…as to the cause which so suddenly and so largely raised wages in California in 1849, and in Australia in 1852. It was the discovery of the placer mines in unappropriated land to which labor was free that raised the wages of cooks in San Francisco restaurants to $500 a month, and left ships to rot in the harbor without officers or crew until their owners would consent to pay rates that in any other part of the globe seemed fabulous.
…Henry George; Progress & Poverty Book V Chapter 2
George goes on to describe how gold mining was organized, and why it was the form of tenure rather than just the availability of gold that raised wages:
[I]t was by common consent declared that this gold-bearing land should remain common property, of which no one might take more than he could reasonably use, or hold for a longer time than he continued to use it. This perception of natural justice was acquiesced in by the General Government and the Courts, and while placer mining remained of importance, no attempt was made to overrule this reversion to primitive ideas. The title to the land remained in the government, and no individual could acquire more than a possessory claim. The miners in each district fixed the amount of ground an individual could take and the amount of work that must be done to constitute use. If this work were not done, any one could relocate the ground. Thus, no one was allowed to forestall or to lock up natural resources. Labor was acknowledged as the creator of wealth, was given a free field, and secured in its reward.
— Progress & Poverty, Book V, Chapter 2
And now I tripped over a 2002 paper (From Commons to Claims: Property Rights in the California Gold Rush by Andrea G McDowell) that provides a lot of detail and background supporting George’s assertion. A particular mining claim might be 100 to 900 square feet. A miner would work it for a few weeks, then expect to move on to another one. Thus the first miners to arrive had an incentive to avoid land monopoly, because they’d be looking for land again in a short while. “[The miners’] position can be summed up as a rejection of a fee-simple interest in mining claims on the grounds that this would result in the monopoly of the diggings by capitalists and the exclusion of individual miners from the chance to strike it rich.”
There’s a lot about how various mining districts managed their operations — certainly not all the same and often poorly documented, with a lot of the information coming from personal journals and correspondence rather than official sources.
It’s been over three years since I blogged about free land available to anyone who wants to use it, and now CNBC has an article (more conveniently accessible via Yahoo, but with fewer pictures) about 7 Towns Where Land is Free. Each place has some requirements, basically that you must build something and you must conform to local codes. In most places you need not pay for the land but of course you’ll be liable for future taxes. Even if we go back to the Homestead Act, you had to eventually pay ($1.25/acre) for and use the land you claimed.
Of course, there are probably thousands of towns in America where $1,000 will get you a decent lot, and if you can’t afford $1,000 you may not be able to build anything anyway.
Thinking in terms of Progress & Poverty, such free or cheap lands are, for practical purposes, approximately at the margin of production. As the towns grow, one could expect the land value to increase; however it is unlikely that any of these towns will grow substantially any time soon.
I’ve said for quite a while that if you want to build a factory, unless it’s particularly noxious, you can probably get free land, or equivalent in benefits, from any number of economic development organizations. Turns out that the same can be true for farmland.
You, or I, couldn’t do it, but Korean conglomerate Daewoo can, 1.3 million hectares (that’s half the size of Belgium, says FT), in Madagascar. Apparently this is an above-board legitimate deal, and Madagascar “will simply gain employment opportunities.” Daewoo doesn’t get fee title, but a 99-year lease. The produce will for the most part be shipped to Korea.
So, for instance, suppose I want to get some of that free land in Marquette, Kansas, but I don’t have a car or bicycle. Google will provide directions, a total of 314 segments for the 766-mile trip. Google estimates it’ll take me 10 days and 10 hours, which works out to just over 3 miles per hour. I guess they assume I sleepwalk, but take breaks occasionally. I don’t imagine their database worries about whether there are sidewalks, but they do say “Walking directions are in beta. Use caution when walking in unfamiliar areas.”
The phrase “free land” today means free residential lots available to anyone pledging to build a new home in selected communities. As an incentive to entice new residents to repopulate areas of the Great Plains, this is a new and intriguing strategy. Free land programs are available in most Great Plains states, from North Dakota to Texas.
The above is from a University of Nebraska report, which also documents the experience of three of the Kansas towns who offer free land to anyone who’d
come and build a house.
As of October 2005, when the interviews were conducted, 27 of 33 available home lots in Minneapolis[KS] had been given away, as were all 80 lots in Marquette. In Marquette, six reserved lots became available again due to construction challenges in November of 2006. More than 100 people had relocated in Marquette, including more than 30 children. Although some people came to these communities to get a free lot to build on, most found it easier to buy an existing home. In Ellsworth County 122 new residents had been brought in by the program including 55 people from out of state.
The influx of new residents also brought some added benefits, according to the interviews:
! several new businesses as well as new ideas to the community,
! an improved positive (growing) community atmosphere that inspired long-time residents, and
! an increase in the ethnic diversity of the local population.
In a sense,then, there is still free land that puts a floor under wages. However, as a practical matter, many of the very poorest would be unable to qualify for and take up residence on the free land.
Business 2.0 reports that Kona Blue raises their “Kona Kampachi” fish in underwater cages off Hawaii. Apparently this space is free for the claiming. No report on whether they can hold the space without using it.