Into the Century of Land Reform
[28 January, 2000]
MOST pathological social problems can be traced to the last great
social injustice. I refer to the privatisation of that value to which
we all contribute as citizens of our communities. Because governments
have been derelict in their duty -- have propagated or, at the very
least, condoned -- the privatisation of the rent of land and natural
resources, scores of generations have been made to suffer needlessly.
This problem will be solved because it is impossible for it to
persist. The way forward will not be easy. Philosophers of the past
understood the source of the problems of their times, but they failed
to campaign for the appropriate reforms:
- equalisation of people's rights to the income that they
jointly create through the use of nature's gifts; and
- removal of taxes on wages and savings.
Societies whose cultures originated in Europe are smug about the
rights that their citizens enjoy. The ideology of the "rule of
law" camouflages the injustices that are routinely inflicted on
people, day in, day out. But we have now reached an historical
watershed. It is no longer possible to conceal the primary cause of
people's personal and social problems. In the 21st century, the
struggle will be aimed at the liberation of land. This is the key
piece in an historical jigsaw. Its achievement will consolidate the
process of modernisation that began three centuries ago. By
liberating land, we will consolidate the freedoms that have been
gained by labour and capital.
MODERN history began with the Enlightenment. Philosophers of the
eighteenth century offered a coherent programme for people who were
no longer content with the limits that were inherited from the
Middle Ages. Bonds tied people's bodies and their minds.
- Escape for the mind -- the leap out of mysticism, into the
realm of reason - would come through the advance of science and a
- Escape from the bonds of servitude would come from the
articulation of a new vision of human nature, and the definition
of matching rights and obligations.
Freedom was the key. Freedom to think, to worship, and to organise
one's community in ways that fulfilled personal needs. The project
promised much for the masses who had been excluded from the drama
that constituted history.
That project has not been completed. Nor will it be, according to
commentators like John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the
London School of Economics. He devotes much time to airing his views
in the pages of national newspapers. For Gray (who is not a lone
voice), the Enlightenment has not only failed; it could not succeed.
He attributes the damaged environment to the Enlightenment, which is
therefore treated as a fatally flawed project that has imposed
burdens on future generations.
This verdict demeans the writings of people like David Hume and his
colleagues. The works of Adam Smith are held responsible for the
tyranny of the global economy.
This assessment is based on a profoundly inadequate reading of both
the texts and of history. Even so, it would be dangerous to ignore
these commentators. They are shaping the mood of our times,
eulogising something called "post-modernism", and defining
the policies that governments might employ in the 21st century.
In this essay I cannot challenge the unwarranted accusations
levelled at the Enlightenment. My concern is to sketch some elements
of a new perspective on history. This yields a pattern of events
that may offer a guide to priorities for social action.
LIBERTY was the rallying cry; freedom for everyone. But freedom was
never going to come overnight; or simultaneously in all realms. It
would be a matter of working towards as perfect a society that
imperfect human beings could devise.
The two big problems were:
- the nature of that society; and
- how to get there.
I admit that philosophers are not necessarily the most reliable
guides. Some of them lacked courage. Tutored they may have been, but
not necessarily wise. Some of them were not willing to confront the
forces of evil. From Plato to Marx, they sought refuge in utopian
visions, dreaming of perfect societies guided by the authority that
they divined. Karl Popper called them enemies of the Open Society.
But by studying the texts of the eighteenth century philosophers we
can discern a blueprint that would have delivered a free society,
one built on solid foundations. There was no simple checklist of
steps on the road marked "freedom". Even so, the direction
of action was clear enough nibbling away at the weaknesses in the
power structure just like water running down the hill which searches
out the path of least resistance....
The Enlightenment called for changes in the way we accumulated
knowledge, how we operated the economy, financed government; it
reassessed theology, proposed new approaches to the institutions of
civil society -- in fact, it was a comprehensive vision. The
philosophers were not a single group of people sitting around a
table, arguing over their theories. Their writings contained
contradictions, but few denied that the objective was freedom of the
Economics affords the neatest summary of the history that was to
unfold, so it is the path down which we will tread. To appreciate
the way in which I have diagnosed the dynamics of that history, ask
this question: Could those philosophers have set up a list of
priorities for action based on an understanding of the issues that
would court the greatest resistance -- the better to first address
the problems that would court least opposition? I believe they
could have done so.
FREEING the land so that it was at the service of everyone was the
By the eighteenth century, property rights had been consolidated
into the hands of the aristocracy and the gentry. They guaranteed
their rights by monopolising the political process. A direct
challenge to their vital interest -- the rents on which they relied
for their leisurely lifestyles -- would have been repressed with
France appeared to be an exception. In fact, while the
heads of many aristocrats rolled into the basket beneath the
guillotine's blade, private property rights in land were not
challenged. Elsewhere in Europe, from the islands in the North Sea
to the steppes of Russia, the privatisation of rent would be
protected. The souls who dared to challenge the legitimacy of the
privatisation of that stream of income were to fail lamentably. So
the attempt to free the land would have to be postponed. The
struggle for freedom would have to begin where the gains would be
the easiest to achieve: in the labour market.
The l9th century was the Age of
By 1800, people had been either dispossessed of land (enclosures
and clearances in the British Isles), or tied by law to the land on
the great Prussian, Polish and Russian estates. In the New World,
people were slaves.
The struggle for freedom was messy. The csar might not have
facilitated the land reforms of the 1860s if Russia had not lost a
war in the Crimea a few years earlier. In America, the civil war to
emancipate slaves was as much induced by economic imperatives (wage
labour had become more efficient than an army of slaves) as by moral
sensibility. The emancipation of serfs east of the Elbe was driven
by the structure of the state (which needed changing additional
revenue from a more productive agricultural sector) rather than by
the wisdom of statesmen.
But still, the tendency was towards a recognition that the modern
era could not condone the bondage of labour.
In Britain the century began with the state fiercely applying its
power to prevent landless workers combining their strength to try
and negotiate better wage rates in factories. By the end of the
century, trade unions were on the verge of becoming a power in the
land: they led the demand for a political party, representing
Throughout Europe and North America, people achieved legal freedom.
It was a formal freedom, but it was the completion of the first
major step in the correct direction.
The 2Oth century was the Age of
Brave attempts to free the land were made, but they failed. The
most sustained effort, by Britain, was compromised by a socialist
bias that was inconsistent with market economics.
Socialism drove the two streams of action against the freedom to
own and use accumulated savings. The most extreme form was sponsored
in the Soviet Union under the spell of Karl Marx. There, between
1917 and 1992, capital was under the direct control of the state.
The capitulation of Communism was the formal freedom of capital.
In Western Europe, the attack on capital took the form of welfare
economics. Justice for the dispossessed was sought via tax policies
that sought to redistribute income. Taxation reached confiscatory
marginal rates before the ideological tide was turned by Ronald
Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The demand was for privatisation of
state assets, liberalisation in the capital markets and the
reduction of state regulation over where and how people could invest
Victory for capital came on the back of a seriously defective
philosophy of freedom. Even so, the results -- in terms of people's
rights -- were in the correct direction. By the end of the century
capital was free of the clutches of governments.
But in the same way that 19th century controls over labour were
swapped for tyranny of unionised labour in the 20th, so the 20th
century controls over capital will become the tyranny of footloose
finance in the 21st century.
Exercise of the destructive power of labour and capital, once their
formal freedom had been achieved, was a rational response to the
pathology of a system that was still evolving towards maturity. It
still had a major item of unfinished business on the social agenda.
Meanwhile, however, the price for the liberation of capital was
high. In the 1990s, according to the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development, Britain, followed by the USA, had the
highest rates of poverty among the developed nations.
The 21st century is the Age of
Labour and capital cannot work in harmonious partnership to yield
prosperity and a sustainable system while the monopoly power of land
continues to be privately exploited. So, confronted by the traumas
that will now be generated by footloose capital and fragmented
labour, the overwhelming social pressure will compel reforms to the
use of natural resources and to the distribution of the rents that
The privatisation of rents cannot continue in a democratic society
that seeks to remedy the brutalisation of nature.
The list of issues that favour land-and-tax reform is a long one,
and it is the only action list that makes historical sense.
- Governments are losing their grip on taxation. Capital is
mobile, and the only secure source of revenue is from land and
- Non-governmental agencies are mobilised to insist on corrective
action, to prevent further abuse of the enviromnent: see the
outcome of the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle last
- Geo-politics in a borderless world necessitates devolution of
power together with supranational arrangements that will not be
possible without a new ethic on land.
Labour has achieved its formal freedom, but needs to create new
institutions that favour humanity in the workplace. Capital has been
liberated from the shackles of the myth-makers but needs to be
accessible to everyone. This means a huge job of work waiting to be
done. Science and technology has further disguised resource rents.
These have to be disentangled from the returns to labour and
capital. People, working with their civic leaders and those who
think for a living, need to visualise and evolve a culture that
banishes conflict and enables every person to achieve his and her
None of this will be possible without recognising the need to
remedy the last great social problem -- the ownership and use o of
MY FORECAST for the 21st century is not prophesy. I rely on a
dispassionate assessment of the logic of history.
Justice will prevail -- sooner rather than later, with less rather
than more suffering -- but only if we realign our philosophy. People
need signposts before they exercise their choices. But with the
exception of a few activists who approach social problems from the
ecological perspective, no-one, so far as I know, has yet embarked
on the relevant course of creative thinking. There is a serious risk
that societies in the 21st century may pursue false paths. The
potential exists for massive suffering on a scale that could eclipse
the worst crimes against humanity that were perpetrated in the past
A deep void still exists in people's understanding of both human
nature and the institutions that are required to support a decent
society. In other words, the Enlightenment process has not yet been
completed. A new resolve is needed, if Georgists are to play their
part in filling that void.
John Gray, Enlightenment's Wake,
London: Routledge, 1995.
E.J.Hobsbawn, Labouring Men, London: Weidenfeld &
Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, London: RKP,
Werner Rosenei, The Peasantry of Europe, Oxford: Blackwell,