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Land is Power over Fellow Human Beings


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.)

1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (5.)

Clearly, purchase and sale cannot give, but can only transfer ownership. Property that in itself has no moral sanction does not obtain moral sanction by passing from seller to buyer.

If right reason does not make the slave the property of the slave-hunter it does not make him the property of the slave-buyer. Yet your reasoning as to private property in land would as well justify property in slaves. To show this it is only needful to change in your argument the word land to the word slave. It would then read:

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the very reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and to hold it as his own private possession.

If one man hires out to another his strength or his industry, he does this for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for food and living; he thereby expressly proposes to acquire a full and legal right, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of that remuneration as he pleases.

Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and invests his savings, for greater security, in a slave, the slave in such a case is only his wages in another form; and consequently, a working-man’s slave thus purchased should be as completely at his own disposal as the wages he receives for his labor.

Nor in turning your argument for private property in land into an argument for private property in men am I doing a new thing. In my own country, in my own time, this very argument, that purchase gave ownership, was the common defense of slavery. It was made by statesmen, by jurists, by clergymen, by bishops; it was accepted over the whole country by the great mass of the people. By it was justified the separation of wives from husbands, of children from parents, the compelling of labor, the appropriation of its fruits, the buying and selling of Christians by Christians. In language almost identical with yours it was asked, “Here is a poor man who has worked hard, lived sparingly, and invested his savings in a few slaves. Would you rob him of his earnings by liberating those slaves?” Or it was said: “Here is a poor widow; all her husband has been able to leave her is a few negroes, the earnings of his hard toil. Would you rob the widow and the orphan by freeing these negroes?” And because of this perversion of reason, this confounding of unjust property rights with just property rights, this acceptance of man’s law as though it were God’s law, there came on our nation a judgment of fire and blood.

The error of our people in thinking that what in itself was not rightfully property could become rightful property by purchase and sale is the same error into which your Holiness falls. It is not merely formally the same; it is essentially the same. Private property in land, no less than private property in slaves, is a violation of the true rights of property. They are different forms of the same robbery; twin devices by which the perverted ingenuity of man has sought to enable the strong and the cunning to escape God’s requirement of labor by forcing it on others.

What difference does it make whether I merely own the land on which another man must live or own the man himself? Am I not in the one case as much his master as in the other? Can I not compel him to work for me? Can I not take to myself as much of the fruits of his labor; as fully dictate his actions? Have I not over him the power of life and death?

For to deprive a man of land is as certainly to kill him as to deprive him of blood by opening his veins, or of air by tightening a halter around his neck.

The essence of slavery is in empowering one man to obtain the labor of another without recompense. Private property in land does this as fully as chattel slavery. The slave-owner must leave to the slave enough of his earnings to enable him to live. Are there not in so-called free countries great bodies of working-men who get no more? How much more of the fruits of their toil do the agricultural laborers of Italy and England get than did the slaves of our Southern States? Did not private property in land permit the landowner of Europe in ruder times to demand the jus primae noctis? Does not the same last outrage exist today in diffused form in the immorality born of monstrous wealth on the one hand and ghastly poverty on the other?

In what did the slavery of Russia consist but in giving to the master land on which the serf was forced to live? When an Ivan or a Catherine enriched their favorites with the labor of others they did not give men, they gave land. And when the appropriation of land has gone so far that no free land remains to which the landless man may turn, then without further violence the more insidious form of labor robbery involved in private property in land takes the place of chattel slavery, because more economical and convenient. For under it the slave does not have to be caught or held, or to be fed when not needed. He comes of himself, begging the privilege of serving, and when no longer wanted can be discharged. The lash is unnecessary; hunger is as efficacious. This is why the Norman conquerors of England and the English conquerors of Ireland did not divide up the people, but divided the land. This is why European slave-ships took their cargoes to the New World, not to Europe.

Slavery is not yet abolished. Though in all Christian countries its ruder form has now gone, it still exists in the heart of our civilization in more insidious form, and is increasing. There is work to be done for the glory of God and the liberty of man by other soldiers of the cross than those warrior monks whom, with the blessing of your Holiness, Cardinal Lavigerie is sending into the Sahara. Yet, your Encyclical employs in defense of one form of slavery the same fallacies that the apologists for chattel slavery used in defense of the other!

The Arabs are not wanting in acumen. Your Encyclical reaches far. What shall your warrior monks say, if when at the muzzle of their rifles they demand of some Arab slave-merchant his miserable caravan, he shall declare that he bought them with his savings, and producing a copy of your Encyclical, shall prove by your reasoning that his slaves are consequently “only his wages in another form,” and ask if they who bear your blessing and own your authority propose to “deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages and thus of all hope and possibility of increasing his stock and bettering his condition in life”?

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper