Progress and Poverty

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I recently read Andrew Bisset’s The Strength of Nations on a whim, because it was mentioned in Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, which argues that land is fundamentally different from other forms of property:

The English yeoman — the sturdy breed who won Crecy, and Poictiers, and Agincourt — is as extinct as the mastodon. The Scottish clansman, whose right to the soil of his native hills was then as undisputed as that of his chieftain, has been driven out to make room for the sheep ranges or deer parks of that chieftain’s descendant; the tribal right of the Irishman has been turned into a tenancy-at-will. Thirty thousand men have legal power to expel the whole population from five-sixths of the British Islands, and the vast majority of the British people have no right whatever to their native land save to walk the streets or trudge the roads.
And so the abolition of the military tenures in England by the Long Parliament, ratified after the accession of Charles II, though simply an appropriation of public revenues by the feudal land holders, who thus got rid of the consideration on which they held the common property of the nation, and saddled it on the people at large, in the taxation of all consumers, has long been characterized, and is still held up in the law books, as a triumph of the spirit of freedom.

Yet here is the source of the immense debt and heavy taxation of England. Had the form of these feudal dues been simply changed into one better adapted to the changed times, English wars need never have occasioned the incurring of debt to the amount of a single pound, and the labor and capital of England need not have been taxed a single farthing for the maintenance of a military establishment. All this would have come from rent, which the land holders since that time have appropriated to themselves — from the tax which land ownership levies on the earnings of labor and capital. The land holders of England got their land on terms which required them even in the sparse population of Norman days to put in the field, upon call, sixty thousand perfectly equipped horsemen,53 and on the further condition of various fines and incidents which amounted to a considerable part of the rent. It would probably be a low estimate to put the pecuniary value of these various services and dues at one-half the rental value of the land.

Had the land holders been kept to this contract and no land been permitted to be inclosed except upon similar terms, the income accruing to the nation from English land would to-day be greater by many millions than the entire public revenues of the United Kingdom. England to-day might have enjoyed absolute free trade. There need not have been a customs duty, an excise, license, or income tax, yet all the present expenditures could be met, and a large surplus remain to be devoted to any purpose which would conduce to the comfort or well-being of the whole people.

As that passage suggests, Henry George strongly believed in a single tax on land. This makes a fair amount of economic sense, given the inelastic supply of land, but George presented it as a matter of social justice, making him an odd combination of free-market libertarian and leveling socialist — and the inspiration for the game of Monopoly.


  1. Brad V. says:

    Hey, where can I get a good Georgist version of Monopoly, really the Landlord’s Game or Antimonopoly? Can you play it online?

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