So, now I’m well into Henry George’s classic work, Progress and Poverty. For those of you just tuning in, this book was written over a century ago, yet it comes across as a breath of fresh air in an age of rampant homelessness. (Why was this book not required reading in any of my college classes?)
I’ve reached the part of the book where George launches into something of a rant against the private ownership of real property. Here’a a paraphrase of one of his examples: Suppose you decide, since you’re the first passenger to enter a particular train car, to claim the entire car for yourself. You state to anyone else who tries to enter that you have decided you need all the space in that car to spread your luggage around, and, since you were there first, you have a right to exclude anyone who comes later.
If I am the second passenger to arrive, I might not mind your declaration if there was another empty car, equally spacious, that I could claim as my own. That’s why, according to George, Americans have allowed this behavior to continue for so long. If one pioneer claimed a choice piece of land during the 18th or 19th century because he was the first European who happened to arrive, that was okay with everyone else, because we’d just keep moving along until we found our own empty tract of land.
What happens, though, when all the usable land has been claimed? Now, to return to our railroad car analogy, I wouldn’t be so willing to allow you just to claim the entire train car to yourself if there were no other empty seats to be found. I might even be willing to fight for my right to join you in that car, especially if all of our tickets were marked “open seating,” or something to that effect.
Europe is further along in this debate because open land was all claimed on that continent several centuries ago. That’s why hikers in many places are allowed to pass across privately owned farmland, free from laws against trespassing. But here in the United States, we’re still pretending that we can just keep moving to the next open territory if all the best spots are taken. In extreme cases, landowners post signs claiming that “trespassers will be shot,” as if such signs actually increase their freedom. (As an avid hiker, I felt much freer in Scotland, where I could hike to ancient castles, even when the trails led me across someone’s private land. My guess is that the landowners also enjoyed the freedom of knowing that they could also feel free to hike across the beautiful countryside.)
Henry George predicted that, when all the open land ran out, we’d begin to face the consequences, even in a nation of our size. Judging from the increase in homelessness, it’s my sense that he was something of a prophet.
Knowing that George was not a Communist, I have a feeling he’ll be presenting a non-Maoist solution to homelessness toward the end of the book, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I confess, though, that he already has me wondering about those aspects of private property ownership we all take for granted.
For example, how can we Americans find it to be fair for (a) the lazy child of a wealthy landowner to inherit millions of dollars and hundreds of acres of prime farmland–the original deed having been passed down from an original grant from the King of England–enjoying the benefit of some sort of tax-avoiding trust vehicle, and then just sit on that land without lifting a finger or contributing anything to society, while (b) an entire family of tenants of that land become homeless, because the new landowner decides to kick them off the property and shut down all farming operations. In that case, the lazy child did nothing to deserve the right to exclude others from the land–other than being born into the right family.
Is there nothing in our Free Enterprise System that could be used to balance those scales? Isn’t the whole point of our American economic system the belief that “hard work and free enterprise will bring the greatest reward”?
In future blog posts, I’ll be looking for solutions to this sort of conundrum that might be politically viable in the 21st Century.