Joseph Hyder: The Case of Land Nationalisation
Chapter XIX: Advantages of Land Nationalisation
WE have seen how private property in land has operated to enrich the few at the expense of the many, how it has hindered production and limited the employment of labour, how it has depopulated some parts of the country and caused overcrowding in others, how it has handicapped the making of public improvements, how it has put the sport of the rich before the livelihood of the poor, and how it has interfered with the liberty of the people.
We have now to see that all these evils would be swept away by a system of public ownership of land, and that, while its full benefits could only be achieved by the complete establishment of such a system, and after the extinction of the Annuity Compensation Bonds, yet very substantial advantages would result at once, and would increase as the system was extended.
Access to Land
In the first place, the equal right of every man to have access to land would be established. It would be a right, which must be granted by a responsible Public Authority, not a favour which may be withheld by an irresponsible private individual. A man’s opinions on political or religious questions would not affect his chance of getting land, as they often do now. This alone would give freedom where now there is serfdom. According to his requirements the land would be open to him. The right of one man to a small holding, whether for agriculture or any other purpose, would come before the right of another man to monopolise a large holding.
There would be holdings of all sizes, and there is room for them all. But the right of an artisan to a garden allotment, or to a site for his home, would not be barred by the claim of a rich man to withhold land for his private park or for speculative purposes. The agricultural labourer’s right to a small farm would come before the right of the man who wants to have hundreds of acres as a grazing farm, employing little labour, but reaping a considerable profit out of the very smallness of his wages bill. The right of the Crofter would come before the right of the deer-forest sportsman; and that of the actual cultivator before the right of the game-preserver everywhere. For the land would be governed upon new principles, and the aim would be the establishment upon it of the greatest possible number of full-breathed, happy human beings.
The colonisation of the homeland would afford many openings for labour that are now non-existent, and the streams of emigration that are now draining the country of some of its best bone and sinew would be lessened. For many men are now practically forced to leave their native shores by the absence of opportunities, which are abundant enough but are artificially closed to them. They take their brain and brawn to other countries, where the poorest man has a chance of securing the use of land. Our country can ill afford to lose them, for they are the pick of the countryside. Every inducement should be offered to them to remain in the land that gave them birth, and this can and must be done when the land is owned by the community.
The capabilities of British soil have never been tested except on a small scale. And the market for its produce is close at hand. There is no real need for our land-workers to go thousands of miles across the sea to produce beef and mutton and corn to be sent back to the home markets, until our own resources are exhausted. A certain amount of emigration there is bound to be, for the lure of other lands is strong, and many of the young and enterprising will always be drawn by it. Under natural conditions it is a healthy movement of population. It is for the good of other countries, and, within limits, not harmful to our own. But there are waste places within our own islands that ought to be more closely settled, and, if they are thrown open for occupation, it cannot be doubted that they would absorb a large part of the population that is smitten with land-hunger, and at present has no means of satisfying it except by emigration.
Security of Tenure
One of the greatest benefits of land nationalisation is that every man would have security of tenure. So long as he fulfilled the proper conditions of his tenancy he would never be turned out, unless, of course, the land were wanted for public purposes, or for the re-adjustment of areas. There would be no hardship in that. He would receive ample notice, and liberal compensation for disturbance, or for his own improvements. Absolute fixity of tenure he could not reasonably expect. Absolute fixity of tenure is not now possessed by any man. The freeholder himself can be expropriated when it is necessary, and a State tenant could not expect to be installed as an immovable. But he would be practically as secure as a freeholder now is, he would be absolutely safe from capricious eviction, and he would be generously treated, if, for public reasons, it were necessary to give him notice.
It is often claimed on behalf of the freehold system that it enables a home to be kept in the possession of the same family for generation after generation. But this advantage has only been enjoyed by the very few. There is no reason why it should not be enjoyed by tenants of the State. For it is a pleasant thing to be able to feel that the home, with all its endearing associations, may be handed down from father to son. Other things being equal, there would be no difficulty in allowing continuity of tenancy in the same family so long as the proper annual value of the land were paid, and the other conditions were observed. With this proviso, the preferential claim of a son to succeed his father in the family home could very well be recognised. And as, in the course of time, the rent .of the land would take the place of most other taxation, the integrity of the home would be more easily preserved than it is now.
For even the possessor of an unencumbered freehold, although he has to pay no rent, has to pay certain rates and taxes. They are the first charge upon his property, and they must imperatively be paid. In addition to them the ordinary tenant has now to pay rent. But, under land nationalisation, a State tenant would ultimately have only one charge to meet, not two, exactly as the unencumbered freeholder has now. Consequently there would be no difficulty in fulfilling the conditions, which would be necessary to secure the desired continuity of tenancy by members of the same family.
The Magic of Property in Improvements
Again, on behalf of the freehold system, the celebrated saying of Arthur Young is often quoted, “The magic of ownership turns sand to gold.” If a man owns land he has every incentive to improve it, for the whole value of the improvement is his property. No landlord can raise his rent on that account, or turn him out and confiscate the result of his labours. But the ownership of the land is only an incident. It is not the essential condition. Under private landlordism a tenant’s improvements never have been safe, and therefore they have always been discouraged. The evil of such an arrangement is not so much the actual confiscation of improvements, great as that evil is, but the prevention of them altogether.
Now, the security of property in his improvements, which is now enjoyed only by a freeholder, is a very precious thing, and it is absolutely essential to any land system that professes to be a just one. But it is quite unnecessary to give a man a freehold in order to ensure that he shall enjoy his own improvements.
In one of the charming Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb tells a fable of the discovery of roast pork. A Chinese swineherd, returning from the woods, found that in his absence his hut had been burned down, and a litter of pig had been burned with it. Feeling among the embers, he touched one of the pigs, and put his lingers to his mouth to cool them. That, said the Chinese fable, was how mankind discovered roast pig, and, thereafter, the people used to burn their houses down with the pig inside. Later on they discovered that roast pig was obtainable without burning their houses down.
Similarly, it is not necessary for a nation to hand over its great inheritance to individual landlords in order to give men the right to own what they create. Ownership of his improvements can be secured to every man by simpler and juster means. It should be the sine qua non of every State tenancy, and it may be safely predicted that this alone would give such an incalculable impetus to industry that the production of wealth would be enormously increased. And the elimination of the private landlord would operate further to ensure a more equitable distribution of that wealth than there ever has been before.
Instead, therefore, of the inestimable blessings of secure tenure and the ownership of improvements being enjoyed only by a few lucky freeholders, they would be within the reach of all men. Not the payment of the full capital value of the land, which only a few can afford, but the payment of a fair annual rent, which all men can afford, would be the only condition. And that rent would come back to the people again in public services.
The rent would therefore be fixed according to the value of land. A good tenant would pay no more because of his industry, a bad tenant would pay no less because of his neglect. But, naturally, it cannot be a fixed rent. For a fixed rent might be so high that it would be unfair to the tenant, or it might be so low that it would be unfair to the nation. Consequently it must be revisable at stated periods. In that way, if land values fall the tenant will pay less, if they rise it will be only reasonable that he should pay more. But it would always be wise for the State to err on the side of accepting too little, rather than on the side of exacting too much. For the prosperity of the State depends upon the prosperity of the individuals composing it, and a rack-rent does a harm to the individual, and consequently to the State itself, greater than the extra sum that can be drawn into the State coffers by such means.
For this reason it would be well for the determination of the rent not to be left to the discretion of those who have to collect it. For, as collectors of revenue, they would be interested in collecting much rather than little, even as landlords now are, though to a less extent than they are. And, as it has been found necessary in Ireland and Scotland to entrust the fixing of rents to impartial tribunals, called Rent Courts, it would be well to extend the same system to all parts of the country, as a preliminary to land nationalisation and as a part of it.
The Spending of the Rent
The advocate of land nationalisation is frequently confronted with the statement that, if rent has to be paid, it does not matter whether it is paid to a private landlord or to a public authority. Extraordinary as it may seem, this view is widely held by unthinking men, whose bias in favour of the existing system is so strong that it blinds them to the most obvious facts. It should require no argument to demonstrate that it is better that rent should be paid to the State, and be devoted to defraying the necessary expenses of government, than that it should be paid to private landlords who employ it in the satisfaction of their private desires, leaving the Government without revenue except such as it raises by taxation.
When a landowner presents land to a town for a public park it is universally regarded as a good thing. If he were also to present all the building land round the park, his generosity would be acclaimed by all. If, by an impossible and inconceivable act of supreme altruism, all the landlords were to offer to surrender their possessions to the State, not a man from one end of the country to the other would counsel that so magnificent an offer should be refused. It would be plain to all that the nationalisation of land by such voluntary surrender would provide the State with an enormous revenue, and that taxation could be correspondingly reduced. Not a voice would be raised urging that the gift should be declined on the ground that the State would make a bad landlord. The advantages would be so obvious that every critic of public landownership would be silenced.
Now, land nationalisation by purchase would achieve exactly the same end, and secure exactly the same benefits. The end would take longer to reach, and the full benefits would not at once be obtained, but they would all be won in time. The State already possesses a considerable property in its Crown lands, and derives a considerable revenue from them. If the State were without that revenue the present burdens of taxation would be proportionately heavier. The possession of the Crown lands is therefore a benefit to the whole nation. The rents of those lands reduce taxation, but if they belonged to private individuals they would not. If, then, it is a good thing for the State to possess the very limited area of the Crown lands, would it not be a still better thing if it possessed the entire country? There can be but one answer to such a question.
Again, there are a few towns, which possess valuable estates, and the local rates are thereby lower than they would otherwise need to be. Every ratepayer gains by the fact that those lands are public rather than private property. And it is clear to the meanest intelligence that, if the entire area of the town were also public property, the gain would be very much greater. If, therefore, it is a good thing for a town to conserve the land it has, would it not be a good thing for it to add to its corporate estate by acquiring more? That this could be done quite equitably, easily, and safely, has already been shown.
The Relief of Taxation
The stoutest critics of land nationalisation are generally the most vehement in their complaints of the weight of taxation. Yet the reform, which they resist, would do more than anything else to remove the grievance of which they complain. For the expenses of government cannot be materially reduced by mere economy in administration, even though it be carried to the extreme of cheeseparing miserliness. Those expenses tend ever upward by reason of the growth of irresistible demands that the State (or the municipality) shall undertake duties, which have hitherto been neglected.
Old-age pensions, national insurance, improved education, and kindred objects, are all necessary and very costly. The biggest expense of all, the cost of preparation for the possibilities of war, will, doubtless, be enormously reduced as soon as the nations are brought to see how easily they can be avoided by their agreeing, as civilised individuals already do, to settle their disputes by arbitration rather than by the stupid and wickedly barbarous method of lighting. But, even then, it is probable that the money, which is now raised for such useless and unproductive purposes will be devoted to more beneficial public objects, and the total amount of taxation may not be materially lessened. Consequently, the real hope of relief for the taxpayer lies in the direction of securing revenue that will be independent of taxation. Such a revenue lies to our hand in the ever-growing value of land, and, under land nationalisation, the whole of it would be devoted to the public service.
Municipal Ownership in Great Britain
At the present time there is not a single local community in the British Isles, which possesses enough land to enable it to dispense with taxes upon buildings. In Germany there are hundreds of such places, as will presently be shown. But, even in England, the existing cases of public ownership are sufficiently numerous to demonstrate the substantial benefits of the system, and afford strong arguments in support of its extension.
The City of London has an income of over £150,000 from its corporate estates. It has spent over £2,500,000 on the City bridges, every farthing of which was defrayed out of the income of that property. Tower Bridge cost nearly a million pounds, and did not cost the ratepayers a penny. The new St. Paul’s Bridge is to cost £2,000,000, and no part of that enormous outlay will fall upon the ratepayers. Surely the lesson of this is as plain as anything can be that the true way of relieving the ratepayers is by the widely extended establishment of a system of public property in land.
Liverpool has a very valuable estate. In 1635 Lord Molyneux purchased the lordship of Liverpool for £450, and later on the Corporation got a lease of 1,000 acres for 999 years, at a fixed rental of £30. In 1837 that property was worth £3,000,000. When giving evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Town Holdings in 1888, the late Sir A. B. Forwood stated that “the falling in of the leases fifty-three years later (that being the average unexpired term) would give the ratepayers of Liverpool a property the fee-simple of which was twelve and a half millions, and which would absolutely pay all the rates of the town.” But the City Fathers have established a system of lenient leasing which deprives the ratepayers of the greater part of the benefits they ought to enjoy, although, even so, the city exchequer now benefits by about £100,000 a year.
Newcastle-on-Tyne bought some land at Walker, a little more than a hundred years ago, for £12,000. Today that land is worth £12,000 per annum.
On the other hand, Glasgow sold some of its land about the same time for 2s. 8d. per yard. When the present Municipal Buildings were decided upon, the City Corporation were compelled to buy back a part of that same land, and it cost them no less than £35 l0s. a yard, or a total of £175,000, for the mere acquisition of the site. All this might have been saved but for the folly of a previous generation in selling public property.
Bristol derives £21,000 from its estate, Nottingham and Hull over £14,000, Doncaster £12,000, chiefly from its racecourse, Bath £10,500, and so on in rapidly diminishing amounts.
The burgesses of Preston obtained certain lands from King John at a fixed rent, and they have had the good sense to keep them. That land has been of great value to the town for parks, electricity works, destructors, and other public uses, and it has acted as a powerful check upon land speculation.
The Border town of Selkirk sent many men to the battle of Flodden Field, and the King of Scotland recognised its patriotic self-sacrifice by granting 600 acres of land to the town forever. It is town-land today, and every one realises the advantage which the town enjoys by possessing it. If Kings had generally made their grants to townships instead of to their favourite courtiers the condition of the people would be vastly different from what it is.
The little town of Beccles, in Suffolk, enjoys the possession of 958 acres which were granted by the Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, and for a long time it enjoyed immunity from local taxation in consequence. Even now the rent from its estate pays the greater part of its local expenses. And the town of Penryn, in Cornwall, is also the happy possessor of an estate, which makes a general district rate unnecessary.
The Example of Germany
“A town is prosperous,” wrote Goethe in 1797, “through the land which it possesses more than through any other consideration; the best token of good administration is that a town is going on buying land.” German towns and communes have much wider powers of land purchase than our own towns have, and many of them do not hesitate to use them. All the local Councils in Prussia have been twice circularised by the Prussian Government, urging them to buy land on the ground that “it is a good thing for a town to be a large landowner.” They are not limited, as British towns are, to buying land for special purposes, but can buy it because of its general advantages when in public possession.
Under the ancient German law all land was under the ultimate ownership of the Mark or village community, and the German people have managed to preserve their old system of common ownership over considerable areas, particularly in the south and west.
In 1895 a Government Report was issued which revealed the following interesting facts as to the common lands in Germany:
1,104,087 acres of undivided meadowland.
3,325,400 acres of communal forest-land.
660,772 acres of cultivated fields and lotted meadows.
The undivided meadowland was used by 429,468 holders in 12,492 districts.
The forest-land was used by the inhabitants of 12,386 districts.
The cultivated fields and lotted meadows are enjoyed by 382,833 families of 8,560 districts.
In Bavaria, in 1898, the number of districts, which had no need to levy rates was 526, because of their public lands.
In Württemberg nine-tenths of all the districts had large areas of common land.
In Baden there were 121 parishes, which were absolutely free of rates and taxes for the same reason.
Herr Adolf Damaschke, the leading spirit of the German land-reformers, made an inquiry of the same kind, in 1892, and published the results.
Klingenberg, in Unterfranken, pays all local expenses out of its own property, and each burgher receives a cash surplus of 300 marks, besides timber and firewood. In Dornstetten each burgher receives eighty marks.
The Burgomaster of Treis, on the Moselle, wrote: “The Burgomastery of Treis consists of an area of 25,000 acres. Of these more than 12,500 acres belong to the parishes. All the local needs are met from the common purse. Then each burgher receives his firing on payment of half or one-third its value, and 25 to 30 acres of cultivable land for his lifetime. On this public land the class without means finds work and support through almost the whole year. As the parish only takes from the produce of its possessions as much as it wants for its common needs, the labourer gets almost all the produce of his toil. Such are the circumstances of almost all the lower Moselle.”
Dr. W. Kobelt writes from Schwanheim, on the Maine (Hesse-Nassau): “In the region of Wiesbaden the number of districts which levy no local rates and taxes, or only very low ones, is so large that this arrangement seems to us the normal one.”
It is enough to make the British ratepayer’s mouth water to read of place after place where industry is exempt from all local burdens, and of a still greater number of districts where they are so low as to be negligible.
Freudenstadt (Württemberg) consists of about 1,300 households and possesses about 6,000 acres of wood and 32½ acres of meadow. The revenue is thus spent: £5,300 for the local taxes, £75 for common needs, £1,650 divided among the burghers.
Gernsheim (Hesse), a place with no households, owns 1,845 acres of wood, 245 acres of meadow, and 1,819½ acres of cultivable land. The revenue is thus divided – £1,145 for local taxes, £2,661 for division.
Sigmaringen (Hohenzollern), a place of about 200 households, has 1,050 acres of wood and 1,650 acres of meadow and cultivable land. The current local taxes are covered from the revenue, £63 are given for common purposes, £133 are devoted to paying the State taxes of the burghers, and 1,700 cubic metres of firewood are divided among them.
Philippsburg (Baden), with 2,400 inhabitants, has 1,017½ acres of wood and 1,285 acres of meadow and cultivated fields.
On the other side of the form of inquiry the Burgomaster made the following instructive note: “Beyond the above-named duty in connection with the public land no taxes are raised here, but all – local rates, State taxes, river and weir dues – is covered by the return from the common property and common undertakings. The total amounts to from £2,350 to £2,450 a year.
“Note, in addition, that the common property of the burghers is a great boon because it preserves individuals from absolute destitution, gives families the opportunity of finding scope for their powers of work and for finding the necessaries of life, for which otherwise the means would be lacking.”
Gorlitz (Silesia) takes the most favourable place of all German towns of over 50,000 inhabitants with regard to local rates and taxes. The total local rates for each inhabitant came in 1890-1 to 8 marks, 35 pfennigs, in 1891-2 to 8 marks 2 pfennigs, in 1892-3 to 7 marks 28 pfennigs.
The reason is that this town has a landed property of 77,127½ acres, from which in 1892 £33,028 went to the common chest.
But, besides the revenue which so many German towns derive from their own land, its public possession has made it accessible to all classes, and the Burgomasters, again and again, were able to state in their reports, “There are no poor.” For every man can obtain the use of land, establish his home on it, and produce the bulk of his own food upon it. And no man need ever be out of work.
In national territory, also, Germany compares very favourably with our own country. The total area of British Crown lands is a little over 300,000 acres, but Prussian Crown lands include 1,050 estates, amounting to 8,500,000 acres, besides 73,000 parcels of land, totalling another 132,500 acres.
Many necessary public improvements are opposed and delayed because of their costliness, which is largely the result of private property in land, and because the expense of carrying them out can only be met by increasing the local taxes, which are already burdensome. If a town were owner of the land the expense would be much less, and it would fall upon the land itself. For there would be no ownership interests to acquire, and the expenditure would be equivalent to money spent in the development of an estate, the profits from which would be set on the other side of the account. Every wisely planned improvement would then benefit the town instead of a number of private owners.
When private land is acquired the owner has to be compensated for the loss of present or prospective tenants, and the tenants he loses simply transfer themselves to other private land; so that what one landlord loses another one gains. The community has to pay for the loss, and gets no part of the gain. But if the whole area belonged to the same public authority the gain in one place would balance the loss in another. For the rent-producers would simply be moved to another part of the same estate.
It is obvious, therefore, that great clearance and reconstruction schemes would be enormously cheapened under public ownership. Again, town planning would be greatly facilitated and improved, for a town could afford to be more liberal when dealing with its own land than it can when dealing with the land of private owners. A generous amount of space could easily be allowed for each house, so that every home could have a good garden. And larger public open spaces would be secured, the only cost being practically the cost of laying them out and maintaining them. By a proper allowance of land for home gardens and open spaces, towns might, in fact, become as healthy as the best of the country now is, and the consequent improvement in the physique and the happiness of the people would be an ample justification for the establishment of public ownership in land, even if no other good resulted.
It may be well to refer here to other cases of cities and towns owning land besides the British and German examples already given.
Further Examples of Municipal Ownership
New York owns the docks and a large part of the waterfront of the city. Enormous sums of money are annually paid in rentals for some of these docks, which are leased by the city to the highest bidders. For more than one of the docks on the North River used by the great ocean steamship companies the city receives $50,000 a year rent, and such rentals form one of the most important sources of revenue of the municipality. Brooklyn, on the other hand, does not own any of her waterfronts, although it has an extent of nearly twenty miles. New York has adopted the policy of purchasing waterfront property as a method of self-protection. The former owners of the property had formed a sort of ring or trust, and were putting up prices in a way that threatened to drive the ocean commerce of New York to Boston or Philadelphia. It was therefore decided that the city should take, under the right of eminent domain, enough of the waterfront property to destroy the power of the private owners to drive away the city’s commerce. Since that lime there never has been a serious complaint against this policy, and the city will doubtless retain the docks in perpetuity. The title to some of this waterfront property, especially that used for ferry purposes, runs back to grants from James II., after whom, when Duke of York, the city was named.
In 1854, the corporation of Durban was endowed by the Natal Government with a grant of 6,000 acres of land, and the city has derived great and increasing advantages from it ever since.
The Swedish town of Orsa is entirely rate-free because of its public land. The town of Zampen, on the Zuyder Zee, raises all its municipal funds in the same way.
Andorra, on the borders of Catalonia, raises, from the letting of public land, and from the royalties on its minerals, a sufficient sum to free its 15,000 inhabitants from all taxation.
The little town of Rotorura, in New Zealand, is entirely built on State land, and it is one of the most attractive and prosperous places, for its size, in that country.
When the power of the Mahdi was broken at the battle of Omdurman the Egyptian Government took in hand the re-planning of Khartoum, the capital of the Soudan. It was laid out on a metropolitan scale, the entire area being under one control. It was designed in its entirety, and equipped with all its public buildings in a year, by the Royal Engineers. Such a magnificent result could never have been achieved if there had first been a host of private interests to overcome.
The headquarters of the Government of India is to be removed from Calcutta to Delhi, and the entire site for the new capital has been acquired as permanent State property. The Government also acted upon the excellent principle of eliminating from the purchase price the increment, which was due solely to its own decision.
And, finally, the young Australian Commonwealth, in its plans for the foundation of Canberra, the new Federal Capital, adopted the wise policy of preserving the entire site of not less than 100 square miles as permanent and inalienable public property. Under State ownership Canberra should become a model for the whole world. For the town planning of it will not be hampered by vested interests, the land-speculator will be an unknown quantity, the whole value of the land will be public revenue, and local rates will be for ever unnecessary. If the Australian States had dealt with their vast natural resources on the same statesmanlike principles from the beginning, there would be no land problem there today, no State debts, no rates or taxes, and no need to tax land values, for all land values would be its own property.
But, when land nationalisation is proposed, it is often said, “Yes, it is very good in theory, and if we were starting a new country it would be wisest to adopt it; but we are an old country, and the thing is impossible.” It must, of course, be admitted that it is more difficult to establish it in an old country than in a new one, although, as has already been demonstrated, the difficulty is more apparent than real. But the benefits of such a system would be as great in an old country as in a new one, and the need for them is greater. For the worst evils of private property in land do not arise when the population is small in proportion to the area it occupies. As time goes on they intensify, and the sooner we establish in our towns and villages the system that prevails at Canberra the better it will be for the whole country.
Exemption of Improvements
So long as a man keeps land unimproved he is exempt from rates. As soon as he puts up a building upon it he is taxed. Thus the withholding of land, which is a bad thing, is encouraged, and the improvement of it, which is a good thing, is discouraged. A system like that is about as bad as it can be, yet it has generally been accepted as a matter of course, and only in recent years has it been protested against. We have seen that a different rating system has been adopted in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. But we have also seen that the exemption of improvements from rates has had the effect of increasing the value of land. While, therefore, it is a good thing for a man to know that he will not be taxed more for a £10,000 building than for a £5,000 building, he finds that the rent of the land has gone up, if he is a tenant, or its price, if he desires to buy it.
For rating reform is of the nature of a new discovery or a new process of production, and it is bound to reflect itself in land values. A great part of the benefit, if not the whole of it, that ought to accrue to the actual improver of land, is appropriated by the owner of land. The taxation of land values instead of improvement values does not touch the heart of the problem, for it leaves the landlord in possession of all his present power of raising rent or demanding a higher price, and it is seriously open to question if, in the majority of cases, the benefit reaches the land-improver at all. For, if a reduction in rates adds to the rent or the capital value of land (and all known experience, together with economic theory, demonstrates that it does), the benefit of rating reform, while leaving private property in land intact, will prove, if tried in England, to be as delusive as it is superficially attractive.
But it is quite otherwise when land is public property. In hundreds of cases, which have been already cited, all improvements are absolutely exempt from rates. But, as the land itself belongs to the community, the whole of the people, not private landlords, get the benefit. This, therefore, seems to show that the only effective means of securing the undoubtedly great advantages of relieving industry of its present burdens, is by establishing the communal ownership of land.
The revival of country life could also be accomplished if the land belonged to the people. Every man could secure a holding of one kind or another. Smallholdings would be as numerous as the demand for them required, and with every labourer’s cottage ample garden space could be provided. Improved conditions of tenure, already explained, could not fail to greatly increase the productivity of farmlands, and the nation would gain by being decreasingly dependent upon foreign countries for its food supplies.
Much good also is to be expected from the development of co-operative principles and methods in buying needs, implements, and manures, and in the marketing of the produce. For public landownership would make the re-organisation of the great agricultural industry, which is so extremely necessary, easier than it now is. Agricultural education would be improved and extended, light railways could be constructed, the waterways could be nationalised and developed, and railway rates could be revised (either by railway nationalisation, or by the conditions of the leases under which all railway companies would be tenants of the State) so as, practically, to bring the producer in the country nearer to the consumer in the town.
The social side of country life, too, is scarcely less important than the economic side. With increasing education, and as the people realise their power as joint-proprietors of their native country, the village might become as attractive ah the town now is, though not in the same way. Those who want big crowds, and the glamour of bright lights and constant amusements, can never be attracted by village life. But all healthy desires could be satisfied.
For a village need not be a lonely place. It need not be a dull place, nor a place of masters and serfs, nor a place of men ground down by poverty. It should have its public hall, open to all, irrespective of their religion or politics, which would be its library, its reading-room, its club, its concert hall, its place of social intercourse and entertainment.
But, above all, the greatest hope for the future is that every man would feel that agriculture, under the new conditions, would offer a career of comfort, if not of affluence. Every man would know that there was a chance of becoming his own master, and no man would work for less than he could get by being his own master. So wages would inevitably rise as a man found he had a second string to his bow, and was no longer driven to accept even starvation wages rather than fall out of work altogether. Better wages would mean better work, for low-paid labour is expensive, and well-paid labour is economical in the long run.
Further, as country wages were raised and rural conditions were improved, they would favourably react upon wages and labour conditions in the towns, for they would materially check the exodus from the villages, which now is so prejudicial to town workers. Thus instead of the villagers being competitors for town employment they would become customers for town products.
The scarcity of cottages, which is now one of the most serious of all rural problems, would vanish. For it is due to the present inability of country labourers to pay out of their miserable earnings a rent that will provide an adequate return upon capital invested in house building. With the rise of wages that would inevitably accompany the development of agriculture under public ownership of land, the agricultural workers would be able to afford a reasonable rent which would make cottage-building profitable, and capital would soon be devoted to the removal of the present scandalous cottage famine. There would be no need to build cheap and nasty cottages down to the level of a sweated wage, but the standard of wages could be raised to the standard of a good substantial home, in which a man might feel a pride and be secure. And it would be the duty of the State to ensure that such homes would be accessible to every man who needed one.
Then, again, the establishment of rural industries might be fostered, so that country villages would not depend upon the prosperity of the fields alone. For the discovery of electricity makes possible that which was impossible before. When all machinery power was derived from steam, it was necessary to concentrate the population upon the coalfields, or in close proximity to them. But power can be carried on a wire long distances from where it is generated, and there is, therefore, no longer the need there used to be for great aggregations of workers in limited areas. As the Falls of Niagara now supply electric power to distant places, so one large generating station could supply power to the workers in the villages for many miles around. Thus the population could be more healthfully distributed over the face of the land than it is now, and be enabled to carry on a great part at least of their work in the sunlight of the country, and in close proximity to the corn-fields and the meadows.
With the public control of the land, including the minerals and the waterpower, with the public ownership of all monopolies such as the railways, the canals, and the tramways, the people themselves would be the masters of their own destiny to an extent that is unattainable now. The physical degeneration, which is one of the saddest and most deplorable features of modern life, would be forever ended by a return to more natural conditions. With better food, better homes, and shorter hours of labour, the national standard of height and chest-measurement and general strength would be raised, sickness and disease would be lessened, and life not only prolonged, but made infinitely happier than it now is for multitudes of the disinherited masses.
Not the least of the advantages which might be secured under the public ownership of land would be the throwing open of the country to men of all classes who want to make a home upon it. There are thousands of men every year who have retired from business, and are anxious to settle down in a quiet spot for the remainder of their lives. And there are innumerable places in the country, which offer exactly the kind of site they want. But at present these are absolutely barred from them by monopolists, whose interest in land is to make it a dignified solitude for themselves, and a preserve for the game, which affords them pleasure whenever they feel inclined “to go out and kill something.”
It can scarcely be doubted that there are very many people of independent and moderate means who would build homes for themselves in the country if they had the chance to do so. And their presence there would prove a great source of financial strength to the villages where they chose to settle. With the elimination of the present veto of the large fox-hunting and game-preserving landowners, the introduction of this element into country life would be encouraged. Building sites would be thrown open for selection, and, upon cheap land, new homes would arise, with a generous provision of space, and would gradually tend to remove what is frequently regarded as one of the greatest drawbacks to life in the country, namely, its solitude.
Rights of Way
Again, under public ownership, it would be easy to safeguard all existing rights of way, which are now so frequently endangered by encroachments, and to establish new ones. Nothing is more delightful than a walk across the country, by the hedgerows and the streams, and through the woods. And, in these days of fast and selfishly-reckless motor-driving along the high roads, it is more necessary than ever it has been that the pedestrian should be able to escape from the dust and the fumes of the main thoroughfares. Some of the most beautiful scenes in our native land are now absolutely shut off from all except the landlords themselves, and those to whom they may graciously grant their permission to share in the beauties of Nature with them. There are lovely walks over the mountains and the hills which the ordinary citizen can never take, and through the shade of the woods which are barred by the notice-boards, so typical a feature of country scenery, warning trespassers that they will be prosecuted. What is there more restful than a wander by a running stream, in the cool of the evening, when the day’s work is done, or a walk by the still waters of a lake?
Joys like these are incalculably greater than the artificial and unsatisfying pleasures of ordinary town life. The cheap picture-house, with its stuffy and used-up atmosphere, is a poor substitute for the view of a sunset from a hill-top. For contact with Nature makes for the uplifting of character and an opening-out of the mind of man. And it is not the least serious of the items in the indictment of landlords that Nature is a closed book to the great majority of men.
But, under public landownership, the people would have it in their power to make the beauties of Nature accessible to all. A network of rights of way would be created, maps of them would be published, and invitations to make use of them would take the place of notices warning people off. It would then be possible for a man to strap his satchel to his back for a tramp of exploration across country, and for him to go from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, making little use of the high roads at all except to cross them, and not interfering in any way with the effective use of land for other purposes.
In such a scheme of making Nature accessible to all the inhabitants, the rivers and the lakes would also be made available for the recreation of the people, for boating, bathing, or fishing, under regulations that would ensure the proper use of such rights, and prevent the abuse of them.
Playing fields could also be provided for every school, instead of being limited to the schools of the well-to-do, and the substitution of spacious grass fields for restricted areas of hard asphalt or the street, which are now the only playgrounds of the children of the poor, would make for the health and happiness of the people to an extent that can scarcely be measured. And for the adults, too, there would be ground allotted for cricket, football, bowls, lawn-tennis, and so on, which would all help to brighten life and make it more enjoyable.
Then again, there are schemes for the development of the nation’s resources, which are impossible under private property in land. Perhaps the chief of these is the afforestation of large areas of land, which now lie waste. The Royal Commission on Afforestation and Coast Erosion reported that there are 9,000,000 acres of land in the British Isles, which are capable of growing timber, but which are now lying idle, or are put to scarcely any use at all. And it recommended that that land should be gradually acquired by the State, and planted with trees. Tracts of land that are now barren could be devoted to productive purposes. The home market for timber is enormous, but it is chiefly dependent upon foreign supplies. Every year we buy foreign timber to the value of nearly £30,000,000, which could be produced at home. Ninety per cent. of our total imports of timber consist of pine, fir, and oak, for which our own soil and climate are well adapted. And, as the great forests of other countries are being cut down faster than they are replanted, we are threatened with a timber famine in the not distant future, and a consequent enhancement of prices.
The great forests of Germany are, to a large extent, public property; they give employment to nearly half a million men, and employment in the forests is obtainable just at a time when agriculture is at a standstill.
The need for State forestlands was clearly recognised by ex-President Roosevelt. “One of the greatest of our heritages,” he said, “is our forest wealth. It is the upper altitudes of the forested mountains that are most valuable to the nation as a whole, especially because of their effect upon the water supply.
“Neither State nor Nation can afford to turn these mountains over to the unrestrained greed of those who would exploit them at the expense of the future. We cannot afford to wait longer before assuming control, in the interest of the public, of these forests, for, if we do wait, the vested interests of private parties in them may become so strongly entrenched that it may be a most serious as well as a most expensive task to oust them.”
The area of British woodlands is smaller than that of any European country, and only 67,000 acres, or 2¼ per cent., belong to the State. Yet the growing of timber is peculiarly a business, which the State can conduct better than the individual. For the harvest of the forest is long in ripening, and few individuals care to plant a crop the full benefit of which only their successors can enjoy.
A hundred years ago the Landes district of France was one of the poorest and most miserable in the whole country. To-day it carries timber worth £40,000,000.
The first cost of nationalising the land, which in many cases is worth no more than £1 per acre, and planting it, at a cost of from £3 to £8 per acre, is not a great thing for the State to undertake, and in only a few years there would be some return, as from the thinnings and the undergrowth. And, in the course of time, the national forests might become a substantial source of wealth, and provide much-needed employment, not only directly in forestry itself, but also in the subsidiary industries, which would spring up and flourish in forest districts.
Besides the land that could be afforested by the State, there are areas which need to be drained or redrained before they can be properly utilised, and other lands which could be reclaimed from the sea, as has been done in many cases already. Coast erosion could also be stopped by the construction of defence works. And all these things, if wisely carried out, would increase employment for labour, and add to the national wealth and the productivity of the soil.
It is not necessary to contend that the solution of the land problem would solve all problems. But it is within the truth to say that it would make the solution of all other problems more easy. It would increase the production of the good things of life, and, more important still, it would promote the more equitable distribution of them. It would guarantee a home to every man, and secure him from arbitrary eviction. He could sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none have the power to make him afraid.
It would destroy all the barriers, which monopoly and privilege have erected against labour. It would enlarge the field of work, and, though it would not prevent the fluctuations of employment, which characterise seasonal trades, it would make impossible the chronic unemployment which now exists. For there is never a time when men can say that all their wants are satisfied. There is always work to be done, work that badly needs to be done, always abundance of labourers ready to do it, and always abundance of the raw material out of which all man’s wants are supplied.
When a willing man is out of work, when an industrious man is poor, it is always traceable to the one supreme mistake which mankind has made in allowing land to be the property of private individuals, to be used or not used as in their pleasure they may choose.
In a state of nature the problem of the unemployed man is absolutely unknown, the problem of the workless tramp and tin; beggar is non-existent. And, whatever poverty there is, is due to man’s imperfect knowledge and mental development, not to monopolistic property rights. For the fields, and the wood, and the stream, are open to all alike. There are no landless workers on the one hand, and idle tribute-takers on the other hand; no contrasts of rich and pour, stately mansion and miserable hovel, such as are the outstanding features of our so-called civilisation.
Under natural conditions these glaring social contrasts would inevitably vanish, for inequalities of condition are due, not to inequalities of merit or capacity, but solely to inequalities of opportunity. For the minds of men are like the land itself – their yield is according to their cultivation. Let, therefore, the advantages of education, leisure, and culture, be accessible to all the children of the nation, and every avenue be thrown open for their advancement according to their unfettered capacity, and we should witness such an uplifting of the mental, moral, and physical standard of the race as the world has never yet seen.
With all the natural resources of the country in collective ownership, and with the public ownership of all monopolies, which are fostered by, and inseparable from, private property in land, the State would be so liberally endowed that it could promote the prosperity of the people in a hundred different ways, which are now impossible.
Private property in land has had a long trial, and it has woefully failed. It has enriched the few, but it has impoverished the many. It has fostered the privileges of the few, but it has destroyed the rights of the many. It has produced the Stately Homes of England, and has driven thousands of men from their native villages because they could not get a home at all. It has created the lonely, wall-girt park, and the crowded courts and alleys of the big towns. It has checked, handicapped, and penalised industry, and it has shut out the beauties of Nature from the enjoyment of men.
With full consideration for all the legal interests, which the State has itself permitted to take root, the time has come for the nation to assume the ownership and control of its own land, to dedicate it to the use of the people as an inalienable possession forever, and to devote its annual rental value to the common good. It is the greatest and the noblest work to which the nation can set its hands, and it is fraught with immeasurable good to the present and all future generations.
After this book had been written, and while it is still in the press, the Government’s rural land policy has been announced by Mr. Lloyd George at Bedford and Swindon. It is in the highest degree encouraging to the author to find that some of the chief reforms, which have been advocated in the foregoing pages are embodied in the Government programme, e.g. Fair Rent Courts, the building of rural cottages by the State, the establishment of a Central Land Authority, and the nationalisation of land for afforestation and reclamation.
The Government’s urban policy has yet to be announced, but, in view of its endorsement of the Acquisition of Land (Public Authorities) Bill, last year, it may be reasonably expected that that policy will include the granting of simple and extensive powers of land purchase to local authorities, to be held subject to the supremacy of national ownership.
The creation of a Ministry of Lands, with powers to control the monopoly of land as a whole, is an auspicious omen. For if landlords are to become mere rent receivers there is no justification for them remaining so in perpetuity, and their complete extinction on terms equitable to the State as well as to them, should only be a question of time.
The promised statutory establishment of a minimum wage for agricultural labourers is calculated to reduce the rent of agricultural land, at least for the time being; and, when that is done, its nationalisation ought to be proceeded with forthwith, before the subsequent rise in land values, which is bound to take place as the result of the inevitable rural revival.
October 23rd, 1913.
A Short Bibliography of The Land Question
Anon.: The Story of my Dictatorship.
Arnold (Sir Robert Arthur): Free Trade in Land.
Bear (W. E.): Study of Small Holdings.
Berens (Lewis H.): Toward the Light.
Blackie (J. S.): Scottish Highlanders and the Land Laws.
Blount (Thomas): Tenures of Land and Customs of Manors.
Bright (John): Influence of the Game Laws.
Brodrick (Hon. G. C.): English Land and English Landlords.
Brown (T.): Annals of the Disruption.
Burke (Sir Bernard): Rise of Great Families.
Caird (Sir James): The British Land Question; The Landed Interest.
Chomley (C. H.) and Outhwaite (R. L.): Land Values Taxation.
COBDEN CLUB ESSAYS: Land Systems of different Countries.
Collings (Jesse): Land Reform.
De Coulanges (Fustel): Origin of Private Property in Land.
De Laveleye (Emile): Primitive Property.
Dowsett (W.): Our Æsthetic Acres.
Evans (Howard): Our Old Nobility.
Eversley (Lord): Agrarian Tenures; The Game Laws; Commons, Forests, and Footpaths.
Flurscheim (Michael): Rent, Interest, and Wages.
Froude (J. A.): The English in Ireland.
Garnier (R. M.): The English Landed Interest.
– The Condition of Labour;
– A Perplexed Philosopher;
– Progress and Poverty;
– Social Problems.
Godkin (James): The Land War in Ireland.
Green (F. E.): The Awakening of England; The Tyranny of the Countryside.
Haggard (Sir II. Rider): Rural Denmark; Rural England.
Hammond (J. L. and Barbara): The Village Labourer.
Howard (James): The Tenant Farmer.
Hunter (Sir Robert): The Preservation of Open Spaces.
– The Case for Land Nationalisation;
– Land Problems.
Industrial Remuneration Conference Report (1885).
Johnson (Matt. G.): Pitman’s Farm Law.
Johnston (Thomas): Our Scots Noble Families.
Kay (Joseph): Free Trade in Land.
Kropotkin (Prince): Fields, Factories, and Workshops.
Lecky (W. E. H.): Ireland in the Eighteenth Century.
Macdonald (Dr. D. G. F.): The Highland Crofters of Scotland.
Mackenzie (A. C.): The History of the Highland Clearances.
MacLeod (Donald): Gloomy Memories of the Highlands.
MacLeod (Dr. Norman): Reminiscences of a Highland Parish.
McNeill (Sir John): Report on the Western Highlands and Islands.
Maine (Sir Henry): Village Communities.
Marks (Mary A. M.): The Corn Laws; Land Holding in England.
Mill (John Stuart): Political Economy.
Miller (Hugh): Cruise of the ‘Betsy’; Essays; Sutherland as
it Was and Is.
Nasse (E.): The Agricultural Community of the Middle Ages.
O’Brien (R. Barry): Parliamentary History of the Irish Land Question.
Ogilvie (William): Property in Land (1782).
Ogilvy (A. J.):
– The Third Factor of Production;
– A Colonist’s Plea for Land Nationalisation;
– Phases of the Land and Labour Question.
O’Rourke (Rev. John): History of the Irish Famine.
Orr (John): Taxation of Land Values.
Pollock (Sir Frederick): The Land Laws.
Rogers (Thorold): Six Centuries of Work and Wages.
Rowntree (B. Seebohm): Land and Labour – Lessons from Belgium.
Seebohm (Frederic): The English Village Community.
Slater (Dr. Gilbert): The English Peasantry.
Smith (Adam): Wealth of Nations.
Spencer (Herbert): Social Statics (1851).
“Stepniak”: Russian Peasantry.
Sullivan (T. D.): Troubled Times in Ireland.
Tawney (R. H.): The Agrarian Problem of the Sixteenth Century.
Unwin (Jane Cobden) and Villiers (Brougham): The Land Hunger, or Life under Monopoly.
Vinogradoff (Paul): Growth of the Manor.
Wallace (Alfred Russel):
– Bad Times;
– Land Nationalisation, its Necessity and its Aims;
– My Life; Studies, Social and Scientific.
Wedgwood (J. C.): The Road to Freedom.
Whiteing (Richard): The Yellow Van.
Wicksteed (Charles): The Land for the People.
Young (Arthur): A Tour in Ireland; Travels in France.