Property, Surplus, Sovereignty

by Lindy Davies

The following are the concluding thoughts of an essay called “Why Henry George? Why this Course?” intended as an introductory reading for the HGI’s course in Understanding Economics. The full essay is at henrygeorge.org.

The mainstream economic “canon” has long had a gaping hole, where a synthesis of left vs. right, freedom vs. justice, efficiency vs. equity, might be found.

At the top of Wikipedia’s article on “History of Economic Thought,” the management has inserted one of their little warnings to the effect that the ensuing public-generated text may not pass full scholarly muster. This one says, “The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject.” That’s interesting. What might that mean?

If we step back and try to take a broader, more holistic view of these questions, we’ll get a hint. The science of political economy, or economics, arose along with the rise of European political and, to a large extent, cultural dominance over the rest of the world. At the great risk of overgeneralizing, it is evident, anyway, that the rise of industrial production and international trade, guided and facilitated by the development of classical economics, required a distinct understanding of such concepts as property, surplus and sovereignty. The importance of private property, for example, is explicit in the United States Constitution. Indeed, it is over-emphasized. It took a Civil War and constitutional amendment to resolve the issue of property in human beings. Mainly because of that initial compromise, the legal question of property remains an essentially arbitrary matter in law, without any reference to first principles. Land, for example, is private property, unless the community decides to take it away, with compensation to the owners — but how much of land’s value can be taken away before compensation is required? The wealth that people create, and the wages that they’re paid, are their own private property — until the government comes along and confiscates some of it, and does so according to rules that unconstitutionally invade privacy and require self-incrimination!

Of course there has been economic thought outside of the Western tradition. Other societies have had different notions of property, surplus and sovereignty. In particular, the idea that land could be private property and traded, as could a blanket or a woodcarving, was not current among many traditional societies. This economic institution was needed, of course, for modern economies to develop. Yet there remains something about the idea of land being common property that feels right to most people — though this “rightness” also seems a naive, childish notion.

In recent years, though the age-old economic challenges of poverty and boom/bust cycles have by no means been solved, another chronic economic problem has taken its place beside them to complicate matters still further. Our pursuit of prosperity by means of “economic growth” has created a crisis of sustainability. Indeed, our modern environmental crises have brought back the old Malthusian theory of overpopulation — except that this time, instead of merely physically crowding each other to death, our constant “production of stuff” threatens to overwhelm the planet’s capacity to absorb the pollution it creates. Now, the challenge of environmental sustainability takes its place beside the classic economic problems of poverty and boom/bust cycles.

This, in brief, is where the “dismal science” finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century. It doesn’t seem very hopeful. And yet, we contend that Henry George’s economic ideas — properly understood and placed in a modern context — point toward a constructive synthesis that allows political economy to tackle these seemingly intractable problems. As you begin this course, I leave you with Henry George’s message about the prospects of our study:

Political Economy has been called the dismal science, and as currently taught, is hopeless and despairing. But this… is solely because she has been degraded and shackled; her truths dislocated; her harmonies ignored…. Freed, as I have tried to free her — in her own proper symmetry, Political Economy is radiant with hope.

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