What is meant by "We must make land common property"
[Reprinted from Land and Freedom,
Among followers of Henry George this sentence is perhaps the most
argued about, the most explained. And yet, not only is it italicized
in Progress and Poverty as the only remedy for the social
problem of poverty, but in one form or another the thought is repeated
in all of George's books. It is known that even during his lifetime
the discussion raged as to the appropriateness or advisability of so
phrasing the remedy. And yet these arguments seemed not to have
influenced his logical mind, for in his last book, the Science of
Political Economy, he again arrives at the conclusion that private
property in land must be abolished.
Taken in conjunction with his theory of property, the firmness with
which he clung to this conviction is easily understood. The only
ethical basis for private property is production. Since land cannot be
produced, title to it cannot be founded on ethical grounds, and can be
explained only in terms of force, or robbery. Even the argument that
private property in land is expedient must admit that social sanction
is necessary to the existence of the institution, and that means
Now, ownership consists of the enjoyment of the exchange value as
well as the use value of things. A soldier does not own his uniform
because he has exclusive use of it while he is in the army; it is
always government property. To say that I own the size, color, cloth
and buttons of the shirt I wear, but have not the right to Sell the
shirt, is to say that I do not own it. Likewise, to say that I own
land because I enjoy exclusive use of it is to employ a euphemism. The
tenant farmer does not own his farm which would be true also if his
tenancy were based on a lease from the government, or upon the mere
payment of annual rent to the community.
Only the one who has the right to sell a thing is the owner of it.
Particularly is this so with a privilege, which has no use value
whatsoever. If I have a patent which I lease out on a royalty basis it
is the privilege of collecting this royalty that is the substance of
my ownership of the patent. Likewise, the privilege of collecting
rent, or the capitalized rent, is the essence of my ownership in the
land. To deprive me of that privilege is to abolish my ownership.
If the dividends on a bond which I hold are and always will be paid
to another person, can I be said to own the bond? True, I can use it
for wall paper; but in that case it is merely a piece of paper, not a
bond, as far as I am concerned. Only if I receive some portion, if not
all, of the dividends which are paid on the bond is it mine; in that
case I can capitalize the yield and sell the bond.
Similarly, ownership of land consists only of the legal right to
collect the rent it yields, which necessarily implies the power to
transfer this legal right. When this privilege is denied to me my
ownership of land ceases, even though my tenure in usufruct remains
secure. The owner of a skyscraper on leased land does not own the
land, even though he has a 99-year lease on it, because he cannot
collect rent and he cannot sell the site. If he pays a fixed rent, and
if this is less than its economic rent, to the extent that he collects
this difference he becomes a part owner.
It is evident that public collection of rent is the denial of private
property in land. Private use of land is quite another thing. And it
can be conclusively shown that private use would be more secure if
rent were publicly collected. But George's emphatic repetition, in one
form or another, of the idea that private property in land is
indefensible indicates that he clearly identified exchange value as
the essence of private property in land.
Furthermore, if private property in land is unethical then the
private collection of rent, which is the substance of the ownership,
is likewise unethical. A philosophical question as to the right of
society to rent then arises. If no one individually can rightfully
claim rent as his own, can a group of individuals rightfully claim it?
The usual ethical argument for the public collection of rent is that
it is a socially created value. To which comes the specious rejoinder,
from collectivists, that all values are socially created. Which is not
true. The discussion of the difference between privately and publicly
created values hinges much on the meaning of terms, and is usually
quite fruitless because both the individualist and the collectivist
cannot agree on their definitions, having their separate conclusions
But, the argument that the public is entitled to the rent of land
because rent is by its nature public property is irrefutable. The very
fact that land is not produced by man gives it a character that
nothing else in the world has. And, whether we accept the story of
creation in Genesis or not whether we identify God with Jehovah or
with nature, our common ownership of the earth must rest on our common
need of it. Public ownership of the land therefore is ultimately based
on the fact that land is necessary to life.
Thus, public collection of rent is justified by the vested right of
the public in the land.