Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
(S385: 1885 or 1886)
In order that the greatest number of people may become freeholders, many liberals advocate the abolition of all restrictions on the sale and transfer of land. They say, make every man who owns land an absolute owner, with power to sell, or divide, or bequeath as he pleases, and plenty of land will come into the market. Then, every one who wants land can buy it, if able to do so; and if the mode of transfer is also made simple and cheap every thing will have been done that need be done. We shall then have free trade in land; there will be no limited or encumbered estates, and capital will flow to land and develop its resources.
But people who talk thus forget that we have already had two great experiments of this nature, both supported by these very arguments, and that both have utterly failed. Thirty years ago the dreadful condition of the Irish peasantry was imputed to the prevalence of entailed and encumbered estates, the owners of which had no money to spend on improvements, and a most radical measure was passed by which all these estates were brought into [[p. 2]] the market and sold to the highest bidder. But the result was not as expected. Capital flowed into the country, but with no benefit to anyone but the capitalist. English manufacturers and speculators became owners of Irish land, and sometimes laid out money on it; but they were harder landlords than those whom they replaced, they looked upon the land they had bought merely as a means of making money and utterly ignored the equitable or customary rights of the unhappy tenants. Irish distress was not in the least degree ameliorated by this drastic measure from which so much was expected, and it is now rarely spoken of, while legislation on totally different lines has been found necessary.
The second example of the utter uselessness of pouring capital into a country so long as the people are denied any right to the use of land is afforded by Scotland. In the early part of this century, the great demand for wool made sheep-farming profitable, and many of the highland landlords were persuaded that they could double their incomes by establishing great sheep-farms on their vast estates. They did so. Many thousands of valuable sheep were introduced; much money was spent in fencing and in building new farm houses for the lowland farmers, while the rights of the hereditary dwellers on the soil were utterly ignored, and, by a series of barbarous evictions, these poor people were banished to the sea shore, or forced to emigrate. The result was, for a time, beneficial to the landlords, who proclaimed the scheme a great success; but it was most disastrous to the people, who, ever since, have been kept in a state of perpetual serfdom and pauperism. The present condition of the Highlands is a direct consequence of the application of capital to the land by landlords while the rights of people were ignored; and the result of these two great experiments in Ireland and Scotland should teach us that any similar experiment in England cannot possibly lead to good results. It is true the conditions of society in England are different. There are here more [[p. 3]] capitalists ever competing for the possession of land; but "free trade" would simply enable those capitalists who desire land to obtain it more easily. What chance would the poor man have against such competitors? With population and wealth and manufactures ever increasing, as they are in England, the poor man will have less and less chance of getting land, so long as it is to be obtained solely by purchase and there is neither compulsion to sell, nor right to buy at equitable prices.
As land is ever getting scarcer in proportion to population, and in private hands must necessarily be a monopoly, it offers the greatest temptation to speculators, who even now, frequently buy up estates offered for sale and resell them in small plots at competition prices which no poor man can afford to give; and this will continue to be the case so long as land is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. We maintain that this is a monstrous wrong and should never be permitted. Land is the first necessary of life, the source of food and of all kinds of wealth, and a sufficiency for health and enjoyment is absolutely needed by every one. It is a political crime to permit land to be monopolised by a few, to allow the wealthy to employ it for mere sport or aggrandisement, while thousands live in misery and have to suffer disease and want because they are denied the right to live and labour upon it.
In order that all may have equal rights to use and enjoy the land of their birth, it must become, not theoretically only, but actually, the property of the State in trust for all; and for all to derive equal advantages from it, those who occupy it must pay a rental to the State for its use. This is the only way to equalise the advantages derived by the several occupiers of land of different qualities and in different situations,--the only way to enable the whole community to benefit by the increased value which the community itself gives to land.
[[p. 4]] The use of land is twofold. Its chief and primary use is to supply to every household in the kingdom, the conditions for healthy existence, and, whenever possible, some portion at least of their daily food. When all are thus supplied with the land necessary for a healthy home, the remainder should be devoted to cultivation in such a way as to produce the maximum of food, and at the same time to support and bring up the maximum number of healthy and happy food-producers. All experience shows that these two things go together, and that in any country the maximum of food is produced when the greatest possible population live upon and by the land. At one extreme we have the great farms of S. Australia, and California, cultivated with the minimum of human labour and producing a net return of about ten bushels of wheat per acre, and at the other extreme the allotments of our farm labourers producing food to the value of £40 per acre.
But in order that our labourers and mechanics may each be enabled to have, say, an acre of land to live on, and an acre or two more to cultivate, if they require it, with the power of getting a small farm of, from 10 to 40 acres, whenever they have obtained money enough to stock it, the land must be let, not sold to them. For at first a man wants all his little capital to enable him to cultivate even the smallest plot of land, and if he has to buy it, even by the easiest instalments, he is to that extent crippled. Moreover it is a bad thing for him to own the land absolutely, because he is then open to the temptations of the money-lender. Instead of economising and pinching in bad seasons, he borrows money and mortgages his land, and thus falls under a tyranny as bad as that of the hardest landlord. In every part of the world the small freeholder falls a victim to the money-lender.
As a State-tenant the occupier would have all the essential rights and advantages of a freeholder. His tenure would be practically perpetual. He would have the right to sell or bequeath his [[p. 5]] holding, or any part of it, just as freely. His rent would never be raised on account of any improvement made by himself, but only on account of increased value of the ground-rent, due to the growth of population or other general causes, which would affect all the land around as well as his. He would therefore enjoy all the rights, all the privileges, and all the security which a freeholder enjoys. But he would have this great advantage over the freeholder, that he need not sink one penny of his capital in the purchase of the soil; and thus, for one man who could save money enough to acquire a farm or a homestead by purchase, two or three would be able to become State-tenants, with money in their pockets to stock their land or build their house, and to live upon till their first crops were gathered. Those who maintain the superiority of freeholds, therefore, speak without knowledge; the superiority is all the other way.
There is one more point to be considered, which is of great importance, that under a general system of small freeholders, one half of these would very soon be ruined by the other half--would be obliged to sell their farms to money-lenders or lawyers, and thus great estates would again monopolise the land. The way this would necessarily come about (as it always has come about) is as follows. Suppose there are a body of peasant-proprietors all over the country. Their land necessarily varies in quality and position, and, therefore, in value from fifteen or twenty shillings an acre up to two, three, or four pounds an acre; and, all being freeholders, none of them pay rent. But the owner of the better land can afford to sell his produce of all kinds at a lower rate than the owner of the inferior land, because prices which will enable the former to live and save money will be starvation to the latter. Hence an unequal competition will arise between the two classes in which the one must necessarily starve out the other. The payment of rent in proportion to the inherent value of the land equalises the position of all. The occupier of poor land at a low rent can fairly compete [[p. 6]] with the occupier of rich land at a high rent; and thus while a system of small proprietors is sure to fail, a system of small occupiers, under the State, combines all the essential elements of stability.1
Thus far we have considered the question solely from the economical and practical point of view, but the great superiority of State tenants over freeholders is equally apparent when we treat it as a question of justice. Land necessarily increases in value as population and civilisation increase, and that increase being the creation of the community at large is justly the property of the community. By a system of State tenants we shall obtain this increase for the benefit of all, by means of a periodical reassessment of the ground rents payable to the State; but if we create a body of small freeholders we shall perpetuate injustice and inequality. A. and B. may acquire two farms at the same cost and may bestow the same labour and skill in the cultivation of them. But in 30 or 40 years the value of the two may be very different. Minerals may be discovered or some new industry may spring up causing the farm of A. to become the site of a populous town while that of B. remains in a secluded agricultural district; so that, while the children of the one are earning their living by honest labour the children of the other may be all living in idleness by means of wealth which they have not created and to which they have no equitable claim, and to the same extent the community at large is robbed of its due. If on the other hand we establish a system of State-tenancy over the whole country, the natural increase of land-value by social development will produce an ever increasing revenue even if existing landlords continue to be paid the incomes they now receive from the land, so that [[p. 7]] in addition to all the other advantages of the system we shall acquire the means of bringing about a steady diminution of taxation by which all alike will benefit.
Briefly to sum up the argument: SMALL FREEHOLDERS ARE BAD because,--
1. Money must be sunk in the purchase which can be better invested in the cultivation of the soil.
2. The number of men who can advantageously acquire small farms is therefore greatly reduced.
3. The unearned increment of the land is taken from the community who create it and is given to individuals.
4. The inheritors of these small farms of different qualities of land will compete unequally with each other, and those holding the poorer land must sooner or later sell their farms or fall into the hands of the money lender. The system therefore contains within itself the elements of decay and failure.
In all these respects State-tenancy is greatly to be preferred to small-freeholding, and a general system of State-tenancy can only be secured by a complete Nationalisation of the Land.
1. This danger has been attempted to be obviated on the continent by the farms consisting of scores or hundreds of scattered patches of land of different qualities. But this system renders economical cultivation impossible, and the remedy is worse than the disease. [[on p. 6]]