Justice - or injustice?

Dave Wetzel

We all have our own personal interpretation of how “justice” can be achieved.

Often “justice” is interpreted in a very narrow legal sense and only in reference to the judicial system, which has been designed to protect the status quo.

That isn’t to say we do not require a legal framework, which resolves issues, such as:
· the international relationships of Governments
· the regulation of business and trade and the certainty needed in agreeing contracts and commercial relationships
· the compliance with Government rules and regulations
· the safeguarding of civil liberties
· protection from criminals
· employment rights or
· the settlement of civil disputes.

Of course, all citizens (and subjects in the UK) need to know exactly what are the legal boundaries within which their society operates.

But just suppose those original rules are unfair and unjust. Then the legal framework, being used to perpetuate an injustice does not make that injustice moral and proper even if within the rules of jurisprudence it is “legal”.

Obvious examples of this dislocation between immoral laws and natural justice is South Africa’s former policy of apartheid; the USA’s former segregated schools and buses; discrimination based on race, religion, disability or sex; slavery; the oppression of women; Victorian Britain’s use of child labour and colonialism. All these policies were “lawful” according to the legal framework of their day but that veneer of legality did not make these policies righteous and just.

Any society built on a basis of injustice will be burdened down with its own predisposition towards self-destruction.

Even the most suppressed people will one-day demand justice, rise up and overthrow their oppressors.

Human survival demands justice. Wherever slavery or dictatorship has been installed, history shows that eventually justice will triumph and a more democratic and fairer system will replace it. It is therefore safe to predict that wherever slavery or dictatorship exists today – it will be superseded by a fairer and more just system.

If we know there is injustice, should we merely wait for a violent response? Do we not have a duty to seek fairness, because it is right and because we value justice and the freedom it brings?

Similarly, let’s consider our distribution of natural resources.

By definition, natural resources are not made by human effort. Our planet offers every inhabitant a bounty – an amazing treasure chest of wealth that can supply all our needs for food, shelter and every aspect for our survival.

Surely, “justice” demands that this natural wealth should be equally available to all and that nobody should starve, be homeless, unemployed, exploited or suffer poverty simply because they are excluded from tapping in to this enormous wealth that nature has provided.

It obviously would be totally impractical for every person to have complete personal access to every part of the planet, to every mineral deposit, to every fertile field, to every city centre office site or every desirable residential location beside a river or an ocean. But as soon as two people want to enjoy the benefits of the same part of the planet that only one can enjoy – a system of distributing nature’s gifts has to be devised.

In the past, this has been resolved by the physically, mentally, militarily strongest, the most cunning or the first settlers claiming possession. Much of our current ownership of land and natural resources descends from this obviously unjust method of distribution.

If our whole economy, with the private possession of land and other natural resources is built upon an injustice – then can any of us really be surprised that we live on a planet where wars continue to predominate, intolerance is common, crime is rife and where poverty and starvation is the norm for a huge percentage of earth’s population.

Is this inherited system really the best we can do?

There must be a method for fairly utilising the earth’s natural resources.

Referring to the rebuilding of Iraq in last month’s speech to the American Congress, Tony Blair stated “We promised Iraq democratic Government. We will deliver it. We promised them the chance to use their oil wealth to build prosperity for all their citizens, not a corrupt elite. We will do so”.

Thus, Tony Blair recognises the difference between political justice in the form of a democratic Government and economic justice in the form of sharing natural resources.

We have not heard any dissenting voice from this promise to share Iraq’s natural oil wealth for all the people of Iraq to enjoy the benefits. But if it is so obviously right and proper for the Iraqi people to share their natural wealth – why is it not the practice to do the same in all nations?

No landowner can create land values. They do not create the valuable minerals that lie under the soil; neither do they create the land value that arises from the natural fertility of the land, the value of sites with beautiful views of countryside, rivers or oceans nor the site value in the centre of busy cities.

If this were the case, then an entrepreneurial landowner in the Scottish Highlands would be able to create more value than an indolent landowner in the City of London.

No! Land values arise because of natural advantages (e.g. local climatic conditions or approximity to natural harbours), they also rise because of the efforts of the whole community - past and present investment by both the public and private sectors, and the activities of individuals. Why do we not assume as our birthright the sharing of these land values, which are as much a gift of nature and probably in most western economies are worth much more than Iraqi oil?

A solution exists. The introduction of a Land Value Tax would produce many benefits. Each site would be valued, based on its optimum permitted use and a levy applied – a similar method to Britain’s commercial rates on buildings but based solely on the land value and ignoring improvements or the size and condition of any existing building.

The effect of this policy would be to give all citizens a share in the natural wealth of their own nation.

Gordon Brown was working on these lines when he auctioned the rental value of the spectrum for third generation mobile phones for twenty years, and raised £22.4billion for public funds, paid voluntarily by the phone companies. This policy works on exactly the same principle as the Land value tax and of course future generations will be able to raise fresh funds every 20 years as these spectrum leases come up again and again for regular renewal.

If the Government extends this principle to all common resources by introducing a Land value tax they could use this flow of income to abolish all other property taxes on buildings (including commercial rates, stamp duty and Council Tax). This additional revenue could also pay for the building of new infrastructure which adds to the nation’s wealth (such as railways) or more importantly to reduce those other taxes which most damage our economy (such as vat) and are a burden to collect.

With a Land value tax, empty sites would be brought into use as landowners sought an income from idle or underused land, the purchase price of land (and hence homes and commercial premises) would become more affordable, reduced interest rates would not create a housing boom and the property cycle of booms and slumps would be evened out.

Because it’s based on land; an immovable property; the Land value tax would be cheap to collect and impossible to avoid. With annual valuations it would be fair for landowners (even automatically compensating those landowners whose land, for some reason, has decreased in value), it would help reduce the North/South divide; and, by encouraging better use of brownfield sites, the propensity for urban sprawl would be diminished and thus our countryside and invaluable urban green field spaces would be better protected.

It is an injustice that landowners can speculate on empty sites, denying or delaying their use for jobs or homes.

It is an injustice that a factory owner can sack all their workers, smash the roof of their building to let in the rain and be rewarded with elimination of their rates bill.

It is an injustice that the poorest residents pay the highest share of their incomes in Council Tax.

It is an injustice that housing tenants receive no share in the land value appreciation that their very presence creates.

It is an injustice that most people are denied their legitimate share of the earth’s resources.

The Land Value Tax is a simple way to start addressing one of the world’s greatest injustices.