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The Land Question (S344: 1881)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page eleven of The Times (London) issue of 26 November 1881. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S344.htm

To the Editor of The Times.

    Sir,--There is a fallacy which underlies the whole argument of Mr. Caird's letter in The Times of November 23, as well as all similar arguments, and as it is not often distinctly stated by writers on political economy, I ask permission to lay it before your readers.

    Admitting--though only for the sake of argument--that all the facts stated by Mr. Caird may be correct, his position amounts to this--that the system of cultivation which produces the greatest return with the smallest expenditure of labour is best for this country, under its present system of land tenure, and without any regard to collateral result on the well-being of the people. Now, if this argument is a sound one, it will hold good under any possible or conceivable extension of the system, and it must also apply to other industries as well as to agriculture. Let us then suppose an extension of science and labour-saving machinery to such a degree that the whole land of the kingdom can be, and is, cultivated with one half the number of labourers now employed, while an even larger produce than at present is obtained. What would be the inevitable result? In the first place, it is certain that the rent of land would rise greatly; in fact, so much, that the landlord would absorb almost all the saving in cultivation, because capital would always flow to agriculture so long as it gave the same average return as when invested in other ways, and thus competition would prevent the farmer getting more than a very small share of the increased wealth produced. And what will become of the half-million of labourers discharged from the farms? They will necessarily flow to the towns (as they have been flowing from the same cause for some time past), adding to the overcrowding and increasing the already seething mass of poverty, misery, and vice. But if, at the same time, all other industries are equally affected by labour-saving machinery, and half the labourers of all kinds can be dispensed with in every trade and manufacture, what is to become then of our surplus labouring population? Are they to be supported as paupers? Or are they to be exported to other lands like so many horses no longer required by the landlords and capitalists? That is the millennium to which the people--the producers--are asked to look forward with satisfaction, a millennium in which the total wealth produced will be greatly increased, but in which there will be no room for half the present population of workers in their native land, and in which those who remain will exist, not to seek after and earn their own well-being and social advancement, but solely as a means of adding to the already excessive wealth of great landowners and great capitalists.

    This is the necessary result of all advances in industrial economy so long as a limited class have absolute possession of the land, and are thus able to absorb much of the surplus wealth produced by the entire community, and it is a result which the actual producers of this wealth can hardly be expected to look forward to with the same satisfaction as the landowners and their advocates. Unless our teachers and legislators clearly recognize that men are to be considered before wealth, and that a system which supports fewer labourers in the country does not tend to better their physical and social condition, does not give them more independence or more leisure for mental occupation or physical enjoyment is a political blunder as well as a crime against humanity, they must not expect that the people who labour and who suffer will accept much longer either their teaching or their rule.

Godalming, Nov. 24.

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