The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Earth Question

Is seems a little unlikely that answers to most of the burning questions of our time could be found in the works of a bearded Victorian philosopher who wrote a controversial book on economics, inspired and led radical, popular and working-class movements, met global fame, faced derision from orthodox economists, and is now almost forgotten. Surprising as it may seem, though, a small but growing number of libertarians (some in the Democratic Party), as well as less partisan reformers, have taken to applying and popularising the ideas of Henry George.

Well, I was surprised. I was even more surprised to find that they have an office and bookshop near Haymarket Station in Edinburgh. Georgists in Edinburgh! It gave me an inkling of how E. P. Thompson must have felt when he met a Muggletonian in Nottingham. So I rang them up, checked their opening hours (10 to 6, weekdays) and set off to find them. I'd read Protection or Free Trade and Progress and Poverty about twenty years ago, in editions printed fifty years earlier. I fully expected, as I walked along Haymarket Terrace, to alight upon a dusty, fly-specked shopfront window display of yellowing pamphlets brown at the edges and curled at the corners.

Not a bit of it! 58 Haymarket Terrace is a bright, airy bookshop. Two guys were busy in the back. They left me to browse in peace. If the bookshop looked new, their library along the corridor to the back looked old, wide-ranging and well-used. The shop's stock included the standard books by George himself, lots of more recent Georgist economic books, a whole lot of green-and-global-related stuff and a new series of slim books about particular issues, from a Georgist perspective, by people involved in the issues - hence the marvellous result of a London property developer and landlord advocating a tax on land value, and a Fife farmer advocating the end of farm subsidies. Also, a good deal of scholarly conference procedures and policy wonk stuff.

After I'd decided what I wanted to buy a young Danish guy called Lars sold me the pamphlet, gave me a back issue of Land and Liberty, and told me what they were all about. He quickly sussed that I was the author of The Sky Road, and I as quickly admitted that I'd stolen 'single tax and funny money' (as one character puts it) from the Georgists, as the principles of the society depicted therein. (Well, the single tax, anyway. The funny money I stole from the Proudhonists. The Georgists aren't currency cranks.)

The basic argument of Henry George (in common with many of the classical liberals) is that land is in principle common property, and should not be owned but be rented from the community. The practical proposal is that essentially all tax should be shifted onto land value - i.e. that all ground rent is taxed at 100%. (Same, in principle, with minerals and other natural resources.) A big political obstacle in Britain would be that so many of us (including me) are land speculators - we may say we've 'invested in bricks and mortar' but have in fact invested in the rising land/location value of our houses. Hence, I guess, the fiddly policy wonkery.

But it's the broader ramifications of the idea that I find intriguing. Global debt, environmental and ecological issues, transport policy, town planning, rural development, intellectual property, bio-patents, the price of fish ... the Georgists have a distinctive take on all of them, and one that has attracted growing interest from campaigners in these areas. Land and Liberty has something of the look and feel of New Internationalist, without the hand-wringing and guilt-tripping.

What it all reminded me of was the first time I wandered in to the Alternative Bookshop, run by the Libertarian Alliance back in the early eighties. Two idealistic chaps running a place stocked with classical economics texts, policy proposals picked over, unexpected connections and outreaches made, an unusual combination of radical principle and pragmatic practice ...

The Libertarian Alliance, of course, had some crazy ambitions, like privatising British Rail and bringing down the Soviet Union - as well as some more moderate ones, such as legalising cannabis and bringing down agricultural tariffs. I expected to see some of the latter attained in the foreseeable future.

But seriously - the issues raised and questions asked by the Georgists are central to the history and problems of the past decade and a half. The impoverishment of many, and the enrichment of a few, in the post-Soviet states are in large part due to the privatisation, not so much of capital, but of (what in the Georgist view should be) common wealth: gas, oil, timber and gold. What makes it all the more galling is that the burdens and the windfalls respectively have fallen on precisely those who did least to deserve them. On a broader scale, the scramble to monopolise land and mineral resources is arguably at the root of many recent wars, in which millions of helpless and innocent people have died - as in the Congo holocaust, about which hardly anybody gives a damn. The unresolved land question (and that other evil the Georgists have targetted, protectionism) is probably killing twenty million people a year. Even in the relatively comfortable West, free-market reforms have given us plenty of cool kit at the expense of chilling insecurity and growing inequality and indebtedness.

In a sense, we're back where we were a century ago. Freedom and progress on the one hand, justice and security on the other, seem poles apart with the gap ever widening. Those who offer us the one pole without the other - the neo-liberals and the communists - as well as those who essay a mish-mashed 'Third Way' or (on the political fringe) a downright sinister 'Third Position', arouse nothing but suspicion and indifference. That all of this could be set straight by revisiting and applying the classical liberal view of land and natural resources seems, as I said, a little unlikely on the face of it. But, you know, maybe worth looking into. Another century of booms, slumps, wars and revolutions would make a great subject for science fiction, but living through it is something we could live without.


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