Land Nationalization and Land Taxation

by Harold Cox
First published 1892
2nd. edition 1906

Chapter I. 

As a vague ideal, land nationalization seemed a few years ago to be rapidly growing in popularity. The unrestful spirits among us—radicals, socialists, and other disturbers of the public peace—either captivated by the simplicity of Mr. Henry George’s theories, or painfully seeking for some definite aid to labourer and to farmer, turned their eyes hopefully to the suggestion that the nation should possess her own soil. Indeed many persons are still so hopeful of this suggestion, that they believe it to contain a panacea for all the social difficulties that perplex the community. And though such a demand on our faith is certainly a large one, it is less absurd than it sounds at first hearing. For the use of land is as essential to human life as the use of air. At the very least each individual must have space enough to stand upon. Yet nine out of every ten Englishmen have no independent right to the use of any scrap of land beyond the limited area which has been dedicated to the public for specific purposes. They can neither work nor play nor sleep without a previous permit, and this permit must be obtained from individuals who are presumed by the laws of the country to exercise their powers in their own private interest, and not in the interest of the community.

Thus baldly stated the system of private property in land appears, on the face of it, to involve such a terrible incubus upon human enjoyment and human freedom, that the hopeful may be excused for dreaming that universal happiness would follow the removal of the system. In practice, however, private property in land is not so terrible, even in England, as the strict legal theory would justify one in believing. At every turn the crude severity of the system is mitigated by various arrangements, legal, moral, or economic, which make life at least tolerable for the majority of Englishmen; and as a matter of fact most of us go to our graves without once having realized that we have only been living on the sufferance of private landowners. Obviously these practical mitigations alter the whole perspective of the problem. Instead of wildly longing for the abolition of private property in land, as the slave longs for the breaking of his chain, we have to estimate how the known disadvantages and advantages of private ownership compare on the balance with the anticipated advantages and disadvantages of communal ownership. To provide materials for this comparison is the main object of the present book.

Nationalization includes Municipalization.—First of all, however, it is necessary to be quite clear as to the limits of the problem we are going to consider. By itself the word “nationalization” implies that some authority representing the whole nation shall enter into possession of the land. But latterly the idea has been gaining ground, that the evils of individual ownership can most conveniently be removed by substituting local public authorities for private landlords, in one word, by “municipalizing” instead of by nationalizing the land. A moment’s reflection, however, will show that these two proposals are in principle identical. In England, and for that matter in every other country, municipal authorities are essentially subordinate to the sovereign national authority. Municipal corporations could only acquire the land by the consent of the national authority, and that authority would also define the conditions on which they should hold the land. Whether therefore the land should be “nationalized” or “municipalized” is purely a question of administrative convenience, and the term “nationalization” will throughout these pages—except where the contrary is obviously implied—be assumed to include “municipalization.”

Ownership involves two distinct rights.—By way of further clearing the ground, it is well at once to emphasize an important distinction connected with the right of ownership, which will have to be more fully considered later on. Behind all the varied forms of ownership there lie two rights—the right to derive a revenue from the land, and the right to determine the use to which the land shall be put. It is mainly on the extent to which these two independent rights are retained in the same hand that the differences in the forms of ownership depend. The farmer occupying his own freehold enjoys in his own person both rights. The equitable owner of a fully mortgaged estate parts with the revenue of the land, but retains the right of direction. The ground landlord of an estate let on building leases gives up the right of direction but retains the revenue. An intermediate type of landlord, in practice very numerous, retains, in addition to the revenue, a partial control over his land by letting it for short terms.

Three schools of Land Nationalizers.—These varying types of landownership are under present conditions mere matters of convenience determined by private bargaining. But as soon as it is proposed to substitute national for individual ownership, the determination of the character of the ownership to be created becomes a question of fundamental importance. Is the State to claim the revenue of the land alone, or the direction alone, or is it to claim both revenue and direction? The question is variously answered by three schools of social reformers. The school that draws its inspiration from the writings of Mr. Henry George is anxious only to secure the revenue of the land. By gradually increasing taxation this school would transfer all land revenues from the present proprietors to the nation. With the control of the land they would not interfere. Another school of land nationalizers, led by Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, take exactly the opposite view. In their opinion, to interfere with the monetary rights of the present owners would be unjustifiable; all they care about is the power to control the use of the land. This power they would transfer to the State, and at the same time guarantee to the dispossessed landholders a permanent income calculated on their present receipts. Lastly, we have the socialists, who want both the revenue and the control.

The meaning of the word “land.“—One point more;—to attempt to consider the problem of land nationalization—as is sometimes unconsciously done—on the supposition that “land” means agricultural land, is to ignore perhaps the major part of the problem. To the majority of Englishmen, the terms on which they are to be allowed to occupy a sufficient area of land for their private houses, for their factories and schools, for their places of amusement and their places of worship, are at least as important as the conditions of land tenure under which part of their food is produced. For under no system of land tenure will English people be able to control the production of all the food they eat At the present day, more than half of our food is grown on land that is clearly beyond our control as a nation; and whatever the future may bring in the way of more complete cultivation of English soil, it is safe to prophesy that we shall always find it advantageous to import our tea and sugar and rice, besides minor articles of popular consumption. Consequently, at best the nationalization of agricultural land will only give us a partial control over our food supply, while the nationalization of urban or residential land may give us a complete control over our houses. Again, a very large proportion of the income of the nation is derived from the mere business of digging up, and preparing for the market, coal and iron, tin and copper, limestone and granite and slate; while perhaps a still larger proportion comes from industries which are dependent for their success on a plentiful supply of the first two of these minerals. Obviously, then, in considering the subject of land nationalization, at least some attention must be paid to the mineral wealth that lies beneath the surface of the land. As far as possible, therefore, in the following pages, each of the three main utilities of land will be kept carefully in view.

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