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The Land Question (S345: 1881)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page ten of The Times (London) issue of 7 December 1881. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S345.htm

To the Editor of The Times.

    Sir,--In replying to "M. P.," who, I presume, represents the views of Mr. Caird, I would first assure him that my letter was written in very serious earnest, and the fact that it was to him so new and unreal as to appear like an elaborate satire is the best proof of the necessity of calling attention to opinions and conclusions which are now steadily making their way among the working classes.

    "M. P." says I have put an impossible case. This I deny. I have put an extreme case, no doubt, but one well within the bounds of possibility, and it is by supposing extreme cases that the fallacy of many political and social doctrines may be best exposed. He then proceeds to point out that the very process I assume as the basis of my argument has been going on for the last 40 years, and he implies--but is careful not directly to assert--with beneficial results. This, however, is the very point at issue. I maintain that the results have been most disastrous, as a few indisputable facts will show.

    We have no means of arriving at the total increase in the value of landed property during the last 40 years, but from data supplied by Mr. Caird and Mr. Brodrick (in "English Land and English Landlords") it cannot be less than 50 per cent., if we take account of the enormously increased value of land in towns. The income-tax returns for 35 years show that the assessment has more than doubled in that period, indicating a very great advance in the wealth of a section of the community. During the last 40 years our imports have increased more than five-fold and our exports nearly three-fold, while great fortunes have been made by contractors, colonists, and traders in all parts of the world. The largely increased wealth of the very wealthy is admitted, as is also the far more luxurious and expensive mode of life of the professional and upper middle classes--all due primarily to that increased command over nature which the extensive use of machinery and utilisation of natural forces have given us. But how has all this increase of wealth affected the labourers who have actually created it? "M. P." says their wages have increased. That is true; but, I maintain, barely in the same proportion as the necessaries of life have increased in cost. Mere wages prove little unless we know the whole of the accompanying circumstances. Forty years ago the labourers had advantages they seldom now enjoy. They usually had land for gardens, while the more numerous commons and road-side wastes enabled them to keep some domestic animals, and skim milk was often obtained free or at a nominal rate. But there is one infallible test of wellbeing, and that is the amount of pauperism. Had the labourers derived any benefit from the increased wealth of the country corresponding to that of the landowners and great capitalists, they should have been so much raised in their general condition that actual pauperism should have almost disappeared. Instead of that we find it nominally stationary, but actually increased; for, taking the average of the first and last 12 years of the period, 1849-1880, the latter is slightly in excess (1849-1860, average number of paupers 1,036,005; 1869-1880, ditto, 1,057,278); but we know that in the later period the Poor Law has been more strictly administered, while the advance in education has increased the number of those who annually starve rather than seek parish relief, so that there is a vast body of the abject poor who never appear in the Union records. These facts demonstrate our social failure. The increase of our wealth has not diminished our poverty. Professor Cairnes (in his volume on "Some Leading Questions of Political Economy Newly Expounded") states--referring to our enormous growth in wealth during the present century:--"The large addition to the wealth of the country has gone neither to profits nor to wages, nor yet to the public at large, but to swell a fund ever growing, even while its proprietors sleep--the rent-roll of the owners of the soil." And only the other day, at Rochdale, Mr. Bright told us that the rural districts were becoming depopulated and deteriorated, because the younger labourers, finding "that they can never become anything but labourers at very low wages, are leaving the rural parishes in which they have been born," and emigrating to the great towns or to countries across the ocean. "Our landed system," he adds, "with its great estates and farms, cuts off the labourer almost entirely from the possibility of becoming either a tenant or an owner of the land, and as he has no object in remaining there he goes away." It is not only Mr. Bright who says this; it is an admitted fact which writers in the Press continually deplore, and this fact, taken in connexion with persistent pauperism in the midst of our ever-increasing wealth, is the condemnation of the system upheld by Mr. Caird and "M. P." as all but perfect. That system is, to treat the land as existing solely to create wealth for the landowners and the capitalists, not for the people of England as such. Just so many of the people as are required to create most wealth with least expenditure will, of course, be retained; the rest may shift as they can or leave the country. But the people who labour and actually create all capital and all wealth have now some political power, and will soon learn how to use it. When they do so, it is hardly likely that they will rest contented with a system which treats them as mere creators of wealth for others, who can no more participate in that wealth than their fellow-labourers, the farm horses, and the farm steam-engines.

     The subject is far too wide and too difficult to be adequately discussed in the columns of a newspaper, but I have now a volume ready for the press in which the facts and the arguments are systematically, though briefly, set forth, and the remedy to which they all logically point is fully explained.

Godalming, Dec. 3.

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