All-Round Reform

Harry F. Levett

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, 1957]

It was not until 1935 that I found in Progress and Poverty the answer to our economic problems. Fifteen years earlier I had been adversely affected by the then prevailing depression. However, being then only a boy, I had not questioned my elders' opinions that business depressions are unavoidable and "just happen " and must therefore be accepted more or less as "Acts of God."

In 1927 I went to the United States where for two years I enjoyed the "boundless prosperity" of that country. In 1929, depression hit the world. For the next two years I read and listened to the opinions of the top men in the business and the financial world. One after the other they prophesied revivals and upturns of business, next month, in the spring, after the summer, etc., etc. Finally I came to the sad conclusion that their views and ideas on this subject were no better than mine.

When I was again in Cape Town, in 1935, 1 came across by chance an Everyman's Library edition of Progress and Poverty. I had read so many books and magazines and newspaper articles purporting to explain depressions and booms in business, that I skimmed rapidly through Progress and Poverty expecting that it, too, would fail to give a satisfactory explanation. In the course of my skimming I found none of the factual errors, faulty logic, contradictions, and so forth, which had caused my dissatisfaction with the other books. Therefore, I immediately re-read it with the deliberate intention of finding the flaws. My search was fruitless; I was unable to find even a misprint!

Soon after having thus completely satisfied myself that Progress and Poverty field the answer to the perplexing problems of depressions, etc., I read in the Cape Town papers one or two short news items reporting the activities of a group led by (then Advocate -- now Judge) Frank A. W. Lucas. On moving to Johannesburg early in 1936, I associated myself with this group. finding, in the process, friendships that have endured.

A problem immediately arose. The economic justice of the principles set forth by Henry George was self-evident and incontrovertible. The problem was -- as it is still, for me and everyone else -- how to get economic justice embodied in and upheld by the law of the land. I was led on to reflect that even in supposedly democratic countries, the party in power was frequently in office on a minority of votes. My conversations and researches brought me inevitably to the necessity for proportional representation by the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. I now have the opinion that this system of election for all public authorities, from village management boards up to the state legislature, is an essential if any major progressive reform is to be obtained by democratic means - the possibility of a whole-hearted Georgeist becoming a dictator seems very remote. And I hold to this opinion even though both the Republic of Ireland and the State of Tasmania use Proportional Representation and yet fail to take any action to inaugurate a system of economic justice within their respective spheres.

My next step was to consider the land as such: the necessity for re-afforestation in many areas, the advance of the deserts in all parts of the world, wide-spread erosion from wind and water, the creation of dust-bowls, the loss of fertility, etc. Books have been written, and groups exist in many countries, dealing with these problems. However, few of the authors or group members appear to grasp the full implications of the economics of these problems. They all advocate, rightly, I think, that the governments concerned should take prompt and largescale action by spending the taxpayers' money for planting trees, building dams, and the like. What they fail to see is that the erection of a dam, for instance, with taxpayers' money merely enables some small group of landowners to derive the economic benefit. All the taxpayers get is the moral satisfaction that they have done something to save our soil" or, more correctly, some individual landowner's soil.

If these earnest and patriotic people would realise that their soil conservation and water conservation plans would be financially more feasible and economically more just if the land values (inevitably increased by any successful conservation scheme) were to bear the burden, they would be ardent supporters of the principles set out by Henry George.

The absurd state of the present economic system is fully shown in the Cape Province where the local authorities levy rates on improvements. In times of drought the local authorities plead with the occupiers of land to use less water from the mains, even sometimes imposing penalties for its use and forbidding the use of water at all certain hours of the day. Yet if a public-spirited landowner adds tanks to his house and builds dams in his fields in a noble attempt to use rain-water or surplus water instead of water from the mains, the local authority increases the valuation of the property, and he has to pay higher rates.

Next my researches into the land question brought me to the question of health. There are increasing numbers of people in many countries who see that bad agricultural practices, such as mono-culture and excessive use of artificial fertilisers, are lowering the humus content and the actual fertility of the soil. Plants and animals (including mankind) fed from soil of low humus content are unhealthy. The food we eat does not have the nutritive qualities it should have Even "fresh" fruit has probably been sprayed several times with some insecticide (injurious to mankind as well a poisonous to insects), and the tree on which it grew has been similarly sprayed with poison repeatedly.

Too many "health food" groups fail to realise that farmers are forced to produce as much as possible (even in peace-time) in the shortest possible time, regardless of vital quality. They are driven by the existing system of taxing commodities and incomes instead of site values.

It is little use advising people that their health depends on "fresh fruit and vegetables straight from your own garden" when the present systems of land-tenure and taxation prevent most people from having any sort of garden. Nevertheless, the Health Food" groups are thinking on the right lines, as is demonstrated by the many advertisements for medicines for stomachs, bladders, kidneys, livers, etc. They should support the economic reform which would make it possible for more people to get fresh fruit from their own gardens.

Another group which should have no difficulty in grasping the essential justice of the basic principles set forth by Henry George is the consumer Co-operative movement. In Britain this is very large and financially well-organised, but it barely exists in South Africa. It is the merest step from realising that the profits of production and distribution should be returned to the consumers, to realising that the site values created by the growth of population should also be returned to the consumers " or users of the land.

Thus, we have three important groups, each one becoming more important as time passes -- the "Save the Soil," the "Health Food," and the "Consumer Co-operation" groups-each of which has to advance just a little farther if it is to obtain fulfilment of its objects. (Of course, I am well aware that some individuals in each group have already taken the step.)

For my part, I am convinced that each of the reforms I have mentioned is necessary. Healthy food is essential, and so is the arrest of soil erosion and the advance of deserts. An increase in consumer co-operation, if perhaps not quite an essential, is certainly high]y desirable if our "civilisation" is to survive. But the basic reform which would enable these objectives to be achieved is an alteration of existing taxation and land-tenure laws so as to bring them into line with the principles so convincingly set forth in Progress and Poverty.