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.
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.