The Tap-Root of Industrial Discontent

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The Tap-Root of Industrial Discontent

By Hugh O. Pentecost.

THE dullest observer has probably noticed that there is disturbance in the relations between employers and employe’s. Strikes and lock-outs are of frequent occurrence. In Europe, in Pennsylvania, in Colorado, within the past few weeks, human blood, in not inconsiderable quantities has been shed in conflicts between those who are presumed to represent law and order and those who were contending for what they believe are or should be their rights. Capitalists are strongly and generally secretly organized against the efforts of working people to minify their profits. Working people are more loosely, openly, and not so powerfully organized to prevent an increased appropriation of the products of their labor by their employers or, to put it differently, to augment their earnings.

It will be observed by the careful onlooker that the contending parties are being more and more sharply defined into employers, bankers, professional men and political rulers on the one side and wage-earners on the other; and that the intervals of time between violent outbreaks, usually described as riots, grows shorter. So evident is this latter fact that General Albert Ordway, commander of the militia of the District of Columbia, recently warned the officers under his command to prepare for events in the immediate future more awful to contemplate than the so-called riots of 1877 were in reality.

Whatever may be the direction of our sympathies, whoever may be supposed to be to blame for the condition which confronts us, the substantial if not the exact accuracy of the statements made in the foregoing paragraphs will probably not be denied.

For the purposes of this paper it is not necessary to attempt to fix blame for the situation upon any class of persons. Strong arguments are constructed to show that the persons who are called, in general, capitalists are responsible for the situation by what is passionately called their unjust oppression of wage-earners; and equally strong reasons may be adduced to demonstrate that the persons who are called, in general, laborers are the authors of whatever misfortunes they may be suffering. But the careful student of the history of the formation and development of what we commonly call society will probably regard time employed in the study of persona) motives and the quality of personal acts in connection with the present social condition as worse than wasted. Society as it is, with all its splendor and all its misery, all its wealth and all its poverty, all its. exaltation and all its degradation, is the natural sequel to all that has gone before. When we know what has been it is very difficult to understand how we could have escaped what is. It will be more satisfactory, therefore, to waste no effort in attempting to fix blame for a perfectly natural condition, but rather to lend ourselves to the task of attempting to understand that condition, and learn how it may and perhaps will be changed for the better.

It must suffice here to call attention to but one factor of the problem, which, while it is by no means the only, is, nevertheless, the most important from a purely economic standpoint. This factor is the monopoly—the holding out of use—of vacant land.

If this statement appears dogmatic, it must be remembered1 that there is no opportunity here to furnish the scientific proofs of it. It should, however, be easy to comprehend its truth after considering the situation from a practical standpoint. Any one should be able to see that a mere laborer, with no possessions other than his ability to work, is fatally handicapped by the single fact that he has no place to sleep and no shelter from the weather, without paying some landlord for such benefits, and that he has no opportunity to get food without finding an employer who will pay him for his labor. In other words, a penniless laborer is wholly dependent for his life on an employer, for the reason that he is not in possession of land on which he might provide himself with shelter and food. Land being as much a necessity of life as air and water, if it is monopolized, those who do not possess it are industrially at the mercy of those who do, and of those who are advantageously placed by reason of their social or political affiliation with vacant-land owners.

The monopoly of land consists in the exclusive control of land not in use. The occupation and use of land—call it “ possession ““ or “ownership,” as you like—is not a social injury; but the exclusive control of land not in use, the dog-in-the-manger ownership of land, so to speak, is the greatest of all social injuries. Such tenure of land must cease before involuntary poverty will disappear, before human freedom will be realized, before social harmony with appear in place of the present era of social disturbance.

Let us draw some illustrations from current events. In Pennsylvania recently there have been scenes of bloodshed in connection with the great strike in the coke region. This bloodshed was occasioned by the fact that a number of men with no opportunity to support themselves were fighting for a chance to be employed, at living rates of wages, by certain owners of mines and furnaces.

The region in Pennsylvania, which was the scene of this disturbance, is specially characterized by the richness of its coal deposits. Vast stretches of territory, extending in almost every direction, are underlaid with deposits of coal sufficient in quantity to supply every possible demand for centuries to come. Here and there an opening in these deposits has been made and is industriously worked, but in the main this vast mass of raw material is held securely in the hands of the companies who are operating the few mines that have been opened, and the privilege of unearthing it is held at so high a price that it is practically prohibitive. Indeed, it is a fixed policy among successful mine operators to secure the control of coal deposits liable to come into competition with them for the double purpose of commanding a higher price for the product of mines that have been opened, and of keeping down the wages of the limited number of miners employed. Suppose that these limitless opportunities for labor were open to the use of miners who are discontented with the wages now paid by their employers. Would there have been any likelihood of such violence as we have seen? Would not the discontented miners have quietly turned to the use of the opportunities about them?

So, if we turn to the recent house-smiths’ and carpenters’ strikes in this city, the same remarks apply with equal force. If all the unused building sites in New York City and throughout its numerous suburbs, which are now held out of use by speculative investors, were open to the free occupancy of those who desired to use them; or in other words, if it were unlawful or disreputable to hold land out of use for speculative purposes, does any sane person believe that there would be any lack of demand for house-smiths and carpenters to build homes for the thousands who are rich enough to build, but not rich enough to also pay monopoly prices for land? Would such a “strike” be possible under such conditions?

Following the idea further, suppose that each one of these discontented workingmen had been in possession of a plot of land large enough to enable him to support his life. In that case he would have been in a position to demand wages equal, at least, to what he could produce by applying all his labor to his land, and if he could not get such wages he would have gone quietly about his business, and there would have been no social disturbance or fighting; and, too, there would have been no stagnation in trade, for each man would have continued to produce wealth equal in quantity to what he had been producing, and the processes of exchange would have gone on.

I am not a believer in patent social panaceas. 1 believe that individuals must become better educated as to how it is wise to live in social relations before the world can be improved. Social improvement will only come about by the evolution of individuals, the general diffusion of knowledge as to what is necessary to human welfare. But it is clear to me that a necessary part of such individual education is to know that industrial discontent will prevail as long as it is permitted for certain men to hold a large part of the earth out of use to the exclusion of other men who would, if they were allowed, put the now vacant earth to productive use. It is this privilege to hold land out of use which gives employers their chief advantage over workingmen, and as long as workingmen surfer such a disadvantage, they will be poor, discontented, and, at times, violent. Korean they be rationally blamed for their discontent, for they know that in the distribution of wealth they do not get what represents their fair share of the wealth produced. Very few working people understand why this is so, but they understand that it if so, and it is this that keeps them discontented and turns them into strikers and sometimes rioters. They “bark up the wrong tree,” in fighting their employers, for they do not know where the right tree is, but they know they have a real reason for barking, and it should not be surprising if they occasionally bite, and bite the wrong person, that is, the person who is not the real cause of their troubles.

In the nature of things, the labor organizations are* no match for the power bestowed on employers by the privilege of monopolizing vacant land—the right to close natural opportunities for labor. The land monopoly clothes employers with the power of a lion. Laborers are like a small pugnacious animal in the power of that lion. Strikes and boycotts are like the slight scratches .and bites of the small animal, which may make the lion’s feast less comfortable than it would be if he were dealing with a lamb, but they by no means prevent the lion from making a meal off his victim. Nor can mere trades-unionism ever be a remedy for industrial discontent. It is merely an expression of that discontent; a blind protest against oppression felt but not understood.

If we consider the schemes of the economical reformers we shall find most of them also inadequate to relieve the situation.

Henry George’s single-tax proposition, for example, which at one time appeared to many persons as an evangel of redemption, would leave land monopoly undisturbed, except that if it could be put into operation it would transfer sixty or ninety per cent, of the legal appropriations of the owners of land, as such, to the public treasury, to be expended in public works or personally appropriated by the politicians in office. It would leave the laborer still at the mercy of the employer, and, hence, still discontented.

Socialism would indeed put an end to private land monopolies, but not to land monopoly as an institution. It would merely transfer all land to the control of the persons in political offices. The essence of socialism is the purpose to have all the people of a given locality, instead of a few. benefit by the monopoly of land. It does not purpose to have land monopoly cease.

Nationalism, or Bellamyism, as it is .sometimes called, is not a scheme for abolishing land monopoly, but for making the nation the giant landlord.

The Farmers’ Alliance merely wishes to create new monopolies by which farmers and certain other property owners may enjoy privileges they do not now have. It pays no particular attention to the land question.

All of these economic schemes are worthy of attention, for they theoretically possess certain financial advantages to a large number of persons over the present economical system, although those advantages in my opinion would be over-balanced by certain dangers to individual liberty which it is best to avoid. But they are all fatally defective, in that they count on retaining in some form that greatest foe of human liberty, property in vacant land. Nationalism (a form of socialism) would unquestionably abolish poverty, but it would be on the principle employed at Sing Sing—at the expense of personal liberty; and, if I am not mistaken, most persons would rather be poor and free than wealthy and in political and industrial bondage. Hence nationalism would not abolish industrial discontent.

The only idea of social change which any intelligent people will finally entertain I think, will be one which contemplates a fairer distribution of wealth coincidently with an even larger measure of individual liberty than we now enjoy. Such an idea is that of the cessation of property in vacant land, followed by or coeval with the cessation of monopolies of all kinds.

The reader to whom this proposition is new may ask many questions regarding it which cannot be answered in a magazine article. . I have been obliged to confine myself to the bare statement of the proposition, not having space in which to marshal the evidences of or argue for its correctness; but any clear thinker will need little more than the foregoing meagre statement of the proposition to enable him to discover its logical soundness.

To the question: How can such freedom of vacant land be brought about? I have to answer: There is but one way. It cannot be voted or legislated into being, for it would be impossible to legally define what is and what is not vacant land. It cannot be accomplished by the will of a majority, for reasons involved in the statement made in the foregoing sentence. It is useless then to even think of forming a political party to effect it, although it might be possible to approach it politically. For example: Laws might be made extending something like the power of eminent domain to individuals; by virtue of which a landless person might have vacant land condemned to his use on payment to the legal owner of a fair price, based on the present actual value, not the future speculative value at which vacant land is always held. Such an arrangement, however, would be useful principally by way of education, or as what “ practical “ persons are wont to call an “ entering wedge.” I do not recommend it, but merely suggest it as a possible “ practical” approach toward freedom of vacant land.

And if free vacant land cannot be voted, or legislated, neither can it be shot into being by powder and bullets. It is folly, therefore, to even think of forceful revolution to accomplish it. It can only be reached by familiarizing the people with the idea, and getting them to understand the desirability of putting it into practice and to so wish for it that it shall become as disgraceful to hold land out of use as it now is to steal a spoon from the table of one’s host.

No proposal to legally or forcibly deprive present or future owners of their titles to vacant land can be rationally entertained, for however injurious to the vast majority of the human race those titles are, their present owners came into possession of them by methods recognized as fair and respectable, that is to say, by the consent of the people from generation to generation. They cannot, therefore, be fairly deprived of them without their consent. Land monopoly should not be abolished. It should disappear by wearing away, as all moribund social injuries have, in the last analysis of the process, disappeared. It has grown naturally. It should die naturally. Indeed, it can die in no other way. It rests upon ideas. It can only disappear with the ideas on which it rests’.

To all of which it may be replied that if this is true, it will be a long time before vacant land will be free. Perhaps. Evolution is slow. But with this we may as well be content, for although industrial discontent will not disappear until vacant land is free, vacant land will not be free until public opinion demands it and visits on the vacant-land owner the social ostracism which now falls on the professional criminal. Public opinion forms slowly, but it does form, and it has a tendency to form in beneficial directions. Countless ages passed before a despotic ruler became impossible in a few nations, before a waiter in a restaurant was allowed to dress exactly as the most socially exalted person in a nation, but the time for these things finally came. And so may the time come when an owner of vacant land will be as disreputable as the owner of a chattel slave would be in some parts of this country to-day. If that time comes men will no longer seek to hold as much land as possible out of use for speculative purposes, but will desire only so much land as is necessary for the prosecution of their productive business. They will no more need a law to define or compel them to surrender vacant land than persons in good society now need a law to prevent them from pilfering jewelry or table ware from the house of a friend. If industrious men are to be sure of being comfortably well off, and personally free, it will be when none shall possess more land than he will himself productively use or employ others to use for him; it will be when it is so that any person may apply his labor to any land not already in use. To put it into a phrase: To insure a fair distribution of wealth and personal freedom, land must be held only by occupancy and use. The moment a person no longer wishes to use land he must abandon it to the next comer, who shall be allowed to occupy and use it without let or hindrance by any one.


  • Hugh O. Pentecost, “The Tap-Root of Industrial Discontent,” Engineering Magazine 1, no. 4 (July 1891): 498-504.