Revolution in Land
by Charles Abrams
Sidney J. Abelson
[Reprinted from The Freeman, January, 1940]
Charles Abrams, Consultant to the U. S. Housing Authority, has made a
gallant effort to do for Henry George what Karl Marx is said to have
done for Hegel -- turn him upside down or right side up, according to
how you look at it. But Hegel dealt in lofty metaphysics, and in that
ratified atmosphere right side up or upside down is sometimes one and
the same; nebulosity is still nebulosity.
Revolution in Land (Harper & Brothers) has been advertised
as "a thoroughly fresh analysis of why access to the land is so
expensive for homes, farms, and every use; may well be for our day
what Progress and Poverty was for its." The man who wrote
that piece knew little about Abrams' book and nothing about Progress
and Poverty. However, that is only partially his fault, for the
author of Revolution in Land, despite his meticulous traffic
in statistical trivia, is still tentative, contradictory and even
downright fanciful in effect if not in intent.
For one thing, Abrams makes no distinction between "land" "real
estate" "property" and "agriculture." In"
all his theoretical discussions these terms are used interchangeably,
so that the reader, if otherwise unfamiliar with economic terminology,
might easily accept this synonymity and suffer harrowing
logico-economic paroxysms as a consequence.
According to the book, land is in oversupply; we have so much of it,
and so many different people own it, that the monopoly element
formerly attached to land is gone forever. Indeed, if only the
government had sense enough to do so "it should be possible to
acquire much land on extremely favorable terms." For what
purpose, you might ask, should the government acquire land? The answer
is simple: the government, having ruined land values through
discriminatory and excessive property taxation, should now step in and
restore order from chaos. How can this be done? Here is what Abrams,
with becoming vagueness, offers as one of "a few extremely
tentative suggestions": "If the government were to enter
what is now the limited-dividend, field, it could appreciably reduce
waste and ultimate development cost ,and each five percent or more on
funds borrowed at two percent or so."
Abrams likes planning. He has faith in the "government." He
reposes an impressive confidence in it: "the government must be
consistent. Consistent not in the narrow sense, but in the sense that
its policies must be coherent, coordinated, integrated. One action
must not cancel out another. The government must know where it is
going, what it is doing, why it is doing it." Who this
mysteriously omniscent "government" is he does not say; he
is for it anyhow. There should be a plan: "A logical plan (that)
would coordinate the scattered activities of RFC, PWA, FCA, HOLC, FHA,
USHA, AAA, TUA, REA, FSA, and a host of others.
desirable objectives are: "a decentralized but coordinated
administration"; "an expanding area of federal control";
and "mandatory control over . . . productive capacity."
Also, the author is confident that "the use of land can be
organized far more effectively, by reason of public ownership, than in
any other way." At any rate, "such control will be much less
expensive than that of AAA." A laborious reading of 308 jejune
pages revealed nothing more specific than such generalizations.
Abrams comes by his conclusions honestly, for in his scheme of things
there is no law of rent He denies the role of land as the primary
source of wealth. He asserts that "surplus and not scarcity"
is the central problem of our day. He tries to assure his readers that
industry has been, emancipated from "the tyranny of site."
He asserts that an automotive plant "has nothing to do with land."
The recital of upside-down opinions is so persistent that after awhile
I began to wonder whether I was reading an attempted grown up version
of a book about the Land of Oz.
Nothing but a book of equal or greater length could list in detail
the basic theoretical misconceptions and obtuse observations which
stamp. every page to Revolution in Land. I must of course,
waive such a task; but I do not do so in despair, for it is evident
that not even "academic" economists will take this volume
seriously. Certainly the "government" which Abrams
approaches with such deferential confidence will not countenance for
one fleeting second his proposal that property taxes be rescinded and
replaced by levies exclusively on personality and production.
In the course of favorable comment on Abram's book Lewis Mumford is
quoted as saying that "the last really important word on social
occupancy and control of land in America was written by Henry George
in 1879." This will be news to readers of The Freeman.
Terms such as "social occupancy" and "control of land"
were, as followers of George know well enough, anathema to the author
of Progress and Poverty.
On the question of rent itself Abrams likewise misconstrues the
Georgist doctrine. He refers to Henry George as "denouncing all
rent as medieval and unjust," and from such fundamental
ineptitude arises his maladroit handling of the whole land problem.
George did not "denounce" rent -- to do so would be to deny
the very base of his economics. But let Ely, an unfriendly critic of
George tell the story: "It must be remembered that Henry George
did not propose to abolish rent - an obvious impossibility -- but
simply to do away with the private receipt of rent. This would prevent
the withholding of land from use for purely speculative purposes. ..."
"I do not propose," wrote George, "either to purchase
or to confiscate private property in land.
Let the individuals
who now hold it still retain, if they want to, possession of what they
are pleased to call their land.
Let them buy and sell, and
bequeath and devise it. ... It is not necessary to confiscate land; it
is only necessary to confiscate rent.
O si sic omnia.