Bondi's Law and George's Utopia

Will Lissner

[Reprinted from Fragments, 1976-1979]

IN 1977, THE world scientific community was shaken by a mind-boggling discovery, that of Sir Hermann Bondi, F. R. S. (co-formulator of the Steady State Theory of the origin of the universe). Bondi's achievement was a theory that scientific theories are, and must necessarily be, incomplete. "Science is by its nature inexhaustible," Sir Hermann argued. "Whenever new technologies become available for experiment and observation, the possibility, indeed the probability exists that something previously not dreamt of is discovered."

Since, according to the Bondi theory, no principle could be interpreted in a limited fashion, the basic theory of Henry George, likewise, has to be visualized in a broader aspect, not only limited narrowly, as some of his followers would do, but expanded to embrace the entire cosmos.

A hundred years ago, George wrote a book that has since become a classic, Progress and Poverty, in which he reported his observations, noted that monopoly capitalism, with its dog-eat-dog one-sided competition and its maldistribution of income and wealth, seemed destined to develop into revolutionary chaos and a new barbarism, and offered a solution.

In the language of the 19th century, he declared, "We must make land common property." Translated into 21st century language, what he meant was that the land question, the problem of the ownership, possession and use of the land and all natural resources and privileges, the problem of Man's absolute dependence on the natural environment, the physical environment, was the bottom question. The solution was we must establish the common right of every person to the physical environment. This could be done by appropriating for public purposes, in lieu of the most burdensome taxes on labor and capital -- taxes which distorted the availability and use of resources -- all or nearly all the economic rent of those resources. This solution, he believed, would assure the most economical and rational use of the total environment. George, by keen study and logical reasoning, worked out a presentation of the idea of the fundamental nature of the questions of the ownership, possession, and use of the physical environment.

The term, "physical environment," means everything in the universe except Man and his products; that is, Man and his wealth and his capital. It includes a great variety of specialized environments: urban and suburban areas, agricultural (rural) areas, mines of all kinds, woodlands and forests, watersheds, waterways, seas, oceans, air space, and outer space. It includes also such non-spatial monopoly privileges as patents, copyrights, rights-of-way, and broadcast channels.

George's principles were applied by later theorists to each of these specialized environments to achieve a program designed to assure its equitable, efficient, and rational exploitation in satisfying the individual right to possess and use the resources of the cosmos while satisfying also the common right to own it and to share equally in the benefits of such ownership.

However, some of George's earliest supporters, among the old-time single taxers, would reject this presentation of his basic ideas as heretical because, they would say, it is complex and complicated. They preferred what they thought was a simple statement: abolish all taxes save a single tax on land values.

The effect of such simplistic reasoning was to reduce George's philosophy to a reform of the local property tax. Now that is a reform that is highly desirable, I grant, for practical reasons. But, important as local property tax reform is, it is not a reform calculated to stir people's hearts or minds or to produce a reform of the total society.

Although the land question, the question of the physical environment, is the bottom question, it isn't the only significant question. George founded a social movement especially vital for the 21st century because he was able to communicate to those who came after him a Utopian vision, even though some do not recognize it as such. It was the idea of a free society founded upon equal rights and equal opportunities, upon association in equality to achieve, by experimental means, the most effective forms of social cooperation. George's aim was to preserve the benefits of individualism while utilizing the benefits of group cooperative efforts.

George made very significant contributions to economics, sociology, political science, and moral philosophy in Progress and Poverty and in his later writings. But his greatest contribution, I repeat, is to social philosophy, especially in his previously mentioned Utopian vision.

George's philosophy must be interpreted in the light of Bondi's theory -- universally; as, indeed, various thinkers are now engaged in doing. They seek to apply George's principles to all space, waters, and land.

It will be a difficult task to apply these principles to the entire cosmos but the free society of men and women engaged in cooperation is just over the horizon. In a little while, it must come into sight.