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

 
 
How to Cause Wealth to be
More Equally Distributed (S375: 1885)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: In January 1885 Wallace took part in a conference organized by a wealthy businessman. This paper, delivered at that conference, summarized Wallace's views on the emerging concept of "social economy" (as distinct from "political economy") in a way he would more fully develop in his short book Bad Times (S723) later that year. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S375.htm

    [[p. 368]] 'No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged themselves.' --Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (Book I. chap. viii.).

    'More than two-thirds of the inhabitants of Glasgow live in houses of one or two rooms!' --Scottish Land Restoration League, Leaflet.

    'One-ninth of the inhabitants of London die in workhouses!' --Forty-second Report of the Registrar-General.

    'In the thirty years, 1849-1878, the wealth of the country has increased full 100 per cent., while the population has increased about 40 per cent.'

    The problem we are met to consider and, if possible, to solve, is to determine what practicable and just changes in our social economy will tend, naturally, to bring about a more equable division of wealth between capitalists and labourers, or perhaps more accurately, between the actual producers of wealth and the rest of the community.

    In exchange for the wealth they produce, labourers receive [[p. 369]] wages. The higher class of skilled labourers earn sufficient, when in full work, to provide fairly good food and clothing for themselves and their families, but not sufficient to afford them much leisure for intellectual culture and the refinements of existence. But below these there is the vast class of unskilled or little skilled labourers, who, even when in full work, barely earn sufficient to afford them a decent animal subsistence. Both classes are subject to periods of depression, when thousands and scores of thousands of willing labourers are unable to obtain work, and are forced either to live upon their scanty and hard-earned savings, to become paupers, or to starve. To use the language of the political economists, wages ever tend to the minimum necessary to support bare existence; hence the poverty and pauperism of labourers.

    Evidently, in order to bring about that more equal distribution of wealth we all desire, two things are necessary: firstly, that the lowest kind of wages shall be raised, permanently, far above the minimum at which it now always stands; and secondly, that willing hands shall always find remunerative work; and this must be done, not by charity, not by individual or local action, but by social rearrangements which will be self-acting and self-sufficing. I firmly believe that such rearrangements are not only possible but comparatively easy, for I hold with Henry George, that at the back of every great social evil will be found a great political wrong. Let us seek out the wrong thing, and fearlessly put it right; and we shall then find that man is not so completely out of harmony with the universe in which he exists that thousands must starve in the midst of plenty, and that the actual producers of wealth in the wealthiest country in the world must continue to live without enjoying a fair and adequate share of the wealth which they create.

    In approaching the practical consideration of this great and momentous problem we are at once confronted by a dogma which has full sway over the minds of our economists and public writers, and which in many cases determines legislation. This dogma is that cheapness is a good thing, and is an end in itself; and that when everything or almost everything, including labour, is cheap, the consumers--that is, the entire population-- [[p. 370]] are benefited all round, and that no one has any right to complain. Some of our public writers refuse to go farther than this, and maintain, implicitly if not explicitly, that to make things cheap is the final outcome of the science of political economy.

    As a general statement I venture to assert not only that this is untrue, but that the very opposite statement would be far nearer the truth. Dearness, I maintain, would be a better thing to aim at than cheapness; and I believe that it may be demonstrated that, in our present phase of social progress, high prices of all manufactured goods, and of all the products of human labour, are absolutely essential to a more equable distribution of wealth.

    It is a common opinion that a general rise of wages would be of no use to the labourers, because all goods would correspondingly rise in price. Mill, however, states that this is untrue, but that what a general rise of wages really implies is a diminution of profits. He says, 'There is no mode in which capitalists can compensate themselves for a high cost of labour through any action on values or prices. It cannot be prevented from taking its effect in low profits. If the labourers really get more, that is, get the produce of more labour, a smaller percentage must remain for profit. From this law of distribution, resting as it does on a law of arithmetic, there is no escape. The mechanism of exchange and price may hide it from us, but is quite powerless to alter it.1

    But if the wages of unskilled labour rise without a proportionate rise in that of skilled labour, the labourer will get the fullest benefit from the rise, because most manufactured goods, the produce of skilled labour, will hardly advance at all in price; and it is this increase of the wages of unskilled labour that we especially need in order to abolish those excessive irregularities in the distribution of wealth which now prevail among us.

    Another common error in connection with this subject is, that general high wages would so increase the cost of production of all manufactures that we could no longer compete with [[p. 371]] foreign countries. But this also is a delusion. Mill says, 'General low wages never caused any country to undersell its rivals, nor did general high wages ever hinder it from doing so.' And he proceeds to demonstrate this proposition, generally accepted by political economists, at considerable length.2 Professor Fawcett, if I remember rightly, gives a simpler and clearer demonstration of the same fact by showing that it is not the absolute, but the relative cost of goods that enables the merchant to exchange them advantageously with foreigners. There would always be some goods that we could manufacture at a lower proportionate rate than other countries, and these goods we should continue to export in exchange for such products of those countries as we required. And he concludes by stating the proposition that, with a general rise of prices, we should continue to export the very same goods in the very same quantities as we do now. The idea that our foreign trade would be injured by a general rise of wages and by a corresponding, though not proportionate, rise of prices, is a bugbear not recognised by the teaching of political economy.

    We come, therefore, to the difficult problem of how to cause a permanent rise of wages of all kinds, not of skilled labour only, but of unskilled as well, and at the same time to provide that the piteous sight of willing labourers begging for work shall cease to be the ordinary occurrence it is now.

    To solve this problem we must first clearly understand why it is that the wages of the great mass of unskilled labourers remain at a minimum, notwithstanding the great and continuous increase of our wealth and productive power. Many crudely imagine that the labourers are too many, and that a decrease of their numbers is the only remedy. But this is not only impracticable, but absurd. Our production of wealth per head of the workers is far greater now than ever it was, yet a large proportion of these workers live in want of the necessaries and comforts of life, and many are in a condition of absolute penury and starvation. What we want is a better distribution of the wealth that is produced. But a diminution of the labourers means a diminution of the wealth produced, not [[p. 372]] necessarily a better distribution of it. If all who are now compulsorily idle were at work, still more wealth would be produced; and with a better distribution of this increased wealth there would be, not only necessaries, but comforts, pleasures, and intellectual enjoyments for all. But with our present social organisation--an organisation which can only be modified very slowly, as human nature advances in knowledge and morality--the most important mode of distributing wealth among labourers is by means of wages, and we thus come to the very essence of our problem--the cause of the inadequate wages of labour. And this cause is not difficult to find. It has been clearly recognised by many economical writers, and may be thus briefly enunciated:--

    Wages are kept down to a minimum by the competition of labourers who have no resource but daily wages to save them from starvation.

    Here it is to be well noted that it is not the numbers of the labourers, but their complete dependence on their employers, that is the cause of the low wages. And this dependence rises to a maximum in great cities, where man is completely cut off from all access to the bounties of nature, where not only are there no spontaneous fruits of the earth to stand between him and starvation, but where even sufficient air to breathe and water to drink are only to be had in return for hours of toil. It is a suggestive fact, that, while in great cities the wages of skilled labour are always higher than in the rural districts, because the maximum of skill is there demanded to minister to the pleasures and refinements of the wealthy, unskilled labour is often much worse paid; and we find men, women, and children working long days of sixteen hours for a pittance that barely saves them, and often does not save them, from actual starvation. This terrible fact, which has been clearly established by the recent disclosures as to the condition of the very poor in London and other great cities, must, I believe, be considered to be a necessary result of the existence of such huge cities under our present social and political system, and therefore absolutely incurable by any of the remedies usually suggested. It clearly results from the circumstance that a great city consists mainly [[p. 373]] of an enormous population of wage-earners; and where, owing to fluctuations of trade from any cause whatever, the demand for labour decreases, the workers, having absolutely no resource but daily wages between themselves and starvation, compete for employment at any price and under any conditions. Moreover, in these great cities there is no outlet for the natural increase of the population, and thus year by year the mass of wage-seekers becomes greater, the competition severer, and wages lower.

    That this is a necessary consequence of the increase of great cities is proved not only by reasoning, but by many facts. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, do wages sink so low, estimated in purchasing power, as in London; and there is evidence that they have reached this apparently irreducible minimum by a series of steps parallel with the increase of the population. The well-informed writer of the articles on 'Poor Men's Politics' in the Daily News, stated his belief that the earning power of the great mass of the poor of London had for several years been constantly going down, often with startling rapidity. He gave as instances finishing heavy trousers, which four years back were paid for at 2 3/4 d. a pair; eighteen months back they were reduced to 2 ½ d., and at the time of writing they were being done at 2 1/4 d. Policemen's overcoats used to be made for 5s. They were at time of writing being made for 2s. 6d. Fifteen or sixteen years ago matchbox makers used to get 7 ½ d. a gross, and the price has since been falling year by year, till it has come down to 2 1/4 d. In other trades, as that of turners and dockyard labourers, though the daily wages are the same, or may even have increased, the difficulty of finding employment has greatly increased, so that large numbers of men only get two or three days' work per week. And when we add to this that rents, even of the most miserable rooms, have been increasing for many years, we have before us the upper and the nether millstones between which the poor are ground. The question of dwellings, however, to which many worthy people seem to think the whole problem is limited, is a mere symptom; it is the question of work and wages that is the fundamental one. As the writer already quoted well says, 'Sweep away every rookery to-morrow, [[p. 374]] and put the people into decent houses, and make them all sober and industrious, and you have by that very success immensely increased the tremendous pressure of competition in the labour market. It is here the difficulty lies, and here it must be faced. Do all that, and we shall still go round into the homes of the people and find that they are being driven to crime and suicide for want of work, or else they are working fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen hours a day for wages that they cannot live upon.' And yet this huge, overgrown city is having added to it every year as many houses and people as there are in the whole of the large town of Brighton, thus increasing the vast, unmanageable mass of those who must live by daily wages or starve, and tending ever to increase that fierce competition for work which is the source of their miserable condition. It follows, then, that no solution of our problem can be the true one which does not comprehend and deal with the question of great cities--which does not afford an outlet for their congested populations to the rural districts.

    Let us then turn to these districts, and see what is going on there.

    And first we are met with the startling fact, that while our towns are almost all overcrowded, our rural, and especially our agricultural districts are becoming depopulated. This phenomenon is so amazing, and so vitally connected with our problem, that we must examine it somewhat carefully, both as to the fact itself and as to the causes which lead to it.

    The diminution of the population of counties was first observed in 1861, when two, Cambridgeshire and Rutlandshire, had decreased since 1851, and Huntingdonshire and Brecknockshire had been almost stationary. In 1871 four counties had decreased; while in 1881 the decrease had extended to thirteen counties. Nine other counties increased less than 2 per cent. each, and this increase is no doubt wholly due to that of the towns. In Norfolk, for instance, I find that the increase of Norwich is greater than that of the whole county; and as Yarmouth and many other towns have also increased considerably, the population of the rural districts must have largely diminished. Again, eight more counties have increased less [[p. 375]] than 10 per cent., and in most of these the towns will account for the increase, while the purely rural districts are stationary or decreasing. In Lincolnshire, for example, where the increase is 8 per cent., half the divisions of the county show a decrease; so that in thirty counties--nearly two-thirds of England and Wales--the population of the exclusively rural districts is diminishing. Again, agricultural labourers decreased 10 per cent. between 1871 and 1881. The land, too, is going out of cultivation, more than a million acres less arable land being returned in 1884 than in 1873. This turning of arable into pasture is a serious thing, for it implies a great diminution of human food. The most eminent agriculturists have estimated that only five men could live on the animal food produced by 100 acres of average pasture, while no less than 250 men could live on the vegetable food from 100 acres of average arable land.3 In Ireland the deterioration is still more alarming. Mr. Sullivan states that the agricultural returns show that land under crops has diminished during the last twenty years by 1,200,000 acres, land under grass has diminished nearly half as much, while bog and waste land have proportionally increased!

    Every one who travels about our country with observant eyes will be struck by the entire absence of growth in almost all the villages of the agricultural counties. The general rule is that the village remains altogether stationary, and bears in its whole aspect the appearance of stagnation. The houses almost all date from the last century, or if newer, it can be seen from their situation and surroundings that they occupy the place of some older house. These villages are often delightfully picturesque, and charm the eye of the artist; but they should really fill us with sadness, for they exhibit to us the very source and origin of that teeming mass of wretchedness and want which pervades our overcrowded cities. It may be thought that this is too great a result to come from such an apparently [[p. 376]] insignificant cause; but we must remember that there are about 10,000 rural parishes in England and Wales, each of which contains a village, and many of them several hamlets besides, and that any agency which not only keeps the populations of these places stationary, but causes them actually to diminish, while the population of the whole country is rapidly increasing, is fully adequate to produce the effects imputed to it.

    This most abnormal and injurious state of things--the compulsory diversion of the natural increase of population from the country to the towns--is directly traceable to the action of the great body of landowners, who have not thought it either their interest or their duty to provide for, or even to permit, the natural growth of the villages and hamlets of our land. That this is the one and only cause can be proved by an overwhelming mass of evidence, of which I can now only adduce a few examples.

    Mr. John Bright, in his speech at Rochdale, on his seventieth birthday, told his hearers that the young people in the rural districts were leaving their parishes in which they were born, and emigrating to the large towns, in hopes of bettering their condition; the reason being that 'our landed system cuts off the labourer almost entirely from the possibility of becoming either a tenant or an owner of land.' For 'landed system' it would be more correct to say 'the custom and will of our landowners,' for they certainly have the power to let the people have land if they had the will.

    In Mr. F. G. Heath's Peasant Life in the West of England we have the statement of a correspondent from Wiltshire: 'It seems to be the design of landed proprietors to have as few people as possible on their estates;' while a Devonshire correspondent writes, 'This village at one time could boast of having wheelwrights, blacksmiths, machinists' shops, and a stay factory; and numbers of waggons, carts, ploughs, harrows, and other implements were made here. But all this is changed now, and the work which these things represented is gone to other places.' And light is thrown on the immediate cause of such changes by Mr. Thomas Hardy, who knows English rural [[p. 377]] life as well as any man living. In his article on the 'Dorsetshire Labourer,' in Longman's Magazine, he says, 'A depopulation is going on which in some quarters is really alarming. Villages used to contain, in addition to the agricultural inhabitants, an interesting and better informed class, ranking distinctly above these--the blacksmith, the carpenter, the shoemaker, the small higgler, the shopkeeper, together with nondescript workers other than farm labourers, who had remained in the houses where they were born. Many of these families had been life-holders, who built at their own expense the cottages they occupied, and as the lives dropped and the property fell in, would have been glad to remain as tenants of the owner. But the policy of all but some few philanthropic landowners is, to disapprove of these petty tenants who are not in the estate's employ, and to pull down each cottage as it falls in, leaving sufficient for the use of the farmers' men and no more. The occupants, who formed the backbone of the village life, have to seek refuge in the towns.' He then speaks of the suffering this causes to people who love their native place in a way town people cannot understand; and he adds this suggestive remark: 'This process, which is designated by statisticians "the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns," is really the tendency of water to flow uphill--when forced!'

    And this is no new process, but has been going on for at least a century. Arthur Young described the operation of the old Poor Law as causing, universally, 'an open war against cottages;' and that this practice was not given up under the new Poor Law is proved by the First Report of the Commission on Women and Children employed in Agriculture (1865), which gave numerous details of parishes and estates of 2,000 acres with one or two cottages only, or sometimes none at all. Sir George Grey, writing in 1869, says, 'Whether the labourer shall have house-room on the land he helps to till, whether the house-room he gets shall be human or swinish, whether he shall have the garden ground that so vastly lessens the pressure of his poverty--all this does not depend upon his willingness and ability to pay a reasonable rent, but depends on the use which [[p. 378]] others may see fit to make of their "right to do what they like with their own."' And he goes on to state that in innumerable parishes houses are pulled down till a 'model village' is produced, 'in which none but those who are needed as shepherds, gardeners, or gamekeepers are allowed to live.'

    But, coming down again to our own day, we have Mr. William Saunders writing to the Daily News from Wiltshire, that there are, close by him, thousands of acres of the best land in England lying uncultivated, as it has lain for years, because the landlord will only let it in large farms and on terms that tenants will not accept. As a consequence the labourers' cottages are closed, and the former occupants are in London, adding to the tremendous congestion there. (D. N., Oct. 29, 1883?)

     One more witness I will call, the Rev. Stopford Brooke, a man who left the Church and the certainty of high preferment for conscience' sake, and has now devoted himself to work among the poor, and who, in a remarkable sermon on December 9 last, gives us the whole history of one of the units of the crowd of victims who are crushed under the wheels of the Juggernaut of landlordism. He says:--

    I often used to meet, when I was a curate at Kensington, families drifting into London along the Hammersmith road. One day there came along a labourer and his wife, his son and two daughters. Their family had lived for a long time on an estate in the country, and managed, with the help of the common land and their labour, to get on. But the time came when the common was encroached upon, and their labour was not needed on the estate, and they were quietly turned out of their cottage. Where should they go? Of course to London, where work was thought to be plentiful. They had a little savings, and they thought they could get two decent rooms to live in. But the inexorable land question met them in London. They tried the decent courts for lodgings, and found that two rooms would cost 10s. a week. Food was dear and bad, water was bad, and in a short time their health suffered. Work was hard to get, and its wage was so low that they were soon in debt. They became more ill and more despairing with the poisonous surroundings, the darkness, and the long hours of work; and they were driven forth to seek a cheaper lodging. They found it in a court I knew well, a hotbed of crime and nameless horrors. In this they got [[p. 379]] a single room at a cruel rent, and work was more difficult for them to get now, as they came from a place of such bad repute, and they fell into the hands of those who sweat the last drop out of a man, and woman, and child, for wages which are the food only of despair. And the darkness and the dirt, the bad food and the sickness, and the want of water, were worse than before; and the crowding and the companionship of the court robbed them of the last shreds of self-respect. Then the drink demon seized upon them. Of course there was a public-house at both ends of the court. There they fled, one and all, for shelter, and warmth, and society, and forgetfulness. And they came out in deeper debt, with inflamed senses and burning brains, and with an unsatisfied craving for drink they would do anything to satiate. And in a few months the father was in prison, the wife dying, the son a criminal, and the daughters on the streets.

And the preacher truly adds--

    Multiply this history by half a million, and you will be beneath the truth.

    In the two classes of facts I have now set briefly before you--the compulsory depopulation of the country districts, and the over-population of the towns, with the consequent crowded tenements, competition wages, misery, starvation, and crime--we see cause and effect clearly in action. And when we remember the countless attractions of a rural life, and the almost invariable affection of the settled countryman for his native place, we may be sure that it is compulsion that drives men away from it. Joseph Arch tells us that the labourer's dream is 'to secure his homestead to himself.' Let us render this dream a reality, and we shall, I believe, have solved the great problem we have before us. And surely it is no such great thing to do--no such terrible and unimaginable monstrosity--that every English working-man should be able to secure a sufficient plot of his native soil on fair terms, to live and work and die on!

    Almost every one who now writes on the subject, be he Tory, Whig, or Radical, admits that every labourer should have a plot of land, that it would be an immense benefit to himself and to the whole community; and they admit that labourers eagerly long for it, and are both willing and able to pay a fair price for it; but none of them ever propose any means of enabling him [[p. 380]] to have it, much less give him a right to claim it; and not one in a thousand ever rises above the idea of allotments as the one thing needful. Even so late as October last, and from such a Radical as Sir Charles Dilke, an increase of allotments was the only suggestion for the labourers' benefit! It is necessary, therefore, to say a word or two on this matter.

    Allotments, I venture to say, are the very worst mode of utilising land for the labourer, and from our point of view absolutely useless. Can their advocates be aware that Mill, in his Political Economy,4 condemns them absolutely as tending to keep down wages, so that, if general, they would not benefit the labourer? But apart from this they are bad, because (1) they are always too small; (2) they are almost always let at a higher rent than the farmer pays for the same land, often twice, sometimes six, or even ten times as much! (3) they are always let on a yearly tenure, and therefore cannot be permanently improved; (4) they are always at a greater or less distance from the labourer's dwelling, and he cannot therefore utilise all his spare time and that of his family, or apply his house sewage and refuse to them; (5) being unenclosed, he cannot keep pigs or poultry on them, or even cultivate any choice crops. For these reasons I consider the allotment system absolutely condemned so far as any real and permanent elevation of the labourer is concerned; yet the fact that even under these cruelly disadvantageous conditions they are sought after, and so cultivated that a considerable profit is made from them, indicates what would be the result had these men a sufficient plot of land on which to live, at a fair rent and on a secure tenure. From evidence given before the 'Women's and Children's Employment Commission' in 1868, it was proved that cottagers obtained a return from such allotments of 16l. an acre above the ordinary farm rent, and it was estimated that if every agricultural labourer above twenty years of age possessed half-acre or quarter-acre allotments, the annual value of the produce would be between three and four millions of pounds. What, then, would be the value of the produce if they had one or two acre plots on which to live permanently? It may be safely stated [[p. 381]] that such plots would be made to produce more than double the amount per acre of the allotments; and if a labourer can cultivate in overtime a quarter or half-acre allotment, often at half a mile or more from his cottage, he could cultivate with greater ease an acre or even two acres of garden land at his own door, since he could utilise every quarter-hour, every five minutes even, of spare time, which otherwise would be wasted; he would save the time and labour of walking to and from his allotment, which in the aggregate must be often nearly as great as the time and labour bestowed upon it; besides which, numerous half-hours and spare minutes would be devoted to it by his wife and children, which under the allotment system are necessarily wasted.

    As an example of what can be done, take the case of the Annandale Estate in Dumfriesshire, where, as Mr. Brodrick5 tells us,--

    Leases of twenty-one years were offered at ordinary farm rents to deserving labourers, carefully selected for their character, who built their own cottages, at a cost to themselves varying from 21l. to 40l., exclusive of labour, while the landlord supplied timber, stone, &c., at a cost of about 22l. These houses were not grouped in villages, but chiefly situated along roads, with plots of from two to six acres attached to each, or the addition of grass for a cow. All the work for these little farms was done at by-hours and by members of the family, the cottager buying roots from the farmer, and producing in return milk, butter, and pork, besides rearing calves. Among such peasant farmers pauperism soon ceased to exist, and many of them soon bettered themselves in life. It was also particularly observed that habits of marketing and the constant demands on thrift and forethought brought out new virtues and powers in the wives. In fact, the moral effects of the system in fostering industry, sobriety, and contentment were described as no less satisfactory than its economical success.

    Again, the same writer tells us that on several estates in Cheshire it is the practice to let plots of land ranging from two and a half to three and a half acres with each cottage at an ordinary farm rent. This practice, which is but the revival of a custom once almost universal amongst the peasantry of England, [[p. 382]] is found to be fraught with manifold advantages. The most obvious of these is an abundant supply of milk for the farm labourers' children, who in many districts grow up without tasting the natural diet of childhood. But the habits of thrift and forethought encouraged by cowkeeping and dairying, on however small a scale, constitute a moral advantage of great importance. On Lord Tollemache's estate in Cheshire, where the system has been long established and carefully managed, its results have been eminently beneficial, and attended by none of the drawbacks so often magnified into insuperable difficulties by the opponents of cottage farming.

    Of course the amount of land required and the use it was put to would vary according to the soil and local circumstances. Sometimes fruit would be grown, sometimes vegetables; in some cases pig-feeding or poultry-keeping would be most advantageous; and that even wheat may be grown by labourers better than by farmers was shown by the Rev. W. C. Stubbs, in Buckinghamshire, who let out his glebe to labourers in half-acre allotments, and they produced more than one and a half times as much wheat as the surrounding farmers, and actually a higher average than the great experimental farmer, Mr. Lawes!6

    The general success and great advantages of occupying ownership, whether of small plots or of good-sized farms, have been demonstrated by an overwhelming mass of evidence in most European countries. The celebrated Arthur Young, from his personal observations, deduced the now celebrated axiom, 'The magic of property turns land into gold;' though, as he himself elsewhere shows, and as all economists are aware, it is not 'property,' but 'secure possession,' which has the magical effect. Hence Arthur Young's second axiom, 'Give a man secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine years' lease of a garden, and he will convert it into a desert.' So that we may be sure that the best examples of what peasant farms can show under a few benevolent landlords, by no means come up to the effects that would be produced by secure occupying ownership.

    [[p. 383]] But the most important thing we have now to consider is that, along with the well-being, independence, and comfort which the secure possession of a plot of land gives to a labourer, a general rise of wages is sure to follow so soon as the system becomes at all general. In his remarkable work, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, Prof. Thorold Rogers states as an undisputed fact that, 'in a country of small agricultural proprietors, hired labour is always absolutely and relatively dearer;' and it evidently must be so, for the labourer is no longer dependent, day by day and week by week, on wages as his only safeguard against starvation. Not only does he at once become a small capitalist, but he has the means of labouring profitably for himself if equally profitable or more profitable work is not offered him. For the first time in our modern era the labourer, when the land is open to him, will be in a condition to make a really 'free contract' with his employer. He will not, as now, be forced to accept the bare subsistence wages offered him or starve; and, accordingly, wages will rise, and will approach if they do not ever quite reach their natural standard--the whole produce which a labourer, having free access to land, can raise from it.

    Here, then, we have a real solution of the problem before us, because not only will the possession of land benefit the labourers who possess it, but, by raising the rate of wages of unskilled labour, and therefore of all labour, it will benefit to an almost equal extent those who do not possess it. Let us then, before pointing out the exact means by which this great reform can be brought about, consider a few of the objections usually brought against any measure for giving to the people at large that which in individual cases is invariably beneficial to themselves and to the community. Mr. Jefferies, in his amusing and suggestive work, Hodge and his Masters, gives several examples of labourers who tried to live on three or four acres of land, and who almost all failed. But this was to be expected. They had too much to supplement wages, too little to live on. These failures will soon right themselves when men can have land in any quantities that may suit their circumstances. Another labourer mentioned by Mr. Jefferies took thirty acres of [[p. 384]] land at 3l. an acre, for which a farmer had just before paid 30s. an acre, and he failed! No wonder. But it is not so certain that he would have failed if he had paid 30s., and had had the land on a perpetual tenure at that rent. Then say others, 'If the labourer has land he will be too independent, and will not work.' That objection is answered by every experiment which has yet been tried. Besides, it is no objection. We want them to be independent. We want them to refuse to work for starvation wages--and that is mostly what the objectors mean; but for adequate wages they are and will ever be the best of workers, and they will be always on the spot, attached to the land, and ready to aid in its cultivation. Let us listen to another of Mr. Jefferies' sayings about 'Hodge:' 'The settled agricultural labourer, of all others, has the least inducement to strike or leave his work. The longer he can stay in one place the better for him in many ways. His fruit-trees which he planted years ago are coming to perfection, and bear sufficient fruit in good years not only for food, but to bring him in a good sum of hard cash. The soil of the garden, long manured and dug, is twice as fertile as when he first disturbed the earth. The hedges have grown high and kept off the bitter wind. In short, the place is home, and he sits under his own vine and his own fig tree. It is not to his advantage to leave this and go miles away.'

    And this was written, remember, of a yearly tenancy, with all its disadvantages and uncertainties! How much more forcibly does every word of it apply when the home thus created is the man's own, and he feels as secure and independent in it as the parson in his glebe or the squire in his hall.

    Another objection is, that we want to get people away from the overcrowded towns, and these people would starve if put upon land in the country. But it is forgotten that the overcrowding of towns is due very largely to the influx of countrymen for the last ten or twenty years; and it is certain that were land now open to them in their native parishes, numbers of these would return to take advantage of it. And if at first only those who had saved a little money went back, these would decrease the competition among those who remained, and before [[p. 385]] many years had passed I venture to say that a considerable proportion of the countrymen who have been forced into towns would find their way back again to the country.

    Again, it is objected, capital is required to farm on however small a scale, and how are the labourers to obtain it? This is the weakest of all objections. Labour creates capital, and it is certain that nothing induces the labourer to save like the prospect of being thereby enabled to secure land and 'a homestead of his very own.' In my opinion nothing is so likely to make peasant farming a failure as any scheme to enable peasants to borrow capital with which to commence. They would then begin work on a scale to which they had not been accustomed, they would not have learnt by experience the innumerable economies and details of management which alone make farming a success, and in many cases they would soon fall hopelessly into debt. I ask for the labourer, not charity or loans, but fair opportunity and equal justice. Let him always begin on a small scale, with an acre of land to occupy his overtime and the spare hours of his family. When this succeeds, and he has saved a little capital or built a cottage, let him, if he wishes, have an acre more. The few who show exceptional skill, and industry, and thrift, and who save money enough to stock a small farm, of say ten or fifteen acres, should be able to obtain such a farm, always paying for it the fair agricultural rent, but having it on a secure--practically on a perpetual tenure.7

    In order to bring about this great system of free occupying ownership, which would certainly raise wages over the whole country and thus greatly diminish pauperism, while the increased production of food and elevation of the labourers would do more to renovate trade than any extension of foreign markets, we have only to give the labourer and the public generally the benefit of that principle which the Legislature always applies in the case of great industrial undertakings--viz. [[p. 386]] empower land to be taken for the purpose, whenever required, at a fair valuation.

    Without attempting to dictate any special method of doing this as being exclusively the right one, I will sketch out a mode of proceeding which appears to me at once simple and practical, reducing officialism to a minimum, and giving the fullest play to local authority.

    After enacting that, in order that the maximum amount of labour may be expended on the land, and the greatest amount of produce be obtained from it, every British subject of adult age may (once only) claim a portion of land for personal occupation, at a fair rent and on a secure tenure; the vestry or other local authority in every rural parish will be directed to appoint annually four men of knowledge and integrity to act as land assessors, two of them to be chosen from the class of farmers, and two from that of labourers. Any labourer or other person wanting a plot of land for personal occupation shall send in a form of notice (to be obtained gratis at the post office) to the person then occupying the land desired to be taken, naming the assessor chosen to represent him, and requesting the said occupier to name an assessor as his representative, and to fix a day for them all to meet upon the land in question and settle the matter. Each party will thereupon state his wishes and objections, and the assessors will decide--(1) the exact site of the plot of land to be allotted; (2) its quantity; (3) the annual rent to be paid for it on the basis of the average rental paid for similar land on the same farm or in the immediate neighbourhood; (4) the amount of compensation due to the present occupier for unexhausted improvements upon the plot of land in question. If the two assessors are unable to agree upon any of these points, the clergyman of the parish is to act as umpire, and to give a final decision, unless the vestry have appointed a special umpire to act in all such cases. A fixed fee (say 10s. each) to be paid the assessors for each award. Their decision to be inserted in a reference book kept for the purpose by the umpire, and the plot to be marked out on the ground and on the parish copy of Ordnance map by the district surveyor. The rents of all such plots may be collected by the rate-collector of the district, and [[p. 387]] the amount, less a small percentage for collection, paid to the landowner.

    Certain general principles would be laid down for the guidance of the assessors, subject to which the greatest possible freedom should be allowed in the choice of land, since no one can decide the situation and quality of land most useful to a labourer or mechanic so well as the man who is to occupy it and make it his home. The chief limitations necessary would be, that all pieces thus allotted should be ordinary agricultural land adjoining some public highway, and that they should not be granted very near to an existing farmhouse or other dwelling, if the occupier or owner thereof has any valid objection, and if land equally suitable can be had a little further away. Any trade or occupation constituting a nuisance might also be forbidden. The usual size of the lots at first granted should be one acre, with a frontage to the road about half, and not less than one-third the depth, but lots of two or more acres up to five might be taken, if special reasons existed why such lots would be more useful to the applicant. The amount assessed as compensation for improvements would have to be paid before entering on the land, and the rent should be collected half-yearly. The assessor's fees should be paid out of the rates, on the ground that every labourer thus settled on the land would be an insurance against pauperism, and in many ways a benefit to the whole community. The holdings would be perpetual so long as the rent was paid; and the rents would be fixed for, say, thirty-three years, and then only raised if the general agricultural rent of the locality had risen, and in the same proportion. The actual occupier of the land would be responsible for the rent, and no subtenancy or mortgage on the land would be valid, but the right of occupancy might be transferred, bequeathed or sold with the house or other improvements, just as an improved leasehold or copyhold may be transferred now. Under this arrangement the tenant would have the most perfect security for all his improvements and the full enjoyment of all the products of his labour, while the landlord would have his rent amply secured and regularly paid, and would, moreover, receive whatever 'unearned increment' might accrue to the land from social development [[p. 388]] until such time as this unearned increment, in the case of all land whatever, is taken by the State for the benefit of those who create it, or until complete nationalisation of all land is effected. On this point my own opinions are well known, but the great question we are now discussing cannot wait for so vast and so radical a change in public opinion as is necessary to bring it about. But by the method now advocated no attack whatever is made on private property in land, and no new principle is introduced. Every petty branch railway, even if calculated only to put money into the pockets of promoters, lawyers, engineers, and land speculators, has powers given it of compulsorily taking land; and we only ask that the same power may be granted to the people at large in order to bring about a more healthy and natural distribution of the population, and a greater and more varied production from the soil.

    There is absolutely no difference of opinion as to this being a good thing in itself, but no one has yet ventured to point out how it may be brought about--not here and there on isolated patches of charity lands, nor on estates purchased by land associations for the purpose, and which, besides being miserably inadequate, would almost certainly fail--but over the whole length and breadth of the country, enabling every labourer to have his acre of land, and his home near to his native village, or to the farm on which he labours, and affording to every man who has been obliged to leave his native place the opportunity of returning to it under new and happier auspices. And this can all be done without taking away any man's property, or interfering with his legal and equitable rights, without any loans or advances of public money, without calling to our aid the obstructive powers of a single commissioner at a salary of 5,000l. a year, or requiring the expenditure of a yard of red tape, or the assistance of a single lawyer in any part of the operation. Moreover, the plan would ensure its own success by its selective action on the men who would benefit by it. A little money would be required to pay for the improvements and to secure payment of the first half-year's rent, and this would ensure that only the industrious and thrifty labourers would first take land, and these would be certain to convert even [[p. 389]] the barrenest acres into fertile gardens. In order to have more land, a man must have saved more money; and if it is objected that it is not the already well-to-do, but the miserable and the starving that we want to get on to the land, the reply is, that the only sure and permanently successful way to get them there is to let those who are better off and more experienced go first; for by their going the fierce competition for work will be lessened, wages will rise, those who were out of work or on starvation wages will find their condition improved; and having in the now bright future the glad vision of a 'homestead of their own,' many will work and save until they too can join their friends in the old native village, and end their lives amid the scenes of their early youth.

    One of the objections often made against any proposal to raise general wages is that, if better off, the poor will multiply more rapidly, will thus increase competition for work, and soon become as bad off as before. But there never was a more superficial or a more unfounded objection than this, since the universal testimony of all inquirers is, that by improving the status of the labourer, and raising his standard of comfort, you increase his morality and delay the period of marriage. When a 'homestead of his own' is within reach of every young labourer by a few years of industry and self-denial, and when in every part of the country many have attained to it, no decent country girl will marry a man who has not secured it; and thus the period of marriage will be put off, at first two or three, and soon, as wages and the standard of comfort rise, perhaps four or five years. Now this will check the increase of population in two distinct ways. By delaying the average period of marriage, say, five years, the average length of each generation is increased to that extent, and the time required to double the population is greatly lengthened. Even, therefore, if the average productiveness of such marriages remained the same, the mere later marriage-period would materially check the rate of increase. But Mr. Francis Galton8 has shown, by a careful series of observations among healthy country families, that a delay of the age of marriage from 17 to 22 diminishes the average [[p. 390]] fertility of such marriages in the proportion of 6 to 5. Combining these two effects together, there will be a very considerable diminution of the rate of increase, an object of great importance in itself, but rendered doubly important when it is brought about by an increase of material well-being, and an elevation at once in the social and moral status of society.

    Another objection will no doubt be made to these proposals in the form of the time-honoured dogma--'You cannot abolish poverty by Act of Parliament;' and with extreme inconsistency the fierce opponents of laissez-faire as a general doctrine will uphold it now, and ask to have the relations of the land and the people 'let alone.' But I, who am an upholder of the true doctrine of laissez-faire, am quite ready to agree that Parliament can do little or nothing by positive compulsory enactments, by ordering people to do this and not to do that, by limiting their freedom to work and live as they please within the limits of equal freedom to others. But when an Act of Parliament is a great liberating act, when it strikes the shackles from the slave and sets him free to labour for himself, when it throws down the artificial and immoral barriers that have long kept willing arms from labouring on their native soil, when it enables the thousands who have been driven from the country to the overcrowded towns to return again to the scenes of their youth, and secures to every industrious labourer the possession of a fair share of the wealth which he creates, such an Act is almost unlimited in its power of doing good to suffering humanity.

    Here, then, is my solution of the problem of the unequal distribution of wealth that prevails among us. I have traced it to its roots in the power which one part of the community is allowed to possess of forbidding to all the rest the free use of their native soil. This is the great political injustice which, as I anticipated would be the case, is the fundamental cause of the widespread poverty in the midst of our abounding wealth, and of almost all the crying evils of our complex society. Like all injustice in the primary relations of man and man, its evil influence is universal in its range and appalling in its amount. [[p. 391]] It permeates our whole civilisation, and so contaminates it that all the powers of nature which during the past century science has enlisted in our service, have intensified, rather than diminished, the sum of human labour; and have done so little to improve the condition of our labourers, that one in fifteen of our whole population and one in nine of the population of our capital city actually die in union workhouses! And this can represent only a fraction, probably a small fraction, of the pauperism in our midst!

    Briefly to sum up: I claim for the proposal now made--

    (1) That it goes to the very root of the matter, since by rendering a large number of labourers less dependent on daily wages as their only means of obtaining food, it would immediately and necessarily raise the standard of wages; and this is absolutely the only means (except charity pure and simple) by which the labouring classes may at once be enabled more fully to share in the products of industry.

    (2) It does this in the simplest conceivable way, by throwing down the barriers which now prevent labour from flowing over the land.

    (3) It would enable every labourer, by industry and thrift, to realise his highest aspiration--'a homestead of his own.'

    (4) It would largely increase the food-supply of the country, especially in dairy-produce, poultry, fruit, and vegetables, now to the amount of thirty-eight millions annually imported from abroad.

    (5) It would, by a self-acting gradual process, withdraw the congested populations of the towns back to the rural districts from which they have so largely come; and would at the same time benefit those who remained by both raising their wages and lowering their rents.

    (6) It would completely settle both the Irish and the Highland land questions, by satisfying the just claims of the labourers and cottiers in one country, and the crofters in the other; and would open up to human industry extensive areas of both countries, once cultivated, but now devoted exclusively to cattle, sheep, or game.

    (7) It would also bring about a great moral reform, since all [[p. 392]] experience proves that the possession of land on a secure tenure is the best incentive to sobriety, industry, and thrift.

    (8) And, lastly, all this can be effected without any financial operation or increased taxation, and with no greater interference with landed property than is allowed to many of the speculations of capitalists of far less general utility.

    I therefore confidently submit to this Conference that the object we all have at heart may be best attained by taking the necessary steps to instruct the working classes, and especially the two and a half millions of labourers who are now enfranchised, as to the only means, at once effectual and equitable, by which they may more fully share in the products of industry. It will then be in their power to return representatives who will give effect to their just demands, to the extent and in the manner here indicated, and thus, in all probability, save our country from a social revolution which may bring misery and ruin to thousands, and whose end, whether for good or evil, it is impossible to foresee.


Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1Mill's Political Economy, Book III. chap. iv. par. 2. [[on p. 370]]
2Mill's Political Economy, Book III. chap. xxv. par. 4. [[on p. 371]]
3Mr. R. Scott Burn and Dr. Charles Hunter are authorities for these figures, 250 men being supported on 100 acres of wheat, 683 men on the same area of potatoes; while Mr. W. R. Greg has calculated that it requires twenty-two acres of pasture to support one man living on meat alone. [[on p. 375]]
4Book II. chap. xii. par. 4. [[on p. 380]]
5English Land and English Landlords, p. 237. [[on p. 381]]
6The Land and the Labourers, by Rev. C. W. Stubbs, M.A., Vicar of Granborough. W. Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 1884. [[on p. 382]]
7In a small tract, How to Experiment in Land Nationalisation, I have shown how such farms may be advantageously created on Crown Land, Corporation Estates, and Commons; while the beneficial results of such peasant-farms are exhibited by illustrative cases given in a book on Land Nationalisation, its Necessity and its Aims, and, more fully, in the works of Mill, Kay, Thornton, Brodrick, Howitt, Laing, Laveleye, and Sismondi. [[on p. 385]]
8Inquiries into Human Faculty, p. 320. 1883. [[on p. 389]]


*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Return to Home