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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 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”? ... 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 Lectures, 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 make it?"

"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 breakfast."

"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 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 the book



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