Some people in the Just Third Way movement have been taking a significant number of questions (read “unsupported assertions”) from the “georgists,” as followers of the thought of Henry George are known. Henry George was the noted author of one of the two most influential socialist works of the 19th century, apart from those of Karl Marx: Progress and Poverty (1879). Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), “One of the most remarkable books ever published in America” (Erich Fromm) was the other.
The georgists make a great many assertions, which we have attempted with no success at all to answer, at least to their satisfaction. Whatever we say, the only response is a string of more assertions, all based on three fundamental principles found in georgism:
1. Only labor is productive (the labor theory of value)
2. The only way to finance new capital formation is by not consuming all that is produced and accumulating the surplus in the form of money savings.
3. Only the State has the right to own land.
We’re not going to respond to these principles yet again, at least directly. It is obviously unproductive to keep attempting to dialog with people who don’t seem to hear what you’re saying, and just keep repeating the same things based on the assumption that the above principles are manifestly true . . . although they never seem to make the proofs manifest.
Instead, we need to look at two questions that the georgists have not been answering, possibly even avoiding answering. Until and unless these two key questions are settled, in fact, it is useless to discuss anything else, even the fundamental principles given above, for these are the “principles behind the principles.” If they cannot be answered adequately to the satisfaction of everyone in the debate, there truly is nothing to talk about.
1. The State’s Right To Be The “Universal Landlord”
Georgist theory is that only the people as a whole, not individual human beings, have the right to own land. This is the heart of georgist theory, the whole point of Progress and Poverty. Where, however, does the State or the community representing the people as a whole get its presumed right to be the “universal landlord”?
The collective, whether you call it the State, the community, or anything else, is an abstraction created by human beings, not by God. It is a fundamental legal conception as well as common sense that no person, natural or artificial, can acquire greater rights than exist. If individual, natural persons do not have the right to own land, then the human creation of the State cannot have the right to own land.
2. Two Sources of Absolute State Power
Assuming for the sake of the argument that the State has the right to be the universal landlord (which we do not for one moment concede), How is the potential abuse of State power to be checked?
If nothing can be produced without land, and there is only one landowner, that one landowner effectively has absolute power over everyone's subsistence. This is the most dangerous thing in the world for the entity that also has a monopoly — absolute power — over the instruments of coercion. As Lord Acton noted, "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.
Until and unless these two questions are answered, and answered adequately to mutual satisfaction, there can be no discussion. People will otherwise simply be talking past one another.