Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us


Mixing One's Labor with Land

Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

Your use, in so many passages of your Encyclical, of the inclusive term “property” or “private” property, of which in morals nothing can be either affirmed or denied, makes your meaning, if we take isolated sentences, in many places ambiguous. But reading it as a whole, there can be no doubt of your intention that private property in land shall be understood when you speak merely of private property. With this interpretation, I find that the reasons you urge for private property in land are eight. Let us consider them in order of presentation. You urge:

1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (RN, paragraph 5) ...
2. That private property in land proceeds from man’s gift of reason. (RN, paragraphs 6-7.) ...
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (RN, paragraph 8.) ...
4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (RN, paragraphs 9-10.) ...
5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned by Divine Law. (RN, paragraph 11.) ...
6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private property in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (RN, paragraphs 14-17.) ...
7. That the private ownership of land stimulates industry, increases wealth, and attaches men to the soil and to their country. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
8. That the right to possess private property in land is from nature, not from man; that the state has no right to abolish it, and that to take the value of landownership in taxation would be unjust and cruel to the private owner. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...

4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (9-10.)

Your Holiness next contends that industry expended on land gives a right to ownership of the land, and that the improvement of land creates benefits indistinguishable and inseparable from the land itself.

This contention, if valid, could only justify the ownership of land by those who expend industry on it. It would not justify private property in land as it exists. On the contrary, it would justify a gigantic no-rent declaration that would take land from those who now legally own it, the landlords, and turn it over to the tenants and laborers. And if it also be that improvements cannot be distinguished and separated from the land itself, how could the landlords claim consideration even for improvements they had made?

But your Holiness cannot mean what your words imply. What you really mean, I take it, is that the original justification and title of landownership is in the expenditure of labor on it. But neither can this justify private property in land as it exists. For is it not all but universally true that existing land titles do not come from use, but from force or fraud?

Take Italy! Is it not true that the greater part of the land of Italy is held by those who so far from ever having expended industry on it have been mere appropriators of the industry of those who have? Is this not also true of Great Britain and of other countries? Even in the United States, where the forces of concentration have not yet had time fully to operate and there has been some attempt to give land to users, it is probably true today that the greater part of the land is held by those who neither use it nor propose to use it themselves, but merely hold it to compel others to pay them for permission to use it.

And if industry give ownership to land what are the limits of this ownership? If a man may acquire the ownership of several square miles of land by grazing sheep on it, does this give to him and his heirs the ownership of the same land when it is found to contain rich mines, or when by the growth of population and the progress of society it is needed for farming, for gardening, for the close occupation of a great city? Is it on the rights given by the industry of those who first used it for grazing cows or growing potatoes that you would found the title to the land now covered by the city of New York and having a value of thousands of millions of dollars?

But your contention is not valid. Industry expended on land gives ownership in the fruits of that industry, but not in the land itself, just as industry expended on the ocean would give a right of ownership to the fish taken by it, but not a right of ownership in the ocean. Nor yet is it true that private ownership of land is necessary to secure the fruits of labor on land; nor does the improvement of land create benefits indistinguishable and inseparable from the land itself. That secure possession is necessary to the use and improvement of land I have already explained, but that ownership is not necessary is shown by the fact that in all civilized countries land owned by one person is cultivated and improved by other persons. Most of the cultivated land in the British Islands, as in Italy and other countries, is cultivated not by owners but by tenants. And so the costliest buildings are erected by those who are not owners of the land, but who have from the owner a mere right of possession for a time on condition of certain payments. Nearly the whole of London has been built in this way, and in New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as in continental cities, the owners of many of the largest edifices will be found to be different persons from the owners of the ground. So far from the value of improvements being inseparable from the value of land, it is in individual transactions constantly separated. For instance, one-half of the land on which the immense Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago stands was recently separately sold, and in Ceylon it is a not infrequent occurrence for one person to own a fruit-tree and another to own the ground in which it is implanted.

There is, indeed, no improvement of land, whether it be clearing, plowing, manuring, cultivating, the digging of cellars, the opening of wells or the building of houses, that so long as its usefulness continues does not have a value clearly distinguishable from the value of the land. For land having such improvements will always sell or rent for more than similar land without them.

If, therefore, the state levy a tax equal to what the land irrespective of improvement would bring, it will take the benefits of mere ownership, but will leave the full benefits of use and improvement, which the prevailing system does not do. And since the holder, who would still in form continue to be the owner, could at any time give or sell both possession and improvements, subject to future assessment by the state on the value of the land alone, he will be perfectly free to retain or dispose of the full amount of property that the exertion of his labor or the investment of his capital has attached to or stored up in the land.

Thus, what we propose would secure, as it is impossible in any other way to secure, what you properly say is just and right — "that the results of labor should belong to him who has labored.” But private property in land — to allow the holder without adequate payment to the state to take for himself the benefit of the value that attaches to land with social growth and improvement — does take the results of labor from him who has labored, does turn over the fruits of one man’s labor to be enjoyed by another. For labor, as the active factor, is the producer of all wealth. Mere ownership produces nothing. A man might own a world, but so sure is the decree that “by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread,” that without labor he could not get a meal or provide himself a garment. Hence, when the owners of land, by virtue of their ownership and without laboring themselves, get the products of labor in abundance, these things must come from the labor of others, must be the fruits of others’ sweat, taken from those who have a right to them and enjoyed by those who have no right to them.

The only utility of private ownership of land as distinguished from possession is the evil utility of giving to the owner products of labor he does not earn. For until land will yield to its owner some return beyond that of the labor and capital he expends on it — that is to say, until by sale or rental he can without expenditure of labor obtain from it products of labor, ownership amounts to no more than security of possession, and has no value. Its importance and value begin only when, either in the present or prospectively, it will yield a revenue — that is to say, will enable the owner as owner to obtain products of labor without exertion on his part, and thus to enjoy the results of others’ labor.

What largely keeps men from realizing the robbery involved in private property in land is that in the most striking cases the robbery is not of individuals, but of the community. For, as I have before explained, it is impossible for rent in the economic sense — that value which attaches to land by reason of social growth and improvement — to go to the user. It can go only to the owner or to the community. Thus those who pay enormous rents for the use of land in such centers as London or New York are not individually injured. Individually they get a return for what they pay, and must feel that they have no better right to the use of such peculiarly advantageous localities without paying for it than have thousands of others. And so, not thinking or not caring for the interests of the community, they make no objection to the system.

It recently came to light in New York that a man having no title whatever had been for years collecting rents on a piece of land that the growth of the city had made very valuable. Those who paid these rents had never stopped to ask whether he had any right to them. They felt that they had no right to land that so many others would like to have, without paying for it, and did not think of, or did not care for, the rights of all.

... read the whole letter

Bill Batt: How Our Towns Got That Way   (1996 speech)

Rutgers Professor of Urban Planning Donald Krueckeberg more recently explained how real property became for the first time a "commodity," much as the market gives personal property exchange value. Native Americans tied the concept of property not to ownership but to use. "One used it, one moved on, and use was shared with others." But the colonists took their notion of real property from evolving British legal tradition, defined largely in terms of what its owners could subdue and control against challengers. John Locke's conception of property was, in one sense, more akin to the Indian notion in as much as one owned it only to the extent that one "mixed one's labor" with it.  ... read the whole article

Bill Batt: The Compatibility of Georgist Economics and Ecological Economics
All society needed to do was to collect the economic rent from landholders as its rightful due, a solution that became part of the subtitle of his book, “the remedy.” Taxing the land (or, alternatively, collecting the economic rent) was something common citizens could understand.

They knew well the enormous disparity in fortune between the landed and the landless. They knew also that there was in fact land enough for all, except for a system of ownership that made no distinction between the right of land use and the right of land gain. George had no doubt read Frenchman P. J. Proudhon’s more strident pamphlet that “property is theft.” 33 He knew that there was a long tradition of land taxation, well articulated by a French school of philosophers known as the Physiocrats. It was a natural and comprehensible solution for him to advocate the adoption of the “single tax” on land, according to its market value, to collect the economic rent.

There was another dimension to George’s economic views as well. As Locke and later classical economists argued, one owned the items with which one “mixed his labor.” By extension one also owned items which one purchased in trade from others who had similarly created their wealth. Hence it was unjust and immoral for society to claim any parts of the fruits of one’s own efforts in the form of tariffs, sales taxes, and especially the income tax. Of course, except for a short period during the American Civil War, the American government had never implemented an income tax. But Britain had, and there was much discussion of a need for an income tax in the United States; it was again instituted in this country in 1913. ... read the whole article

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 2: A Short History of Capitalism (pages 15-32)

Locke believed that God gave the earth to “mankind in common,” but that private property is justified because it spurs humans to work. Whenever a person mixes his labor with nature, he “joins to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” But here Locke added an important proviso: “For this labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer,” he wrote, “no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” In other words, a person can acquire property, but there’s a limit to how much he or she can rightfully appropriate. That limit is set by two considerations:

  • first, it should be no more than he can join his labor to, and
  • second, it has to leave “enough and as good” in common for others.

This was consistent with English common law at the time, which held, for example, that a riparian landowner could withdraw water for his own use, but couldn’t diminish the supply available to others. ... read the whole chapter



To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper