The Georgist economic proposal insists on the primary importance of land as a factor in the economy. Many dismiss that as a quaint, agrarian notion. “Perhaps,” they scoff, “land was that significant back when most people had to work the soil for a living, but nowadays we deal with modern issues of technology, global markets, information — land is no longer a big deal!”
But take another look. This “global information economy” has by no means liberated itself from the need for a place to stand, a material to make things out of, and a path to send things on. Such opportunities can only come from the material universe — or in other words, the land. There’s one thing we know for sure about land: they ain’t making any more of it.
Here are ten reasons why land is more economically, politically and spiritually important than ever before:
10. There’s no place to dump your trash for free. The advent of global environmental problems has removed the “frontier” for polluters. There is no longer any cost- free place to dump wastes that harm the air, water or soil. We will either have to pay rent for the increasingly limited space in which to store these harmful things, or find ways to produce wealth without creating so many of them.
9. Scratch a financial crisis, find a land bubble. Commentators blame the Great Recession on the bursting of an “asset bubble” which left untold billions in bad loans. Obviously, this had something to do with “real estate” – but what they’re glossing over is that every “asset bubble” is inflated mainly by the speculative value of land. The major part of the collateral for those mortgage loans was the galloping price of their land! But when real estate owners suddenly realized that they could never sell for anything near what they’d been asking – the bubble burst, toppling stock markets and interest rates in its wake. This process gets played out again and again – but like casino gamblers, land speculators tend never to remember the lesson.
8. Information (like railroads) needs routes. Will the information superhighway link each point to every other point, supercharging commerce and making location irrelevant? Telecommunications companies are positioning themselves, getting bigger and bigger, trying to guess what form the finished “superhighway” will take. Will the gigabytes travel over phone lines? Coaxial cables? Fiber optic lines? Radio frequencies? Satellite relays? All of them have one thing in common: they occupy space — space that is (or will be) owned by someone.
7. Cities can no longer afford to be inefficient. The 21st century has seen an unprecedented worldwide migration of poor people to urban centers, in search of economic opportunity. Most often, they don’t find it – and they end up in burgeoning slums that put ever-greater pressure on overloaded infrastructures. Meanwhile, to raise desperately-needed revenue, cities place huge tax burdens on buildings and businesses – encouraging land speculation and urban sprawl! Urban land is the costliest and most squandered natural resource in the world today.
6. Global climate change is everyone’s problem. The bills have already started to come due for rising sea levels and other climatic havoc. There is one resource that can serve to ameliorate the effects of “greenhouse pollution” — the few large belts of undisturbed forests that are left. Yet these forests are being decimated, to benefit an exceedingly small group of landowners. Meanwhile, development of sustainable, renewable energy sources is stymied by the political clout of rent-seekers.
5. The loss of biological diversity cannot be reversed. Sensible-sounding notions of “intellectual property rights” are turned on their heads in Orwellan fashion, to allow corporations exclusive rights to substances and medicines that indigenous peoples have used for centuries. (Their homes, meanwhile, and ways of life are wrecked in the process.)
4. Two out of every five people lack a safe and dependable source of drinking water. Those who “own” the water can charge what the market will bear. Disputed access to water is one of the most frequent causes of war.
3. The myth of overpopulation causes cultural sickness. We continue to hear the lie that the earth simply cannot support all these poor people, that nature has doomed them to poverty and hunger. Yet, around the world, huge tracts of arable land go unused, or are unnecessarily surrendered to desertification. Still more billions of acres are wastefully devoted to livestock, animal-feed, or auto fuel! The cruel lie that the earth lacks enough resources to feed its people pushes people into needless conflict.
2. We have forgotten what nations are. If, indeed, we ever knew… As the Cold War dragged on, people became accustomed to the notion that a nation must fortify itself against implacable enemies, bent on subjugation and conquest. “National sovereignty” became a contract handed out to a mercenary. Meanwhile, ethnic and religious groups watched as their ancestral lands were handed, seemingly arbitrarily, to better-armed or better-connected rivals. This contemptuous splitting and fracturing of national identities (along with an obscene largesse of deadly small arms for every faction) seeded a whirlwind that is now being reaped on every continent.
1. “The land shall not be sold forever, for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me.” This admonition to the Israelites by their God is echoed in every major religion. It is a perception that is supported both by common sense and legal tradition. Legally, “land ownership” is defined in terms of a “bundle of rights” that attach to the land. These socially-determined rights are what gets bought and sold. It really is not possible to own the land. The most that any person, corporation or nation can do is to secure a contract for its tenancy and use – and pay a price for it. If we actually believe that we own the land, we find ourselves on perilous spiritual footing.