The Gesellian Perspective on Land Ownership
I have put off delving into this side of the Gesellian perspective, but I realize it really needs to be addressed if we are to conduct a thorough examination of Gesell’s theories and proposals.
For those who are not already familiar with Gesell’s thoughts on land, the first thing to know is that he categorically opposed private land ownership.
That’s a hard pill for most people to swallow. Land ownership is such a foundational aspect of our worldview that calling it into question inevitably triggers all sorts of strong emotional reactions. There’s no getting around that fact, so we simply need to acknowledge it.
The delicate nature of discussing the land side of the Gesellian perspective is a challenge that every proponent of Gesellianism must grapple with. We all know it’s a minefield. Each one of us must decide how to navigate it. This is why I have avoided the subject until now.
Many Gesellians ignore the land side of the subject entirely and focus exclusively on the monetary side. Others mention the land side but greatly de-emphasize it. In my personal opinion, neither of these approaches is ideal. I don’t believe the two sides of the Gesellian perspective can be separated. I don’t believe that if you choose to exclusively focus on the monetary side and ignore the land side you get half of the value of Gesell. In my view, the monetary side will not work unless the land side is implemented as well.
(Why I believe this is a complex issue that I will not go into in depth in this article. But just to quickly address one aspect of it, if you implement the monetary side of Gesell’s proposals without addressing land and money can no longer be used as a long-term store of wealth, what is the most likely way that people will choose to store wealth? Obviously the first choice would be land. So implementing the monetary proposals without also implementing the land proposals would likely lead to massive hoarding of land. This would mean that much of the benefit of implementing a more rational form of money would be offset by worsening maldistribution of wealth due to increased concentration of land ownership. This is why, in my opinion, the Gesellian package cannot be broken up into two parts.)
So, the purpose of this article is to simply break the ice, to introduce the subject, to encourage people to start the process of opening their minds to a different way of thinking about the subject of land ownership. Toward that end, I will not go into any of my own thoughts or analysis of the subject. (I will do that in future articles.) For the time being, I will simply share some excerpts from Gesell’s book, The Natural Economic Order, that deal with his views on land. These excerpts are eloquent and powerful and, in my opinion, speak for themselves.
Without further ado…
“Normal man claims the whole earth as his own. He considers the whole earth, not merely part of it, as a member, a vital organ of man. And the problem is, how every man can attain the full use of this vital organ. Division of the earth is out of the question since by division every man gets a part only, whereas he needs the whole. We cannot satisfy the claims of the members of a hungry family to the soup by smashing the soup tureen and tossing a fragment to each.”
“Dust thou art and to dust returnest. It seems little, but beware of underestimating the economic significance of this dust. For this dust is a part of the earth which belongs to the landowners. In order to come into being and to grow you need parts of the earth; even a small deficiency of iron in your blood will undermine your health. Without the earth and, if it belongs to the landowners, without their permission, no one is permitted to be born. This is no exaggeration. The analysis of your ashes shows a certain percentage of earthy matter which no one can draw out of the air. This earthy matter was at one time in the earth and it has either been bought from a landowner or stolen; there is no other possibility.”
“We frequently hear the phrase: Man has a natural right to the earth. But that is absurd, for it would be just as correct to say that man has a right to his limbs. If we talk of rights in this connection we must also say that a pine tree has the right to sink its roots in the earth. Can man spend his life in a balloon? The earth belongs to, and is an organic part of man. We cannot conceive man without the earth any more than without a head or a stomach. The earth is just as much a part, an organ, of man as his head. Where do the digestive organs of man begin and end? They have no beginning and no end, but form a closed system without beginning or end. The substances which man requires to maintain life are indigestible in their raw state and must go through a preparatory digestive process. And this preparatory work is not done by the mouth, but by the plant. It is the plant which collects and transmutes the substances so that they may become nutriment in their further progress through the digestive canal. Plants and the space they occupy are just as much a part of man as his mouth, his teeth or his stomach.”
“How, then, can we suffer individual men to confiscate for themselves parts of the earth as their exclusive property, to erect barriers and with the help of watchdogs and trained slaves to keep us away from parts of the earth, from parts of ourselves — to tear, as it were, whole limbs from our bodies? Is not such a proceeding equivalent to self-mutilation? The reader may be unable to accept this comparison on the ground that amputation of a piece of land causes no loss of blood. But would that it caused no more than ordinary loss of blood! An ordinary wound heals. You lose an ear or a hand; the flow of blood is staunched and the wound closes. But the wound left in our body by the amputation of a piece of land festers forever, and never closes. At every term for the payment of rent, on every Quarter Day, the wound opens and the golden blood gushes out. Man is bled white and goes staggering forward. The amputation of a piece of land from our body is the bloodiest of all operations; it leaves a gaping, festering wound which cannot heal unless the stolen limb is grafted on again.”
“For who was it that drew up and signed these title deeds? I myself have never consented to the partition of the earth, to the amputation of my limbs. And what others have done without my consent cannot bind me. For me these documents are scraps of paper. I have never consented to the amputation that makes me a cripple. Therefore I demand back my stolen property and declare war on whoever withholds part of the earth from me. ‘But there, on these faded parchments, stands the signature of your ancestors!’ It is true that my name occurs there, but whether the signature was forged or genuine, who knows? And even if the signature on the parchment is genuine, I can read between the lines that it was extorted by force, since no one will sacrifice his limbs unless in immediate danger of his life. Only a trapped fox bites off its own leg. Again, is anybody in duty bound to recognize the debts of his forbears? Are children to be held responsible for the sins of their forefathers? Are parents to be allowed to mutilate their children? May a father sell his daughter?”
“The signatures in the land register were extorted by the dagger, or procured through fraud or through the brandy bottle. The land register is the criminal record of Sodom and Gomorrah and if landowners, in their turn, were to declare themselves willing to assume responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, they would have to be clapped into prison for fraud and extortion. Jacob defrauded Esau of his pastures by means of a mess of pottage, when the latter returned famished from the wolf hunt. Are we to give our moral sanction to this transaction by keeping the descendants of Esau from the use of these pastures with the help of the police?”
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