What One Founding Father Foresaw

by Dick Noyes

Richard Noyes was the publisher of The Salem Observer for 35 years. He was one of the founding directors in 1985 of Common Ground-USA, and was the editor and publisher of Groundswell from 1986 to 1993. He served as the Council of Georgist Organizations president in 1993-94, and he edited the 1991 book Now The Synthesis, Capitalism, Socialism, and the New Social Contract. This is excerpted from a paper delivered at the Georgist conference in San Diego in 1987.

The Founding Fathers, in fact, made major compromises even with their better judgement, on liberty and property in the interest of getting anything at all.

But there has been a continuing effort to make things better…. We fought a civil war to end slavery and to move black Americans up from only three-fifths of a human being… and we struggled for another whole century to move them up to full citizenship.

We have given women the right to vote and a steadily improving place in legal standing.

So we have done reasonably well with liberty. The same cannot be said, however, on property, the constitutional guarantee most closely linked with the Georgist concept. [Eleven years ago, I wrote:] “It has taken us nearly two centuries to repair one original defect in our constitutions. Henry George has given us the ingenuity with which to repair the other. I see nothing discouraging in the fact that the job remains to be done.”

…. It is my strong belief that George has given us exactly what is needed to deal with a long-term concern Madison wrestled with at Philadelphia, through his presidency two decades later, and right up until his death in 1836, without having mastered it. Madison knew very well that our federal Constitution was inadequate in the long run to deal with property rights, and that it might eventually have to give way to something else, but try as he would he could not come up with the answer.

It is my contention that, constitutionally speaking, George has cut the Gordian knot.

Henry George insisted upon the accurate use of words. He used 27 pages of The Science of Political Economy, for instance, just to clear up the rampant misuse of the word “wealth” which is so near the heart of this continuing failure to understand economics. Later, he used 15 pages to deal with the misuse of this very word that is central to the John Locke and the Lockean proviso: “property.”

George looks closely at the works of John Stuart Mill, a man for whom he clearly had respect, finding in them “what is in reality, though doubtless unconsciously to him, a juggle with words.” Mill, in one particular instance, “slips from one to the other of these two senses of the word land, not merely in the same connection, but in the same sentence, and even as between the noun and its pronoun without notice to the reader and seemingly without consciousness on his own part.”

People do it all the time…. Everyone and his brother does it with the word “property,” which has almost as many different meanings as the sky has stars. Property in improvements in one thing, and money makes possible the fair exchange of it before the acorns and the apples can spoil. But property in land is another, and the people of these United States will continue to struggle hopelessly with the Lockean proviso and the steadily debilitating effects of its violation until such time as they see and accept how neatly Henry George’s incisive mind has sliced through it.

And, appropriately, he found the way to cut the knot by the accurate use of a word, and a four-letter word at that…. “It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.”

Hold back for society the economic rent of land — the market’s measure of just exactly how “good” the land is — and Locke’s provision will have been satisfied…. We see now, or at least some of us see, that private property in land is not the problem even with a population as large as ours. The problem is private property in economic rent.

Turner’s concern and Madison’s before him that there is no longer “enough” land left, whether or not it be “as good,” is valid, but the whole structure changes when there is private property in land but not in rent. There is still “enough” land in existence for all our needs to be met.

Locke never said that everyone, under his social compact, had to mix his labor with land and thereby make it his property, anymore than he said everyone had to go out and pick up the acorns and the apples. Money made it possible to exchange goods before they spoil, and money makes it possible to separate out the economic rent from property in land.

Now all we have to do is get it into the Constitution. It is as simple as that.

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