We all depend on this earth for our basic needs: food, water, and a place to live, work, and play. Luckily, our world has locations and resources enough to provide for all, if we share well and conserve rather than waste. But what is the fairest way to share?
I’ve been reading the new Mason Gaffney Reader: Essays on Solving the “Unsolvable”. This economics professor’s work comes highly recommended by intellects such as former World Bank Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, and shows how land tax reform is the key to addressing unemployment and poverty and revitalizing our cities and economy. But how?
Imagine you’re in a shipwreck, you find a piece of wreckage and float, adrift, for weeks on end. Finally, almost dead from sunburn, starvation and thirst, you wash up near a tropical island. A person pulls you in and nurses you back to health, and you learn she survived the same shipwreck, but landed on the island right away, learning to live (and live well) off nature.
Back on your feet, your rescuer asks only that you help rebuild the roof she neglected while caring for you, replace the paddle she lost rescuing you, and gather some extra food to make up for what you ate. It takes a few weeks to manage all that, but it’s only fair, and from then on, you often exchange products of each other’s labour. You share evenly the bounty of the island, which is more than enough for both, but pay each other for anything you make using your own skills or efforts. While she fishes, you gather roots, and exchange some of your bounty for some of hers; you trade beams you craft from fallen trees for roofing she weaves from leaves so you can each have shelter from the sun, rain and wind.
|The RENT is TOO DAMN HIGH, Wilson!
But what if the first castaway had told you she had claimed the island, and you would have to pay to live there? She demanded tribute when you gathered roots or coconuts, or to made a boat from fallen wood and vines so you could fish. And if you didn’t pay, she’d drive you off the island with the wild dog she’d found and trained. So while you toiled to gather enough food to feed yourself and pay her rent, she could relax and live off your hard work.
That hardly seems fair, yet it’s our economic system now. There are more people involved, a wider variety of lands and resources, but the principle remains that some demand a price for monopolizing things they don’t create, the products of nature or community, which others must pay out of their own labours.
But we can do better. In his book Progress and Poverty, Henry George described how we could fairly share the rent of land, keeping the products of our own labour, and advance together as we are rewarded for our work, not penalized in a cycle of landless poverty. These concepts are similar to many indigenous ideas about property, but can also be adapted to complex, money-based economies like ours. We just must realize that we deserve to keep our earned income, while unearned income must be equitably shared. Separated by 135 years but joined by common values, George’s and Gaffney’s books point the way.
Publishes as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.