Monday 30 September 2013

W R Lester - Unemployment and the Land - United Committee for the Taxation of Land Values

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.


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

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* The Liberal Party that Lester knew has two modern descendants, the Liberal Democrat Party ( ) and the Liberal Party ( ) .