Bill Gates and Land Redistribution in the Shadow of Sherman’s Field Order 15

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Bill Gates

January 12, 2015; The Zimbabwean

On the eve of the sesquicentennial—that’s the 150th anniversary—of General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, which called for land redistribution and was the basis of the “40 acres and a mule” redistribution policy for freed slaves, Bill Gates may have happened upon the value of redistributive land reform—albeit in Zimbabwe.

Ian Scoones reports in the Zimbabwean that Gates is a fan of Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region and recently penned a blog book review of sorts, entitled “Can the Asian Miracle Happen in Africa?

In the blog, he observes that Studwell says, “When you give farmers ownership of modest plots and allow them to profit from the fruits of their labor, farm yields are much higher per hectare. And rising yields help countries generate the surpluses and savings they need to power up their manufacturing engine,” concluding “that rapid agricultural development requires redistributing land more equitably among the farming population.”

Then, Gates confesses that “to date, [he hasn’t] focused as much on the land ownership piece as I have on the role of better seeds, fertilizers, and farming practices.” (In other words, technologies.) “This book made me to want to learn more about the land ownership picture in countries where our foundation funds work.”

Scoones writes that of course “redistribution of land to smallholders is a key step in economic development.” With some irony, he mentions, “it’s good that Bill Gates has noticed this, as he has helped shape agricultural development strategy in Africa over the last decade or so through his multimillion-dollar grant giving.”

He concludes, “I doubt he is a reader of this blog, but if anyone happens to meet him, do steer him in this direction, and encourage him to break out of the silos of technology expertise that he has created in his Foundation, and urge him to draw on wider insights from agrarian political economy.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Edward J. Dodson

    This story about Bill Gates is encouraging. As someone who has studied the history of how land is owned and how this has affected civilization, I have been appalled by the failure of most economists and policy analysts to recognize the destructive character of our systems of land tenure. What is most astonishing is that the insights of thoughtful individuals over several centuries have been discarded. The influence of landed interests in every country have been and are still profound. As Winston Churchill observed early in his political career:

    “It is quite true that land monopoly is not the only monopoly which exists, but it is by far the greatest of monopolies – it is a perpetual monopoly, and it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly. It is quite true that unearned increments in land are not the only form of unearned or undeserved profit which individuals are able to secure; but it is the principal form of unearned increment which is derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but which are positively detrimental to the general public.

    “Land, which is a necessity of human existence, which is the original source of all wealth, which is strictly limited in extent, which is fixed in geographical position. Land, I say, differs from all other forms of property in these primary and fundamental conditions.”

    While land to the tiller programs are a step in the right direction, by reducing absentee control over land that yields rent as income to a “rentier” class who produce nothing themselves, Churchill embraced a different and more effective solution to the problem: changing the way government raises its revenue to pay for public goods and services by capturing the rent of land as societal income, and at the same time exempting from taxation the improvements made on the land, the income earned by producing goods and services, and the commerce generated therefrom.

    This program could not get past the entrenched landed interests in Britain, despite efforts by Lloyd George and the Liberals during them time in power. Sun Yat-sen adopted the ideas as central to his system of government for China, but it failed there as well because of the landed power of the war lords. Ironically, a modified version of the plan was implemented when the Chinese Nationalists took power in Formosa and created Taiwan. Under British control, Hong Kong allocated land for private development under leaseholds that brought in “ground rent” as revenue, allowing Hong Kong to develop as a center of commerce and finance in Asia.

    So, to Bill Gates, if he is serious about helping to solve the problem of poverty around the world, he can add his name and his prestige to a list of “land rent reformers” that includes: Adam Smith, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, John Stuart Mill, Henry George, William Lloyd Garrison Jr., Tom L. Johnson, Leo Tolstoy, Sun Yat-sen, Louis F. Brandeis, John R. Commons, Scott Nearing, Sen. Paul Douglas, Rep. Henry Reuss, Rep. William Coyne, Mason Gaffney and Joseph Stiglitz.