The Key to American Land Policy
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Peter Barnes under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Case for Redistribution
by Peter Barnes
Part Two (in case you missed Part One, you can get it from the Archive)
If there’s little to be said for large landholdings on social or environmental grounds, neither can it be said that they are inevitable. Land concentration in America, particularly in the South and West, is not the result of inscrutable historical forces, but of a long train of government policies, sometimes in the form of action, often of inaction. English grants to large landholders in the colonial South, and Mexican grants in the West, could have been broken up at several convenient historical moments, but were allowed to remain intact. Vast expanses of public lands were given away in large chunks to speculators, rather than in small parcels to settlers. Tax and labor laws, reclamation projects and government-financed research, have encouraged large-scale corporate agriculture, to the detriment of independent small farmers and landless farmworkers. On top of all this have come the government’s ultimate reward to big landholders: cash subsidies, mainly for being big.
Why, then, do we need land reform in America? About the only thing that can be said for large landholdings is that they exist, and in the spirit of free enterprise ought to be left untouched. This is the strongest argument in favor of leaving things as they are. Land, however, is not like other forms of wealth in our economy, which we allow to be accumulated without limit: it is a public resource, it is finite, and it is where people live and work. Free enterprise does not merely imply the right to be big. It also implies the right to start. As corporate farms become increasingly integrated with processors and distributors, as they advance toward the technological millennium in which ten-mile-long fields are sowed and harvested by computer-controlled machines, the right to get a start in agriculture will be obliterated – as it almost is today. Americans must decide whether they want the rich to get richer or the poor to have a chance. Agriculture is one of the few places where the poor can have a chance. If it is closed off, if the profits of the few are given precedence over the needs of the many, the consequences can only be unpleasant.
There are additional reasons why it’s time to reform landholding patterns in the United States. Frederick Jackson Turner talked 70 years ago of the frontier as a “safety valve” for urban discontent. If ever the cities needed a safety valve, it is now. Urban problems are virtually insoluble; city residents seem on the verge of a mass psychic breakdown. The exodus from the countryside must not only be stopped, it must be dramatically reversed.
One approach to the problem of population dispersal is to build new communities on rural lands now owned by speculators. This will undoubtedly happen1 but it’s far from enough. It is much more important to revive existing rural communities, and to do so by enabling greater numbers of people to live decently off the land. There is no shortage of people who want to remain on the land, or return to it, if they could do so at higher than a subsistence level. Many Mexican-Americans, blacks and Indians would be among them. So would many whites who have become drained, physically and spiritually, by city living. The difficulty is that the frontier is long gone. That’s why reform, as opposed to the giving away of unsettled land, is essential.
Land reform is also needed to increase the number of people in the United States who are free. This may sound silly in a country that presumes to be a breeder of free men. Yet ever- increasing numbers of Americans are not really free to assume responsibilities or to make major decisions affecting their lives. They work for large corporations or government bureaucracies or on assembly lines. They are not their own bosses, not proud of their work, and not motivated to exercise their full rights as citizens. Farming has traditionally been a bastion of the independent small businessman who won’t take guff from anybody and who prides himself on the quality of his work. But now farming, too, is becoming computerized and corporatized. Its executives wear silk ties and share the attitudes of other wealthy executives; its workers are powerless, dispensable hirelings. If agriculture goes the way of the auto industry, where will our independent citizens come from?
American land policy should have as its highest priority the building of a society in which human beings can achieve dignity. This includes the easing of present social ills, both rural and urban, and the creation of a lasting economic base for democracy. A second priority should be to preserve the beauty of the land. Production of abundant food should be a third goal, but it need not be paramount and is not, in any case, a problem.
End of Part Two.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you’ll be pleased — and perhaps shocked — to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.