by Lindy Davies
There’s an ongoing conversation, that flares up periodically, over what things are or aren’t properly “Georgist.” How big is our tent? What kinds of coalition-building would be fruitful — or distracting? What sorts of attention should we be fawning over, or forgetting about?
On the one hand there the friendly folk who think just about everything is Georgist, because, what the heck, it all happens on land. They set their Google Alerts to “natural resources,” “sprawl” or “land reform” and sit back smiling as hundreds of people ask something resembling the right questions.
Then there is the contingent (and not all of them are over 65) who believe we really had better stick with Henry George’s Exact Words, because we can’t go wrong there.
The argument tends to get shrill when, in times of crisis and opportunity, people seek financial support for their efforts. When the enormity of our task is compared with the modesty of our accomplishment, many avenues of “failure” are opened to criticism: We spread ourselves too thin, trying to be “Green Geoists.” We ridiculously insist on defining the modern economy in 19th-century crank terms. How much rent is there? We don’t know! We can’t even seem to decide whether or not to throw the rent in the sea!
Take “free trade” for example. The International Union is once again considering, OMG, whether to change its name. Is free trade a seminal part of the Georgist philosophy? Does it even work? Is what people call “free trade” actually free trade, or is free trade really something else? Some suggest that the free trade part is uselessly controversial; the name should simply be shortened to “The International Union for Land Value Taxation.” But, then, some would ask whether “taxation” is a seminal part of the Georgist philosophy. Is what people call “land value taxation” actually taxation, or is taxation really something else? Personally I like the shorthand name “International Georgist Union” — except for the minor problem that only eleven people in the world actually know what “Georgist” means.
It’s ironic, I think, that some of the folks who clamor to excise “free trade” from the Georgist program are simultaneously eager to enshrine “monetary reform” as absolutely essential, at least as important as public collection of land rent. A broadcast email from our celebrated fellow-traveler Michael Hudson recently reported, “2,181 Italians pack a Sports Arena to learn Modern Monetary Theory.” (Alas, if only 2,181 Italians, or Chicagoans, or Kurds, would pack a sports arena to learn the Law of Rent.) It was a groovy trip for Hudson and his colleagues. They explained in detail how governments could healthily spend money into existence and wean the provision of money away from vampirous private banks. This message was proudly forwarded by Georgists as a welcome sign of movement progress. In his report, Husdson mentioned that “Some eighty percent of bank loans are mortgages against real estate.” Now, forgive me for lacking a fully-nuanced grasp of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), but does not the fact that 80% of loans are based on a highly volatile speculative asset have rather a lot to do with the cause of financial crises? And could not that volatility be neatly and cleanly removed from the financial system by collecting the rent of land for public revenue? I don’t mean to suggest that all this monetary stuff isn’t important; it just seems to me that those 2,181 Italian sports fans might have benefited from hearing the basic Georgist point. Since they were there anyway.
In seeking to prepare its educational program to be reviewed for college credit recommendation, the Henry George Institute faced a task that was at once straightforward and difficult. We had a pretty clear idea of what the baby was; our task was to make sure we could place it in a solid-enough tub filled with warm-enough water and acceptable cleansing agents to be recognized among the general hygenic community as a bath. The basic insights of Georgist political economy are nowhere near as intricate as either modern micro- or macro-economics. However, dizzyingly complex intellectual systems can
be built on flimsy foundations — and without the basic insights of Georgist political economy, there are a great many ways in which modern micro- and macro-economics just don’t make sense.
There are some things to know about Georgist economics. It seems to me that the more we focus on understanding those things, the less important it is to distinguish “what’s Georgist” from “what isn’t.” For one thing, the question of “what’s Georgist and what isn’t” only makes sense to eleven people in the world today (well, nineteen if you count the
Antipodes). If we do our work, clearly identify opportunities and competently set out to actuate them, then one day we will see it in a HuffPost poll: “Which one’s more Georgist — this one, or that one?” Click here to vote — NOW!