Seeing What's There
One afternoon, back in the days of the great bloom of New York City panhandling in the early 90s, I made the by-then reflexive plunge into my pocket, and found nothing but a twenty-dollar bill. I explained to the beggar that the twenty was all I had, and I couldn't afford to give it to him. A conversation ensued, which, the guy told me, meant a lot more to him than the money. "When so many people walk by and don't seem to see you," he said, "you start to wonder if you might really not be here."
I often think of that moment as I ponder the plight of the Georgists. Having been given the responsibility of acquainting the world with a radically important insight, they go out and find that people simply cannot see them or, if they can, they refuse to admit it!
That makes the Georgists sound rather pathetic. But, despite their lack of honor in their own country, I'd suggest that the Georgists are not the most pathetic players in the field of political economy. True, they lack sophisticated training, popular support and institutional funding. Nevertheless, Georgists can accomplish one thing that most of today's credentialed economists have a great deal of trouble with: they can discern the obvious.
A highly-skilled stage magician can make something huge -- the Statue of Liberty, say -- seem to disappear. Yet if that magician were to actually start to believe in his own smoke and mirrors -- if he actually expected the statue to be gone -- our feelings about his performance would shift from awe to pity. Modern economics has performed the astounding trick of making land -- the natural materials and opportunities from which wealth comes -- disappear from economic analysis. Yet, alas, many have come to believe in their own illusion.
If you had never thought about land as a separate factor, of course, then its absence from all manner of economic consideration wouldn't ring any bells. People have been trained to ignore the meaning of land -- and ignore it they do. From the op-ed pages to the college textbooks, the blanket assumption is that the private ownership and capital-ization of land is just the Way of Things; it's how modern economies work. If we didn't have it, why, we'd be left with either a Traditional Economy, or Socialism. Just really not thinkable.
This has profound consequences. Here are just a few examples -- no doubt the reader can think of more. If fee-simple land ownership is sacrosanct, then:
Malthus was right. The poor will indeed be with us always -- and they will always breed with unsustainable rapidity. Widespread improvements in living standards, which bring about a sensible drop in fertility, will not spread beyond their current enclaves in the industrial nations of the north. The urbanization of the poor south will continue, and misery will grow. Poor people keep being born, and there just isn't enough land to go around. Transnational corporations have every right to retain their vast holdings, on which they pay local peasants starvation wages to grow crops for export.Fortunately for us all, the fee-simple ownership of land need not be sacrosanct. There is an alternative that is not only viable but infinitely preferable. The replacement of burdensome, invasive taxes with public collection of rent would confer a smorgasbord of benefits on society, within the overall structure of a free-market economy. Many things that seem inconceivable now would become not only possible but actually profitable!
Keynes was right. The boom/bust cycle is a permanent feature of the "modern" economy, which can only be managed by ever-increasing governmental management of fiscal and monetary policy, and the corruption that stems from that is just an unfortunate by-product. Inflation will always overheat before all the willing and able workers can find jobs; taxation will always place a dead weight on production. Real estate speculators have every right to enjoy the appreciation of their assets as GDP grows and workers become more productive; it's their due, fair pay for entrepreneurial acumen.
Marx was right. There is an inherent structural tendency within the "capitalist" system for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Labor's gains via legislation or collective bargaining will always tend to erode, as real wages inexorably drop. Those at the top will resort to ever-more-drastic repressive measures to keep disgruntled workers in line. As the inefficiencies and dead weights of the system grow, regimes will resort to imperialistic wars to secure markets, resources and profit margins.
There really is a global "race to the bottom". Nothing can be done to provide better opportunities for poor workers in developing countries. They need the work -- at whatever pay the multinationals are willing to give them. If nations want to develop at all, they have to play by the rules of the WTO and the IMF. Land barons in those nations have no incentive to let go of their holdings to give workers better options, and none has any right to make them do so.
George W. Bush was right. Terrorism will continue to be on the rise. People who resent our advantages and hate what we stand for will become increasingly desperate and dangerous, and we must do what's necessary to protect ourselves, even if it means sacrificing some of our Constitutional freedoms. Our very way of life depends on control over the last abundant, easily-accessed sources of oil.
At one time, slavery was deemed a sensible, sound practice; the Bible condones it. At one time, it was taken for granted that women had no rights beyond what their fathers and husbands whose property they were chose to grant them. Yet, through the long years when such backward practices held sway, there were always thoughtful individuals who saw the denial of basic human rights for what it was, despite society's apparent blindness. The most basic right of all is that of life itself -- yet, if fee-simple land ownership is sacrosanct, then we are obliged to pay a landowner for access to the natural resources that we must have in order to live. A hundred and twenty six years ago, Henry George thundered, "Private property in land is a bold, bare, enormous wrong, like to chattel slavery." Most people still have not been inclined, or had the chance, to stop and think about the truth of those words -- but they will.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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