Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Mr. S. Smith, M.P. on Land Nationalisation
(S368a: 1883/1884)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor originally printed in the 4 December 1883 number of the Liverpool Daily Post. The source of the transcription is a reprint of the letter added as an Appendix to a pamphlet by Samuel Smith entitled The Nationalisation of the Land, printed in 1884. Original pagination (from the pamphlet reprint) indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. (39)]] To the Editor of the Daily Post: Sir, I trust you will grant me a little of your space to make a few observations on the lecture by Mr. S. Smith, M.P. so fully reported in your paper of Tuesday, because it is right that your readers should be informed that the bulk of the lecturer's criticism does not apply to English land nationalisers, whose contentions and proposals were passed over with the most studious silence. Surely it is a very remarkable and suggestive fact that a member of the British Parliament, lecturing in one of our chief cities on the applicability of land nationalisation to England, should yet not say one single word about the English Land Nationalisation Society or the proposals it makes, but should confine himself strictly to the proposals of an American for land nationalisation in America. Before Mr. George's remarkable book was noticed by a single English review, and while it was still unknown to the vast majority of English readers, an article on land nationalisation appeared in the Contemporary Review for November, 1880. This article led to the foundation of a Land Nationalisation Society, and was followed by the publication of a small volume on "Land Nationalisation: its Necessity and its Aims," in which the large body of facts on which the society founds its proposals are set forth. Only a few months back Professor Fawcett's article on "State Socialism and the Nationalisation of the Land" was answered by myself in two successive issues of Macmillan's Magazine. I mention these facts because they raise the question of Mr. Smith's competence to treat the subject at all. He appears to be completely ignorant that any such book, articles or society exists, for he says, speaking of the Trades Congress, "I much doubt if they or any of their sympathisers in this country have clearly thought out the subject, or perfected any plan for the acquisition of the soil or its cultivation after it was acquired." Now, this is exactly what we have done; and yet, in total ignorance of our [[p. 40]] proposals, our facts and our arguments--for "I much doubt" surely implies ignorance--Mr. Smith comes forward to instruct the people of Liverpool. If he is not ignorant of the facts I have stated, still less reason have his audience to be satisfied that the chief English proposals for land nationalisation should be purposely ignored, while they were led to believe that those of the American writer were universally adopted by English nationalisers.

    I will now briefly reply to a few of Mr. Smith's statements from the standpoint of the Land Nationalisation Society.

    1. Mr. Smith says that "human misery is deepest where the land is not appropriated, and human happiness and civilisation most advanced where the land is held by private owners." This assertion I directly contradict. There is no such connection as alleged, but rather the contrary, if we eliminate such factors as ignorance, barbarism and bad government, and compare only countries which are fairly comparable. I will give two examples which sufficiently demonstrate the incorrectness of Mr. Smith's generalisation. In a very remarkable article in La Nouvelle Revue (15th March, 1883,) on "La Famille Chinoise," it is stated that the land of China is really national, every one holding it from the State, and paying a fixed rent to the State. Holdings are small, the average being seven acres, while estates of more than 200 acres are exceedingly rare. Every family also holds a small portion of "patrimonial land," which is invaluable and inviolable. The result of this excellent system, says the writer, is that every hamlet forms a complete community, where the inhabitants find their school, their guildhall, their court of justice. In these hamlets each home is independent, yet all are bound together by the ties of relationship, and all assist each other in the various troubles and labours of life. The writer dwells at some length on the peace and contentment, the simplicity, and the happiness of Chinese village life under this beneficent land system, and this, be it remembered, in spite of a very imperfect civilisation and a despotic Government. The next case I will quote is that of Switzerland, where the old system of communal land still largely prevails, and where its influence is felt even in the districts where it has been abolished. Here we have at once the freest, the best educated, and the most really civilised people in the globe, if we measure civilisation, not by the height reached by the few, or the luxury and refinement of the rich, but by the general well-being, intelligence and contentment of the great majority of the people. In Switzerland landlords and landlordism, as we understand them, are almost unknown; and in Switzerland pauperism, famine and social degradation are almost equally wanting.

    2. Mr. Smith very justly says that none but a dreamer would seriously impugn titles to land because Alaric or William the [[p. 41]] Conqueror acted unjustly; but he omits to notice the much more important fact that possession of land, except so far as it is personally occupied, never can arise otherwise than by force or fraud. Take any plot of land you like in Great Britain, and if you trace its history far enough you inevitably come to an owner who obtained it by force or fraud. There is no other way in which land can be obtained, except in the case of a piece of land cultivated by its owner in unbroken continuity from the time it was first enclosed; and almost the only land thus held in England is by some of the squatters on our commons and wastes. There is no other form of property whatever which inevitably has its origin in wrongdoing, and this alone goes far to prove that such property cannot be good for the community.

    3. In reply to the argument that land should not be private property because it is limited in quantity, is essential to human existence, and is not producible by human labour, Mr. Smith asserts that "the productiveness of the soil is mainly the result of ages of careful cultivation." This is simply not true, since the productiveness mainly depends on the physical characters of the soil and subsoil; but even were it true, it would prove that the land belonged to the successive cultivators, not to the landlords, who, as a rule, never cultivate: that is, the land should belong to the whole people whose ancestors from time immemorial have given it its "main value."

    4. Another gross misstatement is, that "most other kinds of property" as well as land increases in value with increase of population and wealth. The very reverse is the case. Broadly speaking, all property except land is destructible, and more or less rapidly deteriorates in value; the few apparent exceptions, as old pictures and books, and our public funds, do so because they are in the nature of monopolies. The funds, too, are not property, but debt, and they rise in value merely because the payment of interest on no other debt is guaranteed by the State. "House property," Mr. Smith, with a strange confusion of ideas, declares to increase in value! But surely he knows that it is the land that increases, while the house upon it steadily deteriorates in value, and has to be kept up by an ever-increasing outlay in repairs.

    5. In answer to Mr. George's proof that landlordism keeps down wages to the minimum necessary to sustain life, Mr. Smith adduces the oft-exploded fallacy of the rise of wages in most trades; but he ignores the facts that house rents and the prices of meat, butter, eggs and milk have risen in a far greater ratio, and that labourers, on the average, have to work as hard and have as much difficulty in earning a bare subsistence as ever they had, while they have been creating an enormous increase of wealth and luxury for all the classes above them. [[p. 42]] For the proof of this fact, and of the probable increase of pauperism and misery--notwithstanding official statistics--I must refer your readers to my article in Macmillan's Magazine.

    6. If Mr. Smith had examined our English proposals for land nationalisation, and not those of an American, he would have seen that we do not consider the transference of the rents of land to the State to be the only or even the most important benefit to be obtained. The most vital point is that all English people who wish it shall have the use on equal terms of some portion of English land, and that the fruits of every hour's labour upon the land shall belong to the labourer. In order that labourers may not be forced to compete for any wages that will keep them and their families from starving, or from being turned homeless from the cottage they occupy at a weekly rent, we would provide that every man shall have the opportunity of acquiring a plot of land direct from the State, on which he may live, and from which he can never be ejected so long as he pays the rent of the land at its fair value. Every village and country town would then grow, in all the natural development of rural life; our country would be soon dotted over with groups of cottages, gardens and small farms; such rural produce as milk, butter, eggs, cheese, poultry and bacon would be produced and consumed on the spot, instead of being imported from a score of foreign countries, while our labourers are crowded into the slums of great cities simply and solely because landlords will not let them live in the country. Millions of acres, now neglected and almost worthless pasture, could and would be cultivated like a garden, only allow the labourer to have it on the same terms as the farmer, with absolute security of tenure, and every one of these cultivators would not only help to diminish the intensity of the struggle for existence in towns, but would spend their gains almost wholly on home manufactures, and thus create a demand for labour in all the industries of the country.

    7. Mr. Smith then adduces Professor Fawcett's argument against the possibility of the State acquiring the land by purchase; but he knows nothing of our proposal to allow the existing landlords and their living heirs to continue to enjoy their present net incomes, while at once taking the land for the use of the people; and declaring that no unborn person shall inherit any portion of the national land. This disposes of the terrific picture he draws of widows and orphans beggared by confiscation. Such has been the result of the Irish land legislation, but by our scheme no living person would suffer.

    8. Finally, Mr. Smith admits that perhaps the State ought to aid labourers to buy their cottages and gardens, which he says would be an "immense boon." He declares that Highland landlords should not be allowed to shut out tourists; that village commons should not be enclosed; that the rights of [[p. 43]] landlords "should not be allowed to override the necessities of life for the toiling masses of the country;" that the State "shall give a fair chance to every one, and free play to all the powers and capacities of its citizens;" and other such suggestions. But every one of these things would be done once and for all by our system of land nationalisation, without costing the nation--that is, the taxpayers--one penny; while all of them are so completely opposed to "the rights of property," as they are now interpreted, that so long as those rights exist each detail of reform will be fought against by the whole power of the landlords. In the meantime all the evils of a pauperised community, depopulated villages, and "horrible cities" must go on and increase, notwithstanding our frantic efforts to ameliorate the outward symptoms, so long as the fundamental cause--private property in land--remains. I would ask your readers to ponder on the facts stated by the chairman, Sir James A. Picton, and then say whether a system which permits such things can be longer permitted to exist. Our public writers are never tired of assuring us that "property has its duties as well as its rights," but those duties are neither defined nor enforced either by equity or by public opinion, as shown by the continuous confiscation of tenants' property by hundreds of Irish landlords, and the wholesale misery and death caused by evictions in Ireland and the Highlands, without a single example of the prime cause of such horrors--the landlord--even suffering in reputation or social position. In the present day in Great Britain the great landlords have, as a matter of fact, no duties, while their power for evil is practically unlimited. I appeal to the records of Ireland and the Highlands to bear out this assertion. Such power is inconsistent with freedom and national well-being, and as it is inherent in the system of landlordism, that system must be abolished.

    Yours, &c., Alfred R. Wallace. Godalming, 29th Nov. 1883.

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