Henry George’s Remedy

Common Property in Land. “We must make land common property,” Henry George declared. That loaded statement has often been taken out of context. It frequently led to George being lumped in with “the socialists” (who, for their part, strongly disagreed with George; Karl Marx referred to him as “utterly backward”). What did Henry George mean by “common property in land”?

Modern society is quite accustomed to thinking of land as a buyable, sellable commodity. Conventional economic analysis, for the most part, insists on seeing it that way, denying any qualitative difference between “land” and “capital.” However, as we have seen in this course, when land and capital are considered as factors of production, there are clear and important qualitative differences between them. Capital is produced by human labor and more of it can be supplied, if it is in greater demand. Capital improvements to land are economically separate from land itself, which is fixed in supply. Each individual land site is unique. Land therefore trades at a monopoly price: the highest that the buyer is willing to pay.

This essential difference in the nature of land and capital means that “owning” land is not as straightforward a thing as people commonly take it to be. In economics, land is not merely the earth’s surface but all natural opportunities. Because of this, specific boundaries are needed in order to make “land ownership” meaningful in practice. The Common Law tradition carries the ad coleum doctrine, which gives the landowner rights to a cone starting at the center of the earth and extending into outer space. This proved impractical in modern times, when more and more profitable uses were found for the minerals, water or space below ground, or the air space above it. Consequently, when we talk about the buying or selling of “land,” we really mean the trading of a “bundle of rights” which attaches to a particular location. These rights could include surface rights, subsurface mineral rights, aquifer use rights, air rights, etc.

The Moral Basis of Ownership. Henry George believed in a self-evident moral basis of ownership based on a person’s right to oneself. He wrote

What constitutes the rightful basis of property? What is it that enables a man justly to say of a thing, “It is mine!” From what springs the sentiment which acknowledges his exclusive right as against all the world? Is it not, primarily, the right of a man to himself, to the use of his own powers, to the enjoyment of the fruits of his own exertions? Is it not… the fact that each particular pair of hands obey a particular brain and are related to a particular stomach; the fact that each man is a definite, coherent, independent whole — which alone justifies individual ownership? As a man belongs to himself, so his labor when put in concrete form belongs to him.

This principle implies that land cannot be private property, because it was not, and cannot be, produced by human labor. Furthermore, because human beings cannot produce the things they need to survive unless they have access to land, the basic human right to life entails the right to equal access to the gifts of nature.

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