Land ownership and tax

Was the Roman slave market the origin of our sense of ownership?

DOES it make sense to say that anyone owns land? Ever since the times of the Roman Empire we have had a notion of ownership in terms of absolute dominion over property. But as the late David Graeber wrote in Debt: The First 5,000 Years this idea is ‘really derived from slavery’. “One can imagine property not as a relation between people but as relation between a person and a thing, if one’s starting point is a relation between two people, one of whom is also a thing.” This is how the Romans saw slavery and, according to Graeber, it’s also the origin of the word dominion ‘meaning absolute private property’. In contrast to this view Graeber argues that a better definition of ownership is not ‘really a relation between a person and a thing’ but an ‘understanding or arrangement between people concerning things’ in which we refrain from interfering with one and other’s things.

It is somewhat ironic in these circumstances that what we call ‘landowning’ in the UK actually in law means only that the ‘landowner’ holds land in estate. Absolute possession rests with the Crown. It then becomes relatively easy to imagine this property being socialized, even though this would be, to say the least, politically controversial.

However, there is an alternative approach that does not argue for socializing land but taxing it. In his 2015 book Land Martin Adams argues that the ‘value of land is best shared, and that when we profit from land we profit from society’. This was also the argument used by Henry George in his seminal 1879 book Progress and Poverty. It was written as a way of undermining the Social Darwinism of thinkers like Herbert Spencer which provided the ideological underpinning for the reducing the tax burden on the rich by shifting it on to the poor and the middle classes.

George denied the theory of natural superiority, which also justified the eugenics movement, and argued that economic inequality emerged out of allowing a few people to monopolize natural opportunities and denying them to the rest of society.

For some this would lead them to argue for land nationalisation. But not George: “Recognising the common right to land does not require any shock or dispossession. It can be reached by the simple and easy method of taxing only land values.”, he writes. This, he claimed, would ‘make possible a higher and nobler civilization’. Some of his observations still have a shock resonance with us today: “So long as the increased wealth that progress brings goes to building great fortunes and increasing luxury, progress is not real. When the contrast between the haves and the have-nots grows ever sharper, progress cannot be permanent.” As a matter of interest, George reverts to the labour theory of value proposed by Adam Smith and Karl Marx as opposed to the circular argument identified by Mariana Mazzucato in The Value of Everything in which ‘finance is valued because it is valued, and its extraordinary profits is proof of that value’, which conveniently side-steps the value imparted by the labour and leads to valuing wealth extraction equally with wealth creation.

It is also interesting to note that George identifies the shift from the notion of land being common property in ancient times to one of absolute or exclusive ownership in Roman law. As we have seen his critique of land ownership does not lead him to ‘abolishing titles and declare all land public property’ but to ‘abolish all taxes – except on land values’. George writes that the policy would reduce inequality by distributing one part of the proceeds to ‘individual producers – as wages and interest’ and the other to the ‘community as a whole’. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, George thinks ‘it would become possible to realize the goals of socialism without coercion’.

George addresses many of the objections that are likely to arise against his proposals including the sort of objections raised against Universal Basic Income, particularly the claim that without poverty people would become idle and that ‘labor must be driven, driven with the lash’, while the idle rich simply need to be given more incentives with what has been called corporate welfare. George writes: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Want may be banished but desire would remain.” Humans may only be animals but we are the ‘unsatisfied animal. Every step we take kindles new desires’.

It is easy to read George with a world-weary cynicism – after all we’ve been here before and will be here again and again. We may continue to rail against the same injustices that George railed against only to be frustrated by the forces of reaction.

The forces of reaction continue to frustrate progressives.

But who can deny the force of his argument? “We cannot permit people to vote, then force them to beg. We cannot go on educating them, then refuse them the right to earn a living.” The forces of progress may seem weak at times but George reminds us that we cannot give up the fight.

Join the Conversation


  1. Forgive me, but this is very unsatisfactory. Forgive me, because, as a disclaimer, I don’t wish to suggest that I could deal with it better. It is just that it is so full of non-sequiturs, changes of perspective and other switches of direction and changes of moral value and progressive-intention that no wonder it ends up with nothing like a conclusion or a sense of direction where the argument went.
    There’s always trouble among human beings within whatever society because of one form or another of greed or laziness. These habits arise out of the fact that individual lives star with a long childhood in which one is not sel-sufficient. Tge infant only survives by gree for its mothers milk, for instance. The child has everything done for it, which is a situation it has to grow out of, ie. overcome lazy dependency. At the end of life (where I am) more and more ones terminal decline leaves one subsiding into another childhood. This is a Time Problem, which I have brought to your attention before. But these (bad?!) habits of reaction to thers in the community are basic to the struggles over “rights”, “obligations”, “property”, “dominion”.
    I always start in the Stone Age, with the Family (of all ages/independence) in the Cave, which belongs to them in a sense as a family, just because they are there. The ground outside is not theirs ( any more than those in the neighbouring cave) but they hunt and gather there. I starts to be different when they plant seeds. Somehow, doesn’t their planted space deserve to be dedicated to them so that the seeds can grow? If one looks further at the prehistoric evolution of human society, there are all those developments of systematic agriculture, food surplus sorage, money , justice over disputes, rulership &c C&c. I can’t go on here to speculate about that. But I do think that if one approaches the structure of societies from an evolutionary angle one can see in what direction to look for an answer to how it could all work better without so much bitterness and strife.
    We need to hurry up finding an answer, I think, because it can only lead to trouble trying to contain the tensions where someare as rich as Bezos, and some are penniless, hopeless and starving. Christopher Browne.


  2. Connected but slight topic variation: some years ago I did some research on the ‘ownership’ of Stonehenge. The first evidence to the ownership of Stonehenge was a reference that it was part of the estate of a nunnery founded by Elfrida [Alfrida, Efreda, Ælfthryth or Elfthryth] in the 9th Century. Stonehenge was not specifically listed – of course it was not called Stonehenge in the 9th century. Rather nunnery records simply document the land that it owned which would have encompassed Stonehenge. It then moves on to John Seymour during the reformation. (I can provide more). My endeavours made me wonder when we started to legally paper-record the owning of land. Your piece refers to the Stone Age and family ownership or more a fought for priority to hunt and forage. No one owned the land. I assume this then because a priority of a village or group, and priority to farm or ownership of crops but not the land. At some point we started to own land and write the deeds up in legal documents. I am sure if I had kept searching I could have found an approximate date for this shift. Just interesting to know how it happened. It is of course an essentially European trait. Much of the rest of the world did not own land in the same way until 500 years or thereabouts ago, after the Europeans got there! .


  3. Christopher, I don’t think the blog is quite as bad as all that. I think there is a clear line of thought that starts with different definitions of ownership, takes in different definitions of value and, depending on which ones you prefer leads to either land nationalization or taxing land on the one hand or Social Darwinism and privileging the rich over the poor on the other. And while the conclusion may not be as forceful as you might wish, there is a conclusion – that is to continue fighting against the injustice that George identifies. Unfortunately, political philosophy does not lend itself to deductive, truth preserving, logic but more to inductive generalizations.


  4. Hi Michael, yes that looks as though it was a fascinating piece of research and does tend to confirm the contention I make in the blog that ownership a some point was considered as a relation between people rather than between people and things. Presumably, if Graeber is right then the absolute dominion over land would have come in sometime during the Roman occupation, although that doesn’t explain why it came to continental Europe much later.


  5. Surely the legal record of land ownership – all ultimately vested in the Crown, but allocated at the monarch’s whim to his followers with rights of “freehold” or “scutage” (an obligation to provide the king with a certain number of armed men) – begins with the Doomsday Book.

    The ideas of Henry George have a number of often fanatical adherents, a number of whom infiltrated the nascent Green Party in the early 1980s when we were busy developing policy on every aspect of the radical changes needed by the creation of a sustainable society. The debate on land policy was the fiercest and most protracted of all the many policy debates we had at that time, stretching over a number of conferences and with some sessions being extended late into the evenings, and contested between pro- and anti-Georgist factions, with me being one of the more prominent anti-Georgists.

    I regarded, and continue to regard, George’s theory as overly simplistic, and derived from an unsound analysis based on his situation in a 19th century USA with its wide open fronteer of a seemingly infinite expanse of vacant land which one had only to seize from the native inhabitants (who of course had no rights and no economic worth!). According to this theory, the economic value of land derives from the presence of society on and around it, and is created by that society, and it is expressed as the rental value of that land (determined by Riccardo’s Law), and the “value” of undeveloped land is zero. According to George’s adherents, that land value is therefore properly the property of society as a whole, not of any individual, and should be taxed at the full rental value for the benefit of society.

    Since all wealth derives from the land, according to the theory, that tax would be a just and sufficient replacement for all other taxes, and, allied with a socially determined system of prescribed and permitted land usage, would be a panaecea for all society’s ills, including the speculation in land, inequality and the hoarding of wealth Transparent bullshit to me, but nevertheless a superficially attractive idea to a new young party seeking a major transformation of society and in need of ,a large supply of money to finance it.

    The counter-argument was, and remains, that the rich will always find ways of avoiding taxation, that land has a value as part of the ecosystem which is different to, and far exceeds, its commercial rental value, and is not of infinite supply and so also has a scarcity value. Moreover, the comprehensive planning laws it would involve, coupled with the crippling taxation which would enforce them, would be draconian and dictatorial, and would be based on arbitrary decisions by self-interested local bureaucracies which would not necessarily be in the interests of either the environment or society.

    Our counter-proposal (which I now also regard as being somewhat simplisticly based on a 1970s hippy ethos of “back to the land” self-sufficiency and “the Good Life”), was a legal limit on the amount of land which any individual could own, a dispossession of the Duke of Westminster and all his ilk, and of property companies and the government (eg. the MOD), and a redistribution of land to “the people”, or at least to those of them who wished to become self-sufficient organic smallholders.

    The arguments were long and intense, but the Georgist panaecea rhetoric was sufficiently appealing (and insufficiently enough understood) that the Georgists eventually came out marginally on top, as a point was reached when the majority simply wanted to put the long and bitter debate behind them and move on to other matters. Having achieved their aim, the Georgist fanatics also moved on and disappeared from the Green Party to attempt a similar conversion of the Liberal Party.

    The Green Party was, and remains, left with a watered down and ill-defined policy of some sort of Land Value Tax aimed at curbing land speculation and redistributing wealth, but with no clear idea of how this would be implimented or would operate. I am convinced of the need for some sort of development land tax to return to the community the vast increase in wealth which is created by the granting of planning permission on green field sites, but otherwise as sceptical as ever.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: