Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
A Radical Solution of the Irish Land Problem.
The Irish Land League has proposed that the Government should buy out the Irish landlords (at an estimated cost of two hundred and seventy millions), and convert the tenants into a peasant proprietary who are to redeem their holdings by payments extending over thirty-five years. That a scheme so impracticable as this--and even if practicable so unsound and worthless--should be put forth by a body of educated men, who have, presumably, studied the subject, is a noteworthy fact, and one which shows the importance of a thorough and fearless discussion of all questions relating to the tenure of the land, in order that we may arrive at some fundamental principles on which to base our practical legislation.
The total neglect of the study of this most important subject is further illustrated by the way in which the daily Press have promulgated, either without criticism or with expressed approval, an objection to the Land League's proposal which is more absurd than that proposal itself, inasmuch as it involves and rests upon an oversight so gross as almost to constitute a true "Irish bull." Mr. W. J. O'Neill Daunt, an old colleague of O'Connell, is the author of this remarkable piece of criticism, the most important part of which, and that which has been quoted as so especially crushing, is as follows:
But neither Mr. O'Neill Daunt himself, not the writers who [[p. 717]] approvingly characterize his letter as "remarkable," and his criticism as "pertinent," can have given five minutes' real thought to the matter, or they must have seen the absurdity of their remarks. For surely the half million of tenants have wives and families, and reckoning the children at three and a half per family (which is rather higher than the average for the whole country), we arrive at a tenant population of two and three-quarter millions, or about half the total inhabitants of the island. And what will the other half consist of? There are the landlords, the clergy, and other professional men, the army and navy, the members of the court and officials, the manufacturers, the merchants, and all the mechanics and shopkeepers of the towns. What then becomes of the "five millions" who would cry out against the "half million" monopolizing the land? Would the wives and children of the new peasant proprietors cry out against their husbands and fathers? Would the manufacturers of Belfast or the shopkeepers of Dublin suddenly want to turn farmers, merely because the same people who now cultivate the land as tenants then cultivate it as owners, or prospective owners, having paid its full value? The whole objection thus vanishes, as a mere "Irish bull," which the English press have adopted and circulated as if it were sound logic and good political argument!
Some other objections stated by Mr. Daunt are, however, more valid. The whole rental of the land during the thirty-five years would necessarily go to the London Treasury, and as it would be the repayment of a loan, distress and eviction must follow non-payment of rent, just as it does now. More important, however, is the consideration that so soon as the new proprietors have acquired the fee simple of the land (or even before), the buying of land by the more wealthy, and the selling of it by the poorer, will, inevitably, begin again. The land would be mortgaged by the poor or improvident, and the wealthy would again accumulate large estates. Then absentee landlords and discontented tenants, rack-rents, agents, middlemen, evictions and agrarian outrages will all arise as before, till some future Government will again be asked to advance money to buy out the new landlords, and transfer the land to those who will at that time be the tenants. It is evident then that no such proposal as that of the Land League would be more than a temporary palliative applied at an enormous cost, and that we must seek in a different direction if we would effect a radical cure. That direction, is, I believe, indicated by the remarks of Mr. Froude placed at the head of this article, and which fairly represent the views of many advanced thinkers. Hitherto, no practical mode of carrying such ideas into effect has been hit upon, and they have accordingly been relegated to the limbo of "unpractical politics." But this defect is not inherent in the views themselves; and I now propose to show in some detail how all the difficulties in their application may be overcome, and the land of Ireland be gradually, but surely and permanently, restored to the great [[p. 718]] mass of the Irish people, without injustice to any of the present landowners, although the operation will be effected entirely without cost. This is undoubtedly a bold statement, but, before rejecting it as absurd or impracticable, I beg for the reader's careful and unprejudiced consideration of the propositions I shall endeavour to establish, and the definite scheme that will be founded on them.
My proposal is mainly founded upon a very simple proposition, which I think will be admitted, and which, if not capable of logical demonstration, can yet hardly be disproved. This proposition is, that whatever acts may be done by an individual without injustice or without infringing any rights which others possess or are entitled to claim in law or equity, then acts of a similar nature may be done by the State, also without injustice. In judging of the validity of this proposition, we must remember, that an individual may be actuated by purely personal motives, may be influenced by passion, by pride, or even by revenge, and yet may not go beyond what always has been admitted to be his right, while the State will, presumably, be guided in its action by a desire for the public welfare, and cannot possibly, in the particular cases here contemplated, be influenced by those lower motives which often affect the individual, and yet have never been held to impair either his legal or his moral rights.
The proposition here generally stated appears to me to be so nearly in the nature of a political axiom as to require no attempt at a formal demonstration. It will be time enough to defend it when good, or at least plausible reasons have been given why it should not be accepted. I will now proceed to its application in the present inquiry.
The right to transfer land (or other property) by will, to any successor not insane or criminal, has been allowed by most civilized nations to some extent, and by ourselves with hardly any limitations. A British landowner may leave his property to be divided among his family, or to any single member of his family. If he has no family he may leave it to any relation or to any friend; and he is not said to be unjust if he passes over some relatives and bequeaths his land either to a personal friend, or to some man of eminence, or to benefit some public institution or charity, or for any analogous purpose. Even his own immediate family--his sons and daughters, his parents, or his brothers--have no legal claim on his land, if he chooses to leave it to a more distant relation, or to a friend, or to a charity; but public opinion does, in such a case, condemn his action as more or less unjust. But whenever the choice is between remote relations and some public purpose or even personal friendship, public opinion rather applauds his freedom of choice, and it is never allowed that the more or less distant relatives who may be passed over have any right to complain of injury or robbery because the land was not left to them, even if they were the actual heirs-at-law and would have received it had the owner died intestate.
Now comes the first application of my above-stated proposition or [[p. 719]] axiom. If the personal owner of land does not rob or injure a distant relative (even if he be the heir-at-law) by making a will and otherwise disposing of his land, neither can the State be justly said to rob or injure any one if, for public purposes, it alters the law of inheritance so as to prevent the transfer of the land of intestates to any persons who are not near blood relations of the deceased. The exact degree of relationship that may be fixed upon is not of importance to the principle, expect that it must not be so narrowly limited as to interfere with what Bentham termed "just expectation." A son or a brother certainly has such just expectations, while the expectations of a third cousin or a great-grand-nephew can hardly be so termed. For the sake of illustrating the principle let us suppose that the limit of inheritance to the land of an intestate is fixed at what may be termed the second degree, that is, that it shall not pass to any more remote relative than an uncle, first-cousin, or grandchild, but when none of these exist shall devolve to the State for public purposes. No one can deny that the State could justly make such a law, when laws which disinherit acknowledged children because they are illegitimate, as well as all a man's legitimate daughters and other female relatives, have been long upheld as both just and expedient!
Before going further I may as well state, that for the purpose of the argument in this paper I assume that settlements by which land can be tied up and life interests created for several generations, do not exist, as it seems pretty certain that they will be abolished by the present Parliament long before any such radical reform as that proposed in this paper will come on for discussion in the legislature.
It may, however, be objected, that if the law of inheritance were altered as above suggested it would produce little effect, because it would afford an additional incentive to the owners of land to dispose of it by will. But it is a fact that much stronger incentives--such as the fear of leaving daughters destitute--has not prevented men from dying intestate; and it may be argued on the other side, that in those cases in which a landowner had no near relatives, and all power of entailing an estate having ceased, the inducement to make a will at the earliest possible period would be very weak indeed, and thus a certain number of estates would continually lapse to the Government.
It must be admitted, however, that the quantity of land thus annually acquired by the State would be inconsiderable, and would not be sufficient to produce any important amelioration of the condition of the country. We must, therefore, proceed to the second and far more important application of our general principle, to which what has hitherto been proposed is merely the introduction.
The interest of a landowner in his property is of two kinds, commercial and sentimental, and these together constitute its value to him. He claims, and possesses, the right to deal with it as he pleases during his life, and to bequeath it to any successor at his death. For the State to interfere with either of these rights would be an injury [[p. 720]] for which he should be compensated. The British landowner has, however, been allowed to extend his sentimental interests to an indefinite extent, by leaving his property in trust for certain purposes, which trust the law has enforced for generations, or even for centuries after his decease. It is now very generally admitted that this is impolitic and unjust in the case of any property, and especially so as regards land. It is felt that each generation should have absolute possession of the land and goods that have descended to it, and should not be hampered in the use of them by the dictates of the dead, who cannot possibly be able to judge what is best for a new and, in many respects, differently circumstanced population. This question is far too extensive to be discussed here, and I refer my readers to Sir Arthur Hobhouse's volume, "The Dead Hand," in which they will find abundance of facts and arguments demonstrating the absurdity and the evil consequences of allowing the dead still to hold property; while the enormous mischief produced by entails and other life-interests in landed estates, has been fully exposed in Mr. J. Boyd Kinnear's recent work, "The Principles of Property in Land." I accept it, then, as an established principle, that the present owner of land should be allowed to bequeath it to any successor he may choose, but that he should have no power to restrict that successor in his use of it. He may recommend, or make known his wishes as to the use of it; but the State is unjust to the living if it allows the dead to command, and then enforces their commands on posterity.
Having thus established the only right of transmission from one generation to another which ought to be recognised by the State, we see that the "expectation" or "sentiment" of a landowner, as to the continued possession of his estate by his descendants, is so liable to be traversed by his successors that he can hardly be said to have any right or property in it beyond the first or second generation. It is true that in many cases estates have passed from father to son for centuries; but this is a rare exception, and has probably only been secured by the law of primogeniture and the power of entail. When these are abolished, and no man can influence the succession of his land beyond one generation, it is clear that the value of this "sentimental possession" in land will rapidly become a vanishing quantity as we pass beyond the first few generations. For each possessor will be free to sell or bequeath it as he pleases, and his freedom will certainly lead to the breaking up of estates, and render all calculations or expectations as to their condition or owners three or four generations hence altogether futile.
It is admitted, however, that the desire to transmit property to the second or third generation, or to the families of any living person in whom the owner may be interested, is a legitimate sentiment which, though not proper to be forcibly carried into effect by the Government, should yet not be checked, or its realization be rendered altogether impossible, by any act of the legislature. The more limited desire or sentiment, that a personally occupied estate, such as an ancestral house, [[p. 721]] farm, or grounds, should long continue in the family, is decidedly one to be encouraged and aided in its realization, as keeping up the love of home and country, and having a generally good moral and social tendency; and, as will be seen further on, this is fully recognized in the scheme we are here developing.
But the power of unlimited transmission of land, in a fixed line, not as an estate to be occupied and personally enjoyed, but solely as a source of wealth and social influence, has been shown to be contrary to public policy; and here, therefore, our main principle will come into operation--namely, that whatever may be done legally and equitably by individuals, may also be done by the State. Now any individual owner has the power of diverting the transmission of land into another direction than that desired by the previous owner. He may do this in accordance with his personal wishes, his necessities, or even as impelled by his vices, and no person has a right to claim compensation for any supposed injury or injustice in the land's not coming to such person. The State, then, may properly claim and exercise a like power for important public purposes; but in order that "just expectations" may not be interfered with, nothing should be done to prevent an estate from descending in due course, at least as far as the grandchildren of any existing owner; and, if we go one step further and say that the law shall not be altered so as to affect even his great-grandchildren, we certainly extend the principle as far as any one can reasonably claim on the ground that his "sentimental interests" ought to be respected. To avoid all possibility of objection on this point, we will, however, go yet one step further, and fix the limit of the direct succession to landed property at the grandchild of the grandchild of any existing owner. It is, therefore, proposed that a law shall be enacted by which all landed property in Ireland shall legally descend for four generations beyond the existing owner and then pass to the State. It has been already shown that this will not infringe any individual right or privilege that ought to be permitted to landowners, or even any sentimental interest that they really possess; neither, as will be shown further on, will it, in all probability, appreciably diminish the market value of their property during the lifetime of any existing owner or heir-at-law.
In all those cases in which land does not pass from father to son or daughter, but collaterally to brothers, uncles, cousins, or other persons, as well as in all cases in which it is sold or given away, each separate transfer is to be counted as equivalent to one succession in the direct line of descent,--the general statement of the new law being, that land will be allowed to pass to four successive owners other than the actual owner at the time of the passing of the Act, and will, on the decease of the last owner, become the property of the State.
Before considering how the land so acquired should be dealt with in order to realize the greatest good to the community, and avoid all the evils that result directly and indirectly from absolute individual ownership, I would call attention to the advantage of the very gradual [[p. 722]] acquisition of the land which the mode here advocated would ensure, so that the necessary machinery for dealing with it might be gradually formed, and much valuable experience gained, before the bulk of the land became national property. By means of the law of intestacy, as already explained, a few estates would at once drop in; while from the law which limited the future transfers of land to four in number, other estates would lapse in the course of a very few years, and afterwards in gradually increasing numbers, just as the more perfect State organization and modified habits of the people became better adapted to utilize the changed conditions of tenure.
I will now proceed to explain in detail the exact manner in which the land so acquired should be held by the people, in accordance with the general principles already laid down; and in doing so, I shall endeavour to show that it is possible to give full satisfaction to every just sentiment of ownership of the land, to every desire for family permanence, to every home feeling and local attachment, which it should be a primary object of Government to maintain and restore. The encouragement and extension of such sentiments and influences is of the highest importance to the real well-being of the community, and it is one of the greatest objections to the present system of land-tenure that, by leading to vast accumulations of land in the hands of comparatively few individuals, it has more and more destroyed these beneficial influences, by condemning the bulk of the population to the mere temporary occupation of house and land, and has thus made us what an earnest and talented writer has well termed "A Dishomed Nation."1
My proposal will best be understood, and its numerous advantages explained, by taking an illustrative case, and showing exactly how it would work. Let us suppose, then, that owing to a rapid succession of deaths a gentleman has come in unexpectedly as the fourth successor to an estate, and therefore having only a life interest in the land. The estate consists, perhaps, of a house and extensive pleasure grounds, of a home farm, and of, say, a dozen surrounding farms. This gentleman has a family of sons and daughters, and he wishes his eldest son to continue to live on the estate, which, we will suppose, has been long connected with his family. At the death of this last freeholder the whole land of the estate becomes public property; but anything on the land or which has been added to its value by the preceding four owners, remains the property of the heirs, and every future holder of the land will have an indefeasible tenant-right to everything they may acquire, besides the land itself, and also to every addition or improvement of whatever kind they themselves make to it.
Soon after the passing of the law we have here advocated, a general valuation of all the land of Ireland will have been made, every separate field, plot, or holding being estimated according to its inherent comparative value as dependent on soil, subsoil, aspect, climate, elevation above [[p. 723]] the sea, vicinity to towns or markets, means of communication, and all other facts and conditions, not given to it by any preceding owner, but dependent either on natural qualities and surroundings or on the general development of the country. The annual value thus estimated will be the State "ground-rent" or "quit-rent;" and, as may be decided on from time to time, either the whole or some fixed portion of this ground-rent will be payable by every holder of land which has ceased to be private property. This "ground rent" will, of course, be very much lower than the lowest rent ever paid by a tenant to a landlord on the old system; but even this will probably never have to be paid in full, except in the earlier state of the transition from public to private ownership; and whatever proportion of it is decided on by the Government to be payable will be uniform over the whole country, and will only be raised or lowered for State purposes, or as a substitute for oppressive or injudicious taxation, so that it will be impossible that any favouritism should be shown to particular individuals or particular localities.
So much being premised, we will return to our illustrative case of the estate whose last private owner has just died. In due course the heirs will come into possession of so much of the land as the last owner personally occupied, at the "ground rent" determined by the general valuation, which will be open to inspection in every parish, and whose amount will thus have been long known to the heir. If he decide to continue to reside in the house and occupy the home farm he may do so, with the same certainty and security as if he were still the freeholder and the "ground rent" were merely an enlarged land-tax; and he will also be able to transfer the occupation to his son or successor, or to sell his "tenant-right" to any one so as to obtain the full value of any improvements he may make in the estate. He may, if he likes, pull down houses or fences, cut down trees, plant or remodel in any way he pleases; for in doing this he is only improving or injuring his own saleable or transferable property. One thing, however, he must not do, and that is to sublet or mortgage the land or tenant-right, it being a principle of State policy (carried into effect by the Act already referred to) that no one must hold land except from the Government direct, and must not, except under certain defined conditions, subject it to any claims which would destroy or interfere with the security for the ground-rent payable to the Government. This is the very essence of the proposed system of land-tenure; since, if it were not adopted, the same accumulation of land in the possession of individuals that now prevails might again occur; tenants would again be subject to prohibitory stipulations; and that perfect freedom and unfettered ownership essential to the full development, both of the capacities of the soil and of those good moral and social effects which such ownership is calculated to produce, would be again destroyed.
Supposing, however, that the heir or heirs did not wish to occupy the estate, but wanted to realize and divide their property, they could freely [[p. 724]] sell the tenant-right, including everything that was upon the land, either by private contract or public auction, and the purchaser would at once become the holder of the land under the State.
As regards the other farms which had been rented out by the last owner, each tenant in actual occupation at the time of his death would have the right to continue undisturbed in his holding, thenceforth paying the fixed ground-rent to Government, and purchasing the tenant-right from the heirs of the last owner of the land. If a private agreement could not be arranged between the parties, owing to exorbitant demands by the owners of the tenant-right, the tenant should be empowered to claim that the amount payable should be determined by an official valuer, who should take as a basis of his valuation the difference between the "ground-rent" and the average net rent actually paid for the preceding five years, calculated at a moderate number of years' purchase, dependent on the state of repair of the premises and general condition of the farm.
Should the tenant not be able to pay this amount, authorized public associations of the nature of our building societies might advance a certain proportion of it on security of the tenant-right, repayment to be made by equal instalments for a limited period. This, of course, refers only to these cases in which the tenant does not already possess the tenant-right. But when all the buildings and improvements on the farm have been made by the tenant, or have become his by purchase or in any other legal or equitable way, then he will have nothing to pay to the last owner of the land, but will at once become a holder under the State, at a very greatly reduced rent, with absolute certainty of tenure for himself and his heirs, and with perfect security as to the possession of whatever improvements he may make upon the land.
It may here be objected that, as in the scheme of the Land League, the country would be impoverished by the whole rental of the land being paid to the English Treasury, and thus leaving the country. But this need not be so, because there is a radical difference between the two cases. In the Land League scheme the tenants would be paying interest and repaying part of the principal of a loan, and the money so paid would not, of course, be again available for any local purpose; but in the case we are now considering, the ground-rent paid by the tenant would be so much clear gain to the State, and could therefore be almost wholly applied to the remission of local and general taxation, either directly or by devoting a portion of it to the steady diminution of the National Debt. So long as the scheme was applied to Ireland only, it would of course be fair that a large proportion of the proceeds should be devoted to local uses, and there would be nothing whatever to prevent this being done. We must also remember that, for some considerable time after the scheme came into operation, large funds would be required, to be employed, by way of loan or otherwise, to enable the poorer class of tenants to build themselves decent houses, to make [[p. 725]] roads and fences, to stock the farms, and generally to bring the holdings into a reasonably good state of cultivation and improvement, which has been altogether impossible under the system of absentee landlords, middlemen, and exorbitant rents. It must be claimed as a special merit of this scheme of land reform, that it would provide ample funds for such a truly national purpose as the raising of a whole people from a chronic state of pauperism, only relieved by emigration or by the depopulation caused by famine and disease; and we may be sure that whenever the Legislature becomes sufficiently liberal and far-seeing to enact such a law as is here advocated, it will be generous enough to empower the National Land Commission (or whatever body may be created to carry the law into effect) to apply the funds at their command in any way that may best further the great object of raising the peasantry of Ireland into a condition of independence and well-being.
Aid of this kind would of course be strictly limited to repairing the obvious physical evils which the old system had brought about. When once the lowest class of tenants were placed in such a condition as to enable them to cultivate and improve their holdings with a fair prospect of success, the rest must be left to the influence of a sense of secure ownership, and the possession of a tenant-right under far more favourable conditions than was ever asked for or thought possible, even in Ireland. Of course there will always be a few men so utterly thriftless, idle, or incompetent, as, under the most favourable conditions, to come to ruin. For such there is no help, and they must be left to sink to the condition of the lowest class of unskilled day-labourers. But there is no reason to think that men of this stamp will be much more numerous in Ireland than elsewhere; and we may fairly expect that under such extremely favourable conditions of tenure as this scheme would give them, the Irish agriculturist, on whatever scale, would work with the same devotion and energy as in any other country where there is complete security that the result of every hour's additional labour will be to increase the permanent value of his own property, and thus add to the well-being of himself and his family.
It has often been urged that no system of State-ownership of the land ought to be adopted, even if practicable, because it would be impossible to avoid jobbery and favouritism by the officials who would have the power of letting the Government lands; and the objection has been thought to be very serious, even by those who see all the evils inherent in unrestricted personal property in land. But it will be evident that no such objection applies to the plan here advocated, because no State official, or Government officer whatever, would have anything to do with letting the land, and could not possibly favour one person more than another even if he were disposed to do so. This arises from the fact, that in all enclosed and cultivated lands, the "tenant-right," or that portion of the land's value which has been given to it by preceding [[p. 726]] holders, will have a personal owner. By virtue of this ownership of the "tenant-right," he has an indefeasible title to hold the land subject only to the payment of the National "ground-rent;" and as this "tenant-right" will be a marketable commodity, and one without the possession of which the land itself cannot be held, it follows that no enclosed land will ever be given up till the actual holder finds a purchaser for his "tenant-right," when that purchaser at once becomes the new holder, and as such becomes liable for the ground-rent, just as the new tenant of a house becomes liable for the "house-tax." So far, then, as regards the transfer of land from holder to holder, Government or Government officials would have no more to do with it than they have in the transfer of land or houses now, though the new owner or tenant now becomes responsible for the land tax or the house-tax to the Government.
Even in cases of intestacy, with no relatives within the degree required by the law, it would only be the land itself that it is proposed should pass to the State, the houses or other property upon it, and generally the "tenant-right" of it, being treated as personal property, which would follow the other property of the deceased. In most such cases the value of this tenant-right would have to be realized for division among the heirs. It would, therefore, be put up to auction and sold to the highest bidder, and the purchaser of it would thenceforth be liable for the State ground-rent. Under no circumstances, then, would Government have anything to do with letting the land, except in the case of default of payment of rent. Should this remain unpaid for a certain fixed period, the tenant-right would have to be sold to defray it. The purchaser would become the new holder, and the balance of the purchase money, after paying the arrears of rent, would be handed over to the ejected tenant.
The only cases in which Government would have the unfettered disposal of the whole of the land would be in the case of commons, moors, and unenclosed tracts generally. Along with other landed property, this would of course fall in to the State in due course, and would have to be dealt with in a variety of ways, depending upon special local conditions. Some might, and probably would, be kept as common land in perpetuity, for the use of the surrounding occupiers and the enjoyment of the public generally. Where extensive tracts of moor, bog, and mountain prevail, as in many parts of Ireland, the reclamation of some of this might be encouraged by granting definite portions rent-free for a certain term of years, and at a low ground-rent afterwards, on condition of enclosure and cultivation; but in all these cases the letting should be public--by auction or tender, and such as to allow of no chance for jobbery or favouritism.
The question of private dwelling-houses in towns remains for consideration, and would have to be decided in accordance with the same general principles as govern the occupation of land generally--namely, that the [[p. 727]] occupier or holder of any land from the State, should reside on or near it, and be the real owner of the fixed property upon it. Everything would therefore be done, as town and village lands fell in, to facilitate the acquisition of houses by all classes of the community. Ground-rents would be fixed at a low rate, proportioned somewhat to the character and density of the population; while the first acquisition of the houses would be rendered easy to the purchaser of tenant-right by fixing the official valuation (to come in action on the failure of private agreement with the heir of the last owner), at a small number of years' purchase of the average rental or rateable value. Legalized companies might also be allowed to advance money for such purchases; but in all such cases a sufficient margin would have to be left to cover the possibility of loss if the tenant were ejected and the house sold for payment of ground-rent, which would always be a first charge on the property.
There would, however, remain a considerable number of persons who require temporary abodes, and these might be accommodated in two ways. There would, first, be large buildings let out in lodgings either in flats or otherwise; while in localities where numerous small houses already existed, persons specially licensed might be allowed to hold the land on which a number of these stood, on condition that they personally superintended and managed them, were responsible for their repair and sanitary condition, and made the letting and supervision of house property their personal business. If no house owner of this kind was allowed to employ agents (except temporarily) in the entire management of such property (just as the holder of a farm would not be allowed to live at a distance, and manage it entirely by deputy), the wants of the public would be adequately supplied, while the evils now arising from the occupation of temporary houses, the operations of speculative builders, and the system of building leases, would be reduced to a minimum.
Having thus sketched the main features of the system of the Nationalization of the Land here advocated, let us endeavour to trace out some of its probable effects, both while the operation was in progress, as well as after its completion; and in doing so we shall be able to consider some of the objections that will inevitably be brought against it.
And first, as to the effect of such a scheme on the value of land, it will no doubt be alleged that the passing of the Act here proposed would immediately lower the value of all landed property, and thus do a direct injury to existing landowners. As, however, anticipations of the effect of certain changes of legislation on the value of land have almost always been falsified by the result, we may well refuse to put much faith in similar prophecies now. The repeal of the corn laws and the extension of railways were both viewed with dread by the landowners of forty years ago, as certain to depreciate their property, which has, nevertheless, gone on increasing in value ever since. If the change here advocated should come into effect, any purchaser of land before the Act passes will be sure of absolute possession for four generations; [[p. 728]] while, if he purchases after the Act has passed, his prospective possession will extend to only three generations, the purchase itself forming one transfer. Now, as such a measure will certainly never be passed, except after long discussion and agitation and repeated failures, till at last it is seen to be inevitable, it is probable that there will, towards the last, be a kind of rush to get land before the law is changed; and this might enhance its value considerably, and compensate for any slight subsequent fall. Then, after the Act has passed, estates will very soon begin to drop in, and these will be altogether withdrawn from the land market so far as investment is concerned. This will diminish the supply of saleable land, and will thus tend to keep up the high prices previously attained. Again, we must remember that to the majority of purchasers of land absolute possession for three generations (or three transfers) after themselves would be practically the same as a theoretical perpetuity of ownership; for the present perpetuity of ownership of freehold land is, in most cases, imaginary, as no man can possibly tell what will become of it in the third generation after his decease; or, at all events, he will not be able to do so when entails are abolished, and this abolition of entails is always taken for granted as having occurred long before the present scheme comes into operation.
Another important consideration is, that all the land of the country will be equally affected; and it is a great question whether any such change of the law could lower in value all the land of the country, while its population continued to increase. If some districts were excepted and retained their land as freehold, while others came under the operation of the new law, no doubt there would be some difference of value produced, though even then it would not be much; but as all land would be at first on an equality in this respect, and the alteration of tenure would be so remote that its effect would be more sentimental than real, it is a question whether the continually diminishing supply of land would not for a considerable time keep up its full market value. When we pass on to the second or third generation after the new law had come into operation, the question becomes still more complicated, and it is not easy to say whether there would be even then any important fall in value. For by that time so much of the land of the country would have gone entirely out of the market as a possible investment (being held by personal occupiers under the State), that all other classes of securities, such as railway debentures, tramroad and telegraph shares, colonial and municipal bonds, and Government stocks, would be in great demand, and, therefore, increase in value. This would certainly react upon land; and as this could still be purchased for two lives certain, with the option of continuation at the very moderate State ground-rent, it is possible that the demand for the poorer classes of land for occupation and improvement, and for more favourable sites as residences, might still keep it up to nearly the full value it had when freehold. Even if there were a considerable depreciation, this would be, [[p. 729]] to a large extent, compensated by the diminution of local and general taxation that would by this time have been effected by means of the ground rents which had already fallen in to the Government; and it is not at all improbable that, with a nominally lower value of their land, the landowners who remained in Ireland might, owing to the peace and general prosperity of the country, and the diminished taxation, be really better off than they are at the present day.
Let us now pass on to another question. It is a favourite dogma of some reformers that all the evils of the present system would be got rid of by what they term "free-trade in land." They seem to think that, if all obstacles to the sale and purchase of land were abolished, if entails of all kinds were forbidden, and the conveyance of land made as cheap and expeditious as it might easily be, the chief obstacle that now exists to the growth of a body of peasant proprietors would be got rid of. This notion appears to me to be the greatest of all delusions. The real obstacle to peasant proprietorship or small yeoman farmers in this country is the land-hunger of the rich, who are constantly seeking to extend their possessions, partly because land is considered the securest of all investments, and which, though paying a small average interest, affords many chances of great profits, but mainly on account of the political power, the exercise of authority, and wide-spread social influence it carries with it. The number of individuals of great wealth in this country is enormous, and, owing to the diminution of the more reckless forms of extravagance, many of them live far below their incomes and employ the surplus in extending their estates. The probabilities are that men of this stamp are increasing, and will increase, and the system of free-trade in land would serve chiefly to afford them the means of an unlimited gratification of their great passion. With such men for competitors in the market, who will ever be able to buy land for personal occupation and cultivation as a business? Such a course will become more and more impossible; and nothing seems more likely to check and render difficult the growth of a peasant proprietary than free-trade in land, with the unlimited power of accumulation by wealthy individuals which such free-trade will render still easier than before. This increased accumulation will inevitably exaggerate the numerous evils of absentee proprietorship, such as management by agents, restriction of agricultural processes, discouragement of improvements, the preservation of game, the system of short building leases,2 and a pauperized class of agricultural labourers; and thus, although the abolition of restrictions on the transfer of land is a valuable reform, and receives my hearty support, it is yet utterly powerless to ameliorate the evils inherent in the unlimited possession of the soil of the country by individual owners, either as a money investment or as a source of political and social power.
[[p. 730]] The advocates of the views here opposed seem to have overlooked two fundamental facts--that the land of a country is the great essential of human existence, and, that being fixed in quantity and incapable of increase, absolute freedom to buy and sell it must result in a monopoly, and in giving absolute power to the rich who possess it over the poor who do not--a power which, in civilized countries, is checked by public opinion and by special legislation, but is nevertheless always incompatible with the well-being of a free people.3
The scheme I have here developed destroys the monopoly of the land--the very life-blood of the nation--by any class, while it allows for the freest interchange and the most unrestricted use of the land, [[p. 731]] and for the most perfect free-trade in land compatible with the liberty, the progress, and the free development of the whole community. There can be no conceivable use of the land for which it would not be available under the new régime. The absolute freedom of sale of tenant-right to intending occupiers of land would provide for experimental cultivation in any direction. The capitalist who wished to devote himself to farming on a large scale would first purchase the tenant-right of some large farm, and gradually add to it the surrounding farms as they came into the market, or as he could persuade their owners to sell them by liberal offers. Farms would often be broken up, and the tenant-right to single fields or small plots sold separately whenever there was a demand for such lots, and thus the industrious labourer or the retired tradesman would be able to obtain portions suited to their respective wants. Spade husbandry on small peasant properties, and huge machine-cultivated farms like those of Western America, would have an equal chance of trial; each district would gradually merge into that style of husbandry which suited it best, and in no case would there be any hampering restrictions to check its progress. This would be real free-trade in land as opposed to its present monopoly by the rich, and would lead to the freest and most perfect development of the agricultural resources of the country.
It is very difficult to foresee, and perhaps impossible to exaggerate, the influence of such a state of things on the real well-being of the community. Judging from what is known to be the effect of extended land-ownership in other countries, in stimulating to industry, in diminishing crime, and in abolishing pauperism, and knowing the love of country people for their home and its associations, we may surely anticipate that the land would soon exhibit the effects of such favourable conditions of life in well-cultivated fields and gardens, comfortable houses, and a well-clothed, well-fed, and contented population.4
But, it will be said, what is now proposed is a revolution, and a revolution more portentous than any the world has yet seen, since it would inevitably lead to the complete extinction of the territorial aristocracy, a class which has hitherto formed an important--perhaps the most important--part of every community raised above the savage or nomad condition.
This is very true. The change proposed is indeed a great and a [[p. 732]] fundamental one. But the question before us is, not its greatness or its radical character, but simply whether it would be beneficial to the community as a whole, and, if beneficial, whether it could be effected without injustice and without danger. I think I may claim to have shown that the last question may be answered in the affirmative. On the plan here sketched out, the change might be effected, either without injury to any individual other than a possible, but by no means certain, depreciation of his property--and if such a depreciation did occur, and could be valued, there would be ample available funds to award compensation.5 Moreover, there is no finality advocated for the actual proposals here made, but only for the general principle. If it should be estimated that the termination of absolute property in land after four generations would be really injurious to existing landowners to any appreciable extent, then five, or even six or more, generations or transfers might be fixed upon; and it is quite possible that a higher number than four might be advantageous in making the change more gradual and deferring the final extinction of territorialism to a more distant epoch.
To many it will no doubt be almost impossible to realize a state of society in which there were no great landowners, no country gentlemen living wholly or mainly on the rent of land. They will picture to themselves the country relapsing into a state of semi-barbarism, the parks turned into sheep farms, the mansions into farmhouses, and the noble pleasure-grounds into market-gardens. But they entirely overlook the fact that the real wealth of the country will certainly be greater than ever, and that every mansion now existing, and many additional ones, will still be occupied, possibly with less of display and magnificence, but often with more of taste and high cultivation. The mere fact that thousands of educated men who now live comparatively idle lives on the rents of their ancestral estates will be converted into workers of one kind or another, must surely be a source of additional wealth and power to the nation. During the transition state (all checks in the way of entail having been abolished) the surplus revenues from the land, or the proceeds of its sale, will be gradually invested in other [[p. 733]] ways. Some of it will go into genuine industrial enterprises of various kinds; while it is not improbable that the personal management and improvement of a great agriculture estate (of which a park and mansion may still form the central part) will come to be considered as the proper and most honourable occupation for the descendants of the landed aristocracy. The great landowner and country gentleman of that day, with an estate of many thousand acres, employing hundreds of labourers and supporting thousands of cattle, using the best machinery and manures, developing in every possible way the productive capacity of the soil, and as proud of the health, comfort, and well-being of his men as of the breed and condition of his horses and his oxen, will certainly not be an unworthy successor of the great landowner of to-day, who receives his rents from half-a-dozen counties, and possesses mansions which he never inhabits and estates which he never visits but for purposes of sport.
The impossibility of having any land except for personal occupation would render it necessary that agriculture should be studied as a part of every gentleman's education, in order that whatever land he had around his country-house, whether park or home farm, might be not only a source of pleasure but of profit; and this wide extension of agricultural knowledge would certainly be a source of wealth to the country which it is impossible to estimate.
Although sporting will necessarily be a far less important feature in country life than it is now, there is no reason to think it would altogether cease. The wealthy could devote as much land as they pleased to the preservation of game for their own or their friends' amusement, or sporting might take other forms more suited to the altered state of the rural population, in which both wealth and intelligence would be more widely distributed than at present. Even if the present land-system were to continue unaltered, we could hardly anticipate that the growth in population and changed habits and ideas of two centuries hence would leave the customs of the country, as regards field sports, what they are now; and it is therefore quite unnecessary to conjecture further what might happen to them under such extremely changed conditions as are here anticipated.
Although the legislature and the press may alike ignore it, there is undoubtedly growing up among the more intelligent of the working classes, as well as among a large body of independent thinkers, a profound dissatisfaction with the actual state of things as regards private property in land. They see that its possession or enjoyment by any but the wealthy is yearly becoming more and more difficult, and that its accumulation in the hands of a few owners is opposed in many ways to the public welfare. They see wide areas of common lands enclosed, to the pauperization of the needy labourer, and the further enrichment of the wealthy landowner; while a system of obsolete laws framed by, or in the interests of, the so-called "lords of the soil," are now being [[p. 734]] everywhere strained against any free and adequate enjoyment of their native land by the great mass of the people. They find themselves often shut out from the downs and moors and picturesque mountains, almost all of which are said to have private owners who may, and often do, enclose them; while the very rivers and streams, which ought to be as free for the enjoyment of all as the winds of heaven or the light of the sun, are everywhere being monopolized for the exclusive pleasures of the rich. Even the beautiful country lanes, with their wide margins of grass, and banks often shaded with trees and adorned with wild flowers--lanes which afford the purest delight to the constantly increasing population of our towns and villages, and which are often the only examples of picturesque Nature within their reach, are now constantly being stolen from them by the owners of the adjacent fields who (often, no doubt, without legal justification) fence in the narrow roadway, in order to add a few perches to their land; while everywhere we find what were once pleasant footpaths either stopped altogether or shut in by obstructive fences. This land-monopoly of the rich pursues the mass of the people even to their homes, since they are obliged to live in crowded, badly built, and often unhealthy houses, because so many landowners will only grant land on building-leases and at high ground-rents, in order to enrich their unborn, and perhaps unworthy successors, at the expense of the health, the comfort, and the freedom of the present generation. And, lastly, they see that these great landowners are, as a class, the opponents of all progress, the upholders of cruel and obsolete game-laws, and that they possess legal powers and privileges virtually giving them a command over others which in a free country no class of citizens ought to posses. This wide-spread feeling of discontent manifests itself in Ireland in land-leagues and tenant-right associations, and in other more destructive forms; while in England there is a very general but as yet undefined belief that the true remedy for the evil is to be found in the Nationalization of the Land.6 The danger is, that all reform should be opposed too long, and the people, in whose hands political power now rests, should at least insist upon some hasty and ill-considered remedy which, while bringing ruin on many should only afford a temporary and imperfect cure of the disease.
[[p. 735]] The present writer had his attention forcibly drawn to this great question about eighteen years ago, by the perusal of Herbert Spencer's demonstration (in his "Social Statics") of the immorality and impolicy of private property in land, and since that time he has endeavoured to make himself acquainted with what has been written on the subject, and by means of constant thought and discussion to arrive at the true solution of the problem. This he believes he has at length done. The difficulties that surrounded the subject were many and great. It was necessary, firstly, to find a means of transferring the ownership of the land from individuals to the State without taking anything away from existing owners, or infringing any right, real or sentimental, which they actually possess; secondly, to devise a new tenure of the land which should combine all the incalculable advantages of safe possession and transmissible ownership, together with the full benefit of every improvement and increase of its value, while guarding against the recurrence of unlimited landed estates, absentee landlords, life-interests, subletting, building leases, restriction on improvements, and all the other evils which accompany our present system; thirdly, to avoid the dangers which have been hitherto believed to be inherent in State-Landlordism--jobbery, favouritism, waste, and the creation of a vast addition to State patronage; and, lastly, to render the land a productive and practically inexhaustible source of national income, and to bring all these changes about in a gradual and almost imperceptible manner, by the action a few simple principles embodied in law, so that society may have ample time to adapt itself to the new conditions; and, during the process of adaptation, successive generations may grow up to whom they will bear the aspect of being as natural, as orderly, and as beneficial, as private ownership does to most of the present generation.7
All these essential conditions of a true system of land-reform are embodied in the scheme now briefly explained. Although not really injurious to existing landowners, it is not expected that it will meet [[p. 736]] with any support from them, since it has not been framed in their exclusive interest, but with a view to the well-being of the entire population. It will, no doubt, be said that the title of this paper is misleading, since the arguments I have used are equally applicable to England as to Ireland. This is quite true. The principles laid down are of universal application, but the time and the mode of applying such principles are matters of expediency. The land-question in Ireland is a burning one. It is a source of chronic discontent and disaffection, and is likely to be so in spite of all the patchwork remedies that may be applied to it. More than anything else it maintains the antagonism of the Irish representatives in the British Parliament, an antagonism which has unhappily too much justification, and which, so long as it exists, will be a drag on the wheels of the legislative machine, and thus be directly injurious to every British subject. The solution of the Irish land-question is, therefore, urgent. It is of importance to every one that it should be settled on a sound and permanent basis, and this can never be the case unless the true principles of land-tenure are discovered and acted upon. The present scheme is, therefore, proposed to be applied, in the first instance, to Ireland alone. It is claimed that its very gradual operation--which to some will appear an objection--renders it far safer and more likely to be effective than more heroic measures, while its discussion need not interfere with any remedial legislation which the present Parliament is able or willing to enact. It is further claimed that it is founded on principles of abstract justice, and that, while respecting all existing rights and possessions, it will ultimately abolish that system of unlimited property in land which was founded originally by conquest, oppression, or rapine, and which, although perhaps useful in a transition stage of civilization, is incompatible with our national well-being, or with the general happiness and advancement of the community.
To the independent Liberals of Great Britain and to the long-suffering Irish nation I now submit this paper, asking only for a careful perusal, an unprejudiced consideration, and a searching criticism of my proposals.
2I am informed that some landowners will now only let their land on building leases for eighty instead of the usual ninety-nine years, and when they have the monopoly of fine sites land is actually largely taken on these onerous terms. [[on p. 729]]
3In Mr. Froude's remarkable paper on Ireland, in the Nineteenth Century for September last, he gives the following case of (probably ignorant) abuse of power, apparently from personal knowledge. He says:--"Not a mile from the place where I am now writing, an estate on the coast of Devonshire came into the hands of an English duke. There was a primitive village upon it occupied by sailors, pilots, and fishermen, which is described in 'Domesday Book,' and was inhabited at the Conquest by the actual forefathers of the late tenants, whose names may be read there. The houses were out of repair. The duke's predecessors had laid out nothing upon them for a century, and had been contented with exacting the rents. When the present owner entered into possession, it was represented to him that if the village was to continue it must be rebuilt, but that to rebuild it would be a needless expense; for the people, living as they did on their wages as fishermen and seamen, would not cultivate his land and were useless to him. The houses were therefore simply torn down, and nearly half the population was driven out into the world to find new homes. A few more such instances of tyranny might provoke a dangerous crisis."
This is a sufficiently striking case of the evils of landlordism which gives a rich man the power to tear the poor man away from his ancestral home. Can we really boast of our freedom when even centuries of occupation give these poor seamen no right to live on their native soil? But even this, bad as it is, is as nothing compared with the wholesale misery we have caused by forcing our land-system upon a large portion of India. This is what a Bengal civilian (quoted in the Statesman for September last, p. 329) states to be the present condition of the unhappy peasants of Bengal: "The zemindar and ryot are as monarch and subject. What the zemindar asks the ryot will give; what the zemindar orders, the ryot will obey. The landlord will tax his tenant for every extravagance that avarice, ambition, pride, vanity, or other intemperance may suggest. He will tax him for the salary of his ameen, for the payment of his income tax, for the purchase of an elephant for his own use, for the cost of the stationery of his establishment, for the payment of his expenses to fight the neighbouring indigo-planter, for the payment of his fine when he has been convicted of an offense by the magistrate. The milkman gives his milk, the oilman his oil, the weaver his cloths, the confectioner his sweetmeats, the fishermen his fish. The zemindar fines his ryots for a festival, for a birth, for a funeral, for a marriage. He levies black mail on them when an affray is committed. He establishes his private pound, and realizes five annas for every head of cattle that is caught trespassing on the ryots' crops. . . . These cesses pervade the whole zemindari system. In every zemindari there is a naib (deputy), under the naib there are gumashtas (agents), under the gumashta there are piyadas (bailiffs). The naib exacts a perquisite for adjusting accounts annually. The naib and gumashtas take their share in the regular cesses; they have other cesses of their own. The piyadas, when they are sent to summon defaulting ryots, exact from them four or five annas a day. It is in evidence before the Indigo Commission that in one year a zemindari naib, in the district of Nuddea, extorted ten thousand rupees from his master's ryots. . . . This system of cesses has eaten, like an incurable disease, into the social organization of the country. An energetic government might have grappled with the question, and succeeded in abolishing a system which, though forbidden by law, yet flourishes in undisturbed luxuriance; yet no one raises a hand on behalf of the ryots, no one speaks a word in their interest. . . . It seems almost as though they were doomed never to be emancipated from their present degrading life."
The result is that the ryots exist always on the verge of starvation. They were once, it must be remembered, direct holders of their land under the Government. But Lord Cornwallis and the then Home Government of India handed them over to a body of tax collectors (the zemindars) as tenants, thinking that our English landlord system, perfect in the eyes of a landlord government, must be best for all the world. The result has been, that, "under British rule, the soil of India has either passed or is fast passing into the power of land speculators and money-lenders, while the ancient landowners have been converted into half-starved, poverty-stricken serfs on the fields which were once their own." [[on p. 730]]
4Mr. J. Boyd Kinnear in the work already referred to says:--"Who does not see how much happier England will be when, instead of one great mansion surrounded by miles beyond miles of one huge property, farmed by the tenants at will of one landlord, tilled by the mere labourers, whose youth and manhood know no relaxation from rough mechanical toil, whose old age sees no home but the chance of charity or the certainty of the workhouse, there shall be a thousand estates of varying size, where each owner shall work for himself and his children, where the sense of independence shall lighten the burden of daily toil, where education shall give resources, and the labour of youth shall suffice for the support of age. Changes like these cannot, indeed, be created; they must grow. But our business ought at least to be to permit their growth." Mr. Kinnear thinks that free trade in land will permit their growth. I have already shown how extremely improbable this is, while it might even exaggerate many of the existing evils; whereas the plan here proposed necessarily brings about the state of things which is allowed to be so highly beneficial. [[on p. 731]]
5In taking such extreme precautions against any interference even with the "sentimental interests" of existing landowners, I have been actuated by a desire to deal fairly with every class, and to give the least possible offence to a powerful vested interest. That I have gone even further in this direction than is required by simple justice, in a case where the sentimental interests of individuals conflict with those of the community, is shown by the following remarkable statement on this very point, by the late Nassau W. Senior, a writer who will certainly not be accused of being an extreme Radical. In his Essays on "Ireland" (vol. I. p. 3) he says:--"Nor can any interest, however lawful, be considered property as against the public, unless it be capable of valuation. And for this reason: if incapable of valuation it must be incapable of compensation, and therefore, if inviolable, would be an insurmountable barrier to any improvement inconsistent with its existence. If a house is to be pulled down, and its site employed for public purposes, the owner receives full compensation for any advantage connected with it which can be estimated. But he obtains on pretium affectionis. He is not paid a larger indemnity because it was the seat of his ancestors, or endeared to him by any peculiar associations. His claim on any such grounds for compensation, is rejected, because, as the subject-matter is incapable of valuation, to allow it would open a door to an indefinite amount of fraud and extortion; nor is he allowed to refuse the bargain offered to him by the public, because such a refusal would be inconsistent with the general interest of the community." [[on p. 732]]
6Proposals for the nationalization of the land have received comparatively little attention by modern writers, because it has been assumed that present owners must be paid its full value, and this was clearly impossible. Thus in the recently published work of Mr. J. Boyd Kinnear, in a chapter on this subject, we find such statements as the following:--"Under the broader form of the proposal the first step is that the State shall purchase the land from its present owners, either compulsorily or by agreement, but in either case paying its full value" (p. 106). And again:--"There is, of course, no objection in principle to the State taking possession of all the land in the realm, on the understanding, which is always included in the proposal, that it shall compensate the present owners." These quotations from one of the latest and best informed writers on the land question sufficiently prove that previous writers have not seen how the land may become State property without paying for it and yet without injury to any one; and this is the very essence of the question which determines its practicability. My plan not only does this, but it also, as already shown, completely removes the difficulty of State-Landlordism by retaining the tenant-right as saleable and heritable property--a system which has been in actual operation on Lord Portsmouth's estates in Ireland for more than half a century, and with the most beneficial results. [[on p. 734]]
7Although any change of the nature here proposed will no doubt be fiercely opposed by most landowners, and will perhaps not be admitted to discussion in Parliament for many years, yet changes more directly affecting vested interests in land have been made in the present century. Mr. Nassau Senior tells us in the work already referred to (Ireland, p. 8), that,--"Until January, 1834, no person could inherit the freehold property of his lineal descendants. On the death of a person possessed of such property, intestate and without issue, leaving a father or mother, or more remote lineal ancestor, it went over to his collateral relatives. In 1833 this law was totally altered. In such cases the property now goes to the father or mother, or remoter lineal ancestor, in preference to the collaterals. The brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins of lunatics, or of minors in such state of health as to be very unlikely to reach the age at which they could make a will had, until the 3rd and 4th Will. IV. cap. 106 was passed, prospects of succession so definite, that in many cases they would have sold for considerable prices. All these interests, though lawful and capable of valuation, have been swept away without compensation. And it was necessary that this should be done; the old law was obviously inconvenient, and to have attempted to compensate all those who, if the principle of compensation had been admitted, must have been entitled to it, would have involved such an expense as to have rendered the alteration of the law impracticable." This precedent is very valuable, because no such calculable vested interests occur in the present case, while the political and social importance of the change, and its beneficial effects on the bulk of the community, are vastly greater. The discussion, therefore, becomes limited to the question whether the proposed change would be a beneficial one. [[on p. 735]]