Reading "Progress & Poverty," by Henry George
Threadable-adjacent reading discussion on land ownership
The most recent Threadable reading* for Land Ownership was a selection from Henry George’s 1879 book Progress & Poverty, Part VII: Justice of the Remedy, Chapter I: The Injustice of Private Property in Land (in my copy this is pages 333-346.)
*(https://threadablenative.page.link/Rxp8yegeZ1vXy4u19 if you want to try the Threadable app and need the link! Only works on iOS/Apple devices for now.
For anyone new to On the Commons an overview of this project is here. These Substack posts are for anyone who doesn’t have iOS or doesn’t want to use Threadable but still wants to know about the readings; the subtitles are marked with “Threadable-adjacent reading discussion on land ownership.” Please feel free to comment or email me with any questions.)
Progress & Poverty is in the public domain (released from private enclosure!), and there are many different places online where you can read the text. On this archive.org link, the selection we are reading starts on page 333 and ends on page 346, the end of the chapter.
I put off writing this post because when I start talking about Henry George, I find myself unable to stop, and I don’t want to inflict all the passages I underlined in the entire book on everybody, no matter how compelling I think they are. It just gets hard for me to curtail a tendency to quote from his book because when it comes to land ownership, George says almost everything.
I first read George’s Progress & Poverty a couple of years ago, and was immediately taken with his ability to go straight to the heart of land ownership and its injustice. The section we read on Threadable prompted a lot of discussion about land, ownership, and, unexpectedly, the Puritan ideal of productivity and what it says about who has a right to live and participate in society. This was an important point because part of George’s argument takes off from John Locke’s philosophy that ownership is given by mixing land with labor. I think he’s partly using that philosophy to bolster his arguments rather than relying on Locke entirely, but would have to go back into earlier parts of the book more carefully.
Fundamentally, George maintains that land ownership is unjust, inexcusable, and the root of most of the wealth inequality he observed in his time. That inequality shocked him—the title of his book reflects his initial question regarding how land and people could have so much wealth and “progress,” and at the same time such immense poverty.
The quoted line below, from the beginning of the reading selection, states his perspective directly: “When it is proposed to abolish private property in land . . .”
That is George’s desire, to abolish private property in land, and he makes a strong case for it. The “justice” he speaks of is the vested interest that landowners already have in the land they have title to. But as I’ve quoted somewhere else in this newsletter previously, part of his case is that, the further back in time ownership goes—his example is closely tied to big landed estates and nobility in England—the more compounded the injustice of that ownership is and the more harm it has caused and will continue to cause in the future.
This came up briefly in the comments on the last On the Commons post, that once land is owned, it is much easier to control other aspects of people’s lives because you control their access to survival, something that George repeatedly addressed when it came to labor and ownership. I disagree with Locke’s idea that labor grants ownership, but George’s point was that when land is privately owned, many more people are prevented from laboring on it or for it at all, except at the behest or whim of the owner.
Even if you’re, as one reader said it seems that George was, a productivist and lean on the idea of labor and productivity to back up ownership, that doesn’t in fact give an answer as to the genesis or the morality of ownership itself. Thomas Paine wrote about this himself in his own theory of property rights:
“There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.”
George, unlike other writes on land ownership, doesn’t shy away from the question at the base of it. There is no real answer given to the question of where ownership comes from. There are centuries of legal opinions and philosophical arguments, but go back far enough—or not even that far—and ownership comes down to one thing: “I took it; now it’s mine,” with all the power and dominance and entitlement that ownership entails. Extend that attitude to water, seeds, labor itself, data, air, attention, historical narrative, . . . all the things of the commons that comprise not just human life but all life, all of it can be enclosed and commodified. Not because it’s a law of nature, but because it was taken, and the taking was then justified.
Within Threadable, we had a discussion about how land ownership was until very recently—not even 150 years ago—bound up with a right to vote, even for white men, and what that says about how people think of having “skin in the game.” As one reader put it when I mentioned homelessness and affordable housing objections, we are still living with a legacy of property ownership somehow implying “skin in the game” while skin itself—being alive, fed, housed; the right to exist—doesn’t. When I hear current objections to affordable housing and renters and who has a “stake” in the community they live in, it differs very little from the kind of vicious language directed at people kicked out of their homes and villages during enclosures of the commons in England hundreds of years ago.
There is much more here and I could keep going, but if I do I probably won’t stop! George’s book is within the public domain, but there are also many Georgist economists quietly at work around the world. And there is a Substack devoted to George, Progress & Poverty, and how some of his ideas could be put into practice today.
It’s all wrapped up in the injustice of land ownership. As George points out toward the end of his book, those injustices have an effect on what are classified as more abstract human rights as well: equality, happiness, the freedom to speak, to be heard, to vote, to have a say in one’s society.
“These rights are denied when the equal right to land—on which and by which men alone can live—is denied.”
The next reading is from William Blackstone’s 1750s writing on property ownership. (Spoiler alert: he can’t find good grounds for land ownership, either, and ends up leaning on Genesis from the Christian Bible and dominionism.) After that it’s John Locke and his idea that labor creates property (Blackstone disagrees), followed by Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass and finally Mary Cristina Wood’s Nature’s Trust as the final reading.
I’ll be offline for a few days and will respond to comments and thoughts when I get back.