Henry George Examined

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Joshua King Ingalls, "Henry George Examined," Liberty, 2, 1 (October 14, 1882), 5-6.

HENRY GEORGE EXAMINED.<ref>The introductory portion of this article, preceding the dialogue, appeared originally in the "Irish World." The remainder was offered to the editor of that paper, but rejected by him.—EDITOR LIBERTY.</ref>

Should Land be Nationalized or Individualized?


Editor Irish World:—However interesting for the moment may be the questions as to whether Messrs. Parnell and Davitt are acting in unity, and as to whether Mr. George has captured the latter gentleman, a still graver question must ultimately present itself in connection with the disposition and final control of the land. Among the advocates of the "new departure" I have observed but one who has seemed to apprehend the exact issue,— viz., your correspondent, "W. M. C." "Phillip," indeed, apprehends that the solution must have a more individualistic application than is necessarily embraced in the term "nationalization of the land," but, until he fully develops his ideas, I will suspend judgment on them.

Now, potentially, there can be no difference between monopoly under lease and monopoly under freehold, as we shall see on careful investigation. But let us, first ascertain what this phrase really means. Does it mean land for the whole people? Then who would want to rent or let? Does it mean ownership by the government or State? If so, it is not the solution, but only the stating, of the land problem. At the outset this is the theory of all governments.

When William of Normandy defeated Harold, he, as head of the State, assumed control of the lend, and parcelled it out to his bandit lieutenants and favorites. The English monarchs did the same in Ireland.

In ancient Rome the nation claimed the domain; but after a few hundred years it was all in the hands of a few patricians and military chieftains. The land in these United States, at adoption of the Constitution, was mainly national domain. Less then a hundred years sufficed to place it the hands of speculators, favored corporations, and domestic and foreign landlords. Less than one-quarter is now held by the government, and but a small proportion by actual cultivators, and even one-half of that is mortgaged to money-lenders beyond all hope of redemption.

I shall be told that it is not intended to allow private property in land at all, and that hence no monopolistic accumulation could arise. Well, then, there can be no public property in land; or, if so called or held, it must be with this sweeping limitation,—that the public, State, or government can never transfer it to private control. What I wish to indicate here is that no step whatsoever towards securing the individual people in their "rights of soil" can be taken without "limitation of the principle of property" in its application to the land.

But I shall be told also that for the individual to lease his land from the State or government will obviate all danger that any person will he excluded from cultivating the soil who honestly seeks to do so. This would be satisfactory if it were proposed, as "W. M. C." proposes, to limit lease-holds so that all could have opportunity.

Without such limitation lettings would have to be made at auction; and it would be no more difficult for the millionaire to bill off all the leases of a section, township, or county than to buy up all the fees simple. Indeed, It would be far easier, for it would require him to invest none of his capital in land, as now. To nationalize the laud in any catch sense as that would help no poor man to a piece of land, but would only subject labor to dependence on a speculating and adventurer class instead of an hereditary landlord, and upon the favors of a partisan bossism, instead of a foreign government.

We should have our "seventy-thousand-acre farms" run by "produce kings," aided by machinery and "transient help" in seed time and harvest, resulting in the ultimate exhaustion of the soil and time reduction of labor to the tramp state. Our stock-jobbing system would be mercilessly applied here, and the condition or the poor, by lack of opportunity for self- employment, would be rendered constantly worse and worse instead of being improved.

I do not mean in any degree to intimate that Mr. Davitt or Mr. George contemplates any such results, but this is the logical outcome to any plan of occupancy which does not positively assure the individual right to enter upon and cultivate the land necessary to his sustenance, and that without accounting to landlord or government official. I am gratified that the "Irish World" has not committed itself to any plan which does not effectually realize this aim.

"Rent," according to Mr. Davitt," is an immoral tax," and, according to Mr. George, is "the price of monopoly," and, whether paid to a single or to a collective landlord, is unchanged in its nature.

In view of the brave and noble work which Mr. George has done and is still doing for the cause of land reform, it pains me to say that he does not seem to have appreciated his own words, much less comprehended the clear-cut definition of Mr. Davitt, and, as to the twin blasphemy of usury, not to have apprehended it at all. Even as late as March 10, 1882, he speaks of the increase of rent with the growth of society as "a most beautiful evidence of creative design."

In so late a number of the "Irish World" as July 8th, in the report of his Dublin lecture, after reiterating that the present agitation "means land for the whole people—every men, women, and child, rich and poor," a" solution which gives to every man that which he fairly earns," be gives utterance to such inconsistent economic twaddle as this, saying it is "Michael Davitt's plan:" "To solve the land question and the labor question it is merely necessary [not to nationalize the land) to take for the benefit of the whole people those fruits coming from the land which are not due to the exertions of labor or use of capital of those who are engaged in using it." Doubtless, Mr. George would be unable to find even in Ireland an instance where, the landlord being a judge, anything more then these fruits were taken as rent. The only difference between this plan, which Mr. George was careful to state was not "Mr. Devitt's particularly" (I should hope not), and current landlordism is that in one instance those fruits go to a class, and in the other to the whole people; in other words, to the ruling political party or administration. He does not stop to consider that this circumstance would in no sense change the immoral nature of the tax, however it might mitigate its public impolicy. As to the portion of fruits which are to go to the use of capital employed in cultivating the land, it would be hopeless to find any farmer or operator in any field of industry to admit that more was now received than was their due. Political economists do not admit any such thing, and we look through "Progress and Poverty" in vain to find any such intimation from Mr. George.

That he aims at the same general result as other land reformers, I have no shadow of doubt; but his premises as to the use of capital end its reproductive power, together with his theory of rent—that it is the result of something produced by the land without labor,—is wholly unsupported by any known facts; and his plan of taxing back what is wrongfully wrung from labor under this false pretence can but prove delusive. If successful as a tax, it would to that extent prove useless as a measure of equity. If successful, as he conceives, in giving every one a foothold on God's footstool, it would cease to yield any revenue whatever, and thus prove self-destructive, for no one not deprived of land by law or force would pay rent to government or landlord.

The farther discussion of the question I have put in the form of


Jonathan—Good morning, George. I am glad you have called. I am becoming deeply interested in the land question. To me it seems of importance to other countries as well as to Ireland, and that we cannot fully sympathize with the movement there until we understand it as a problem of world-wide application.

George—You cannot be interested in a question of deeper importance, and you are right in thinking it a subject of universal concern. The monopoly of the land in every country lies at the foundation of class domination and of the poverty and industrial subjection which prevail widely even in this land of civil and political freedom. Private property in land, whether under inheritance or commercial traffic, necessarily ends, sooner or later, in its absorption into the hands of a small and privileged class, while the majority of the cultivators, and, indeed, all workers, will be reduced to the condition of tenants, wage- workers, and tramps.

J.—That is also my thought, although as to private property in land I am not certain it could not be so defined and guarded as to make it operate in favor of equal opportunity and equal security. For instance, here I own forty acres. This would interfere with no one's opportunity if some were not allowed to buy up hundreds and thousands of acres, not for the purpose of cultivating or occupying, but to hold them against the poor and homeless, in order that they may tax the toil applied in their cultivation and prevent those who need from going upon them and making homes.

G.—I see you have not studied this land question in all its phases. Private property means property, and, if you attempt to guard or control it, it ceases to be such. I think nationalization of the land the only practical solution of the question, and that can be most readily effected by taxing back the value of the land—i. e., the rent which it will bring— for the benefit of the whole people.

J.—The nationalization of the land in a comprehensive sense is a thing generally admitted, I think. No one disputes that the land of any country belongs to the whole people of that country. The only question is, how can the principle be applied to protect the individual in his natural right of access to his normal environment so as not to invalidate the right of "eminent domain," which is exercised more or less widely and wisely by the governments of all countries, and which by the genius of our laws is supposed to reside in the whole people? The whole people cannot be evicted. It is only by allowing the individual to be evicted and debarred from his natural inheritance that society can be endangered by land monopoly. Society has, therefore, an undoubted right to prohibit the occupancy by any person of such extent of the common inheritance as would crowd or exclude the weakest member from his foothold on the soil.

Whether the occupant holds his house as property, contributing his share of the public burden in the form of a tax, or as a tenant and contributing under the form of rent, would seem to matter little so long as the large occupancy of the richer and stronger did not imperil the opportunity of the poor and weak. By the late mention of a book I have not yet read, I judge that Mr. Wallace alone among English land reformers recognizes the necessity of limitation of occupancy under leasehold, and advocates features of fixity which will secure permanent holding and the inviolability of home to the family. As to letting rent go on, as under the land system, and then taxing it all back from the benefit of the whole people, I am unable to see how that place can be made to harmonize with any democratic idea or fail to become a most dangerous experiment for any government to attempt. Industry at most should be taxed only for the reasonable necessities of government, and only after such necessity has risen and honest estimate made. To levy taxes for the accumulation of an indefinite sum, for which expenditures have to he found, is to create a fund inviting corruption and [s]peculation and the betrayal of public trusts. No experience which any people in any time have had would justify it, and it could not logically be sanctioned by anyone but the advocates of the nationalizing of industry as well as of the land, and of wholesale governmental co-operation, which would make the government the employer of all labor and the determiner of all wages. I do not understand you to advocate this.

G.—Oh, no. However I may agree in the abstract with what you say, I cannot avoid seeing that it is private property in land which is the foundation of the evil. Abolish this by making the nation the owner, and, of course, no such thing as monopoly could exist. You must admit that to equally distribute the land among the people would be impossible, even if desirable, which it is not. Many want no land, but all are entitled to their share of what it produces, minus the amount justly due the cultivator, and minus the part rightfully due the capitalist, who has furnished or advanced means to furnish the stock and general plant employed in cultivating the land.

J.—And the cost of collecting and disbursing the same among the whole body of claimants?

G.—Yes; but that is unavoidable, and must be considered as compensated by relief from all other forms of taxation. I was going to add that rent is an economical fruit not the result of labor, but in addition to it, which the holder of land who cultivates it himself receives over and above the compensation of his labor as truly as the idle landlord.

J.—Is rent at the same time, then, "an immoral tax," as Mr. Davitt asserts?

G.—Yes, when paid to landlords, but if paid to the government, and by that applied to the public welfare, each member of the community gets his just share of the natural produce of the land. Rent, economical rent at least, arises wholly from the different fertility of special soils, as explained by Ricardo and other political economists.

J.—I am not unaware of that, or of the use Malthus and other writers have made of this theory to satisfy the laborer that eviction and starvation are in the order of Providence and not the results of unjust and barbarous laws of tenure. That under any system of freedom of the land there would be a choice of locations and of qualities of the soil there can be no doubt; that parties would be willing to pay something for such choice there can be as little; but that such transactions would degenerate into fixed rents, without landlords, is hardly conceivable,—not certainly while as at present there is abundance of land of good quality to produce all that is necessary for the public consumption. The inhuman mockery of this plausible theory is all too apparent when we reflect that much of the best land even in Ireland is now untilled, while tenants are being evicted from the poorest because they will not pay a rent at a rate almost, if not quite, as high as the best land would command. Take away the write of ejectment from the landlord, with which he now clothed, and the constabulary and military which enable him to enforce it, and all the rent he would be able to collect from choice of place or preference of soils would not distress or seriously wrong any. Ownership under such limitation as would always leave land open to occupation, even of a poor quality, would remove distressful poverty far from the door of the industrious and frugal. The few who are lazy and improvident also would improve their condition as opportunities increased and as chances of doing better by idle scheming than by honest work decreased.

G.—It seems to me you treat the rent theory with too little consideration. It is very clear to me that rent only represents the difference between the productiveness of the best lands and that which is not sufficiently productive to yield rent. If the cultivator owns the land himself, this production in excess of that of poorer land which is cultivated is a gratuity to him which comes from Nature, and not from his toil, since he has toiled no harder than the man who has produced the smaller yield; and the only way to equalize the award of industry is to tax away this excess and give it to the public. The theory is in itself so plain and generally accepted that I wonder you have the courage to dispute it. Mr. Mill denominates it the "pons asinorum."

J.—I know it, but was always in a doubt as to his application of the term. It might be that he meant such a bridge that all asses coming near would be sure to go over. It is not so much the theory as the use which is made of it that I deprecate. That there is difference in soils and in the desirableness of situations is true enough, but that such difference constitutes the entire rental is too absurd for serious discussion. For, then, if all soils were equally fertile, and all situations equally desirable, no rent could be obtained, however the land might be monopolized. This reminds me of the thesis of the metaphysician, that, if an ass was placed equi-distant between two equally-attractive bundles of hay, he would die of starvation without being able to decide between the two. And, theoretically, this is all sound; practically, it is nonsense. In truth, rent arises from exactly the opposite direction to that here assumed. The amount any land will yield above the bare necessities of the cultivator becomes the measure of rent under land monopoly. And to apply the scheme of taxing back land values or rent for the public good means, if it means anything, the taxing of productive labor, all above a bare subsistence, and dividing it among all, whether workers or otherwise. The inequality which would arise from the working of lands of unequal fertility is greatly over- estimated, and it seems to me could be remedied by much easier and more natural methods. With a rational system of limited occupancy the restriction would embrace the consideration of superior fertility, and with more land of an inferior quality, with more varied crops and careful tillage, all serious inequalities would be overcome. There are also many compensations not discernible on the bare statement. The man with easier tillage and more productive soil will be able, doubtless, to obtain the same price for his grain or fruits as the man with poorer soil and shorter crops. He will leave somewhat more to exchange, and will with the excess purchase luxuries. This, while it may stimulate other industries, will not increase the cost of any necessaries to the neighbor. Another principle will also come in to render thee inequalities less serious, if they could be regarded as serious at all. The principle of serving first the first comer would render all such inequality of little account. Only as population increased and progress in production advanced would the less desirable places come into requisition. The older and feeble would be in possession of the more productive, while the young and strong would attack the more unfriendly situation. The rent theory goes always upon the notion that the best land will keep producing bountifully year after year and generation after generation. This is folly. Land, however fertile when first taken up or when it first comes into the possession of the cultivator, will soon work down to a condition where it will do no more than is done for it. Its productiveness will then depend on what is done in the way of returning the elements of fertility and proper culture. The original difference of most cultivable land will soon disappear under an equitable system of apportionment and intelligent use.

G.—Well, I came to read you a lecture on this subject, but you have read me one. I have never heard the "rent theory" attacked in this way before. If rent means only the different degrees of productiveness of different soils, there seems force in your suggestion that then no rent could be collected if all lands were equally desirable. But it is quite apparent that landlordism could not stand on any such position as that. I shall have to modify the statement by saying that under private ownership of the soil monopoly is enabled to exact the difference between the production of the best land and of such land as would be worked for its entire product without rent.

J.—Well, do you not see that you proceed in the wrong direction in drawing your conclusions? It comes really to an issue upon the question as to the "natural rate of wages." Adam Smith asserts that to be the entire labor product. Ricardo, the author of the "Theory of Rent," consistent with his theory, makes bare subsistence the natural rate. If this is true, as it must be, or the theory of economic rent be abandoned, then rent begins at this end and not at the excess end of the industrial problem, and does not absolutely require that any but the poorest lands be cultivated to produce a rent, if such lands will yield anything besides a bare subsistence to the cultivator.

Whether this theory would work if left to the operation of natural laws is another question, which it will be time enough to examine when our laws are repealed and equal opportunities are enjoyed.

It would be very easy to show that commodities have a price only because there is a difference in their quality, etc. For instance, the price of potatoes is only the difference between the size and quality of those most desired and those which are so small and of so poor a quality that they can be had for nothing. But an economist who should attempt to incorporate such a circumstance into a basic economic principle, and seek to tax back the whole value thus found for the public use, would simply stultify himself.

Your mistake arises in supposing that there is such a thing as wealth produced without labor. With equal access to the earth and its natural and spontaneous productions, the labor of gathering is all there is of production, and all that one man can justly exchange with another is the service he has rendered in such gathering. And that, in the absence of monopoly, is all that can have price. How one who stands aloof and does nothing towards this gathering can claim a portion of the wages of the gatherer is not consistent with any conceivable system of equity. Only upon repaying the service rendered is he entitled to any interest in the thing harvested, and then he receives under an equitable exchange the same proportion according to his service as the man who gathered.

In this way the right of soil is essentially vindicated. The artisan, artist, teacher, littŽrateur, and follower of any trade or profession is protected, for each requires and usually consumes quite as much of the earth's products as the cultivator, and that, too, without rendering disproportionate service. Why, then, should the cultivator be taxed to benefit the others? Under free land or effective limitation of its ownership it would be optional with anyone of another calling who felt he was unfairly treated to plant and gather the fruits of the earth himself. All this would require no complicated scheme of taxation, no cumbersome official machinery, but simply a repeal of the class laws of tenure and the extension of the principle of limitation found so salutary in all other matters of civil rule.

G.—In view of all you have said, I still think that rent arises, to an extent, at least, from a "gratuity of Nature," and does belong properly to the whole people, and I see no better method than to tax away this gratuity from the landlord for the benefit of all.

J—Without arguing that point farther, it really appears to me that to estimate that as a gratuity which is acknowledged to be "the price of monopoly," is illogical in the last degree. If nature has gratuities, it is for those who gather them. With equal opportunity, if any refuse or neglect to gather them (not infants or disabled), they have no equitable or moral claim upon that which others have gathered; for, by rendering a reciprocal service in that which they prefer to do, they can secure what they need. Whether any such thing as economic rent exists at all can only be determined in the absence of monopoly. That rents are greatly above any possible bid for choice, and wholly separate therefrom, is seen by the fact that, where highest, premiums are often paid on leaseholds. Taxation on a basis so indefinite, so wholly dependent on monopoly and the limit of endurance which the poor will sustain, is as devoid of economic judgment as of democratic simplicity.

G.—But an end must be put to the oppression of landlordism, and, as the land cannot he divided in such a way that all shall share its benefits, I know of no other way to make the thing equitable. The tendency of productive industry to consolidate itself in the hands of large corporations must necessarily extend to the cultivation of the land, where it is seen that a few large enterprises can be carried on much more successfully than many small ones. To divide up the land into small holdings would be detrimental to production, as is held by many writers.

J.—But many writers of eminence take an opposite view, citing France, Belgium, Switzerland, &c. But, though the issue is at least evenly contested, I do not propose to make a point of that. Even if wholly as you say, in its mere relation to production, it would not be conclusive. There are other and broader questions than that of large production. The maintenance of the fertility of the soil and the development and improvement of the individuals of the race are aims to which minor economies should be sacrificed, if need be.

G.—You will admit that the "division of labor" has exerted a powerful influence in that direction!

J.—Certainly; but you must also admit that, carried to the extremes which are exhibited in our large manufacturing establishments, it tends to reduce the worker to a mere appendage of a machine, and can have only one effect,—the deterioration of all manliness and the destruction of all self-respect. The pointing of a pin, as a continual employment for twelve or fourteen hours a day, can end only by reducing the man to an automaton. Large production of pins can well be sacrificed to a greater diversity of employment for the individual, and the development of a higher manhood; if not in the interest of simple political economy, at least in the higher interest of social economy.

G.—My plan embraces the idea of "giving to every man that which he fairly earns," and to capital what is "due for its use;" but that which goes as rent to the land I would have divided equally among all, since it belongs to all. Interest on money and profits derived from commodities in process of exchange and distribution are different in their nature from rent, and are realized "after labor has been duly rewarded."

J.—I am aware that economists seek to draw this distinction; but it is wholly technical. The union of capital with labor is no more complete than that of the land with labor. No essential difference can be shown between rent, interest, and profits.

Rent is the interest upon the money for which the hired land would exchange. Interest is the rent of the land which the money would purchase. It can make no possible difference to the farmer whether the sum he pays is paid as rent or as interest on the purchase money of his farm. Both the rent and interest may be loaded with expenses, taxes, repairs, &c., but stripped of all these, they are identical in this: they are a tax upon the production of those who work for the benefit of those who do no work. Profits are also loaded with costs of superintendence, expenses, &c. Stripped of "dues for service," however, they are identical with rent and interest,—an "immoral tax" on the productions of industry.

G.—But you forget that I assume that rent arises not from the labor, but independent of it, as taught by all political economists. And it is to tax that back for the benefit of all that I am contending. The question of interest and profits is held to be different from rent; but your way of putting it is novel. Yet it seems to me these are both right, and would work no great evil but for a monopoly of the land.

J.—But these, in common with rent, take so much from the annual production of labor, without any return whatsoever, when stripped of the extraneous portions with which they are usually connected. I think I have satisfactorily shown that rent arises in no such way as claimed, but wholly as "a monopoly price;" that wealth has no such power of increase as is claimed in justification of interest or usury; that trade has no power to multiply wealth, and that commerce can only add to the wealth of society by performing specific service in its production where and when needed for consumption, and that, when such service is fairly rewarded, nothing remains for profits but an immoral tax.

G.—But surely you do not propose to control interest and profits as well as rent? That would involve a degree of governmental supervision which I am sure would be repugnant to the spirit of any free people.

J.—Doubtless; but the dilemma is yours, not mine. I was just going to say that, waving my objections to the "rent theory," admitting the power of wealth to increase of itself without labor, and of commodities in process of exchange to multiply on the hands of the holders,— though each proposition is vastly absurd,—the conclusion is unavoidable that interest on money and profits on trade are equally gratuities arising in Nature, to which all are equally entitled as well as to the economic rent arising from the land. How you can logically refuse to tax back the money and trade values, if any such naturally exist, as well as the land values is a matter of great wonder to me.

G.—But I see no other method of redressing the great wrong of land monopoly, and, that evil obviated, it seems to me that the other evils would remedy themselves, if they are evils.

J.—That is also my belief. In your plan, however, I see no certainty of remedying the basic evil. To do away with land monopoly only one course is open,—abolish it, as chattel slavery was abolished. Repeal all laws giving titles to land and make occupation the only valid tenure. This would do away with all discussion as to the nature of property in it. Production is the only thing which can be taxed. Improvements should be exempt, while coercive taxation remains. The "No-Rent" manifesto is the true gospel of Land Reform, and becomes realized as soon as the legal process for collection and for ejectment is taken away, and the constable and soldier are withdrawn from enforcing such laws. Only courage and moral purpose in the people are necessary to abolish this great evil; schemes and plans to circumvent it, by indirect means, will prove vain.

G.—But the difficulty still remains. Equal distribution is impossible. Besides, some want much land, others little, and still others none at all. "Nationalization might be changed to Townshipization,"<ref>See Henry George in "Irish World" for August 26.</ref> and so the local government, whatever its form, have control. The large holders would then share, under the system of taxation, with those who held little or none. Each would rent of all, and so the values be equally distributed.

J.—I am very glad to hear you say this. It is one step more in the right direction. This would approach nearly to the ownership in the township or village community, once the general system of land tenure in Europe. A step or two more will place you on solid ground. The familization and individualization of the land follows as a logical sequence from your admission.

G.—But you do not notice my point that many individuals do not want land at all.

J.—I was about to say that it is untrue. Every individual needs a place to live and work in. Thus far the wants of all are nearly equal. We are "tenants in common," upon the bosom of mother Earth, and no one has any just claim against another for obtaining that which with equal opportunity he declines to appropriate. His refusal to occupy proves that he estimates his advantage greater not to occupy, and that all assumed advantage to the occupier is quite if not more than compensated through reciprocal exchange.

There exists no reason why any one should hire a home which does not apply with greater force to the reasons why he should own it. Even a single room can be owned, since it can be hired. Requiring to change his residence, one would experience no more difficulty in finding a purchaser than would the landlord (nation or township) in finding a tenant for it. Any disposition of the land which does not embrace the private ownership of home and the normal environment of the individual will not be the final one. Under that, even the changeful and migratory would find no serious inconvenience, while the many would enjoy, in its security and stability, a permanent reliance, and, in its healthful stimulus, the noblest incentives to beautify and adorn the limited portion falling to their control.


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