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Presidential Address (S423: 1890)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Presidential Address delivered at the ninth annual meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society, 19 June 1890. This printing of the text taken from Land & Labor No. 9 (July 1890). Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S423.htm

    [[p. 2]] Ladies and Gentlemen,--The progress of our cause, and of our Society, on which I was able to congratulate you last year, has been fully maintained during that which has just passed. Whether we consider the increase of our members, the useful work we have done by lectures and the distribution of literature, the more intelligent appreciation of our aims by many classes of reformers, or the influences of our teachings in County Councils and in Parliament, we can but feel that the worst period of struggle and difficulty though which the Society has passed is now left behind us, and we are at length receiving the reward of our patience and perseverance in the general recognition of the worthiness of our aims, and a more frequent acknowledgment of the soundness of our principles and the value of our proposals.

    Before laying before you a few remarks on matters of general interest connected with our movement, I wish to call attention to two items of the Society's work during the past year, which are to me especially gratifying--the issue of a revised programme, and the establishment of our literary organ, "Land and Labor." The programme which was issued on the foundation of the Society in 1881, contained some disputable matter and was deficient in systematic form and logical completeness. For the last five or six years it has been proposed to amend it, but the difficulty of harmonising the various opinions that prevailed were long insuperable. Thanks, however, mainly to the exertions of our Honorary Secretary, Mr. Moberly, and of our Vice-President, Mr. Ogilvy, these difficulties have at length been overcome, and I venture to think that the programme as now issued, and which appears to have met with the almost unanimous approval of our members, sets forth our whole case in a very compact, logical and forcible manner.

    For some months past we have had a kind of triangular duel going on in the daily papers and monthly reviews, in which Professor Huxley and Mr. Herbert Spencer, while attacking Henry George, have strongly opposed each other. I venture to think that even Professor Huxley's skill in metaphysical or dialectical argument would be severely taxed if he ventured to oppose either the data, the arguments or the conclusions of this programme. I trust it may be very widely distributed, since it is calculated to attract the attention of thinkers and politicians who have no time to study our other literature.

    The issue of the monthly paper, happily entitled "Land and Labor," is of the greatest importance to our cause, and must be a matter of rejoicing to every land nationaliser. Without the invaluable services of Mr. A. J. Ogilvy, as Editor, its establishment would have been almost impossible, and I trust that all our members will do their utmost to render the paper self-supporting.

    There is undoubtedly now a very general movement of opinion towards our standpoint, though many who have been influenced by our teaching, still think it necessary to declare that they are entirely opposed to us. Thus, we have that advanced liberal, John Morley, declaring at Newcastle, last November, that he was dead against Land Nationalisation and would vote against it, and in the following May we see him both speaking and voting for Mr. Reid's motion for giving Town and County Councils power to acquire compulsorily, "whatever land is, in their judgment, needed for the requirements of the inhabitants." But this is essentially Land Nationalisation, and nothing else. It is the first step which we have long advocated, and it is a step which must inevitably lead on to complete nationalisation under local management, so soon as public opinion demands it. Mr. Morley's opposition to the name of Land Nationalisation, while a few weeks afterwards at the Eighty Club he spoke strongly in favour of the thing itself--of giving power to municipal and local authorities to acquire compulsorily such monopolies as water and gas works, as well as land for public purposes, and to parish councils, when they are constituted, power to purchase or hire land for letting to the poor instead of the practically inoperative Allotments Act--all this is but another indication of the way in which public men remain totally ignorant of all proposals which they think to be a little in advance of the time, to be beyond the sphere of practical politics. Even Mr. Gladstone--that omnivorous reader and student--has evidently not studied our literature, or he would not be so ignorant as he is, both of the need of some land reform of the nature we advocate, and of the practical proposals by which we obviate the difficulties supposed to attend state management. Still more extraordinary, our great philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who has to some extent studied this question, puts forth difficulties and bugbears which we have long since proved to have no existence. In his letter to the Times [[p. 3]] explaining his views, he says:--"Nationalism of the Land effected after compensation for the artificial value given by cultivation, amounting to the greater part of its value, would entail in the shape of interest on the required purchase-money as great a sum as is now paid in rent. Add to which there is no reason to think that the substituted form of administration would be better than the existing form of administration. The belief that land would be better managed by public officials than it is by private owners is a very wild belief." Now I think it would be difficult to compress more ignorance or misapprehension of the methods of land nationalisation we advocate than is to be found in this short sentence: and as the first Land Nationalisation Society established in England our proposals should be carefully considered by any opponent of the scheme. The objection as to the interest on the purchase-money being greater than the present rent, is opposed to the fact that both interest and principal are paid and redeemed in Ireland for 20, 30, and sometimes 40 per cent. less than the recently reduced rents; and though we do not compare England with Ireland in this respect, yet the fact that the Reports of the last Royal Commission on Agriculture state, that the costs of agency, repairs, and improvements in the most large estates amount to from 25 to 35 per cent. of the gross rental, irrespective of necessary abatements of rent during periods of depression and total losses from bad debts and unoccupied farms, shows that here too there is a wide margin between gross and net rental, at least nine-tenths of which would be saved under our system. The other objection as to management by public officials being worse than management by private owners exhibits a total ignorance of our proposals, under which no management whatever, in the sense of interference with the occupier in his dealing with the land, would be necessary or permissible. The present method is comparable to the letting of a house on a yearly tenancy, and involves supervision or management in order that the property may not be deteriorated and that the rent may be punctually paid. Our method is like that of letting a plot of building land at a fair ground-rent in perpetuity. It requires no management, the fact that the owner has a lien on the buildings upon the land ensuring punctual payment of the rent.


    Coming back to Mr. Reid's motion in the House of Commons, I wish to call your attention to its importance as illustrating the practical nature of our proposals. Our friends and fellow-workers of the Land Restoration League are accustomed to urge that their method of taxation, beginning with 4/- in the pound, is in accordance with English political methods and follows the "line of least resistance." If this were true it would be a strong argument in their favour, but I altogether doubt its truth. Our method of compulsory purchase by local authorities has been brought to the test of public opinion in the place where accustomed political methods have the greatest weight--the House of Commons--and has found 159 supporters in a house of 334 members. Let the advocates of taxation bring forward a motion declaring that it is expedient to reimpose the tax of 4/- in the pound on the full annual value of all land in England and Wales, rural and urban, and see how many supporters they will have. I venture to say they will not have 159, and I shall be very much surprised if they have as many as 50. After such a comparative trial we shall be able to say which proposal really does follow "the line of least resistance," and if our proposals are found to have that advantage, we may, I trust, see our way to a union of the two societies in one harmonious body. (Cheers.)


    One of the most important points of difference between the followers of Henry George and ourselves is on the question whether the landlord can throw the burden of a heavy land-tax upon the tenant. This question has been the subject of much discussion during the past year. The United Committee for the Taxation of Ground Rents and Values has issued a series of "Extracts from Authorities," and also a pamphlet by Mr. Fletcher Moulton, Q.C.; while in the Democrat of last March is an article entitled "Can the Land Value Tax be shifted?" It is evidently, therefore, not out of place to say a few words on this subject, more especially as I myself, with the majority of the members of this Society, hold that those who adduce these authorities are wrong as regards the particular kind of taxation here referred to, and we believe that the source of their error can be very easily shown.

    Our opponents' strong point, in this matter, is the appeal to authority. Adam Smith says: "A tax upon ground rents would not raise the rents of houses. It would fall altogether upon the owner of the ground rent, who acts always as a monopolist, and exacts the greatest rent which can be got for his ground."

    Ricardo says: "A tax on rent would fall wholly on the landlords, and could not be shifted to any class of consumers . . . It would leave unaltered the difference between the produce obtained from the least productive land in cultivation and that obtained from land of every other quality."

    John Stuart Mill says: "A tax on rent falls wholly on the landlord. There are no means by which he can shift the burden upon any one else."

    Professor Thorold Rogers and most other writers on political economy have followed these great authorities, repeating their statement in slightly modified words; and in the recent articles I have referred to, either these authorities are accepted as conclusive, or if any attempt is made to prove that the same results would follow the imposition of a 4s. or higher land tax, the logic is at fault, and the attempted proof utterly breaks down. This I shall hope to show you in a very few words.

    The whole essence of the question at issue is contained in the concluding words I have quoted from Adam Smith, that the landlord "always acts as a monopolist, and exacts the highest rent which can be got for his land." It follows, therefore, that however much you tax him, however much you impoverish him, you do not, by that act alone, enable him to extract more rent from the tenant, who is not benefited by the landlord's tax. Now this was the only kind of tax contemplated by the early writers. Governments were always in want of money, always seeking to impose new taxes; and having taxed the poor as much as they could bear, if they put a special tax on land the landlord must pay it since the tenant was already rented and taxed up to the hilt. He [[p. 4]] could bear no more. Adam Smith, and Ricardo, and Mill never contemplated the case of a landlord-government taxing land, not to supply their own dire necessities, but to relieve the tenant. Such a thing was inconceivable to them, was beyond the range of their practical politics, and therefore they did not deal with it. But this is the very essence of the modern proposal. The 4s. tax is not to be a war-tax, or, what is much the same thing, the money obtained is not to be thrown into the sea. It is not proposed to tax the landlords in order to ruin them without benefiting the rest of the community, who are all tenants. That would be pure "cussedness," as our American friends would say. But the tax on landlords is for the express purpose of relieving tenants. Just as the landlords are made poorer by it, the tenants are to be made richer; taxes are to be transferred from tenants to landlords, and would be exactly equivalent to a reduction of rent. What then would happen--the landlord, as Adam Smith says, acting "always as a monopolist and exacting the greatest rent which can be got for his ground"? Is it not absolutely certain that, he being poorer and the tenant richer, he would raise the rent and thus get back the tax he had just paid? Mr. Fletcher Moulton says this is a fallacy. He urges that "under the proposed system the ground value will represent the full rental value that the landowner can obtain for the use of his land, unburdened by any rates. This is a sum which will be determined by considerations relating to the land itself, and by these alone. In ascertaining the rental which he can afford to give for the free use of the land, the proposed tenant will not be affected by the question, what portion of that rent will be retained by the landlord, and what proportion will be paid over in rates?" Of course he would not; nobody has ever suggested that he would. But Mr. Moulton has slipped in the words, "unburdened by any rates," and thereafter ignores them. Are tenants now "unburdened by any rates"? And if their rates are removed and put on the landlord, does not this affect the tenant's power of paying more rent, and the landlord's power, "acting always as a monopolist," to obtain more rent? Surely the "simple fallacy" is on Mr. Moulton's part, not on ours.

    The writer in the Democrat also trusts mainly to the authorities, and in his arguments also misses the main point. He says, "A tax upon land value, or economic rent, would not raise prices, but would simply transfer to the State a portion or the whole of that premium paid for the use of better land which now constitutes the unearned incomes of the landlords." Here, "transferring to the State" is spoken of as if it were a foreign State, or a private individual who would spend the money on himself. But the State in this case is the community, consisting almost wholly of tenants who are to benefit directly by reduction of rates and taxes. They would therefore be able to pay higher rents, and the landlord, "acting always as a monopolist," would exact those higher rents so as to bring back the respective position of landlord and tenant to what it was before the tax was imposed. The only other argument used, that if it would have the effect we urge the landlords would not object to it, is hardly worth answering. Landlords are not a specially intellectual body of men, and why should they not be blinded by the alleged "authorities" as well as the followers of Mr. George? Besides, there would be some loss to the landlords, especially to those who had granted leases. All we urge is that in a very few years the landlords would necessarily recoup themselves, under the inevitable laws of supply and demand, they being left in possession of a monopoly of what is essential to all men. In his "Scheme for the Abolition of Landlordism," in the Westminster Review for May, Mr. Charles Wicksteed hit the nail on the head by his suggestion that all receipts for taxes on land should be applied in the purchase of land, not in relieving tenants of rates and taxes, and thus prevent the landlords from recouping themselves by raising rents. This simple proposal has satisfied one member of the Land Restoration League that the imposition of the 4s. or any other tax, to be applied in relief of other taxation, would be useless, and would ultimately leave the landlords as much masters of the situation as they are now.1 It is to be hoped that others will be equally convinced and equally candid in acknowledging it, and thereafter retire from an untenable position.2

    There is one more subject on which I wish to say a few words--the Report of the Committee of the House of Lords on Sweating. This report tells us little that we did not know before, but it is something to get the facts officially confirmed. Many of the facts which so horrified us during the "Bitter Cry of Outcast London" agitation are here repeated, as they were repeated before the Commission on the Better Housing of the Working Classes, and there seems to be absolutely no improvement. This is of course denied; and nothing is easier than to produce evidence of improvement among certain classes or in certain districts; but the demonstrative proof that there is no general improvement is given by the Registrar General, who records the deaths in London "in workhouses, hospitals, lunatic asylums, and other public charitable institutions," as follows: In 1872, 12,029, being 17 per cent. of the total deaths; in 1881, 16,965 or 21 per cent. of the deaths; and this enormous increase underwent a still further increase in the last year recorded, 1888, when the deaths were 17,728 or 22 ½ per cent. of the total deaths. These official figures cannot be explained away, and they prove that the condition of the London poor is getting worse and worse--not only in absolute numbers but relatively to population. The fact is further illustrated by a statement made by John Morley in his recent speech at the "Eighty Club," [[p. 5]] that accurate statistics show that over 40,000 children go to the London Board schools in a condition of starvation--and this is the wealthiest city in the world, after half a century of free trade and unexampled commercial prosperity!

    In their final conclusions the Committee state: (1) That the earnings of the lowest classes of workers are barely sufficient to maintain existence; (2) that the hours of labor are such as to make the lives of the workers periods of almost ceaseless toil, hard and often unhealthy; (3) that the sanitary conditions under which the work is conducted, are not only injurious to the health of the persons employed, but are dangerous to the public; and they add--"We make the above statements on evidence of the truth of which we are fully satisfied." They see clearly that the main cause of this dreadful state of things is "the excessive supply of unskilled labor," especially of "cheap female labor," owing to which "abundant materials exist to supply an unscrupulous employer with workers helplessly dependent on him." Ample proof is given of this in the evidence, it being shown, again and again, that the necessities of the work-people oblige them to take work at any price they can get rather than remain idle and starve.

    The reason I have referred to this report is, to point out the utter inability of the Committee even to suggest any remedy, except as to the unsanitary nature of the workshops, which no doubt may be improved by efficient inspection. But that will not in any way tend to raise wages, or to reduce the horrible toil of 14, 16, or 18 hours daily for a bare and miserable subsistence. The chairman of the Committee, the Earl of Dunraven, demanded legislation of some kind in the House of Lords, but the Lords having got the report of the Committee, evidently thought that was enough, and that it was unreasonable to ask them to trouble themselves more about the matter. A bishop declared that something ought to be done, and that there must be some way of doing it. A noble lord declared that true statesmanship lay in telling these poor people that legislation could benefit them very little, and that the only remedy was in their own hands in the form of thrift, and abstinence from marriage till they were capable of supporting families. And then the Lords dropped the subject, and were evidently glad to get rid of it. This attitude of helplessness is shared by the press, and by politicians in general. None of them have any but the vaguest and most milk-and-water remedies to propose; and it is this utter helplessness before the misery and degradation of the people that is leading the more thoughtful towards us. We, at least, have no doubt as to the remedy. We propose to strike at once at the very root of the disease--the congestion of population in the great cities wholly at the mercy of capitalist employers of labor,--by throwing open the land to the people. We have given abundant evidence that the land of this country is not half nor a quarter cultivated, and that it can support ten times the rural population that now live upon it; and by thus drawing back the country-born people to the land, we shall at once raise the wages of unskilled labor in the only way it can be permanently raised, by diminishing the supply. Mr. Charles Booth, in his remarkable statistical work on Labor and Life of the People, has shown that 343 per thousand of Londoners were born in the country, and that in the ten years 1871-81, no less than 107,753 persons had come to London from the country, mostly from the agricultural districts, in addition to those who had died during the period after coming there. Here is the real cause of the evils enquired into by the Lords; but the Lords, as great landowners, are themselves responsible for much of it, and of course they cannot or will not see it. But we who do see it, who feel absolutely certain that ours is the one and only immediate and practical remedy for this terrible disease of our so-called civilized society, must compel our legislators to see it; and we can do this in no way so effectually as by influencing the voters, and inducing them to make this question of "the land for the people," the test question to all candidates for parliament. (Cheers.)

    When we see such men as John Morley advocating the very measures we suggest--though not yet prepared to call himself a land-nationaliser--we may be sure that the time of enlightenment is at hand, and that many now present will live to see the greater portion of our programme become the law of the land.


    The report of the Select Committee on Small Holdings has been issued, and here again we find some recognition of truths which we have urged on our legislators for years. They find that "the demand for small holdings appears to be general in all parts of England and Wales, but seems to be less active in Scotland," and they state that "it is probable that if legislative facilities were offered and assistance given in the way of loans on reasonable terms, they would be widely availed of by the more enterprising and thrifty of the population. The Committee are strongly and unanimously of opinion that the extension of a system of small holdings is a matter of national importance." They further state that,--

    "It is desirable, in the interests of the rural population, to whom it offers the best incentive to industry and thrift, and it is calculated to add to the security of property by increasing the number of persons directly interested in the soil. It will undoubtedly tend to raise the character of the laboring class, and to stay the migration from the country to the town, which has already caused some deterioration of the rural population, and the Committee recommend the intervention of the Legislature."

    In considering further facilities for small holdings, the Committee have discussed Mr. Jesse Collings's Small Holdings Bill, many of the provisions of which they recommend. Whether anything will be done to carry out these recommendations by the present parliament is very doubtful.

    During the past year we have lost a true friend and advocate in that sweet singer and lover of humanity--Charles Mackay; and I cannot do better than conclude with one of his hopeful stanzas:--

"The Earth is good, and bountiful, and fair:
Her choicest blessings are the destined share
Of all her children, who in love combine
Wisely to labor; this the law divine
Of the new Era. Mighty thoughts have sprung
From the world's throbbing heart upon its tongue--
I see their triumph, and I join their cry.
Friends of the People--watch! The hour is nigh."

(Loud applause.)

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

1. See a letter signed "H. D." in Land and Labor for June. [[on p. 4]]

2. It was objected at the meeting that in the revised Programme the Society is pledged to support, among other partial and temporary measures, "the taxation of land-values" and that I am inconsistent in praising this programme and then showing that the taxation of land-values in order to relieve tenants would be of no effect. But I have not objected to the taxation of land-values in furtherance of land nationalisation. This may be done, either, as Professor F. W. Newman has recommended, by taking payment of the tax in land instead of in money; or by buying land with the proceeds of the tax as recommended by Mr. C. Wicksteed; or by the method explained by Mr. Ogilvy in our Tract xxvi., "Tax and Take: Both." By either of these methods we may tax land-values effectually. It is only the proposal to transfer taxation from tenants to landlords, while leaving landlords possession of their monopoly, that I have shown would be useless, as was previously shown by Miss Helen Taylor in our Tract xix, p. 5. This is a great problem in economics which we have to solve, since its true solution is of vital importance to the success of our movement. If we merely take from the landlord what he can, and assuredly will, recover from the tenant in a few years, we shall be wasting time and energy to no purpose and may thereby delay effective land nationalisation for half a century. [[on p. 4]]

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