Private Property – The American Dream
Coming to a new land where the institution of private property had never touched these shores, settlers and their descendants had an unprecedented, golden opportunity to not only question, but throw off the worst of feudalistic land tenure arrangements. However the opportunity for change was entirely lost.
The colonists were more than observers; they studied Native land tenure arrangements in an effort to find parallels (there weren’t any) with English property, organized as it was for exploitation and expropriation, in an effort to secure “legal title” to Native lands. It was apparent that Indian land tenure arrangements were entirely different from anything they had ever known. And the colonists were exposed to new philosophies about land tenure. As early as 1678, John Locke extolled the idea of “the natural right of land for all,” as part of Natural Law philosophy, and though he was influential in liberalizing politics, his pronouncements about land were ignored or muddied to advance the “right to private property” for the wealthy minority. By the time of the revolution, British contemporaries Thomas Spence and William Ogilvie, having witnessed the atrocious social ills generated by land engrossment, were engaged in radically questioning ingrained land tenure patterns. They sought change, but nothing took here.
In spite of this blindness, there was formidable protest against the feudalistic tyranny of the past, but it was riddled with “New World” hypocrisy. Thomas Jefferson, for example, went on record as “opposed to the private engrossment of land,” yet kept a bevy of slaves on his plantation following in the footsteps of his father who was a prominent land-grabber. The new elite on these shores, coming from the mercantilist class, simply re-created the old landholding structures with a few adjustments to the system, strictly born of the conditions which they encountered here, rather than a conscious acknowledgement of needed reform. Like a younger generation in vain protest of their elders’ ways, the colonists and their descendents managed to perpetuate the status quo under a new guise. The Americans only honed a land tenure system that operated for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many.
As Sir Frederick Pollock noted in The Land Laws (1896), “And to this day, though the really characteristic incidents of the feudal tenures have disappeared…the scheme of our land laws can, as to its form, be described only as a modified feudalism.”
It was a land-feeding frenzy right from the start, beginning with the earliest joint stock companies, now known as “corporations,” such as the Plymouth Company and the Virginia Company, both formed in 1606. Though they were ostensibly organized for trading, they were really colonizing ventures; ownership of and profit from land were central to their enterprise. The momentum continued, and by the 18th century, speculation in land was huge. It was the investment game at the time, pre-Wall Street. Our “founding fathers,” President George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry, were notorious land speculators, and bought up land by the truckload at pennies an acre. Settlers, since the time of the Pilgrims, were invited onto the land, not for any humanitarian or “freedom of religion” reasons, but to raise the value of land through the improvements generated by their labor.
A central irony of the American experience is that democratic ideas and principles that shaped the US Constitution were originally observed in Native social organization, in particular the Iroquois Confederacy, but the newcomers, though they observed Native land tenure patterns just the same, chose not to imitate them. Their sole objective with regard to land was simply to obtain it, and that they did. All the lands of the US were transferred through purchase, trade, treaty, trickery, theft, coercion or force from the indigenous inhabitants to the newcomers in a span of just 300 years.
The present schism between political and economic democracy, which is so blatant, and accounts for so much misery, is due to this terrible lack of foresight and understanding of democracy in its wholeness, grounded in the equitable distribution and right relationship to land.
After two centuries of land grabbing, Alexis de Tocqueville, that astute observer of the American way, politely penned the following:
“In no country in the world is the love of property more active and more anxious than in the US; nowhere does the majority display less inclination for those principles which threaten to alter, in whatever manner, the laws of property.”
The history of land tenure in America is a long, fascinating story that cannot be told here, but suffice it to say that land acquisition, land “disposal,” first through European and then through state and federal government, land engrossment, land speculation, and land concentration, proceeded at a very rapid pace. But it was only the rich, the wealthy and the powerful who procured lands. They had the upper hand right from the start, and were either government officials or were assisted time and again by government. The masses of people, the landless working poor, were excluded from obtaining land. Finally, after more than 250 years and pressure by land reformers, the Homestead Act was passed in 1862 in an attempt to even the playing field. But it was soon to be seen, even by the government, as a wash and a miserable failure.
Land Rights and Land Reform in America
Contrary to modern opinion, the “third world” is not the only place where land rights and land reform efforts have taken place. US history began with Indian resistance, and has a long and distinguished record that persisted through five centuries right up to the present. Here in NM, the Pueblos courageously fought Coronado’s entrada in 1540, and the Spanish were sent packing back down the Rio Grande in the great Pueblo uprising of 1680. Hispano land grant struggles, mired as they are in complex layers of unjust land-grabbing, are a second layer of resistance. And today, Santa Fe County, and now Mora Valley residents are fighting off oil and gas corporations to preserve their land, water, health and way of life.
Early in the nineteenth century, land rights agitators such as Thomas Skidmore, George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley declared the unequal division of land the basis for social injustice. The following is a typical message from a handbill widely distributed by Evans and Greeley in 1848:
“Are you tired of slavery, of drudging for others, of poverty and its attendant miseries? Then vote yourself a farm.”
The labor movement rallied for the “liberal disposal of the public domain,” and the National Reform Association, which opposed land monopolization and every person’s right to own land, was formed along with the Free Soil Party, which secured 10% of the popular vote in the presidential election of 1848. Newly elected Abraham Lincoln said of pending homestead legislation that he was “in favor of settling the wild lands into small parcels so that every poor man may have a home.”
Due to mounting agitation and pressure by the populace for land, the Homestead Act became law in 1862. The law allowed citizens to acquire 160 acres of public land. The problem for landless Americans was that speculators had already consumed much of the choicest public domain before 1862, and rampant fraud dominated the entire process. In addition, much of the land was given to the railroads, colleges and the states; two-thirds of the land was not arable, and a portion was held for Indian reservations. Between 1860 and 1900, 600,000 homestead patents were issued, yet it is estimated that only one in six acres went from the government to farmer-settlers as intended. By the 1880 census, it was found that landlordism had become entrenched, and farm indebtedness and farmland concentration was on the rise.
Extraordinary land wealth continued to accumulate, and a new crop of land reformers arose, influenced by the violent labor struggles, riots and bloodshed following the widespread depression of 1873–1877. Indignation grew over the coexistence of monumental wealth and dismal poverty.
The most famous land reform spokesperson of the time was Henry George who noted in the progressive rise in land values the presence of an unearned increment which Ricardo had identified earlier in his “Law of Rent.” George subsequently wrote the masterpiece “Progress and Poverty” in 1879, in which he charted a new course for land reform based on the return of the unearned portion of land rent back to society rather than to the landowner. He argued for the imposition of a tax, a single tax on land (while eliminating the tax on labor) to absorb the unearned increment that would provide ample revenue for the operation of government. George effectively identified the fundamental reason for the gross disparities in the distribution of wealth and provided a simple solution, a single tax on land. He discovered a principle of such immense importance that it should put all economists before him to shame. His book became a bestseller and attracted the attention of scholars, statesmen, and the general public both here and abroad for decades, and remains to this day a classic.
At the turn of the century, the conservation movement spearheaded by John Muir coincided with growing public sentiment opposed to the continued expansion of special interests getting an unfair share of land and natural resources. An enormous amount of public land was nationalized, but unfortunately, once again, the wealthy and the corporations prevailed; our public lands became grossly privatized for ranching, mining, forestry, and the oil and gas industries. “Public lands” in many respects are not “public” (only in that we support them through taxes), and they do not consistently serve public interests, but largely profit private industry.
There were other land reform efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but the momentum suddenly stopped around 1940 when there was no more land left to be had, and the nation had largely turned from agrarian to urban. The national discourse changed from “land reform” to “agrarian reform,” meaning better productivity of land and better management of resources rather than alteration of the fundamental disparities in land ownership.
A curious thing happened at the same time. “Land ownership” morphed into “homeownership,” a shift that can be traced to President Hoover’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership in 1931, and the revolution in credit, which fostered the “illusion of homeownership and fulfillment of the American dream.” Residential mortgage debt grew from $2.9 billion in 1900 to $260 billion in 1965, and homes became the largest single item of credit in the new debt-based economy.
Perhaps this scenario is now sounding familiar…lack of land availability, continually escalating and unaffordable land prices, land-reform-a-foreign-concept, skyrocketing mortgage debt, and unaffordable homeownership.
From the 1930’s on, amnesia about land rights and land reform descended, but it took one last brilliant turn in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the appearance of the Community Land Trust land reform model. The little flame has been lovingly tended by a handful of dedicated souls for the past few decades, awaiting its new dawn.
Affordable Housing and Land Reform
Living in an urban environment obscures our relationship to land, and so we don’t think in terms of land rights and land reform as people in agrarian societies do, being that their sustenance and survival is dependent on land in a very direct way. They do not have industrial economies and jobs to fall back on as we do to cushion the loss.
Our landlessness is not anything we ever consider. We only think in terms of jobs and employment, something we have come to expect. The job pays the rent, it pays the mortgage. Should there be an economic downturn, then we’re simply “out of luck.” We are conditioned to believe that the gods or some amorphous gravitational force sets the economy in motion, which is beyond our human control and that there is nothing we can do beyond creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs, while land gets eaten away for more factories, industries and businesses that produce endless supplies of needless consumptive garbage. And the price of land steadily rises.
The fact of the matter is that land issues never go away just because we think they’re gone. The dis-equitable distribution of land and the problems generated by this reality are always with us. The crisis in affordable housing is just one manifestation of the problems generated, and it affects everyone.
Since land is the number one obstacle to affordable housing, there is only one route forward, land reform. There are many types of land reform, but the one that can best assist the rapid development of affordable housing for the most people with the least amount of time, energy and expense, the one has been implemented successfully in communities around the country for over 40 years, is the Community Land Trust (CLT). That is not to say that other types of land reform cannot assist us in achieving the same goal. They can.
Other land reform models include:
a) limit the amount of land anyone can own
b) directly transfer lands that are not being used when there are people in need of land
c) adopt land-value-capture policy as articulated by Henry George where the unearned increment of land value is taxed and goes back to the people, instead of into the hands of private land owners (models exist throughout the world, implemented to some extent)
d) emulate public institutions such as the Alaska Permanent Fund, a public fund of revenues generated from oil and gas reserves owned and held in common by the people, and returned to the people (though not so good for the environment)
e) nationalize land (this is very problematic as experienced by a number of African nations since their “independence,” because exploitation of land and people have been exacerbated with corporate takeovers, courtesy of government-ownership of land)
f) shift the tax burden to land for large landowners and off of small homesteaders and off of labor (very enlightened policy)
g) legislate the constitutional rights of nature (this one is a beauty though not directly land reform).
“In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to declare constitutional rights to nature, thus codifying a new system of environmental protection. Reflecting the beliefs and traditions of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, the constitution declares that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. The new constitution redefines people’s relationship with nature by asserting that nature is not just an object to be appropriated and exploited by people, but is rather a rights-bearing entity that should be treated with parity under the law. “
The best models don’t just redistribute land or put it into new hands, but change the underlying land-tenure structure. Many of the models don’t do this. They provide a temporary or limited fix. Land-value-capture, land taxation models, and revenue capture from public control of resources do redistribute wealth, which is a worthy goal, but they do not alter underlying land-tenure arrangements based on exploitation and expropriation (private property). The best models reject the commodification and privatization of land and promote access to land as a basic human right for all.
Land is life and we are a part of the land. It owns us and not the other way around. Anyone can observe this most basic truism. The land owns us and not “we own the land.” We all come from the land and to that we shall return. We are all dependent on the land which nurtures and sustains all of us, and all generations, for all time.
All the problems that private property engenders, from rising land values to unaffordable housing, servitude, poverty, environmental degradation, war, and all the social ills, have no foothold where land has not become “property.” The best land reform models acknowledge our natural, proper and right relationship to land and are inherently democratic examples of collective, respectful stewardship.
Before investigating Community Land Trusts, there is one more very important land tenure model that can’t be labeled “land reform” because it was never a reaction to land commodification, the parallel being socialism as a reaction to capitalism. Nineteenth century socialism was a reaction and a response to inequitable economic arrangements, and land reform efforts were its corollary. But we can forget about actions and reactions and start from the beginning, because right here in New Mexico, we are blessed with some of the oldest land-tenure arrangements anywhere; pre-Anglo, pre-Mexican, pre-Spanish, pre-feudal and pre-conquest.
The Pueblo people are our window to the future. They have amazingly maintained communal land tenure patterns over five centuries of conquest. Though they have lost much of their land, they have not capitulated to Western land tenure patterns. The Pueblos are not for sale, and nobody owns them. They have their own internal rules for land distribution and use, and the land is sacred. It exists to support all life, and is not a commodity to be bought and sold for personal gain. The Pueblo cultures and languages have survived because they kept their promise, oath and loyalty to the land, our Mother Earth. The people can go home. There is a home, and there’s no landlord waiting outside to evict them. They can live, survive and flourish from the land. We newcomers, we younger siblings, have a great deal to learn from them, and maybe this time ‘round we can get it right.
To be continued next month. Part 3 will investigate the Community Land Trust model, the foundation of affordable homeownership. This article is also available online at The Santa Fe New Mexican website http://www.santafegreenline.com/
Rebekah Zablud Azen is a long-time student of traditional indigenous lifeways, non-revisionist history, economics, and land-tenure issues – passports to understanding humanity’s present predicament that enable us to identify practical solutions for survival and restored balance in a new era. Rebekah can be reached at 505-424-9475 or email@example.com