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Henry George, the Libertarians, and The State

The problem of land.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 17, 2003

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Henry George, the Libertarians, and The State_James Leroy Wilson-The problem of land. Libertarianism is the political philosophy that defends individual freedom and private property. It has pretty rock-solid answers to many objections. The libertarian know-it-all who refutes every pro-State argument at a party has become a joke in libertarian circles. Yes, the argument is won, but people still remain unconvinced. Nobody becomes a Libertarian as a result of the exchange. In fact, nobody wants to be friends with the libertarian. (It takes a certain degree of self-awareness, which often is correlated to oddball-ness and lack of at least social skills, to admire the preference for individualism within the libertarian philosophy.)

No doubt, a lifetime of indoctrination by the government schools and the media establishment contribute to mainstream resistance to libertarianism. It is hard to shake beliefs and prejudices built up over a lifetime. It was hard for me, too. Who wants to admit that the Civil War was at best unnecessary, or that our participation in World War II was a make-work spending program to cover up for FDR's failed New Deal? Those are tough pills to swallow, even when the evidence pours in. It's not a happy thought to think that our nation's history is no more worthy of praise - or of condemnation - than that of any other power that has existed in the world. We want to think we are different, that we are special. So do the French. So did the Germans and Japanese. Still do the Canadians. And especially the Chinese. (The British are exempt from my accusations because, although more guilty than most, they also invented white liberal guilt and self-loathing.) We don't want to confront the fact that we may be no better than the rest of them. That human beings are human beings. That just by being American doesn't make anyone happier, or even luckier. That to be poorer and happy is better than to be rich and unhappy.

But that's not where the problem of libertarianism lies. The problem is not the principle of non-aggression against individuals. Nor is it in the property people own. For property is the result of the individual working to improve his life. No one has the right to take the fruits of another's labor. There are valid moral and economic arguments for that principle. But that's not the problem, and it's not today's topic.

The problem with libertarianism is not in the property, but in the resources, which can be ground, underground, water (oceans, rivers, etc.), or air. In the economic sense, the general category of the earth's resources is called land. Private property is not the problem, because it is the result of individual initiative and labor. But it requires the resources and space of the planet - land - to exist. The private ownership of land can pose a problem. One person's ownership of land can amount to the restriction on others. If all land was to be privately owned, it would be possible, if "no trespassers" was the policy of all landowners, that no one would be free to move at all, except on their own land - if they had any.

Further problems may arise. Large areas of unused land may still be fenced off, denying others the opportunity to use it. If the private title-holder of that land does not live there, and has merely inherited it, does he have greater claim to it than others who would choose to do something productive with it or on it?

And then there is the question of community expectations. Do private landholders have the right to build the tallest skyscrapers in the world, adjacent to and surrounding an airport which relies on descending aircraft to reach its runways? Does one's purchase of a house with a beautiful mountain view entitle the owner to have the view unspoiled, or can another landowner spoil the view by building a factory that blocks the view? Would not the price of the house be affected by that possibility?

This goes back to the fundamentals of politics and The State. Ultimately, all issues boil down to ownership of, and access to, land. This is the one genuine test, the one issue where I can concede that individual claims may be outweighed by the claims of others. If there is one reason for civil government, it is to work out the definition and extent of land rights, so that no one may be denied the right to live, move, or earn a living. Democracy has slid into socialism/fascism, bankruptcy, and despotism everywhere it's been tried - and modern democracies are well on that course, especially the USA. So if Democracy has any theoretical merit whatsoever, it is that all should have equal access to air, land, the underground, and water unless there are compelling reasons why private ownership of these things would be better.

The State has proven to be a disaster in this regard. Land rights is the one reason that can justify its existence, and it still screws it up. The miseries of low factory wages, and of less-than-subsistence farming in the underdeveloped world, can be traced to actions of The State. No individual or nuclear family is able to "own" several thousands of acres of land. They can't possibly make it all their "property" by cultivating it. It takes a grant - permission from - the State for them to be "entitled" to it. Whether inherited from the grants of corrupt imperial European powers or their corrupt native-born successors, large landowners are what they are because the State gave their land to them, not because of their own exertions of labor. And this drives the rural poor into "squatting" on land they don't technically own, to clear virgin forests for farms because large landowners "own" but neither cultivate nor allow access to more fertile soil, or to go to the cities to either scavenge or work in factories for depressed wages.

Thomas Jefferson said that it is a violation of natural right for The State to deny its citizens the right to homestead unoccupied, cultivatable land. Urban factory-work would be less attractive if self-sufficiency on a small farm was an option. Wages in any market would rise if the population was more dispersed and had more options.

The USA has its own ugly history regarding land. The Revolutionary War seems to have been as much about the wealthy wanting to gain large tracts of western land, which the Crown had declared to be off-limits to speculation, as about anything else. Albert Jay Nock reports in *Our Enemy: The State* that of all the founders of our Republic, only the agrarian libertarian Thomas Jefferson and the patriotic Machiavellian Alexander Hamilton had no conflicts-of-interest regarding trying to profit from western land grants.

Further, the USA conquered too much territory too quickly, and rushed too fast to settle it all. Had "squatters," that is, homesteaders seeking self-sufficiency and freedom, had been left to their own devices, the USA would have developed "naturally" and policies to exterminate native Indians and to federally subsidize railroad firms would not have taken root.

Henry George, a Californian who came of age in the 1850's and 60's, saw urban poverty first-hand around the world and traced the problem to access to land. His book *Progress and Poverty* is the all-time best-selling book on economics. George was a two-time candidate for mayor of New York and one of the most famous men of the last two decades of the 19th century. His solution to economic and social problems was to tax the value of land itself. Not the improvements on land, mind you. Not the house, not the crop, but just the value of the land itself, as determined by community demand for it. He viewed it as "rent": the land belongs to all the community, and therefore the community should charge the landholder the amount that the community values that land.

Later economists and philosophers demolished this "solution" because, on the one hand, it is impossible to judge the value of the land accurately except by what has been built on it or been done to it, that is, how it has been improved. And second, that it is unjust to drive up the tax on the land of a residential home-owner or small farmer just because neighboring land-owners created improvements that made the entire area more attractive and thus drove all land values up.

That said, George's solution seems to be the work of an honest man driven by compassion instead of hate, justice instead of power. He was a free-trader all the way, and believed the individual was entitled to all of the fruits of his labor and to none of the fruits of other people's labor. He used his mind, not his jealousies, to concoct his solution, however erroneous it may be. And I'd still say that, if we are to have government at all, that the most just tax would be some sort of taxes on titles to land. Not taxes on production and wealth, as we have now.

If the major political parties were defined by followers of George in one and libertarians in the other, and if the chief issues revolved around the equitable distribution of land, we'd have a very just and morally healthy society indeed. As it is, we live in a vastly different, darkly fascist State in which politicians and philosophers occupy their minds on how they can control other people. That's what current "liberals" and "conservatives" want to do. Punish people for their "vices" like seeking to make more money, over-eating, or otherwise trying to find pleasure in life. Anything that exalts the reality of the individual over the intangible concepts called "society" or "The State" is to be punished. Socialism v. fascism, or in America, Hillary-ism v. W.-ism, is where we argue. The idea that people should be left alone to pursue their own happiness is thought by most politicians to be an "anachronism" - something the Founders wouldn't have agreed to if they understood modern society.

But civil government, to the extent it must exist at all, must exist for justice, not for The State, not for the utter thuggery and selfishness of those who get thrills in forcing others to conform to their will. A political philosophy that scorns justice for the individual is a political philosophy at odds with any basic tenet of morality and ethics. Georgeists and libertarians have a lot of disagreements, but either option is superior to almost anything else, because they understand that society and community is the product of individuals and their wills and not vise-versa.

We'd all be better off if more people had greater, real compassion for individuals and, like George, seek genuine reform. But the greater short-term pleasure resides in smearing the "other" party. Such are the fruits of democracy.

Comments (2)

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Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
July 18, 2003
Dear Editor, I hope that James Leroy Wilson will please clarify: Do you believe that as of December 8, 1941, the USA should still not have entered WWII? That Congress's declaration of war had nothing to do with the Day that would live in infamy and instead was FDR's cover for a failed program in socialism? That the western allies of France and Britain were wrong to guarantee Poland's integrity after betraying Czechoslovakia's, and that the American lend-lease agreement should have been extended to the Nazis out of fairness?

Thank you. Sincerely, Pastor Jonathan Wilson, Chicago, Illinois

James Leroy Wilson writes:
July 18, 2003
In response to Jonathan Wilson:

John Flynn's 1948 book The Roosevelt Myth indicates war plans against Japan had commenced in 1938. He was a journalist, and had asked someone close to the FDR administration what Roosevelt was planning to do regarding the re-emergence of Depression. The answer? More government spending. On what (there's nothing left to spend on!)? The answer: Battleships. Why? Because we are going to have a war with Japan.

This was before Munich. Garet Garrett, another journalist, provides in The People's Pottage evidence that the Munich appeasement over Czeckoslovakia had Roosevelt's telegraphed fingerprints all over it.

Which brings up another question. If we are to condemn the world's statesmen at the time for not recognizing Hitler's true intentions (which was eastward expansion), why would that have mattered to Great Britain and France, let alone the USA? What a price we paid for the defense of Poland, which we handed over to the USSR's Stalin anyway! In defense of the non-aggression principle, Great Britain and France declared war on Germnay, but not on the Soviet Union, which was equally guilty regarding Poland.

By the way, the USA gave Stalin, in today's money, $170 billion dollars in order to conquer central and Eastern Europe, and we ended up spending trillions more defending ourselves against what we built with our own seed money grant.

(Not that the Soviets could have done a thing to us, except that under FDR we made the federal government so large and bureaucratic so as to leave it susceptible to Communist influence.)

We convince ourselves of the unique evil of the Holocaust because we want to believe that totalitarianism is good - only racism is bad. But the deaths from the Jewish Holocaust amount to a small fraction of innocents murdered by totalitarian regimes, much of which can be attributed to our own appeasement of Stalin.

It is too easy to pretend that just because something is evil, we are right to make it an enemy and squash it. Real life doesn't make it so easy. Most of the hundreds of thousands protecting the South in the Civil War couldn't even afford slaves if they wanted one - in any case, they were oppressed by the federal government regarding restrictive trade far more than their grandparents were by the King of England before the Revolutionary War.

Likewise, just because Hitler was bad didn't oblige England and France to try to oppose him at all. If his designs were westward, they definitely had a stake in the fight. But armed neutrality with a wait-and-see attitude toward the inevitable war with the Soviets, would not have been an unjust policy. It would have been the only policy consistent with liberty and peace.

The farmer's son living in poverty near Weyburn, Saskatchewan, had no more moral oblgation to defend Poland, or Czeckoslovakia, or France, or even England, except that the King of England's Dominion extended to Canada. That he would be drafted to fight for the defense of counties in no way connected to his own except by the accidents of history and the brute force of Empire, is mere evidence that he was but a feudal serf not unlike his ancestor from four hundred years before - except that grandparent probably would have escaped being forced into war.

The Lend-Lease Act should not have been extended to Germany - that it was enacted at all was itself a Declaration of War against Germany. Hitler, apparently knowing the USA's pathetic hypocrisy about firing the first shot, never - pre-December 9, 1941, touched American ships sending supplies to Great Britain, unless fired upon first. FDR tried but failed to get his fire the first shot excuse against Germany.

FDR's oil embargo against Japan, violating the natural rights of American businessmen to free trade, provided the excuse. Without American oil, Japan, lacking in natural resources, couldn't effectively win in its aggressive war against China. It had to raid the colonies of the USA, Great Britain, and Europe's western countries for natural resources. Realizing war with the USA was inevitable if futile, it decided its best chance of succeeding was to sink as much of the Pacific Fleet as possible at Pearl Harbor.

Again, Japanese aggression against China was evil, and the save face rule within Japanese politics played a large role in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But it wasn't the federal government's responsibility to punish evil abroad. In World War I, it should have stayed out of the war and told American shippers/suppliers to the Allies that they do so at their own risk. A similar policy could have been enacted in WWII. The USA and the entire Western Hemisphere could have saved itself from the destructiveness of war.

Another thing: FDR knew about the attack, about the Japanese planes coming, even before the commanding Admiral at Pearl Harbor did. No one bothered to warn the admiral.

FDR's Germany First policy, even though Japan, not Germany, was the direct aggressor upon the USA's interests, might itself be considered proof that War is the Health of the Politician.

Pearl Harbor happened because FDR wanted it, or somethin like it, to happen. It didn't need to happen.

It's not somthing people want to hear, but it's something they must hear if we are to avoid war, its destruction, its injustice, and its denial of freedom in the future.

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