Into the Century of Land Reform

Fred Harrison

[28 January, 2000]

MOST pathological social problems can be traced to the last great social injustice. I refer to the privatisation of that value to which we all contribute as citizens of our communities. Because governments have been derelict in their duty -- have propagated or, at the very least, condoned -- the privatisation of the rent of land and natural resources, scores of generations have been made to suffer needlessly.

This problem will be solved because it is impossible for it to persist. The way forward will not be easy. Philosophers of the past understood the source of the problems of their times, but they failed to campaign for the appropriate reforms:

  • equalisation of people's rights to the income that they jointly create through the use of nature's gifts; and
  • removal of taxes on wages and savings.

Societies whose cultures originated in Europe are smug about the rights that their citizens enjoy. The ideology of the "rule of law" camouflages the injustices that are routinely inflicted on people, day in, day out. But we have now reached an historical watershed. It is no longer possible to conceal the primary cause of people's personal and social problems. In the 21st century, the struggle will be aimed at the liberation of land. This is the key piece in an historical jigsaw. Its achievement will consolidate the process of modernisation that began three centuries ago. By liberating land, we will consolidate the freedoms that have been gained by labour and capital.

MODERN history began with the Enlightenment. Philosophers of the eighteenth century offered a coherent programme for people who were no longer content with the limits that were inherited from the Middle Ages. Bonds tied people's bodies and their minds.

  • Escape for the mind -- the leap out of mysticism, into the realm of reason - would come through the advance of science and a deeper spirituality.
  • Escape from the bonds of servitude would come from the articulation of a new vision of human nature, and the definition of matching rights and obligations.

Freedom was the key. Freedom to think, to worship, and to organise one's community in ways that fulfilled personal needs. The project promised much for the masses who had been excluded from the drama that constituted history.

That project has not been completed. Nor will it be, according to commentators like John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He devotes much time to airing his views in the pages of national newspapers. For Gray (who is not a lone voice), the Enlightenment has not only failed; it could not succeed. He attributes the damaged environment to the Enlightenment, which is therefore treated as a fatally flawed project that has imposed burdens on future generations.

This verdict demeans the writings of people like David Hume and his colleagues. The works of Adam Smith are held responsible for the tyranny of the global economy.

This assessment is based on a profoundly inadequate reading of both the texts and of history. Even so, it would be dangerous to ignore these commentators. They are shaping the mood of our times, eulogising something called "post-modernism", and defining the policies that governments might employ in the 21st century.

In this essay I cannot challenge the unwarranted accusations levelled at the Enlightenment. My concern is to sketch some elements of a new perspective on history. This yields a pattern of events that may offer a guide to priorities for social action.

LIBERTY was the rallying cry; freedom for everyone. But freedom was never going to come overnight; or simultaneously in all realms. It would be a matter of working towards as perfect a society that imperfect human beings could devise.

The two big problems were:

  • the nature of that society; and
  • how to get there.

I admit that philosophers are not necessarily the most reliable guides. Some of them lacked courage. Tutored they may have been, but not necessarily wise. Some of them were not willing to confront the forces of evil. From Plato to Marx, they sought refuge in utopian visions, dreaming of perfect societies guided by the authority that they divined. Karl Popper called them enemies of the Open Society.

But by studying the texts of the eighteenth century philosophers we can discern a blueprint that would have delivered a free society, one built on solid foundations. There was no simple checklist of steps on the road marked "freedom". Even so, the direction of action was clear enough nibbling away at the weaknesses in the power structure just like water running down the hill which searches out the path of least resistance....

The Enlightenment called for changes in the way we accumulated knowledge, how we operated the economy, financed government; it reassessed theology, proposed new approaches to the institutions of civil society -- in fact, it was a comprehensive vision. The philosophers were not a single group of people sitting around a table, arguing over their theories. Their writings contained contradictions, but few denied that the objective was freedom of the individual.

Economics affords the neatest summary of the history that was to unfold, so it is the path down which we will tread. To appreciate the way in which I have diagnosed the dynamics of that history, ask this question: Could those philosophers have set up a list of priorities for action based on an understanding of the issues that would court the greatest resistance -- the better to first address the problems that would court least opposition? I believe they could have done so.

FREEING the land so that it was at the service of everyone was the toughest challenge.

By the eighteenth century, property rights had been consolidated into the hands of the aristocracy and the gentry. They guaranteed their rights by monopolising the political process. A direct challenge to their vital interest -- the rents on which they relied for their leisurely lifestyles -- would have been repressed with ferocity.

France appeared to be an exception. In fact, while the heads of many aristocrats rolled into the basket beneath the guillotine's blade, private property rights in land were not challenged. Elsewhere in Europe, from the islands in the North Sea to the steppes of Russia, the privatisation of rent would be protected. The souls who dared to challenge the legitimacy of the privatisation of that stream of income were to fail lamentably. So the attempt to free the land would have to be postponed. The struggle for freedom would have to begin where the gains would be the easiest to achieve: in the labour market.

The l9th century was the Age of Labour.

By 1800, people had been either dispossessed of land (enclosures and clearances in the British Isles), or tied by law to the land on the great Prussian, Polish and Russian estates. In the New World, people were slaves.

The struggle for freedom was messy. The csar might not have facilitated the land reforms of the 1860s if Russia had not lost a war in the Crimea a few years earlier. In America, the civil war to emancipate slaves was as much induced by economic imperatives (wage labour had become more efficient than an army of slaves) as by moral sensibility. The emancipation of serfs east of the Elbe was driven by the structure of the state (which needed changing additional revenue from a more productive agricultural sector) rather than by the wisdom of statesmen.

But still, the tendency was towards a recognition that the modern era could not condone the bondage of labour.

In Britain the century began with the state fiercely applying its power to prevent landless workers combining their strength to try and negotiate better wage rates in factories. By the end of the century, trade unions were on the verge of becoming a power in the land: they led the demand for a political party, representing labour.

Throughout Europe and North America, people achieved legal freedom. It was a formal freedom, but it was the completion of the first major step in the correct direction.

The 2Oth century was the Age of Capital.

Brave attempts to free the land were made, but they failed. The most sustained effort, by Britain, was compromised by a socialist bias that was inconsistent with market economics.

Socialism drove the two streams of action against the freedom to own and use accumulated savings. The most extreme form was sponsored in the Soviet Union under the spell of Karl Marx. There, between 1917 and 1992, capital was under the direct control of the state. The capitulation of Communism was the formal freedom of capital.

In Western Europe, the attack on capital took the form of welfare economics. Justice for the dispossessed was sought via tax policies that sought to redistribute income. Taxation reached confiscatory marginal rates before the ideological tide was turned by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The demand was for privatisation of state assets, liberalisation in the capital markets and the reduction of state regulation over where and how people could invest their savings.

Victory for capital came on the back of a seriously defective philosophy of freedom. Even so, the results -- in terms of people's rights -- were in the correct direction. By the end of the century capital was free of the clutches of governments.

But in the same way that 19th century controls over labour were swapped for tyranny of unionised labour in the 20th, so the 20th century controls over capital will become the tyranny of footloose finance in the 21st century.

Exercise of the destructive power of labour and capital, once their formal freedom had been achieved, was a rational response to the pathology of a system that was still evolving towards maturity. It still had a major item of unfinished business on the social agenda.

Meanwhile, however, the price for the liberation of capital was high. In the 1990s, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain, followed by the USA, had the highest rates of poverty among the developed nations.

The 21st century is the Age of Land.

Labour and capital cannot work in harmonious partnership to yield prosperity and a sustainable system while the monopoly power of land continues to be privately exploited. So, confronted by the traumas that will now be generated by footloose capital and fragmented labour, the overwhelming social pressure will compel reforms to the use of natural resources and to the distribution of the rents that they generate.

The privatisation of rents cannot continue in a democratic society that seeks to remedy the brutalisation of nature.

The list of issues that favour land-and-tax reform is a long one, and it is the only action list that makes historical sense.

  • Governments are losing their grip on taxation. Capital is mobile, and the only secure source of revenue is from land and natural resources.
  • Non-governmental agencies are mobilised to insist on corrective action, to prevent further abuse of the enviromnent: see the outcome of the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle last November.
  • Geo-politics in a borderless world necessitates devolution of power together with supranational arrangements that will not be possible without a new ethic on land.

Labour has achieved its formal freedom, but needs to create new institutions that favour humanity in the workplace. Capital has been liberated from the shackles of the myth-makers but needs to be accessible to everyone. This means a huge job of work waiting to be done. Science and technology has further disguised resource rents. These have to be disentangled from the returns to labour and capital. People, working with their civic leaders and those who think for a living, need to visualise and evolve a culture that banishes conflict and enables every person to achieve his and her full potential.

None of this will be possible without recognising the need to remedy the last great social problem -- the ownership and use o of land.

MY FORECAST for the 21st century is not prophesy. I rely on a dispassionate assessment of the logic of history.

Justice will prevail -- sooner rather than later, with less rather than more suffering -- but only if we realign our philosophy. People need signposts before they exercise their choices. But with the exception of a few activists who approach social problems from the ecological perspective, no-one, so far as I know, has yet embarked on the relevant course of creative thinking. There is a serious risk that societies in the 21st century may pursue false paths. The potential exists for massive suffering on a scale that could eclipse the worst crimes against humanity that were perpetrated in the past 100 years.

A deep void still exists in people's understanding of both human nature and the institutions that are required to support a decent society. In other words, the Enlightenment process has not yet been completed. A new resolve is needed, if Georgists are to play their part in filling that void.

Some sources:
John Gray, Enlightenment's Wake, London: Routledge, 1995.
E.J.Hobsbawn, Labouring Men, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964.
Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, London: RKP, 1966.
Werner Rosenei, The Peasantry of Europe, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995