by Ed Eodson
“Economic instability”,writes Gar Alperovitz, “radically weakens all forms of civil society network-building including those that nurture democracy and communities’ interests in their environments.” Solving the problem of economic instability means facing up to a fundamental truth; namely, that the system of law in place in virtually every society around the world secures and protects entrenched privilege at the expense of equality of opportunity and true liberty. At best, the introduction of representative government and “democracy” mitigates the effects of entrenched privilege. In the process, we have constructed an elaborate institutional architecture — employing millions of people — focused not on solutions but on managing the intensity of the problem.
Our first challenge is to somehow reach a broad consensus on the distinction between true liberty and privilege. This raises the questions of what, if any, rights we have to the earth. Is access to the earth the birthright of all persons, equally? Or, do some persons have a superior claim to the earth and its life-supporting systems? The world is organized based on the latter idea, and the result is that billions of people are marginalized, oppressed and forced to live without access to what the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler described as the “goods” necessary for a decent human existence.
There was a time in history when access to the earth was far more equally available. Tribal societies thrived for thousands of years under communitarian structures that treated nature as common property. Early writers on political economy examined this earlier historical period and remarked on the absence of want. The capacity to produce surplus was quite limited, but these societies functioned without the hierarchical structure that eventually appeared — when the the hunter-protectors evolved into a militaristic caste that shared power with those who took advantage of the general fear of the unknown to establish themselves in the priestcraft. The resulting kings and aristocracies demanded tribute from those who actually produced wealth. The priests demanded tithes (and sacrifices) as payment for their services to keep the gods pleased. Settlement of groups in one location, the allocation of control over specific parcels of land, over sources of water and other natural resources, triggered the changes in socio-political arrangements and institutions that continue to worsen the distribution of income and wealth in every society.
Today, aristocracies no longer have the ability to demand direct tribute. Organized religions in most countries do not have the legal authority to require tithes be paid. These forms of wealth confiscation have been replaced by claims on wealth (i.e., on production) by those who control access of nature. Land ownership is, essentially, a static activity; ownership contributes nothing to the production of wealth. Ownership allows non-producers to demand a payment from others for mere access.
If we are to restore our societies to structures that secure and protect our equal birthright to the earth, our laws must be changed to treat the value of land (whether in our cities and towns, agricultural or natural resource-laden lands, or the resources contained in our lakes, rivers and oceans) as common property. Thomas Paine argued in a pamphlet he titled “Agrarian Justice” that anyone who was granted control over land owed a “ground rent” to the community for this privilege. The American writer Henry George greatly expanded on this argument in his books at the end of the 19th century. The logic of these arguments was largely ignored at the time; the mentality of the late 18th and 19th centuries was one of human conquest of nature. We continue to live with the results.
The world’s leaders made a remarkable commitment to implement the principles espoused by Paine and George in the crafting of the Law of the Sea Treaty — a proposal for the sharing of the economic value arising from the oceans’ natural resources opposed by monopolistic corporate and nation-state interests. Not only do we desperately need the Law of the Sea; we need a corresponding Law of the Land so that “ground rent” finally becomes community property.
(This piece appeared as a Letter to the Editor in Worldwatch magazine.)