Review of the Book

Land Economics
by Richard T. Ely & George S. Wehrwein

Louis P. Taylor

[Reprinted from Land and Freedom, September-October 1940]

Any book that considers the economic issue of the land question is of interest to Georgeists whether or not its author understands that "the ownership of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people." It is with this thought that Land Economics is here reviewed.

In the preface we find that "Land Economics may be defined as the utilization of the earth's surface, or space, as conditioned by property and other institutions, and which includes the use of natural forces and productive powers above or below that space over which the owner has property rights." The index notes four references to George. The bibliography has placed Progress and Poverty under "Conservation of Natural Resources."

Students who have read Progress and Poverty do not all become Georgeists, but they usually agree that the Malthusian theory, which attributes want to the decrease of the productive power of land, is completely answered in the second Book. But the noted professors insist that Henry George "failed to overthrow the law itself."

Private property is justified "only on the social theory of property, namely, that it is established and maintained for social purposes. Under this theory, agricultural land is retained as private property because it is believed that the nation enjoys the greatest well-being under private ownership. Whenever social welfare is better served by shifting from private to public land, the state has the power to make this change. It has the power to make the right of the individual to the land less absolute."

The reviewer wonders what Ely and Wehrwein would say if this "social theory of property" were at some future date used to defend a Georgeist society.

The authors illustrate their lack of understanding of Henry George's concept of private property in land. He was not interested, as claimed by these economists, in "excluding land from the realm of legal private property." Georgeists are only interested in the public collection of the economic rent. Perhaps the noted professors merely overlooked mentioning this difference. Or perhaps the confiscation of the milk and honey of vested interests would not permit them to note any difference in consequences.

"Competition for the land has driven the price up to the full capitalized value of its income. In fact, many times above this value, through speculation and other factors." How has this admission slipped in?

Two mentions are made of why Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty.

"Henry George acquired his philosophy of the taxation of land in the atmosphere of land-frauds and wild speculation in urban and agricultural lands of California where both Mexican and American land policies had favored concentration of ownership, and the bona fide settler found great difficulty in acquiring land."

The second mention also deals with the environmental factor that influenced George. It is an apparent attempt to belittle his contribution to economic theory.

"He lived during the post-Civil War period when speculation, 'land-grabbing', corruption, and fraud were rife, but he over-simplified the remedy for the ills of society by attacking 'the unearned increment' in the land only."

Is it possible that a good word about George is permitted to enter the book? The authors quote from Lewis Mumford's The Brown Decades [A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895]:
"But George's awareness of the political importance of the land, his clear perception in 1879 of dangers that were to be fully demonstrated by 1890, and the stir that he made in the torpid political and economic thought of his day by introducing into it a vital idea all this cannot be discounted. Henry George challenged the complacencies of bourgeois economics in the terms that the bourgeois economist could partly understand. Less than fifteen years after George's 'Progress and Poverty' was published. Professor Fredrick Turner pointed out some of the social and economic implications of the passing of the frontier. From this point on, any one who ignored the role of the land, either in American history or in our current institutional life, was guilty of convenient forgetfulness: the fact was established."

Nowhere in this book did the reviewer find any suggestion of a constructive land policy for lessening poverty amid advancing wealth. But all phases of the science which deals with the earth's surface are discussed and amply illustrated. The size of families, immigration, birth and death rates, and other factors of the study of the population statistics are pursued. "Temperature and Sunshine"; "Rainfall and Evaporation"; "Topography"; Agricultural, conservational, arid, forest, urban, recreational lands and water, mineral and power resources these are only a few of the items that would interest even a Georgeist in this book.

"Land Economics" tells you how it is possible to satisfy men's needs, but never mentions why they are not properly housed, clothed and fed. The noted professors would find the solution in Progress and Poverty if they would reexamine this book without any prejudices.