Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Earth Is the Lord's. (Religious Foundations of Social Policy)

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Earth Is the Lord's. (Religious Foundations of Social Policy)

Article excerpt


GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, in a letter written in 1905 to Hamlin Garland, describes how, more than twenty years earlier, he had attended Henry George's first platform appearance in London. He knew at once, he said, that the speaker must be an American, for four reasons: "Because he pronounced 'necessarily' ... with the accent on the third syllable instead of the first; because he was deliberately and intentionally oratorical, which is not customary among shy people like the English; because he spoke of Liberty, Justice, Truth, Natural Law, and other strange 18th-century superstitions; and because he explained with great simplicity and sincerity the views of the Creator, who had gone completely out of fashion in London in the previous decade and had not been heard of there since."

George's magnum opus, Progress and Poverty (the centenary of which occurred in 1979), is characterized by the same moral and religious emphasis remarked by Shaw in its author's London lecture, an emphasis that rises in the final chapter to the noble declaration of a faith revived. It is, I think, therefore entirely appropriate that I focus today on the moral and religious aspects of his basic proposal for economic reform--his proposal to lift the burden of taxation from the fruits of individual labor, while appropriating for public use the socially-engendered value of the land.

For land value taxation is not just a fiscal measure (although it is a fiscal measure, and a sound one); not just a method of urban redevelopment (although it is a method of urban redevelopment, and an effective one); not just a means of stimulating business (although it is a means of stimulating business, and a wholesome one); not just an answer to unemployment (although it is an answer to unemployment, and a powerful one), not just a way to better housing (although it is a way to better housing, and a proven one); not just an approach to rational land use (although it is an approach to rational land use, and a non-bureaucratic one). It is all of these things, but it is also something infinitely more: it is the affirmation, prosaic though it be, of a fundamental spiritual principle--that "the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof."

It is the affirmation of the same principle to which Moses gave embodiment in the institution of the Jubilee, and in the prohibition against removing ancient landmarks, and in the decree that the land shall not be sold forever. It is the affirmation of the same principle to which the prophets of old gave utterance when they inveighed against those who lay field to field, and who use their neighbor's service without wages. It is the affirmation of the same principle to which Koheleth gave voice when he asserted in the fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes that "the profit of the earth is for all."

The earth is the Lord's! Consider what this means. It means that our God is not a pale abstraction. Our God is not a remote being who sits enthroned on some ethereal height, absorbed in the contemplation of his own perfection, oblivious to this grubby realm in which we live. Our God is concerned with the tangible, with the mundane, with what goes on in the field, in the factory, in the courthouse, in the exchange. Our God is the maker of a material world--a world of eating and sleeping and working and begetting, a world he loved so much that he himself became flesh and blood for its salvation. In this sense, then, our God is eminently materialistic, and nowhere is this more clearly recognized than in the Bible, which, for that very reason, has always been a stumbling-block and an offense to those Gnostics, past and present, whose delicacy is embarrassed by the fact that they inhabit bodies, and for whom religion is essentially the effort to escape from or deny that fact.

Our God is not a dainty aesthete who considers politics and economic subjects too crass or sordid for his notice. …

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