The Expectation Raised by Material Progress

Here is another key excerpt from Progress and Poverty, in which Henry George expains the process through which abundant land becomes very, very scarce.

There is a cause, not yet adverted to, which must be taken into consideration fully to explain the influence of material progress upon the distribution of wealth.

That cause is the confident expectation of the future enhancement of land values, which arises in all progressive countries from the steady increase of rent, and which leads to speculation, or the holding of land for a higher price than it would then otherwise bring.

We have hitherto assumed, as is generally assumed in elucidations of the theory of rent, that the actual margin of cultivation always coincides with what may be termed the necessary margin of cultivation that is to say, we have assumed that cultivation extends to less productive points only as it becomes necessary from the fact that natural opportunities are at the more productive points fully utilized.

This, probably, is the case in stationary or very slowly progressing communities, but in rapidly progressing communities, where the swift and steady increase of rent gives confidence to calculations of further increase, it is not the case. In such communities, the confident expectation of increased prices produces, to a greater or less extent, the effects of a combination among landholders, and tends to the withholding of land from use, in expectation of higher prices, thus forcing the margin of cultivation farther than required by the necessities of production.

The immense area over which the population of the United States is scattered shows this. The man who sets out from the Eastern Seaboard in search of the margin of cultivation, where he may obtain land without paying rent, must, like the man who swam the river to get a drink, pass for long distances through half-tilled farms, and traverse vast areas of virgin soil, before he reaches the point where land can be had free of rent i.e., by homestead entry or pre-emption. He (and, with him, the margin of cultivation) is forced so much farther than he otherwise need have gone, by the speculation which is holding these unused lands in expectation of increased value in the future. And when he settles, he will, in his turn, take up, if he can, more land than he can use, in the belief that it will soon become valuable; and so those who follow him are again forced farther on than the necessities of production require, carrying the margin of cultivation to still less productive, because still more remote points.

Land Speculation in Cities

The same thing may be seen in every rapidly growing city. If the land of superior quality as to location were always fully used before land of inferior quality were resorted to, no vacant lots would be left as a city extended, nor would we find miserable shanties in the midst of costly buildings. These lots, some of them extremely valuable, are withheld from use, or from the full use to which they might be put, because their owners, not being able or not wishing to improve them, prefer, in expectation of the advance of land values, to hold them for a higher rate than could now be obtained from those willing to improve them. And, in consequence of this land being withheld from use, or from the full use of which it is capable, the margin of the city is pushed away so much farther from the center.

But when we reach the limits of the growing city the actual margin of building, which corresponds to the margin of cultivation in agriculture we shall not find the land purchasable at its value for agricultural purposes, as it would be were rent determined simply by present requirements; but we shall find that for a long distance beyond the city, land bears a speculative value, based upon the belief that it will be required in the future for urban purposes, and that to reach the point at which land can be purchased at a price not based upon urban rent, we must go very far beyond the actual margin of urban use.

Or, to take another case of a different kind, instances similar to which may doubtless be found in every locality. There is in Marin County, within easy access of San Francisco, a fine belt of redwood timber. Naturally, this would be first used, before resorting for the supply of the San Francisco market to timber lands at a much greater distance. But it yet remains uncut, and lumber procured many miles beyond is daily hauled past it on the railroad, because its owner prefers to bold for the greater price it will bring in the future. Thus, by the withholding from use of this body of timber, the margin of production of redwood is forced so much farther up and down the Coast Range. That mineral land, when reduced to private ownership, is frequently withheld from use while poorer deposits are worked, is well known, and in new states it is common to find individuals who are called "land poor" that is, who remain poor, sometimes almost to deprivation, because they insist on holding land, which they themselves cannot use, at prices at which no one else can profitably use it.

The influence of speculation in land in increasing rent is a great fact which cannot be ignored in any complete theory of the distribution of wealth in progressive countries. It is the force, evolved by material progress, which tends constantly to increase rent in a greater ratio than progress increases production, and thus constantly tends, as material progress goes on and productive power increases, to reduce wages, not merely relatively, but absolutely. It is this expansive force which, operating with great power in new countries, brings to them, seemingly long before their time, the social diseases of older countries; produces "tramps" on virgin acres, and breeds paupers on halftilled soil.

In short, the general and steady advance in land values in a progressive community necessarily produces that additional tendency to advance which is seen in the case of commodities when any general and continuous cause operates to increase their price. As, during the rapid depreciation of currency which marked the latter days of the Southern Confederacy, the fact that whatever was bought one day could be sold for a higher price the next, operated to carry up the price of commodities even faster than the depreciation of the currency, so does the steady increase of land values, which material progress produces, operate still further to accelerate the increase. We see this secondary cause operating in full force in those manias of land speculation which mark the growth of new communities; but though these are the abnormal and occasional manifestations, it is undeniable that the cause steadily operates, with greater or less intensity, in all progressive societies.

Land Speculation vs. Commodity Speculation

The cause which limits speculation in commodities, the tendency of increasing price to draw forth additional supplies, cannot limit the speculative advance in land values, as land is a fixed quantity, which human agency can neither increase nor diminish; but there is nevertheless a limit to the price of land, in the minimum required by labor and capital as the condition of engaging in production. If it were possible continuously to reduce wages until zero were reached, it would be possible continuously to increase rent until it swallowed up the whole produce.

But as wages cannot be permanently reduced below the point at which laborers will consent to work and reproduce, nor interest below the point at which capital will be devoted to production, there is a limit which restrains the speculative advance of rent. Hence speculation cannot have the same scope to advance rent in countries where wages and interest are already near the minimum, as in countries where they are considerably above it. Yet that there is in all progressive countries a constant tendency in the speculative advance of rent to overpass the limit where production would cease, is, I think, shown by recurring seasons of industrial paralysis a matter which will be more fully examined in the next [lesson].