Despite our rhetoric about individual freedom, increasing numbers of us are being frustrated and thwarted by a lack of security in the necessities basic to sustain our lives. In the United States, one in four children under six is being reared in poverty. For some time now it has taken two full-time workers to sustain the modest middle class standard of living that could be procured by just one full-time worker 20 years ago. The incapacity of wages to keep up makes the cost of housing and other necessities a greater burden each year.
Gains in automation and production, advances in education and training, all have been nullified by the steadily increasing cost of what no one has ever manufactured - land and natural resources. Our treatment of the earth as a market commodity, just like a car or television, is the basic flaw in our economic ground rules. Treating the earth as simply a capital line item is the root cause of the ever-widening gap between those who have too much and those who have too little.
The earth itself is the bottom line. The land is the source of all life and wealth. To survive, we must have somewhere to stand and to rest. But this absolute necessity for our very existence is nowhere guaranteed in our constitutional laws. Our Bill of Rights did not proclaim the human right to the earth. The failure to found democracy on the fundamental human right to the earth is the crack in the Liberty Bell.
One of the greatest wastes of natural and social resources is that of poorly utilised urban land sites upon which sit boarded-up buildings while inner city homelessness increases everywhere. In Philadelphia today there are an estimated 27,000 abandoned properties and at least 24,000 homeless people. What is preventing people from access to these land sites?
Of the 127 million people working in the United States, 38 million work part-time, and 35 million have full-time work that does not pay enough to support a family. Then there are the actual unemployed people who number 7.4 million as well as another 7 million who are discouraged, forcibly retired or work as temps. Nineteen million people work in retail and earn less than US$10,000 per year, usually without any health or retirement benefits. For the majority of workers, wages are no higher today than they were in 1973.
The United States has now surpassed the former Soviet Union in the proportion of its population in prison. Over five million men are incarcerated, waiting for trial, on probation, or on parole. We have become so inured to criminality that rural counties call prison construction "economic development". All of these problems - homelessness, unemployment, boarded-up buildings, deteriorating neighbourhoods, increased incarceration - are outcomes of the most fundamental flaw in democratic institutions. The human right to the earth has been denied.
There are two practical ways that we can democratise land rights. One is fundamental tax reform. Shifting taxes off labour would increase purchasing capacity; eliminating taxes on buildings would encourage construction and maintenance. But what to tax instead? Significantly increasing the tax rate on land value discourages land speculation and gives a strong stimulus for these landsites to be put to good use for housing and other productive needs. Natural resource taxes function as user fees and ensure fair and efficient use of God’s gift to all.
Thomas Paine urged this approach to tax policy when he said: "Men did not make the earth ... It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property ... Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds."
Pennsylvania has been pioneering this reform and now 16 cities have shifted their tax base in this direction. Mayor Stephen Reed of Harrisburg has stated that "a land value taxation system ... is an important incentive for the highest and best use of land." Over 90 per cent of the property owners in the city of Harrisburg pay less with this approach to local taxation. In 1982 there were more than 4,200 vacant structures in this city of 53,000 residents.
Today there are less than 500 vacant structures. Between 1982 and 1993 there were more than 4,700 residents employed. In 1980 only 16 per cent of city residents had incomes over $25,000 but by 1990 that had increased to 41 per cent. Harrisburg, formerly the second most distressed city in the United States, now is one of the highest quality of life cities on a number of economic indicators.
Clearly, there is every reason to suspect that this reform would also work wonders in the city of Philadelphia. It should be fully implemented as soon as possible.
The other way to secure democratic rights to the earth is this: land could be made available to individuals and groups who wish to live in ecologically sustainable villages and farms. Community land trusts can hold title to such lands while the buildings and other improvements can be privately owned. With land access, involuntary unemployment would be ended since the right to use land is the essential prerequisite to the right to work. Money available through non-profit grants and government transfer payments can be used as revolving funds for micro-loans for the purchase of building materials for the new ecovillages.
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