HomeAnalysisZim’s land rights crisis — A Biblical economics solution

Zim’s land rights crisis — A Biblical economics solution

ZIMBABWE is facing a property rights Catch-22 with respect to about 12 million hectares of land expropriated from the previous land owners, mainly the white farming community.

The Brett Chulu Column

The outcome has been the death of the market for land. As all land that was seized belongs to the state, people allocated land by government are unable to use it as collateral to access debt funding.

In a free market system, individuals must own assets in order to participate in the market. In the case of Zimbabwe, the new farmers are unable to participate in both land and financial markets because they do not own the land they occupy.

As a result, government is forced to step in and play the role that would have been played by financial markets. It is unsustainable. The politico-economic dispensation that was overturned by the land seizures was a free private enterprise market system. A private enterprise market system turns on property rights. Property rights are the first-born child of liberty.

The very heart of liberty is a political value expressing the idea that a government should allow individuals to own property, allow people to be free to dispose of land without government arbitrary interference and ensure freedom of movement of people and goods.

Without the ability to own and freely dispose of property and in the absence of freedom of movement of people and goods, it is not possible to have a private enterprise market system. All private enterprise systems employ market systems. However, not all market systems are private enterprise systems.

The reason all private enterprise systems are market systems is historical rather than logical. Private enterprises are products of political upheavals that upended authoritarian systems of 18th century Western Europe.
As such, the new political systems were forced to enshrine liberty. What is normally overlooked is that in private enterprise systems it is liberty first and democracy second.

It is plainly off beam to assert that a market system can only thrive in a private enterprise arrangement. The Bible provides a historical record of how property rights operated among ancient Hebrews outside a private enterprise system.

The leading principle of land and property rights among the ancient Hebrews is condensed in Leviticus 25:23 (KJV): “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.”

Here we glean three pertinent points. First, the political system operating was a theocracy, that is, rule by God, albeit not arbitrary, but benevolent. Land belonged to God by virtue of His creatorship (Genesis 1:1, Psalms 24:1).

Second, the theocratic system permitted a market for land.

In fact, when the Hebrew nation was founded, a massive and elaborate land allocation exercise was carried out. Every tribe and every family was allocated land. Property rights were granted to every Hebrew. Each person could freely participate in the land market.

The third point presents a unique feature of ancient Hebrew politico-economic order that is not found in contemporary market systems. Land could not be sold forever. Thus a market transaction for land did not result in a permanent transfer of title to the purchaser.

Hebrew politico-economy enforced a mechanism called redemption of land. Leviticus 25:24 (KJV) states the land redemption principle: “And in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land.”

Redemption means to buy back. Every land sale contract tacitly had a buy-back clause. The thinking behind it shows unusual brilliance: it allowed land owners to dispose of the land to those who could put it to more productive use without the seller permanently losing the property.

This system should not be confused with a long lease because title passed to the buyer. Title to purchased land expired. However, the purchaser could sell the land to someone else. Clearly, a full market system for land operated without hindrance.

The land title expiration clause needs amplification.

Leviticus 25:10(KJV) states: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”

The purchaser of land from the original owner could enjoy title up to a maximum of 49 years. In the 50th year, the year of jubilee, title expired and reverted to the original owner.

The genius in the system lies in the fact that valuation of land was based on the jubilee cycle: the purchase price for land was proportional to years remaining until the jubilee.

The basis for land valuation was the expected farming output from the land. Leviticus 25:15(KJV) outlines the principle: “According to the number of years after the jubilee thou shalt buy (land) of thy neighbour, and according unto the number of years of the fruits he shall sell (land) unto thee.” (emphasis is mine).

Another powerful mechanism in ancient Hebrew politico-economy was a land compensation principle. If the original owner decided to take back the land before the jubilee, they had to compensate in full.

Leviticus 25:27 (KJV) states how compensation for land was to be done: “Then let him count the years of the sale thereof, and restore the overplus unto the man to whom he sold it; that he may return unto his possession.”

Compensation was based on output of land built into the price of the land. The redeemer of land was obliged to compensate for the output that the farm would have been produced for each year until the jubilee. Compensation was based on a transparent and justly determined market value for land.

Based on ancient Hebrew politico-economy, I recommend our government to adopt the following policy recommendations: Allow a market for agricultural land; put an expiration date to the title at 49 years or more (terminable land title) — providers of capital should adjust their lending practices accordingly.

After lapse of title, the immediate purchaser is allowed to make a fresh purchase — this ensures that productive farms are guaranteed continuity, giving stability and predictability; government invests the income from sale of land in a sovereign wealth fund to preserve wealth for future generations and to fund compensation for any land it redeems before the title lapse.

It is clear the theocratic market system of the ancient Hebrews, which later became a monarchical market system, provides an escape route from the prison our government finds itself in — possession of a dead asset. Let the land be utilised by productive, enterprising individuals.

The proposed terminable land title system can solve another dilemma. Government can fund the compensation for land seized from whites by taking profits from investments in a sovereign wealth fund of the proceeds of sale of land in the proposed terminable land title system. Most of the profit from sovereign wealth investments should be re-invested in social projects that benefit every Zimbabwean. Since our government claims it is holding land on behalf of every Zimbabwean, it can adopt the property rights system of ancient Hebrews’ politico-economy to unlock value in our precious land lying idle.

Chulu is a management consultant and classic grounded theory researcher. He has published research in an international peer reviewed academic journal.

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