School of Economic Science Annual Economics Lecture, 2011
Ian Mason, Principal and Head of Law and Economics, School of Economic Science.
wnership and use of natural resources lies at the heart of present day economics. The effects of our arrangements for the collection and distribution of those resources show themselves in the generation of great wealth and prosperity, but these are not universal and are accompanied by serious consequences for the planetary environment. The lecture explores the implications for economics of a renewed relationship with mother Earth, the generous source of the wealth and prosperity produced by modern economics.
Well, good evening ladies and gentlemen. First of all, thank you all very much for being here. Not only is it always encouraging for a speaker to have an audience, but what is perhaps more important and more to be appreciated, is your presence and your willingness to give some time and some attention to the rather important subject of economics.
Economics is a subject which affects us all. It doesn’t just affect us in our day-to-day affairs; it affects the whole way that we live, it affects everybody. And it doesn’t just affect every-body; it affects the whole context in which every-body lives. That is the reason for the slightly provocative title for this evening’s lecture — Would you sell your mother? — because ownership and use of natural resources does lie at the heart of present-day economics. What I would like us to consider is the possibility that we have somehow got our relationship with those resources — I will call them “resources” for the moment — slightly askew. The reason for the reference to “mother” is because “mother” is a universal relationship, and economics fundamentally is all about relationships. If we get the relationships wrong, then things do go wrong, and if we get them right, the possibilities seem to be infinite. So that is the reason for the provocative title, and I would like to approach it by way of a sort of personal journey in thought as to how one arrived at some conclusions which partly reflects the way that the School of Economic Science has developed its understanding of economics. In some ways this departs from the common understanding of economics or at least the understanding of economics that tends to prevail in the world that we live in.
I suppose, at the very start, at the very heart of our approach to economics in the modern world, is the idea of ownership: the sense that we own what we earn and that somebody, somewhere, owns almost everything else. It is worth having that in mind at the outset. Our economics is a system, therefore, of acquisition of ownership, and transfer of ownership. This is all based on a sort of understanding of economics.
One of the things we try to do in the school, both in philosophy and in economics, is to start with direct observation. I was reminded only at the weekend that one of the first instructions in our philosophy course is: feel the weight of your feet on the floor; feel the weight of your body in the chair; feel the play of air on the hands and face; be here, now. In economics too, we try to persuade people to actually look at the world around them and connect with what they see, and start to learn the lessons of economics from what we see around us. This is not the practice of the standard approach to teaching economics through a text book. Inevitably, because economics
deals with humanity en masse, economists are prone to abstractions, and at the heart of the study of economics are three primary abstractions which we call land, labour and capital. Labour, to an economist, is not really somebody with a tool or instrument of some kind, engaging with the world around them. Labour is a set of statistics.
Economics does not take account of the fact that the individual labourer may have a family; is probably anxious for lunch or supper; needs a place to sleep and so on — they don’t really deal with houses, they deal with housing. The concept is generalised and abstracted. This makes it possible to come to economic conclusions like the conclusion taught in many economics textbooks, that it is necessary to have a pool of unemployed in order for an economy to function properly. That is possible if the “unemployed” are not real people. But, if you connect with the fact that the unemployed are real people, who do need lunch and supper and a place to live; who do need self-respect and occupation; who do have families; who do have hearts and minds, then this apparently innocuous, but very popular abstraction becomes impossible to support. It is in this sort of way that economics has managed to get itself into a realm which doesn’t quite connect with the real world.
To give another example, this is a little closer to the real subject matter of this evening’s address, land. It is quite easy, make land an abstraction. In the School, for a time, we used to refer to the “dry surface of the earth”. Now, it only takes a moment’s observation to realise that the dry surfaces of the earth are about the most inhospitable places that there are. One thinks of the Sahara desert for example; or the Arizona desert; or any other desert that is so dry that it won’t support life. The simple fact is that, if you consider land to be the dry surface of the earth, then you are considering an economics which cannot conceivably support anything. You have to add water. Just add water — it is a useful instruction. In fact you have to add more than water, you have to add at least air and sunshine, and suddenly land takes on a completely new complexion. It takes on the possibility of life; it comes alive itself; and it supports life; and it supports life of all creatures, not just human creatures. So it is necessary to get away from the abstract and really return to the realities. The land — in the little trilogy of land, labour and capital — is something alive, and something absolutely essential to economics because it gives us access, as human beings, to all the things that we need to support life.
So, the next step from the dry surface of the earth was to consider land as all natural resources. It is interesting: you bring human beings together and you bring all natural resources together, and it is possible to create a very prosperous world. An hour or so ago I took a stroll up Marylebone High Street and I watched the expensive cars going past, and I looked in the rather coy estate agents’ windows with their rather smart apartments advertised without prices; I looked in the shop windows — and the ones in Marylebone High Street have mostly quite expensive goods on offer, and I realised that we are living in the heart of a very prosperous economy. It is possible to think, in the midst of a depression, that we are not living in the heart of a very prosperous economy, but actually we are, and it is obvious that economics — as commonly understood and practised — does produce an immensely prosperous situation. It produces very high standards of living for very many people. This is important and most valuable. It is what economics, after all, is actually for. So I don’t want to descend too much into criticism of economics as currently practised, because it plainly has some significant merits notwithstanding its downsides. Very often on these occasions one looks at all that is going wrong in the world and tries to construct a lecture or talk around all the problems that we face: How long will the recession last? Will we have a double dip? Will property prices fall, or will they go up? Are we going to have inflation? Do we already have inflation? How bad is it? All these questions which pre-occupy economics from day to day are obviously important and are part of the whole picture of modern economics that produces what is essentially, for many of us here tonight, a great prosperity.
But while I was thinking of this in terms of natural resources and all natural resources, I used the amazing Google — I put in the word “resources” and up came the equally amazing Wikipedia which told me that:
“A resource is any physical or virtual entity of limited availability that needs to be consumed to obtain a benefit from it“,which I thought was quite interesting.First of all we had the ‘dry surface of theearth’ as an abstraction’; now we turn it into‘all natural resources’ by recognising thatthere is more to it than a dry surface. Butthe very idea of a resource assumes, first ofall, limited availability; and secondly, thatwe expect to obtain a benefit from it. Inother words, the very language that we use,the language of economics, carries with itcertain concepts and attitudes of which weare – and of which it is easy to be – almostunconscious.Certainly, by and large, the economicsprofession, and much of the rest of theworld, looks at the world around us asresources — the world related in particularto us and our particular needs. That,I suppose, is why we think so much in termsof ownership.
Of course the highly prosperous economicsdoes have side effects. We are no doubtfamiliar with them. One could drawattention, obviously, to the remarkablyregular sequence of boom and bust. I knowthat ten years ago the then Chancellor ofthe Exchequer announced that he put anend — well he didn’t announce, he repeated,again and again, umpteen times — that hehad put an end to boom and bust, but sadlywas proved wrong. It has been going on now for about 400 years in the UK economy at fairly regular intervals and no one has really got to the bottom of it: certainly not with sufficient political will and clout to do anything about it.So, we have our economic problems, evenfrom a highly successful economic system.We will have a recession; it will affectpeople; some people will be mademiserable by it, some people will be maderedundant by it. Some people will be maderich by it. That is the way the world goes.There are other side effects of economicprosperity. Environmental degradation isone of them; pollution of the air; pollution ofwaterways; depletion of soils; increasingtoxicity in all sorts of areas of the materialworld; all resulting from our highlyprosperous economy.
Deforestation is another side effect of prosperity — again we are familiar with the astonishing rate with which our forests are being cut down. They are not that easy to replace, some of them are very ancient forests. Scientists tell us that we are in a period which they describe as the “sixth mass extinction of biodiversity”. The last one was 65 million years ago. We are losing hundreds, if not thousands of species from the known living world, year by year. They, of course, don’t regenerate and so the biodiversity of the planet that we live on, the world that we live in, is decreasing. We live in what is known as the period of “peak oil”. You will have noticed petrol prices creeping not only into the petrol pumps but into food prices and prices of all sorts of goods and services as well. We are told that the production of oil is becoming more and more difficult; the supply of oil is becoming more and more tenuous; and it doesn’t take an immense brain power to realise that if you have a resource which is not renewing itself, and you increase the amount of it that you use and you increase the number of people who use it, sooner or later there is going to be a shortage. It is difficult to dodge the issue of climate change.
I have said from this platform before that I don’t feel qualified really to judge what the cause of climate change is. But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that if human activity is not the cause of it, it is at least a contributing factor. Alongside all these side effects come all sorts of social inequities. They arise from the economics, and they arise from changes to habitats, changes to the environment in which people live. With that also comes loss of cultural diversity. As we sort of homogenize the human race we find that what we call minority cultures are absorbed into the larger cultures, and gradually disappear. With them go traditional livelihoods and perhaps a certain loss of wisdom as well. These are all symptoms as it were, side effects, of the way that the human race has chosen to live in the 20th and 21st centuries and of the economics that make it all possible. The sense that the world that we live in is a resource for our benefit, contributes to all this, because we look on the world around us simply as a source of benefit for us. It is unusual to ask: What are we doing here? Could we be a resource for the world’s benefit? Or is that a completely alien way of looking at the world around us? In the School we are fond of looking to the great traditions of Indian wisdom for inspiration and instruction. This is from the Mahabharata — the great epic of ancient Indian history and philosophy.
“Everything springeth from the earth and everything, when destroyed, mergeth into the earth. The earth is the stay and refuge of all creatures and the earth is eternal. He that hath the earth hath the entire universe with its mobile and immobile population. It is for this that longing for the possession of the earth, kings slay one another.”
There a certain pragmatic realism to the Mahabharata, as well as an almost poetic understanding of the importance of the Earth, of the land, as not merely a resource but as a stay and refuge for all creatures.
Now, all of this that has been spoken of so far, is looking really at the outer cloak of economics — the phenomena that we can see and observe, even through our abstractions, as we see and observe with their help. Of course the purpose of the abstractions, the purpose of the observation, the purpose of the discussion on economics, is not merely to observe the world around us, but come to an understanding of it and to come to some understanding of laws that govern it.
The laws are the underlying structure, and our understanding of the laws — the way we can view and see and understand them — determines, to a considerable extent, how we relate to the world around us. One of the effects — perhaps the first effect of viewing the economy, or rather, viewing the world around us, as resources — is that everything becomes a commodity. So the first law that students are taught about economics is the law of supply and demand. Economics, in this light, is fundamentally about markets, about buying and selling and creating things to go into markets. That supremacy of the laws of supply and demand at the heart of the economic analysis — the supremacy of the market at the heart of economics — I suggest does come from viewing the world as resources.
Even people become resources – human resources — and we now have Human Resources Departments in many corporations. Even labour is governed by a sense of supply and demand; and because the assumption is that the resources are limited, our economy is inevitably competitive. So we engage in competition both at the individual level, at the corporate level and at national and international levels, for the supply of resources and the power to distribute them. What this does is to allow ideas like the survival of the fittest to also be considered as laws of economics. But it is quite important to realise that there is this background sense of law, that there is this search for a structure, a system, a way of looking at the world which has a coherence to it, which enables us to predict what may or may not happen, and which guides us in how best to behave in relation to the world. So, we look for the laws, but in a curious way our understanding of the laws of economics has really paralleled the thinking, or understanding, about law in general that governs the whole field of law which one comes to know as a practising lawyer.
In the 19th century the traditional idea of natural law was more or less overcome by the theories of positive law: the idea that law is simply a command which can be enforced, and that once you have decided what to command and you have the power to enforce it, you can make what laws you like. This has developed into a more modern doctrine of legal realism which assumes that the law is simply what the courts and parliaments make it; that it is something that simply arises from practice; and that there is nowhere to look for it other than how people behave towards each other and what seems to be best at the present time. Law, in other words, is what the legal authorities decide it is, and there is no particular search, certainly in the human sphere, for any other laws. I think it is fair to say that economics has taken on that approach to law, to some extent, so that the sense is that as long as you pass the right laws, you can regulate the economy pretty much through the legal system, and without much regard to anything else. This happens despite the constant reminder that supply and demand is not something that necessarily responds to Act of Parliament or to judicial determination.
My favourite example of that was the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott’s famous announcement that: “At last we have low-cost housing. We can build a house for £60,000”. This was announced — admittedly in August when everyone was away on holiday — as a great triumph until someone asked where the houses were going to go. What they had not come up with was low-cost land. It is a simple fact and it does reinforce the view that there are laws of supply and demand and you can’t overcome them simply by Act of Parliament. It is not being suggested that there is no place for markets in economics and it is not being suggested that supply and demand are not relevant laws — they are actually rather important ones. But they’re all part of the underlying structure which we look for through the observed phenomena. Then I asked myself: Is there anything behind the laws, is there anything that can illuminate, is there anything that can help us really to see the laws in their fullness? You have no doubt been following the catastrophic events in Japan and, no doubt, like many millions of people, your heart goes out to those people in these disastrous circumstances and you wonder, don’t you, at the circumstances, and you feel for these people. Now why is that? They live on the other side of the world.
Apart from coming here as tourists from time to time we have little to do with them except that they seem to make the components in all sorts of things that we use. Why is it that their plight affects us? Why is it that we feel it? Why is it that we feel some sympathy, some empathy with people so far away? I can only suggest it is because they are human beings, as are we; that we have that much in common with them and that, behind everything to do with economics and a great deal to do with law, is this sense of a common ground — that we have something in common.
Turning again to the Indian tradition, there is a short phrase for this. The phrase in Sanskrit is vasudaiva kutumbakam and I am extremely grateful to the Sanskrit faculty in the School for helpwith translation. Vasudaiva kutumbakam means ‘for whom the whole world is one’s family’. I started this lecture with “mother” which is a family relationship; and here, in the Indian tradition, it is suggested that, for a well-developed human being, the world, the whole world, is one’s family. Vasudaiva means: “holding, nourishing orsustaining the excellent, good, beneficent, producing wealth, liberal, the earth, the world”, – which is a rather more fulfilling description of the “dry surface of the earth” than we started with, isn’t it? The next word kutumbakam — which is translated as “family” — comes from kut meaning “in becoming curved”: kuta is a curved hut or cottage, and from that it derives the meaning of “household”, and hence ‘the place of a family’. So vasudaiva kutumbakam means: ‘for whom the whole world is one’s family’. The phrase offers a different starting place for looking at economics, so that economics actually recognises at its inception our sense of common humanity and offers a way of discovering laws which are more or less true to something that is essential to us all, to human nature, if you like, and to the nature of the world that we live in. The phrase even tells us, you see, “holding, nourishing or sustaining the excellent / good / beneficent; producing wealth, liberal, the earth, the world” — the whole world is the family, not just the human race.
In this light the living world becomes, is, in reality, the family on which we all depend, and in our explanation of economics as an exploration of relationships, our view of the world around us, the human and the other-than-human world, is in a way determined by relationships; and the way we deal with other people and the world around us, the world which sustain us all, is also determined by our view of it. Isn’t there a difference between looking at the world around us and thinking: Here are some scarce resources from which I can derive a benefit; and, Here is my family? Does that make a difference? I would like to suggest that if economics was approached from the second of those views, the way that we dealt with the world around us would change. I would also like to suggest that, given the sort of symptoms that I have already described, given the state of the world that we see around us, given the state of humanity as we see it around us, such a change is urgent and necessary; and it is a change of heart, it is a change in our sense of relationship withthe world around us. How is it to be accomplished? Well, I referred to the laws and to the legal theories, to the idea that we can make laws as we think fit, that law is what the legal authorities decide it is. These are theories which are born of the field of jurisprudence. Some people are a little afraid of the word jurisprudence and quite a lot of people wonder what it means. It is something that is familiar to lawyers, a technical term which is not so widely used elsewhere.
I turned once again to Google and once again found Wikipedia. Wikipedia tells us that: “Jurisprudence is the theory and philosophy of law”. ‘Prudence’ in this sense means knowledge, and ‘juris’, law. Jurisprudence is generally regarded as the philosophy of law. But again it is worth looking to the Ancients, this time to the Emperor Justinian whose Institutes and Codes bequeathed the legacy of Roman law to the modern world. Jurisprudence, to his mind, is “The knowledge of things divine and human; the science of the just and the unjust” which I submit is a much nobler conception of jurisprudence than is implied in the ‘theory and philosophy of law’. It imports, of course, value judgments. It imports the notion that there are things divine and human, as well as just and unjust. It imports the idea of justice, right into the very heart of the science of jurisprudence.
You will have gathered that it is no accident that I have arrived at this point because, as you know, we advertise our courses in economics in the School as “Economics with Justice”. That is because we have come to the conclusion that justice is relevant to economics – in fact, we started with the premise that justice is relevant to economics and our explorations since have tended to confirm that that is a justifiable approach to take to economics. The sense of justice belongs to the realm of jurisprudence; it belongs to the understanding of laws, to the extent that you can use it as a test. We offer it as a test in our economics courses: if the outcome of your actions is unjust, it might be possible to conclude that the actions themselves have something not quite right about them. Similarly, if your systems, including your economic systems, are creating injustices, manifest injustices, then there must be some room, somewhere, for some improvement. Something must have been misunderstood and needs to be explored further. This is quite a good test. Starting from the view of the world as family, among the features to be drawn out are that in a family one recognizes interdependence; one recognises for example that relationships are reciprocal — it is not all one way — and families work in co-operation. What a contrast with the competitiveness of the market that is the standard model at the present time. One also starts to ask: well, could you build an economy on different principles? Does it have to be a competitive market, what about a co-operative market? This approach is given some force, some substance, I think, by a more generous
idea — or more generous view of earth. The Mahabharata, which I referred to earlier, offers this: “Earth, if its resources are properly developed accordance to its qualities and, is like an ever-yielding cow, from which the three-fold fruits of virtue, profit and pleasure may be milked. If earth be well looked after, it becometh the father, mother, children, firmament and heaven of all creatures.”
Now, once again, I haven’t come across that view in an economics text book, and one begins to look at the world around us and our economics slightly differently if one takes that view of the earth. What I am suggesting is that we need, in a way, to find our place as human beings in the universal scheme so that we can play part in a way that cares for the whole and not just for our particular part of it; that the essence of the human relationship with the rest of the world is not one of mere exploitation but is at least a reciprocal relationship. And an aspect of that reciprocity is a duty of care, rather than a sense that it is all there for our benefit. But before going on to that, I thought I would offer this — from the Greek tradition this time — this is a hymn to Gaia. Gaia is the Goddess, Earth, in the Greek tradition, and this gives at least a sense of the importance of Earth from ancient Greece:
Mother of all,
the strong foundation, the oldest one.
I shall sing to Earth.
She feeds everyone in the world.
Whoever you are,
whether you walk upon Her sacred ground
or move through the paths of the sea,
you who fly, it is She
who nourishes you from Her treasure store.
Queen of Earth, through You,
It is You who give life to mortals,
and who take life away.
Blessed are those You honour with a willing heart.
They who have this have everything.
Their fields thicken with bright corn,
the cattle grow heavy in the pastures,
their house brims over with good things.
The men are masters of their city,
the laws are just,
the women are fair,
happiness and fortune richly follow them.
Their sons delight in the ecstasy of youth,
their daughters play,
they dance on the grass,
skipping in and out,
they dance on the grass over soft flowers.
It is You who honoured them,
generous Goddess, sacred Spirit.
Mother of the gods, bride of starry heaven.
For my song, life allow me,
a life my heart loves.
And now and in another song,
I shall remember You.
From “Homeric Hymns” translated by Jules Cashford: Penguin Classics 2003: this version by kind permission of Jules Cashford.
Well that is a voice speaking to us over 2,500-odd years — rather more, and the Mahabharata is said to be about 4,000 years old. Yet they have things in common and one of them is the sense of respect for the Earth. The Mahabharata: “If its resources are properly developed according to its qualities and prowess; if earth be well looked after.”; and here the hymn itself is honouring Earth, appreciating the Earth and formulating a different emotional connection with the Earth from that which prevails in modern economics. I have been working recently with some lawyers — not economists but lawyers – who have observed that the world over, laws and legal systems underpin the economics which are causing damage to the environment that we live in: not so much “causing it” as allowing it to happen, so that it happens legally, whether it is actually lawful or not. We are developing something called Earth jurisprudence: a philosophy of law and governance that recognises Earth, the Earth — the environment we live in – as the primary book of law, and calls on humans to fulfil their responsibilities as members of a wider Earth community.
Earth jurisprudence is not just a legal philosophy, it is also a call to personal practice of an Earth-centred ethics: Earth-centred in the sense that we do not simply see the Earth as here for our benefit but that we at least consider the possibility that we are here for its benefit. The relationship can be and ought to be reciprocal. But some of the principles that are developing in the field of Earth jurisprudence as a way of looking at law are also relevant in the economic sphere. The first of these, at the heart of it all, is what we call “wholeness”. The principle of wholeness sees the Earth as a single community, bound together with interdependent relationships. These are sort of relationships referred to in the Mahabharata and in Homer. The principle recognises that no living being nourishes itself; each component of the Earth community is, in one way or another, dependent on every other member of the Earth community, for nourishment, for assistance for its own survival. And there are sub-principles of this sense of wholeness: they are the realisation of ‘interconnectedness’ and the realisation of ‘reciprocity’. Interconnectedness of course is a simple thing: if you cut down the trees you affect the rainfall. If there is no rain, the trees will stop growing anyway, and a great deal turns on that.
We can’t get away from the interconnectedness of life. But this needs to be made something very real in the way we approach our economics; we need to realise that if we exploit resources there are going to be consequences which are not necessarily just benefits for human beings. One of them may perhaps be the mass extinction of species that I was speaking about earlier. The second principle is controversial, oddly enough, and we call it “lawfulness”. We see the universe as a primary giver of law, speaking, as it were, through the Earth, the
environment that we are closest to, and we see laws as discovered, not made. That is the controversial bit: that the science and study of law is a process of discovery rather than of just thinking up what you think might work best. We try at least to find ways of living in a way which is coherent and connected with the integrity of the whole Earth system and to formulate laws as a framework for such a way of living. These, together — wholeness and lawfulness — give a sense of care, as I referred to earlier, requiring that human energy and human consciousness are directed to leaving the Earth in as good or better condition than we find her. What we say is that, as a result of that duty of care, it is possible to recognise the world around us even as having certain rights. Rights, after
all, are the obverse of duties — our duties are described in terms of the rights of others; and the world itself, the globe itself, the biosphere that we depend on, if we have a duty towards it, is entitled, as it were, to expect that of us. I don’t of course mean that you have to humanise every ant and beetle and blade of grass, but, nevertheless, that the system itself is speaking to us and saying to us: you owe us something. Earth gives freely but there are conditions. So, ‘mutual enhancement’ becomes a fourth principle. The sense that the interrelationship of the human and the rest of the living community is mutually enhancing, or can and should be mutually enhancing, and that of course gives a very new guide for action. It brings recognition that if your actions are ultimately destructive, it is possible that they are misdirected. We recognise also the balance in nature: that it is best not to upset nature’s balance but to work with it and maintain it, and so on.
There are others, but perhaps one of great importance to economists is what can be called ‘commonality’ — the idea that land and nature belong to no one, which is of course in direct opposition to the principle of ownership that underlies most modern economic thinking. What this means in practice is that human needs don’t necessarily cancel out the entitlement of the rest of the living world to go on living, to maintain itself, to continue as a species. This of course has immense implications for economics and for law. Western legal systems really turn on the assumption of ownership, and particularly ownership of the natural world. Our economics also turns on the assumption of ownership; the assumption that everything the Earth has to offer belongs to someone. It seems to me that it is necessary to challenge those assumptions, difficult as it is. This is not to suggest that you’re not allowed to have anywhere to live or to work; it is not suggested that you’re not entitled, as a human being, to a place to live. We would certainly agree that every being is entitled to a habitat, but the idea that you can have it without any obligation to anything or anyone else is an idea which needs to be challenged. The School really recognised this from the outset, deriving it from the teachings of Henry George; and taking up his understanding of the consequences of that for economics in particular. One of the qualities of land, which he recognised and emphasised, was what you might call “locality”. Land has locality, it gives a place. But on its own it doesn’t; on its own it is just land. What gives it location is the interaction between land and the human community, because what matters to the human community is the extraordinary diversity of the Earth itself and the extraordinary diversity of places on it and the different habitats which it provides for different creatures, including human
Naturally there are human demands on the places which are most beneficial for human habitation. That means that inevitably there is going to be, there has to be, some arrangement, either by competition or co-operation, for allocating. One feature of this is that not only does the Earth become abundant through proper care and nourishment and all the rest, in the sense of producing more food, for example, or materials that we can use; it also produces a more abstract kind of wealth, through the differential needs and demands of human communities. It actually creates a stream of wealth which can be turned to common use. The whole idea of the taxation of land values turns on this and is entirely consistent with it. This is why the School has consistently championed the taxation of land values as a just and equitable approach to taxation. I don’t want to go into a great deal of detail about that at the moment, but simply to note that it is entirely consistent with the view that is being advanced; but what we have also found over the seventy-five years of the School’s life is that there is an immense resistance, when we try to advance the taxation of land values as practical policy. One of the reasons for arriving at this subject at the end of this lecture, rather than starting with it, is because the observation is that this resistance derives from the underlying outlook which sees the Earth as ‘resources’; which abstracts the human from labour and turns it into a generalisation; and which makes it possible to divorce the realities of economic life from economic theories.
From this we come to the conclusion that unconditional ownership is a good thing – in this country we have imbibed that idea for at least 500 years – and not only a good thing but a necessary thing, no matter what injustice it is causes. Unless we review that, think that through again, the very practical policy end of things comes up against a block whenever it is proposed. Now, in this country, we are deeply imbued with it. We saw land enclosures as early as simply the privatisation of land, the reduction of land to private ownership. In this country it has all happened, it is all history, we are struck with it. But it is a live issue in much of the rest of the world. It is referred to in Africa and India as “the great land grab”. Ethiopia is an interesting county in that, in theory at least, nobody does own the land. It is considered as belonging to all the people. But the Ethiopian Government is nevertheless in the process of selling some three million hectares of land to international buyers, mostly Indian. They are effectively transferring their environment into the ownership of Indians for the benefit of India. They’re doing that to get the money in and to bring investment in. India has been doing the same: it offers large tracts of land to overseas investors to bring in investment and provide jobs. But the process throws people off the land while they are doing it. It is happening all across Africa, where China too is buying land, no doubt to cater for a rapidly expanding population which is not readily catered for within the very large area that China already commands. The same problem is alive and well throughout South America: land grabs of one kind or another, land allocations are a major issue. It is necessary and urgent that we come to a real understanding of this issue because it is at the very heart of economics. It is at the heart of economics because economics is about the relationship between us as humans and the living world which the land, the word “land” represents. It is urgent that we get a real feeling for what the word “land” actually means. It is urgent that we revise our inner attitude to it and develop a new economics and new law which is consistent with the reality.
The reality being that we cannot takea step, we cannot breathe a breath, we cannot eat a morsel of food or make piece of clothing without access, without the co-operation, of “Mother Earth”. That is why this lecture began with the question: would you sell your mother? Because we do treat the land as a commodity to be bought and sold, it is a commonplace of modern economics. A new attitude would at least question that and develop a new and more modern relationship which would actually make it possible to care for the Earth, discharge our human responsibilities, and in fact I would suggest rise up to the fullness of what it is to be a human being. Living within the law, and enjoying freedom under the law with the sort of prosperity, and delight even, that Homer describes. So, those are the thoughts I have to offer this evening. Thank you.
An updated version of this lecture, together with other lectures given by Ian Mason has now been published and is available from our online bookshopas “One World, One Wealth.”