An early proponent of some of the early ideas around community land trusts in this country was Thomas Paine. He wrote, "Man did not make the earth, and though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate his property in perpetuity on any part of it. It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.As fallacies go, this one is a whopper. It's a whole bunch of fallacies actually, but it is mainly a fallacy of anachronism, where we judge one time period (the 18th century) by the standards of another (the 21st century). No, Thomas Paine was not predicting or advocating for community land trusts back in the 18th century.
The Byers quote attributed to Thomas Paine can be found in his essay Agrarian Justice, which is a continuation of Paine's earlier work, Rights of Man, in which he defended the French Revolution. In fact, Agrarian Justice was originally written in French, published in Paris, and specifically addressed "To the legislature and the Executive Directory of the French Republic."
When reading Paine's essay, we have to recognize that we are reading a social justice essay written at a time when there was no social justice. We are reading the thoughts and ideas of a man who grew up in feudal England, with its landless peasants and landed gentry. And the entire system was backed by a church that preached that God made the rich and the poor, and the rich nobility were ordained, by God, to be rich and powerful rulers over the poor in perpetuity. Paine grew up in a land where there were no property rights, unless you were the hereditary aristocracy.
Paine simply rejected that whole system and was encouraging the French to do the same. Paine believed that God ordained neither the rich nor the poor; God only made male and female (in Paine's words), and that every person should have a right to own land and its productive capacity. Paine was arguing for the American-style democratization of land in France, rather than common land per se. He said that Europe's pattern of feudal land ownership (i.e., the civilization of the day) had made the vast majority of its inhabitants miserable.
In taking the matter upon this ground, the first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period. But the fact is that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day. I will show how this fact has happened.And Paine was right. In Agrarian Justice, he proposed a new style of land ownership so that the productive capacity of land was put to use in ways that "civilized" European society never dreamed of. In so doing, Paine advance a specific idea that advocated the use of an estate tax and a tax on land values to fund a universal old-age and disability pension, as well as a fixed sum to be paid to all citizens upon reaching maturity.
If you take the time to read all of Agrarian Justice, you will realize that Paine was proposing a type of social security system for France that had the benefit of providing young people with seed capital and the elderly with a form of social security. It was groundbreaking stuff, not for its foresight into community land trusts, but for its foresight into conceptualizing a national plan for social security. For that reason, you can even find Agrarian Justice cited on the webpage of our own Social Security Administration today. Paine felt social security was essential for an authentically civilized society:
It is a revolution in the state of civilization that will give perfection to the Revolution of France. Already the conviction that government by representation is the true system of government is spreading itself fast in the world. The reasonableness of it can be seen by all. The justness of it makes itself felt even by its opposers. But when a system of civilization, growing out of that system of government, shall be so organized that not a man or woman born in the Republic but shall inherit some means of beginning the world, and see before them the certainty of escaping the miseries that under other governments accompany old age, the Revolution of France will have an advocate and an ally in the heart of all nations.I do not believe Paine would support any current concept of common ownership rights in the private property of others. And I certainly do not believe that Paine was advocating for all land to be owned by grant-funded non-profit 501(c)(3) corporations rather than individuals.