February 15, 2024

#14: Land Question 2.0 – First Cracks in the 20th Century Property Consensus

Throughout the early 20th century, the idea of land reform took center stage in the political discourse of many nations, although with varying success. In the later parts of the 20th century, this gave way to a property consensus through which private ownership, and the material inequalities emerging from it, became firmly entrenched in many countries of the Global North. Economic Sociologists Alexander Dobeson and Sebastian Kohl reconstruct this intricate history, building on their recent paper in Socio-Economic Review. Offering an analysis that bridges the urban and the rural, they also attend to recent cracks in the property consensus that have emerged over the past years due to the widespread and conflict-laden assetization of both urban and rural land in the Global North and South.



In a 2021 article, the Financial Times made a remarkable observation: land, the “oldest asset class”, still reigns supreme in modern wealth (Forohaar, 2021) [1]. Although land ownership continues to symbolize affluence and political power like no other form of property, its ownership often remains concealed behind a veil of secrecy, largely escaping the scrutiny of national accounts. At the same time, the dream of owning a piece of land or a home continues to embody financial independence and prosperity in today’s capitalist society. What is often overlooked is that today’s popular view of land as an asset class and a means of wealth generation is a relatively recent political invention, originating in the late 1960s. Prior to its success, it required significant moral reframing in the face of viable political alternatives to land commodification [2].

The 20th Century Land Reform Movement

By the end of the 19th century, the call for land reform resonated not only among revolutionary socialists but also among conservative and liberal thinkers. With urban and rural poverty rampant, the land question emerged as a serious concern. Particularly in the Anglophone world, influential liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry George argued that poverty wasn’t the result of labor exploitation by capitalists (as socialists believed) but rather stemmed from the landed monopoly of idle landlords who reaped the rewards of others’ labor. This moral climate laid the foundation for the democratic land reform movement as a “third way” (Oppenheimer, 1933) [3] between capitalism and socialism. Instead of advocating for the complete abolition of private property, these social reformers proposed redistributing “unearned income” back to communities, with George’s “remedy” (George, 1879/1912) [4] – a single tax on land values – gaining prominence in North America and Europe. In Germany, for instance, national conservative figures like Adolf Damaschke (1915) [5] expanded on George’s ideas by spearheading a national land reform movement and successfully proposing a comprehensive set of reforms to restrict land as a market commodity. These reforms included tenant protection, veteran homesteads, and hereditary building rights.
Throughout the early 20th century, the idea of land reform took center stage in the political discourse of many nations, although with varying success. In the United States, Henry George ran for office in New York City, and the homesteader’s frontier expanded. Land reform principles were embedded in party platforms, emphasizing the need to combat land monopolies. However, the more radical single-tax proposal did not gain significant traction, and after the New Deal era, the land question gradually faded from party manifestos. In the United Kingdom, land reform remained a prominent issue until the 1960s and found support in both Labour and Liberal parties. In Germany, the land reform movement left a lasting mark on land and housing policies during the interwar years, especially on the political right. The Catholic Center party advocated for protection against usury and land speculation, while the Nazi Party went so far as to demand price stops and land nationalization. After the Second World War, classical land reform topics such as land speculation became more of a recurring theme in left-wing manifestos and the squatter movements in the urban centers of the young republic, with the Social Democratic Party making a final but unsuccessful attempt to institutionalize a variation of George’s land value tax in the 1970s.

The Landlord’s Game, 1906. Inspired by Henry George’s ideas, Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips developed the Landlord’s game in the early 1900s to disseminate the principles of the single tax movement. The game was intended as a playful demonstration of how landownership and land speculation lead to economic inequality and wealth concentration. The game included two sets of rules: a “Georgist” anti-monopoly variant, and a non-Georgist variant, which resembled that of today’s popular Monopoly boardgame. Although Phillips was not credited, Monopoly in Parker’s popular version turned out to be one of the most sold boardgames of the 20th century (Image courtesy Thomas E. Forsyth, https://landlords-game.com, reprinted with permission)

The Triumph of the Ownership Society

While the direct influence of the land reform movements faded in the post-war years, especially the political right began to challenge the idea of protecting land from unfettered markets. Rather than restraining land’s life as private property, conservatives held that the best antidote to socialism was to make every citizen a loyal capitalist through ownership expansion. Already during the land reform era, small property owners gained sympathies and have long been central to conservative political ideologies in rural settings. Symbolizing family values and economic independence, especially the concept of the family farm remained a significant political trope well into the 1990s. Mega-events such as Farm Aid (1985), backed by international superstars like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, raised millions in charity in the United States. Similarly, the dream of rural independence, rooted in private land ownership, gained widespread support in Northern Europe in the early 20th century. Here as well, the ideal of the family farm became a popular political promise on the right to counter the rising socialist movements and to halt mass emigration to the Americas.
With increasing urbanization, the “housing question” eventually superseded the rural land question in the second half of the twentieth century. Following a period of urban reconstruction including public housing programs after the Second World War, political parties began advocating for urban homeownership expansion. During this period, housing laws in many countries aimed to promote owner-occupied single-family houses as the ideal housing model. However, the real triumph of the ownership society began in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy” slogan in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most significant land reform in British history, the idea of ownership expansion garnered widespread support and transcended political affiliations, even gaining traction with Tony Blair’s New Labour during the 1990s. At the same time, in the United States, the democratization of urban homeownership found strong support, particularly among Democrats, drawing on the tradition of the homestead movement. Other countries like Germany and Sweden followed distinct trajectories. Germany, with a lower homeownership rate, saw the belated and moderate adoption of the homeownership ideal by social democracy, resulting in a more balanced approach up until the late 1990s. In Sweden, policies supported various forms of ownership, including cooperatives, single-family houses, and private/social rentals, without one dominating the political landscape.
All in all, the expansion of ownership characterized the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in countries like the United Kingdom, where urban tenants initially predominated, with homeownership rates peaking at over 70% in the early 2000s. What is less known is that the new ownership consensus was accompanied by the development of a hidden welfare state for property owners, growing alongside the traditional labor and social security-centered welfare state. Homeowners began receiving favorable tax treatment in areas such as property taxes, capital gains taxation, mortgage interest deductions, and imputed rent. These incentives facilitated the expansion of housing wealth, which eventually popularized the general view of land and housing as an asset class and means of enrichment.
Over the years, political support for alternative forms of tenure decreased, making homeownership the rational choice for those who can afford it. With the dream of property ownership dominating electoral politics, the idea of protecting land from markets did not only lose its appeal for property owners, but also for those chasing the dream of ownership. Which aspiring farmer or homeowner would now vote for the regulation of land markets or higher property taxes?

The Comeback of the Land Question in the 21st Century

Since the 2007/2008 global financial crisis, support programs, combined with historically low interest rates, have strained the liberal-conservative utopia of the ownership society, with ownership rates stagnating or even falling, especially amongst first-time buyers in pioneering countries like the UK. Against the previous success of ownership democratization stands an increasing wealth gap between property owners and non-owners faced with limited alternatives. The marginalization of alternative forms of tenure and growing pressure on the property market intensified this issue, even in tenant-friendly countries like Sweden, which saw a wide-ranging privatization of the public housing stock in the name of ownership expansion. Once neglected in favor of booming financial markets, housing has reemerged as a stable asset class, attracting large institutional investors such as pension funds to hedge their wealth against today’s volatile market landscape (Gabor and Kohl, 2022) [6]. As a consequence, prices have soared, creating tension between housing as a universal right and as a source of capital. These tensions have reignited debates reminiscent of the early land reformers, with new social movements demanding rent control and even the expropriation of large landlords such as Vonovia and Deutsche Wohnen in Berlin.
It is evident that first cracks have appeared in the 20th century property consensus. Today, however, the idea of pro-property land reform not only remains the widely uncontested ideology of most political parties in the Global North, but also the primary ideological tool of economic development promoted by the World Bank over non-market alternatives to land reform. Intended to mobilize financial liquidity and stimulate entrepreneurship in poor communities (de Soto, 2000) [7], the one-sided focus on small property expansion has not paid off for everyone, typically neglecting the wider local and institutional contexts communities require to thrive (Varga, 2023) [8]. At the same time, the general trend towards market liberalization has likewise called on large institutional investors to rediscover agricultural land as a profitable asset class (Fairbairn, 2020 [9]; Ouma, 2020 [10]). It remains to be seen how communities will navigate and resist these new institutional landscapes in the years ahead.
[1] Forohaar R (2021) 'The oldest asset class of all still dominates modern wealth'.  https://www.ft.com/content/99a3cf9b-0ab8-45b9-bbc5-7e88c08f9ea5

[2] Dobeson A and Kohl, S (2023) 'The moral economy of land: from land reform to ownership society, 1880-2018', Socio-Economic Review, Online first.

[3] Oppenheimer F (1933) 'Weder so - noch so. Der Dritte Weg', in Julius H. Schoeps, Alphons Silbermann, and Hans Süssmuth (eds.), Franz Oppenheimer. Gesammelte Schriften. Band II Politische Schriften, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, pp. 109-160.

[4] George H (1879/1912) Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increas of Want with Increase of Wealth, The Remedy, Garden City, NY, Page & Co.

[5] Damaschke A (1915) Die Bodenreform. Grundsätzliches und Geschichtliches zur Erkenntnis und Überwindung der sozialen Not, Jena, Verlag von Gustav Fischer.

[6] Gabor D and Kohl S (2022) 'My Home is an Asset Class: Housing Financialization in Europe'. http://extranet.greens-efa-service.eu/public/media/file/1/7461

[7] de Soto H (2000) The Mystery of Capital. Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, London, Bantan Press.

[8] Varga M (2023) Poverty as Subsistence. The World Bank and Pro-Poor Land Reform, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

[9] Fairbairn M (2020) Fields of Gold. Financing the Global Land Rush, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

[10] Ouma S (2020) Farming as Financial Asset. Global Finance and the Making of Institutional Landscapes, Newcaslte upon Tyne, Agenda Publishing.