Forecasts of the Land Question

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Joshua King Ingalls

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Twentieth Century, August 3, 1893, 4-7.

It would seem that a complete acquaintance with the past and present tendencies of human society, should enable us to foresee to some extent the character of future institutions. But imperfect knowledge of the sequences of social phenomena, and of the laws which determine the evolution of industry, lead us greatly astray in our estimate of the positive exercise of arbitrary will, autocratic or democratic. This question of the ownership or dominion of land is the fundamental one in social advancement. Numerous theories, remedies, plans and schemes are offered as a solution of a problem, but partially understood. From absolute dominion, by the state, involving the state superintendency of all industry and denial of all individual property in land to "free trade in land," as proposed by the Cobden Club, with unconditional dominion to the highest bidder; in other words to a plutocratic regime, there are many steps and shades. Among these, land nationalization, and single tax are the least positive; yet they form the skirmish line of the advancing hosts of belligerent socialism against the equally belligerent individualism, to the great perplexity of Herbert Spencer. Their great strength, from a philosophic point of view, is their facility in substituting hypothesis for facts, equivocal terms for exact phraseology, and the use of different words with identical meaning to signify different things. To them monopolist rent and economic rent are without practical distinction ; voluntary and compulsory competition are one and the same; willing and forced cooperation are without a difference, and unlimited dominion of vacant land and "occupying ownership" mean the same thing. On the other hand the single taxer, at least sees a wide difference between "unearned increment" and "income from the rent of land" due or prospective, and "interest on the money" for which the land has been sold or mortgaged. How can one fail to furnish deductions to order with such facilities, even without the habit of passing by all points telling against their remedy as of no practical consequence.

In a recent number of the TWENTIETH CENTURY, in allusion to my "the two rents contrasted," I am asked without any notice being taken of one of the six plain and broad distinctions given, to concede the whole question at issue. Mr. Flurscheim, usually a clear thinker, and most conscientious advocate and worker in social reform, assumes that there are three factors in production, labor, land, ("assistance of nature,") and "the co-operation of human society." He also assumes or implies that justice requires the mutual pro. duct to be divided into corresponding parts, to the individual worker the share due to his work if he wrought alone, which could barely subsist him at best; the balance, natures' and society's shares, to the community. But he frankly acknowledges that a correct estimate of these shares is a serious conundrum, though "they pretend that the forces of nature as well as those of society cannot be made use of even to subsist one's self without the occupation of a part "of the earth's surface. "The higgling of the market" he thinks, determines rent, and not bare subsistence, as Ricardo thinks. If all this be admitted, and further, if we will admit that production increases under reform," and "if rent so found succeeds in extracting the correct share;" then "economic rent must rise under a state of freedom." Yet he still further concedes that the proof of all this or any part of this "would be impossible, if we had to make an exact valuation of the relative shares," having already admitted that only "a rent which really embodies the exact value of nature's and society's share in production, has an indisputable right to call itself economic."

The divergence between Anarchists and Communists seems to me loosely stated by him. I do not think all Anarchists so despairingly pessimistic, or that "a growing number of thinking workers," are reverting to primitive Communism. I find a profound basis of faith that nature will see that her share of production is properly distributed, if even by the higgling of a gambling market. But such necessity should suggest to us that even that would be safer than to surrender it to a legal control under bureaucratic administration, and military arbitrament. The only interest the producer of wealth can have in these hypothetical shares is to see that his own product is not diminished to a moiety or less by the false pretenses preferred by some lord of privilege to personate both nature and society; so both laborer and the land may be robbed; the land of its fertility and the laborer of his product.

The idea that nature contributes a share, capital a share, and society a share, to the productiveness of labor, is a conception of barbaric times, to justify invasion and the forcing of tribute. Following in the thought ruts of unscrupulous advocates of power where, Gibbon says "the steps are silent, the shades are almost imperceptible, and the absolute monopoly is guarded by positive laws and artificial reasons." Mr. George after repeatedly declaring that the factors of production are dual, not tripartite," thinks he finds [5] "a distinguishing force, co-operating with that of labor," and hence that "it is impossible to measure the result by the labor expended," but "renders the amount of capital and the time it is in use, integral parts in the sum of forces, and so infers economic interest as well as rent. Mr. Flurscheim leaves out the claim of capital, but thinks the unearned increment due to society. Now whether there are two, three, four or five factors, seems a matter of little account to either, so they can avoid the intellectual effort of getting out of the time-worn ruts. The too utter stupidity of all these manufactured reasons for positing economic rent as other than an economic quantity, is seen when we notice that the shares of society, capital and nature are never claimed by their hypothetical ghosts, but by men who declining labor seek a division of its earnings. Where nature's share goes to enrich her and increase her power, or the fertility of the soil, and where capital's share goes to furnish new plants and extend employment, which seems to be Mr. Flurscheim's method in Topolobampo, no worker is wronged, no industry plundered or hampered. Not passion for the enjoyment of equal freedom, but for dominion over the places and productions of others, generates invasion and meddlesome interference. It is not the Scottish crofters, but Mr. Winans who stands in the way of industry, and causes all the crowding of one upon the other. When the salts and gases nature has lent to production are returned to her, her claim is satisfied. Her force is persistent, her energy inexhaustible. When the plant is kept good, and increased as needed, capital's share is consumed.

But society's share? Co-operation of labor doubtless gives larger production; but to whom is this due? To those who "work together" or to those who have declined to co-operate, barred the paths of industry, and deprived labor of opportunity; withheld the earth from man and blocked the wheels of progress in every serious struggle? Yet these are the parties who now reap the unearned increment, and receive the rent, and to whom government renting or confiscation of rent, will award shares and to the idle vagrant, as to the wealth producers, who so far have shared only bare subsistence.

Mr. F. in a friendly way asks me to concede the whole question as to the permanence of economic rent, and could he assure me in certain points as to the nature of the government leases, and that his premises were not mere shadowy hypothesis, I should be glad to please so courteous an opponent. That economic rent would increase under government control or under single tax, with unlimited leaseholds, and remain undistinguishable from rack rents however "immense," I have not the least doubt. But that the condition of labor would be improved by such renting or taxing, my reasons for doubting will be given directly.

Mr. F. virtually yields the entire question he asks me to concede on such illogical grounds. He says:

"we can claim all that part of our produce which we obtain without being in the way of others, i. e., by barring their access to natural opportunities." But why protect any one in forcing such privilege? If the two can agree why should society interfere? Is it the home and tilled acres, of the occupier, or the dominion of vacant land that bars out labor from all opportunity, What but privileged monopoly stands in the way of each one having as much as he desires, or rationally, without disturbing others? He makes no attempt to prove such necessity, yet says that government can not be justified in interfering until such exigency arises. It would have been to the point to show that any man would be wronged or crowded because he could not occupy and use the same land at the same time, with another. Where is there the pretence that such is probable? Ricardo's theory has collapsed; not only failing to account for the cause of rack rent, but to show that economic rent is a permanent quantity, which economic law cannot equilibriate. The Malthusian theory of population is dying of age. The later decades of this century show a narrowing of the increase in the birth rate, in all civilized societies, even in this youthful and bountifully land endowed nation, while in some it has reached its maximum, or is already on the decline. But suppose it were otherwise, and that increased population made access to land more and more difficult, instead of rendering the necessary quantity for one's support constantly less and less? How can renting of government or confiscating rent, increase the amount of land or diminish population, or even improve the disposition of those who seek to invade one another's domicils? Ricardo and Malthus treated British land ownership as an "Order of Nature," or a conferment of "Divine right." No idea of common or joint property as a personal right was conceived by either of them. I am under obligation to Mr. Flurscheim for referring me to Mr. George's late book. I have not yet seen at. In saying that permission must be obtained of every inhabitant before one could appropriate any natural product, I was not thinking of the point in Spencer's Social Statics, but of a statement of a single taxer, that he had a right to a share of the entire products of the earth. Common or joint ownership, the difference of which I understand very well, was not in my mind. The dilemma remains the same, however. Unless a man has a normal right (if only that of might) to private ownership of his person, the space necessary to be in and the surroundings necessary to life, then he must obtain or assume to have obtained by tacit social compact, the right of property in himself, and to room and opportunity to labor, because, two persons cannot occupy the same space or belongings at the same time, any more than can two atoms. But neither Mr. George nor Mr. Flurscheim are in a position to profit by Mr. Spencer's perplexities. He has reached a forecast which certainly justifies a "perhaps" or a "possibly," while the end to which they deem social evolution tending is simply an impossible one. The primitive "communal ownership," from which "tenancy in common," in English law had its source, and of which "joint tenancy" was a variation, [6] is the earliest and crudest form of land ownership in social life. The tendency to change to separate and private ownership of land was developed soon after property in movables arose, and gradually grew into extended domain, without intelligent limitation to check its encroachment on popular rights or invasion of the persons and properties of individuals. Nor has property in land, by our laws at present any restrictive conditions, such as attach to property in movables. To forecast progress, without improvement, in human conditions, is to discredit the experience of the ages. From their own showing, it does not appear that single tax or even land nationalization can improve industrial or social interests. With the limitation of leases suggested by Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace, some improvement in human affairs might possibly be realized; hut I know of no single taxer of note who accepts the idea. Mr. Flurscheim indeed speaks of "certain restrictions," but gives no hint as to what they should be. Without positive limitation of estates in land to "occupying ownership," either plan would only facilitate the reduction of the land and all productive property to a state of commercial monopoly. For two or three centuries, the regime of feudal ownership has been quietly changing from militant land dominion to the feudalism of trade. Landed property is no longer the inheritance of "an order of nobility," with its laws of primogeniture and entail; but has been absorbed by capital in its extension of dominion over the entire field of human activity. With or without remuneration to landlords, national control would be a surrender of all wealth producing industries to be capitalized; since a monopoly of leases, of unlimited quantities of land would enable all agricultural business, and all home-making to be put in rust, as other businesses are being.

The land of this country was from the first, national or common domain. The nation has sold it and given allodial titles. Only by exercising the right of eminent domain, can a rod of it be lawfully taken, and only for strictly public use. Only state socialism could reach the desired end, and which would be a subversion of our political system. But suppose it otherwise? There would be not a possibility but a great certainty that it would again pass to private control through treachery of public officials as before.

With unlimited leases to the highest bidder, no poor man could obtain land, all rents would be monopoly rents, and workers must remain the serfs of those who had money to forestall possession, as in barbaric days the weaker was forced to leave the land or accept involuntary servitude. He had the "right of trial by combat," the measuring of arms and swords or bludgeons. Bidding on unconditioned leases will give us the trial by measurement of purses, unless we have a friend at court, with a tolerable certainty of being forced into involuntary idleness. This conflict will not be a struggle for the occupation of the best land, but for any land however poor, or situation however mean, and even to retain the humble home one has toiled to rear and beautify.

This has "no practical bearing," with our theorists. With the capture of the economic rent, things will go on swimmingly! But how! The difference between a deed and a lease is only one of time. A lease is a deed of sale of the use of land for one year, or one hundred years. (The shorter the time the worse and more hazardous for the occupier). A deed, allodial ownership is a lease of the same use "forever." The unconditioned lease increases the facility for engrossing through the law of the market the business of land speculation, as buying on margins facilitates stock speculation. The government would doubtless get the economic rent, which will prove a plus or minus quantity. The successful leaseholder will have the monopoly rent, which will prove a wholly positive, and with all industrial progress, a constantly increasing quantity.

"But if the reform will increase the worker's wages five fold, it must increase the economic rent, see!" I see. Leaving out the significant if, it seems necessary to remind our friends that productive labor gives the only fund from which rent or taxes can be paid. So if the laborer's hire is multiplied by any ratio, great or small, the rent taker's and tax eater's income must be divided by a corresponding ratio. The plus of the worker's will thus be quite balanced by the minus of the rent gatherer's end of the economic scale. With considerable pertubation, no doubt, the librating tendency will as certainly be developed, as that water will seek its level from any external disturbance.

Shall we never be able to have it understood that the laborer does not suffer seriously because the best land and the first (or even second or third) class opportunities are closed to him, but because all land and all opportunities are barred by unconditioned deeds which do not differ in operation from unconditioned leases. Had the bars best be taken down think, or shall we attempt what nature readily does when let alone, to librate incidental inequalities by stationing a government agent at the gate to collect the admission fees to the economic show? This will certainly benefit the showmen and the boodlers of politico-commercial combines, but would be carrying us backward to premedieval times, with the ancient tax-farmers, masquerading s landlords. I recognize no sign of progress in the wish to substitute bureaucratic for pluto-aristocratic toll gatherers. It is now the unconditioned dominion "over earth and man" which invades freedom and "gets in the way of workers." The depredations on commerce are not less, now that the agents of government "set in the seats of customs,' than when the buccaneer collected them on the high seas, or when the ancient baron fortified the mountain pass, and gathered tribute of every traveler.

I have not read "Social Statics" since its first appearance, more than forty years ago. Patrick Edward Dove's book was republished in this country about the same time. I found in the latter the anticipation of Henry George's entire land and tax scheme, and the identical course of reasoning by which he buttressed his "sovereign remedy." It then appeared to [7] me a quack remedy, although a tolerable diagnosis of the disease. As to Spencer's book, I have a vivid recollection of his imaginary talk with the backwood squatter on unused land, and how the "man of Straw" he set up to show off his intellectual powers, floored the philosopher in the first syllogistic round, and of course, with the words the latter, through his English love of fair play, had felt compelled to put into the mouth of his lay figure. With a dumb opponent, however, he was able to regain his feet, and ultimately silence his speechless opponent by arguing of absolute right; although as a philosopher, he only made the squatter urge a relative right. He had found the land unused, had worked it without complaint from any one, and thought he had a better right to hold it than any man or any collection of men had to take it from him. It seemed to me then and did after reading "Progress and Poverty," that the man of straw had the best of the argument. And Mr. Spencer himself now appears to think so. With his motive in expressing his perplexities I have nothing to do. We are all too ready to impugn the motives of opponents. Their facts and logic we cannot scrutinize too closely. To his objections to land-nationalization and state Socialism, I have seen no convincing answer. Neither he nor his critics appear to recognize any alternative other than unconditional communal ownership of land on the one hand and unlimited private dominion on the other. Either renders freedom impossible. Conditioned between these however is private "occupying ownership.' Had Mr. Spencer observed this, he would have reached a conclusion satisfactory to himself and one requiring no "possibly" or "perhaps." He failed by side-tracking, at its last stage, his own line of thought. He says: "As the individual, primitively owner of himself, partially or wholly loses ownership of himself during the militant regime, but gradually regains it as the industrial regime developes, so possibly the communal proprietorship of land, partially or wholly merged in the ownership of dominent men, during evolution of the ‘militant type, will be resumed as the industrial type becomes fully developed."

In point of fact, the ownership of persons through conquests in war, and purchase in trade, has under the industrial regime at length resolved itself into an ownership limited to one's self. Analogy would require that the primitive ownership in land the right of domicil appropriate to the use of the individual being lost under warlike dominion, would be resumed under industrial rule, and perfect the worker's ownership of himself and of his environment, the community also regaining its eminent domain over unused or co-operatively used land, while the quality of private property would only attach to that exclusively occupied in person. Mr. Spencer is doubtless correct in supposing ‘that private property in one's person and in the product of one's labor will continue to grow more and more sacred. He is astray I think when he says that property in land, not being a thing produced by labor, will in the future be held less sacred than now. He wholly misses that portion of land which becomes private property by its relation to labor He is right doubtless as regards dominion of land, which involves subjection whether by the capitalist, feudal, lord or state, or subjection of labor. This must necessarily disappear under equal freedom, or our era of industry retrograde to barbaric slavery or savage vagrancy. That property in land, which labor has created by cooperating with and moving it to productive use, will also without doubt grow to be held more and more sacred, as our industry develops and as distributive justice becomes the watch-word of a higher civilization. Then and hardly till then will the forms of cooperation best suited to the times and the people, have fair play, or indeed any opportunity of trial. Nothing can be done in that direction while the great mass of the co-operators are landless and homeless. Without the earth for a fulcrum, the hypothetical lever of the reformer is powerless. Intelligence, not blind will, it is most probable under equal freedom will render cooperation, communism and other forms of industrial life voluntary and rational, without awakening the barbaric desire of the one or the many to force companionship or crude purposes on any. When the bars are taken away, rack rent will cease and economic rent will be set free. This will secure the occupation of the best places, and the working of the best fields by the best methods of co-operation. The worker will no longer seek the protection of the military power, against himself, nor shirk or shrink from mutually beneficial efforts. It is difficult to conceive of a positive or increasing rent requiring forcible libration, or such as is available for taxation, when only about five per cent of our land (exclusive of Alaska) is in any use, and the most of that is second or third class. The best sites in cities and for cities are in the same ratio, kept out of use by usurpation, not by individuals getting in each other's way.