Individuals may not own countries any more, but land inequity is still a huge problem in both poor and rich nations. Is it time for a progressive land tax?by Jack Thurston / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
Who Owns the World by Kevin Cahill (Mainstream Publishing, £25)
When William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book at Christmas 1085, he instructed his emissaries to find out “what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth,” so he could properly tax his new kingdom.
According to Kevin Cahill, who has set out to compile a modern Domesday Book on a global scale, the British monarch’s pre-eminence in absolute land ownership has grown over the centuries and the Queen remains by far the world’s biggest landowner, today owning a sixth of the earth’s land surface. This may be a bombshell headline, but it is also pretty meaningless, since Cahill rests his argument on the absurd notion that the Queen not only “owns” the entire United Kingdom and its dependencies and territories, but also Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Cahill breathlessly cites constitutional texts and arcane feudal laws, but misses the vital point that “allodial” ownership (absolute ownership without any encumbrance of law) is, in the modern era, the domain of states, not individuals. To put it another way, the idea of ownership is empty without the possibility of making a sale. Although there have been major land sales in modern history, such as the Louisiana and Alaska purchases in the 19th century, it is hard to imagine the Queen offering George W Bush a slice of Canada. Whatever Cahill says about the matter, Canada is not the Queen’s to sell.
This should not detract from the mammoth scale of Cahill’s undertaking, nor should it devalue his two main conclusions. First, reliable data on private land ownership is very hard to find: the land registry of England and Wales holds records for barely half of land in the two countries; land ownership records in the US are scattered in 3,143 local registries and there is no central database; in Brazil, barely a tenth of land is covered by the land registry. Second, land ownership has long been concentrated in the hands of very few. Cahill suggests that the two facts are connected. The relationship between the obscurity of data and the concentration of ownership can be illustrated by the fate of the “second Domesday,” a land census carried out in Britain in the 1870s and compiled in a report called The Return of Owners of Land. The report detailed every landowner in Britain…