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6. The Remedy

Poverty deepens as wealth increases, and wages are forced down while productive power grows, because land, which is the source of all wealth and the field of all labor, is monopolized. To extirpate poverty, to make wages what justice commands they should be, the full earnings of the laborer, we must therefore substitute for the individual ownership of land a common ownership.*

*By the phrase "common ownership" of land, Henry George did not mean that land should be held in common or by the State, nor did he propose to interfere with the existing system of land tenures. (See Sections 7 and 12, post.) As in this condensation much of George's argument necessarily has been omitted, the following extracts from his later work "Protection or Free Trade," chapter XXVI, are appended to make his position clear to the present reader.

"No one would sow a crop, or build a house, or open a mine, or plant an orchard, or cut a drain, so long as any one else could come in and turn him out of the land in which or on which such improvement must be fixed. Thus is it absolutely necessary to the proper use and improvement of land that society should secure to the user and improver safe possession. ... We can leave land now being used in the secure possession of those using it. ... on condition that those who hold land shall pay to the community a ... rent based on the value of the privilege the individual receives from the community in being accorded the exclusive use of this much of the common property, and which should have no reference to any improvement he has made in or on it, or to any profit due to the use of his labor and capital. In this way all would be placed on an equality in regard to the use and enjoyment of those natural elements which are clearly the common heritage."

source: Book VI: The Remedy — Chapter 2: The True Remedy

This right of ownership that springs from labor excludes the possibility of any other right of ownership. If a man be rightfully entitled to the produce of his labor, then no one can be rightfully entitled to the ownership of anything which is not the produce of his labor, or the labor of some one else from whom the right has passed to him. For the right to the produce of labor cannot be enjoyed without the right to the free use of the opportunities offered by nature, and to admit the right of property in these is to deny the right of property in the produce of labor. When nonproducers can claim as rent a portion of the wealth created by producers, the right of the producers to the fruits of their labor is to that extent denied.

A house and the lot on which it stands are alike property, as being the subject of ownership, and are alike classed by the lawyers as real estate. Yet in nature and relations they differ widely.

  • The one is produced by human labor, and belongs to the class in political economy styled wealth.
  • The other is a part of nature, and belongs to the class in political economy styled land.

The essential character of the one class of things is that they embody labor, are brought into being by human exertion, their existence or nonexistence, their increase or diminution, depending on man. The essential character of the other class of things is that they do not embody labor, and exist irrespective of human exertion and irrespective of man; they are the field or environment in which man finds himself; the storehouse from which his needs must be supplied, the raw material upon which and the forces with which alone his labor can act.

The moment this distinction is realized, that moment is it seen that the sanction which natural justice gives to one species of property is denied to the other.

For as labor cannot produce without the use of land, the denial of the equal right to the use of land is necessarily the denial of the right of labor to its own produce. If one man can command the land upon which others must labor, he can appropriate the produce of their labor as the price of his permission to labor. The fundamental law of nature, that her enjoyment by man shall be consequent upon his exertion, is thus violated. The one receives without producing; the others produce without receiving. The one is unjustly enriched; the others are robbed.

source: B7: Justice of the Remedy

Place one hundred men on an island from which there is no escape, and whether you make one of these men the absolute owner of the other ninety-nine, or the absolute owner of the soil of the island, will make no difference either to him or to them. In the one case, as the other, the one will be the absolute master of the ninety-nine — his power extending even to life and death, for simply to refuse them permission to live upon the island would be to force them into the sea.

Upon a larger scale, and through more complex relations, the same cause must operate in the same way and to the same end — the ultimate result, the enslavement of laborers, becoming apparent just as the pressure increases which compels them to live on and from land which is treated as the exclusive property of others.

Yet, it will be said: As every man has a right to the use and enjoyment of nature, the man who is using land must be permitted the exclusive right to its use in order that he may get the full benefit of his labor. But there is no difficulty in determining where the individual right ends and the common right begins. A delicate and exact test is supplied by value, and with its aid there is no difficulty, no matter how dense population may become, in determining and securing the exact rights of each, the equal rights of all.

The value of land, as we have seen, is the price of monopoly. It is not the absolute, but the relative, capability of land that determines its value. No matter what may be its intrinsic qualities land that is no better than other land which may be had for the using can have no value. And the value of land always measures the difference between it and the best land that may be had for the using. Thus, the value of land expresses in exact and tangible form the right of the community in land held by an individual; and rent expresses the exact amount which the individual should pay to the community to satisfy the equal rights of all other members of the community.

Thus, if we concede to priority of possession the undisturbed use of land, taxing rent into the public treasury for the benefit of the community, we reconcile the fixity of tenure which is necessary for improvement with a full and complete recognition of the equal rights of all to the use of land.

Consider what rent is. It does not arise spontaneously from land; it is due to nothing that the land owners have done. It represents a value created by the whole community.

Let the land holders have, if you please, all that the possession of the land would give them in the absence of the rest of the community. But rent, the creation of the whole community, necessarily belongs to the whole community.*

* To the view of the extreme conservative that due consideration for the claims of rent receivers negatives the adoption of such a policy, it may be replied that society as such is under no obligation to maintain an unchanged policy through out all future time. Public policies are constantly changing in such ways as to disappoint the expectations of persons who have invested on the supposition that policies would not change and to affect the value of their property. Tarriffs are raised, and lowered. The brewing of spirituous liquors is at one time permitted and at another time outlawed. Prices of monopolized services are first left to be fixed by the monopolist and are then regulated. Taxes are increased on some goods and decreased on others. In some communities taxes have already been made higher on land values than on improvements. Purchasers of land have no right to insist that society may not, even by gradual steps, discriminate in taxation against land rent, which is an income socially produced. (Henry George himself elsewhere said -- Century Magazine, July, 1890 -- that "we cannot get to the Single Tax at one leap, but only by gradual steps.") We must presume that land owners, like other persons, buy their property with no guarantee that public policy will never change. The conservative insistence that society, which makes frequent changes of policy in other matters, is under a binding implied pledge and obligation never to move, even by successive steps, towards the eventual taking of the economic rent of land by taxation, seems preposterous. H. G. B.

Source: Progress & Poverty, Parts VI (The Remedy) and VII (Justice of the Remedy)

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land monopoly

land as common property




he who produces

land different from capital

natural opportunities





land value

free land

I was there first!




poverty's causes

the remedy

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper