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Correspondence Concerning Land Nationalisation
(1881): S339, S341, and S343

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Three single-paged letters to the Editor of The Mark Lane Express from late 1881, discussing the plan for nationalization of the land set out by the then newly-formed Land Nationalisation Society. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S339AND.htm

Nationalisation of the Land (S339: 3 October 1881)

    Sir,--As you have done me the honour to refer in your issue of the 19th September to my practical scheme of Land Nationalisation, I ask permission to occupy a little of your space with a brief exposition of the scheme, with some indication of its wide scope and of the numerous social evils it is calculated to ameliorate. This is the more necessary because so novel a proposal is sure to be misunderstood, and denounced as utopian or revolutionary; while I am informed that the mere reference to it in an editorial article as worthy of attention has already called forth an uncompromising attack in the columns of a contemporary journal.

    It is necessary to premise that Land Nationalisation is not proposed in the interest of any class, but as a reform, vital to the national welfare, and at the same time directly beneficial to every class and every individual. By its means the farmer will obtain that freedom of action, that fixity of tenure, and that absolute security of possession of all the proceeds of his labour, skill, and capital, which is what he sorely needs, but which he will assuredly not get by means of any probable or possible English Land Bill. So long as he is subject to landlords and agents, to law-courts and lawyers, to valuers and surveyors, he will often have to keep up a hard and costly struggle in order to obtain that simple right to the fruits of his own labour which he ought to have and may have, without the interference of any man and without the possibility of dispute. In fighting for an English Land Bill on the lines of that just passed for Ireland, he will have to fight almost alone, for no other class will have a sufficiently direct interest in the matter to help him with any energy or enthusiasm; but in claiming Land Nationalisation he will have cordial and earnest assistance from all classes, especially from the agricultural labourers and the rural population generally, from mechanics and tradesmen, and from that large class who look forward with longing eyes to a rural retirement for their latter years, now rendered almost unattainable under land monopoly.

    In the space of a single letter it is impossible to discuss those general principles and practical examples which prove private property in land to be inconsistent with personal freedom and antagonistic to true national welfare; I will, therefore, pass on at once to the practical proposals by which Land Nationalisation may be brought about, and in doing so, I shall be able briefly to advert to its far-reaching beneficial influence on every portion of the community.

    Much of the difficulty and confusion of thought attending questions of this nature arise from not clearly distinguishing the two distinct elements in all landed property, the payment for the use of which is improperly included in the term "rent." True rent is money paid for the use of land or other natural agents; and its value is determined by two factors--the quality or productiveness of the land itself, and the additional value given to it by the community at large, in providing public roads, railroads, or canals, in supplying labour as well as social, religious, and educational advantages, and in furnishing good markets and a surrounding population able at once to satisfy the wants and to be purchasers of the produce of the agriculturist. None of this value has been created either by the owner or occupier of land, and it is this alone which it is proposed shall become the property of the State, the holder paying a quit-rent or ground-rent to the State, just as he now pays his land-tax, but being free from all Government supervision or interference whatever. The other portion of the value included in "rent" (but which is really interest on money expended and compensation for deterioration) is derived from the outlay or labour of the owner or occupier, in houses and buildings, fences, private roads, drains and other permanent improvements. These are private property, and there is no need to interfere with the possession or use of them other than to declare that their owner for the time being must be the State's tenant and be thus liable for the quit-rent; or, to put it more clearly, whoever holds land from the State must be the owner of the "improvements" of whatever kind on that land. It will therefore be convenient to term these improvements collectively the "tenant right" of the land in question, since their owner is necessarily and by "right," the State's tenant of the land. This "tenant-right" will follow the law of all other personal property, so far as its capability of being bought and sold or bequeathed at the will of the owner, and it thus carries with it all the rights and privileges which pertain to a freehold, with this important reservation, that it can be held only for personal occupation and enjoyment--not as an investment. All subletting of land will thus be illegal, since, if it were once permitted, large quantities of land would be accumulated by capitalists as State tenants, and their tenants would be in exactly the same position as the tenants of existing landlords, equally subject to their capricious interference, equally unable to secure the fruits of their own labour.

    It will now be asked, How are present or future farmers to obtain possession of this "tenant-right," without which, they cannot hold farms? This question can be best answered while explaining the process by which the land may actually become the property of the State and the new régime be inaugurated.

    The Act of Parliament effecting nationalisation will provide:--

    (1) That ten years (more or less) after the passing of the Act the whole land of the country (as above defined) will become the property of the State, the existing landowners being compensated in a way to be presently explained.

    (2) That a careful valuation of the land of the whole kingdom be made, separating the annual value of the land (or the "quit-rent") and the improvements (or "tenant-right"). The "quit-rent" will be the amount payable to the State, while the "tenant-right" must be purchased or otherwise acquired by the occupier. The value of the tenant-right will be estimated by the official valuers, as it will depend upon the more or less permanent character of the improvements; and it will have to be paid to the landholder by any farmer who wishes to continue in his farm, either in one sum or by means of a terminal annual charge for a moderate number of years. The ten years' interval between the actual passing of the Act and its coming into operation will not only give the necessary time for making the required valuation (which must be on every separate plot or enclosure), but it will also allow farmers to make all necessary arrangements for acquiring the tenant-right of their farms or of others more suitable to them. No doubt an extensive re-arrangement of holdings would then take place. A man with the power of getting a farm which he would be absolutely free to cultivate or improve as he pleased, and with a permanent tenure, would often prefer a much smaller one than that which he now holds under a landlord, since it would be his interest to farm highly and make all possible permanent improvements to the property.

    The farmers, as a class, would thus obtain all they have ever asked or can possibly desire--freedom of cultivation, freedom of sale or transfer, a permanent tenure, and a really fair rent; and, accompanying this, there would accrue, in a very short time, diminished taxation, diminished poor-rates, and better local markets.

    Turning now to the present landholders, or landlords, they will be paid, as we have seen, the fair value of all profitable outlay on the land made by themselves or their immediate predecessors, and often for that made by successive generations of tenants as well. For that portion of the value of the land which was primarily derived from the State, and should never have been given up by it, they will be compensated by means of an annuity of its full estimated value. In order that no valid claim or expectancy may be left unsatisfied, it is proposed that this annuity should extend to all heirs living at the time when the Act comes into operation, or, if thought fit, it might be extended to two generations of heirs beyond the present landholder. The absolute security of this Government annuity for three generations, free from all risks and liabilities, would render it a very fair equivalent for the land taken; and as no land whatever could then be obtained on any other terms than as a State tenant, it is not improbable that the selling value of farms after the Act was passed might be quite up to their previous average market value, because most farmers with capital would seek the opportunity of obtaining, at the earliest possible period, such farms as would suit them for permanent occupation.

    Having thus shown how the scheme would affect the existing landholders and the farmers, let us turn to that portion of it which most interests other classes, and which, when clearly understood, will enlist them all as powerful advocates for its adoption. But this must form the subject of another letter.

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Nationalisation of the Land (S341: 10 October 1881)

    Sir,--Having shown, in my letter last week, how the scheme of land-nationalisation which I have proposed would affect farmers and landholders, we have now to consider its action as regards other classes of the community, as well as those incidental effects which would benefit the whole nation. We are so accustomed to the enormous and often prohibitory price which has to be paid for land for residential or trade purposes, that, although a large portion of the population are thereby debarred from a full enjoyment of existence and are seriously injured in their health, few persons consider that these are the inevitable results of the pernicious system of private property--and consequent monopoly--of the land which should have been retained by the nation itself for the full and equal enjoyment of all its members. Without the use of land even existence is impossible. It follows that--granted the right of the great bulk of the population to live--they have a right to the use of land. Our present system, however, denies this right to any but the landlords, who have, legally, full power to destroy their fellow citizens by simply denying them land on which to live. The mere statement of this indisputable fact demonstrates the iniquity of private property in land; and when we know that the power which the law gives to landlords is often actually used--as in the wide devastation of many fertile valleys of the Highlands of Scotland, where the descendants of the old clansmen have been driven to emigrate, or to throng the slums of Glasgow and other great cities, in order that the land may be devoted to sporting purposes and thus bring in a greater revenue to the landlord--it is surely time that a system at once so unjust and so evil in its effects should be exposed, with a view to its speedy abolition. The monopoly of land by the rich, aggravated by the enormous increase of our accumulated wealth during the last forty years, has so completely divorced the labouring and middle classes from any rights of property in their native soil that it is now absolutely necessary to afford special facilities for bringing back a more healthy state of things.

    The impossibility of obtaining land in most parts of the country for any purposes of free cultivation or enjoyment, and the enormous revenues derived by landlords from the extension of building around dense centres of population, have been the direct causes of that inordinate growth of cities and simultaneous depopulation of the rural districts which are now admitted and deplored by all public writers. With the rapid growth of towns and cities there come numerous attendant evils--air and water polluted by smoke and sewers, and a waste of fertilising matter which is a disgrace to our boasted civilisation. All these difficulties arise from land monopoly and over-crowding. Every human dwelling, to ensure the health of the occupants, should have ample open space around it, giving garden ground to supply fresh and wholesome food, while the land is kept in a state of fertility by that house-refuse which is now worse than wasted, since it costs vast sums to get rid of and is also the direct cause of the most fatal class of zymotic diseases. The inability of the bulk of the population to obtain land leads also to the system of building-leases, with houses erected by speculative builders whose chief aim is to place the greatest number of dwellings on the smallest quantity of ground; and thousands are obliged to live in these crowded, ill-built, and unhealthy houses, sorely against their will. The absence of land around houses is a fertile source of social evil. With the middle and lower classes it is a direct and, I believe, the most powerful cause of drinking habits, since it leaves the head of a family with no interest or occupation in his home. Give every working man an acre or two of land attached to his cottage with a perpetual tenure, and he will have little time or inclination for the public-house. The land would be used in various ways, according to his taste or knowledge; but vegetables and fruit, poultry and eggs, rabbits and pork, milk and butter, would be largely produced by the labour of the owner and his family during spare hours. The innumerable little details always requiring attention in a house and grounds, adding to the comfort or enjoyment of the family, would be another source of occupation and interest if every man's house were his own. Children brought up in such a home would receive a valuable practical education in handiness and industry, while the profits would be enough to keep the family from want during periods of illness or the absence of regular employment. All this is not theory, but a mere statement of what actually does happen whenever the peasant or labourer occupies his own house and has a useful plot of land attached to it. Arthur Young, Sismondi, Inglis, Laing, Howitt, Kay, Thornton, Laveleye, Boyd Kinnear, and many other observers have noted the facts in every country in Europe. Whether in Norway or Italy, in France, Spain, or Germany, occupying-ownership of house and land is invariably attended with comfort and well-being, with sobriety, contentment, and the absence of pauperism; while the opposite condition--of large estates and a peasantry divorced from the land--as invariably co-exists with pauperism and misery, vice and discontent. The same good results have occurred in England whenever landlords have been wise enough to give their labourers land, as on Lord Tollemache's estates in Cheshire and in several other cases; and it may be asserted as a conclusion supported by an overwhelming mass of evidence, that the divorce of any population from the free use of land is a direct cause of pauperism, disease, vice, and crime, and tends in a variety of ways to deteriorate the whole social condition of the people among whom it prevails.

    In due time and place I am prepared to substantiate this statement by a body of detailed evidence. Accepting it now as true, it fully justifies the proposal contained in my scheme--that, when the State acquires possession of the land, it should retain power to remedy this vast evil by permitting every Englishman, as his right once in his life, to obtain a plot of land, for personal occupation at its current agricultural value. To render this "right" beneficially available to its widest extent, such restrictions only as are absolutely needful should be placed upon the choice of land. For instance, to avoid needlessly dividing or cutting-up fields, land should only be available for this purpose alongside the public roads, and the consent of the owner might be required for land within a limited distance of his house or private grounds. A limit might also be placed to the quantity of land taken from any one farm or estate (say five per cent. of the whole, for instance); but, with such obvious exceptions, it is evident that the field of choice should be as unrestricted as possible, in order that population might take a free course, instead, as now, of one district being kept without population, while, in another, men are forcibly crowded together in overgrown towns and cities.

    The effects of such freedom of choice in fixing upon a permanent residence would be gradually to check the increase of the towns and to repopulate the country districts. Rural villages would begin a natural course of healthy growth, and if the minimum of land to be taken for one house were fixed at an acre (the maximum being four or five acres) these could never grow into crowded towns, but would always retain their rural character, picturesque surroundings, and sanitary advantages. The labourer would choose his acre of land near the farmer who gave him the most constant employment and treated him with most consideration; and besides those who would continue to work regularly at agricultural labour, there would be many with more land of their own or with other means of living, who would be ready to earn good wages during hay or harvest time. With a million of agricultural labourers, each holding an acre or more of land, and at least another million of mechanics doing the same thing, and all permanently attached to the soil by its secure possession, that scandal to our country, the scarcity of milk and the importation of poultry, eggs, and butter from all parts of the Continent would come to an end, while the vast sums we now pay for this produce would go to increase the well-being, not only of the labourers themselves, but of all the retail and wholesale dealers who supply their wants. Our most important customers are those at home, and there is no more certain cure for the now chronic depression of trade than a system which would at once largely increase the purchasing power of the bulk of the community.

    Farmers will, no doubt, at first be inclined to object to any such extensive power of preemption of land as I have here indicated. But a little consideration will show them that they would be gainers rather than losers by it. In the first place, many large districts would for a long time be unaffected by it, except to the extent of the plots chosen by the labourers who cultivate the land; and to have a sober and industrious body of workmen permanently settled near them would certainly be to the farmers' advantage;--for it must be remembered that only the industrious and provident labourer could save the money necessary to purchase the tenant-right of his chosen lot. The public generally would avail themselves of the privilege by degrees, and as compared with the large area of the country, to a very small extent, because the strict limitation of the privilege to a personal occupation, and to a single occasion, would lead to its being exercised chiefly in the vicinity of towns and villages where people's occupations obliged them to live, and in remoter rural districts only by persons retiring from business or such as could afford a country house.

    The two main points of this branch of the subject are--firstly, that the vast and overwhelming social importance of the free acquisition of land for a healthy home at its agricultural value is such as to overpower all the sentimental objections of a class who, it must be remarked, now willingly submit to the same or worse annoyances when imposed upon them by a landlord; secondly, that this free choice of land for a home is so great and tangible a boon to all classes, from the agricultural labourer up to the retired merchant, that, once convince people of its practicability, and you will set up a movement powerful enough to overwhelm the opposition of the vast landlord interest in all its ramifications. The man who, in his native country, cannot live where he wishes to live, but is dependent entirely on the pleasure of landlords and the interest of land-speculators, is not a free man as regards one of the most essential of the attributes of true freedom. When the people of this country clearly understand that nothing but an immoral system of land monopoly stand between them and freedom to enjoy their native soil; and, further, when they are shown that this system may be abolished without wronging any individual, while it will certainly tend to eradicate from our land that great blot on our civilisation, persistent pauperism in the midst of ever-increasing luxury and wealth,--and when they see further that, as Mr. George has demonstrated by a strict logical deduction, this connection is a necessary one, and that private property in land is the actual cause of the strange phenomenon of poverty and even famine in our midst, notwithstanding the vast forces of nature now enlisted in our service and producing ever-increasing stores of wealth--when they clearly understand this, the end of landlordism will not be far off. The farmer may agitate for his English Land Bill as a temporary palliative, but he must look forward to land-nationalisation as the only means of obtaining that absolute freedom of action and that permanent interest in the soil which alone can renovate British agriculture.

    In conclusion, I must call attention to the vast revenues derived from the soil (now enriching one limited class and to that extent impoverishing all other classes), which would take the place in the national treasury of the whole of our indirect taxation, enabling us to abolish custom duties and so have really free imports, and at the same time setting free an army of unproductive officials, now paid by the productive workers of the country. To the far-sighted politician no less than to the social reformer Nationalisation of the Land thus commends itself, as offering a solution of many difficult problems and a remedy for many crying evils.

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Nationalisation of the Land (S343: 14 November 1881)

    Sir,--"An Inquirer" has so well answered one part of Mr. Leadam's criticism of my proposals for Land Nationalisation as to relieve me of one-half the trouble of a reply, and in the remaining part I find so much of those vague assumptions and forebodings which have always appeared when any great reform was proposed, and have almost always turned out to be erroneous, that little of direct or tangible objection remains. I will, however, with your permission, make a few remarks on some of his statements.

    And first, I can hardly believe that Mr. Leadam supposes your readers to be so simple as to be hoodwinked by his fourth paragraph, in which he endeavours, in elaborate and logical form, to show that 200 years ago the "landowners were relieved by Parliament, that is by the State, from burdens on the land which the State had originally imposed;" and he therefore argues that the State has now no right to interfere with this settlement. Poor landlords! How hardly they have been used by "Parliament"--that is, by themselves; by "the State"--that is again by themselves! For the facts are that the landlords as a body originally obtained their lands by grants from the Crown, on condition of certain onerous and costly services constituting the feudal tenure. By degrees they relieved themselves of these burdens, which they threw upon the townspeople, merchants, and generally on the landless classes; and finally, by means of self-made enclosure acts, they deprived the labourers and the people generally of the best remnant of their inheritance in the soil of their native land. Every one of these "Acts" was an act of robbery, spoliation, and confiscation, although it was done by form of law; and now, when after centuries of struggle the people have at length obtained some voice in the making of laws, they are actually told that it will be "unjust" and "inconsistent" to make any claim for the restitution to the whole people of the land which has been taken from them by a class, except at the monopoly prices which the landlords, legislating always in their own interests, have created!

    I, however, have never rested my case on the undoubted fact that the landlords have unjustly thrown off the burdens which originally attached to their lands, but rather on the countless economical, social, and moral evils produced by "landlordism"--evils so great and so clearly demonstrable, and so prejudicial to the entire community, that the State, as the representative now of the whole community and not of a mere section of it, has a right to take the necessary steps to cure those evils, even if in doing so the landlords--who have hitherto alone benefited while all others have suffered--should have their wealth somewhat diminished and their power to injure their fellow men taken away from them. On the principle that "the public safety is the highest law," it is necessary that the land should ultimately be held by the nation for the benefit of all, unencumbered by perpetual pensions to the descendants of the present holders; and I maintain that my scheme effects this with the very minimum of injury to existing owners or presumptive heirs. That the evils of the present system are as great as I have indicated above I am prepared to prove, and on this fact I rest my whole case.

    In the remainder of Mr. Leadam's letter I find nothing but misrepresentations of my proposals, or the most wild and improbable forecasts of their effects, and I am quite willing that they should remain side by side with my letters for your readers' impartial judgment.

    To Mr. J. Boyd Kinnear's questions I answer as follows:--

    1. The present and all future tenants are to be holders of their farms in perpetuity, under the sole conditions of punctual payment of the State quit-rent and personal occupation.

    2. The State selects no tenant, because the owner of the Tenant-Right for the time being is the State tenant, and is liable for the quit-rent. If at the supposed commencement of the new order of things the then tenant declines to continue, it is for the landlord to find a purchaser for his Tenant-Right, and till he does so he holds the land himself as the State tenant. He will be in the receipt of the Government annuity as an equivalent for the quit-rent taken by the State, and he must, of course, be responsible for it till he finds a purchaser who will assume the responsibility; but I feel convinced that under the régime of a nationalised land such cases will rarely if ever occur.

    3. No limit whatever will be placed on the quantity of land one person may bonâ fide occupy; because all interference of such a kind would be hurtful and totally unnecessary. With some men and in some districts a thousand or even five thousand acres might perhaps be profitably farmed, with other men and in other districts ten or twenty-acre farms might be wanted, and might succeed best. Perfect freedom both as to the area farmed and the mode of farming are essential to progress in agriculture, as they are to the welfare of individuals and of the community. As to a definition of what is "personal occupation," I apprehend that in practice there will not be much difficulty. A capitalist farmer might, of course, employ any number of foremen or bailiffs--so long as they were not sub-tenants in disguise; but I apprehend that, when every man who can farm will be able to get land under the favourable terms my scheme supposes, skilful and trustworthy bailiffs will be so scarce that the farmer will find it far more profitable to hold no more land than he can personally superintend, and expend his surplus capital in bringing that into the highest possible state of productiveness.

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