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The Law of Rent


Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

That the value attaching to land with social growth is intended for social needs is shown by the final proof. God is indeed a jealous God in the sense that nothing but injury and disaster can attend the effort of men to do things other than in the way he has intended; in the sense that where the blessings he proffers to men are refused or misused they turn to evils that scourge us. And just as for the mother to withhold the provision that fills her breast with the birth of the child is to endanger physical health, so for society to refuse to take for social uses the provision intended for them is to breed social disease.

For refusal to take for public purposes the increasing values that attach to land with social growth is to necessitate the getting of public revenues by taxes that lessen production, distort distribution and corrupt society. It is to leave some to take what justly belongs to all; it is to forego the only means by which it is possible in an advanced civilization to combine the security of possession that is necessary to improvement with the equality of natural opportunity that is the most important of all natural rights. It is thus at the basis of all social life to set up an unjust inequality between man and man, compelling some to pay others for the privilege of living, for the chance of working, for the advantages of civilization, for the gifts of their God. But it is even more than this. The very robbery that the masses of men thus suffer gives rise in advancing communities to a new robbery. For the value that with the increase of population and social advance attaches to land being suffered to go to individuals who have secured ownership of the land, it prompts to a forestalling of and speculation in land wherever there is any prospect of advancing population or of coming improvement, thus producing an artificial scarcity of the natural elements of life and labor, and a strangulation of production that shows itself in recurring spasms of industrial depression as disastrous to the world as destructive wars. It is this that is driving men from the old countries to the new countries, only to bring there the same curses. It is this that causes our material advance not merely to fail to improve the condition of the mere worker, but to make the condition of large classes positively worse. It is this that in our richest Christian countries is giving us a large population whose lives are harder, more hopeless, more degraded than those of the veriest savages. It is this that leads so many men to think that God is a bungler and is constantly bringing more people into his world than he has made provision for; or that there is no God, and that belief in him is a superstition which the facts of life and the advance of science are dispelling.

The darkness in light, the weakness in strength, the poverty amid wealth, the seething discontent foreboding civil strife, that characterize our civilization of today, are the natural, the inevitable results of our rejection of God’s beneficence, of our ignoring of his intent. Were we on the other hand to follow his clear, simple rule of right, leaving scrupulously to the individual all that individual labor produces, and taking for the community the value that attaches to land by the growth of the community itself, not merely could evil modes of raising public revenues be dispensed with, but all men would be placed on an equal level of opportunity with regard to the bounty of their Creator, on an equal level of opportunity to exert their labor and to enjoy its fruits. And then, without drastic or restrictive measures the forestalling of land would cease. For then the possession of land would mean only security for the permanence of its use, and there would be no object for any one to get land or to keep land except for use; nor would his possession of better land than others had confer any unjust advantage on him, or unjust deprivation on them, since the equivalent of the advantage would be taken by the state for the benefit of all.

The Right Reverend Dr. Thomas Nulty, Bishop of Meath, who sees all this as clearly as we do, in pointing out to the clergy and laity of his diocese* the design of Divine Providence that the rent of land should be taken for the community, says:

I think, therefore, that I may fairly infer, on the strength of authority as well as of reason, that the people are and always must be the real owners of the land of their country. This great social fact appears to me to be of incalculable importance, and it is fortunate, indeed, that on the strictest principles of justice it is not clouded even by a shadow of uncertainty or doubt. There is, moreover, a charm and a peculiar beauty in the clearness with which it reveals the wisdom and the benevolence of the designs of Providence in the admirable provision he has made for the wants and the necessities of that state of social existence of which he is author, and in which the very instincts of nature tell us we are to spend our lives. A vast public property, a great national fund, has been placed under the dominion and at the disposal of the nation to supply itself abundantly with resources necessary to liquidate the expenses of its government, the administration of its laws and the education of its youth, and to enable it to provide for the suitable sustentation and support of its criminal and pauper population. One of the most interesting peculiarities of this property is that its value is never stationary; it is constantly progressive and increasing in a direct ratio to the growth of the population, and the very causes thatincrease and multiply the demands made on it increase proportionately its ability to meet them.
* Letter addressed to the Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of Meath, Ireland, April 2, 1881.

There is, indeed, as Bishop Nulty says, a peculiar beauty in the clearness with which the wisdom and benevolence of Providence are revealed in this great social fact, the provision made for the common needs of society in what economists call the law of rent. Of all the evidence that natural religion gives, it is this that most clearly shows the existence of a beneficent God, and most conclusively silences the doubts that in our days lead so many to materialism.

For in this beautiful provision made by natural law for the social needs of civilization we see that God has intended civilization; that all our discoveries and inventions do not and cannot outrun his forethought, and that steam, electricity and labor-saving appliances only make the great moral laws clearer and more important. In the growth of this great fund, increasing with social advance — a fund that accrues from the growth of the community and belongs therefore to the community — we see not only that there is no need for the taxes that lessen wealth, that engender corruption, that promote inequality and teach men to deny the gospel; but that to take this fund for the purpose for which it was evidently intended would in the highest civilization secure to all the equal enjoyment of God’s bounty, the abundant opportunity to satisfy their wants, and would provide amply for every legitimate need of the state. We see that God in his dealings with men has not been a bungler or a niggard; that he has not brought too many men into the world; that he has not neglected abundantly to supply them; that he has not intended that bitter competition of the masses for a mere animal existence and that monstrous aggregation of wealth which characterize our civilization; but that these evils which lead so many to say there is no God, or yet more impiously to say that they are of God’s ordering, are due to our denial of his moral law. We see that the law of justice, the law of the Golden Rule, is not a mere counsel of perfection, but indeed the law of social life. We see that if we were only to observe it there would be work for all, leisure for all, abundance for all; and that civilization would tend to give to the poorest not only necessities, but all comforts and reasonable luxuries as well. We see that Christ was not a mere dreamer when he told men that if they would seek the kingdom of God and its right-doing they might no more worry about material things than do the lilies of the field about their raiment; but that he was only declaring what political economy in the light of modern discovery shows to be a sober truth. ... read the whole letter

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894) — Appendix: FAQ

Q36. How is it possible to determine what part of a man's product is due to land, and what part is due to labor?
A. All products are due wholly to the union of land and labor. Labor is the active force, land is the passive material; and without both there can be no product at all. But the part of a man's product that he individually earns, as distinguished from the part that he obtains by virtue of advantageous location, is determined by the law of rent — by what his location is worth. ... read the book

Fred Foldvary:  See the Cat

Picture an unpopulated island where we're going to produce one good, corn, and there are eleven grades of land. On the best land, we can grow ten bushels of corn per week; the second land grows nine bushels, and so on to the worst land that grows zero bushels. We'll ignore capital goods at first. The first settlers go the best land. While there is free ten-bushel land, rent is zero, so wages are 10. When the 10-bushel land is all settled, immigrants go to the 9-bushel land.

Wages in the 9-bushel land equal 9 while free land is available. What then are wages in the 10-bushel land? They must also be 9, since labor is mobile. If you offer less, nobody will come, and if you offer a bit more than 9, everybody in the 9-bushel land will want to work for you. Competition among workers makes wages the same all over (we assume all workers are alike). So that extra bushel in the 10-bushel land, after paying 9 for labor, is rent.

That border line where the best free land is being settled is called the "margin of production." When the margin moves to the 8-bushel land, wages drop to 8. Rent is now 1 on the 9-bushel land and 2 on the 10-bushel land. Do you see what the trend is? As the margin moves to less productive lands, wages are going down and rent is going up. We can also now see that wages are determined at the margin of production. That is the "law of wages." The wage at the margin sets the wage for all lands. The production in the better lands left after paying wages goes to rent. That is the "law of rent." If you understand the law of wages and the law of rent, you see the cat! To complete our cat story, suppose folks can get land to rent and sell for higher prices later rather than using it now. This land speculation will hog up lands and make the margin move further out than without speculation, lowering wages and raising rent even more.

Now we have good news and bad news. The good news is that when we put in the capital goodsSo there is this constant race between technology raising wages and lower margins reducing wages.  ... we first left out from the example above, the tools and technology increase the productivity of all the lands. If production doubles, rent doubles, and wages go up. Wages won't double, because workers have to pay for the tools, but even if wages go up 50 percent, that's good news, and why industrialized economies have a high standard of living. Also, high skills enable educated workers to have a wage premium above the basic wage level. The bad news is that the technology enables us to extend the margin to less productive land, which lowers wages again. Read the whole article

Alanna Hartzok: Earth Rights Democracy: Public Finance based on Early Christian Teachings
The primary cause of the enormous and growing wealth gap is that the land and natural resources of the earth are treated as if they are mere market commodities from which a few are allowed to reap massive private profits or hold land and resources out of use in anticipation of future profits. Henry George, the great 19th century American political economist and social philosopher, proposed a solution to a problem that too few understood at the time and too few understand today. Early Christian teachings drew upon deep wisdom teachings of the Jubilee justice tradition when they addressed this problem. The problem is the Land Problem.

The Land Problem takes two primary forms: land price escalation and concentrated land ownership.
  • As our system of economic development proceeds, land values rise faster than wages increase, until inevitably the price paid for access to land consumes increasing amounts of a worker's wages. In classical economics, this dilemma is called the "law of rent" and has been mostly ignored by mainstream economists. The predictability of the "law of rent" - that land values will continually rise - fuels frenzies of land speculation and the inevitable bust that follows the boom. A recent Fortune cover story informs us that there are big gains and huge risks in housing speculation in about 30 predominantly coastal markets that encompass 100 million people. Since 2000, home prices in New York, Washington, and Boston have surged 56% to 61%. Prices jumped 58% in Miami and Los Angeles and 76% in San Diego where the median home price county-wide is $582,000. The gap between home prices and fundamentals like job growth and incomes is greater than ever.[7]
  • The second form of the Land Problem is the fact that in most countries, including the United States, a small minority of people own and control a disproportionately large amount of land and natural resources. Data suggests that about 3% of the population owns 95% of the privately held land in the US. Less than 600 companies control 22% of our private land, a land mass the size of Spain. Those same companies land interests worldwide comprise a total area larger than that of Europe - almost 2 billion acres.  ...   Read the whole article

Rev. A. C. Auchmuty: Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)

WHEREVER land has an exchange value there is rent in the economic meaning of the term. Wherever land having a value is used, either by owner or hirer, there is rent actual; wherever it is not used, but still has a value, there is rent potential. It is this capacity of yielding rent which gives value to land. . . . No matter what are its capabilities, land can yield no rent and have no value until some one is willing to give labor or the results of labor for the privilege of using it; and what anyone will thus give, depends not upon the capacity of the land, but upon its capacity as compared with that of land that can be had for nothing. — Progress & Poverty Book III, Chapter 2 — The Laws of Distribution: Rent and the Law of Rent

STATED reversely, the law of rent is necessarily the law of wages and interest taken together, for it is the assertion, that no matter what be the production which results from the application of labor and capital, these two factors will only receive in wages and interest such part of the produce as they could have produced on land free to them without the payment of rent — that is the least productive land or point in use. — Progress & Poverty Book III, Chapter 2 — The Laws of Distribution: Rent and the Law of Rent

... go to "Gems from George"



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