on 10 July 2007
Anyone with a left-of-center ideology will find much to comfort their beliefs.
In the introduction the author goes into why, in his opinion, the measure "acre per person" is far better than "people per square mile". Mathematically the two are the same, but of course the psychology is very different.
In his example: 8.2 acres person person in the USA, or 77 people per square mile. But who get his 8.2 acres in the Death Valley dessert and who gets his in Manhattan? This the author does not go into.
Repeatedly the author makes statements to the effect of the plentifully available land. Conveniently ignoring the transportation, and subsequent energy nightmare, a full use of all this land would entail.
The author admits that the books should have been written 100 years ago and it would no doubt have been more relevant then. As it is now, actual prosperity for most people in the advanced economies is very marginally affected by ownership of land. Agriculture and land tied activities like mining is a much more modest fraction of GDP these days. Businesses have increasingly found it useful to dispense with owning landed property at all, as an unnecessary economic encumbrance; just renting as and were required. Likewise people. Investment is the source of wealth. In securely owned assets. You own personal dwelling is an obvious choice for investment but not the only one, and frequently not the best one either.
Those with a modicum of schooling in economics will find much to be mystified about. My personal favorite is the assertion that distribution of land will end poverty (p.29). The author de facto admits that this is nonsense by using UK current land distribution (69% own their own dwelling) as an example of a prosperous population. Yet elsewhere call those same people feudal serfs. He specifically site the Swiss as an example of land ownership (the Swiss mostly rent) not being the source of wealth in the bulk of the population.
It takes more than a small leap of faith (ideology?) to assert that the Duke of-so-and-so owning 100 000 acres of rural Scotland has much to do with the un-affordability of houses in London.
On one score there is agreement between the author and conventional economics. Agricultural subsidies. The author seems to be offended that the already rich receives money from the taxpayer, without mentioning that the bulk of the moneys paid out in subsidies goes to the small owners. An economist would be equally offended by both, considering one pound paid out uselessly, just as bad as another.
Cahill refers to the Queens ownership of all land as "trivial piece feudal nonsense" yet expend many pages on how significant this really is. Which is it: A piece of feudal nonsense or hugely significant ?
The author throws the word "illegal" around quite a bit. Then he contradicts himself by stating that the perpetrators change the law to suit themselves. Legal is whatever the law says it is. The author appears to mean "immoral" when he uses the term "illegal".
So the work is deeply ideologically addled and not shy about it. Which is perhaps inevitable in someone willing to undertake the thankless task of compiling a book about land ownership. We should be thankful that someone is willing to undertake it at all.
A sober reader will not have any great difficulty filtering out the ideological slant. But this bias may compromise the integrity of book. Note the differing treatment of UK and Ireland. The author makes much of the fact that the Queen is the legal owner of all land in the UK, all others "hold" land in the country. In the Irish chapter the Irish state took over the legal right of the queen. Yet the author keeps referring to Irish people individually "owning" land in Ireland (p.169) This mixing and matching of terms persists through out the work.
The book reads like a serialization in The Guardian - there is a lot of repetition and invective against the landed rich. Repetition is fine for a series of newspaper articles published over a period of time, but in a book it becomes a nuisance.
A bit of editing would not have been out of place.
Cahill writes a crisp, lucid prose and manage to inject some excitement into the subject. His thoroughness does him credit and is the greatest strength of the work.
I would certainly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in economic history. Appart from the obvious groups of readers like those with a strong sense of envy or afflicted with some other sort of left-of-center ideology.
Enjoy the strengths, ignore ideological nonsense.
1 taken away for inconsistent and inaccurate use of terms
1 taken away for poor editing