After the Global Financial Crisis, developed countries all over the world have created housing bubbles to prop-up their ailing economies, driving up prices, forever locking young people out of the market, diminishing their chance of financial security.
You would be forgiven for thinking housing is the problem. In reality the problem is not housing but land. We explore why a land value tax is the only way to ensure prosperity for future generations.
If it’s not land reform, it’s not reform.
Here’s a riddle:
“My name is the one four-letter word comedians dare not utter. No matter how much I’m used, I do not break. Billions spend their lives fighting, killing or paying for me although I offer myself for free. What am I?”
Every now and then, someone comes tantalisingly close to the answer. In a famous stand-up routine, George Carlin started on the right track, saying: “I’ll tell ya what they oughta do about homelessness.
First thing: Change the name of it. It’s not homelessness …”
He’s right, I thought. Is he gonna say it?
“… it’s houselessness.” I groaned.
Anybody who works for a living knows that “housing,” in one way or another, is at the core of their struggles. Gotta pay rent, after all; gotta pay the mortgage. And when one sees everyone else stuck in the same struggle, one extrapolates correctly that “housing” is at the core of civilisation’s struggles.
And yet the problem is obviously not housing. Even a large house (2,000+ sq ft) can cost less than half a man-year of labor. Add a generous amount to cover materials and room for error, and it means that the borrower on a 30-year mortgage spends 27 years paying for something that ain’t a house.
This glaring difference between the cost of a house and the price of real estate, combined with even just one viewing of House Hunters, with its frequent discussions of how a buyer is “paying for location,” suggests that people are aware of the heavy role of land in the economy. The stickiness of the status quo, then, comes from people’s acceptance of it: We accept, largely without question, that we should pay land’s value to a fixed pool of security holders — ”landowners” — instead of to the residents around us whom we are excluding and whose presence makes the location valuable.
We accept that the many should pay the few for the right to exist.
This is the issue that will define millennials. It is necessarily so because this issue — the struggle of land users to build meaningful, peaceful, economically secure lives despite perpetual theft by landowners— is the one that defines every generation.
Sadly, like our progenitors, we are well on our way to ignoring the issue completely. We’re already accepting, in suppository form, the same old placebos:
We are turning into our parents in the most tragic, dangerous way: by tacitly guaranteeing the enslavement of our children.
If you’ve only now considered the problem, you’ve likely never been introduced to the solution. Which is too bad, considering it would:
It’s known as “rent-sharing,” or “geoism.” In a geoist economic system, exclusive land titles are bid on and held at market rental value, and the rent is paid into the public purse. Market bids for raw, extractable natural resources like oil and diamonds are also paid into the public purse. All this value is known as “land rent.” Land rent is then paid out in equal shares to each resident of the jurisdiction (this is called a Residents’ Dividend or Citizens’ Dividend), net of whatever is withheld to fund public goods and services. Taxes do not exist. Fines on pollution may.
This is the direct implementation of the concept that nobody — or rather, everyone equally — owns nature and everyone fully owns him- or herself. There are no substitutes.
As you venture into the wilderness of the internet and encounter people who nominally argue against this concept, pay attention to what they say. Few arguments fall upon geoism in itself; rather, most boil down to qualms over the transition to it, one that would entail the market reduction of land title prices to $0.
The $0 price tag is a feature, not a bug. A land title is a legal privilege with a rental value, not a good or service with a cost of production. (The $0 price tag is the natural up-front price for anything that is rented at market rental value and not free-held.) But owners who currently freehold pricey titles — or, more often, mortgagors who think they do — are understandably not so concerned with market design as they are with their own personal bottom lines.
It should be noted that if geoism were ever effected on a large scale, it could be accomplished with a transition that compensates current landowners. This would be a political concession and not economically necessary or in my opinion desirable, but the option is there.
The remaining arguments — the ones actually levied against geoism — necessarily boil down to the emotion: “Why shouldn’t I be able to unconditionally monopolise land?”
Democracy is a double-edged sword. In theory, it prevents widespread legal harm by requiring majority approval for the passage of laws and the election of officials. In practice, however, it’s only as good as majority voters themselves, a fact that bodes poorly for proponents of radical change, given the dogmatic, insular nature of the average voter — and especially the broken American voting system of winner-take-all, which funnels votes away from non-establishment candidates and toward “the lesser of two evils.”
This is why appeals for large-scale reform are a waste of time. What reformers of all stripes should shoot for is popular, mutual support for experimental special economic zones (SEZ’s) or “start-up cities.”
Anarchists; wealth-taxing socialists; geo-libertarians; geo-socialists; anyone; we each believe in our own approach, and so we should have no problem supporting each other in a push for multiple, economically sovereign city-states, each of which implements one of our ideas with an enforceable charter or constitution so that it exists indefinitely as an observable, living model to the outside world. There’s no reason we can’t subject all economic theories to small-scale, real-life hypothesis testing. Science, in fact, demands it.
Geoism, for what it’s worth, is observable to a small degree in the real world. It is implemented in minor, far-from-perfect fashion in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and its results are exactly the positive ones geoists would predict: higher land use efficiency and a higher economic floor.
Let’s see which economic framework most people choose to live under. I’m ready to put my money where my mouth is. Are you?
It’s not clear why more people don’t question freehold land tenure. It crushes opportunities in every facet of our lives. Any time we can’t live somewhere because of visa or citizenship issues, it’s because of a nation-state’s freehold privilege over us. Any time a “no trespassing” sign excludes us, it’s because of an individual. A little more complex to explain but equally true is that any time we can’t be precisely where we want for as long as we want, without paying and so long as we are willing to share that space, it is because of the institution of private, freehold land ownership.
Hell, we even let dead people forcefully keep us off “their” land. We call those stolen lands ‘cemeteries’.
Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of land tenure is to understand that land, more than anything, is people:
If people do not have equal access to land value, what it really means is that they have no right to be a member of a community — no right to occupy the physical universe except in its remotest (rent-free) locations — and a civilisation that founds itself on keeping people apart like this cannot masquerade as a civilisation for long.
See you on the salt flats.
Host Ross Ashcroft talks with the anthropologist David Graeber about Batsh*t Construction, a trend that has gripped the world.
Unless we start calling the housing crisis by its real name: extreme land monopoly - we’ll end up with ever more loony solutions for what should be a basic human right.