Our social edifice may be constructed with all possible labor and ingenuity, and be strongly cramped together with cunningly devised enactments, but if there be no rectitude in its component parts, if it is not built on upright principles, it will assuredly tumble to pieces. … Not as adventitious, therefore, will the wise man regard the faith that is in him, not as something which may be slighted, and made subordinate to calculations of policy; but as the supreme authority to which all his actions should bend. The highest truth conceivable by him he will fearlessly utter; and will endeavour to get embodied in fact his purest idealisms: knowing that, let what may come of it, he is thus playing his appointed paxt in the world-knowing that, if he can get done the thing he aims at—well: if not—well also; though not so well.—
Herbert Spencer, 1850.

  • Chapter I – Social Statics – The Right to the use of the Earth
  • Chapter II—The Incongruous Passage
  • Chapter III—Social Statics—The Right Of Property
  • Chapter IV—Mr. Spencer’s Confusion As To Rights.
  • Chapter V—Mr. Spencer’s Confusion As To Value
  • Chapter VI—From Social StaticsTo Political Institutions

Chapter I
Social Statics–The Right To Land

In his first book, Social Statics, published in 1850, Mr. Spencer essayed to discover some fixed principle that might serve as a starting-point in political ethics and afford a surer guide than shifting notions of expediency or the vague formula of the greatest good to the greatest number. He found it in the principle that “every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man”. Or, as he otherwise puts it, that “every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

The first deduction he makes from this “first principle” is the equal right to life and personal liberty, and the second, the equal right to the use of the earth.

This first deduction he treats briefly in Chapter VIII, “The Rights of Life and Personal Liberty,” saying, “These are such evident corollaries from our first principle as scarcely to need a separate statement.”

The second deduction, only next in importance to the rights to life and personal liberty, and indeed involved in them, he treats at length in a chapter which I give in full:

  • Chapter IX—The Right to the Use of the Earth
    § 1. Given a race of beings having like claims to pursue the objects of their desires; given a world adapted to the gratification of those desires—a world into which such beings are similarly born—and it unavoidably follows that they have equal rights to the use of this world. For if each of them “has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other,” then each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty. And conversely, it is manifest that no one, or part of them, may use the earth in such a way as to prevent the rest from similarly using it; seeing that to do this is to assume greater freedom than the rest, and consequently to break the law.

    § 2. Equity, therefore, does not permit property in land. For if one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual and may be held by him for his sole use and benefit as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions of the earth’s surface may be so held; and eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held, and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands. Observe now the dilemma to which this leads. Supposing the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only. They are all trespassers. Save by the permission of the lords of the soil, they can have no room for the soles of their feet. Nay, should the others think fit to deny them a resting place, these landless men might equitably be expelled from the earth altogether. If, then, the assumption that land can be held as property involves that the whole globe may become the private domain of a part of its inhabitants; and if, by consequence, the rest of its inhabitants can then exercise their faculties–can then exist even–only by consent of the landowners, it is manifest that an exclusive possession of the soil necessitates an infringement of the law of equal freedom. For men who cannot “live and move and have their being” without the leave of others cannot be equally free with those others.

    § 3. Passing from the consideration of the possible to that of the actual, we find yet further reason to deny the rectitude of property in land. It can never be pretended that the existing titles to such property are legitimate. Should anyone think so, let him look in the chronicles. Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims of superior cunning–these are the sources to which those titles may be traced. The original deeds were written with the sword rather than with the pen: not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers; blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax. Could valid claims be thus constituted? Hardly. And if not, what becomes of the pretensions of all subsequent holders of estates so obtained? Does sale or bequest generate a right where it did not previously exist? Would the original claimants be nonsuited at the bar of reason because the thing stolen from them had changed hands? Certainly not. And if one act of transfer can give no title, can many? No; though nothing be multiplied forever, it will not produce one. Even the law recognizes this principle. An existing holder must, if called upon, substantiate the claims of those from whom he purchased or inherited his property; and any flaw in the original parchment, even though the property should have had a score of intermediate owners, quashes his right.
    “But Time,” say some, “is a great legalizer. Immemorial possession must be taken to constitute a legitimate claim. That which has been held from age to age as private property, and has been bought and sold as such, must now be considered as irrevocably belonging to individuals.” To which proposition a willing assent shall be given when its propounders can assign it a definite meaning. To do this, however, they must find satisfactory answers to such questions as: How long does it take for what was originally a wrong to grow into a right? At what rate per annum do invalid claims become valid? If a title gets perfect in a thousand years, how much more than perfect will it be in two thousand years?–and so forth. For the solution of which they will require a new calculus.
    Whether it may be expedient to admit claims of certain standing is not the point. We have here nothing to do with considerations of conventional privilege or legislative convenience. We have simply to inquire what is the verdict given by pure equity in the matter. And this verdict enjoins a protest against every existing pretension to the individual possession of the soil, and dictates the assertion that the right of mankind at large to the earth’s surface is still valid, all deeds, customs, and laws notwithstanding.

    § 4. Not only have present land tenures an indefensible origin, but it is impossible to discover any mode in which land can become private property. Cultivation is commonly considered to give a legitimate title. He who has reclaimed a tract of land from its primitive wildness is supposed to have thereby made it his own. But if his right is disputed, by what system of logic can he vindicate it? Let us listen a moment to his pleadings.
         “Hallo, you, sir,” cries the cosmopolite to some backwoodsman smoking at the door of his shanty, “by what authority do you take possession of these acres that you have cleared, round which you have put up a snake fence and on which you have built this log house?”
         “By what authority? I squatted here because there was no one to say nay–because I was as much at liberty to do so as any other man. Besides, now that I have cut down the wood and plowed and cropped the ground, this farm is more mine than yours or anybody’s, and I mean to keep it.”
         “Ay, so you all say. But I do not yet see how you have substantiated your claim. When you came here you found the land producing trees–sugar maples, perhaps; or maybe it was covered with prairie grass and wild strawberries. Well, instead of these you made it yield wheat, or maize, or tobacco. Now I want to understand how, by exterminating one set of plants and making the soil bear another set in their place, you have constituted yourself lord of this soil for all succeeding time.”
         “Oh, those natural products which I destroyed were of little or no use; whereas I caused the earth to bring forth things good for food–things that help to give life and happiness.”
         “Still you have not shown why such a process makes the portion of earth you have so modified yours. What is it that you have done? You have turned over the soil to a few inches in depth with a spade or a plow; you have scattered over this prepared surface a few seeds; and you have gathered the fruits which the sun, rain, and air helped the soil to produce. Just tell me, if you please, by what magic have these acts made you sole owner of that vast mass of matter, having for its base the surface of your estate and for its apex the center of the globe? All of which it appears you would monopolize to yourself and your descendants forever.”
         “Well, if it isn’t mine, whose is it? I have dispossessed nobody. When I crossed the Mississippi yonder I found nothing but the silent woods. If someone else had settled here and made this clearing, he would have had as good a right to the location as I have. I have done nothing but what any other person was at liberty to do had he come before me. While they were unreclaimed, these lands belonged to all men–as much to one as to another–and they are now mine simply because I was the first to discover and improve them.”
         “You say truly when you say that ‘while they were unreclaimed these lands belonged to all men.’ And it is my duty to tell you that they belong to all men still, and that your ‘improvements,’ as you call them, cannot vitiate the claim of all men. You may plow and harrow, and sow and reap; you may turn over the soil as often as you like; but all your manipulations will fail to make that soil yours, which was not yours to begin with. Let me put a case. Suppose now that in the course of your wanderings you come upon an empty house, which in spite of its dilapidated state takes your fancy; suppose that with the intention of making it your abode you expend much time and trouble in repairing it–that you paint and paper and whitewash, and at considerable cost bring it into a habitable state. Suppose further that on some fatal day a stranger is announced who turns out to be the heir to whom this house has been bequeathed, and that this professed heir is prepared with all the necessary proofs of his identity; what becomes of your improvements? Do they give you a valid title to the house? Do they quash the title of the original claimant?”
         “Neither, then, do your pioneering operations give you a valid title to this land. Neither do they quash the title of its original claimants–the human race. The world is God’s bequest to mankind. All men are joint heirs to it; you among the number. And because you have taken up your residence on a certain part of it and have subdued, cultivated, beautified that part–improved it, as you say–you are not therefore warranted in appropriating it as entirely private property. At least if you do so, you may at any moment be justly expelled by the lawful owner–Society.”
         “Well, but surely you would not eject me without making some recompense for the great additional value I have given to this tract, by reducing what was a wilderness into fertile fields. You would not turn me adrift and deprive me of all the benefit of those years of toil it has cost me to bring this spot into its present state.”
         “Of course not; just as in the case of the house, you would have an equitable title to compensation from the proprietor for repairs and new fittings, so the community cannot justly take possession of this estate without paying for all that you have done to it. This extra worth which your labor has imparted to it is fairly yours; and although you have, without leave, busied yourself in bettering what belongs to the community, yet no doubt the community will duly discharge your claim. But admitting this is quite a different thing from recognizing your right to the land itself. It may be true that you are entitled to compensation for the improvements this enclosure has received at your hands; and at the same time it may be equally true that no act, form, proceeding, or ceremony can make this enclosure your private property.”

    § 5. It does indeed at first sight seem possible for the earth to become the exclusive possession of individuals by some process of equitable distribution. “Why,” it may be asked, “should not men agree to a fair subdivision? If all are co-heirs, why may not the estate be equally apportioned and each be afterward perfect master of his own share?”
         To this question it may in the first place be replied that such a division is vetoed by the difficulty of fixing the values of respective tracts of land. Variations in productiveness, different degrees of accessibility, advantages of climate, proximity to the centers of civilization–these and other such considerations remove the problem out of the sphere of mere mensuration into the region of impossibility.
         But, waiving this, let us inquire who are to be the allottees. Shall adult males and all who have reached twenty-one on a specified day be the fortunate individuals? If so, what is to be done with those who come of age on the morrow? Is it proposed that each man, woman, and child shall have a section? If so, what becomes of all who are to be born next year? And what will be the fate of those whose fathers sell their estates and squander the proceeds? These portionless ones must constitute a class already described as having no right to a resting place on earth–as living by the sufferance of their fellow men–as being practically serfs. And the existence of such a class is wholly at variance with the law of equal freedom.
         Until, therefore, we can produce a valid commission authorizing us to make this distribution, until it can be proved that God has given one charter of privileges to one generation and another to the next, until we can demonstrate that men born after a certain date are doomed to slavery, we must consider that no such allotment is permissible.

    § 6. Probably some will regard the difficulties inseparable from individual ownership of the soil as caused by pushing to excess a doctrine applicable only within rational limits. This is a very favorite style of thinking with some. There are people who hate anything in the shape of exact conclusions, and these are of them. According to such, the right is never in either extreme, but always halfway between the extremes. They are continually trying to reconcile Yes and No. Ifs and buts and excepts are their delight. They have so great a faith in “the judicious mean” that they would scarcely believe an oracle if it uttered a full-length principle. Were you to inquire of them whether the earth turns on its axis from east to west or from west to east, you might almost expect the reply, “A little of both,” or “Not exactly either.” It is doubtful whether they would assent to the axiom that the whole is greater than its part, without making some qualification. They have a passion for compromises. To meet their taste, Truth must always be spiced with a little Error. They cannot conceive of a pure, definite, entire, and unlimited law. And hence, in discussions like the present, they are constantly petitioning for limitations–always wishing to Abate and modify and moderate–ever protesting against doctrines being pursued to their ultimate consequences.
         But it behooves such to recollect that ethical truth is as exact and as peremptory as physical truth, and that in this matter of land tenure the verdict of morality must be distinctly yea or nay. Either men have a right to make the soil private property or they have not. There is no medium. We must choose one of the two positions. There can be no half-and-half opinion. In the nature of things the fact must be either one way or the other.
         If men have not such a right, we are at once delivered from the several predicaments already pointed out. If they have such a right, then is that right absolute, sacred, not on any pretense to be violated. If they have such a right, then is his Grace of Leeds justified in warning off tourists from Ben Mac Dhui, the Duke of Atholl in closing Glen Tilt, the Duke of Buccleugh in denying sites to the Free Church, and the Duke of Sutherland in banishing the Highlanders to make room for sheep walks. If they have such a right, then it would be proper for the sole proprietor of any kingdom–a Jersey or Guernsey, for example to impose just what regulations he might choose on its inhabitants–to tell them that they should not live on his property unless they professed a certain religion, spoke a particular language, paid him a specified reverence, adopted an authorized dress, and conformed to all other conditions he might see fit to make. If they have such a right, then is there truth in that tenet of the ultra-Tory school, that the landowners are the only legitimate rulers of a country–that the people at large remain in it only by the landowner’s permission and ought consequently to submit to the landowners’ rule and respect whatever institutions the landowners set up. There is no escape from these inferences. They are necessary corollaries to the theory that the earth can become individual property. And they can be repudiated only by denying that theory.

    § 7. After all, nobody does implicitly believe in landlordism. We hear of estates being held under the king–that is, the State–or of their being kept in trust for the public benefit; and not that they are the inalienable possessions of their nominal owners. Moreover, we daily deny landlordism by our legislation. Is a canal, a railway, or a turnpike road to be made, we do not scruple to seize just as many acres as may be requisite, allowing the holders compensation for the capital invested. We do not wait for consent. An act of Parliament supersedes the authority of title deeds and serves proprietors with notices to quit, whether they will or not. Either this is equitable or it is not. Either the public are free to resume as much of the earth’s surface as they think fit, or the titles of the landowners must be considered absolute, and all national works must be postponed until lords and squires please to part with the requisite slices of their estates. If we decide that the claims of individual ownership must give way, then we imply that the right of the nation at large to the soil is supreme; that the right of private possession exists only by general consent; that general consent being withdrawn, it ceases–or, in other words, that it is no right at all.

    § 8. “But to what does this doctrine, that men are equally entitled to the use of the earth, lead? Must we return to the times of unenclosed wilds and subsist on roots, berries, and game? Or are we to be left to the management of Messrs. Fourrier, Owen, Louis Blanc, and Co.?” Neither. Such a doctrine is consistent with the highest state of civilization; may be carried out without involving a community of goods; and need cause no very serious revolution in existing arrangements. The change required would simply be a change of landlords. Separate ownerships would merge into the joint-stock ownership of the public. Instead of being in the possession of individuals, the country would be held by the great corporate body–Society. Instead of leasing his acres from an isolated proprietor, the farmer would lease them from the nation. Instead of paying his rent to the agent of Sir John or His Grace, he would pay it to an agent or deputy agent of the community. Stewards would be public officials instead of private ones, and tenancy the only land tenure.
         A state of things so ordered would be in perfect harmony with the moral law. Under it all men would be equally landlords; all men would be alike free to become tenants. A, B, C, and the rest might compete for a vacant farm as now, and one of them might take that farm, without in any way violating the principles of pure equity. All would be equally free to bid; all would be equally free to refrain. And when the farm had been let to A, B, or C, all parties would have done that which they willed–the one in choosing to pay a given sum to his fellow men for the use of certain lands–the others in refusing to pay that sum. Clearly, therefore, on such a system, the earth might be enclosed, occupied, and cultivated in entire subordination to the law of equal freedom.

    § 9. No doubt great difficulties must attend the resumption, by mankind at large, of their rights to the soil. The question of compensation to existing proprietors is a complicated one–one that perhaps cannot be settled in a strictly equitable manner. Had we to deal with the parties who originally robbed the human race of its heritage, we might make short work of the matter. But, unfortunately, most of our present landowners are men who have, either mediately or immediately–either by their own acts or by the acts of their ancestors–given for their estates equivalents of honestly earned wealth, believing that they were investing their savings in a legitimate manner. To estimate justly and liquidate the claims of such is one of the most intricate problems society will one day have to solve. But with this perplexity and our extrication from it, abstract morality has no concern. Men, having got themselves into the dilemma by disobedience to the law, must get out of it as well as they can, and with as little injury to the landed class as may be.
         Meanwhile, we shall do well to recollect that there are others besides the landed class to be considered. In our tender regard for the vested interests of the few, let us not forget that the rights of the many are in abeyance, and must remain so, as long as the earth is monopolized by individuals. Let us remember, too, that the injustice thus inflicted on the mass of mankind is an injustice of the gravest nature. The fact that it is not so regarded proves nothing. In early phases of civilization even homicide is thought lightly of. The suttees of India, together with the practice elsewhere followed of sacrificing a hecatomb of human victims at the burial of a chief, shows this; and probably cannibals consider the slaughter of those whom “the fortune of war” has made their prisoners perfectly justifiable. It was once also universally supposed that slavery was a natural and quite legitimate institution–a condition into which some were born and to which they ought to submit as to a Divine ordination; nay, indeed, a great proportion of mankind hold this opinion still. A higher social development, however, has generated in us a better faith, and we now to a considerable extent recognize the claims of humanity. But our civilization is only initial. It may by and by be perceived that Equity utters dictates to which we have not yet listened; and men may then learn that to deprive others of their rights to the use of the earth is to commit a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or personal liberties.

    § 10. Briefly reviewing the argument, we see that the right of each man to the use of the earth, limited only by the like rights of his fellow men, is immediately deducible from the law of equal freedom. We see that the maintenance of this right necessarily forbids private property in land. On examination, all existing titles to such property turn out to be invalid; those founded on reclamation, inclusive. It appears that not even an apportionment of the earth among its inhabitants could generate a legitimate proprietorship. We find that if pushed to its ultimate consequences a claim to exclusive possession of the soil involves a landowning despotism. We further find that such a claim is constantly denied by the enactments of our legislature. And we find lastly that the theory of the co-heirship of all men to the soil is consistent with the highest civilization, and that, however difficult it may be to embody that theory in fact, Equity sternly commands it to be done.

Briefly stated, the argument of this chapter is—

  1. The equal right of all men to the use of land springs from the fact of their existence in a world adapted to their needs, and into which they are similarly born.
  2. Equity, therefore, does not permit private property in land, since that would involve the right of some to deny to others the use of land.
  3. Private property in land, as at present existing, can show no original title valid in justice, and such validity cannot be gained either by sale or bequest, or by peaceable possession during any length of time.
  4. Nor is there any mode by which land can justly become private property. Cultivation and improvement can give title only to their results, not to the land itself.
  5. Nor could an equitable division of land with the consent of all, even if it were not impossible that such a division could be made, give valid title to private property in land. For the equal right to the use of land would attach to all those thereafter born, irrespective of any agreement made by their predecessors.
  6. There can be no modification of this dictate of equity. Either all men have equal rights to the use of the land, or some men have the just right to enslave others and deprive them of life.
  7. As a matter of fact, nobody does really believe in private property in land. An Act of Parliament, even now, supersedes title-deeds. That is to say, the right of private ownership in land exists only by general consent; that being withdrawn, it ceases.
  8. But the doctrine that all men are equally entitled to the use of land does not involve communism or socialism, and need cause no serious change in existing arrangements. It is not necessary that the state should manage land: it is only necessary that rent, instead of going, as now, to individuals, should be taken by society for common purposes.
  9. There may be difficulty in justly liquidating the claims of existing landowners, but men having got themselves into a dilemma must get out of it as well as they can. The landed class are not alone to be considered. So long as the treatment of land as private property continues, the masses suffer from an injustice only inferior in wickedness to depriving them of life or personal liberty.10. However difficult it may be to embody in fact the theory of the co-heirship of all men to the soil, equity sternly demands it to be done.

Chapter II—
The Incongruous Passage

ALTHOUGH this chapter shows that Mr. Spencer had not fully thought out the question, and saw no way to secure equality in the use of land, save the clumsy one of having the state formally resume land and let it out in lots to suit, the argument is clear and logical, except in one place. This one weak and confusing spot is the beginning of Section 9:

“No doubt great difficulties must attend the resumption, by mankind at large, of their rights to the soil. The question of compensation to existing proprietors is a complicated one—one that perhaps cannot be settled in a strictly equitable manner. Had we to deal with the parties who originally robbed the human race of its heritage, we might make short work of the matter. But, unfortunately, most of our present landowners are men who have, either mediately or immediately—either by their own acts, or by the acts of their ancestors—given for their estates equivalents of honestly earned wealth, believing that they were investing their savings in a legitimate manner. To justly estimate and liquidate the claims of such, is one of the most intricate problems society will one day have to solve.”

Taken by itself, this passage seems to admit that existing landowners should be compensated for the land they hold whenever society shall resume land for the benefit of all. Though this is diametrically opposed to all that has gone before and all that follows after, it is the sense in which it has been generally understood. It is the sense in which I understood it when, in quoting from Social Staticsin Progress and Poverty, I spoke of it as a careless concession, which Mr. Spencer on reflection would undoubtedly reconsider. For after even such a man as John Stuart Mill could say, “The land of every country belongs to the people of that country; the individuals called landowners have no right in morality and justice to anything but the rent, or compensation for its saleable value,” the English writers had seemed to me afflicted with a sort of colorblindness on the subject of compensation. And that this affliction had suddenly befallen Mr. Spencer also was the only explanation of this passage that then occurred to me. Nor, if it means compensation for land, is there any other explanation; for all along Mr. Spencer has been insisting on the natural, inalienable and equal right of all men to the use of land. He has not only denied the validity of all existing claims to the private ownership of land, but has declared that there is no possible way in which land can become private property. He has mercilessly and scornfully exposed the fallacy on which the notion of compensation to landowners is based—the idea that change of hands and lapse of time can turn wrong into right, make valid claims originally invalid, and deprive the human race of what in the nature of things is, not at any one time, but at all times, their inalienable heritage. Nothing but moral color-blindness can explain how a writer who has just asserted all this can in the same breath propose to compensate landlords.

But a more careful reading of this chapter leads me now to think that the apparent inconsistency of these sentences it may arise from careless statement, and that what Mr. Spencer was really thinking of was the compensation of landowners, not for their land, but for their improvements.

In the context Mr. Spencer has scouted the idea of force, or acquiescence, or voluntary partition, or unopposed appropriation, or cultivation, or improvement, or sale or bequest, or lapse of time, giving any title to private property in land. But he realises, as we all do (see especially the last two paragraphs of Section 4), that should the community resume for all the inalienable right to the use of land, there would remain to holders of improvements made in good faith an equitable claim for those improvements. 

It is evident throughout Social Staticsthat no idea of the possibility of securing equal rights to land in any other way than that of the state taking possession of the land and renting it out had dawned on Mr. Spencer. And since in all settled countries the land thus taken possession of by the state would be land to which in large part improvements of various kinds had in good faith been inseparably attached, the matter of determining what equitable compensation should be paid to owners on account of these improvements naturally seemed to him a delicate and difficult task—one, in fact, incapable of more than an approximation to justice.

Keeping this in mind, it is clear that a few interpolations, justified by the context, and indeed made necessary by it, will remove all difficulty. Let me print these sentences again with such interpolations, which I will distinguish by italics:—

“The question of compensation to existing proprietors for their improvements is a complicated one—one that perhaps cannot be settled in a strictly equitable manner. Had we to deal with the parties who originally robbed the human race of its heritage, we might make short work of the matter, for their improvements we should be under no obligation to regard. But unfortunately, most of our present landowners are men who have, either mediately or immediately—either by their own acts, or by the acts of their ancestors—given for their estates, which include many inseparable improvements, equivalents of honestly earned wealth, believing that they were investing their savings in a legitimate manner. To justly estimate and liquidate the claims of such for these improvements, is one of the most intricate problems society will one day have to solve.”

Thus understood, these sentences become coherent with their context. And that this was what Mr. Spencer had in mind is supported by his more recent utterances; for while he has allowed these sentences to be understood as meaning compensation to landowners for their land, yet in the only places where he has stated in terms what the compensation he has proposed is to be for, he has, as will hereafter be seen, spoken of it as “compensation for the artificial value given by cultivation,” or by some similar phrase showed that what was in his mind was merely compensation for improvements. I therefore gladly make what honourable amend I can for having so misunderstood him as to imagine that in Social Staticshe intended to give any countenance to the idea that it was incumbent on men, when taking possession of their heritage, to pay any compensation to existing landowners for the value of that heritage.

Chapter III—
Social Statics—The Right Of Property

The chapter of Social Statics “The Right to the Use of the Earth” is followed by a chapter on “The Right of Property.” For the reason that Mr. Spencer has since referred to this chapter as to be taken in connection with what was said in the preceding one, it is also worth while to reprint it in full:—

    § 1. The moral law, being the law of the social state, is obliged wholly to ignore the ante-social state. Constituting, as the principles of pure morality do, a code of conduct for the perfect man, they cannot be made to adapt themselves to the actions of the uncivilized man, even under the most ingenious hypothetical conditions-cannot be made even to recognize those actions so as to pass any definite sentence upon them. Overlooking this fact, thinkers, in their attempts to prove some of the first theorems of ethics, have commonly fallen into the error of referring back to an imaginary state of savage wildness, instead of referring forward to an ideal civilization, as they should have done; and have, in consequence, entangled themselves in difficulties arising out of the discordance between ethical principles and the assumed premises. To this circumstance is attributable that vagueness by which the arguments used to establish the right of property in a logical manner are characterized. While possessed of a certain Plausibility, they yet cannot be considered conclusive, inasmuch as they suggest questions and objections that admit of no satisfactory answers. Let us take a sample of these arguments and examine its defects.
         “Though the earth and all inferior creatures,” says Locke, “be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has a right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least when there is enough and as good left in common for others.”
         If inclined to cavil, one might in reply to this observe that as, according to the premises, “the earth and all inferior creatures”—all things, in fact, that the earth produces—are “common to all men,” the consent of all men must be obtained before any article can be equitably “removed from the common state nature hath placed it in.” It might be argued that the real question is overlooked, when it is said that, by gathering any natural product, a man “hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby made it his property”; for that the point to be debated is whether he had any right to gather, or mix his labor with that which, by the hypothesis, previously belonged to mankind at large. The reasoning used in the last chapter to prove that no amount of labor, bestowed by an individual upon a part of the earth’s surface, can nullify the title of society to that part might be similarly employed to show that no one can, by the mere act of appropriating to himself any wild unclaimed animal or fruit, supersede the joint claims of other men to it. It may be quite true that the labor a man expends in catching or gathering gives him a better right to the thing caught or gathered than any one other man; but the question at issue is whether by labor so expended he has made his right to the thing caught or gathered greater than the pre-existing rights of all other men put together. And unless he can prove that he has done this, his title to possession cannot be admitted as a matter of right, but can be conceded only on the ground of convenience.
         Further difficulties are suggested by the qualification that the claim to any article of property thus obtained is valid only “when there is enough and as good left in common for others.” A condition like this gives birth to such a host of queries, doubts, and limitations as practically to neutralize the general proposition entirely. It may be asked, for example: How is it to be known that enough is “left in common for others”? Who can determine whether what remains is “as good” as what is taken? How if the remnant is less accessible? If there is not enough “left in common for others,” how must the right of appropriation be exercised? Why, in such case, does the mixing of labor with the acquired object cease to “exclude the common right of other men”? Supposing enough to be attainable, but not all equally good, by what rule must each man choose? Out of which inquisition it seems impossible to liberate the alleged right, without such mutilations as to render it, in an ethical point of view, entirely valueless.
         Thus, as already hinted, we find that the circumstances of savage life render the principles of abstract morality inapplicable; for it is impossible, under ante-social conditions, to determine the rightness or wrongness of certain actions by an exact measurement of the amount of freedom assumed by the parties concerned. We must not expect, therefore, that the right of property can be satisfactorily based upon the premises afforded by such a state of existence.

    § 2. But under the system of land tenure pointed out in the last chapter as the only one that is consistent with the equal claims of all men to the use of the earth, these difficulties disappear, and the right of property obtains a legitimate foundation. We have seen that, without any infraction of the law of equal freedom, an individual may lease from society a given surface of soil, by agreeing to pay in return a stated amount of the produce he obtains from that soil. We found that, in doing this, he does no more than what every other man is equally free with himself to do; that each has the same power with himself to become the tenant; and that the rent he pays accrues alike to all. Having thus hired a tract of land from his fellow men, for a given period, for understood purposes, and on specified terms—having thus obtained, for a time, the exclusive use of that land by a definite agreement with its owners, it is manifest that an individual may, without any infringement of the rights of others, appropriate to himself that portion of produce which remains after he has paid to mankind the promised rent. He has now, to use Locke’s expression, “mixed his labor with” certain products of the earth; and his claim to them is in this case valid, because he obtained the consent of society before so expending his labor; and having fulfilled the condition which society imposed in giving that consent—the payment of rent–society, to fulfill its part of the agreement, must acknowledge his title to that surplus which remains after the rent has been paid. “Provided you deliver to us a stated share of the produce which by cultivation you can obtain from this piece of land, we give you the exclusive use of the remainder of that produce”: these are the words of the contract; and in virtue of this contract, the tenant may equitably claim the supplementary share as his private property; may so claim it without any disobedience to the law of equal freedom; and has therefore a right so to claim it.
         Any doubt that may be felt as to the fact that this is a logical deduction from our first principle, that every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, may be readily cleared up by comparing the respective degrees of freedom assumed in such a case by the occupier and the members of society with whom he bargains. As was shown in the preceding chapter, if the public altogether deprive any individual of the use of the earth, they allow him less liberty than they themselves claim; and by so breaking the law of equal freedom commit a wrong. If, conversely, an individual usurps a given portion of the earth, to which, as we have seen, all other men have as good a title as himself, he breaks the law by assuming more liberty than the rest. But when an individual holds land as a tenant of society, a balance is maintained between these extremes, and the claims of both parties are respected. A price is paid by the one for a certain privilege granted by the other. By the fact of the agreement being made, it is shown that such price and privilege are considered. to be equivalents. The lessor and the lessee have both, within the prescribed limits, done that which they willed: the one in letting a certain holding for a specified sum, the other in agreeing to give that sum. And so long as this contract remains intact, the law of equal freedom is duly observed. If, however, any of the prescribed conditions be not fulfilled, the law is necessarily broken, and the parties are involved in one of the predicaments above named. If the tenant refuses to pay the rent, then he tacitly lays claim to the exclusive use and benefit of the land he occupies—practically asserts that he is the sole owner of its produce, and consequently violates the law by assuming a greater share of freedom than the rest of mankind. If, on the other hand, society take from the tenant that portion of the fruits obtained by the culture of his farm, which remains with him after the payment of rent, they virtually deny him the use of the earth entirely (for by the use of the earth we mean the use of its products), and in so doing claim for themselves a greater share of liberty than they allow him. Clearly, therefore, this surplus produce equitably remains with the tenant; society cannot take it without trespassing upon his freedom; he can take it without trespassing on the freedom of society. And as, according to the law, he is free to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other, he is free to take possession of such surplus as his property.

    § 3. The doctrine that all men have equal rights to the use of the earth does indeed, at first sight, seem to countenance a species of social organization at variance with that from which the right of property has just been deduced; an organization, namely, in which the public, instead of letting out the land to individual members of their body, shall retain it in their own hands, cultivate it by joint-stock agency, and share the produce: in fact, what is usually termed Socialism or Communism.
         Plausible though it may be, such a scheme is not capable of realization in strict conformity with the moral law. Of the two forms under which it may be presented, the one is ethically imperfect; and the other, although correct in theory, is impracticable.
         Thus, if an equal portion of the earth’s produce is awarded to every man, irrespective of the amount or quality of the labor he has contributed toward the obtainment of that produce, a breach of equity is committed. Our first principle requires, not that all shall have like shares of the things which minister to the gratification of the faculties, but that all shall have like freedom to pursue those things—shall have like scope. It is one thing to give to each an opportunity of acquiring the objects he desires; it is another, and quite a different thing, to give the objects themselves, no matter whether due endeavor has or has not been made to obtain them. The one we have seen to be the primary law of the Divine scheme; the other, by interfering with the ordained connection between desire and gratification, shows its disagreement with that scheme. Nay, more, it necessitates an absolute violation of the principle of equal freedom. For when we assert the entire liberty of each, bounded only by the like liberty of all, we assert that each is free to do whatever his desires dictate, within the prescribed limits; that each is free, therefore, to claim for himself all those gratifications and sources of gratification attainable by him within those limits–all those gratifications and sources of gratification which he can procure without trespassing upon the spheres of action of his neighbors. If, therefore, out of many starting with like fields of activity, one obtains by his greater strength, greater ingenuity, or greater application more gratifications and sources of gratification than the rest, and does this without in any way trenching upon the equal freedom of the rest, the moral law assigns him an exclusive right to all those extra gratifications and sources of gratification; nor can the rest take from him without claiming for themselves greater liberty of action than he claims, and thereby violating that law. Whence it follows that an equal apportionment of the fruits of the earth among all is not consistent with pure justice.
         If, on the other hand, each is to have allotted to him a share of produce proportionate to the degree in which he has aided production, the proposal, while it is abstractedly just, is no longer practicable. Were all men cultivators of the soil, it would perhaps be possible to form an approximate estimate of their several claims. But to ascertain the respective amounts of help given by different kinds of mental and bodily laborers toward procuring the general stock of the necessaries of life is an utter impossibility. We have no means of making such a division save that afforded by the law of supply and demand, and this means the hypothesis excludes.[1]

    § 4. An argument fatal to the communist theory is suggested by the fact that a desire for property is one of the elements of our nature. Repeated allusion has been made to the admitted truth, that acquisitiveness is an unreasoning impulse quite distinct from the desires whose gratifications property secures—an impulse that is often obeyed at the expense of those desires. And if a propensity to personal acquisition be really a component of man’s constitution, then that cannot be a right form of society which affords it no scope. Socialists do indeed allege that private appropriation is an abuse of this propensity, whose normal function, they say, is to impel us to accumulate for the benefit of the public at large. But in thus attempting to escape from one difficulty, they do but entangle themselves in another. Such an explanation overlooks the fact that the use and abuse of a faculty (whatever the etymology of the words may imply) differ only in degree; whereas their assumption is that they differ in kind. Gluttony is an abuse of the desire for food; timidity, an abuse of the feeling which in moderation produces prudence; servility, an abuse of the sentiment that generates respect; obstinacy, of that from which firmness springs: in all of which cases we find that the legitimate manifestations differ from the illegitimate ones merely in quantity and not in quality. So also with the instinct of accumulation. It may be quite true that its dictates have been and still are followed to an absurd excess, but it is also true that no change in the state of society will alter its nature and its office. To whatever extent moderated, it must still be a desire for personal acquisition. Whence it follows that a system affording opportunity for its exercise must ever be retained; which means that the system of private property must be retained, and this presupposes a right of private property, for by right we mean that which harmonizes with the human constitution as divinely ordained.

    § 5. There is, however, a still more awkward dilemma into which M. Proudhon and his party betray themselves. For if, as they assert, “all property is robbery”—if no one can equitably become the exclusive possessor of any article, or, as we say, obtain a right to it—then, among other consequences, it follows that a man can have no right to the things he consumes for food. And if these are not his before eating them, how can they become his at all? As Locke asks, “When do they begin to be his? When he digests? Or when he eats? Or when he boils? Or when he brings them home?” If no previous acts can make them his property, neither can any process of assimilation do it; not even their absorption into the tissues. Wherefore, pursuing the idea, we arrive at the curious conclusion that as the whole of his bones, muscles, skin, etc., have been thus built up from nutriment not belonging to him, a man has no property in his own flesh and blood, can have no valid title to himself, has no more claim to his own limbs than he has to the limbs of another, and has as good a right to his neighbor’s body as to his own! Did we exist after the same fashion as those compound polyps, in which a number of individuals are based upon a living trunk common to them all, such a theory would be rational enough. But until Communism can be carried to that extent, it will he best to stand by the old doctrine.

    § 6. Further argument appears to be unnecessary. We have seen that the right of property is deducible from the law of freedom, that it is presupposed by the human constitution, and that its denial involves absurdities.
         Were it not that we shall frequently have to refer to the fact hereafter, it would be scarcely needful to show that the taking away another’s property is an infringement of the law of equal freedom and is therefore wrong. If A appropriates to himself something belonging to B, one of two things must take place: either B does the like to A, or he does not. If A has no property, or if his property is inaccessible to B, B has evidently no opportunity of exercising equal freedom with A by claiming from him something of like value, and A has therefore assumed a greater share of freedom than he allows B and has broken the law. If, again, A’s property is open to B, and A permits B to use like freedom with himself by taking an equivalent, there is no violation of the law, and the affair practically becomes one of barter. But such a transaction will never take place save in theory, for A has no motive to appropriate B’s property with the intention of letting B take an equivalent; seeing that if he really means to let B have what B thinks an equivalent, he will prefer to make the exchange by consent in the ordinary way.
         The only case simulating this is one in which A takes from B a thing that B does not wish to part with—that is, a thing for which A can give B nothing that B thinks an equivalent—and as the amount of gratification which B has in the possession of this thing is the measure of its value to him, it follows that if A cannot give B a thing which affords B equal gratification, or in other words what he thinks an equivalent, then A has taken from B what affords A satisfaction, but does not return to B what affords B satisfaction, and has therefore broken the law by assuming the greater share of freedom. Wherefore we find it to be a logical deduction from the law of equal freedom that no man can rightfully take property from another against his will.
         There is in this, it will be observed, no modification whatever of the strenuous assertion in Chapter IX of the equal, natural and inalienable right of all men to the use of land. On the contrary, so strongly, so uncompromisingly, does Mr. Spencer insist on the ethical invalidity of private property in land that he makes the formal consent of the community and the payment of rent to it a condition precedent to the individual right of property in things produced by labor. And, since no formal consent of this kind can be given until society has been well organized, he even goes to the length of denying that there can be any full right of property, or, indeed, any application of the principles of abstract morality, in any social condition lower than the civilized.

In brief, the argument of this chapter is—

  1. That the right of the individual to his labor does not give individual property in the product of labor, because labor can produce only by using land, which does not belong to any individual, but to all.
  2. But under the system of land tenure previously set forth as the only just one, in which the organized society assigns the use of a portion of land to an individual and collects rent from him for it, the conditions of the equal liberty of all are complied with, and the individual acquires a right of property in what remains of the product of his labor after paying rent.
  3. This system, under which the social organization would let land to individuals and collect rent from them, does not countenance the system under which it would carry on production and divide the product among its members, since, the powers and application of men being different, this would give to some more than they are entitled to, and to others less.
  4. This communistic or socialistic system is also condemned by the natural desire to acquire individual property.
  5. The denial of individual property may be brought into the awkward dilemma of a denial of the right of the individual to himself.
  6. The right of property having thus been established, the appropriation by one of property belonging to another is a denial of the law of equal freedom.

Chapter IV—
Mr. Spencer’s Confusion As To Rights.

My purpose in quoting Chapter X is to show what were the views on the land question expressed by Mr. Spencer in Social Statics. It may, however, be worthwhile, in passing, to clear up the confusion in which he here entangles the right to the products of labor with the right to land. This confusion he has not yet escaped from, as it is still to be seen in his latest book, Justice,where, though evidently anxious to minimize the land question, he still assumes that to justify the right of property in things produced from nature the consent of all men must be obtained or inferred.

Nor is it the right of property alone that is thus confused. Mr. Spencer really puts himself in the same dilemma that, in Section 5, he proposes to Proudhon; for if, as in this chapter he asserts, no one can equitably become the exclusive possessor of any natural substance or product until the joint rights of all the rest of mankind have been made over to him by some species of quit-claim—

Then, amongst other consequences, it follows, that a man can have no right to the things he consumes for food. And if these are not his before eating them, how can they become his at all? As Locke asks, “when do they begin to be his? when he digests? or when he eats? or when he boils? or when he brings them home?” If no previous acts can make them his property, neither can any process of assimilation do it; not even their absorption into the tissues. Wherefore, pursuing the idea, we arrive at the curious conclusion, that as the whole of his bones, muscles, skin, etc., have been thus built up from nutriment not belonging to him, a man has no property in his own flesh and blood—can have no valid title to himself—has no more claim to his own limbs than he has to the limbs of another—and has as good a right to his neighbor’s body as to his own!

The fact is, that without noticing the change, Mr. Spencer has dropped the idea of equal rights to land, and taken up in its stead a different idea—that of joint rights to land. That there is a difference may be seen at once. For joint rights may be and often are unequal rights.

The matter is an important one, as it is the source of a great deal of popular confusion. Let me, therefore explain it fully.

When men have equal rights to a thing, as for instance, to the rooms and appurtenances of a club of which they are members, each has a right to use all or any part of the thing that no other one of them is using. It is only where there is use or some indication of use by one of the others that even politeness dictates such a phrase as “Allow me!” or “If you please!”

But where men have joint rights to a thing, as for instance, to a sum of money held to their joint credit, then the consent of all the others is required for the use of the thing or of any part of it, by any one of them.

Now, the rights of men to the use of land are not joint rights; they are equal rights.

Were there only one man on earth, he would have a right to the use of the whole earth or any part of the earth.

When there is more than one man on earth, the right to the use of land that any one of them would have, were he alone, is not abrogated: it is only limited. The right of each to the use of land is still a direct, original right, which he holds of himself, and not by the gift or consent of the others; but it has become limited by the similar rights of the others, and is therefore an equal right. His right to use the earth still continues; but it has become, by reason of this limitation, not an absolute right to use any part of the earth, but (1) an absolute right to use any part of the earth as to which his use does not conflict with the equal rights of others (i.e., which no one else wants to use at the same time), and (2) a coequal right to the use of any part of the earth which he and others may want to use at the same time.

It is, thus, only where two or more men want to use the same land at the same time that equal rights to the use of land come in conflict, and the adjustment of society becomes necessary.

If we keep this idea of equal rights in mind—the idea, namely, that the rights are the first thing, and the equality merely their limitation—we shall have no difficulty. It is through forgetting this that Mr. Spencer has been led into confusion.

In Chapter IX, “The Right to the Use of the Earth,” he correctly apprehends and states the right to the use of land as an equal right. He says:—

Each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants,

Provided he allows all others the same liberty.

Here, in the first clause, is the primary right; in the second clause, the proviso or limitation.

But in the next chapter, “The Right of Property,” he has, seemingly without noticing it himself, substituted for the idea of equal rights to land the idea of joint rights to land. He says (Section l):

No amount of labor, bestowed by an individual upon a part of the earth’s surface, can nullify the title of society to that part, . . . no one can, by the mere act of appropriating to himself any wild unclaimed animal or fruit, supersede the joint claims of other men to it. It may be quite true that the labor a man expends in catching or gathering, gives him a better right to the thing caught or gathered, than any one other man; but the question at issue is, whether by labor so expended, he has made his right to the thing caught or gathered, greater than the preexisting rights of all other men put together. And unless he can prove that he has done this, his title to possession cannot be admitted as a matter of right, but can be conceded only on the ground of convenience.

Here the primary right—the right by which “each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants”—has been dropped out of sight, and the mere proviso has been swelled into the importance of the primary right, and has taken its place.

What Mr. Spencer here asserts, without noticing his change of position, is not that the rights of men to the use of land are equal right,—, but that they are joint rights. And, from this careless shifting of ground, he is led, not only into hypercritical questioning of Locke’s derivation of the right of property, but into the assumption that a man can have no right to the wild berries he has gathered on an untrodden prairie, unless he can prove the consent of all other men to his taking them. 

This reductio ad absurdum is a deduction from the idea of joint rights to land, whereas the deduction from the equality of rights to land would be that under such circumstance—a man would have a right to take all the berries he wanted, and that all other men together would have no right to forbid him. Indeed, so great is Mr. Spencer’s confusion, and so utterly unable does he become to assume a clear and indisputable right of property, that he has to cut the knot into which he has tangled the subject and finds no escape but in the preposterous declaration that the dictates of ethics have no application to, and do not exist in, any social state except that of the highest civilization.

Locke was not in error. The right of property in things produced by labor—and this is the only true right of property—springs directly from the right of the individual to himself, or as Locke expresses it, from his “property in his own person.” It is as clear and has as fully the sanction of equity in any savage state as in the most elaborate civilization. Labor can, of course, produce nothing without land; but the right to the use of land is a primary individual right, not springing from society, or depending on the consent of society, either expressed or implied, but inhering in the individual, and resulting from his presence in the world. Men must have rights before they can have equal rights. Each man has a right to use the world because he is here and wants to use the world. The equality of this right is merely a limitation arising from the presence of others with like rights. Society, in other words, does not grant, and cannot equitably withhold from any individual, the right to the use of land. That right exists before society and independently of society, belonging at birth to each individual, and ceasing only with his death. Society itself has no original right to the use of land. What right it has with regard to the use of land is simply that which is derived from and is necessary to the determination of the rights of the individuals who compose it. That is to say, the function of society with regard to the use of land only begins where individual rights clash, and is to secure equality between these clashing right of individuals.

What Locke meant, or at least the expression that will give full and practical form to his idea, is simply this: That the equal right to life involves the equal right to the use of natural materials; that, consequently, any one has a right to the use of such natural opportunities as may not be wanted by any one else; and that the result of his labor, so expended, does of right become his individual property against all the world. For, where one man wants to use a natural opportunity that no one else wants to use, he has a right to do so, which springs from and is attested by the fact of his existence. This is an absolute, unlimited right, so long and in so far as no one else wants to use the same natural opportunity. Then, but not till then, it becomes limited by the similar rights of others. Thus no question of the right of any one to use any natural opportunity can arise until more than one man wants to use the same natural opportunity. It is only then that any question of this right, any need for the action of society in the adjustment of equal rights to land, can come up.

Thus, instead of there being no right of property until society has so far developed that all land has been properly appraised and rented for terms of years, an absolute right of property in the things produced by labor exists from the beginning—is coeval with the existence of man.

In the right of each man to himself, and his right to use the world, lies the sure basis of the right of property. This Locke saw—just as the first man must have seen it. But Mr. Spencer, confused by a careless substitution of terms, has lost his grasp on the right of property and has never since recovered it.

Getting rid of the idea of joint rights we see that the task of securing, in an advanced and complex civilization, the equal rights of all to the use of land is much simpler and easier than Mr. Spencer and the land nationalizationists suppose; that it is not necessary for society to take land and rent it out. For so long as only one man wants to use a natural opportunity it has no value; but as soon as two or more want to use the same natural opportunity, a value arises. Hence, any question as to the adjustment of equal rights to the use of land occurs only as to valuable land; that is to say, land that has a value irrespective of the value of any improvements in or on it. As to land that has no value, or, to use the economic phrase, bears no rent, whoever may choose to use it has not only an equitable title to all that his labor may produce from it, but society cannot justly call on him for any payment for the use of it. As to land that has a value, or, to use the economic phrase in the economic meaning, bears rent, the principle of equal freedom requires only that this value, or economic rent, be turned over to the community. Hence the formal appropriation and renting out of land by the community is not necessary: it is only necessary that the holder of valuable land should pay to the community an equivalent of the ground value, or economic rent; and this can be assured by the simple means of collecting ail assessment in the form of a tax on the value of land, irrespective of improvements in or on it.

In this way all members of the community are placed on equal terms with regard to natural opportunities that offer greater advantages than those any one member of the community is free to use, and are consequently sought by more than one of those having equal rights to use the land. And, since the value of land arises from competition and is constantly fixed by competition, the question of who shall use this superior land desired by more than one is virtually decided by competition, which settles clashing individual desires by determining at once both who shall be accorded the use of the superior land, and who will make the most productive use of it. In this way all, including the user of the superior natural opportunity, obtain their equal shares of the superiority, by the taking of its value for their common uses; while all the difficulties of state rental of land and of determining and settling for the value of improvements are avoided. This is the single-tax system.

Chapter V—
Mr. Spencer’s Confusion As To Value

It seems strange that a man who has touched on so many branches of knowledge, and written so largely on sociology, should even to this time have neglected the primary principles of political economy. But the failure to distinguish between equal rights and joint rights, which has so confused Mr. Spencer, is allied with a failure to comprehend the nature of rent. In Social Statics he assumes that all land ought to pay rent to the state, and on this assumption, joined with and perhaps giving rise to his transmutation of equal rights into joint rights, he bases important conclusions as to the right of property. In his latest book, Justice, he is not only no clearer in this but shows plainly—what in Social Staticsis only to be surmised—his failure to appreciate the nature of the fundamental economic concept-value.

Thus, in the chapter in Justice entitled “The Right of Property,” he speaks (Section 55) of weapons, instruments, dress and decorations as “things in which the value given by labor bears a specially large relation to the value of the raw material,” and thus continues:—

When with such articles we join huts, which, however, being commonly made by the help of fellow-men who receive reciprocal aid, are thus less distinctly products of an individual’s labor, we have named about all the things in which, at first, the worth given by effort is great in comparison with the inherent worth; for the inherent worth of the wild food gathered or caught is more obvious than the worth of the effort spent in obtaining it. And this is doubtless the reason why, in the rudest societies, the right of property is more definite in respect of personal belongings than in respect of other things.

Passing the queer notion that things made by two or more men are less distinctly products of an individual’s labor than things made by one man, we have here the idea that there is an inherent value in the materials and spontaneous products of nature—i.e., land in the economic category—a value underived from labor and independent of it. The slightest acquaintance with economic literature, the slightest attempt to analyze the meaning of the term, would have shown Mr. Spencer the preposterousness of this idea.

The word “value” in English speech has two meanings. One is that of usefulness or utility, as when we speak of the value of the ocean to man, the value of fresh air, the value of the compass in navigation, the value of the stethoscope in the diagnosis of disease, the value of the antiseptic treatment in surgery; or, when having in mind the intrinsic merits of the mental production itself, its quality of usefulness to the reader or to the public, we speak of the value of a book. In this sense of utility there is inherent worth or intrinsic value —a quality or qualities belonging to the thing itself, which give it usefulness to man.

The other sense of the word “value”—the sense in which Mr. Spencer uses it when he says that the value given by labor bears a specially large ratio to the value of the raw materials, or when, later on, he substitutes the word “worth” as synonymous in such use for “value”—is that of exchangeability. In this sense value or worth means not utility, not any quality inhering in the thing itself, but a quality which gives to the possession of a thing the power of obtaining other things in return for it or for its use. Thus we speak of the value of gold as greater than that of iron; of a book bound in cloth as being more valuable than a book bound in paper; of the value of a copyright or a patent; of the lessening in the value of steel by the Bessemer process, or in that of aluminium by the improvements in extraction now going on.

Value in this sense—the usual sense—is purely relative. It exists from and is measured by the power of obtaining things for things by exchanging them. It is therefore absurd to speak in this sense of inherent worth or intrinsic value. Air has the intrinsic quality of utility, or value in use, to the very highest degree; for without an abundant supply of it we could not live a minute. But air has no value whatever in the sense of value in exchange. We speak of a man of worth, or a worthy man, when we mean a man whose inherent qualities entitle him to esteem; but, when we speak of a man who is worth so and so much, or of a wealthy man, we speak of him in certain external relations, purely relative, which give him the power of obtaining things by exchange. A worthy man may retain his worthiness through all changes of external conditions; but a wealthy man is in this the creature of external conditions: the same man, in nothing changed, may through external circumstances be wealthy today and poverty-stricken tomorrow.

Now, what gives to anything the quality of exchangeability for other things—the quality of worth in exchange, or value?—for, having explained the other sense of the word “value,” I will in subsequent use confine it to its common and proper sense, that of value in exchange.

That a thing has value, and may be exchanged for other things, is not because of its weight, or color, or divisibility, or any other quality inherent in the thing itself. Nor yet is it because of its utility to man. Utility is necessary to value, for nothing can be valuable unless it has the quality of gratifying some physical or mental desire of man, though it be but a fancy or whim. But utility of itself does not give value. Air, which has the highest utility, has no value, while diamonds, which have very little utility, have great value.

If we ask ourselves the reason of such variations in the quality of value; if we inquire what is the attribute or condition concurring with the presence, absence or degree of value attaching to anything—we see that things having some form of utility or desirability, are valuable or not valuable, as they are hard or easy to get. And, if we ask further, we may see that with most of the things that have value this difficulty or ease of getting them, which determines value, depends on the amount of labor which must be expended in producing them; i.e., bringing them into the place, form and condition in which they are desired. Thus air, which is of the highest utility, since it is at every instant necessary to our existence, can be had without labor. It is the substance of that ocean, enveloping the surface of the globe, in which we are constantly immersed. So far from requiring labor to get it, it forces itself upon us, requiring labor, when we are so disposed, to keep it away. Hence air, in spite of its high utility, has no value. Large and pure diamonds, on the contrary, since they are found only in few places and require much search and toil to get, can be had only with great labor. Hence, although they have very low utility, since they gratify only the sense of beauty and the desire for ostentation, they have very high value. Thus gold, weight for weight, is more valuable than silver, and much more valuable than iron, simply because it requires on the average more labor to get a given quantity of gold than to get the same quantity of silver, and much more than to get the same quantity of iron.

That as to such things as these the quality of value is derived from the labor required to produce them; and that, consequently, as to them at least, there is no such thing as inherent value—becomes clearer still when we consider how their value is affected by the increase or decrease of the requirement for labor.

Iron as compared with gold used to be much more valuable than it is now. Why? Because improved processes in smelting have lessened the labor of producing it. A few years since aluminium was more valuable than gold, because it took more labor to get it. Laborsaving improvements have already lowered the value of aluminium to less than that of silver, and little more than that of copper; and it is altogether likely that continued improvement will ere long bring it to that of iron. So the value of steel has been greatly lessened by the introduction of the Bessemer and other processes. So the value of beaverskins, of whalebone, of ivory, etc., has been increased by the growing scarcity of the animals from which they are derived, and the greater labor needed to obtain them. So, too, the improvement in transportation has lessened the value of things where it was a considerable item in the labor required for their production. And so, too, customs duties and other indirect taxes add to the value of things on which they fall, because their effect is to increase the amount of labor required to get such things.

It is thus seen, with regard at least to the greater number of valuable things, that there cannot be inherent or intrinsic value; and that value is simply an expression of the labor required for the production of such a thing. But there are some things as to which this is not so clear. Land is not produced by labor; yet land, irrespective of any improvements that labor has made on it, often has value. And so value frequently attaches to the forms of the economic term “land” that we commonly speak of as natural products, such as trees in their natural state, ore in the vein, stone or marble in the quarry, or sand or gravel in the bed.

Yet a little examination will show that such facts are but exemplifications of the general principle, just as the rise of a balloon and the fall of a stone both exemplify the universal law of gravitation.

To illustrate let us suppose a man accidentally to stumble on a diamond. Without the expenditure of labor, for his effort has been merely that of stooping down to pick it up, an action in itself a gratification of curiosity, he has here a great value. But what causes this value? Clearly, it springs from the fact that, as a rule, to get such a diamond will require much expenditure of labor. If any one could pick up diamonds as easily as in this case, diamonds would have no value.

Or, here is a grove of natural trees, which, as they stand, and before the touch of labor, have a considerable value, so that a lumberman will gladly pay for the privilege of cutting them. But has not this value the same cause as in the case of the diamond—the fact that to get such lumber ordinarily (or to speak exactly, to get the last amount of such lumber that the existing demand requires) the lumberman must go so far that the cost of transportation will equal what he is willing to pay for these trees?

In the naturally wooded sections of the United States trees had at first not merely no value, but were deemed an encumbrance, to get rid of which the settler had to incur the labor of felling and burning. Then lumber had no value except the cost of working it up after it had been felled; for the work of felling had for object the getting rid of the tree. But soon, as clearing proceeded, the desire to get rid of trees so far slackened, as compared with the desire to get lumber, that trees were felled simply for the purpose of getting the lumber. Then the value of lumber increased, for the labor of felling trees had to be added to it; but trees themselves had as yet no value. As clearing still proceeded and the demand for lumber grew with growing population, it became necessary to go farther and farther to get trees. Then transportation began to be a perceptible element in the labor of getting lumber, and trees that had been left standing began to have a value, since by using them the labor of transportation would be saved. And, as the requirement for lumber has compelled the lumbermen to go farther and farther, the value of the trees remaining has increased. But this value is not inherent in the trees: it is a value having its basis in labor, and representing a saving of labor that must otherwise be incurred. The reason that the tree at such place has a value is, that obtaining it there secures the same result as would the labor of transporting a similar amount of lumber from the greater distance to which resort must be made to satisfy the demand for lumber.

And so with the value which attaches to ore or sand or gravel. Such value is always relative to the labor required to obtain such things from points of greater distance or of less abundant deposits, to which in the existing demand resort is necessary.

We thus see the cause and nature of land values, or, to use the economic term, of rent. No matter how fertile it may be, no matter what other desirable quality it may have, land has no value until, whether by reason of quality or location, the relation between it and the most advantageous land to which labor may have free access gives to its use an advantage equivalent to the saving of labor. Or, to state in another way that accepted theory which is sometimes styled Ricardo’s theory of rent, and which John Stuart Mill called the pons asinorumof political economy: it is, that the rent of land is determined by the excess of the produce it will yield over that which the same application can obtain from the least productive land in use.

To grasp this principle is to see that land has no inherent value; that value can never attach to all land, but only to some land, and may arise on particular land either by reason of production being extended to inferior land, or by reason of the development of superior productiveness in special localities.

Thus the phenomena of value are at bottom illustrations of one principle. The value of everything produced by labor, from a pound of chalk or a paper of pins to the elaborate structure and appurtenances of a first class ocean steamer, is resolvable on analysis into an equivalent of the labor required to reproduce such a thing in form and place; while the value of things not produced by labor, but nevertheless susceptible of ownership, is, in the same way, resolvable into an equivalent of the labor which the ownership of such a thing enables the owner to obtain or save.

The reason why in rude societies value attaches mainly or wholly to things produced by labor, and there is little or no value to land—or, to use Mr. Spencer’s phrase, “the reason why, in the rudest societies, the right of property is more definite in respect of personal belongings than in respect of other things”—is not, as he puts it, that weapons, implements, dress, decorations and huts axe “about all the things in which, at first, the worth given by effort is great in comparison with the inherent worth; for the inherent worth of the wild food gathered or caught is more obvious than the worth of the effort spent in obtaining it.” It is that labor products always cost effort, and hence have value from the first; while land costs no effort, and in such societies the growth of population and the development of the arts have as yet attached little or no special advantages to the use of particular pieces of land, which at a later stage are equivalent to a saving of effort. Thus, in the absence of the artificial scarcity produced by monopoly, land of practically like quality is easy to obtain and has no value.

For in a sparse population and a rude state of the arts, those differences in productiveness between particular pieces of land, which are so marked in our great cities that land on one side of a street may have twice the value of land on the other side, do not exist. Even differences in the original qualities of land, that with us give rise to enormous differences in value, would, with the hunter or herdsman, or even with the agriculturist, be of no moment. Who, until production had passed even the agricultural stage, could have imagined that in the soil of Western Pennsylvania lurked differences that would sometime give to one spot a value hundreds of thousands times greater than that of seemingly the same kind of land around it; or that a narrow strip in Nevada might be worth millions, while the land about it was worth nothing at all?

It is this confusion of Mr. Spencer as to rent and value that has led him into confusion as to the right of property; and that, at first at least, prevented him from seeing that to secure the equal rights of men to land, it is not necessary that society should take formal possession of land and let it out, and, consequently, that the difficulties he anticipated in taking possession of improved land were imaginary.

Chapter VI—
From Social Statics To Political Institutions

BUT the crudities and seeds of error in Mr. Spencer’s treatment of the land question in Social Staticswere of little moment beside its sterling merit. It was a clear, and, if we except or explain the one incongruous passage, an unfaltering assertion of a moral truth of the first importance—a truth at that time ignored. If Mr. Spencer had not mastered all the details of its application, he had at least seen and stated the fundamental principle that all men have natural, equal and inalienable rights to the use of land; that the right of ownership which justly attaches to things produced by labor cannot attach to land; that neither force, nor fraud, nor consent, nor transfer, nor prescription can give validity to private property in land; and that equal rights to land are still valid, “all deeds, customs, and laws notwithstanding,” and must remain valid “until it can be demonstrated that God has given one charter of privileges to one generation and another to the next.”

He had, moreover, shown that the practical recognition of these equal rights, even in the rude way he proposed, involved no community of goods and nothing like socialism or communism; but that it may be carried out in a way that “need cause no very serious revolution in existing arrangements,” and would be “consistent with the highest civilization.”

And this was in England, where the whole structure of society—social, political and industrial—was based on and embedded in private ownership of land, and in the year 1850, when, except by a few “dreamers,” no one thought of making any distinction between property in land and property in other things, and by the vast majority of men of all classes and conditions private property in land was looked on as something that always had existed, and, in the nature of things, always must exist.

But beyond the warnings that this was no way to success, which he doubtless received from friends, there is no reason to think that this revolutionary utterance of Mr. Spencer in Social Statics brought him the slightest unpleasant remonstrance at the time or for years after. If “Sir John and his Grace”—by which phrase Mr. Spencer had personified British landed interests—ever heard of the book, it was to snore, rather than to swear. So long as they feel secure, vested wrongs are tolerant of mere academic questioning; for those who profit by them, being the class of leisure and wealth, are also the class of liberal education and tastes, and often find a pleasing piquancy in radicalism that does not go beyond their own circles. A clever sophist might freely declaim in praise of liberty at the table of a Roman emperor. Voltaire, Rousseau and the encyclopedists were the fashionable fad in the drawing-rooms of the French aristocracy. And at the beginning of this century, and for years afterwards, a theoretical abolitionist, provided he did not talk in the hearing of the servants, might freely express his opinion of slavery among the cultured slaveholders of our Southern States. Thomas Jefferson declared his detestation of slavery, and, despite amendment, “writ large” his condemnation of it in the Declaration of Independence itself. Yet that declaration was signed by slaveholders and read annually by slaveholders, and Jefferson himself never became unpopular with slaveholders. But when the “underground railway” got into operation; when Garrison and his colleagues came with their demand for immediate, unconditional emancipation, then the feeling changed, and the climate of the South began to grow hot for any one even suspected of doubting the justice of the “peculiar institution.”

So it was with private property in land for over thirty years after Social Staticswas written. One of the first to congratulate me on Progress and Poverty, when only an author’s edition of a few hundred copies had been printed, and it seemed unlikely to those who knew the small demand for works on economic questions that there would ever be any more, was a very large landowner. He told me that he had been able freely to enjoy what he was pleased to term the clear logic and graceful style of my book, because he knew that it would be read only by a few philosophers, and could never reach the masses or “do any harm.”

For a long time this was the fate of Mr. Spencer’s declaration against private property in land. It doubtless did good work, finding here and there a mind where it bore fruit. But the question had not passed beyond, and Mr. Spencer’s book did not bring it beyond, the point of extremely limited academic discussion.

Though it brought Mr. Spencer the appreciation of a narrow circle, and thus proved the beginning of his literary career, Social Statics had but a small and slow circulation. The first and only English edition, as is usual with books for which no large sale is expected, was printed directly from type, without making stereotype plates. As Mr. Spencer tells us in the preface of his recent “revision and abridgement,” it took some ten years to sell that, after which, the sale not being enough to justify republication, which, in the absence of stereotype plates, would have involved the cost of setting up the type again, the book went out of print in England, without having attracted any general attention. This was but in the nature of things; for the class that profits by any wrong which affects the distribution of wealth must be the wealthy class, and consequently the class whose views dominate the existing organs of opinion. And until recently private property in land has been the sacred white elephant of English respectability, not even to be named without a salaam. The conspiracy of silence was therefore all that such a book could expect until it began to make way among the masses, and that neither the style of Social Statics nor the price at which it was published was calculated for. A similar fate to that which Social Statics met in England befell a very similar book, covering much the same ground—Theory of Human Progression, by Patrick Edward Dove, published a little before Political Institutions, but in the same year, and also asserting the equal right to the use of land. While Dove is not so elaborate as Spencer, he is clearer in distinctly disclaiming the idea of compensation, and in proposing to take ground-rent for public purposes by taxation, abolishing all other taxes. His book must have done some good work on the minds it reached, but it passed out of print and was practically forgotten.

Political Institutions, however, had a happier fate in passing over to the United States. Among those early attracted by Mr. Spencer’s writings was the late Professor E. L. Youmans, who in 1861-62 sought his acquaintance and entered into correspondence with him. Professor Youmans’s tireless energy, backed by the resources of the strong publishing house of D. Appleton & Co. of New York, with which he was connected, was thenceforward devoted to the task of popularizing Mr. Spencer and his teachings in the United States. Through the efforts of Professor Youmans, D. Appleton & Co. arranged with Mr. Spencer for the publication of his books, and in 1864, making stereotype plates, they reissued Political Institutions,and from that time forward kept it in print; and as may be seen, both from the preface of 1877 in their edition of Social Staticsand from the preface to the abridgement of 1892, such English demand as existed was supplied by the sending over of sheets printed by them[2]—a more economical arrangement than that of printing a book of small circulation on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus in a larger sphere it continued to circulate, mainly in the United States (where Mr. Spencer’s reputation, aided by the active work of Professor Youmans, grew first in popular estimation), and to some small extent at least in Great Britain. But the radical utterances on the land question that it contained gave no evidence of attracting active interest or passing for more than an academic opinion.

Between 1850 and 1882, during the greater part of which time Mr. Spencer was engaged in developing his evolution philosophy, nothing more that I am aware of was heard from him on the land question. But Political Institutions,in the United States at least, increased in circulation as Mr. Spencer’s reputation grew, and its declarations continued to stand for his opinions without even a suggestion of change. Several prefaces, or notes, were from time to time added, but none indicating any modification of views with regard to the land question. The last of these was dated January 17, 1877. In this, certain changes in Mr. Spencer’s opinions as to teleological implications, the political status of women, the useful effects of war, etc., are noted, but there is no modification of the radical utterances as to the tenure of land. On the contrary, he says:

To the fundamental ethical principle expressing in its abstract form what we know as justice I still adhere. I adhere also to the derivative principles formulated in what are commonly called personal rights, of this or that special kind.

In Political Institutions, which, after some magazine publications of chapters, was finally published in book form in the early part of 1882, Mr. Spencer again spoke of the tenure of land, and in a way that would lead any one acquainted with his previous fuller treatment of the subject to understand that he still adhered to all that he had said in Social Statics.

Political Institutions, like the other divisions of the Principles of Sociology to which it belongs, is “in part a retrospect and in part a prospect.” First explaining in accordance with his general theory how social institutions have been evolved, Mr. Spencer proceeds to indicate what he thinks will be the course of their further evolution. In the chapter on “Property,” after some pages of examination he says (Section 539):

Induction and deduction uniting to show as they do that at first land is common property, there presents itself the question—How did the possession of it become individualized? There can be little doubt of the general nature of the answer. Force, in one form or other, is the sole cause adequate to make the members of a society yield up their joint claim to the area they inhabit. Such force may be that of an external aggressor or that of an internal aggressor, but in either case it implies militant activity.

Having thus repeated in a form adapted to the character of the book the declaration of Social Statics that the original deeds to private property in land were written with the sword, he proceeds to develop it, showing by the way a comprehension of the fact that the feudal tenures did not recognize the private property in land which has grown up since, or, as he phrases it, that “the private landownership established by militancy is an incomplete one,” being qualified by the claims of serfs and other dependents, and by obligations to the crown or state, and saying:

In our own case the definite ending of these tenures took place in 1660; when for feudal obligations (a burden on landowners) was substituted a beer-excise (a burden on the community).

From this, in a passage which will hereafter appear,[3]he proceeds to consider what is likely to be the future evolution of land tenure. Saying that “ownership established by force does not stand on the same footing as ownership established by contract,” he likens individual property in land to property in slaves, and intimates that as the one has disappeared so the other will doubtless disappear, to make place. for landholding “by virtue of agreements between individuals as tenants and the community as landowner. … after making full allowance for the accumulated value artificially given.”

This is a restatement of what was said in Chapter IX., Section 9, of Political Institutions, where, speaking of the once universal assumption that slavery was natural and right and the better faith that had been generated, he adds:

It may by and by be perceived, that Equity utters dictates to which we have not yet listened; and men may then learn, that to deprive others of their rights to the use of the earth, is to commit a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or personal liberties.

Thus, in so far as was consistent with the very different scope and character of the book, Mr. Spencer repeated in March, 1882, the views on the land question that he had set forth in 1850. And in this connection the words I have italicized are noteworthy as showing what was really meant in that incongruous passage in Social Staticspreviously discussed.

With this reassertion in Political Institutions of the views on the land question set forth in Social Statics we must draw a line in our review.

[1] These inferences do not at all militate against joint-stock systems of production and living, which are in all probability what Socialism prophesies.
[2] "A number of years passed—some ten, I think—before the edition was exhausted; and as the demand seemed not great enough to warrant the setting up of type for a new edition, it was decided to import an edition from America, where the work had been stereotyped. After this had been disposed of a third edition was similarly imported."—Preface to Social Statics, Abridged and Revised, 1892.
[3] See Mr. Spencer's letter to the Times, pp. 98-99.

Continued, Part II–Repudiation