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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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The Instability of Peasant-Proprietorship--
The Necessity of Rent. (S422: 1890)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A short position paper published with several others as "The New Round Table: Land Nationalisation" in the Westminster Review in May 1890. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S422.htm

    [[p. 541]] Politicians of to-day, no longer able to withstand the ever-growing public opinion in favour of the radical reform of our land system, profess themselves willing to favour in every possible way the creation of peasant-proprietors; and even the present Tory Government has introduced a Bill, which, if carried, must logically be extended so as to transfer the fee-simple of the entire agricultural land of Ireland to existing occupiers. And the principle of this measure is accepted by both parties, the only difference of opinion being as to how, and when, and by whom it ought to be carried into effect. But not a single voice has yet been raised, in Parliament or out, to proclaim the utter futility of such a proceeding on account of the absence of the equalising agency of rent, an absence which must certainly lead to the failure of some of these new landowners and the aggrandisement of others, till, in a comparatively short period, we shall again have a body of wealthy landlords and rack-rented tenants all over the country.

    In order more clearly to see how this result must be produced, [[p. 542]] let us suppose we have arrived at the period, about half a century hence, when all the land of Ireland has become the property of the tenants and nobody pays any rent. We shall then have a compact body of peasant proprietors holding small farms of very different values, some holding land worth but five or ten shillings an acre, while that of others is worth three or four pounds. Now, it is quite clear that the man with good land and no rent to pay can afford to sell his produce lower than the man who has poor land equally rent-free, and wherever there is competition between them he will do so. When seasons are bad or prices low, the latter will be ruined by this competition, will have to borrow money on his land from his richer neighbour, and will inevitably, sooner or later, have to sell his land, which will be added to the richer land adjoining and be worked together with it. It is to avoid this inevitable result that, almost everywhere on the Continent, the land has been divided up into small detached plots so that each holding consists of a similar proportion of all the different qualities of land in the parish or commune--heavy or light soil, pasture meadow or coppice--a farm of ten or fifteen acres often consisting of twenty or thirty separate patches, all completely isolated and unfenced, and often scattered over a square mile of ground. This, of course, is a dreadfully inconvenient and wasteful mode of cultivation, but it serves rudely to equalise the different holdings; and it is this equalisation which has caused it to be upheld so tenaciously by the peasant proprietors of many different countries.

    To understand how peasant-proprietorship would work with us, we may suppose that one half of the cotton manufacturers of England used the old-fashioned machines of thirty or forty years ago, whilst the other half used the very newest and most improved machinery. Is it not absolutely certain that the former would soon be undersold by the latter and would become bankrupt, unless all were taxed exactly in proportion to the benefit derived by the various qualities of the machinery employed? But the land itself is to the cultivator what machinery is to the manufacturer, and it is permanently and necessarily as different in value as would be the machinery of various periods during the last hundred years if brought into competition to-day. In order to equalise this difference in land value there are the two methods in use--the wasteful and imperfect continental method of each cultivator having small detached plots of the different qualities of land, and the far more economical and complete method of Rent, by which the advantages of various soils and situations are equalised, and every occupier is able to compete on fair terms with all other occupiers.

    Rent, then, is a necessary factor in successful agriculture by small farmers, the only question being as to who shall receive the rent and what shall be the conditions of the occupation. The present method of [[p. 543]] private landlords and rack-rents we nationalisers hold to be the very worst method possible. That of permanent and secure occupation under the State, with the payment of an economic rent, revisable at long intervals and only on changes of value produced by general causes--that is, by the growth or advancement of the whole community--with perfect freedom of action by the cultivator who will be the owner of all improvements of whatsoever kind, to be the very best.

    It may indeed be urged that, if by ownership of the land food can be produced and sold cheaper than by tenancy, it must be better for the whole community who are the consumers of food. But this cheapness would be only temporary, because so soon as the land became again the property of the few, owing to the failure of the owners of the poorer lands, it would be let out in farms as now, rent would be paid to equalise the various values of the land, and we should return again to the existent system of landlord and tenant. Under State ownership, however, the rent paid would ultimately take the place of all other taxes, and thus the whole community would benefit far more than by a temporary cheapness of food accompanied by the ruin of a considerable portion of the poorer cultivators.

    Rent, therefore, is essential to the stability of any system of the occupation of land. Rent paid to the community, through State or municipal authorities, is the only system which is beneficial to the whole community.

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