? Would you not call on him to make restitution and to do penance?

Or, suppose that as a temporal prince your Holiness were ruler of a rainless land, such as Egypt, where there were no springs or brooks, their want being supplied by a bountiful river like the Nile. Supposing that having sent a number of your subjects to make fruitful this land, bidding them do justly and prosper, you were told that some of them had set up a claim of ownership in the river, refusing the others a drop of water, except as they bought it of them; and that thus they had become rich without work, while the others, though working hard, were so impoverished by paying for water as to be hardly able to exist?

Would not your indignation wax hot when this was told?

Suppose that then the river-owners should send to you and thus excuse their action:

The river, though divided among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, for there is no one who drinks who does not drink of the water of the river. Those who do not possess the water of the river contribute their labor to get it; so that it may be truly said that all water is supplied either from one’s own river, or from some laborious industry which is paid for either in the water, or in that which is exchanged for the water.

Would the indignation of your Holiness be abated? Would it not wax fiercer yet for the insult to your intelligence of this excuse?

I do not need more formally to show your Holiness that between utterly depriving a man of God’s gifts and depriving him of God’s gifts unless he will buy them, is merely the difference between the robber who leaves his victim to die and the robber who puts him to ransom. But I would like to point out how your statement that “the earth, though divided among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all” overlooks the largest facts.

From your palace of the Vatican the eye may rest on the expanse of the Campagna, where the pious toil of religious congregations and the efforts of the state are only now beginning to make it possible for men to live. Once that expanse was tilled by thriving husbandmen and dotted with smiling hamlets. What for centuries has condemned it to desertion? History tells us. It was private property in land; the growth of the great estates of which Pliny saw that ancient Italy was perishing; the cause that, by bringing failure to the crop of men, let in the Goths and Vandals, gave Roman Britain to the worship of Odin and Thor, and in what were once the rich and populous provinces of the East shivered the thinned ranks and palsied arms of the legions on the simitars of Mohammedan hordes, and in the sepulcher of our Lord and in the Church of St. Sophia trampled the cross to rear the crescent!

If you will go to Scotland, you may see great tracts that under the Gaelic tenure, which recognized the right of each to a foothold in the soil, bred sturdy men, but that now, under the recognition of private property in land, are given up to wild animals. If you go to Ireland, your Bishops will show you, on lands where now only beasts graze, the traces of hamlets that, when they were young priests, were filled with honest, kindly, religious people.*

* Let any one who wishes visit this diocese and see with his own eyes the vast and boundless extent of the fairest land in Europe that has been ruthlessly depopulated since the commencement of the present century, and which is now abandoned to a loneliness and solitude more depressing than that of the prairie or the wilderness. Thus has this land system actually exercised the power of life and death on a vast scale, for which there is no parallel even in the dark records of slavery. — Bishop Nulty’s Letter to the Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of Meath.

If you will come to the United States, you will find in a land wide enough and rich enough to support in comfort the whole population of Europe, the growth of a sentiment that looks with evil eye on immigration, because the artificial scarcity that results from private property in land makes it seem as if there is not room enough and work enough for those already here.

Or go to the Antipodes, and in Australia, as in England, you may see that private property in land is operating to leave the land barren and to crowd the bulk of the population into great cities. Go wherever you please where the forces loosed by modern invention are beginning to be felt and you may see that private property in land is the curse, denounced by the prophet, that prompts men to lay field to field till they “alone dwell in the midst of the earth.

To the mere materialist this is sin and shame. Shall we to whom this world is God’s world — we who hold that man is called to this life only as a prelude to a higher life — shall we defend it? ... read the whole letter

Rev. A. C. Auchmuty: Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)

IF two men find a diamond they do not march to a lapidary to have it cut in two. If three sons inherit a ship they do not proceed to saw her into three pieces; nor do they agree that if this cannot be done equal division is impossible. Nor yet is there no other way to secure the rights of the owners of a railway than by breaking up rail, engines, rolling stock and stations into as many separate bits as there are shareholders. And so it is not necessary in order to secure equal rights to land to make an equal division of land. All that it is necessary to do is to collect rent for the common benefit. — Social Problems — Chapter 19, The First Great Reform

WE would simply take for the community what belongs to the community, the value that attaches to land by the growth of the community; leave sacredly to the individual all that belongs to the individual; and, treating necessary monopolies as functions of the State, abolish all restrictions and prohibitions save those required for public health, safety, morals and convenience. — The Condition of Labor, an Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII 

MAN is driven by his instincts and needs to form society. Society, thus formed, has certain needs and functions for which revenue is required. These needs and functions increase with social development, requiring a larger and larger revenue. Now, experience and analogy, if not the instinctive perceptions of the human mind, teach us that there is a natural way of satisfying every natural want. And if human society is included in nature, as it surely is, this must apply to social wants as well as to the wants of the individual, and there must be a natural or right method of taxation, as there is a natural or right method of walking. —Social Problems — Chapter 19, The First Great Reform

... go to "Gems from George"

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

Q52. Is not the right of ownership of a gold ring the same as the ownership of a gold mine? and if the latter is wrong is not the former also wrong?
A. If it be wrong for you to own the spring of water which you and your fellows use, is it therefore wrong for you to own the water that you lift from the spring to drink? If so how do you propose to slake your thirst? If you argue in reply that it is not wrong for you to own the spring, then how shall your fellows slake their thirst when you treat them, as you would have a right to, as trespassers upon your property? To own the source of labor products is to own the labor of others; to own what you produce from that source is to own only your own labor. Nature furnishes gold mines, but men fashion gold rings. The right of ownership is radically different.... read the book

Charles B. Fillebrown: A Catechism of Natural Taxation, from Principles of Natural Taxation (1917)

Q5. What is meant by equal right to land?
A. The right of access upon equal terms -- preference to be secured only upon payment of a premium that will extinguish the equal rights of all other men.

Q6. What is meant by a joint or common right to land?
A. A joint or common right to the rent of land -- a right such as heirs-at-law have to share the income of or rent of an estate. ... read the whole article

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 1: Time to Upgrade (pages 3-14)

All thought processes start with premises and flow to conclusions. Here are the main premises of this book.

1. WE HAVE A CONTRACT — Each generation has a contract with the next to pass on the gifts it has jointly inherited. These gifts fall into three broad categories: nature, community, and culture. The first category includes air, water, and ecosystems. The second includes laws, infrastructure, and many systems by which we connect with one another. The third includes language, art, and science. All of these gifts are immensely valuable, and need to be preserved if not enhanced.

2. WE ARE NOT ALONE — We living humans could benefit from a bit more humility. Not only do our children and grandchildren matter, so do other beings and their offspring. They have a right to be here, even if they aren’t useful to us. An economic system should represent their interests as well as ours. A practical way to do this is needed.

3. ILLTH HAPPENS — Poverty, pollution, despair, and ill-health — what John Ruskin called illth — is the dark side of capitalism. This dark side needs to be addressed.

4. FIX THE CODE, NOT THE SYMPTOMS — If we want to reduce illth on an economy-wide scale, we need to change the code that produces it. Ameliorating symptoms after the fact is a losing strategy. Unless the code itself is changed, our economic machine will always create more illth than it cleans up. Moreover, illth prevention is a lot cheaper than illth cleanup.

5. REVISE WISELY — Most of what’s in our current code is fine as is, and shouldn’t be tinkered with. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a valid maxim. What does need fixing should be fixed gradually whenever possible, as fairly as possible, and at the lowest cost possible. Efficiency and grace matter.

6. MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING — Money is the blood of our economic system; it shouldn’t be the soul. Humans have needs and desires that can’t be met by exchanging dollars. These needs include connection to family and community, closeness to nature, and meaning in life. A twenty-first-century economic system must address these needs, too. This doesn’t mean it must fill them directly; often, the best it can do is leave space for them to be filled in nonmonetary ways. What it shouldn’t do is get in the way of their being met.

7. GET THE INCENTIVES RIGHT — Notwithstanding the above, an economic system works best when it rewards desired behavior. As Mary Poppins put it, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” (and as I’ve never forgotten, offering a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s was the best way Working Assets ever found to get customers). While we’re looking for methods to protect nature and future generations, we need to make the incentives work for living humans as well.

If you disagree with any of these premises, you’re unlikely to fancy my conclusions. If, on the other hand, these premises make sense to you, then welcome to these pages. I won’t bore you with statistics, or tell you, yet again, that our planet is going to hell; I’m tired, as I suspect you are, of numbers and gloom. Nor will I tell you we can save the planet by doing ten easy things; you know it’s not that simple. What I will tell you is how we can retool our economic system, one step at a time, so that after a decent interval, it respects nature and the human psyche, and still provides abundantly for our material needs.

Perhaps capitalism will always involve a Faustian deal of some sort: if we want the goods, we must accept the bads. But if we must make a deal with the devil, I believe we can make a much better one than we presently have. We’ll have to be shrewd, tough, and bold.

But I’m confident that, if we understand how to get a better deal, we will get one. After all, our children and lots of other creatures are counting on us. ... read the whole chapter

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 4: The Limits of Privatization (pages 49-63)

It’s tempting to believe that private owners, by pursuing their own self-interest, can preserve shared inheritances. No one likes being told what to do, and words like statism conjure fears of bureaucracy at best and tyranny at worst. By contrast, privatism connotes freedom.

In this chapter, we look at Garrett Hardin’s second alternative for saving the commons: privatism, or privatization. I argue that private corporations, operating in unconstrained markets, can allocate resources efficiently but can’t preserve them. The latter task requires setting aside some supplies for future generations — something neither markets nor corporations, when left to their own devices, will do. The reason lies in the algorithms and starting conditions of our current operating system. ...

Propertize, But Don’t Privatize

Simply turning the commons over to corporations, without compensation or further ado, is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. There’s no guarantee the corporations will preserve the asset, much less share its benefits widely. We’re asked to believe that corporate owners will do the right things, either because it’s in their self-interest or because they’re socially responsible, but historical evidence and the inner logic of corporations suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to propertize a natural inheritance without privatizing it, and in the next chapter I’ll show how this can work. The basic idea is to turn pieces of the commons into common property rather than corporate property. This would let us charge corporations higher (and truer) prices for using the commons, while sharing the benefits of those higher prices broadly. And it would ensure that the quantity of usage rights sold — which is to say, the level of pollution allowed — is set with the interests of future generations foremost in mind. ... read the whole chapter

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 5: Reinventing the Commons (pages 65-78)

Trust and liquidity, I eventually realized, are just two small rivulets in an enormous river of common wealth that encompasses nature, community, and culture. Nature’s gifts are all those wondrous things, living and nonliving, that we inherit from the creation. Community includes the myriad threads, tangible and intangible, that connect us to other humans efficiently. Culture embodies our vast store of science, inventions, and art.

Despite its invisibility, the value of our common wealth is immense. How much, roughly, is it worth? It’s easy to put a dollar value on private assets; they’re traded regularly, so their exchange value — if not their intrinsic value — is readily knowable. This isn’t the case with common wealth. Many shared inheritances are valuable beyond measure. Others are potentially quantifiable, but there’s no current market for them.

Fortunately, economists are a clever lot, and they’ve developed methodologies to estimate the value of things that aren’t traded. Using such methodologies, it’s possible to get an order of magnitude for the value of common wealth. The conclusion that emerges from numerous studies is that even though much common wealth can’t be valued monetarily, the parts that can be valued are worth more than all private assets combined (see figure 5.1). ... read the whole chapter




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