People sitting on a grassy hill and looking at a city skyline

On Land Ownership

August 19, 2022

Negara mawi tata, desa mawi cara (The capital has its order, the village its customs).

—Javanese proverb

I have recently been reading Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, a book about ways in which governments create simplified schemas in order to make complex systems “legible”; i.e. understandable, measurable, manipulatable. It’s also about how these schemas, applied by the power of the state, actually end up shaping what they measure, usually along the lines of creating an optimization process for the metric or narrow set of metrics being measured, often at the expense of the system as a whole. For example, if you were a state managing a forest for lumber, you might track the number of trees of a certain variety and their heights and diameters as a way to know how much lumber you might expect to be able to extract from the forest per year, and ignore such things as the density and diversity of undergrowth, animals that live in the forest, etc. However, this might lead you to begin planting rows of trees of all the same species to replace the old growth forests you cut down, because according to the way you “see” the forest this is optimal for maximizing lumber. Your schema for seeing the forest ignores the necessity of its diversity, and this results in some unforeseen side-affect like disease destroying your whole crop of planted trees, or declining soil fertility which results in poor yields several generations down the line.

Scott applies this lens to land use, which is where this book gets really good. As the modern state developed, it was tasked with “somehow attaching every parcel of taxable property to an individual or an institution responsible for paying the tax on it” in order to be able to collect taxes on land. This was not really straightforward, because land use customs (not laws; they were flexible and usually not written) varied so much across different localities and were ever-changing. He provides an illustration of a hypothetical “traditional” land use scenario. I’ll quote the whole thing because I found it really interesting:

Let us imagine a community in which families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland during the main growing season. Only certain crops, however, may be planted, and every seven years the usufruct land is redistributed among resident families according to each family’s size and its number of able-bodied adults. After the harvest of the main-season crop, all cropland reverts to common land where any family may glean, graze their fowl and livestock, and even plant quickly maturing, dry-season crops. Rights to graze fowl and livestock on pasture-land held in common by the village is extended to all local families, but the number of animals that can be grazed is restricted according to family size, especially in dry years when forage is scarce. Families not using their grazing rights can give them to other villagers but not to outsiders. Everyone has the right to gather firewood for normal family needs, and the village blacksmith and baker are given larger allotments. No commercial sale from village woodlands is permitted. Trees that have been planted and any fruit they may bear are the property of the family who planted them, no matter where they are now growing. Fruit fallen from such trees, however, is the property of anyone who gathers it. When a family fells one of its trees or a tree is felled by a storm, the trunk belongs to the family, the branches to the immediate neighbors, and the “tops” (leaves and twigs) to any poorer villager who carries them off.

Land is set aside for use or leasing out by widows with children and dependents of conscripted males. Usufruct rights to land and trees may be let to anyone in the village; the only time they may be let to someone outside the village is if no one in the community wishes to claim them. After a crop failure leading to a food shortage, many of these arrangements are readjusted. Better-off villagers are expected to assume some responsibility for poorer relatives—by sharing their land, by hiring them, or by simply feeding them. Should the shortage persist, a council composed of heads of families may inventory food supplies and begin daily rationing. In cases of severe shortages or famine, the women who have married into the village but have not yet borne children will not be fed and are expected to return to their native village. This last practice alerts us to the inequalities that often prevail in local customary tenure; single women, junior males, and anyone defined as falling outside the core of the community are clearly disadvantaged.

Seeing Like a State, page 53.

Scott is quick to mention that this scenario itself is a simplification, and creates the false impression that these customs are fixed, when they are closer to a living, negotiated set of practices continually adapting to ecological and social circumstances. Because this type of thing can’t be encoded in a set of laws, and because customs varied so widely from village to village, this way of dividing and using land could not be “legible” to the state. These fine-tailored and context-dependant land use practices are opaque to an outsider, so land cannot be managed from a centralized authority, and it cannot be taxed as effectively. According to Scott: “Indeed, the very concept of the modern state presupposes a vastly simplified and uniform property regime that is legible and hence manipulable from the center.” To fix this, the state (Scott mostly focuses on Russia and France for these chapters) undertook a scheme to introduce individual freehold tenure, where “Land is owned by a legal individual who possesses wide powers of use, inheritance, or sale and whose ownership is represented by a uniform deed of title enforced through the judicial and police institutions of the state.” This idea is obviously quite familiar to a 21st century Western reader. In fact, any other way of dividing land feels quite foreign to me, so it was surprising to learn that this was a relatively recent development.

Another book that I read recently is Progress and Poverty by Henry George, which is also about land use. George basically deconstructs all of our accepted ideas about land ownership. He claims that they have no basis in nature, showing how traditional societies did not have a concept of single ownership of land (he uses Native American societies for his argument). He points out that there are no “legitimate” claims to land ownership; all land ownership has its origin in bloodshed, whether in the New World, where Europeans appropriated land that had traditionally been lived on and used by Indigenous peoples, or in the Old, where land ownership has always come from conquest and war. George’s philosophy is that man is entitled only to what he produces through his own labour, and since land (and the value of land) is not created by man, it cannot be the entitlement of anyone.

Unlike Scott, George is mostly focused on land use in modern, urban environments. George shows how, in cities, since new land cannot be created, land values will increase as the wealth of the city grows. As a downstream consequence, rents will rise to eat up any increase in wealth produced by the labour of the people of that city. Land owners, while producing no wealth, will be able to appropriate the wealth produced by others due to their monopoly on land. This book is almost 200 years old, but this situation sounds familiar doesn’t it? Now, I don’t know if I agree wholeheartedly here. It seems to me that if housing is abundant enough, say because land has been developed to higher intensification as the city has grown, then landlords will not be able to gouge their tenants, as long as the market is competitive. Still, George makes a solid argument that land speculation and rent gouging are the two main causes of the economic ills of industrial, urban society. You can read a much more detailed summary and review of Progress and Poverty on AstralCodexTen by Lars Doucet, here.

Ok, so Henry George convinced me that our system of land ownership is unjust; and George and Scott together convinced me that it isn’t inevitable. So what’s the alternative? The kind of anarchistic form of negotiated and customary land use described by Scott is does not easily translate to a modern industrial city setting. Besides, the peasants described by Scott still owned and had full control over their own houses in the village, it was the “common land” whose use was more complex and communal. I’m not sure how much this philosophy of the commons is relevant to urban areas. In my mind it makes more sense that a single government representing the people should decide how common land should be used. I do think that privately owned land should have a lot more flexibility in how it is used and built upon in urban environments, but that is slightly tangential.

To resolve the issue of private land ownership, Henry George proposes a land tax, which he says would eradicate land ownership in practice by making it impossible to profit off of the value of land. The government would assess land values and tax land owners at 100% of the value of the land. That way, people would be free to “own” land in the sense of having their name on a deed and autonomy over its use, but they would have to pay the value of that land back to the commons in the form of a tax. We kind of already do tax land. We have property taxes. The difference is that property taxes are levied on the value of the land and the improvements on the land. So, if you buy land and then build a house on it, your tax bill will increase since the property value has increased. Also, property taxes generally don’t capture anywhere near 100% of the property's land value.

I like this idea a lot, but I don’t think it will ever be politically popular. People like to own land. It gives them a sense of security and pride. You can imagine how a land tax could undermine this. For example, say I’m Carl Fredricksen from the Pixar movie Up. I bought my house 55 years ago, and in the time that I’ve lived in it the city has grown up around me so that the plot of land that my house sits on is now extremely valuable. In our existing system of modest property taxes, I can continue to live in the house as long as I can stomach paying a slightly larger tax bill each year. In some places (like California), I’m actually exempt from property tax increases; so it's very unlikely that I'll ever have trouble affording to stay in my home. If I was being taxed at 100% of the land’s value, the pressure to sell or try to develop my land would become massive as the land value appreciates. Remember that Carl’s house is flanked on each side by high-rises, implying that a lot of value (in the form of rent) could theoretically be extracted from his land. It is safe to say that in a 100% land tax system, Carl would be forced off his land. This kind of possibility makes people very uncomfortable. The movie actually demonstrates a way that this tension could be resolved. Carl doesn’t like living in a busy construction zone, but he is emotionally attached to the house he shared with with deceased wife and can’t let it go. For this reason, moving the house – accomplished in the movie by attaching a clump of balloons to it and making it float away – eases the tension. Carl gets to keep his house, and presumably the land underneath it gets put to better use.

Carl Fredricksen’s house in Up.

Carl Fredricksen’s house in Up.

So Scott shows us how the modern state created freehold land ownership to make land use more “legible” for taxation. George starts with the system of freehold tenure, but shows us how we might co-opt it and give the wealth back to the common good. One thing to point out here is that Seeing Like a State is overflowing with historical examples of governments expanding their power and wealth and using their increase for anything but the common good. Scott’s book is fairly wary of large-scale government intervention in general, a sentiment backed up by example after example of governments using taxation, or increased information about their citizens, to wreak havoc on social systems that are illegible to them. Can we believe that a 100% land tax would, as George hopes, be used in place of all other taxes? George envisions that the revenues from this tax would be invested in public works and distributed as a “dividend” to all citizens – a universal basic income. Whether this would happen in practice I imagine Scott would be highly doubtful. Still, a land tax seems like the only way we could “eliminate” land ownership without restructuring society.

To summarize how these two books have changed my thinking on land ownership, I would firstly say that both books have worked together to convince me that the system of land use and ownership that dominates the world today is actually an historical anomaly (not land ownership itself of course, but the system of deeds and cadastral maps that we moderns are familiar with). This opens the door to accepting that current holders of land, and the laws that back them, are not standing firmly on a foundation dating back to the dawn of civilization as they might want you to believe. That truth probably should have been more obvious to me as a Canadian citizen; a nation founded on land that had been used by other people for tens of thousands of years prior to European settlement. Every land deed in this country should have the world’s largest disclaimer attached to it. Yet, as Henry George points out, the institution has a shady history no matter where in the world you look. In this spirit, I think our social discourse should have more willingness to explore alternate ways that our land could be used and shared, with a philosophy that land should serve the common good foremost.

Seeing Like a State on Goodreads.

Progress and Poverty on Goodreads.

P.S. Scott Alexander (of AstralCodexTen) wrote a good book review & summary of Seeing Like a State that I read long before I read the actual book. You should give it a read if you want to understand the main points of the book without reading the whole thing.