Can inequality within and between societies be explained in terms of merit and intelligence, or are the most important determinants of inequality beyond individual control? Both economist Henry George and geographer Jared Diamond essentially asked this same question, examining the fundamental forces that have shaped human history. They come to startlingly similar conclusions. These similarities have not, until now, been connected and compared so directly.
Vikings, a popular historical drama on the History Channel (spoiler alert), features the fearless upstart brothers Ragnar and Rollo. Ragnar bases his legitimacy as a ruler on the idea that he can supply his people with not only new sources of plunder but, more importantly, land. He dramatically demonstrates this mid-battle in an impassioned speech to his warring countrymen. Instead of fighting each other for land, says Ragnar, they should join forces in killing other peoples. Despite historical inaccuracies common in such dramas, scholars do indeed believe the Vikings raided other parts of Europe principally out of a hunger for new agricultural land.
Later in the show, Ragnar and Rollo raid Paris. Rollo changes sides after the battles, and in return for defending Paris against further Viking raids is awarded the title of first Duke of Normandy. Historically, the Normans conquered England in 1066, and England later becomes the world’s largest colonial power, spreading its land tenure system with it. This system, as we will see when examining George’s ideas, sows the seeds for more war and expansionism in the places to which it spreads.
Henry George, as an economist, had a view of history which emphasized the importance of the privatization of the economic value of land. Jared Diamond emphasizes the importance of the orientation of large land masses along an east-west axis in shaping history. What is common to both theses is the importance of land – the petri dish which supports human cultures.
Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel is probably the most popular book ever written about the role of agriculture in the evolution of human societies. George’s magnum opus Progress and Poverty was likely the best-selling book in the world, after the Bible, when it was published in 1879. Princeton historian Eric F. Goldman described a society in which enormous numbers of people found that their “whole thinking had been redirected by reading Progress and Poverty in their formative years. In this respect, no other book came anywhere near comparable influence.”
Both books tackle such large questions that they are frequently attacked for being deterministic and for broad-stroking details. While the details are contentious, the core theses are straightforward and robust. Postmodernism has made many scholars afraid to distil general forces and has turned ‘generalization’ into a pejorative term. But among those seeking useful answers for the current state of the world, Diamond and George are responsible for paradigm shifts within many fields of inquiry. It is not my goal with this piece to defend all of these thinkers’ ideas with an exhaustive list of historical examples, but merely to compare their most defining ideas.
Land Determines Human Progress
Diamond’s thesis is that Eurasia had ideal conditions for agriculture and the success of its people was not due to intelligence or merit. Essentially, crops that flourished in the fertile crescent (self-pollinating hermaphrodites) could move east and west much easier than they could move north and south. Globally, those who controlled land on this east-west axis were able to grow huge food surpluses and advance rapidly, inheriting selectively bred food crops, technology, and ideas at a much faster rate than areas not on this physical and intellectual jet stream.
Diamond writes that effective agriculture and food storage were “prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.”
Food surpluses freed people’s time and energy for innovative pursuits, supported dense hubs where people could exchange ideas, and supported large militaries to exact tribute and rent from traders and inhabitants. In other words, it was principally differences in access to well-located land that made it possible for some societies to advance to the point of being effective at conquest and colonization.
If George were aware of Diamond’s thesis, he might remark that there is a global privilege, or economic rent, associated with controlling land on this east-west axis. George mostly goes about describing this within societies – as opposed to Diamond’s sole focus on comparing civilizations – arguing that those who control the best locations and can charge rent for them have a return far beyond that which is justified by their individual merit. On the collapse of societies, both thinkers boil it down to sprawling and wasteful land use.
In Progress and Poverty, Henry George discusses how sprawl and the inequality it produced was the cause of the decay and fall of the Roman Empire:
“Rome arose from the association of independent farmers and free citizens of Italy. It gained fresh strength from conquests, which brought hostile nations into common relations. Yet the tendency to inequality hindered progress from the start, and it only increased with conquest.”
“Great estates—“latifundia”—ruined Italy. The barbarism that overwhelmed Rome came not from without, but from within. It was the inevitable product of a system that carved the provinces into estates for senatorial families. Serfs and slaves replaced independent farmers.”
George, firstly, notices that private property is a natural thing related to human production and in ancient times when the population was sparse “ownership of land merely ensures that the due reward of labor goes to the one who uses and improves it.” But over time, with the density of the population, rent increased forcing civilizational sprawl.
Conquests led to appropriation of land and slavery. The Roman armies moved outwards from Latium demanding land; victory gave more land to the farmers; excessive demands again brought exhaustion of fertility; again the armies moved outwards. Early 20th-century professor of economic history Vladimir Simkhovitch wrote: “Province after province was turned by Rome into a desert, for Rome’s exactions naturally compelled greater exploitation of the conquered soil and its more rapid exhaustion. Province after province was conquered by Rome to feed the growing proletariat with its corn and to enrich the prosperous with its loot. The devastation of war abroad and at home helped the process along.”
Diamond describes the way in which Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations grew crops and grazed cattle in an irresponsible and wasteful manner. If land was plentiful for the dominant culture, who had subdued the inhabitants, they could afford to destroy the soil and move on. The only reason western Europe was able to survive similar irresponsible methods, according to Diamond, was its rainfall, unlike the drier Mediterranean and more inland areas of the Middle East, which were not always deserts.
In this way, George and Diamond agree on the importance of land and resource management in the rise and fall of civilizations, as opposed to the individual merit of those involved, but they describe very similar phenomena through unique and largely comparable lenses.
It is difficult to compare thinkers from such different times on issues like the environment. However, one possible difference between George and Diamond are their views on population. George viewed humans, unlike other species, as capable of multiplying their productivity, using fewer resources to produce more wealth. Diamond’s theory that Easter Island, for instance, was a Malthusian (population) trap might put George’s and Diamond’s philosophies at odds. George was likely more of an optimist in terms of population and technology, if the land problem could be adequately addressed first.
Resource Distribution within Societies
According to George, when a society does not use its own resources well, it leapfrogs to others. He believed that the Western land tenure system creates extreme social stratification whereby the rewards of economic and technological progress go disproportionately to the owners of land. Fear of poverty and an emphasis on unearned wealth and status seeking surrounding this dynamic leads to militarization and a colonial leapfrogging mindset.
Contemporary Georgist economist Mason Gaffney referred to what causes this as ‘milking the core to feed the periphery’. The poor in the center of a society, like large cities, are paying a great deal of their earnings out as rent and those seeking to avoid this rent sprawl in a multitude of ways – from urban sprawl, to heading west during American expansion, to invading other countries for resources, as was the case with the Romans and Vikings as well.
Gaffney and Fred Harrison describe how land hunger drove millions of people to make the dangerous passage across the oceans to the Americas. Over the course of three centuries, those who came from the Old World gradually displaced or decimated the tribal societies of “First Americans” who occupied the continent for thousands of years. Such a huge, and resource-rich continent provided the oppressive Old World regimes with a safety-valve, or what Harrison describes as “a continental-wide bolthole to freedom.” At least for a time.
“When the land ran out in the 1890s,” writes Harrison, “the land of plenty turned into a hell of poverty.” The poverty that plagued the Old World had arisen with an equal vengeance in the New World cities established by the descendants of the first Old World migrants. Of course, the land did not actually “run out” in a literal sense; the commons was given away to the railroads, to politicians and their close friends, to land speculators, and to settlers.
After the Revolution, huge sections of land were bought up by rich speculators, including George Washington and Patrick Henry. As the veterans returned home, speculators immediately showed up to buy the land warrants given by the government. Many of the soldiers, desperate for money, sold their 160 acres for less than $50.
This kind of hoarding of land creates an artificial scarcity, and this can, in turn, be used to stoke public sentiment toward war. As was the case with Rome and other empires, George argued that this process is unsustainable; at some point, people become more focused on raiding and stealing the wealth others have produced than on creating real wealth themselves. The returns are just too low by comparison. Rent-seekers parlay their power, even if originally earned through productive means, into more rent-seeking and even buy political power to cement their positions. The social pact is destroyed as the society continuously undermines its productive base. This dynamic, which George viewed as cyclical, had happened long before the Viking raids of the Middle Ages. In Progress and Poverty, he wrote the following:
“In the history of every nation we may read the same truth: our primary social organization is a denial of justice. Allowing one person to own the land makes slaves of others. The degree, or proportion, of slavery increases as material progress goes on.
The effect of invention and improvement on the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of nature. What has been the result? Simply that landowners took all the gain. The wonderful discoveries and inventions of our century have neither increased wages nor lightened toil. The effect has simply been to make the few richer — and the many more helpless!”
According to Diamond, people who were lucky enough to have come from land along the longest stretch of east-west land were able to parlay that ownership into more land, decimating those who got in their way. If these east-west cultures existed in environments with lots of water, they could withstand the assault of unsustainable agricultural practices and continue to conquer other parts of the world. If not, they collapsed. George thought that those lucky enough to own land within a society enjoy the same type of unearned luck and privilege. In this way, George describes the cause of poverty within societies, and Diamond describes reasons for inequality, poverty, and colonialism between societies. Both describe why this system of resource allocation and use are unsustainable and ultimately lead to social and environmental collapse, respectively. They also agree that land and location, both its geographic position and land policy, is the most important single factor in determining the fate of civilizations.
If George were alive today, he and Diamond might sit down together and decide that they liked the idea of a global system for sharing the value of land, perhaps as a citizen’s dividend (basic income), which would equalize the historically generated value of land with the descendants of conquerors and the descendants of victims of conquest alike. This would help correct at least the economic misfortunes of people disadvantaged by their geographic position. This would overwhelmingly help those in the global south, the people who not only did not benefit from being on the east-west axis but who were also colonized by those people who did benefit. If done correctly, it could eventually wipe out disadvantages due not to merit, but simply being born on the wrong side of the proverbial railroad tracks.
Simkhovitch, V. G. (1916). Rome’s fall reconsidered. New York: Ginn.
Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492-2001.