Justify the title of the story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Tolstoy became an enthusiastic advocate of the ideas of American economist and reformer Henry George, who achieved worldwide fame for his fundamental idea that the government should control all the land and derive its sole income from taxing land for its full rental value. As an example of his idea, if a house in one place rents for $1000 a month and a comparable house in another place rents for $300 a month, then the difference of $700 is being paid for the land and should go to the government rather than to the landlord. The basis of this belief on the part of Henry George and Tolstoy, and earlier of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, is that no one should be entitled to own any part of the earth, since no one created the earth. Henry George believed that poverty is the result of people owning land they do not use.

In "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Tolstoy is dramatizing how human greed makes some men want to acquire far more land than they need. This means that others are deprived of land altogether and are forced to work for the men who control land they are not developing. If the government derived all its revenues from the so-called "single tax" on land, i.e., the entire rental value of the land and not of any "improvements" such as buildings, there would be no need for any income tax, sales tax, excise tax, or any of the other taxes imposed by national or local governments.

The following excerpt from the article on "Henry George" in Dictionary of World Biography, 19th Century, which is accessible via eNotes, explains the most important ideas of Henry George which were published in his Progress and Poverty. (See reference link below.)

Then, in 1879, George published Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Causes of Industrial Depressions, and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth—The Remedy. Injustices were explicit in the subtitle. The remedy was nationalization of land and imposition of one single tax (later The Single Tax). Land values, George argued, as personal knowledge of stark contrasts between extraordinary wealth and dire need in San Francisco and New York convinced him, were communal, societal creations inherent in the scarcity of land. Pressures of population, production necessities, or monopolistic urges thus raised land and rental values and depressed wages. The mere possession of land often made millionaires of nonproducers or noncontributors to human welfare. A tax, therefore, on such socially created rents would allow government to redistribute such gains to alleviate want and enhance community life. George was no socialist. Indeed, since the basis of local revenues was a general property tax and since George abhorred centralization over local responsibilities, he expected local governments to fulfill these necessary functions.

Tolstoy wrote at least one lengthy article about Henry George. He said that the ideas in Progress and Poverty were so simple and obvious that anyone who read the book would agree with them. Tolstoy became a social reformer in his later years and repudiated his own famous novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina because he regarded the aristocratic characters in these works as worthless parasites. Thereafter, he addressed his writings to uneducated Russian peasants and workers, which accounts for the simplicity as well as the didactic nature of their style.


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