Property in Land

An Essay on The New Crusade
by Henry Winn (1888)


The author cannot hope in so brief an essay to review all the arguments in Progress and Poverty and similar books. He has dealt only with the few appearing most forcible. He deems it a duty to meet the new faith, sustained as it is by men of undoubted probity, with other weapons than ridicule. If our social system is not based in reason, the sooner we know it the better. Any justifiable institution stands on a rock, and we need not dread to test its foundation.

Our local taxation is undoubtedly unjust and oppressive to the poor. Discussion may shed light on its faults. But the author, disbelieving in the English system, can see no improvement in any plan, like that of Mr. George, looking to the substantial exemption of chattels.

SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass., June, 1887.

Theories of Mr. Spencer and Mr. George

Henry George and Father McGlynn have argued themselves into the belief that a general confiscation of land values will lay forever the ghost of poverty. Could they substantiate their tenets one might wish them success, even through confiscation. Who will not give his unearned increment of land if that course will, as they say, prove “a remedy for the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth apparent in modern civilization, and for all the evils that flow from it”; “will substitute equality for inequality, plenty for want, social strength for social weakness”; if, as they allege, “in nothing else there is the slightest hope,” but from this would come the “Golden Age, of which poets have sung and high-raised seers have told in metaphor.”

What is this panacea? Mr. George defines it thus:

“We may put the proposition into practical form by proposing

“To abolish all taxation, save that upon land values.”
Progress and Poverty, Book viii., ch. 2.

This he refers to later as “taxes placed upon land values, irrespective of improvements” (Ibid., ch. 3). He specifically confines his theory to this as “the only way in which with any thing like a high development land can be readily retained as common property.”

Mr. George does not seem to contemplate the event of a surplus or a deficit. We need not consider a surplus, for there would be ways enough to spend it. But if the rental value to be taken should fail to meet the tax required, how would he raise the deficit? Doubtless, as heretofore, by assessment on improvements and chattels; for should he exact more from the land-owner his levy would be a tax either upon the man or his improvements, to which Mr. George objects. His whole argument goes to support a strenuous claim that community is the true owner of this rental value, but that the landlord owns the improvements. We may then restate Mr. George’s plan as a proposition to take from land-owners the full annual rental value of the soil, independent of the improvements, and apply it to tax purposes. Father McGlynn, as we suppose, is but a disciple the St. Paul of the new dispensation preaching the same gospel.

Their idea is that land is a gift of nature, like the air or the sea, which no man should appropriate to the exclusion of others; wherefore if one uses a particular part he should pay rent for it to mankind.

This fundamental idea has been supported by no less authority than John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, and was the foundation of Mr. Mill’s proposal to confiscate the future increase in the value of land not due to the efforts or expense of its owner. But they were troubled with the contemplation of a duty which Mr. George lightly discards, namely, the compensation of owners for the property they have in the land when the decision is made to confiscate its rentals.

The weight of these names has seemed to deter reply to the arguments of Mr. George. It is time, however, to meet the question whether private title in land is equitable. Can a man rightfully hold a parcel of the globe without paying globe rent to his fellows? We propose to consider this inquiry, and to inquire, further, whether Mr. George’s remedy for poverty is likely to be effective and adequate.

A large portion of Mr. George’s book, Progress and Poverty is devoted to a refutation of the theories of Malthus. To this we shall not allude. We bid him God-speed in that enterprise, and cannot perceive in it any bearing on the questions we have proposed to discuss.

Mr. George and Mr. Spencer both rest their argument against the equity of private ownership in land upon the same foundation, namely, the natural right of every man to the use of the world, “a right which vests in every human being when he enters the world,” and which society cannot rightfully deny. We must meet this proposition; for if men have natural rights inconsistent with private title in land, which society cannot abrogate or limit, there the question ends.

The claim made rests solely on individual natural right. It is not based on the rights of man as a member of society, but the heritage sought is the share in the globe of each derived from his Creator.

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