As to the use of land, we hold: That —
While the right of ownership that justly attaches to things produced by
labor cannot attach to land, there may attach to land a right of possession.
As your Holiness says, “God has not granted the earth to mankind in
general in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they
please,” and regulations necessary for its best use may be fixed by
human laws. But such regulations must conform to the moral law — must
secure to all equal participation in the advantages of God’s general
bounty. The principle is the same as where a human father leaves property
equally to a number of children. Some of the things thus left may be incapable
of common use or of specific division. Such things may properly be assigned
to some of the children, but only under condition that the equality of benefit
among them all be preserved.
In the rudest social state, while industry consists in hunting, fishing,
and gathering the spontaneous fruits of the earth, private possession of
land is not necessary. But as men begin to cultivate the ground and expend
their labor in permanent works, private possession of the land on which labor
is thus expended is needed to secure the right of property in the products
of labor. For who would sow if not assured of the exclusive possession needed
to enable him to reap? who would attach costly works to the soil without
such exclusive possession of the soil as would enable him to secure the benefit?
This right of private possession in things created by God is however very
different from the right of private ownership in things produced by labor.
The one is limited, the other unlimited, save in cases when the dictate of
self-preservation terminates all other rights. The purpose of the one, the
exclusive possession of land, is merely to secure the other, the exclusive
ownership of the products of labor; and it can never rightfully be carried
so far as to impair or deny this. While any one may hold exclusive possession
of land so far as it does not interfere with the equal rights of others,
he can rightfully hold it no further.
Thus Cain and Abel, were there only two men on earth, might by agreement
divide the earth between them. Under this compact each might claim exclusive
right to his share as against the other. But neither could rightfully continue
such claim against the next man born. For since no one comes into the world
without God’s permission, his presence attests his equal right to the
use of God’s bounty. For them to refuse him any use of the earth which
they had divided between them would therefore be for them to commit murder.
And for them to refuse him any use of the earth, unless by laboring for them
or by giving them part of the products of his labor he bought it of them,
would be for them to commit theft. ...
God’s laws do not change. Though their applications may alter with
altering conditions, the same principles of right and wrong that hold when
men are few and industry is rude also hold amid teeming populations and complex
industries. In our cities of millions and our states of scores of millions,
in a civilization where the division of labor has gone so far that large
numbers are hardly conscious that they are land-users, it still remains true
that we are all land animals and can live only on land, and that land is
God’s bounty to all, of which no one can be deprived without being
murdered, and for which no one can be compelled to pay another without being
robbed. But even in a state of society where the elaboration of industry
and the increase of permanent improvements have made the need for private
possession of land wide-spread, there is no difficulty in conforming individual
possession with the equal right to land. For as soon as any piece of land
will yield to the possessor a larger return than is had by similar labor
on other land a value attaches to it which is shown when it is sold or rented.
Thus, the value of the land itself, irrespective of the value of any improvements
in or on it, always indicates the precise value of the benefit to which all
are entitled in its use, as distinguished from the value which, as producer
or successor of a producer, belongs to the possessor in individual right.
To combine the advantages of private possession with the justice of common
ownership it is only necessary therefore to take for common uses what value
attaches to land irrespective of any exertion of labor on it. The principle
is the same as in the case referred to, where a human father leaves equally
to his children things not susceptible of specific division or common use.
In that case such things would be sold or rented and the value equally applied.
It is on this common-sense principle that we, who term ourselves single-tax
men, would have the community act.
We do not propose to assert equal rights to land by keeping land common,
letting any one use any part of it at any time. We do not propose the task,
impossible in the present state of society, of dividing land in equal shares;
still less the yet more impossible task of keeping it so divided.
We propose — leaving land in the private possession of individuals,
with full liberty on their part to give, sell or bequeath it — simply
to levy on it for public uses a tax that shall equal the annual value of
the land itself, irrespective of the use made of it or the improvements on
it. And since this would provide amply for the need of public revenues, we
would accompany this tax on land values with the repeal of all taxes now
levied on the products and processes of industry — which taxes, since
they take from the earnings of labor, we hold to be infringements of the
right of property.
This we propose, not as a cunning device of human ingenuity, but as a conforming
of human regulations to the will of God.
God cannot contradict himself nor impose on his creatures laws that clash.
If it be God’s command to men that they should not steal — that
is to say, that they should respect the right of property which each one
has in the fruits of his labor;
And if he be also the Father of all men, who in his common bounty has intended
all to have equal opportunities for sharing;
Then, in any possible stage of civilization, however elaborate, there must
be some way in which the exclusive right to the products of industry may
be reconciled with the equal right to land.
If the Almighty be consistent with himself, it cannot be, as say those socialists
referred to by you, that in order to secure the equal participation of men
in the opportunities of life and labor we must ignore the right of private
property. Nor yet can it be, as you yourself in the Encyclical seem to argue,
that to secure the right of private property we must ignore the equality
of right in the opportunities of life and labor. To say the one thing or
the other is equally to deny the harmony of God’s laws.
But, the private possession of land, subject to the payment to the community
of the value of any special advantage thus given to the individual, satisfies
both laws, securing to all equal participation in the bounty of the Creator
and to each the full ownership of the products of his labor. ...
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.) ...
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (8.)
Your own statement that land is the inexhaustible storehouse that God owes
to man must have aroused in your Holiness’s mind an uneasy questioning
of its appropriation as private property, for, as though to reassure yourself,
you proceed to argue that its ownership by some will not injure others. You
say in substance, that even though divided among private owners the earth
does not cease to minister to the needs of all, since those who do not possess
the soil can by selling their labor obtain in payment the produce of the
Suppose that to your Holiness as a judge of morals one should put this case
I am one of several children to whom our father left a field abundant for
our support. As he assigned no part of it to any one of us in particular,
leaving the limits of our separate possession to be fixed by ourselves, I
being the eldest took the whole field in exclusive ownership. But in doing
so I have not deprived my brothers of their support from it, for I have let
them work for me on it, paying them from the produce as much wages as I would
have had to pay strangers. Is there any reason why my conscience should not
What would be your answer? Would you not tell him that he was in mortal
sin, and that his excuse added to his guilt? Would you not call on him to
make restitution and to do penance?
Or, suppose that as a temporal prince your Holiness were ruler of a rainless
land, such as Egypt, where there were no springs or brooks, their want being
supplied by a bountiful river like the Nile. Supposing that having sent a
number of your subjects to make fruitful this land, bidding them do justly
and prosper, you were told that some of them had set up a claim of ownership
in the river, refusing the others a drop of water, except as they bought
it of them; and that thus they had become rich without work, while the others,
though working hard, were so impoverished by paying for water as to be hardly
able to exist?
Would not your indignation wax hot when this was told?
Suppose that then the river-owners should send to you and thus excuse their
The river, though divided among private owners, ceases not thereby
to minister to the needs of all, for there is no one who drinks who does
the water of the river. Those who do not possess the water of the river
contribute their labor to get it; so that it may be truly said that all
water is supplied
either from one’s own river, or from some laborious industry which
is paid for either in the water, or in that which is exchanged for the
Would the indignation of your Holiness be abated? Would it not wax fiercer
yet for the insult to your intelligence of this excuse?
I do not need more formally to show your Holiness that between utterly
depriving a man of God’s gifts and depriving him of God’s gifts unless
he will buy them, is merely the difference between the robber who leaves
his victim to die and the robber who puts him to ransom. But I would like
to point out how your statement that “the earth, though divided among
private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all” overlooks
the largest facts.
From your palace of the Vatican the eye may rest on the expanse of the Campagna,
where the pious toil of religious congregations and the efforts of the state
are only now beginning to make it possible for men to live. Once that expanse
was tilled by thriving husbandmen and dotted with smiling hamlets. What for
centuries has condemned it to desertion? History tells us. It was private
property in land; the growth of the great estates of which Pliny saw that
ancient Italy was perishing; the cause that, by bringing failure to the crop
of men, let in the Goths and Vandals, gave Roman Britain to the worship of
Odin and Thor, and in what were once the rich and populous provinces of the
East shivered the thinned ranks and palsied arms of the legions on the simitars
of Mohammedan hordes, and in the sepulcher of our Lord and in the Church
of St. Sophia trampled the cross to rear the crescent!
If you will go to Scotland, you may see great tracts that under the Gaelic
tenure, which recognized the right of each to a foothold in the soil, bred
sturdy men, but that now, under the recognition of private property in land,
are given up to wild animals. If you go to Ireland, your Bishops will show
you, on lands where now only beasts graze, the traces of hamlets that, when
they were young priests, were filled with honest, kindly, religious people.*
* Let any one who wishes visit this diocese and see with his own eyes
the vast and boundless extent of the fairest land in Europe that has been
depopulated since the commencement of the present century, and which
is now abandoned to a loneliness and solitude more depressing than that
of the prairie
or the wilderness. Thus has this land system actually exercised the power
of life and death on a vast scale, for which there is no parallel even
in the dark records of slavery. — Bishop
Nulty’s Letter to the Clergy
and Laity of the Diocese of Meath.
If you will come to the United States, you will find in a land wide enough
and rich enough to support in comfort the whole population of Europe, the
growth of a sentiment that looks with evil eye on immigration, because the
artificial scarcity that results from private property in land makes it seem
as if there is not room enough and work enough for those already here.
Or go to the Antipodes, and in Australia, as in England, you may see that
private property in land is operating to leave the land barren and to crowd
the bulk of the population into great cities. Go wherever you please where
the forces loosed by modern invention are beginning to be felt and you may
see that private property in land is the curse, denounced by the prophet,
that prompts men to lay field to field till they “alone dwell in the
midst of the earth.
To the mere materialist this is sin and shame. Shall we to whom this world
is God’s world — we who hold that man is called to this life
only as a prelude to a higher life — shall we defend it? ... read the whole letter
All thought processes start with premises and flow to conclusions. Here
are the main premises of this book.
1. WE HAVE A CONTRACT — Each
generation has a contract with the next to pass on the gifts it has jointly
inherited. These gifts fall into three broad categories: nature,
community, and culture. The first category includes air, water, and ecosystems.
The second includes laws, infrastructure, and many systems by which we connect
with one another. The third includes language, art, and science. All of these
gifts are immensely valuable, and need to be preserved if not enhanced.
2. WE ARE NOT ALONE — We
living humans could benefit from a bit more humility. Not only do our children
grandchildren matter, so do other beings and their offspring.
They have a right to be here, even if they aren’t useful to us.
An economic system should represent their interests as well as ours.
way to do this is needed.
3. ILLTH HAPPENS — Poverty, pollution, despair, and ill-health — what John Ruskin called
illth — is the dark side of capitalism. This dark side needs to
4. FIX THE CODE, NOT THE SYMPTOMS — If we want to reduce illth on an economy-wide scale, we need to change the
code that produces it. Ameliorating symptoms after the fact is a losing strategy.
Unless the code itself is changed, our economic machine will always create
more illth than it cleans up. Moreover, illth prevention is a lot cheaper
than illth cleanup.
5. REVISE WISELY — Most of what’s in our current code is fine as is, and shouldn’t
be tinkered with. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is
a valid maxim. What does need fixing should be fixed gradually whenever
possible, as fairly as possible, and at the lowest cost possible. Efficiency
6. MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING — Money
is the blood of our economic system; it shouldn’t be the soul.
Humans have needs and desires that can’t be met by exchanging dollars.
These needs include connection to family and community, closeness to nature,
and meaning in life. A twenty-first-century economic system must address
these needs, too. This doesn’t mean it must fill them directly; often,
the best it can do is leave space for them to be filled in nonmonetary ways.
What it shouldn’t do is get in the way of their being met.
7. GET THE INCENTIVES RIGHT — Notwithstanding
the above, an economic system works best when it rewards desired behavior.
As Mary Poppins put it, “A spoonful of sugar helps
the medicine go down” (and as I’ve never forgotten, offering
a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s was the best way Working Assets ever
found to get customers). While we’re looking for methods to protect
nature and future generations, we need to make the incentives work for
living humans as well.
If you disagree with any of these premises, you’re unlikely to fancy
my conclusions. If, on the other hand, these premises make sense to you,
then welcome to these pages. I won’t bore you with statistics, or tell
you, yet again, that our planet is going to hell; I’m tired, as I suspect
you are, of numbers and gloom. Nor will I tell you we can save the planet
by doing ten easy things; you know it’s not that simple. What I will
tell you is how we can retool our economic system, one step at a time, so
that after a decent interval, it respects nature and the human psyche, and
still provides abundantly for our material needs.
Perhaps capitalism will always involve a Faustian deal of some sort:
if we want the goods, we must accept the bads. But if
we must make a deal
with the devil, I believe we can make a much better
one than we presently have.
We’ll have to be shrewd, tough, and bold.
But I’m confident that, if we understand how to get a better deal,
we will get one. After all, our children and lots of other creatures are
counting on us. ... read
the whole chapter