This is Audrey. Audrey is a high achiever, likes nice things, and is lots of fun to be with. Her goal is to have a nicer house. She likes to share things, but her house will be her own.
Audrey has no interest in history or politics which is ironic because she causes them. Why? Because the desire for your own place is the driving force behind human history.
This is Audrey’s current house. Her parents grabbed it when it was cheap. Since then, house prices have skyrocketed, so it’s a nice little nest egg.
The woman in the picture cleaning Audrey’s steps is Jaanai. Jaanai attended the same college as Audrey and got the same grades. but Audrey got a good job, and Jaanai didn’t: she wanted to be an architect, not a cleaner. So what went wrong?
This is Audrey and Jaanei’s college. Audrey spent her evenings networking, and developing a wide range of interests. After graduating she landed an unpaid internship at a prestigious company. Now she is climbing the career ladder.
Unlike Audrey, Jaanai spent her evenings working as a waitress. She thought she could pay her way through college. But an architectural degree is very long, and she miscalculated. She had to drop out and take another job.
The problem? Jaanei had to find $900 in rent every month. Whereas Audrey is free.
Jaanei would have been a really good architect. She could have built Audrey her dream home. But Audrey will never see that home, because Jaanei has to pay too much rent.
Audrey and Jaanei’s story is repeated a billion times around the world. Some people are free to reach their potential and some people are not.
Let’s look at how it all began.
How it all began
The story of mankind is the story of a hundred billion Audreys: we all want our own home, where we don’t pay rent to anybody.
Originally this was not a problem. There was plenty of land. If somebody said “this is my land” people could just say “OK” and move somewhere else. So mankind spread across the planet (See the appendix for details.)
You could walk almost anywhere. There were no borders, and the ice age was ending, so there were convenient land bridges/ As the ice receded more land became available.
But some land was much better than others. Soon Audrey’s ancestors were fighting over the best bits, like the warm fertile coasts and rivers of the middle east. Often they were willing to share the land, but only if Jaanai paid them rent. Because Audrey got there first.
But once land was scarce, Jaanai’s ancestors could not move on. They had to pay Audrey’s ancestors rent. This changed everything. Audrey’s ancestors were now rich, and Jaanei’s ancestors were now poor.
Audrey’s ancestors no longer had to be “better” to own the land: they could pay other people to do the fighting and thinking. All they had to focus on was keeping the rent coming in.
Some people said “let’s share the land” but the kings explained that this was impossible: “you need a king to protect you!” In reality the opposite is true: democracies tend to be stronger than monarchies, and more equal societies tend to be stronger as well. But the king usually has plenty of supporters, either because they believe his claims or because they want to be rich like him.
Since kings own the land that people need, people have to do what they say. So even those who disagree with the king become his unpaid servants.
Unpaid servants can never reach their potential. They cannot make their own decisions and they cannot invest in their own future.Just as bad as the lack of investment is the lack of critical thinking. Kings must discourage people from questioning their authority. A third weakness, besides the lack of investment and the subjugation, is war. The quickest way for a king to increase his power and income is to have a war: grab more land and collect more rent (called taxes). But wars are expensive and destructive.
The combination of no investment and periodic wars meant most nations were dirt poor and stayed that way for thousands of years. Some nations however won the wars, and gained more land. This made it easier to win the next war. Gradually kingdoms became empires, and empires grew bigger.
But the unwillingness to share land made the empires weak. Pliny the Elder (the Great Roman statesman) identified the problem:
“latifundia perdidere italiam”
(“the great estates destroyed Italy”)
Every rich person wanted to grab land; soon the land was covered by a few gigantic estates. These estates were so big that they became self sufficient. They no longer cared what happened in the city of Rome. So, Rome became weaker and weaker, and eventually fell. Other kings grabbed the land.
The common people didn’t like this endless war and poverty. A lot of them preferred the teachings of “holy men” who said we should share. But the words of “holy men” could be used selectively, allowing rulers to say “we must be the chosen people” and grab even more land.
Eventually “new” lands were discovered (such as America), leading to more land grabs.
Gold (and other loot) from America allowed Europe to finance even more land grabs. Soon Europe had the biggest empires of all.
Britain grabbed the most land, because as an island it had the best navy. France grabbed the second largest amount because it had Napoleon.
Africa was a popular place to grab land, as it was nearby. The Europeans just walked in, measured it up, and took almost everything.
The Europeans were still fighting each other, of course. In this picture the German leader tries to grab all of Europe in the First World War .
Meanwhile something amazing was happening in America.
Earlier we saw how concentrating land is economically inefficient, as the poor people cannot reach their potential. The people who moved to America learned from this: they decided to have no kings, but to share the land a little more. So America quickly changed from just another colony to being the most powerful nation on Earth.
But the same old forces still applied. Americans who grew rich grabbed the land. America produced a different kind of king: the global corporation. Big farms bought smaller farms. Railroads bought land for the rails plus a lot of land on each side. Businesses that did not need land found ways to influence the government (the effective landowners) and get favorable rules. This picture shows Standard OIl, a corporation that grabbed most of the oil bearing land and made everybody else pay.
And so history continues as it has always done, as one big land grab. That is the history of the world in a nutshell. Like children, we often do not want to share. Children fight over sweets, but adults fight over land. Because whoever grabs the land wins.
So when Audrey wants to own her house without paying rent, and Jaanai has to pay too much rent, they are acting out the history of the world, and ensuring that it continues as usual.
The problem with grabbing too much land
1. Even the rich eventually lose.
People with the most land always want more. So the land, especially the most valuable land, goes to fewer and fewer people.
The game of Monopoly (originally called The Landlord’s Game) was invented to show why this is a bad thing. If you don’t share the value of land then one by one everybody goes bankrupt.
It’s fun for the winner, but only for a short time. Because once everybody else is bankrupt there is nobody left to give you money, and it’s game over. Society ceases to function.
2. Even when they win, they lose.
Being a king has its downsides. You can never sleep easily. Somebody somewhere is always out to kill you: they all want your job.
Worse, by keeping other people poor you stop scientific progress. So when a really big problem appears, you can’t solve it. If the next kingdom is more efficient, you lose. And if you get sick you are more likely to die.
Audrey will never get the house of her dreams because Jaanai could never become the architect she was destined to be.
All those poor people who can’t pay their rent could have been doctors and scientists, architects and great thinkers. They could have solved our biggest problems. However, they never reached their potential, and that hurts everyone -even the rich.
The Rise of Earth Sharing
After thousands of years of war and poverty, things did began to improve a little. Science began to advance. Hunger began to go down. Why? Because a few more people gained the freedom to reach their potential.
Gradually more people gained some land. They then created laws to reduce poverty. This gave more people the freedom to reach their potential. More people could get an education and then invest in their futures. They created businesses, machines and ideas. Each advance led to another advance, so progress accelerated.
How people began to break free
How did more people gain land when the king wanted to be all-powerful? Largely due to war. Not sharing leads to war, and war shakes up the economy. After each war a few more people gain land: this is why:
Wars drive down incomes, so landowners have to charge less in rent. But after a war the government has to rebuild, so more people have jobs. There is a brief period when land is cheap but people have more jobs . Remember Audrey’s parents? They bought their house soon after World War II, before prices went up and jobs went down again.
So many people gained a share of land after World War II that unprecedented numbers of people were free to try new ideas. Science and technology exploded, as did funding for new science. People could see a better world.
Those who control the world’s resources are still very powerful. There will be setbacks. But Earth sharing is happening, slowly. And every tiny step makes the world a better place.
Most people are kept back from reaching their potential because they don’t have their share of the planet. They cannot take chances and invest in their future because they must spend all their spare money on rent just to live.
We are losing generations of scientists and artists and thinkers because they are not free to develop. This hurts everybody, including the rich.
Life can be many times better for everyone, wonderfully better, if we just let everybody reach their potential.
Appendix: early land monopoly
On territoriality (i.e. grabbing land as your own):
“As with other vertebrates, the territoriality of protohominids and early hominids had a significant influence on their behaviour. In the case of primates quite generally, the relevant territory is that of the band as a whole, i.e. the group’s territory. […] the defence of the territory is taken on by all the fit members (males) in the group. However, while both protohominids and their arboreal forebears were group-territorial, the nature of their territories differed. When the ancestors of humans became hunters, their group territories went from being relatively small and vegetation-dense to being large and open, encompassing the whole of the area in which they migrated throughout the year.”
(“Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind” By Craig Dilworth, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p.172)
On fights over who controlled the land:
“Attempts to exclude others and utilize a territorial system provide advantages if there is competition for available resources. Among early hominids this was probably the case. Starting out as omnivores, they probably competed with members of the same species, and with other species, for the same food sources. Thus, if members of one group were able to exclude others using some type of territorial strategy, they were preserving more resources for themselves and thus enhancing their fitness.”
(“Human territorial functioning: An empirical, evolutionary perspective on individual and small group territorial cognitions, behaviors, and consequences” by Ralph B. Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.37)
On how people left when other land became available:
“[There is no evidence that early humans migrated due to learning new skills.] However, as a result of the warmer climate conditions, the habitats to which East African australiopithecines became adapted may have shifted ever further away from the equator. Although paleobotanical evidence for vegetation conditions is largely absent in the Pliocene, it can be assumed that the southern part of the East African Rift Valley might have served as a prime corridor linking eastern and southern Africa.”
(From the chapter “Origins of human territorial functioning” in “The Global Prehistory of Human Migration” by Immanuel Ness and Peter Bellwood, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, p.11)
On how increasing wealth led to increasing investment in keeping others out:
“Given the emergence of elite groups marked by warlike status kits, it would be very surprising if competition and wealth accumulation did not extend to land and to the crops and stock it supported: the substantial palisades around the major settlements presumably served to keep the stock inside and the raiding party outside.”
(“Prehistoric Farming in Europe” by Graeme Barker, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p.150)
Notes and images
The names are fictional, but the situation is a simplified composite of a common scenario: one person is able to get a better education due to parents not having to pay a mortgage or rent. The name “Audrey” means “noble strength.” The name “Jaanai” means “answering afflicted, made poor”.http://www.meaning-of-names.com/israeli-names/jaanai.asp
The house steps image is from the out of copyright magazine Punch, October 3rd 1917, via Project Gutenberg.
The school image is the author’s own work, based on the public domain image “Arsenal Technical High School” from the Historic American Buildings Survey, via Wikimedia.
The migrations map is “Human migration out of Africa” by “Ephant”, Creative Commons 3.0 (sharealike), via Wikimedia.
The fertile crescent sketch map is from the out of copyright book “Ancient Man”, by Hendrik Van Loon, via Project Gutenberg.
Other sketch maps and similar graphics: from the out of copyright book “The Story of Mankind”, by Hendrik Van Loon, via Project Gutenberg.
The painting of Columbus is from “The return of Christopher Columbus; his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.” by Eugene Delacroix (who died in 1863), via Wikimedia.
The slaves painting is from “Israel in Egypt” by Edward Poynter (1867), via Wikimedia.
The crusaders image is from the out of copyright book “The Story of the Crusades” by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton, via Project Gutenberg.
The Cecil Rhodes image is: “The Rhodes Colossus” from the out of copyright magazine Punch, December 10th 1892, via Wikimedia.
The assassination image is from the out of copyright book “Beacon Lights of History, Volume X, by John Lord” via Project Gutenberg.
The dying aristocrat image is from the out of copyright book “History of France” by Guizot, Volume I, via Project Gutenberg.
The Pliny the Elder image is public domain, via the National Institutes of Health, via Wikimedia.
The Kaiser eating the world is “Guerre 14-18-Humour-L’ingordo, trop dur-1915”: an out of copyright propaganda image from 1915, via Wikimedia.
The Standard Oil Octopus is from the out of copyright magazine “Puck”, v. 56, no. 1436 (7th Sept 1904) via Wikimedia.
The Landlord’s Game is an out of copyright image (from 1906) via landlordsgame.info.
The image of carving up the world is from the out of copyright image “plum pudding” by James Gilray, via Wikimedia.
The other charts’ copyright details are printed on the charts.
All other art is by the author, Chris Tolworthy.