Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.
Everyone has a place in this world, and we all deserve to be able to meet our basic needs. There’s enough material wealth on the planet to allow every human being to live a dignified life that fulfills our individual and collective needs and potentials. But we each require access to material resources— not only to meet our basic needs but also to support our higher needs for self-expression and self-actualization. Except for the privileged few, however, most of us don’t have enough money and resources to live free of want and to fully serve whatever higher cause may call us.
Take a look around you, in whatever environment you find yourself right now. Unless you’re in nature, most of what you see was created by at least one other human being. In fact, almost everything in our daily lives connects us to actions performed by other people—past actions that leave anonymous footprints on our lives today. We do indeed live in a world of our own making; we mold our shared environment to reflect our collective imagination. Together we create the shapes and forms that influence our perceptions and inform our daily thinking. This reality holds true for the small things in life, like objects of furniture, up to the larger things, such as social structures, systems of commerce, and even types of government. We have created all of these things and more.
Whatever we can create, we can also modify, take apart, and re-create. It’s critically important that we acknowledge this truth when we consider our current social and economic systems: They exist not by default but because we created them, and they will continue to exist as long as most of us choose, consciously or unconsciously, to uphold them in their current forms. They are, in a real and practical sense, a direct outgrowth of our collective thoughts and actions.
Collective is an important word here: The effects of our choices and actions ripple throughout other people’s lives and leave subtle imprints upon our individual consciousness as well. We have all experienced this truth: For example, acts of kindness can offer us the experience of what it feels like to be kind, while acts of dishonesty can give us the experience of what it feels like to be cut off from an authentic connection with other people. Every act comes with swift consequences to ourselves, as well as to others.
Our actions are very often guided by the economic systems we live in because such systems reward or discourage certain kinds of behaviors with various economic incentives that are constantly created through the web of laws, customs, habits, and agreements that define these systems. These external incentive structures may or may not always encourage us to act in service to a greater good, and thereby, ultimately, to serve ourselves. If we want to encourage behavior that benefits us on a material as well as on a psychological level, we need to modify the economic incentive structures we have created so that they better reflect the reality of our interconnectedness.
Most of us are familiar with the game of Monopoly, in which players build houses and hotels on the parcels they own and collect increasing amounts of rent whenever other players land on these parcels. Because the game limits the available number of real-estate parcels, the player able to buy the most real estate, through either sheer luck or shrewd deal making—or usually a combination—commands the highest rents and wins the game by driving the other players into bankruptcy.
It turns out that we’re all playing a real-life version of Monopoly, and this game profoundly shapes our lives at every moment. However, in contrast to the board game, we don’t experience our real-life losses through heated debates around the kitchen table; rather, we may experience them as the despair of being unable to sufficiently provide for ourselves, despite our willingness to do so. To compound matters, we’re far along in this game: All available real-estate parcels have been bought, houses and hotels have been constructed, and those of us who are less fortunate are faced with great, often insurmountable, obstacles. In all too many cases, people with low incomes can’t meet even their basic needs without governmental assistance, despite their desire to work and contribute to society and despite the massive amount of wealth that’s already present in the economy. Worse yet, in many places around the world, governments are unwilling or unable to provide that basic assistance. Meanwhile, upward mobility has become unattainable for many, particularly for those who have little to start with.
Most of us wish to live in a society that encourages fairness and makes it possible for people of all socioeconomic levels to bring about their own success. One of our cultural myths in the West tells us that we live in a meritocracy, a society that rewards each person financially in direct proportion to the tangible value he or she provides to that society—that is, in direct accordance to that person’s talents and work ethic, and regardless of gender, class, race, or other attributes. But the fact is that many of us work hard and are tremendously skilled at what we do, but receive only a paltry reward for our labor, while those born into wealth, for example, are spared from the need to work or contribute in any way. Our current economic system doesn’t compensate human beings for much of the value they create for society, while many individuals receive substantial amounts of unearned wealth from other people’s efforts.
The only way we can ensure fair and enduring prosperity for every member of our society is to reshape our economy from the ground up, which means that we need to address and solve the underlying disparities at the root level. Whether we’re talking about the destruction of nature, urban sprawl, unemployment, crime, wealth inequality, or even war, the root cause is the simple fact that, despite our cultural and technological sophistication, we haven’t yet learned to share with one another the most basic element that needs to be shared with all: the ground upon which we walk. Land. By allowing some people to profit from land, we have privatized community wealth, which allows a few to live off the lives of the rest of us.
In the first part of Land, I’ll discuss how wealth is produced and how this production adds value to both individual producers and consumers, as well as to society. Next, I’ll review how individuals and institutions profit from land at the expense of society and how this process causes wealth inequality, unemployment, economic recessions, and ecological destruction. From there, I’ll examine what it means to live materially and culturally in harmony with the greater web of life. Throughout, I’ve done my best to boil the concepts down to the basics; those who are interested in the more technical details can consult the endnotes and appendix.
The second part of the book describes a time-tested economic theory most recently repopularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when notable economists and thinkers such as David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Henry George, and many others rediscovered and contributed significantly to this theory. Adam Smith, one of history’s best-known economists, spoke of it in his 1776 magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Today, this theory is discussed with great sophistication by a wide range of economists who have devoted their lives to the betterment of humankind, with the understanding that the problems we currently face can be solved at the most fundamental level. In this part of the book, I again boil these concepts down to their basics, with the hope that they will help guide readers on what steps to take to create a new paradigm for a thriving world.
Let’s imagine a world where both lighthearted play and purposeful work, not drudgery, are the order of the day for all human beings—a world where our reality overflows with material abundance and where everyone can focus on maximizing their potential instead of on scrounging for money. My greatest hope is that one day each human being—every one of us—will be able to participate in a society that’s inherently just and that also considers the well-being of future generations. To achieve this, we have to work together in appreciation of our differences and on behalf of our common humanity. When enough of us work together for the common good, then, to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, we will one day create a world that works for everyone.