Another Andro Linklater book, Measuring America, certainly worth the read especially if you’ve not read John C. Weaver’s The Great Land Rush. Not only some history of America’s Public Land Survey System and how it facilitated prosperity (at least for a while), but also some discussion of how the new nation almost adopted the metric system. But, as with Owning the Earth, Linklater commits a big error which makes me wonder how sound the rest of the book is.
In 1830 James Thompson, a surveyor and engineer, was commissioned to lay out a town in Illinois, in the square mile of Section 9, Township 39, Range 14, Second Principal Meridian…[page 181]
No! Not the Second Principal Meridian, and even if it was, there would have to be an “east” or “west” specified (as there should be a “north” after the “39.”) This is not an obscure fact and is referenced commercially as well as by surveyors, assessors, real estate attorneys etc. As this is wrong, how much else in the book might be incorrect?
[I]n Bill Clinton’s encapsulation of political strategy, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But the success of an economy can only be measured by its growth. Since growth requires the accelerated consumption of limited natural resources, it is not a sustainable model in the long run.
If you concentrate on how a place is owned, however, the perspective changes. As this book demonstrates, matters of laws, of rights and of politics become crucial, taking precedence over economics. From that point of view… “It’s the neighborhood, stupid.”
…Around the world and throughout history, neighborhoods have succeeded in a million different ways. It all depends on how the earth is owned.
That, the conclusion of Andro Linklater’sOwning the Earth, illustrates what is right and what is wrong with the book. Our quality of life does does depend on how the earth is owned, and Georgists are aware of the importance and practicality of recognizing each individual’s right to what no one produced. But must a sound economy necessarily use more of the earth’s limited resources? Is there no practical way to use resources more efficiently? And is there no possibility that economic improvement could be measured by anything other than economic growth?
The book is wide-ranging and (mostly) well-written, making connections in place after place between how the right to use nature is recognized, and how well the community developed. It draws some connections that I hadn’t seen before, such as how the growth in mortgages on American farms followed logically from the end of homesteading.
And Linklater does devote a couple of pages to Henry George, but seriously misunderstands why George’s proposals weren’t widely adopted, saying “[I]t is notoriously difficult to arrive at a valuation system that can clearly separate earned from unearned capital appreciation.” Here he means “separate improvement value from land value,” and he is wrong. Practical methods of doing so on a mass basis were described back in 1970 in TRED #5 (outline), which is not posted on line to my knowledge, and in this more recent paper by Ted Gwartney, MAI. And, of course, land values are routinely estimated by appraisers and are a component of almost every U S income tax return that involves commercial or investment real estate.
It is true that, with limited exceptions, George’s proposals weren’t adopted, but for a different reason. Mason Gaffney has provided a compelling and well-sourced explanation (also available in a book), and it is unfortunate that Linklater seems to have been unaware of it. One wonders what else he did not know.