Land and property ownership are no small matters for a Republic, and we can right the wrongs of the past by empowering American families with land. In the process, we can create a more just society based on distributist and Christian ideas that will strengthen the social fabric of the Republic.
“America is really only about two things: race and space.”
The above quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, strikes at the heart of the two things that first built, then destroyed, and then rebuilt America, and that seems poised to do so again. In our modern era of American politics, one cannot help but see the division fostered by our news, businesses, politics, and general culture. These divisions straddle lines of class, location, and origin, but always seem to circle back to two issues: race and space.
On the issue of race, our national thinking seems vested between two extremes: 1) radical progressive ideology that seeks a remedy in the expansion of the state, welfare, and wealth distribution, and 2) staunch conservative ideology that refuses to recognize that real fissures in American society exist and need to be addressed if the nation is to survive the coming decades. Neither serves us well. Rather than thinking in terms of tax breaks, handouts, or victimization, it is time to return the vitally important “space” mentioned by Twain to American discourse.
To begin, it could be stated that distributist discourse, let alone Catholic social thought, is not widely accepted as a part of the American experience. But perhaps it is within these schools of thought that radical solutions to our current problems ought to be investigated. When Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton wrote about distributist thought in England from the turn of the 20th century to the Great Depression, they examined what they saw as the failures of both capitalism and socialism in Britain. They identified, along with Papal encyclicals such as Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, that a key problem was property ownership. Capitalism allowed it to accrue into the hands of the few while socialism would eventually end the concept of property and ownership, and with it true freedom for families within a society.
It takes only a cursory glance at recent events to see that race and space are once again the primary movers of American discourse, and that all our current solutions seemed based on this dichotomy: capitalism vs. socialism. It is in this space that distributist ideas might have something to say. In the past year, the U.S. has experienced protests against police brutality, race riots, disputed elections, and an ever-fractured citizenry and discourse. This fractured political landscape seeks to redress these issues either through redistribution or through denial, with no middle ground.
Both approaches are rooted in the same old American story of Left versus Right. Progressives want to initiate reparations and redistribute wealth from one part of society to the other while conservatives fight to keep the already distressed status quo intact. None of these policies properly address the fault lines themselves: those of race and space. Instead, they seek to band-aid the wounds by distributing short-term money to the poor or by continuing to empower the very oligarchs who have made the current system so untenable for so many.
So, what then would a distributist answer be to our current issues? To start, it would be rooted in empowering American families through property and ownership. These two things have been the engine of human wealth generation since the invention of farming and create a means for multigenerational accumulation on a broad scale. But what would this look like in practice?
We need look no further than the Homestead Act of 1865. This law, passed in the waning days of the Civil War, opened the Western Frontier for settlement by allowing any American to apply for land in the west for nothing but the cost of the application fee. The new landholder had five years to improve the land by building a house or farming it, and then it was theirs. This Act was not perfect, and it led to corruption and land speculation, but it also granted Americans real access to land ownership and a vehicle toward independence. Many of those farms were still in the possession of the same families up until the Great Depression. This act allowed what Frederick Turner called the “safety valve” of the frontier to diffuse American social tensions. Those who did not fit into the cities or industrialized life were free to seek their fortunes out west, on their own land with their own tools.
What would a New Homestead Act (NHA) look like today? And how would it be implemented? The Federal government currently owns nearly 640 million acres of land. Certainly not all is prime for development, but a good deal of it is. The NHA would seek to sell portions of this land to the average American, for nothing but the application fee.
It would require a complete surveyance of current Federal land holdings, with a system created to categorize land that is prime for development and is accessible. One could imagine this being graded on a 10-point scale, with “1” constituting destitute desert territory and “10” prime farmland with ample access to nearby resources or state amenities such as roads and utilities. The process of surveying alone would likely take several years but would be essential to determine properly what land is available.
After the land is surveyed, an allocation system would need to be created. This would channel individuals on a first-come-first-serve basis to a database of available land. This could be done in-person or online, using unique identifiers such as Social Security numbers and birth certificates to ensure citizenship. There would also have to be controls in place so that, unlike the original Homestead Act, the NHA would prevent large corporations from purchasing plots of land for their own speculative purposes. Perhaps one enforcement mechanism could be the rescinding of said land rights if it is found that the land was purchased for or in collusion with large business interests.
Once the issues of surveyance and distribution systems are worked out, it would be important to make known to the average American just what the NHA would mean to them. For example, a family could purchase a plot of land and then use this land as security to take out a mortgage that they could use to start a farm. Or perhaps they would want to rent their land to another person who would develop it and make business use of it while supporting the family through rents. Groups of families could form cooperatives that pooled their land together in 5- or 10-year increments, and then rent this pooled land out to farmers or larger businesses who could utilize it. Families could get creative and choose to be paid in cash or kind for the land. Instead of monthly cash rent, the family could request monthly delivery of a share of the goods produced by the land, or some form of food that the company processes among other products. This places property and ownership in the hands of American families and gives them the tools to create more wealth.
What is important here is that this program is for everyone, whether they currently own a home or property or not. When politicians talk about reparations, when families feel trapped in urban poverty, or when Americans no longer want to live the city life, this is the opportunity for them. It creates wealth by giving those with nothing a vehicle for their own development. And it would further serve to strengthen the middle class who may already own homes or land. This could reduce urban poverty and generate real multi-generational gains for families of all races. What is more, it does not require the redistribution of wealth and the forced reordering of society that will only further fracture the American social fabric. Instead, it takes what we already have—public land—and distributes it to American families so that they become more empowered in American economy and society.
It is important to remember what has happened to past societies who have attempted or refused land reform. The Roman Republic was ripped apart by the destruction of the smallholding Italian farms for the sake of aristocratic Latifundia. Their attempts to redistribute state land led to political violence that resulted in the murder of the Gracchi Brothers, which entrenched violence as a legitimate political tool. Yet when the Romans did manage land reform successfully, such as when Pompey distributed land in Anatolia to Cilician pirates, they rooted out piracy in the eastern Mediterranean for generations. Centuries later, in Byzantium, emperors such as Basil II fought to distribute imperial land that had been gobbled up by urban aristocrats, so that they might strengthen the peasant farmers as the backbone of the army and economy. Yet when these reforms were allowed to lapse by successors, the Latifundia arose again and the smallholder farmers were destroyed, and with them the backbone of the Byzantine economy, army, and society.
Land and property ownership are no small matters for a Republic, and bringing “space” back into the discourse of American politics, we can right the wrongs of the past by empowering American families with land that provides the key to their and their children’s future. In the process, we can create a more just society based on distributist and Christian ideas that will strengthen the social fabric of the Republic.
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The featured image is “Farmyard Scene” (c. 1872-74) by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.