The Meaning of Land

by Bruce Oatman

Bruce Oatman was a sociologist, teacher and social worker, who taught for 12 years at Oniaka College, and advocated for the homeless in New York. He served on the boards of the Henry George School (where he was a popular teacher), Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and Common Ground-USA. The following is excerpted from an interview with Bruce in 2006.

If the Dutch king has given you a hundred thousand acres near Albany several hundred years ago, it’s only a generation that goes by before anyone forgets that this was a human act. I mean we may know this in our heads, but it becomes a part of the accepted routine, the part of everyday life that nobody thinks to question. Few believe that there are questions that one can ask about it, but for you to have this 100,000 acres, and for others to have nothing, means that if I want to eat, then you can charge me money for being able to use your land. In that case I may be a farmer and pay you half of what I produce. The king has given you the land, because of some good deeds you have done for him — so I, then, have to pay you, for the rest of my life, half of what I can produce with my 12 and 14 hours a day of labor on the land, and my children will pay your children, and their children will pay your children’s children and far more on to the biblical seventh generation that may never stop. This is essentially what has happened: land, that which we all need to survive, the earth, natural resources are occupied by a handful of people who can then charge all other people for the right to use it. We have to pay if we want to live, and, consequently, that’s how more and more of the wealth gets into the hands of fewer and fewer people….

There’s really only one place to look for hope and that’s to convince a broader public that the secret to their poverty, or to the meanness of their lives, is not in the fact that they can’t produce enough, but that so much of what they do produce is taken from them, institutionally, quietly, without anybody, more or less, being aware of how it’s done. There’s only one way to solve this and that’s to take away the monopoly rent from those who receive it, not through anything they do to create wealth, but simply the ownership of raw land. And if this can somehow be taken by the society as a whole and spread out, then, for the first time in the history of the human race, there will be a chance to say, “Yes we all get back what we contribute to the creation of our society’s wealth, and we can use it ourselves — it will not be used to support a top-heavy upper class, whose interests very quickly become antithetical to ours.” This is the only hope that I see, not for any new programs that the democrats or republicans might dream up, because their dreams are not penetrating enough….

Land and labor are the basis of all wealth. I ask anybody who thinks that the only land worth talking about is agricultural land, and none of us are agriculturalists anymore — just look around the room that you are living in; look at the chairs; look at the furniture; look at what you are wearing; look at eye glasses if you’re wearing them, and ask yourself what particle of wealth might you own that isn’t the product of the earth: anything you drink, anything you wear, anything you live in, the offices you go to, the desks you sit at, the computers you work at, the televisions you look at — all of these things are products of the earth, to which human labor has been applied. And who could say that agriculture isn’t still powerfully important? What would we eat? You think farms don’t matter, just because only 3 or 4 percent of Americans work on them? They’re enormously important, but what is also important are so many of the locations in the cities… how much do you think the land under Rockefeller Center is worth? Or the land under the Chrysler building, which helps support a college downtown? Or the land under the major office buildings? Or the land in major office districts? How much is land in New Orleans on the beach worth before Katrina, for example? Land everywhere is the major contributor along with human labor to everything that we hold dear. None of it is possible without land. The airwaves are part of the atmosphere, or are part of the earth, or part of the universe; are part of the only source of our wealth, and this is no less true today then it was 100 years ago, 1,000 or 2,000 years ago, and it is no less true then it will be 1,000 years from now. And if that’s not self-evident, I think there’s probably nothing I can do to make it become evident.

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