Private Property in Men
Henry George: The Condition
of Labor — An
Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)
Thus, 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. For instance,
the things of religion, the dignity and authority of offices of the church,
the power of administering her sacraments and controlling her temporalities,
have often by profligate princes been given as salable property to courtiers
and concubines. At this very day in England an atheist or a heathen may buy
in open market, and hold as legal property, to be sold, given or bequeathed
as he pleases, the power of appointing to the cure of souls, and the value
of these legal rights of presentation is said to be no less than £17,000,000.
Or again: Slaves were universally treated as property by the customs and
laws of the classical nations, and were so acknowledged in Europe long after
the acceptance of Christianity. At the beginning of this century there was
no Christian nation that did not, in her colonies at least, recognize property
in slaves, and slaveships crossed the seas under Christian flags. In the
United States, little more than thirty years ago, to buy a man gave the same
legal ownership as to buy a horse, and in Mohammedan countries law and custom
yet make the slave the property of his captor or purchaser.
Yet your Holiness, one of the glories of whose pontificate is the attempt
to break up slavery in its last strongholds, will not contend that the moral
sanction that attaches to property in things produced by labor can, or ever
could, apply to property in slaves.
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
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
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
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
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”? ... 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)
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 same time
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 slave as
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 of keeping
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 produce
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 to
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 that which
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 to go
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
... 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
"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
"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 is easy."
"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. ... read