Robert Flint.

Socialism online

. (page 17 of 38)
Online LibraryRobert FlintSocialism → online text (page 17 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

over which they roam is often a weak and question -
a.ble one, just because they have never really appio-
priated, cultivated, used it. The aborigines of
Australia were hardly more entitled to be called the
proprietors of Australia than were the kangaroos of
Australia, for they had only, like the kangaroos,
wandered up and down in it. If any individual
among them had made something like a garden of
any portion of Australian soil his title to that piece
of ground would have been much superior to that of
his tribe to the hundreds of miles over which its
members sought for their food.

It has never been shown that national property
in land has any better foundation than individual
property in land. A nation generally gets its land
by occupation and conquest, and if these are good
titles for it they are good titles for individuals.
Purchase and cultivation as modes of appropriation
are better than these, and individual property
is more frequently acquired than national property
by them. The titles of the Norman followers of
William the Conqueror to the lordship of English
lands may have been morally far from good, but
they were as good as William's own to the lordship
of England ; the right of the Norman individual


was as o-ood as that of the Norman State. If individual
property in land then be inijust, we shall not escape
from injustice by taking refuge in national property
in land ; for it must be equally or more unjust, seeing
that it rests on the same or weaker grounds, and
has been effectuated in the same or worse ways.
The only mode of escape from the alleged injustice
must be to allow of no property in land ; to have all
land unappropriated, free and open to all. But this
would render land useless, or nearly so. If every-
body is to have the same right to it nobody will get
any good of it. The earth, however, can hardly
have been designed to be useless. If, as Socialists
frequently remind us, God has made it tor the good
of all. He cannot have so given it to all that it could
benefit none. And certainly it is only through land
becoming the property of some that it can become
])rofitable to all, or indeed of almost any use to any.

It cannot reasonably be doubted that individual
property in land was a decided advance and im-
provement on any of the forms of collective property
in land which preceded it. It would not otherwise
have everywhere displaced them in progressive
societies ; it would not otherwise have uniformlv
accompanied the growth of civilisation. The collec-
tive tenure of land was once the general rule ; now
it is the rare exception. Why ? Because it was an
economically feeble and defective system ; because
it cranq)ed freedom, depressed energy, limited produc-
tion, could not supply the wants of a large ])()pula-
tion, and hindered the accumulation of capital.

None of the objections against private property


in land appear to me to be of any real force. Some
argue thus : No man has made the earth or given
to it its natural powers, and therefore no man is
entitled to appropriate it and its powers to his own
exclusive use, or to exact from another compensa-
tion for their use. Were this argument good nu
natural agent whatever could be justly appropriated,
and all industry would be wrong, all production of
wealth sinful. One man takes a piece of wood and
makes it into a bow and arrows, to kill the
creatures which are to serve him as sustenance ;
another takes a piece of ground, clears it, cleans it,
digs it, plants in it the seeds of trees and herbs
which will yield him food. In what respect is the
latter less entitled to be left in undisturbed posses-
sion of the piece of land which he has made useful
than the former of the piece of wood which he has
made useful ? In none. The natural qualities of
the wood were as much the creation of God and
His free gift to man as the natural powers of the
soil ; the soil not less than the wood has in the
process of appropriation been converted from a
natural and useless into an artificial and useful
thing ; and the men who have respectively so
changed the wood and the soil have both justlv
become the owners of them, and are entitled either
to keep them for their own use or to lend the use of
them to others for a compensation. Agricultural
land is very rarely the ])ure gift of nature; it is
almost always an artificial and manufactured
article. It is often an instrument of production
most expensive to make, and generally also one


most expensive to maintain in efficiency. Hence
in any advanced stage of civilisation none except
capitalists can be the proprietors of it without
injury and injustice to the community.

Land, it is likewise often argued, so differs from
other things that it ought not to be made property
of like other things. As it is limited in amount,
and the quantity of it cannot be increased, the
ownership of it, we are told, is a mono])oly to which
no individual can be entitled. This is a very
conmion yet a very weak argument. Only things
which are limited are made property of; what is
Tuilimited, or practically so, is not worth appropriat-
ing. Political economy does not concern itself
about things the supply of which is unlimited.
There is no social question as to the use of such
things. But what articles of value are unlimited ?
What natural agents needing to be taken into
account in the production of wealth are unlimited ?
None. Stone, coal, iron, wood, &c., are all as
limited as the surface of the OTOund. Limitation is
a condition of all wealth, not a distinctive pecu-
liarity of wealth in the form of land. That land is
limited is the very reason why there is property in
land. It is no reason for concluding that property
in land must be an unjust monopoly, or a monopoly
at all. Tliose who affirm that it is, merely show
that they do not know what a monopoly is. If
every man be free to go into the sugar trade, selling
sugar is not a monopoly, although the quantity of
sugar in the world is not unlimited. In like
manner, the limited amount of land camiot make


property in land a monopoly, provided there be, a&
there ought to be, free trade in land.

Another argument against private property in
land, and one which is much relied on by most
advocates of land nationalisation, is based on the
fact that the value of land is largely due to the-
general labour and growth of wealth of the com-
munity. It is not only what the landlord does to
his land which gives it the value represented by its.
rent. A piece of ground in the centre of London is
of enormous value, not because of anything which
its owner has done to it, but because of the industry
and wealth of London. The socialistic inference is
that a proprietor cannot justly profit by what thus
owes its existence to the community ; that the
"unearned increment" derived from social labour,
or general social causes and " conjunctures," should
of right return to society. But here, again, it is
ovei'looked that what is alleged is not more true of
land than of other things ; that all prices are as
dependent as rents of land on the general labour
and prosperity of the community : that if land in the
centre of London rents high, it is because houses
there rent high ; and that if houses there rent high,
it is because a vast amount of business is done in

It is not only the owners of land in London
who profit by the industry and prosperity of
London, but also its professional men, merchants,
tradesmen, and labourers. All of them, when
times are good, when " conjunctures " are favour-
able, receive " unearned increments," as well as the


landowners ; all of them are in the same way
indebted to the community. The large incomes of
London physicians and London merchants, com-
pared with those of physicians and merchants of
equal ability in provincial towns, are as much due
to an unearned increment as the high rents of tlie
owners of the ground on which London is built. If
the people of London are rightfully entitled to the
unearned increment in the rents of its ground-
proprietors, they are entitled also to the unearned
increment in the fees, salaries, and profits of all
classes of its citizens.

That they are entitled to it in any case has yet
to be proved. That there is any way of exactly
separating unearned from earned increment, and
justly apportioning it among those who have con-
tributed to produce it, has yet to be shown. That
a cit}^ or nation can have any better claim to it
than an individual has never been made out, and is
even clearly incapable of being made out. For the
value of land in London, for example, depends not
only on the wealth of London, but on the wealth of
England, and the wealth of England depends on tlie
wealth of the world, on the labour, production, and
abstinence of the world. If, therefore, the argu-
ment under consideration were valid, the British
nation ought in justice to hand over to other
nations no inconsiderable portion of the unearned
increment included in the wealth of its members.

The rise and fall of the rents of land, then,
depend on the labour and good or bad fortune of
society, no otherwise than the rise and fall of all


other rents, of all prices, and of all values. There
is nothing special or peculiar in the mode of their
increase or the course of their movement which can
warrant society to treat them in an exceptional way,
and to deal with property in land differently from
all other property.

Easily proved as this truth is, and amply proved
although it has often been, enthusiastic advocates of
land-nationalisation, like Henry George and Alfred
K Wallace, cannot afford to acknowledge it. They
have founded their whole system on the assumption
that land alone, or almost alone, increases in value
with the increase of population and wealth, and
that in virtue of this law the landowners of a
country by simply raising rents can and do appro-
priate all that labour and capital contribute to the
production of national wealth.

The assumption is altogether arbitrary, and un-
doubtedly contrary to fact. The man who can
believe that land is in this country the exclusively,
or even a specially, remunerati"^e kind of property ;
that the want of it is a necessary and chief cause
of poverty, and the possession of it the infal-
lible and abundant source of wealth, displays a
remarkable power of adhering to a prepossession in
defiance of its contradiction by experience. Is there
any kind of property which increases less in value in
Britain than land ? It is known not to have doubled
in value during the last seventy years. It has cer-
tainly diminished in value during the last twenty
years. There is no apparent probability of any rela-
tively great or rapid rise in its value in the future.


The vast increase of the national income, since, say,
1820, has been almost wholly derived from other
property than land. It is not the rule but the ex-
ception to make large fortunes, eitlier by speculating
in land, or cultivating land. The notion that the
landowners are appropriating all the wealth of the
nation, and keeping the other classes of society in
poverty, can be entertained by no man of unpreju-
diced mind who is acquainted with the mass of
evidence to the contrary accumulated by the recent
researches of scientific economists and statisticians.

It has to be added that the connection of the in-
dividual with society is for the owners of land, as
for other persons, the source of undeserved decre-
rtients as well as of unearned increments. This fact
the advocates of land-nationalisation strano-elvover-
look, or unjustly ignore. They seem to think the
conjuncture of social circumstances, the incalculable
operation of social causes, only brought gain and
wealth to the possessors of land ; whereas, in reality,
it as often brings to them loss and poverty. Riches
sometimes flow in upon them, as upon other men,
owing to the condition and fortune of the community ;
but from the same cause their riches as frequently
" take to themselves wings and flee away." If,
therefore, the State is, on the plea of justice, to
ap]3ropriate landowners' iiici'ements so far as not
iiulividually earned, it must also become responsible
for their decrements so far as socially produced.
For society to seize on the socially caused increment,
yet not to restore the socially caused decrement, in
individual incomes, would be a manifestly unjust


and unfair procedure. Those who have recommended
it in regard to the rents of land have been in-
fluenced by a false theory, and have neither looked
calmly nor comprehensively at the subject. They
have seen only one side of the shield. They havt-
gazed so eagerly at the coveted increments as
wholly to overlook the decrements, though equalh-
real. Now, suppose that the British Government,
about the year 1870, in the belief that landowners
only benefit by their connection with society, had
agreed to appropriate their unearned increments,
but on condition of making up for their decrements
not due to their own mismanagement, should there
be any : would not the bargain have been a
wretched one for the British people during the
fifteen years which followed ? Why, they would
have had decrements everywhere, year after year,
and increments nowhere. In some of these years,
instead of being entitled to get anything from great
landowners, like, for instance, the late Duke of
Bedford, they would have had to give them fifty per

Instead of being either foolish or unjust, it is
really both the wisest and the justest policy which
the State can pursue, not to attempt the impossible
task of separating the social or unearned from the
individual or earned portions in the incomes of an\
class of its citizens, but to leave them both to enjo\'
the gains and bear the losses which their connection
with the nation involves,*

* Mr Robert Giffen, in his "Growth of Capital," 1890, has con-
vincingly shown that in Britain property in land has been steadily losing


For having thus argued at such length that jus-
tice does not demand the nationahsation of the land
of the country, my excuse must be that so many
persons are at present loudly asserting the contrary,
and endeavouring to make it appear that private
property in land is morally wrong, and that to ex-
propriate landowners without compensation would
be an innocent or a virtuous act.

I do not maintain that to nationalise the land
would be in itself unjust. If private property in
land may be just, so may national or collective pro-
perty be. What I fail to see is, how national or
collective property in land can be just, if private
or individual property therein must necessarily be
unjust. Nationalisation of the land would be quite
just if the present proprietors were bought out, and
if men were left not less free than they are at
present to purchase the use of the land in fair com-
petition. It is quite possible to conceive of a kind
of nationalisation of the land which would not inter-
fere with the liberty of individuals in regard to the
possession or tenure of land, and which would con-
sequently not be Socialism at all in the sense in
which I employ the term. Could it be shown that
to nationalise the land by the national purchase and
administration of it would be clearly for the good of
the nation, I should have no liesitation in advocat-
iiii - its nationalisation.

its relative importance among the items of tlie national wealth. It con-
stituted, according to his estimate, in 1690, 60 per cent, of the total
property of Britain ; in 1800, 40 per cent.; in 1865, 30 per cent.; in 1875,
24 per cent.; and in 18S5, only 17 per cent.


The present proprietors could in justice only
demand for their land its fair market value. They
may have in theory a right to the possession of it
for all eternity ; but this is not a right which will
entitle or enable them to get more for it in fact
than a sum equal to between twenty and thirty
annual rents. They could reasonably claim from
the State, supposing the nationalisation of the land
were resolved on, only its ordinary selling price.
But this they could with perfect justice claim ; this
could not honestly be refused to them. To maintain
the contrary is to advocate theft. The proposal of
Mr. George and his followers to appropriate the rent
of land by throwing on it all public burdens is a
suo-aestion to theft of the meanest kind ; to theft
which knows and is ashamed of itself, and tries to
diso-uise itself under the name and in the form of
taxation. The State which adopts it will only add
hypocrisy to theft.

The proposal, also often put forward of late, that,
on due intimation, property in land should be
appropriated by the State without compensation,
when present owners die, or after the lapse of
twentv or thirty years' possession, is likewise one
of flagrant dishonesty. Imagine three men : one
invests his money in land, the second buys house-
property, the third acquires bank-shares. Can any
good reason be given why the capital of the first
alone is, either at his death or after thirty years, to
go to the nation, while that of the other two is to
remain their own however long they may live and at
their death to cro to their heirs ? Or is it in the


least probable that a State unprincipled enough thus
to appropriate the capital invested in land would
long- scruj)le to appropriate any kind of investments ?
There must be a radical change in the primary moral
apprehensions and judgments of men before proposals
such as these can be generally regarded as other
than immoral.

If the nation, then, would become the sole pro-
prietor of the land of the country, it must iirst buy
out the present landowners. Any other course
would be imjvist. No other course is possible except
through violence, revolution, civil war. But buying
out the landowners would be a very foolish and un-
profitable financial transaction for the nation. It
could only be eiiected at a cost of about two thou-
sand millions ; the interest on which would amount
to more than the net return of the land, which is in
this country not above 2^ per cent. It would not
be, perhaps, an impossible financial operation, but it
would certainly be a very difficult one ; and it would
divert an enormous capital from profitable spheres
of employment, necessarily increase taxation, and
tend not to any improvement in the condition of
farmers, but to rack-renting. I shall not, however,
occupy the space still at my disposal in showing that
land-nationalisation accomplished by purchase would
be a very disadvantageous investment of national
capital, because this has been often unanswerably
shown, and can hardly be said to have been ever
seriously contested. Socialists themselves — all of
them, at least, except credulous believers in the
])(>\ver of the State to work industrial and econo-


mical miracles — do not deny it. On the contrary,
it is just because they cannot help admitting it,
cannot fail to see that land-nationalisation by pur-
chase would be a case where honesty would not
pav, that they are forced to advocate schemes of
land-nationalisation by open or disguised confisca-
tion that are distinctly dishonest.

The nationalisation of the land has been advocated
as a solution of the social question. By the solution
of a question is meant an answer to it, a settlement
of it. But the nationalisation of the land would
answer no social question, would settle none. It
would only raise in a practical form the question.
What is the nation to do with the land ? Only
when this question is settled, or practically answered
in a satisfactory manner, will ever the land question
be solved. But the slightest reflection will show
that the question which would arise as to how the
land when nationalised ought to be made use of,
must prove an extremely difficult one to answer
aright. Those who, like the great majority of the
advocates of land-nationalisation, merely expatiate
in a general way on the advantages which they
conceive would flow from the measure, avoiding to
state and explain what system of land administra-
tion they would substitute for that which at present
prevails, must be regarded as vague thinkers and
empty talkers, yet none the less likely on that
account to influence dangerously the ignorant and

The nation might deal in various ways with
the land which it nationalised. It mioht, for


example, proceed forthwith to denationalise It by
creating- a new class of proprietors, say, peasant
proprietors. But one can hardly suppose that it
would be so inconsistent as thus to stultify itself.
The socialistic arguments against property should
be as applicable to private property on a small as on
a large scale. Buying out one class of proprietors
in order to put in another class would be an ob-
viously absurd procedure. The new proprietors
could hardly expect other classes of the nation to
pay, merely for their benefit, the interest of the
enormous debt incurred in buying out the old pro-
prietors. These classes might justly, and no doubt
would, look to them to pay It. Bat peasant pro-
prietors, and, indeed, any class of proprietors so
burdened, could never maintain themselves and
prosper. Still less could they pay a land-tax
additional to that required to yield a sum equiva-
lent to the interest of the debt incurred by the
State in the purchase of the land. Yet what
Socialists aim at is to impose such a tax on land as
will render every other species of taxation unneces-
sary. This method, then, would neither satisfy any
principle of those who contend for land-nationalisa-
tion, nor serve any desirable end. The proprietors
of the new system would be In a far worse position
than the farmers of the old ; the use of the land
would be restricted to a class as exclusively as
before ; and the only change in the relation of the
State or nation to the land would be Its liability for
the enormous debt incurred by its purchase.

The State mio^ht also let the land when national-


ised to tenant-farmers. This is the plan which,
were all private ownership of land abolished, would
produce least change in the agricultural economy of
the country, and which Government could follow
with least trouble and most sense of security.
Hence it is the plan which has found most favour
with those who advocate land-nationalisation.

But how, then, would the rents be determined ?
If by competition, Socialism, which professes to set
aside competition, would be untrue to itself in
conforming to it. While rents would not be
lowered, the general community would be as much
shut out from enjoyment of the land as it now is,
and the expenses of the Government so increased
by the management of it as largely to deduct from
the rent. If, on the other hand, the rents should
be fixed otherwise than by competition, and in
accordance with some truly socialistic principle, a
just and equitable principle of the kind has yet to
be discovered. It is as impossible, apart from
competition, to determine what are fair rents as
what are fair wag-es.

If fixed otherwise they would have to be fixed lower
than competition would determine, in order that the
farmers might not be aggrieved and driven to resist-
ance. But the more they were thus lowered the
greater would be the wrong done to the rest of the
community, which instead of being benefited by the
return from the land would be burdened with an
increased measure of the debt on the land. If, then,
the changes required by this plan be comparatively
slight, the advantages which could reasonably be


expected from it are equally slight. The condition
of farmers would not be improved ; the condition of
agricultural labourers would not be improved ; the
condition of the general community would be
rendered much worse, as it would be placed in the
position of a landlord, the rental of whose land fell
far short of the interest of the debt on it.

Private landowners, indeed, would be got rid of;
and the members and accents of the Government
would take their place. But would this be of real
advantage? In all probability it would be the
reverse. A democratic Government represents only
that political party in a country which happens for

Online LibraryRobert FlintSocialism → online text (page 17 of 38)