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Earth Rights Democracy: Public Finance based on Early Christian Teachings

by Alanna Hartzok, Co-Director, Earth Rights Institute
and UN NGO Representative

Christianity and Human Rights Conference
Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama
November 2004

This paper makes a case for a new form of democracy based on human rights to the earth as a birthright, linking this to the Judeo-Christian Jubilee Justice tradition and Old and New Testament teachings. It presents a tax fairness practical policy approach based on the ethical stance of these teachings.

The United Nations Millennium Declaration was adopted by the world's leaders at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that the Declaration "captured the aspirations of the international community for the new century" and spoke of a "world united by common values and striving with renewed determination to achieve peace and decent standards of living for every man, woman and child."[1]

All UN Member States pledged to achieve several Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015, including (1) reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day; (2) reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger; and by 2020, (3) achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.

The basic framework for these goals was set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Article I states that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Article 25 says that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by the General Assembly on December 16, 1966 and entered into force on January 3, 1976. The Covenant proclaims these economic human rights, among others: the right to wages sufficient to support a minimum standard of living, to equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunity for advancement. In addition, the Covenant forbids exploitation of children, and requires all nations to cooperate to end world hunger.

Nearly every UN member state has signed and ratified this important Covenant. The United States, Cambodia and Liberia have signed but not ratified it. Our government, founded upon clearly articulated political human rights, is floundering in the field of economic human rights.

The US Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans living below the poverty line jumped by 1.3 million to 35.9 million or 12.5 percent of the population last year. The latest U.S. Conference of Mayors "Sodexho Hunger and Homelessness Survey" reports that hunger and homelessness continue to rise in major American cities.[2] More than 3.5 million people, or 1.25 percent of the US population, are living in city streets or homeless shelters. The number of homeless grew by around 19 percent in 2003 and 13 percent in 2002. Twenty-three of the 25 surveyed cities reported that lack of affordable housing was the leading cause of homelessness. Twenty participating cities reported that unemployment and various employment related problems were the leading causes of hunger.

There is a significant lack of decent affordable housing in the United States. The growing gap between wage earnings and the cost of housing leaves millions of families and individuals unable to make ends meet. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, families across the country would need to earn a "housing wage" of $15.21 an hour, nearly three times the current minimum wage, to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the average fair market rent.[3] In states with median housing costs, a minimum wage worker would have to work 89 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing.[4] Currently, five million rental households have "worst case housing needs," which means that they pay more than half their incomes for rent, live in severely substandard housing, or both.[5]

Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture released its annual report on household food security for 2002. It was no surprise given the recent increases in poverty that hunger and food insecurity rose for the third year in a row. A food insecure household is defined as a household which faces limited or uncertain availability of food. In 2002, 34.9 million people lived in households that were food insecure, 1.26 million more people than in 2001. This number includes 13.1 million children. The number of people living in households where someone was hungry also increased by 300,000 to 9.3 million. About 567,000 kids lived in homes where children were hungry, 100,000 more than the year before. The prevalence of food insecurity rose from 10.7 percent in 2001 to 11.1 percent in 2002, and the prevalence of food insecurity with hunger rose from 3.3 percent to 3.5 percent.[6]

The wealth gap is increasing in the US. According to the latest Federal Reserve data, the top 1% of the population has $2 trillion more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Perceptions of the causal factors of these statistics and the suffering of so many who lack basic necessities in this wealthy country are most often simplistic explanations - these people lack money and they lack money because they lack jobs or their wages are too low, or housing costs are too high. For those concerned about the growing wealth gap in America and worldwide, and the resultant poverty, homelessness, hunger and food insecurity, the dilemma usually bogs down into supply or demand side efforts to find solutions. But the root cause is a deeper injustice.

The primary cause of the enormous and growing wealth gap is that the land and natural resources of the earth are treated as if they are mere market commodities from which a few are allowed to reap massive private profits or hold land and resources out of use in anticipation of future profits. Henry George, the great 19th century American political economist and social philosopher, proposed a solution to a problem that too few understood at the time and too few understand today. Early Christian teachings drew upon deep wisdom teachings of the Jubilee justice tradition when they addressed this problem. The problem is the Land Problem.

The Land Problem takes two primary forms: land price escalation and concentrated land ownership. As our system of economic development proceeds, land values rise faster than wages increase, until inevitably the price paid for access to land consumes increasing amounts of a worker's wages. In classical economics, this dilemma is called the "law of rent" and has been mostly ignored by mainstream economists. The predictability of the "law of rent" - that land values will continually rise - fuels frenzies of land speculation and the inevitable bust that follows the boom. A recent Fortune cover story informs us that there are big gains and huge risks in housing speculation in about 30 predominantly coastal markets that encompass 100 million people. Since 2000, home prices in New York, Washington, and Boston have surged 56% to 61%. Prices jumped 58% in Miami and Los Angeles and 76% in San Diego where the median home price county-wide is $582,000. The gap between home prices and fundamentals like job growth and incomes is greater than ever.[7]

The second form of the Land Problem is the fact that in most countries, including the United States, a small minority of people own and control a disproportionately large amount of land and natural resources. Data suggests that about 3% of the population owns 95% of the privately held land in the US. Less than 600 companies control 22% of our private land, a land mass the size of Spain. Those same companies land interests worldwide comprise a total area larger than that of Europe - almost 2 billion acres.[8]

In order to show that there was NO NEED for land reform in Central America because our land in the US is even more concentrated in ownership than Central America, Senator Jesse Helms read these facts into the Congressional Record in 1981: In Florida, 1% owns 77% of the land. Other states where the top 1% own over two-thirds of the land are Maine, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon.

A United Nations study of 83 countries showed that less than 5% of rural landowners control three-quarters of the land. Other studies on land ownership report these facts: In Brazil, 2% of landowners hold 60% of the arable land while close to 70% of rural households have little or none. Just 342 farm properties in Brazil cover 183,397 square miles - an area larger than California. In Venezuela, 77% of the farmland is owned by 3% of the people. In Spain, 70 per cent of the land is owned by 0.2 per cent of the people. In Britain, 69 per cent of the land is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. Just 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land while 24 million families live on four million acres.[9]

The basic human need for food and shelter requires access of labor to land. With access to land people can produce the basic requirements of life. Access to land provides an enabling environment for life itself and thus meets the minimum requirement of love, meaning fairness in human relations based on the fundamental equal right to exist. The Land Problem in its two forms - the inequitable ownership and control of land and natural resources and the treatment of land as a market commodity - is the root cause of the great amount of human deprivation and suffering from lack of the basic necessities of life. And yet the human right to the earth is missing from the Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Human Rights.

Democratic governance has not yet concerned itself with a "first principle" question. This question concerns property rights in land - property rights in the earth itself. The question is, "Who Should Own the Earth?" The question of "Who Should Own the Earth?" is a fundamental question. In venues when this question is asked, the answer is always the same. The answer is, "everyone should own the earth and on an equal basis as a birthright."

The right to the earth has yet to be pronounced in human rights covenants. Democracy is unclear, ethically weak, and on shaky ground when it comes to the question of the right to the land and resources of the earth. Democracy as presently constituted lacks this most fundamental and basic human right - the equal right to earth. The right to the earth is the great undiscovered revolution in both American and global politics.

Early Christian teachings on the Land Problem, however, were clear and precise. The question of "Who Should Own the Earth?" was unequivocally answered. The land ethic of the early Christian communities was that of "koinonia" meaning essentially that God was the sole owner of the earth which was given as a gift to all for the "autarkeia," the self-reliant livelihood, of all. In the words of John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople at the close of the fourth century, "The very air, earth, matter, are the Creator's; and so are you yourself...; and all other things also."

When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, the early Christian teachings on land were overtaken by the Roman land laws of "dominium" - a legalization of property in land originally obtained by conquest and plunder. A largely corrupted Christianity, uprooted from its early teachings on land ownership, too often went hand in hand with the exploitation and degradation of centuries of colonial conquests. A statement by the great South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed this point in a succinct and profound manner. He said, "When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land."[10]

Charles Avila, in his profoundly important book entitled Ownership: Early Christian Teachings, explored the early church fathers' view of property rights in land. He contrasted these teachings to Roman property rights law. In his chapter on "The Concept of Ownership" Avila states:

The concentration of property in private hands began very early in Rome and was indeed based on the foundational and legitimizing idea of absolute and exclusive individual ownership in land. This was the same idea which would come to form the basis of the slave-owning, the feudal, and the capitalist (including the pseudo-socialist, or state-capitalist) economic systems successively. Modern civilization has not yet discarded this antiquated ownership concept, which was originally derived from ancient Rome. In fact, it seems to us, this is one of the main roots of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.[11]

Avila further noted that "the distinction in legal terminology between "real" and "personal" property is the survival in words of an ancient real distinction between property held in both theory and practice as common by its very nature and property which was the fruit of one's labor."[12] Avila said that modern social thinkers

advocate the promotion of social justice without stopping to think that individual ownership of nature's bounty might be socially unjust in itself. And yet patristic thought insisted long ago that there can be no real justice, or abolition of poverty, if the koina, the common natural elements of production, are appropriated in ownership by individuals.[13]

Here are a few Patristic period quotes on land ownership that Avila compiled in his book:

Ambrose: How far, O ye rich, do you push your mad desires? Shall ye alone dwell upon the earth? Why do you cast out all the fellow sharers of nature and claim it all for yourselves? The earth was made in common for all. Why do you arrogate to yourselves, exclusive right to the soil?

St. George the Great (Pope 590 - 604) rebuked the Romans when he said: They wrongfully think they are innocent who claim for themselves the common gift of God.

Clement of Alexandria: (The functions of property) -"to be shared," "to minister to" and serve "the welfare of all"; "not for personal advantage as being entirely one's own" but "for those in need"; "to achieve autarkeia" and "to foster koinonia" - constitute the very essence of Clement's view of property.

St. John Chrystostom: God in the beginning did not make one man rich and another poor; nor did he afterwards take and show to anyone treasures of gold, and deny to the others the right of searching for it; rather he left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?

Augustine: He (according to Avila's research) saw that the poor are poor because they have been deprived by the propertied few of the wealth that should belong to all. He laid the blame for this unjust situation squarely on the doorstep of an absolutist and exclusivist legal right of private ownership. He reminded his audience that they were all "made from one mud" and sustained "on one earth" under the same natural conditions, having the same essence and called to the same destiny. He rejected the legalized status quo as inappropriate for human living. Holding that legal arrangements of property rights were of human origin, he asserted that they should be changed, in theory and in practice, in function of a faith-informed ethic based on the true meaning of ownership.

Basil the Great: He saw that a privileged few were exceedingly rich, ostentatious, and powerful, inasmuch as wealth, particularly the wealth-producing resource, land, was concentrated in the hands of the few. He taught a philosophy of ownership based on the view that God was Father and giver and Provider for all, and that therefore a few must cease stealing the food-producing resources that God had destined for the use of all.

Basil admits a certain right of laborers to the product of their labor but asks the landlords b