One Hundred Years Progress and Poverty
J. de Graaf
[Reprinted from Grondvest, 3rd quarter, 1979.
Condensed from a longer paper]
(Retired professor of social
ethics, dissertation on Russian philosophy, has been president
of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in 1972 president of the
alternative conference in Stockholm on environment up against
the one by the United Nations.)
George's ideas have always appealed to me and still do, rather: do so
anew. I had to admit intuitively that land cannot and should not be
anybody's personal property. So, the rise of the land value as
land-rent increase shouldn't flow into the pockets of individuals or
small groups, but should benefit all for the good of the whole
community. The fruits of the cultivation of the land and of all urban
and rural activities, belong to those who exerted themselves for them,
but the land itself is not a product of human exertion. One may doubt
the righteousness of all kinds of taxations and disagree about it, but
there is no need to doubt George's one and only taxation: the
collecting of all land rent by the public institutions; the
righteousness of this hits the eye.
And not merely logical. It occurred to me that it is concurrent with
fundamental precepts from the Bible, of prophets and apostles,
concerning property. The earth has not been created by man, but by
God. He gave her not to a few, but to all of mankind, to cultivate and
utilize. "Woe unto you who usurps acre after acre, until you own
all the land", says Isaiah the prophet, and the institution of
the Jubilee Year constitutes a lasting criticism for any bartering of
land and for all land speculation. A century has passed since. Where
Marxism has come into power, private ownership of the means of
production has been done away with. But the trend for the investments,
the distribution of the national product, the educational and cultural
policy, the remuneration of labor, etc., etc., everything is being
decided by a small party elite, which has claimed monopolies in every
field, maintaining them with the instruments of violence of the state,
which are at its unrestricted disposal.
Why are these ideas of Henry George topical again?
Henry George was a junior contemporary of Marx. As is known, Marx has
expressed himself extremely unfriendly about George, reproaching him -
unreasonably so - for propagating a panacea (a cure for all ailments).
George actually did hope that his socialization of the land would
create the conditions for the continuation of a just development of
the society, but this development could not be prognosticated by him,
since his central theme was the freedom of the people in the society.
Marx saw this as a defense of (all the injustices of) capitalism and
reproached George for not attacking the private ownership of all means
of production. One could call the abolition of private ownership of
all means of production Marx's "panacea"!
Probably the worst of these monopolies is that of information, being
in the hands of the party elite. Its consequence is that within the
party (let alone outside of it) no elaborate alternative with
potential options in whatever economic or political domain, ever comes
on the table. The results are: stagnation, sudden swerves, stagnation
again, but no tools to make the advancement of the society benefit
from the creativity of its members. As a consequence Marxism finds
itself in a crisis; this is also admitted by many Marxists.
In every, society exists a continuous tension between private,
personal, and group interests and desires on the one hand, and common
interest on the other hand. The public authorities and their
institutions have to look after and ^promote the interests of the
community, the so-called common interest. The community has, as have
individuals and groups, short term as well as long-term interests.
In order to have a strong case in the midst of this struggle of
conflicting interests, facing all kinds of pressure from the short
term interests of individuals and groups, the public authorities must
have at their disposal social wealth, a social fund, which could
compete in legal claims and power with the legal claims, power and
property in private hands. George's allotment of all land-rent to the
public authorities and their institutions would provide a firm basis
for this fund, so that the community will not be confronted time and
again with the frustrating dilemma of either curtailment of public
expenditure or a raise of tax.
In The Netherlands land is extraordinary scarce because of population
density. This to me seems an additional reason to begin thinking at
last in a more Georgist way and return the land to the community. This
would pull away the base of the scandalous land speculations.
George surely didn't envisage an almighty socialist state, nor an
economic social order, characterized by monopoly-capitalism. His image
of free association in equality could not admit either of these. His
a cooperative society: "By a thousand different roads
(would) the public revenues be made subservient to the promotion of
the common interest and happiness. We would achieve the socialist's
ideal, but not by means of suppression taken by the state. Government
would change its nature and become the administration of a large
As a first step he advocated: to render the land communal property.
This doesn't bring about an instant cooperative society, but as long
as we haven't even ventured considering and advocating that first
step, we are still trailing way behind George.