All ownership rights are based on land tenure system

The general principle was that wealth belonged to the person whose hands created it

“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

– Thomas Jefferson

 

That was the quote on the certificate of appreciation given to your editor during the FRE-gatta held the weekend before last.

Nine other local residents were also honored for their contributions to the community.

It was a great privilege to be recognized in this way and we would like to thank those responsible.

The quote by Thomas Jefferson was especially appropriate as he has recently become one of your editor’s heroes.

Not that Jefferson was a perfect human being. He owned hundreds of slaves, after all.

But he did have some good ideas. According to the book, “Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership” by Andro Linklater, one of them was the public land survey system in the U.S.

Under the system the land was systematically surveyed into township squares, six miles on each side. Each township was surveyed into 36 sections of one square mile in size. The sections could then be subdivided further for sale to speculators or homesteaders.

One advantage of the system was it was simple and so made it difficult to cheat.

In most of the world and for most of history, for peasants to be secure on their land they needed a lord to protect them from other lords.

This was a one-sided arrangement based on fear. The lord made the rules and felt justified in extracting every bit of wealth from the peasants that he could in order to maintain himself in an appropriate lifestyle.

The peasants, on the other hand, had no incentive to make any improvements as any surplus would simply be taken from them.

This began to change in the early 1500s in England, particularly in the south. Farmers began to acquire individual ownership of their land. Within a generation there was a revolution in how the common people lived. They went from one-room hovels that they shared with their livestock to actual houses with separate rooms and, wonder of wonders, chimneys.

The process continued with the American public land survey system.

An individual farmer (and that’s what nearly everybody was back then) could work to improve his land with little fear that someone more powerful would take it from him.

The general principle was that wealth belonged to the person whose hands created it, unless exchanged in fair trade or taken by a fair legal process.

The American people developed a character of innovation and rugged individualism. That individualism, paradoxically, was based on a government system that worked.

By treating each other more or less fairly, the Americans became the wealthiest people in the world.

Another of your editor’s heroes from Linklater’s book is Wolf Ladejinsky.

Originally Ukrainian, he fled to the U.S. from the Soviet Union as a young man to avoid the Russian Revolution.

During the American occupation of Japan following the Second World War he played a lead role in reforming land tenure there.

Before the war, nearly all the land in Japan belonged to a few noble families. The U.S. occupiers blamed those families for causing the war. The Americans also wanted to prevent the Communists from taking over during the postwar turmoil.

Under Ladejinsky’s leadership, the occupation administration instituted widespread tenure reform, giving the land to the people who worked it. The previous owners received compensation but, with the high taxes then in effect (90 per cent in the top bracket), they got to keep little of it. They were effectively wiped out as a class.

Ladejinsky also brought in land reform to Taiwan and South Korea, which is one reason why the economies of those two countries have done so well.

His attempts to do the same in South Vietnam met with stiff opposition and were not so successful. Some believe this was a major factor in why the U.S. did not win the war there.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ladejinsky was investigated for un-American activities during the McCarthy era. His definition of property rights and theirs obviously were somewhat different.

In his book, Linklater cautions against a return to a land tenure system and property rights based on fear rather than justice.

 

With the growing concentration of land ownership and other forms of wealth worldwide, this is a realistic concern.