W R Lester - Unemployment and the Land - United Committee for the Taxation of Land Values, 4th edition, 1933 "All great truths are simple truths, and all great problems can be reduced to their simple elements, however complicated they may appear at first sight." - W R Lester In my previous posting on this blog, we looked at the thoughts of Frank Dupuis and I mentioned that he found the answers to many of his questions in W R Lester`s Unemployment and the Land.
Since I own a copy of said work, it seems logical to look at that now. W R Lester was, I believe, William Richard Lester, born 1860, an admirer of American political philosopher Henry George. He was an election candidate for the Liberal Party* in 1910 and the author of a number of pamphlets, most, if not all, of which were connected with the question of land value taxation. If anyone has any further information on the literate Liberal Lester, I`d be glad to hear from you. Unemployment and the Land is a pleasure to read. Mr L puts his case clearly and succinctly, arguing his points well.
His argument is that unemployment is a relatively modern, artificial phenomenon and that it`s existence shows that "our civilization has taken a wrong turning". The roots of this modern malaise can, he believes, be traced back to the enclosure of common land in the Middle Ages. "Unemployment is no part of the natural order as many assume it to be" he asserts. His arguments and opinions do not easily fit into neat little categories of right/left politics. He identifies the monopolisation of land ownership by a wealthy few as the source of the problem he wishes to address, but is no opponent of capitalism. He argues that "it is futile to blame Goverments for not `providing` work. They cannot do it." but endorses a statement made by Henry George ; "If there is want, if there is scarcity, if there are men who cannot find employment, if there are people starving in the midst of plenty, is it not simply because what the Creator intended for the use of man has been made the private property of the few ?" One area of his thinking will have been of particular interest to Frank Dupuis, which is the effect of imposition of western practises on African societies and, by extension, on other areas of what was then the empire ; "To-day this process of enclosure, under another name, is proceeding before our eyes among native tribes in Colonial possessions, with the same dire consequences...So long as the natives retained their tribal lands, workless men did not and could not exist."
He goes on to detail hearings on the matter under the name of the Native Labour Commission (Kenya), 1912 - 13 ;
"Settler after settler came before the Commission and demanded in the most precise terms that the natives should be forced out of `reserves` to work for wages by cutting down their land so that they should have less than they could live on...The process of reducing men to unemployment and poverty is here stated in all its` nakedness." Do his ideas make sense ? For myself, I have to say I am not someone who is readily persuaded by ideas that have never been tried anywhere, or to the glib assumption that a proposed course of action will have no unintended consequences. At the same time, if everyone thought like that very little would ever change ! For the moment then, I count myself as sympathetic but unconvinced.
Assuming one accepts his arguments regarding the enclosure of common land, one`s response could vary quite a bit, from joining, say, The Ramblers or the Open Spaces Society (my own preferred option) , to storming the barricades like some latter-day revolutionary ! Taxing the value of land is only one of a variety of choices one could make. Nonetheless, Lester is a provocative thinker and an advocate of reasoned and orderly change, so for that reason he is, in my opinion, well worth a read. Footnote For a more recent look at the question of land value taxation, this article may be of interest ; Unsigned - `Land Value Tax "Should be Examined"` - 14 Sep 2013 at www.expressandstar.com
"The contrasts to be observed between the effects of the depression in Africa and England were striking enough to arouse my curiosity. In Africa the collapse of export markets meant bankruptcy to many planters and some traders and had aroused discontent among native producers but no African was either destitute or even badly in want. The `unemployment problem` simply did not exist. To find in England, where people were suppposed to be so much richer and wiser than `natives`, multitudes depending upon public assistance even for food, and begging for hard work as if it were a charity to be dispensed by the generous, was startling. It impressed me as unnatural although my English friends, to whom it was customary, did not regard it so. They were satisfied that all differences between England and Africa could be explained by industrialisation. But they could not tell me how. I thought they condemned in advance any suggestion that a more primitive society might have some lesson to teach them. Was not the black man a poor brother in need of their help and guidance ? As I knew that the black man was just the same as other people and quite capable of providing for himself, I was less disposed to accept assurances which others seemed to pass without question." Frank Dupuis - A Planter`s Story, in `Land and Liberty` magazine, 1957 Frank Dupuis spent nearly twenty years in Africa. He may originally have gone there on military service, but at some point he took up agricultural pursuits, returning to England in 1931. He found the answers to his questions in W R Lester`s Unemployment and the Land and as a result became involved in a group called the United Commmittee for the Taxation of Land Values, contributing to their periodical Land and Liberty regularly. For the moment we will simply note that the United Committee was a body that drew inspiration from the works of American philosopher Henry George and was not an organisation that can be easily classified as being either left or right wing. It still exists today, under the name the Henry George Foundation. The quote above is interesting in many ways and I suspect different people will take different things from it. I am quite happy for that to be the case and have no intention of interposing my own thoughts and interpretations.
"As a physicist, I have sent much of my life pondering the nature of reality, the laws of physics and the origin of the Universe, and so I have developed a strong rationalist, scientific, evidence-based outlook on life. Understanding that I only exist because of a wonderful cosmic accident means I truly appreciate just how lucky we all are to exist at all, and so we should make the most of our time on earth and not waste this brief opportunity to shine as brightly as the stars that created the atoms we are all made of . That for me is what defines Humanism.".
The vexed question of overseas aid raises it`s head yet again in a recent article by an anonymous representative of Ethiopia`s Oromo people* ; The writer refers to Ethiopia`s FDRE Proclamation 621/2009, which he/she acknowledges was "intended to impose superior regulation of charities", but goes on to argue that in practise it has meant that "party leaders decide who should receive...emergency support" . The article goes on to say that in many cases "the authorities decide who should die." Admirers of Ethiopia`s current regime often present it as a kind of synthesis of old-style state-centralist economy with western individualism and initiative. I can actually see where they`re coming from with that, though I doubt that in practice the "best of both worlds" approach is actually what is happening on the ground. Leaving that aside, the article does raise questions about how NGO aid agenices can be made accountable. While many would question whether self-regulation and intitatives like The Sphere Project are really a long-term solution, it`s unclear how any form of independent scrutiny is ever to be achieved. These are big questions with no easy answers and I don`t pretend to have any special wisdom. Hopefully, I`ll be able to return to the subject in due course. *http://www.minorityvoices.org/news.php/en/1381/ethiopiauk-oromo-rally-in-london