Private Property in 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
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.) ...
Believing that the social question is at bottom a religious question, we
deem it of happy augury to the world that in your Encyclical the most influential
of all religious teachers has directed attention to the condition of labor.
But while we appreciate the many wholesome truths you utter, while we feel,
as all must feel, that you are animated by a desire to help the suffering
and oppressed, and to put an end to any idea that the church is divorced
from the aspiration for liberty and progress, yet it is painfully obvious
to us that one fatal assumption hides from you the cause of the evils you
see, and makes it impossible for you to propose any adequate remedy. This
assumption is, that private property in land is of
the same nature and has the same sanctions as private
property in things produced by labor. In spite
of its undeniable truths and its benevolent spirit, your Encyclical shows
you to be involved in such difficulties as a physician called to examine
one suffering from disease of the stomach would meet should he begin with
a refusal to consider the stomach.
Prevented by this assumption from seeing the true cause, the only causes
you find it possible to assign for the growth of misery and wretchedness
are the destruction of working-men’s guilds in the last century, the
repudiation in public institutions and laws of the ancient religion, rapacious
usury, the custom of working by contract, and the concentration of trade.
Such diagnosis is manifestly inadequate to account for evils that are alike
felt in Catholic countries, in Protestant countries, in countries that adhere
to the Greek communion and in countries where no religion is professed by
the state; that are alike felt in old countries and in new countries; where
industry is simple and where it is most elaborate; and amid all varieties
of industrial customs and relations.
But the real cause will be clear if you will consider that since labor must
find its workshop and reservoir in land, the labor question is but another
name for the land question, and will reexamine your assumption that private
property in land is necessary and right.
See how fully adequate is the cause I have pointed out. The most important
of all the material relations of man is his relation to the planet he inhabits,
and hence, the “impious resistance to the benevolent intentions of
his Creator,” which, as Bishop Nulty says, is involved in private
property in land, must produce evils wherever it exists. But by virtue of the law, “unto
whom much is given, from him much is required,” the very progress of
civilization makes the evils produced by private property in land more wide-spread
What is producing throughout the civilized world that condition of things
you rightly describe as intolerable is not this and that local error or minor
mistake. It is nothing less than the progress of civilization itself; nothing
less than the intellectual advance and the material growth in which our century
has been so preeminent, acting in a state of society based on private
property in land; nothing less than the new gifts that in our time God has been showering
on man, but which are being turned into scourges by man’s “impious
resistance to the benevolent intentions of his Creator.” ....
Your Holiness will remember the great London dock strike of two years ago,
which, with that of other influential men, received the moral support of
that Prince of the Church whom we of the English speech hold higher and dearer
than any prelate has been held by us since the blood of Thomas à Becket
stained the Canterbury altar.
In a volume called “The Story of the Dockers’ Strike,” written
by Messrs. H. Llewellyn Smith and Vaughan Nash, with an introduction by Sydney
Buxton, M.P., which advocates trades-unionism as the solution of the labor
question, and of which a large number were sent to Australia as a sort of
official recognition of the generous aid received from there by the strikers,
I find in the summing up, on pages 164-165, the following:
If the settlement lasts, work at the docks will be more regular, better
paid, and carried on under better conditions than ever before. All this
will be an unqualified gain to those who get the benefit from it. But another
result will undoubtedly be to contract the field of employment and lessen
the number of those for whom work can be found. The lower-class casual
in the end, find his position more precarious than ever before, in proportion
to the increased regularity of work which the “fitter” of the
laborers will secure. The effect of the organization of dock labor, as of
all classes of labor, will be to squeeze out the residuum. The loafer, the
cadger, the failure in the industrial race — the members of “Class
B” of Mr. Charles Booth’s hierarchy of social classes — will
be no gainers by the change, but will rather find another door closed
against them, and this in many cases the last door to employment.
I am far from wishing that your Holiness should join in that pharisaical
denunciation of trades-unions common among those who, while quick to point
out the injustice of trades-unions in denying to others the equal right to
work, are themselves supporters of that more primary injustice that denies
the equal right to the standing-place and natural material necessary to work.
What I wish to point out is that trades-unionism, while it may be a partial
palliative, is not a remedy; that it has not that moral character which could
alone justify one in the position of your Holiness in urging it as good in
itself. Yet, so long as you insist on private property in land what better
can you do? ...
I have already referred generally to the defects that attach to all socialistic
remedies for the evil condition of labor, but respect for your Holiness dictates
that I should speak specifically, even though briefly, of the remedies proposed
or suggested by you.
Of these, the widest and strongest are that the state should restrict the
hours of labor, the employment of women and children, the unsanitary conditions
of workshops, etc. Yet how little may in this way be accomplished.
A strong, absolute ruler might hope by such regulations to alleviate the
conditions of chattel slaves. But the tendency of our times is toward democracy,
and democratic states are necessarily weaker in paternalism, while in the
industrial slavery, growing out of private ownership of land, that prevails
in Christendom today, it is not the master who forces the slave to labor,
but the slave who urges the master to let him labor. Thus the greatest difficulty
in enforcing such regulations comes from those whom they are intended to
benefit. It is not, for instance, the masters who make it difficult to enforce
restrictions on child labor in factories, but the mothers, who, prompted
by poverty, misrepresent the ages of their children even to the masters,
and teach the children to misrepresent.
But while in large factories and mines regulations as to hours, ages, etc.,
though subject to evasion and offering opportunities for extortion and corruption,
may be to some extent enforced, how can they have any effect in those far
wider branches of industry where the laborer works for himself or for small
All such remedies are of the nature of the remedy for overcrowding that
is generally prescribed with them — the restriction under penalty of
the number who may occupy a room and the demolition of unsanitary buildings.
Since these measures have no tendency to increase house accommodation or
to augment ability to pay for it, the overcrowding that is forced back in
some places goes on in other places and to a worse degree. All such remedies
begin at the wrong end. They are like putting on brake and bit to hold in
quietness horses that are being lashed into frenzy; they are like trying
to stop a locomotive by holding its wheels instead of shutting off steam;
like attempting to cure smallpox by driving back its pustules. Men do not
overwork themselves because they like it; it is not in the nature of the
mother’s heart to send children to work when they ought to be at play;
it is not of choice that laborers will work under dangerous and unsanitary
conditions. These things, like overcrowding, come from the sting of poverty.
And so long as the poverty of which they are the expression is left untouched,
restrictions such as you indorse can have only partial and evanescent results.
The cause remaining, repression in one place can only bring out its effects
in other places, and the task you assign to the state is as hopeless as to
ask it to lower the level of the ocean by bailing out the sea.
Nor can the state cure poverty by regulating wages. It is as much beyond
the power of the state to regulate wages as it is to regulate the rates of
interest. Usury laws have been tried again and again, but the only effect
they have ever had has been to increase what the poorer borrowers must pay,
and for the same reasons that all attempts to lower by regulation the price
of goods have always resulted merely in increasing them. The general rate
of wages is fixed by the ease or difficulty with which labor can obtain access
to land, ranging from the full earnings of labor, where land is free, to
the least on which laborers can live and reproduce, where land is fully monopolized.
Thus, where it has been comparatively easy for laborers to get land, as in
the United States and in Australasia, wages have been higher than in Europe
and it has been impossible to get European laborers to work there for wages
that they would gladly accept at home; while as monopolization goes
on under the influence of private property in land, wages tend to fall, and
conditions of Europe to appear. Thus, under the partial yet substantial recognition
of common rights to land, of which I have spoken, the many attempts of the
British Parliament to reduce wages by regulation failed utterly. And
so, when the institution of private property in land had done its work in
all attempts of Parliament to raise wages proved unavailing. In the beginning
of this century it was even attempted to increase the earnings of laborers
by grants in aid of wages. But the only result was to lower commensurately
what wages employers paid.
The state could maintain wages above the tendency of the market (for as
I have shown labor deprived of land becomes a commodity), only by offering
employment to all who wish it; or by lending its sanction to strikes and
supporting them with its funds. Thus it is, that the thoroughgoing socialists
who want the state to take all industry into its hands are much more logical
than those timid socialists who propose that the state should regulate private
industry — but only a little.
The same hopelessness attends your suggestion that working-people should
be encouraged by the state in obtaining a share of the land. It is evident
that by this you mean that, as is now being attempted in Ireland, the state
shall buy out large landowners in favor of small ones, establishing what
are known as peasant proprietors. Supposing that this can be done even to
a considerable extent, what will be accomplished save to substitute a larger
privileged class for a smaller privileged class? What will be done for the
still larger class that must remain, the laborers of the agricultural districts,
the workmen of the towns, the proletarians of the cities? Is it not true,
as Professor De Laveleye says, that in such countries as Belgium, where peasant
proprietary exists, the tenants, for there still exist tenants, are rack-rented
with a mercilessness unknown in Ireland? Is it not true that in such countries
as Belgium the condition of the mere laborer is even worse than it is in
Great Britain, where large ownerships obtain? And if the state attempts to
buy up land for peasant proprietors will not the effect be, what is seen
today in Ireland, to increase the market value of land and thus make it more
difficult for those not so favored, and for those who will come after, to
get land? How, moreover, on the principle which you declare (36), that “to
the state the interests of all are equal, whether high or low,” will
you justify state aid to one man to buy a bit of land without also insisting
on state aid to another man to buy a donkey, to another to buy a shop, to
another to buy the tools and materials of a trade — state aid in short
to everybody who may be able to make good use of it or thinks that he could?
And are you not thus landed in communism — not the communism of the
early Christians and of the religious orders, but communism that uses the
coercive power of the state to take rightful property by force from those
who have, to give to those who have not? For the state has no purse of Fortunatus;
the state cannot repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes; all that the
state can give, it must get by some form or other of the taxing power. And
whether it gives or lends money, or gives or lends credit, it cannot give
to those who have not, without taking from those who have.
But aside from all this, any scheme of dividing up land while maintaining
private property in land is futile. Small holdings cannot coexist with the
treatment of land as private property where civilization is materially advancing
and wealth augments. We may see this in the economic tendencies that in ancient
times were the main cause that transformed world-conquering Italy from a
land of small farms to a land of great estates. We may see it in the fact
that while two centuries ago the majority of English farmers were owners
of the land they tilled, tenancy has been for a long time the all but universal
condition of the English farmer. And now the mighty forces of steam and electricity
have come to urge concentration. It is in the United States that we may see
on the largest scale how their power is operating to turn a nation of landowners
into a nation of tenants. The principle is clear and irresistible. Material
progress makes land more valuable, and when this increasing value is left
to private owners land must pass from the ownership of the poor into the
ownership of the rich, just as diamonds so pass when poor men find them.
What the British government is attempting in Ireland is to build snow-houses
in the Arabian desert! to plant bananas in Labrador!
There is one way, and only one way, in which working-people in our civilization
may be secured a share in the land of their country, and that is the way
that we propose — the taking of the profits of landownership for the
Men who are sure of getting food when they shall need it eat only what appetite
dictates. But with the sparse tribes who exist on the verge of the habitable
globe life is either a famine or a feast. Enduring hunger for days, the
fear of it prompts them to gorge like anacondas when successful in their
quest of game. And so, what gives wealth its curse is what drives men to
seek it, what makes it so envied and admired — the fear of want.
As the unduly rich are the corollary of the unduly poor, so is the soul-destroying
quality of riches but the reflex of the want that embrutes and degrades.
The real evil lies in the injustice from which unnatural possession and
unnatural deprivation both spring.
But this injustice can hardly be charged on individuals or classes.
The existence of private property in land is a great social wrong from
society at large suffers, and of which the very rich and the very poor are
alike victims, though at the opposite extremes. Seeing this, it seems to
us like a violation of Christian charity to speak of the rich as though they
individually were responsible for the sufferings of the poor. Yet, while
you do this, you insist that the cause of monstrous wealth and degrading
poverty shall not be touched. Here is a man with a disfiguring and dangerous
excrescence. One physician would kindly, gently, but firmly remove it. Another
insists that it shall not be removed, but at the same time holds up the poor
victim to hatred and ridicule. Which is right?
In seeking to restore all men to their equal and natural rights we do not
seek the benefit of any class, but of all. For we both know by faith and
see by fact that injustice can profit no one and that justice must benefit
And in taking for the uses of society what we clearly see is the great fund
intended for society in the divine order, we would not levy the slightest
tax on the possessors of wealth, no matter how rich they might be. Not
only do we deem such taxes a violation of the right of property, but we
see that by virtue of beautiful adaptations in the economic laws of the
Creator, it is impossible for any one honestly to acquire wealth, without
at the same time adding to the wealth of the world.
To persist in a wrong, to refuse to undo it, is always to become involved
in other wrongs. Those who defend private property in land, and thereby
deny the first and most important of all human rights, the equal right to
material substratum of life, are compelled to one of two courses. Either
they must, as do those whose gospel is “Devil take the hindermost,” deny
the equal right to life, and by some theory like that to which the English
clergyman Malthus has given his name, assert that nature (they do not venture
to say God) brings into the world more men than there is provision for; or,
they must, as do the socialists, assert as rights what in themselves are
Let me again state the case that your Encyclical presents:
What is that condition of labor which as you truly say is “the question
of the hour,” and “fills every mind with painful apprehension”?
Reduced to its lowest expression it is the poverty of men willing to work.
And what is the lowest expression of this phrase? It is that they lack bread — for
in that one word we most concisely and strongly express all the manifold
material satisfactions needed by humanity, the absence of which constitutes
Now what is the prayer of Christendom — the universal prayer; the
prayer that goes up daily and hourly wherever the name of Christ is honored;
that ascends from your Holiness at the high altar of St. Peter’s, and
that is repeated by the youngest child that the poorest Christian mother
has taught to lisp a request to her Father in Heaven? It is, “Give
us this day our daily bread!”
Yet where this prayer goes up, daily and hourly, men lack bread. Is it not
the business of religion to say why? If it cannot do so, shall not scoffers
mock its ministers as Elias mocked the prophets of Baal, saying, “Cry
with a louder voice, for he is a god; and perhaps he is talking, or is in
an inn, or on a journey, or perhaps be is asleep, and must be awaked!” What
answer can those ministers give? Either there is no God, or he is asleep,
or else he does give men their daily bread, and it is in some way intercepted.
Here is the answer, the only true answer: If men lack bread it is not that
God has not done his part in providing it. If men willing to labor are cursed
with poverty, it is not that the storehouse that God owes men has failed;
that the daily supply he has promised for the daily wants of his children
is not here in abundance. It is, that impiously violating the benevolent
intentions of their Creator, men have made land private property, and thus
given into the exclusive ownership of the few the provision that a bountiful
Father has made for all.
Any other answer than that, no matter how it may be shrouded in the mere
forms of religion, is practically an atheistical answer. ... read the whole letter
Rev. A. C. Auchmuty: Gems from George, a
themed collection of
excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)
IF we are all here by the equal permission of the Creator, we are all
here with an equal title to the enjoyment of His bounty — with an equal
right to the use of all that nature so impartially offers. This is a right
which is natural and inalienable; it is a right which vests in every human
being as he enters the world, and which, during his continuance in the world,
can be limited only by the equal rights of others. There is in nature no such
thing as a fee simple in land. There is on earth no power which can rightfully
make a grant of exclusive ownership in land. If all existing men were to unite
to grant away their equal rights, they could not grant away the right of those
who follow them. For what are we but tenants for a day? Have we made the earth
that we should determine the rights of those who after us shall tenant it in
their turn? The Almighty, who created the earth for man and man for the earth,
has entailed it upon all the generations of the children of men by a decree
written upon the constitution of all things — a decree which no human
action can bar and no prescription determine, Let the parchments be ever so
many, or possession ever so long, natural justice can recognize no right in
one man to the possession and enjoyment of land that is not equally the right
of all his fellows. — Progress & Poverty — Book
VII, Chapter 1, Justice of the Remedy: Injustice of private property in land
HAS the first comer at a banquet the right to turn back all the chairs
and claim that none of the other guests shall partake of the food provided,
except as they make terms with him? Does the first man who presents a ticket
at the door of a theater and passes in, acquire by his priority the right
to shut the doors and have the performance go on for him alone? Does the
first passenger who enters a railroad car obtain the right to scatter his
baggage over all the seats and compel the passengers who come in after him
to stand up?
The cases are perfectly analogous. We arrive and we depart, guests at a banquet
continually spread, spectators and participants in an entertainment where there
is room for all who come; passengers from station to station, on an orb that
whirls through space — our rights to take and possess cannot be exclusive;
they must be bounded everywhere by the equal rights of others. Just as the
passenger in a railroad car may spread himself and his baggage over as many
seats as he pleases, until other passengers come in, so may a settler take
and use as much land as he chooses, until it is needed by others — a
fact which is shown by the land acquiring a value — when his right must
be curtailed by the equal rights of the others, and no priority of appropriation
can give a right which will bar these equal rights of others. — Progress & Poverty — Book
VII, Chapter 1, Justice of the Remedy: Injustice of private property in land
NATURE acknowledges no ownership or control in man save as the result of exertion.
In no other way can her treasures be drawn forth, her powers directed, or her
forces utilized or controlled. She makes no discriminations among men, but
is to all absolutely impartial. She knows no distinction between master and
slave, king and subject, saint and sinner. All men to her stand upon an equal
footing and have equal rights. She recognizes no claim but that of labor, and
recognizes that without respect to the claimant. If a pirate spread his sails,
the wind will fill them as well as it will fill those of a peaceful merchantman
or missionary bark; if a king and a common man be thrown overboard, neither
can keep his head above the water except by swimming; birds will not come to
be shot by the proprietor of the soil any quicker than they will come to be
shot by the poacher; fish will bite or will not bite at a hook in utter disregard
as to whether it is offered them by a good little boy who goes to Sunday school,
or a bad little boy who plays truant; grain will grow only as the ground is
prepared and the seed is sown; it is only at the call of labor that ore can
be raised from the mine; the sun shines and the rain falls alike upon just
and unjust. The laws of nature are the decrees of the Creator. There is written
in them no recognition of any right save that of labor; and in them is written
broadly and clearly the equal right of all men to the use and enjoyment of
nature; to apply to her by their exertions, and to receive and possess her
reward. Hence, as nature gives only to labor, the exertion of labor in production
is the only title to exclusive possession. — Progress & Poverty — Book
VII, Chapter 1, Justice of the Remedy: Injustice of private property in land
PRIVATE property is not of one species, and moral sanction can no more be
asserted universally of it than of marriage. That proper marriage conforms
to the law of God does not justify the polygamic or polyandric or incestuous
marriages that are in some countries permitted by the civil law. And as there
may be immoral marriage, so may there be immoral private property. — The
Condition of Labor, an Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII
THAT any species of property is permitted by the State, does not of itself
give it moral sanction. The State has often made things property that are not
justly property but involve violence and robbery. — The
Condition of Labor, an Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII
TO attach to things created by God the same right of private ownership that
justly attaches to things produced by labor, is to impair and deny the true
rights of property. For a man, who out of the proceeds of his labor is obliged
to pay another man for the use of ocean or air or sunshine or soil, all of
which are to men involved in the single term land, is in this deprived of his
rightful property, and thus robbed. — The
Condition of Labor, an Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII
HOW then is it that we are called deniers of the right of property? It is for
the same reason that caused nine-tenths of the good people in the United
States, north as well as south, to regard abolitionists as deniers of the right
of property; the same reason that made even John Wesley look on a smuggler
as a kind of robber, and on a custom-house seizer of other men's goods as a
defender of law and order. Where violations of the right of property
have been long sanctioned by custom and law, it is inevitable that those
who really assert the right of property will at first be thought to deny it. For
under such circumstances the idea of property becomes confused, and that is
thought to be property which is in reality a violation of property. — A
Perplexed Philosopher (The
Right Of Property And The Right Of Taxation)
LANDLORDS must elect to try their case either by human law or by moral law. If
they say that land is rightly property because made so by human law, they cannot
charge those who would change that law with advocating robbery. But if
they charge that such change in human law would be robbery, then they must
show that land is rightfully property irrespective of human law. — The
Reduction to Iniquity (a reply to the Duke of Argyll), The Nineteenth
Century, July, 1884
PRIVATE property in land, no less than private property in slaves, is the
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. — The
Condition of Labor, an Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII
ROBINSON CRUSOE, as we all know, took Friday as his slave. Suppose, however,
that instead of taking Friday as his slave, Robinson Crusoe had welcomed him
as a man and a brother; had read him a Declaration of Independence, an Emancipation
Proclamation and a Fifteenth Amendment, and informed him that he was a free
and independent citizen, entitled to vote and hold office; but had at the
also informed him that that particular island was his (Robinson Crusoe's) private
and exclusive property. What would have been the difference? Since Friday could
not fly up into the air nor swim off through the sea, since if he lived at
all he must live on the island, he would have been in one case as much a
in the other. Crusoe's ownership of the island would be equivalent of his ownership
of Friday. — Social
Problems — Chapter
15, Slavery and Slavery
THEY no longer have to drive their slaves to work; want and the fear of want
do that more effectually than the lash. They no longer have the trouble of
looking out for their employment or hiring out their labor, or the expense
them when they cannot work. That is thrown upon the slaves. The tribute that
they still wring from labor seems like voluntary payment. In fact, they take
it as their honest share of the rewards of production — since they furnish
the land! And they find so-called political economists, to say nothing of so-called
preachers of Christianity, to tell them so. — Social
Problems — Chapter
15, Slavery and Slavery
IF the two young Englishmen I have spoken of had come over here and bought
so many American citizens, they could not have got from them so much of the
of labor as they now get by having bought land which American citizens are
glad to be allowed to till for half the crop. And so, even if our laws permitted,
it would be foolish for an English duke or marquis to come over here and contract
for ten thousand American babies, born or to be born, in the expectation that
when able to work he could get out of them a large return. For by purchasing
or fencing in a million acres of land that cannot run away and do not need
be fed, clothed or educated, he can, in twenty or thirty years, have ten thousand
full-grown Americans, ready to give him half of all that their labor can produce
on his land for the privilege of supporting themselves and their families out
of the other half. This gives him more of the produce of labor than he could
exact from so many chattel slaves. — Protection or Free Trade — Chapter
25: The Robber That Takes All That Is Left - econlib
OF the two systems of slavery, I think there can be no doubt that upon the
same moral level, that which makes property of persons is more humane than
results from making private property of land. The cruelties which are perpetrated
under the system of chattel slavery are more striking and arouse more indignation
because they are the conscious acts of individuals. But for the suffering of
the poor under the more refined system no one in particular seems responsible.
. . . But this very fact permits cruelties that would not be tolerated under
the one system to pass almost unnoticed under the other. Human beings are overworked,
are starved, are robbed of all the light and sweetness of life, are condemned
to ignorance and brutishness, and to the infection of physical and moral disease;
are driven to crime and suicide, not by other individuals, but by iron necessities
for which it seems that no one in particular is responsible.
To match from the annals of chattel slavery the horrors that day after day
transpire unnoticed in the heart of Christian civilization, it would be necessary
back to ancient slavery, to the chronicles of Spanish conquest in the New World,
or to stories of the Middle passage. — Social
Problems — Chapter
15, Slavery and Slavery
THE general subjection of the many to the few, which we meet with wherever
society has reached a certain development, has resulted from the appropriation
of land as individual property. It is the ownership of the soil that everywhere
gives the ownership of the men that live upon it. It is slavery of this kind
to which the enduring pyramids and the colossal monuments of Egypt yet bear
witness, and of the institution of which we have, perhaps, a vague tradition
in the biblical story of the famine during which the Pharaoh purchased up
the lands of the people. It was slavery of this kind to which, in the twilight
of history, the conquerors of Greece reduced the original inhabitants of
that peninsula, transforming them into helots by making them pay rent for
their lands. It was the growth of the latifundia,
or great landed estates, which transmuted the population of ancient Italy
from a race of hardy husbandmen, whose robust virtues conquered the world,
into a race of cringing bondsmen; it was the appropriation of the land as
the absolute property of their chieftains which gradually turned the descendants
of free and equal Gallic, Teutonic and Hunnish warriors into colonii and
villains, and which changed the independent burghers of Sclavonic village
communities into the boors of Russia and the serfs of Poland; which instituted
the feudalism of China and Japan, as well as that of Europe, and which made
the High Chiefs of Polynesia the all but absolute masters of their fellows.
How it came to pass that the Aryan shepherds and warriors who, as comparative
philology tells us, descended from the common birth-place of the Indo-Germanic
race into the lowlands of India, were turned into the suppliant and cringing
Hindoo, the Sanscrit verse which I have before quoted gives us a hint. The
white parasols and the elephants mad with pride of the Indian Rajah are the
flowers of grants of land. — Progress & Poverty — Book
VII, Chapter 1, Justice of the Remedy: Injustice of private property in land
TRACE to their root the causes that are thus producing want in the midst of plenty,
ignorance in the midst of intelligence, aristocracy in democracy, weakness in
strength — that are giving to our civilization a one-sided and unstable
development, and you will find it something which this Hebrew statesman three
thousand years ago perceived and guarded against. Moses saw that the real cause
of the enslavement of the masses of Egypt was, what has everywhere produced enslavement,
the possession by a class of the land upon which, and from which, the whole people
must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified private ownership
that by natural right attaches to the things produced by labor, would be inevitably
to separate the people into the very rich and the very poor, inevitably to enslave
labor — to make the few the masters of. the many, no matter what the political
forms, to bring vice and degradation, no matter what the religion.
And with the foresight of the philosophic statesman who legislates not for the
need of a day, but for all the future, he sought, in ways suited to his times
and conditions, to guard against this error. — Moses
THE women who by the thousands are bending over their needles or sewing machines,
thirteen, fourteen, sixteen hours a day; these widows straining and striving
to bring up the little ones deprived of their natural bread-winner; the children
that are growing up in squalor and wretchedness, under-clothed, under-fed, under-educated,
even in this city without any place to play — growing up under conditions
in which only a miracle can keep them pure — under conditions which condemn
them in advance to the penitentiary or the brothel — they suffer, they
die, because we permit them to be
robbed, robbed of their birthright, robbed by a system which disinherits the
vast majority of the children that come into the world. There is enough and to
spare for them. Had they the equal rights in the estate which their Creator has
given them, there would be no young girls forced to unwomanly toil to eke out
a mere existence, no widows finding it such a bitter, bitter struggle to put
bread in the mouths of their little children; no such misery and squalor as we
may see here in the greatest of American cities; misery and squalor that are
deepest in the largest and richest centers of our civilization today. — Thou
Shalt Not Steal
THE poverty to which in advancing civilization great masses of men are condemned,
is not the freedom from distraction and temptation which sages have sought
and philosophers have praised: it is a degrading and embruting slavery, that
cramps the higher nature, dulls the finer feelings, and drives men by its
pain to acts which the brutes would refuse. It is into this helpless, hopeless
poverty, that crushes manhood and destroys womanhood, that robs even childhood
of its innocence and joy, that the working classes are being driven by a
force which acts upon them like a resistless and unpitying machine. The Boston
collar manufacturer who pays his girls two cents an hour may commiserate
their condition, but he, as they, is governed by the law of competition,
and cannot pay more and carry on his business, for exchange is not governed
by sentiment. And so, through all intermediate gradations, up to those who
receive the earnings of labor without return, in the rent of land, it is
the inexorable laws of supply and demand, a power with which the individual
can no more quarrel or dispute than with the winds and the tides, that seem
to press down the lower classes into the slavery of want.
But, in reality, the cause is that which always has, and always must result in
slavery — the monopolization by some of what nature has designed for all.
. . . Private ownership of land is the nether millstone. Material progress is
the upper millstone. Between them; with an increasing pressure, the working classes
are being ground. — Progress & Poverty — Book
VII, Chapter 2, Justice of the Remedy: Enslavement of laborers the ultimate result
of private property in land
IT is not in the relations of capital and labor; it is not in the pressure
of population against subsistence that an explanation of the unequal development
of our civilization is to be found. The great cause of inequality in the
distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land. The ownership
of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social,
the political and, consequently, the intellectual and moral condition of
a people. And it must be so. For land is the habitation of man, the storehouse
upon which he must draw for all his needs, the material to which his labor
must be applied for the supply of all his desires; for even the products
of the sea cannot be taken, the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces
of nature utilized, without the use of land or its products. On the land
we are born, from it we live, to it we return again — children of the
soil as truly as is the blade of grass or the flower of the field. — Progress & Poverty — Book
V, Chapter 2: The Problem Solved: The persistence of poverty amid advancing
THERE is nothing strange or inexplicable in the phenomena that are now perplexing
the world. It is not that material progress is not in itself a good, it is
not that nature has called into being children for whom she has failed to provide;
it is not that the Creator has left on natural laws a taint of injustice at
which even the human mind revolts, that material progress brings such bitter
fruits. That amid our highest civilization men faint and die with want is not
due to the niggardliness of nature, but to the injustice of man. Vice and misery,
poverty and pauperism, are not the legitimate results of increase of population
and industrial development; they only follow increase of population and industrial
development because land is treated as private property — they are the
direct and necessary results of the violation of the supreme law of justice,
involved in giving to some men the exclusive possession of that which nature
provides for all men. — Progress & Poverty — Book
VII, Chapter 1, Justice of the Remedy: Injustice of private property in land
IN the Old Testament we are told that, when the Israelites journeyed through
the desert, they were hungered, and that God sent down out of the heavens — manna.
There was enough for all of them, and they all took it and were relieved.
But, supposing that desert had been held as private property, as the soil
of Great Britain is held; as the soil even of our new states is being held.
Supposing that one of the Israelites had a square mile, and another one had
twenty square miles, and another one had a hundred square miles, and the
great majority of the Israelites did not have enough to set the soles of
their feet upon, which they could call their own — what would become
of the manna? What good would it have done to the majority? Not a whit. Though
God had sent down manna enough for all, that manna would have been the property
of the landholders; they would have employed some of the others, perhaps,
to gather it up in heaps for them, and would have sold it to the hungry brethren.
Consider it: this purchase and sale of manna might have gone on until the
majority of the Israelites had given up all they had, even to the clothes
off their backs. What then? Well, then they would not have had anything left
with which to buy manna, and the consequence would have been that while they
went hungry the manna would be lying in great heaps, and the landowners would
be complaining about the over-production of manna. There would have been
a great harvest of manna and hungry people, just precisely the Phenomenon
that we see today. — The Crime of Poverty
PROPERTY in land, like property in slaves, is essentially different from property
in things that are the result of labor. Rob a man or a people of money, or goods,
or cattle, and the robbery is finished there and then. The lapse of time does
not, indeed, change wrong into right, but it obliterates the effects of the deed.
That is done; it is over; and, unless it be very soon righted, it glides away
into the past, with the men who were parties to it, so swiftly that nothing save
omniscience can trace its effects; and in attempting to right it we would be
in danger of doing fresh wrong. The past is forever beyond us. We can neither
punish nor recompense the dead. But rob a people of the land on which they must
live, and the robbery is continuous. It is a fresh robbery of every succeeding
generation — a new robbery every year and every day; it is like the robbery
which condemns to slavery the children of the slave. To apply to it the
statute of limitations, to acknowledge for it the title of prescription, is not
to condone the past; it is to legalese robbery in the present, to justify it
in the future. — The (Irish) Land Question
AND while in the nature of things any change from wrong-doing to right-doing
must entail loss upon those who profit by the wrong-doing, and this can no more
be prevented than can parallel lines be made to meet; yet it must also be remembered
that in the nature of things the loss is merely relative, the gain absolute.
Whoever will examine the subject will see that in the abandonment of the present
unnatural and unjust method of raising public revenues and the adoption of the
natural and just method even those who relatively lose will be enormous gainers. — A
Perplexed Philosopher (Compensation)
MANY landholders are laborers of one sort or another. And it would be hard to
find a landowner not a laborer, who is not also a capitalist — while the
general rule is, that the larger the landowner the greater the capitalist. So
true is this that in common thought the characters are confounded. Thus, to put
all taxes on the value of land, while it would be to largely reduce all great
fortunes, would in no case leave the rich man penniless. The Duke of Westminster,
who owns a considerable part of the site of London, is probably the richest landowner
in the world. To take all his ground rents by taxation would largely reduce his
enormous income, but would still leave him his buildings and all the income from
them, and doubtless much personal property in various other shapes. He would
still have all he could by any possibility enjoy, and a much better state of
society in which to enjoy it. — Progress & Poverty — Book
IX, Chapter 3, Effects of the Remedy: Of the Effect Upon Individuals and Classes
THE existence of private property in land is a great social wrong from which
society at large suffers and of which the very rich and the very poor are alike
victims, though at the opposite extremes.
Seeing this, it seems to us like a violation of Christian charity to speak of
the rich as though they individually were responsible for the sufferings of the
poor. Yet, while you do this, you insist that the cause of monstrous wealth and
degrading poverty shall not be touched. Here is a man with a disfiguring and
dangerous excrescence. One physician would kindly, gently, but firmly remove
it. Another insists that it shall not be removed, but at the same time holds
up the poor victim to hatred and ridicule. Which is right- ? — The
Condition of Labor, an Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII
... go to "Gems from George"
Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's
with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)
Note 56: The ownership of the land is essentially the ownership
of the men who must use it.
"Let the circumstances be what they may — the ownership of land
will always give the ownership of men to a degree measured by the necessity
(real or artificial) for the use of land. Place one hundred men on an island
from which there is no escape, and whether you make one of these men the
absolute owner of the other ninety-nine, or the absolute owner of the soil
of the island, will make no difference either to him or to them." — Progress
and Poverty, book vii, ch. ii.
Let us imagine a shipwrecked sailor who, after battling
with the waves, touches land upon an uninhabited but fertile island. Though
hungry and naked
and shelterless, he soon has food and clothing and a house — all of
them rude, to be sure, but comfortable. How does he get them? By applying
his Labor to the Land of the island. In a little while he lives as comfortably
as an isolated man can.
Now let another shipwrecked sailor be washed ashore. As he is about to step
out of the water the first man accosts him:
"Hello, there! If you want to come ashore you must
agree to be my slave."
The second replies: "I can't. I come from the United
States, where they don't believe in slavery."
"Oh, I beg your pardon. I didn't know you came from
the United States. I had no intention of hurting your feelings, you know.
But say, they believe
in owning land in the United States, don't they?"
"Very well; you just agree that this island is mine,
and you may come ashore a free man."
"But how does the island happen to be yours? Did you
"No, I didn't make it."
"Have you a title from its maker?"
"No, I haven't any title from its maker."
"Well, what is your title, anyhow?"
"Oh, my title is good enough. I got here first."
Of course he got there first. But he didn't mean to, and he wouldn't have
done it if he could have helped it. But the newcomer is satisfied, and says:
"Well, that's a good United States title, so I guess
I'll recognize it and come ashore. But remember, I am to be a free man."
"Certainly you are. Come right along up to my cabin."
For a time the two get along well enough together. But on
some fine morning the proprietor concludes that he would rather lie abed
than scurry around
for his breakfast and not being in a good humor, perhaps, he somewhat roughly
commands his "brother man" to cook him a bird.
"What?" exclaims the brother.
"I tell you to go and kill a bird and cook it for my
"That sounds big," sneers the second free and equal member of
the little community; "but what am I to get for doing this?"
"Oh," the first replies languidly, "if you
kill me a fat bird and cook it nicely, then after I have had my breakfast
off the bird
you may cook the gizzard for your own breakfast. That's pay enough. The work
"But I want you to understand that I am not your slave,
and I won't do that work for that pay. I'll do as much work for you as
you do for me,
and no more."
"Then, sir," the first comer shouts in virtuous wrath, "I
want you to understand that my charity is at an end. I have treated you better
than you deserved in the past, and this is your gratitude. Now I don't propose
to have any loafers on my property. You will work for the wages I offer or
get off my land! You are perfectly free. Take the wages or leave them. Do
the work or let it alone. There is no slavery here. But if you are not satisfied
with my terms, leave my island!"
The second man, if accustomed to the usages of the labor
unions, would probably go out and, to the music of his own violent language
about the "greed
of capital," destroy as many bows and arrows as he could, so as to paralyze
the bird-shooting industry; and this proceeding he would call a strike for
honest wages and the dignity of labor. If he were accustomed to social reform
notions of the namby-pamby variety, he would propose an arbitration, and
be mildly indignant when told that there was nothing to arbitrate — that
he had only to accept the other's offer or get off his property. But if a
sensible man, he would notify his comrade that the privilege of owning islands
in that latitude had expired.
Note 57: While in the Pennsylvania coal regions a few years
ago I was told of an incident that illustrates the power of perpetuating
poverty which resides
in the absolute ownership of land.
The miners were in poverty. Despite the lavish protection bestowed upon
them by tariff laws at the solicitation of monopolies which dictate our tariff
policy, the men were afflicted with poverty in many forms. They were poor
as to clothing, poor as to shelter, poor as to food, and to be more specific,
they were in extreme poverty as to ice. When the summer months came they
lacked this thing because they could not afford to buy, and they suffered.
Owing to the undermining of the ground and the caving in
of the surface here and there, there were great holes into which the snow
and the rain fell
in winter and froze, forming a passable quality of ice. Now it is frequently
said that intelligence, industry, and thrift will abolish poverty. But these
virtues were not successful among the men of whom I speak. They were intelligent
enough to see that this ice if they saved it would abolish their poverty
as to ice, and they were industrious enough and thrifty enough not only to
be willing to save it, but actually to begin the work. Preparing little caves
to preserve the ice in, they went into the holes after a long day's work
in the mines, and gathered what so far as the need of ice was concerned was
to abolish their poverty in the ensuing summer. But the owner of this part
of the earth — a man who had neither made the earth, nor the rain,
nor the snow, nor the ice, nor even the hole — telegraphed his agent
forbidding the removal of ice except upon payment of a certain sum per ton.
The miners couldn't afford the condition. They controlled
the necessary Labor, and were willing to give it to abolish their poverty;
but the Land
was placed beyond their reach by an owner, and in consequence of that, and
not from any lack of intelligence, industry, or thrift on their own part,
their poverty as to ice was perpetuated. ...
f. The Single Tax Retains Rent for Common Use.
To retain Rent for common use it is not necessary to abolish land-titles,
nor to let land out to the highest bidder, nor to invent some new mechanism
of taxation, nor in any other way to directly change existing modes of holding
land for use, or existing machinery for collecting public revenues. "Great
changes can be best brought about under old forms."109 Let land be held
nominally as it is now. Let taxes be collected by the same kind of machinery
as now. But abolish all taxes except those that fall upon actual and potential
Rent, that is to say, upon land values.
109. "Such dupes are men to custom, and so prone
To rev'rence what is ancient and can plead
A course of long observance for its use,
That even servitude, the worst of ills,
Because delivered down from sire to son
Is kept and guarded as a sacred thing." —Cowper.
It is only custom that makes the ownership of land seem
reasonable. I have frequently had occasion to tell of the necessity under
which the city of Cleveland, Ohio, found itself, of paying a land-owner
several thousand dollars for the right to swing a bridge-draw over his
land. When I described the matter in that way, the story attracted no
attention; it seemed perfectly reasonable to the ordinary lecture audience.
But when I described the transaction as a payment by the city to a land-owner
of thousands of dollars for the privilege of swinging the draw "through
that man's air," the audience invariably manifested its appreciation
of the absurdity of such an ownership. The idea of owning air was ridiculous;
the idea of owning land was not. Yet who can explain the difference,
except as a matter of custom?
To the same effect was the question of the Rev. F. L.
Higgins to a friend. While stationed at Galveston, Tex., Mr. Higgins
fell into a discussion with his friend as to the right of government
to make land private property. The friend argued that no matter what
the abstract right might be, the government had made private property
of land, and people had bought and sold upon the strength of the government
title, and therefore land titles were morally absolute.
"Suppose," said Mr. Higgins, "that the
government should vest in a corporation title to the Gulf of Mexico,
so that no one could fish there, or sail there, or do anything in or
upon the waters of the Gulf without permission from the corporation.
Would that be right?"
"No," answered the friend.
"Well, suppose the corporation should then parcel
out the Gulf to different parties until some of the people came to own
the whole Gulf to the exclusion of everybody else, born and unborn. Could
any such title be acquired by these purchasers, or their descendants
or assignees, as that the rest of the people if they got the power would
not have a moral right to abrogate it?"
"Certainly not," said the friend.
"Could private titles to the Gulf possibly become
absolute in morals?"
"Then tell me," asked Mr. Higgins, "what
difference it would make if all the water were taken off the Gulf and
only the bare land left."
If that were done it is doubtful if land-owners could any longer confiscate
enough Rent to be worth the trouble. Even though some surplus were still
kept by them, it would be so much more easy to secure Wealth by working for
it than by confiscating Rent to private use, to say nothing of its being
so much more respectable, that speculation in land values would practically
be abandoned. At any rate, the question of a surplus — Rent in excess
of the requirements of the community — may be readily determined when
the principle that Rent justly belongs to the community and Wages to the
individual shall have been recognized by society in the adoption of the Single
110. Thomas G. Shearman, Esq., of New York, author of
the famous magazine article on "Who Owns the United States," estimates
that sixty-five per cent of the present annual value of the land in the
United States would pay all the present expenses of American government — federal,
state, county, and municipal. ...
Q32. Is not ownership of land necessary to induce its improvement? Does
not history show that private ownership is a step in advance of common
A. No. Private use was doubtless a step in advance of common use. And because
private use seems to us to have been brought about under the institution of private
ownership, private ownership appears to the superficial to have been the real
advance. But a little observation and reflection will remove that impression.
Private ownership of land is not necessary to its private use. And so far from
inducing improvement, private ownership retards it. When a man owns land he may
accumulate wealth by doing nothing with the land, simply allowing the community
to increase its value while he pays a merely nominal tax, upon the plea that
he gets no income from the property. But when the possessor has to pay the value
of his land every year, as he would have to under the single tax, and as ground
renters do now, he must improve his holding in order to profit by it. Private
possession of land, without profit except from use, promotes improvement; private
ownership, with profit regardless of use, retards improvement. Every city in
the world, in its vacant lots, offers proof of the statement. It is the lots
that are owned, and not those that are held upon ground-lease, that remain vacant.
Q52. Is not the right of ownership of a gold ring the same as the ownership
of a gold mine? and if the latter is wrong is not the former also wrong?
A. If it be wrong for you to own the spring of water which you and your fellows
use, is it therefore wrong for you to own the water that you lift from the spring
to drink? If so how do you propose to slake your thirst? If you argue in reply
that it is not wrong for you to own the spring, then how shall your fellows slake
their thirst when you treat them, as you would have a right to, as trespassers
upon your property? To own the source of labor products is to own the labor of
others; to own what you produce from that source is to own only your own labor.
Nature furnishes gold mines, but men fashion gold rings. The right of ownership
is radically different.
Q62. If the ownership of land is immoral is it not the duty of individuals
who see its immorality to refrain from profiting by it?
A. No. The immorality is institutional, not individual. Every member of a community
has a right to land and an interest in the rent of land. Under the single tax
both rights would be conserved. But under existing social institutions the only
way of securing either is to own land and profit by it. To refrain from doing
so would have no reformatory effect. It is one of the eccentricities of narrow
minds to believe or profess to believe that institutional wrongs and individual
wrongs are upon the same plane and must be cured in the same way — by individual
reformation. But individuals cannot change institutions by refraining from profiting
by them, any more than they could dredge a creek by refraining from swimming
in it. Institutional wrongs must be remedied by institutional reforms. ... read the book
Charles B. Fillebrown: A Catechism
of Natural Taxation, from Principles of
Natural Taxation (1917)
Q12. Did not Henry George believe in the abolition of private property
A. Assuredly not. If he did, why was it that he suggested no modification whatever
of present land tenure or "estate in land"? If he did, how could he
have said that the sole "sovereign" and sufficient remedy for the wrongs
of private property in land was "to appropriate rent by taxation"?
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