|September 1, 2005||Posted by Lindy Davies under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Land and Justice – Part 3
by Lindy Davies
We have been talking about the tendency for landowners to use land as an investment — a sensible thing to do — not to use it now if they don’t need to, but to think in terms of enjoying its increase in value over time. We have even identified that as the key to the problem of poverty. But good heavens, what can we do about that?
Isn’t that just how the economy works? Isn’t the private ownership of land a basic part of a modern economy? How can we do without such an important institution?
Or in other words won’t the poor always be with us?
Not necessarily. It has been plain, since very earliest days of civil society, that the private ownership of land leads to exploitation and great extremes of wealth and poverty.
And, since at least the time of the Book of Leviticus, we have had a pretty good idea of what to do about it. In that book were recorded the words “The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is Mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.”
This ideal was codified into a remarkable three-stage program for economic justice and social harmony: the land laws of Leviticus. The 3 stages were:
First: The Sabbath. Every seventh day was the Lord’s day; people were enjoined to keep it holy and refrain from work. Now, we were told in Sunday school that this was all about going to church, but, as so often happens, our teachers missed the deeper significance. Kids who try to get out of, say, taking out the garbage on the Sabbath realized that the prohibition was really against gainful work; folks were still allowed to weed the garden and stuff.
What the Sabbath did was to force people to focus on things that had meaning beyond striving and striving to get ahead. Indeed, if one did work on the Sabbath, while one’s neighbors did not, one could become wealthier, at their expense — which was why the Sabbath was a very big deal: one of the ten commandments.
Second: The Sabbatical. Every seventh year, the fields were to lie fallow — thus recognizing the right of the earth itself to be protected against depletion and misuse. And, in the sabbatical year, debts were to be forgiven. A debt that could not be paid off after six years was well on the way to becoming a usurious burden, a guaranteed flow from the labors of one into the coffers of another. The canceling of debts in the seventh year was designed to ensure that nobody got too far ahead, or too far behind.
Third: The Jubilee. Even seven times seven years (actually, every 50th year), each family could return to its original allotment, or heritage, of land — even if it had been sold in the meantime. Under biblical law, then, land could not be sold for ever — never for more than a single generation.
Now it is interesting to note that the economic vision presented in the Bible is not a precursor of communism. Two of the ten commandments explicitly support the institution of private property. The prophets consistently railed against landlords and rulers who robbed the people of the fruits of their labor. The Bible’s economic laws, which Jesus said he “came not to destroy but to fulfill”, envisioned a community in which every family is secure in its own home and property, “beneath their vine and fig tree”. (Incidentally, the quote on the American Liberty Bell, from Leviticus, chapter 25, was a direct reference to these principles : “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the people thereof.” It was a reference to the Jubilee, and the freedom it provided was from debt and servitude.)
The division is clear: there is to be a sacred right of private property in the things that are made by people. But people were not to own the things that were made by God. The 7th commandment sums up both principles in 4 words: “Thou shalt not steal.”
Modern society has looked away from these principles, calling them quaint, naive, inapplicable to the complexities of our time — yet, modern society finds itself mired in chronic economic and social problems for which it can find no solutions — and which threaten to pull down all the advances of civilization into a dark age — occasioned by some combination of war, financial implosion or ecological collapse.
If there is any way out of this dark future, it can only come by way of solving the problem of land and justice.
Fortunately, there exists a plan for that: The Single Tax.
The plan takes the shape of a “fiscal reform”, because it applies a definition of the relationship between the individual and the society that is consistent with both economic efficiency and moral law.
It calls for us to respect the right of labor to create and to save wealth, and to acknowledge that the value of land is created not by its “owners”, but by the entire community. Therefore, we will abolish all taxes on income, products and sales — and collect the full rental value of land and natural resources for public revenue.
What would happen, if we did this? Let’s consider the great problems we were discussing earlier.
Land in cities would be used efficiently. Cities need not become over-crowded; regulation of land use would still be in their power, as it is now. But urban blight and decay would be banished. Public transportation, like other public services, could be provided free, funded out of the value of locational advantages that it created.
The unnatural pressure on farm land near cities would be eliminated, as development proceeded to “infill”. There would no longer be an incentive to haul heads of lettuce across the continent.
Production and employment would be released from the burden of taxation that currently hobbles it. The banking system would be freed from its unhealthy dependence on land for collateral. Combining these benefits with the newly-efficient use of urban infrastructure, unemployment could be cut or even eliminated, even while inflation went down!
But the best benefits of all would be in the developing world. If the land-baron cronies and the multinationals were charged the market rental value of the land they hold, then they would let go of most of it. Access to good farmland would be restored, and the disastrous migration of peasants to ill-equipped poor cities would be reversed. The resulting vitality would bring these poor nations new sources of domestic economic strength — no longer would they have to grovel to maintain foreign credit.
Despite the current flood of bad news on just about every conceivable topic — and although I do accept that many things in my children’s world will probably get worse before they get better — I am optimistic about our long-term prospects. Eventually, I believe that human society will adopt the biblical and georgist wisdom, and organize itself as it must, to achieve justice, efficiency and sustainability.
Eventually we will have tried everything else.
That’s how Clarence Darrow — one of the reform’s many prominent supporters — saw things. He said this: “The ‘single tax’ is so simple, so fundamental, and so easy to carry into effect that I have no doubt that it will be about the last reform the world will ever get. People in this world are not often logical.”
True enough. Yet I have to believe that eventually the obvious truth will start to dawn on us.
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