The Land for the People

 How to obtain it and how to manage it.
by Charles Wicksteed (1886)


Chapter I.—Introduction.
Want of a work entering into a practicable method of obtaining the land for the people and of managing it when obtained—Insufficiency of H. George’s works in this respect—Scheme for obtaining the land by gradually increasing the Land Tax condemned—Confiscation condemned …

How to obtain the Land—This must be a compromise—Can’t get out of a false position without loss—Compensation scheme quickest and most equitable Impossible to set things right all at once, no forced means will do it—Danger of any other method—Scheme for compensation—Tables showing how many years it would take to buy out the landowners simply by devoting all increase of rent to that purpose …

Principles on which the land should be valued—Basis present yearly values—Speculative value not allowed—Rating land at its value instead of its use Order in which first valuation should proceed—Difficulty of separating tenant-right from ground rent exists in any scheme—Valuation should be carefully and scientifically made …

The fundamental principle on which the State should manage the land—Here there is no compromise—Here we have merely to follow loyally ideal justice—If once this path be deviated from justice becomes impossible and compromise begins—Necessity of beginning right and making foundations firm—Universal reign of material laws acknowledged—The supremacy of the moral law—Certainty of punishment if not obeyed—No compromise in the moral law—We must go back to first principles—We must not tamper with the land question —Public spirit necessary for the health of a nation—Just laws will foster it, unjust destroy it—Privileged classes the result of unjust laws and the enemies of public spirit—Man’s right to all that he makes as an individual, to equal rights to the earth, right of the community to all that is made by the community collectively, are the leading principles rigidly to be adhered to …

State management of the land—General scheme—How the land should be let—Main features and rules—All-importance of a reliable and market ground rent and not a fixed one enlarged upon—How labourers will obtain their allotments—The Government would in no way interfere with private management of land—Would not dismiss a tenant unless rent was not paid—Would not take one unless land was thrown on its hands—Competition rents would not mean rack renting—Large incomes, although spent amongst workers, are not spent for their benefit—Peasant proprietorship no remedy—Irish Land Act only a make shift—Who the first tenants of the State should be—The rich could not outbid the poor—All-importance of competition rents—Harmony of economic laws truly worked out with the moral law—How the penniless will derive benefit—How the poor will obtain access to the land—The element of time necessary to develop advantages—Rent a necessary means of justice …

Valuation Difficulty of separating tenant-right from ground rent—Way to do it in town and in country—Details of country valuation—Simplicity of State management—Advantages illustrated …

A sketch of some of the direct effects in town or country—Also on colonisation, war, and social distinctions—Effect on towns illustrated—Action in villages explained, and probability of manufacturers being worked in conjunction with agriculture—Effect on stopping the exodus of unskilled labour from country into towns—Benefit to farmers—Benefit to the country at large —Game Laws Parks and country beauties—Beneficial effect on our colonies and improved relations with the inferior races—Appearance of war—Tendency to abolish social lines …

The effect of the unequal distribution of wealth on depression in trade—The necessary elements for trade always with us—Over-supply theory nonsense—Speculation in land one cause—Inequality of Wealth the principal cause, aided by changes in fashion—Demoralising influences of fluctuations in trade—Sufficiency of capital certain without rich men …

Capital: The source of its power, its true position, its uses, its fate—Different classes of investment—Table Openings that are indefensible and defensible—Businesses in their nature monopolies ought to be managed and owned by the State—Dishonesty not encouraged by this—Interest justifiable as long as it can be obtained by fair means—Nature of wealth—Competition of capital—Destruction of capital—Possibility of saving wealth—Functions of wealth—Capital only a means to an end—Oppressive only by being able to buy rights of oppression Investment in land practically makes interest certain—Abolish such investments, and interest would fall or disappear—Provision for old age Co-operation probable—Competition of labour healthy, with equal rights to land—Large fortunes could be made, but no income in perpetuity—Professional classes …

Population—What grounds are there for thinking there are too many people? A country gathering part of its food supplies from another is no proof—Home industry is not necessarily discouraged—Malthusian theory not applicable to England—Moral restraint no good for public reasons, only for private—Forty years ago we found it as difficult to find employment as we do now—Even small patches of moor, thickly-populated land does not necessarily show over-population but only maladjustment—Landowners’ views of over-population …

Rapid growth of the movement—Reason why the institution of private ownership in land can be overthrown—Difficulties and dangers—Revolution of some sort inevitable—Political action of the wealthy—Political action of the poor—Instinctive love of justice—The duty of leaders—No time to be lost—Summary of argumentÖ—Concluding observations .

Chapter I—Introduction.

Is Nationalisation of the Land the wildest of all wild schemes, or is it practicable in every way—a good without an evil, and a glorious illustration of the harmony of God’s laws?

This is the question I am going to try and do something towards answering in the following pages. I am not writing in order to prove the moral right of the people to the land they live in, nor yet to show the various evils arising from the present system, as this has been well done by others, but am simply going to explain how I think the nationalisation of the land can be practically carried out with benefit to all and real hardship for none, to try and convince those who only stand aloof from the movement because they think the theory impossible of application, that it is not only possible, but easy, and that the only practical difficulty will be in educating the nation to do it; in getting the rich to realise in time that all their wealth rests upon a society which is crumbling beneath their feet; in overcoming, on the one hand, the timidity, prejudices, and greed of the middle and upper classes, and in stemming, on the other hand, the violence and ignorance of those millions of poor sufferers who feel they have nothing to lose.

The English are supposed to be a very practical nation, and they will not believe in abstract principles, however true and noble they may be, unless they can see their way to putting them into practice. But this is not all. In the absence of some sound method being laid before them for the carrying out of abstract justice, they naturally invent ways of their own instead; assume that there is no better way; demonstrate most forcibly how badly their plans would work, and end up by condemning both principle and practice as alike absurd. This is what is continually taking place in discussing the land question.

I feel, however, that although such treatment is unfair to the subject, we land nationalisationists can, perhaps, hardly complain, as I do not know of a single work that attempts to show in detail or principle a clear, intelligible, and workable plan of carrying the measure through and making it a success. I can well imagine that the land might be nationalised in such a bad form, and in such ignorance of the true bearings of the question, that it would be very questionable if it would do any good at all.

Indeed, all the proposals I have seen are open to grave objections. Even Henry George in his magnificent work, “Progress and Poverty,” is unjust and untrue to his own principles when he comes to put them in practice. Read and see how he shows, in passages of surpassing eloquence and power, that it is not so much what the landowner actually takes, as what he prevents from being produced, that does the mischief; how that, as everything comes off the land in the first instance, it necessarily follows that if the land is let at such a price or on such terms that people either cannot do justice to it, or are prevented from making any use of it at all, the very foundations of trade and society must be undermined; and how that, since the landowner possesses that which is absolutely essential for the production of wealth and sustenance of life, he possesses to a greater or less extent, according to circumstances, the lives and property of the people who live on the land; and then see how, having so powerfully, eloquently, and laboriously demonstrated all this, Mr. George deliberately proposes that we should regain the land by gradually increasing the land tax till it absorbs the whole rent, leaving the management of the estates in private hands, as now. It is best, he says, to carry out new things in old forms. Let the landowners call the land their own if they like, let them and their agents continue to manage it, but tax them to the amount of their rent.

Now, what all this means is simply that at the risk of civil war, and at the cost of great individual injustice and hardship, he would, after years of social strife of the keenest description imaginable, succeed in confiscating rent, and enriching the people by that amount, provided other things remained the same. He would, nevertheless, as far as this scheme is concerned, leave all other difficulties inseparable from private ownership in land not only undealt with, but increased; for there is nothing more certain than that the landlord, finding himself at open war with the people, would redouble his efforts to get all he could out of the land while he had a chance, without the slightest regard to the interests and desires of the people, who he would feel were robbing him.

There is yet another point to be considered. Mr. George and others propose commencing operations by reimposing the land tax of 4s. in the pound, and then gradually increasing it. Now, the question is, whether by taxing land 4s. in the pound, it would in the long run, or in the short in many instances, make any difference to the amount the landowners could draw from the people. Mr. George’s contention, unless I have entirely misunderstood him in all the argumentative part of his “Progress and Poverty,” is that it would not. He says that the owners of the land have the power in the long run of absorbing advantages which are common to the whole of the people, such as release from taxation, cheap bread, or improvements in machinery. He says that there is a constant tendency to grind down the unskilled labourer to the lowest pittance he can live on, and that the reward of higher classes of labour is founded on this. He contends that extravagance in national and municipal expenditure, does not come out of the pockets of the workman, but of the landowners, whose tenants, having to pay more taxes and rates, are able to pay less rent. He contends that the amount rent leaves for capital and labour depends not upon the amount men can make on the land, but upon their independence; upon the proximity or remoteness of free land; or, in other words, upon external circumstances; that according to these external circumstances are the people who live on the land more or less slaves to the people who own it. I agree with him, in substance, all through. He has converted me entirely so much so, that I am entirely unable to see how all this logic is to be put on one side when you relieve taxation by taxing rent. The relief effected would enable the people to live so much cheaper, and if that did not enable the landowners to take so much more in the shape of rent, George’s whole theory falls. If Imperial taxation were relieved by the imposition of the new land tax, it would take time for the benefit to filter through society to the landowners, just as it would with any other advantage that was distributed through society; but if local rates were relieved, it would be simply taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other. When landowners were not fettered by leases they would take the advantage at once; they would be able to raise their rents to the amount of the rates relieved.

There are many parishes where the tithes are as much as 10s. per acre. Now, no one imagines for one moment that if the tithes were removed the tenant would get his land for 10s. per acre less; we know that the landowner could at once charge 10s. an acre more for the land, and would do so. Then in this case, if the landowner were taxed 10s. an acre in order to pay the tithe, the only difference to landowner and tenant would be that the landowner would pay the tax to Government under the name of land-tax, and the tenant would pay it to the landlord under the name of rent. It would make no other difference to either of them. Exactly the same thing would occur if rates were relieved by a tax on laud, the tenants would pay more rent, fewer rates; the landlord would receive more rent to pay his extra taxes.

Of course, the incidence of rent would be changed by imposing an extra tax on land. If, for instance, Imperial taxation were relieved, the town landowners would ultimately be benefited at the expense of the agricultural, as anyone can see who will take the trouble to think the matter out; but landowners, as a whole, would take the same. As I have said before, Mr. George maintains, and I believe rightly, that the amount capital and labour can insist upon keeping depends upon various external conditions. Now, I want to know what single external condition there is that would be altered by relieving taxation by a land tax, and why, if a landowner can take up the advantage of cheapened living by improvements in machinery and cheapness of bread, he cannot also take up the advantage of lightened taxation. The fact of the matter is, there can be no way of preventing the landowner from taking advantage of improvements, and the only way of giving these advantages to the people is by making the people the landholders themselves.

It is a most important and interesting subject, that requires an exhaustive treatment, quite out of the scope of this essay. The only valid argument that I have heard advanced is, that we should increase the taxation faster than the landowner could take it up. This, of course, might be possible; but how can any one desire to throw the country into such a scramble?

Then, again, Mr. George never even alludes to mortgages on land, money lent by banks, benevolent institutions, life assurance companies, widows’ and orphans’ funds, building societies and private individuals; nor yet does he appear to realise the fact that our present securities are founded on land, and that the withdrawal of that security in any unjust way (or rather, any way that would be considered unjust, as Mr. George does not himself think it is) would cause a disturbance in the money market, and a loss of confidence in the honour of the nation, which, if it did nothing else, would cause widespread suffering among the working classes and many unoffending and hardworking people who had invested their all in annuities and investments that happen to be drawn off the land. He speaks as if he had no one but the landowners to deal with, and assumes, most untruly, that they would in most instances have plenty left to them in the property built on the land. Now, considering how few estates are free from encumbrances of one sort or another, it may be fairly assumed that if the ground rent were taken away, the landlord, in only too many cases, would have little or nothing left him.

In justifying this plan, Mr. George dwells upon the increased prosperity of the nation, in which the landlord would participate. I confess I fail to see myself any great prospect of increased national prosperity as long as the land is in the hands of a set of men who feel their interests opposed to the rest of the community. There might certainly be the difference of the rent that was paid into the National Exchequer instead of into the hands of the landlords; but that the landlords would thus gain anything like the amount they lost, Mr. George would be the last man to maintain. As to how the nation is to manage the land when they have got it under their own control (a happy time which Mr. George evidently contemplates, although I don’t notice that he makes any allusion to it in his plan of confiscating rents) he says scarcely anything.

This confiscation scheme is, unfortunately, all that the average man understands about Henry George. This one mistake, as I think, in one of the noblest works that was ever written is all that most men know about it, and about all that the popular critics dwell upon. All his splendid reasoning and grasp of the question in most of its bearings, all his vivid and forcible description of the helpless state that civilisation is bringing men to, and the abyss into which they are running, go for nothing. Few of those who read him can even understand him; that is clearly shown by their criticisms. They miss the whole genius of the work, and think that by picking at the accuracy of some minor statement they are undermining the magnificent structure which George has built up, whereas in reality they are not even touching it. He has, perhaps, said but little that is absolutely new, but what he has done is to bring lights and truths partially or wholly understood by others into one grand focus, which is nothing short of a revelation to those who understand it. It is to attempt to work out to some extent that practical portion of land nationalisation which George has left undone that I am writing to-day. This little work is an endeavour to discover the lines we must follow in materialising George’s theories.

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