Why just land?

“Land is a natural resource that existed before mankind walked the earth. Every person on the planet has a right to share in its wealth.”

So declared the winter 2001/2 issue of Land and Liberty but the article then went on to argue that sharing in the benefits of land could be realised through a tax on land. But if we agree that land is a common inheritance of all humanity then surely this must lead to only one conclusion – not that land ownership should be taxed, but that all the land of this Earth should be held in common by all people.

Let us be clear on what is meant by common ownership. We certainly don’t mean nationalisation, which is state ownership and control. Nationalisation is a complete distortion of the idea of common ownership. We mean that all people will stand in equal relationship with each other about the land, and that it will be a common resource available to all communities, to be used solely for providing for the needs of people.

This can only happen as part of a general non-market economy in which people co-operate to produce goods and provide services directly for needs without the economic constraints of ownership or buying and selling. A non-market economy is a moneyless, non-exchange economy which operates only with useful labour co-operating to produce useful goods directly for consumption. With the equal relationships of common ownership, not just about land but about all the means of life, people will co-operate to produce food and other necessities which will then be distributed to stores where people will have free access to it without the barriers of buying and selling and without any of the economic constraints of the profit system.

From a common sense view it does seem daft that, whilst people need things and whilst the labour and machinery exists to produce those things, at the same time workers become unemployed, factories are made idle and people go without. However, this assumes that under market system production is able to respond directly to people’s needs, but this is the last thing it is able to do. That would only be possible in a production for need system based on common ownership.

Of course, for a thing to be produced there has to be a need, but just because there is a need for something does not mean it will be produced. The market operates with what is now called “effective demand,” which is about ability and willingness to pay. So production stops, not when needs are satisfied but when sales begin to fall.

Throughout history, in previous societies, mostly they produced to their full productive capacity and then distributed what was produced. Distribution was determined by production. But with the development of the capitalist system and its markets, this was reversed. Production came to be limited and therefore determined by what could be distributed on the markets as sales for profit. Production came to be determined by market distribution and this means that there is always less than optimum production and certainly always less than what would be required for needs.

But this constraint on the use of productive powers has got nothing to do with the arrangement of the tax system. It is the operation of the markets that constrains production and we can see this clearly in the present use of land.

Land’s greatest use as a productive resource is for the production of food commodities but there are increasing numbers of people in the world who suffer malnutrition. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organisation was set up in 1945 to assist in trying to solve the problem of world hunger. But if we look up its website now we find that during the last quarter of the 20th Century the numbers of starving people doubled. Between 1974 and 2000 the numbers of seriously undernourished people increased from 435 million to 820 million.

Despite the millions of people who are starving, most developed countries operate policies which restrict food production. We all know that it is part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to set tight quotas for most food commodities and that farmers have to adjust their production to these quotas. What is produced under this quota regime is nothing like the amount that could be produced with greater use of land resources in Europe. And the fact remains that what is produced is always much less than what would be required for people’s needs.

During the 1980s to deal with the problem of falling cereal prices, the American government negotiated with farmers to take 82 million acres out of cereal production. At the same time newspapers were reporting that “32 million of the (American) population of 233 million are graded as living below the poverty line, but the mayors say that soup kitchens are not keeping pace with the hungry”.

The economic and social history of land ownership is rotten with theft, privilege, cruelty and exploitation but this should not blind us to the fact that the vast fortunes made from the accumulation of industrial and manufacturing capital also tell a nasty story of exploitation that still continues throughout the world in today’s global capitalism. Income solely from the ownership of land is in fact only a small percentage of total property income in all its forms. This fact pushes the question of a land value tax even further to the margins of political interest.

The wealth of this world is produced by labour – there is no other way it comes into existence – but it is substantially owned and used by a rich social minority who have never been part of wealth production. These are just as much parasites as are land monopolists. It is their ownership of means of production and resources that has to be dealt with.

It is not only land that is the common inheritance of all people. We depend on the richness of all the Earth’s resources, industrial as well as natural. What is vital are all the means of producing and distributing wealth. These means of life are also a common inheritance. They result from the development of productive techniques that began at the dawn of history with flint implements and continued down to the automated systems and electronically controlled robots of today. These are not the products of individuals or of a tiny class. Each new advance rested on the accumulated efforts of many previous generations. This has been a human achievement and that is why it can be said to be the common inheritance of us all.

Surely, therefore, the fact that these means of life are owned and monopolised by a tiny section of society, and used by them for their own enrichment whilst the vast majority of non owners have to struggle to live and countless millions live in desperate poverty and many starve, is an obscenity that cannot be defended in any kind of moral or rational sense? It can only be remedied through their common ownership.

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