LT Essays #4:

Land

he entire material universe, excluding human beings and their products. That is the definition of land from Fundamental Economics. Like our other definitions, whose goal is a framework within which to understand the distribution of wealth, it is admirably precise. But this definition has a bit more of a metaphysical implication than the others. We might say that land is not simply the ground, but the Ground of Being.

Land is air, water, soil fertility, minerals, biological diversity -- every kind of natural opportunity. It is our environment, in the grandest possible sense of the term: our universe. It gets parceled off in plots, zones, sections, townships, states, and nations -- for pragmatic, economic and political reasons. Although geographical and cultural factors influence the drawing of national boundaries (and the value of the "bundles of rights" contained therein), those lines on the map are not part of the land. God didn't create boundary lines; we create them for our own reasons.

The whole idea of "owning" land is absurd. Is it not? It is one thing to say a person is granted secure tenure in a specific location; it is quite another thing to say that person owns the land. For starters, how deep is our land claim? How high? It is a common practice for the surface rights and mineral rights of a location to be traded separately. But how deep do those mineral rights go? In a conical section converging at the center of the earth? And what is the upper boundary of land "ownership"? Infinite space?

Human society may someday evolve to the point where land tenure becomes a benign means of securing the fruits of our labor on the land, and not a way of usurping the labor of others. Human society may someday evolve to the point where nations are cultural, not political units, where trade is free and borders are places to fly flags, not mass tanks. We are not there yet; in fact such dreams would seem hopelessly utopian were it not for the existence of trends that seem to be moving us haltingly toward them.

One such sign is the emergence of global environmental problems and dangers. They could well prove to be a blessing in disguise. The atmosphere and the oceans belong to no one and everyone. No nation can unilaterally solve global pollution problems, and yet all nations are menaced by them. If (as seems very likely) global pollution problems worsen to the point where they threaten large- scale loss of wealth and livelihood, global cooperation on the environment will be inevitable. Once we cross that threshold, other forms of transnational cooperation will see less outlandish, and arbitrary boundaries will become less menacing. The emerging fact of dangerous challenges that transcend national interests is forcing society to see "the land" in a new way. For example: it is impossible for any nation to claim sovereignty over the ozone layer -- but nations have come together and taken steps to preserve it. In the face of global dangers, directed cooperation between nations becomes not only desirable but necessary. (We might point out, by the way, that unconscious cooperation, in the form of trade, has been going on quite nicely all the while, hindered only by short-sighted protectionist barriers!)

The "capitalist" economies of the world are facing intractable debt, inflation and business-cycle problems. The "socialist" economies of the world have faced either stagnation or outright collapse. People are casting about for a new paradigm, and the land problem remains unsolved.

In economics, land is shown to be the physical source of all wealth. Since the food, clothing and shelter we need for survival are, in the economic sense, wealth, we may say quite literally that the land sustains us. But the land sustains us in more ways than just physically. Human beings have an existential relationship with the land, a vibrant connection with the wonder and majesty of the world, that even our TV-drenched, consumerism- besotted, poverty-blighted, fad-addled modern society has not been able to obliterate.

Why do New Yorkers need Central Park? Why do motorists total their cars to avoid killing a raccoon? Why does work stop while everyone gazes in awe at a lunar eclipse? How does human memory work? We need not look far for sources of awe: How in the world do cockroaches manage to thwart the most persistent efforts of human science to kill them off? We have not lost our connection with the earth. It may be dormant, much of the time, for many of us. But to lose it is to lose our humanity.

This fact -- and it is a fact -- leads us to the realization that the private land ownership is not only economically bad, and not only ethically bad: it is also spiritually bad. (Try making that same statement, substituting "private ownership of laborers" -- and remember that chattel slavery was both legal and widely practiced, in this country, not so very long ago.)

It may not be stretching the imagination too far to say that Henry George's insight is not all that new, in fact, not new at all. Perhaps Henry George simply recast into the terms and methods of political economy the spiritual truth that people have known since the beginning -- known in their hearts even while the lure of expediency and unearned profits prompted them to enact some very bad laws.

Lindy Davies