Who Owns the Earth?
[Reprinted from The Freeman, November, 1938]
This brief survey of land ownership throughout the world might be
prefaced with a passage from the speech of Sir George Fowlds of New
Zealand; it seems to throw much light on present tendencies. Sir
"It is estimated that when Persia perished 1% of the people
owned all the land: Egypt went down when 2% owned 97 % of all the
wealth; Babylon died when 2% owned all the wealth, and Rome expired
when 1800 men possessed all the then known world," What do we
find in the twentieth century?
Let us divide the world for sake of comparison into six units; the
British Empire, the United States, the Fascist nations, the Soviet
Union, Japan, China, and, finally, a little Scandinavian nation -- for
a surprise package.
In 1933 one-tenth of one per cent owned three-quarters of the island
of England. The remaining one quarter was owned by two per cent more.
The other ninety-seven per cent of the people, 44 million, owned no
land at all. In Scotland 3.6% of the population owned all the land. In
Ireland 1.4% owned all the land, some 20 million acres, while five
million held nothing.
Canada embraces one-twentieth of the landed area of the planet, but
her early settlers, in many cases, granted excessive areas by the
King, have perpetuated the speculation racket, already so firmly
entrenched in Europe, so that Canada's economic problems are as acute,
relatively, as any other landlord domain.
A railroad intended to unite two widely separate portions of Canada,
Ontario and Manitoba, was given a land grant extending twenty miles
'checkerboard fashion on each aide of the proposed rail lines. This
came to be the Canadian Pacific Railway. Whereas the early settlers of
this area felt they would be able to make headway in production and
commerce, they discovered that the necessity of purchasing or leasing
railway land brought them face to face with speculation again.
Scattered statistics will have to suffice to point out the general
picture of the United States. Let us check up on California: Wholesale
dispossession of Indians marked the early aggrandisement of these
lands by expropriators. Great mountain areas plentifully supplied with
timber, mineral and oil are largely in the control of the Walker
Interests, William Randolph Hearst, Miller and Lux interests, the
Southern Pacific Railway, and other great holders. The aggregates of
these interests is so colossal that any program of land reform seems
almost hopeless. Possibly nowhere in the United States are landed
interests so intermixed with government politics.
In Northwestern California six individuals own 70 per cent of timber
land. In Southwestern Washington forty per cent of the timber lands is
owned by two holders. In western Oregon five individuals own 36 per
cent; in the north central part of Iowa, four persons own 56 per cent
of the timber lands. One-twentieth of the entire landed area of the
United States is owned by 1.694 proprietors of timber lands. Sixteen
of the 1,694 own 47,800,000 acres.
In North Carolina, Mrs. Vanderbilt sold Pisgate Forest, 87,700 acres
in four counties to the U. S. at $5 an acre. In New York State, James
W. Wadsworth, known as "the baron of the Geneseo", owns 39
miles from Rochester to Geneseo. One half of the State of Florida is
owned by 182 men whose combined holdings amount to 16,900.000 acres.
Three quarters of the farmers in the United States do not own the
farms they work. The properties are mortgaged, or the farmers are
tenants. Among the one-quarter "owning" are millionaires and
poor farmers on land below the marginal rent line. Tenant farming has
increased 300 per cent between 1880 and 1935, while farm ownership has
come up only 33 per cent.
The sorry plight of the producing farmer in contrast to the splendor
of the giant landowner is nothing to the ghastly story told in city
values controlled by monopolies.
The area of Greater New York is about 315 square miles, or about
203,000 acres, embracing a population of 7-1/2 million people. About
eleven per cent of the population own the land of this area, assessed
at about $7,131.000,000 (1937). But. considering only the fabulously
rich borough of Manhattan we find that a mere ONE PER CENT own the 21
miles of this island, valued at $4,022,000,000 (1937). The land values
of the other boroughs are enhanced by the proximity of Manhattan, of
Thirteen families, out of one million, one hundred thousand families
in New York, are owners of nearly one-fifteenth of the island of
Manhattan, besides possessing great holdings in the other boroughs
These thirteen families are: the Astora, Vanderbilts, Rhinelanders, O.
B. Potter properties, J. P. Morgan, E. H. Van Ingen, Wendels, Goelets,
Ehrets, Gerrys, Chas. F. Hoffman Estate. Wm. R. H. Martin, Eugene
Hoffman. The Improvements of the fifty odd thousand small home owners
of New York is greater than that of the Astors, whose land value
New York City is no exception; any city in the country would show the
same concentration of land values.
Moving southward in the western hemisphere, let us look at Mexico.
The Reverend John O'Brien, Chiplain of the Catholic Students
University of Illinois, says: "Mexico ...has an important lesson
and warning for us in America. At the beginning of the nineteenth
century the wealth of the Church was enormous. Such an eminent
Catholic historian as Ale man states that the Church then owned more
than half of all the land in Mexico, while her holdings in urban
property . . . were tremendous. She was the chief money loaning agency
of the age. Meanwhile the natives were living in abject poverty,
working as peons for a few pennies a day.
As late as 1910, 2% of
the population owned 70% of the land, while in the State of Morclos 2%
owned 98% of the land . . ."
The Mexican Government earned the wrath of the Catholic Church by
expropriating her lands; similarly she brought down the wrath of
European and American holders of oil and farm properties.
Expropriation of titles to land with the capital structures built on
them has no basis in jurisprudence or social justice. How much better
to have preserved diplomatic tranquility by simply raising the land
value tax, which is always the government's constitutional right?
In the three outstanding dictator nations we must observe conditions
closely because the land question is so closely integrated with
poverty and war. In 1933 about 400 people in Germany owned an average
of 13,000 acres each. One million owned only six and one-half acres
each. The rest owned . little or nothing. In Italy more than two
thirds of the land is owned by 4 per cent of the population. Peasant
ownership has decreased markedly under Mussolini's dictatorship. It
should be noted also that farm wages declined 37 per cent between 1927
and 1935 and purchasing power fell below 15 per cent what it was
before the advent of Fascism.
One half of one per cent own 47 per cent of the cultivated land in
Italy, a country where there are 350 people to the square mile. Forty
million people out of Italy's 43 million own no land whatsoever.
From Russia we get no authentic news. Some writers maintain that the
Soviet Government has made grants of land in perpetuity. Whether any
such return to private land ownership has taken place, the
uncontrovertible fact is that land use has been encouraged only by
force and coercion, which is really discouragement. We hear only of
agrarian lands used through cooperatives, and of heavy taxes on the
products of these socialized laborers. As for city lands, it must be
presumed that this large source of rent is collected for the
maintenance of a tremendous 'bureaucracy with its attendant police
system. This is not land rent socialization. It is a diversion of the
socially created fund from social service to private emolument.
Let us take our inquiry into Spain where a war of landless and
landlords is being fought. Here are the figures on land tenure
previous to the rebellion: One per cent owned 45%, 14 per cent owned
35.2%, 45 per cent owned 13% and 40% owned nothing!
Three million agriculture workers toiled for absentee landlords from
12 to 16 hours a day for miserably low wages. Nine million had no land
whatsoever, and the miserable working condition revealed the pitiful
situation. Last summer I met a young woman whose family lost all their
property, and some their lives in Spain. "If only the Georgist
movement had progressed further in my country", she said, "Spain
would not be as it is today."
In China a publication called "The Voice of China" stated
in July 1937 that a research committee had been at work for four years
and had advanced the policy of socializing the economic rent, and the
abolition of taxation. Some 1200 delegates were to have met at Nanking
last September. The Japanese invasion frustrated this, and the first
building destroyed was the publication headquarters of "The Voice
It is claimed that Japan must have foreign outlets for its people.
Actually the density of population in Japan is little more than half
of Belgium, and only half that of England. But the Japan Yearbook for
1936 shows that of one half of the arable land In Japan, seven and one
half million acres are owned by a million people, or about one and
one-half per cent of the total population, while 33 million get their
living on rented agriculture land. Of these, 22 million are trying to
exist on approximately one acre per household. Not only must they pay
high rent for that small area, but they are also heavily taxed! In
January 1938 there was an average indebtedness of $290 per farm.
Now, for the surprise package -- little Denmark. This tiny
principality has known feudalism in its worse sense. It has been
through wars, unemployment, discouragement and poverty. Some of their
statesmen many years ago realized that the privileges they themselves
held were choking their countrymen to death, and they were the first
to urge the King and the government to institute land reforms which
meant breaking up the large estates.
This year Copenhagen celebrated the 150th anniversary of the
emancipation of the peasants. During those 150 years the country had
taken gradual steps toward a better social system, and I can best sum
up their progress in the words of their former Minister of Home
Affairs, who, by the way, was an ardent Georgist: "From social
freedom arose in Denmark political freedom; and out of that will grow
one day for society the economic liberty under which free and
independent citizens will enjoy the full fruits of their labor, while
the community will receive what it creates."
Copenhagen, the capital, has no slums, since a large part of land
rent is collected by the government. People are building homes in the
suburbs and villages and farms. What would happen with all rent
collected by the state can be left to the imagination. The Science of
Economics, as clarified by Henry George, is taught to the people in
Denmark through the folk schools, just as it is taught in the classes
of the Henry George School of Social Science in Canada and the United
There is no illiteracy in Denmark. Of the farms 85 per cent are
electrified. There are paved roads all over the country. Practically
every home has a library, there is a radio to every six or seven
persons, a motor car to every thirty, and a telephone to every ten --
all this in a country where natural resources are limited, the farming
season is short, the size of the nation too small to exert much
influence on international trade.
In this brief journey (and in this condensation many statistics had
to be deleted) we have seen that where enormous areas of land are held
by limited numbers of peoples, there is the most abject poverty, there
is the frenzy of war -- or there is dictatorship!
The conditions that contrast so acutely with Denmark can easily
become more acute, and the peoples of the two hemispheres may find
their civilizations going the way of ancient Persia, Egypt, Babylon
and Rome unless the unearned increment attaching to the land is
returned to the peoples and opportunity to produce is opened.