Review of the Book
by Robert Ashford and Rodney Shakespeare
John D. Allen
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, Spring
2001. Published with the original title:
"'Binary Economics' Looks as if it Could Be One Short"]
As Adam Smith put it nicely in his discourses on taxation1, the
quantity and value of the land which any man possesses can never be a
secret and can always be ascertained with great exactness. As the
radical Georgists of the 20th century used to say, you can't put it in
your pocket and say you haven't got it.
It is otherwise with capital. As Adam Smith again pointed out in his
master-work The Wealth of Nations, the amount of capital stock
which a man possesses is almost always a secret, and can scarce ever
be ascertained with tolerable exactness. It is liable besides to
almost continual fluctuations. "A year seldom passes away,
frequently not a month, sometimes scarcely a single day, in which it
does not rise or fall more or less."
The man who builds his hopes and fortunes upon accumulating capital
is like the foolish man who built his house upon sand; whereas the man
who builds upon the immovable surface of the earth is like the wise
man who built his house upon the rock.
Why open a review of one of the latest expositions of economic theory
with quotations from Adam Smith? The book is called Binary
Economics by Robert Ashford, Professor of Law at Syracuse
University College of Law, New York, who graduated with honours at the
Harvard Law School; and Rodney Shakespeare, who obtained an MA from
Downing College, Cambridge and qualified both as a teacher and a
One cannot help sympathising with Rodney Shakespeare who confesses
that every book on economics he has ever studied has given him a
headache. One could not promise that everyone who studies this essay
in Binary Economics will avoid a similar malady.
Why is it that books on economics give people headaches? The subject
itself speaks of fruitful interaction between people who apply their
labour, and the land which gives access to water, sunshine, fresh air
and most important, space. But the fashion these days is for our most
distinguished economists to dismiss land as a principal factor in this
Robert Ashford and Rodney Shakespeare appear to have adopted an
approach akin to that of Kenneth Galbraith, Economics Professor
Emeritus at Harvard, when he said:
It was to be one of the modern and more welcome triumphs
of capitalist attitude and achievement to diminish this acquisitive
need for more land. In the highly prosperous city-states of
Singapore and Hong Kong, land has been shown to be entirely
Are we to understand Binary Economics as the economics of duality, of
capital and labour? Every binary system is based on two like the
famous binary stars or binary mathematics, whereas true economics is
founded on the unity of the planet and the human race. The product of
this interaction, wealth, is shared out as the classical economists
and Henry George alike agreed, according to a three-fold division or
distribution. Nothing binary about that. For example, Adam Smith: "The
private revenue of individuals
arises from three different
sources, Rent, Profit, and Wages. Every tax must finally be paid from
some one or other of those three different sources of revenue.
However, the authors of this latest interpretation of economic
principles claim that binary economics provides a new way of
approaching economic reality. As a new paradigm, they claim, binary
economics contains a uniquely powerful set of ideas. It provides a new
way of enhancing everyone's economic well-being, which is what Henry
George and other economic reformers aimed at in the past, but with no
great measure of success.
For the benefit of those who get headaches when they come across
words like paradigm, its meaning in this context is a pattern or model
which facilitates understanding.
What this pattern or model offers, say the authors, is an economy of
more equal opportunity, fairness and respect for all people
individually; a free market way for all people to achieve increased
levels of economic prosperity and autonomy; a systemic solution for
poverty by way of a far more inclusive and efficient private property
system (systemic, a remedy with the power to reach everywhere into the
body politic and economic); and a practical market alternative to the
redistribution of wealth.
These are bold aims. How is this transformation to be brought about?
How are the evils of poverty, unemployment and debt to be driven out
of the economic system?
One element in the formula is what the authors describe as an
economic foundation for voluntary control of population levels. This
sounds suspiciously like a 21st century revival of the Malthusian
doctrine which would have us believe that Nature aided by human wit
can never provide fully for the needs of the whole human race.
It was Malthus, in a passage greatly approved by John Maynard Keynes,
who said that if a man was unemployed and could not get work, he "has
no claim to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no
business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no
vacant cover for him."
The authors evidently do not mean to raise this spectre, rather to
lay it to rest. But it will never be done by voluntary population
control. This was one of Malthus's ideas: as a clergyman of the
established church in England he spoke of it as demanding prudent
conduct among the lower orders. And yet it is self-evident that the
forces of nature cannot be held in check by exhortation. It is
possible of course that an improved economic order and better
distribution of wealth would restrain the impulse to generate large
families and thus reduce the pressure of population But in fact the
pressure of population is a figment of the economists' imagination.
What this really makes manifest is the failure of economic doctrines
to release people from poverty, hard labour and the fact or threat of
How do the authors of Binary Economics propose to counteract
poverty, the shadow that lies across a world packed with abundant
natural resources? Justice in a binary economy, they say, would be
achieved by opening up our private property system so that it becomes
possible for all people to acquire capital on market principles ...
the binary economy offers to eliminate the unnatural scarcity that now
prevails even in the most advanced economies and to replace it with
the greater bounty and leisure that was promised, but never
universally delivered, by the industrial revolution.
"In the binary economy, as capital is increasingly acquired over
time by people of the poor and middle classes, that capital will begin
to pay a capital income to its new owners, thus supplementing their
labor income and reducing their welfare dependence. Each year, with
growing participation in capital acquisition among people of the poor
and middle classes, capital will increasingly distribute to its new
owners the earnings necessary to buy what capital increasingly
produces." Thus the binary economy establishes the market
conditions for sustainable growth.
In this movement, the job of government, they say, is to open the
legal and market infrastructure to the extent necessary for upholding
the capital acquisition rights of all individuals. In the United
Kingdom, this is exactly what governments have been doing over the
past 20 or 30 years. There are many avenues whereby what are called
the poor and middle classes may participate in capital acquisition.
Instruments such as guaranteed bonds, tax exempt special savings
accounts (TESSA), personal equity portfolios (PEP) and individual
savings accounts (ISA) all encourage people build up capital assets
and enjoy the income derived from them. Such incomes are relatively
small in relation to what people can earn but as the authors of Binary
Economics imply, they may build up over time. But then so does
inflation build up in time: the £10,000 needed to buy a motor car
in 1995 becomes £16 or £17,000 today. The gains are largely
illusory. The house that cost £20,000 to buy in 1960 goes on the
London market today at £1? million. The bricks, mortar and timber
of which the house was built go on deteriorating but the land on which
it stands rises steadily in value. As Henry George and others saw all
those years ago, it is access to land and its secure possession which
gives rise to wealth and security. Hence the special place of land in
the economy, which today is largely ignored by the economists. Indeed,
as the quotation from Kenneth Galbraith demonstrates, our most
distinguished economists regard land as irrelevant in today's capital
One might ask the proponents of binary economics, why is it that
wages have to be supplemented by interest and growth of capital
values? Why is it that so many millions of the human race are
classified as poor, and that not only in the developing countries but
in the highly industrialised and productive ones as well?
And the last question is, where do the poor obtain the means to
invest their money in capital assets? Who is collecting all this money
to invest in profitable developments? How does it come about that in
an age of accelerating productivity and superb technical efficiency,
there are 18 million unemployed in the European Union? This malaise
will never be cured by PEPs and ISAs.
What we really need is to return to the economic trinity of land,
capital and labour, a trinary rather than binary economics. Indeed,
that is what we already have. The problem is that the product of these
three is badly distributed, with a tendency for the rich to get richer
and the poor at best maintaining a customary standard of living with
the help of payouts from pension funds and the welfare state. As this
goes on the whole economy gets out of balance. What binary economics
ought to take into account is the rent of land which creates and
sustains all the capital assets into which people put what money they
have. Most of that in any case is due to windfalls and handouts from
insurance company, building society and banking mergers.
Instead of a new paradigm, let's have an old one:
Adam Smith: "The product of labour constitutes the natural
recompense or wages of labour." That in itself -- that is, the
full product of labour -- would provide enough for everyone but of
course it isn't quite that simple these days. The cost of employment
could be reduced if governments followed the advice of Adam Smith and
others, and eased the pressure of taxation on earnings. Not a word
about that in binary economics. Easing the cost of employing people
would bring many back to work. If taxation of earnings was radically
cut people would stream back to work. The question then arises, where
would the government obtain the replacement revenue? Well of course it
wouldn't need so much if people could pay their own way from their
earnings. Henry George said that governments ought to examine the case
for shifting the burden of taxation on to the rent of land. That
concept needs an understanding of the classical trinity of rent,
profit and wages. So it would appear that binary economics is one
short, and that one is the key to the whole mystifying issue of why
deprivation is so widespread in a world of abundant resources and
billions of willing hands.
- Inquiry into the Nature
and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776, University of
Chicago Press edition 1976, Book V, Chapter II.
- The World Economy Since
the Wars, Sinclair-Stevenson 1994.
- Wealth of Nations,
Book V, Chapter II, Of Taxes.
- "An Investigation of the
Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions", published
anonymously in 1800, quoted by Keynes in his Essays in
Biography, the Lives of the Economists, Royal Economic Society
- Wealth of Nations,
Book 1, Chapter VIII, Of the Wages of Labour.
- Binary Economics: A New
Paradigm by Robert Ashford & Rodney Shakespeare,
University Press of America Inc. UK enquiries, 12 Hid's Copse
Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford OX2 9JJ.