Most people know the game Monopoly. But few are aware Monopoly was inspired by political economist Henry George’s warning against a dystopic society where land, water and minerals are owned by the dominant few.

To win in Monopoly, first you buy natural resources. Then you monopolise the land. Add some houses and hotels. And finally, force your adversaries into bankruptcy. In the game, it helps to be strategic, but mainly it helps to be lucky. Lucky to arrive first. Lucky to be able to hoover up the best land. In the end, lucky to crowd out the others, making them indigent losers.

Henry George was a brilliant self-taught 19th century American political economist. An advocate for free-trade and an opponent of protectionism, George is however best known for his criticism of the monopolisation of natural resources, arguing this both inhibits economic efficiency and is manifestly unfair. To achieve natural resource equality, George argued natural resources should be taxed at the level it would cost to rent the “unimproved” land. These taxes could be used to abolish other taxes (George’s position was to abolish all taxes except land tax), help fund government expenditure, such as the military, or redistribute in equal proportion to citizens.

Georgism is not an argument for material equality in any meaningful sense. Equal natural resource ownership is consistent with large levels of inequality when it comes to income and the ownership of non-natural assets. A Georgist might argue individuals own 100% of their labour income; that the industrious builder deserves his multiple houses (but not land), cars and boats, and that these are his alone; that the tech entrepreneur deserves her billions but has no right to buy up huge swathes of land. A Georgist position is consistent with minimal state intervention across welfare, education funding and paid parental leave.

The ideas of Henry George have garnered support from various quarters. Economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued Henry George’s proposal could fund the optimal supply of local public goods. Leader of the Chicago School of Economics Milton Friedman said, “in my opinion, the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land, the Henry George argument of many, many years ago”.

One reason why equal natural resource ownership is preferable is because the alternatives are so underwhelming.

The alternatives of the ideological left, crudely speaking, have disastrous economic consequences. Under collective ownership, government ineptly decides what is produced from natural resources, undermining individual choice and failing to respect citizens. While under common ownership, people use natural resources whenever and however they choose, destroying the environment and economy, as predicted by the tragedy of the commons.

The alternative approaches of the ideological right, again crudely speaking, have their own problems. Primacy is given to first arrivals (though curiously, this line of argument is seldom extended to First Nations people), treating citizens unequally. Like Monopoly, first arrivals win, and second arrivals lose. These arguments typically rest on the ambiguous liberal Lockean proviso that “enough, and as good, left in common for others” or the harsher libertarian Nozickian argument that non-landowners need only pass a subsistence baseline living standard (essentially, non-landowners can eat and have water). But these claims ignore that natural resources are not made by anyone. And if no one has done anything to deserve the unimproved natural resources, and citizens of a country are equal, why are they granted such unequal rights over natural resources, the literal foundation of a country?

To Henry George, every citizen has an equal moral claim to the earth and without this, there is no equality among citizens.

In Australia, we are something of a Hasbro Monopoly ‘Special Edition’. Tech billionaires and their ilk hold some hundreds of millions worth of natural resources, while the mob from Broken Hill have somewhere closer to, and more likely very near, zero. Foreign investors such as Canadian pension funds and the Chinese Government own 14% of Australian agricultural land and 11% of Australian water assets.

Overall, Australian natural resources are worth more than seven trillion dollars (about 85% of which is land, driven by city land values), equating to around $300,000 per person. However, the bottom 20% of Australian households (typically younger folk, most likely regional or outer suburban people) have an average natural resource wealth of under $20,000 (and an average net wealth of around $25,000).

Yet there are reasons to be optimistic. The ACT is 10 years into their 20-year plan to abolish stamp duty and replace this with a land tax, providing instructive “dos” and “do nots” for other jurisdictions. And the NSW Government, with a coalition of support from real estate bodies, accountants, economists and community representative bodies, has proposed a land tax which sensibly considers a gradual introduction of land tax, ensuring fairness for those who have already paid stamp duty, although the proposal insensibly considers making land tax optional.

Overtime, a NSW land tax could be used to reduce other taxes, such as payroll tax, levied by the state government, or income tax, levied by the federal government. Reducing income taxes would reverse the peculiarity of the Australian tax system that we socialise the largely privately created wealth of labour, and privatise the naturally created wealth of natural resources.

Economists boast that a land tax boosts economic productivity, stimulates investment and increases efficiency, all neat reasons for a land tax. But the overwhelming case for an Australian land tax is fairness: that Australian dirt, water, ore and air, are owned by each Australian equally. The overwhelming case for a land tax in Australia is to ensure we don’t become a game of Monopoly.

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