The First Principles of the Land Question

Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisation

Chapter I: The First Principles of the Land Question

“THE steady depopulation of the country districts, the continued overcrowding of urban areas, the increasing emigration of some of the best bone and sinew to other lands, the increasing dependence of the country upon foreign food supplies, the growing burden of local taxation, the persistence of poverty despite the ever-increasing powers of producing wealth, and the prevalence of unemployment even when trade is at its best, are all problems of the first magnitude.

The future welfare of the people depends upon their solution, and it is impossible to study them without being brought face to face with the question of the laws relating to land. They are all, in fact, parts of the great land problem.

In a primitive state of society the land question is the only economic question. The dependence of man upon the soil is, in such a society, obvious to the most casual thought. In modern society, that dependence is not in the slightest degree lessened, but it is not so clearly visible. For the complications of modern civilisation are so great and so varied that man is apt to forget that he is as much a land animal as any of his most remote predecessors were.

All the food he eats, all the clothing he wears, all the houses he inhabits, are derived from land as much as theirs were. Many things he has which they never had and never dreamt of, but not one of them is or can be derived from any other source than the land. And that land is the same land that grew the crops, and that fed the flocks and herds, and formed the sites and substance of the simple homes of men in the most distant times.

The costly viands that load the tables of a multimillionaire come from the same mother earth that yielded the coarse diet of the savage. The many changes of raiment that are the joy and pride of the rich to-day are the products of land as much as the woad that decorated the bodies of their uncivilised savage ancestors, or the roughly-dressed skins with which they protected themselves from the inclemency of the weather.

The most magnificent liner that crosses the Atlantic, with thousands of human beings aboard, with all its rich furnishings and precious cargo, is made up of land material as much as was the first boat of the Ancient Briton which was simply the dug-out trunk of a tree.

The most complicated machine of the present day is in the direct line of succession from the simple implements of the Stone Age, and it is composed of land as they were. The whole of the wonderful productions of the world’s factories, turned out under the system of modern capitalism, with all its vast ramifications, are of the same substance as those of the first handicrafts of the untutored savage.

All the work that man does is concerned with land, and is performed on land. Every atom of his body is derived from land, and will be returned to it, of the king no less than the commoner, of the prince no less than the peasant. It is the first necessary of the master of millions as truly as it is of the tramp upon the highway. From man himself to the lowest forms of life all animals need land. Without it, in fact, life is impossible and unthinkable.

The first characteristic of land is, therefore, its indispensability. This alone would place it in a category by itself, and separate it from all other things that are the subject of property.

Its second characteristic is that it is absolutely fixed in quantity. We speak of man making things. In strict truth man makes nothing. He creates nothing. All the materials with which he works were here before the first man came; before life itself made its appearance upon our planet. All the labour of the whole human race from the very beginning has not added, and never can add, one atom to the fixed stock of this raw material. By patience, knowledge, and industry, man can increase the productivity of land, or by unwise action he can diminish it; but its total amount is independent of all that he can do. He can neither make it nor destroy it. He can convert a swamp into a well-tilled field, or he can transform good soil into a desert. He can reclaim land from the sea, or, by the neglecting of sea defences, he may allow dry land to be covered by the ocean. But the area and volume of land are unchangeable.

For the term land includes that which is covered with water as well as that which is dry. It includes the whole planet from the surface to the centre, with all the water on it and under it. It includes the atmosphere, which envelops it as well as the life-giving rays of the sun, which fall upon it.

The importance and urgency of the land question are due entirely to the unique attributes of the land itself. And, as it is the first necessary of life, all the arguments, which apply against the private ownership of monopolies in general apply with additional and even irresistible force against the private ownership of the monopoly of land.

All other monopolies are the result of human action. The sale of intoxicants is limited to those who can acquire a licence from the Government. It is a monopoly created by Act of Parliament, and a licence for its renewal must be applied for every year. Then, by the Copyright Laws, authors and composers are granted a monopoly for a limited term of years, in the course of which they can charge what they choose, and so reap the reward of their brainwork. By the Patent Laws inventors are granted a similar limited monopoly in the ownership of machines and processes which arc due to their genius. And the general opinion of mankind is in favour of such special monopolies, whether the object be the public control of a trade which is of a special character, or the encouragement of creative ability.

The monopoly of land is, however, not the creation of parliamentary enactments, but is inevitable in the nature of things. A Higher Power than the parliaments of man has decreed that it shall be so. By this or that law the number of its monopolists may be increased or reduced, but there can be no question of “abolishing” the monopoly of land any more than of abolishing the law of gravitation. The utmost that we can do is to make such laws to govern its occupation and use that the rights of the whole people shall be established and enforced, and their interests safeguarded.

Every Man’s right to the Earth

Much dialectical skill has been employed from time to time to prove that man has no natural rights at all. It has been contended that he has only such rights as society itself grants and recognises. All this is but the useless spinning of words. For practical purposes the laws of parliaments, and all the forces of public opinion which are not set down in the form of laws at all, but which are none the less real on that account, are evidence of the existence of a belief that all men have certain rights inherent in the very fact of their existence. The laws may be, and often are, partial in their conception and enforcement. They may favour some at the expense of others, but all the time men are feeling their way towards a system of law, which eventually will protect with complete impartiality the interests of all members of the community. Every human act that the law regards as an offence is an aggression upon what are held to be the rights of men, or of the lower animals which arc in their power and ought to be under their protection.

Every man is entitled to freedom of movement and freedom in the expression of his opinions. He is entitled to possess undisturbed such property as by honourable means he may be able to acquire. He is entitled to be guarded against violence and cruelty. But, above all, he is entitled to live, and to live the very best life that is possible to him by the exercise of his own mental and physical faculties. These are his rights, and grievous wrongs are inflicted upon him whenever they are violated. They are his rights simply because he is a living, sentient creature, and as such is entitled to be guarded from pain and suffering caused by his fellows. What are called the rights of property are simply the rights of men who possess, or who ought to possess, property. A house has no rights, but a man has. And the supreme right of all is the right to life.

The worst crime of which a man is capable is the taking of the life of one of his fellow men, and it is punishable by the destruction of his own life. And so sacred is life held that there are those who deny the right of the community to destroy even the life of one who has himself taken the life of another. Whether or not a murderer should have his own life destroyed is a controversial question, although the overwhelming majority of men regard it as just and necessary that he should. But there is, at any rate, entire unanimity that in every other case the right to life is absolute.

Equal Rights

Seeing, then, that all men have an equal right to life, and that no man can live without land, it follows that all men have an equal right to the use of the land that is necessary to sustain their existence.

The premises of this syllogism are axiomatic, and the conclusion is irresistible.

The question now arises. Is our existing land system in harmony with this principle? And the most cursory examination of that system discloses the fact that it is completely antagonistic to it.

For practically the whole of the land of the United Kingdom is private property, the amount that is public property being so small that it does not affect the issue. And on all the land that is private property the private owner is master. No one else has any right there at all. Whether it shall be used or not is his business and no one else’s. If he decides that it shall be used, as of course he generally does for the sake of the profit to himself, it rests with him to determine the use to which it shall be put. And he alone has the power to determine who shall use it. In the vast majority of cases his veto is absolute. Only for special purposes can the land be taken out of his hands against his will. Happily there is a growing tendency to assert the community’s right to acquire land for public reasons even where the owner objects, and to limit his powers over the land which he is still permitted to retain. But it still remains true that, except in rare and special cases, the owner of land has a free hand to let his land or withhold it, to allow some people on it and to keep others off it, and to charge the utmost rent or price that he can exact from those who are fortunate enough to secure his favour and win his permission.

Even in a country where the ownership of land is shared by a large number of small proprietors, there are very many of the people who are excluded from its possession. But, in our own country, those who are landless constitute the great majority of the people. And a landless man is in the position of simply existing on the sufferance of the minority who control practically the whole area. He is like a man who has been invited to a feast, but finds all the seats taken before he arrives. He must get the permission of one of the first comers before he can take his place at the table. It is open for every one of them to refuse. And if permission be granted it must be paid for.

It is, of course, true that many men who have no land experience no serious and obvious inconvenience on that account. If they have money, they can, as a rule, find a landlord somewhere who will gladly grant them the use of land, whether for residence, cultivation, or trading purposes. Even in such cases, whether the conditions are fair or onerous, they always involve the payment of a price, which, in its essence, is merely a price for permission to work and live. But the masses of the manual workers are in a very different position from those who, by reason of superior ability or chances, have command of the money that enables them to be more or less independent, and more or less able to secure land for one purpose or another. Judge Arthur O’Connor stated the position very clearly when he said:

“It is plain that if a man does not own any land he must live upon the land of another, and he must, directly or indirectly, pay to him that owns it a premium or rent for permission to be there. This is the condition of the vast majority of the people in England, and every man, woman, or child in the community, who has no share in property in land, is – whether conscious of it or not – as much a rent-producing machine for the benefit of the landowners as the cattle that browse in the fields.”

The Highland crofters, who were evicted on a wholesale scale in the first half of the last century, were, in fact, no better off in the matter of recognised land rights than the sheep which were brought on as they were driven off, and which themselves afterwards had to give place to deer, when rich men were willing to pay higher rents for land as deer-forests than could be got for land as sheep-runs. And every landless man stands in the same relation to his Mother Earth as did the Scottish crofters, having no more right on it than the beasts of the field.

No one has ever stated the case against private property in land with more convincing and unanswerable logic than Herbert Spencer did in Social Statics. It is true that, nearly forty years after its publication, he withdrew the famous Chapter IX, on “The Right to the Use of the Earth,” because he could not see how its principles could be carried into effect without injustice to the landlords. From the view that, “however difficult it may be to embody that theory (of the equal right to the earth) in fact, equity sternly commands it to be done,” he passed, in the timidity and caution of his old age, to the view that the difficulty was insuperable. Naturally he was greater as a philosopher than as a politician. He was a master in the statement of principles, but to the means by which they could be put into practice he had never given the same attention. And it is not too much to say that practical statesmen can surmount the difficulty, which seemed to him insurmountable. The first thing, however, is to get first principles clearly understood, and no apology is therefore needed for giving here an extract from the chapter of Social Statics above referred to, bearing in mind that, even when withdrawing it from circulation, its author re-affirmed his opinion that private property in land was “ethically indefensible.”

“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.

“Equity, therefore, docs 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 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.”

At first sight an attack upon the system of private property in land appears to many to be only the advance guard of an attack upon private property in general. But such a view will not bear a moment’s serious consideration. There are, as a matter of fact, no greater believers in the real rights of private property than those who deny that such rights can be maintained in the case of land. The only justification for private property, and it is all-sufficient, is that human effort can only be encouraged by the certainty of the reward of possession.

All wealth, other than land, is the result of human work, and every man who works is surely entitled to possess and enjoy the fruits of his work. The hunter has a right to the fruits of the chase, but not to the forest itself. The fisherman has a right to the fish he catches, but not to the sea or the river. The cultivator has a right to the crop, which is due to his toil of sowing, tending, and reaping, but not to the earth upon which it grows. The miner is entitled to the labour value which he gives to the raw material of the substance of the earth, but not to the coal field, or the slate mountain, or the stocks of iron, gold, tin, lead, or copper which owe their existence to Nature and not to man. The builder is entitled to the house he brings into being, but not to the ground upon which he has placed it.

In the first place it is not necessary that the rights of private property should apply to anything more than the actual products of human labour. Ownership of the forest does not enable a hunter to be more successful in the chase. Ownership of the water of a river or sea does not increase the fisherman’s “catch.” Ownership of the land does not make two blades of grass to grow where one grew before. Ownership of a coalfield does not increase the output of a mine. Ownership of building land does not increase the number or improve the quality of the houses erected upon it.

The “magic of ownership that turns sand into gold” is the magic of ownership of the improvements, not of the land itself. It is true that ownership of land carries with it the ownership of the improvements, and the second is hardly ever attainable, under present conditions, except when accompanied by the first. None the less it remains true, that the real incentive to industry, even in the case of an occupying owner, is the ownership of the improvements, which he makes, and not the ownership of the land, which he does not and cannot make. An owner has the benefits of security and freedom that are denied to all others. Under a rational land system those benefits would attach to every tenancy, and would not be limited to ownerships as they are now.

In the second place it is not justthat the rights of private property should apply to anything beyond the products of labour.

If land were available in unlimited quantity, or if all men needed an equal amount of land, and if it were all of equal value, there would be no harm in its private ownership. But not one of these conditions exists in actual fact. The supply of land is absolutely fixed, men need it in varying quantities, and its value ranges from nothing to much more than a million pounds for a single acre. Under these circumstances, even if it could be all fairly apportioned now (as it cannot), inequalities would speedily arise and accumulate.

Equality of opportunity is, in fact, impossible under any conceivable form of private property in land, and nearly all our social evils have their root in the inequality of opportunity, which is inseparable from a system, which deprives the bulk of the nation of their most elementary birthright.

A just land system would insure to all the inhabitants of our country:

  1. A right to have access to land, for each according to his requirements.
  2. Security of tenure for every occupier, with the right to reap the full reward of his work and enterprise.
  3. Such advantages to be obtained by the payment of the true annual value of the land he occupies.
  4. The rental values of all land to be paid into the public exchequer, and to be devoted to the common good by representative public bodies.

It is obvious that not one of these objects can be fully attained so long as land is regarded as private property, and, because they are all necessary for the welfare of the people, equity requires that our present land system must be amended and recast so that they may become universally and easily obtainable.

Reasoning on a priori grounds it might have been predicted that a system, which condemns vast masses of people to landless dependence upon a favoured few would inevitably fail, sooner or later. Reasoning on similar grounds the failure of slavery might also have been foretold. But the case for the abolition of private property in land rests, as did the case for the abolition of private property in man, upon results.

Slavery and landlordism have this much in common that they both depend upon a false system of property. The one is the buying and selling of man, the other is the buying and selling of Nature, which includes all that man needs for the maintenance of his life. Both involve, although in different degrees, the impoverishment of the workers, and the enrichment of those who live by their toil. Both are infringements of a man’s right to possess himself and the products of his own work, and both are violations of human liberty.

Ail civilised peoples have seen the iniquity of chattel slavery, and have swept away the so-called “rights” of property upon which it rested. And the time will surely come when, with equal clearness, they will see the inequity of allowing Mother Earth to be bought and sold as a commodity.