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

Herbert Spencer on the Land Question:
A Criticism (S450: 1892/1900)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An essay that was modified from Wallace's 1892 Land Nationalisation Society Presidential Address for inclusion in Wallace's Studies Scientific and Social in 1900. Original pagination from Volume Two of the latter indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with:

    [[p. 333]] All my readers know the name of our great philosophic thinker and writer, Herbert Spencer, but they are perhaps not aware that to him is primarily due the formation of the Land Nationalization Society. In 1853, soon after I returned from my travels in the Amazon Valley, I read his book on Social Statics, and from it first derived the conception of the radical injustice of private property in land. His irresistible logic convinced me once for all, and I have never since had the slightest doubt upon the subject. He taught me, that "to deprive others of their rights to the use of the earth is to commit a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or their personal liberties;" and when he added, that however difficult it might be to find a practical means of restoring the land to the people, yet "justice sternly commands it to be done," a seed was sown in my mind which long afterwards developed into that principle of the separation of the inherent value of land from the improvements effected in or upon it, which was the foundation of the proposals in my article "How to Nationalize the Land" (see Chapter XVI.), and this article led to my association with Mr. Swinton, Dr. Clark, M.P., and other friends in the formation of the Land Nationalization Society. In one of his latest works, however, entitled Justice, and forming part of his Principles of Ethics, Mr. Spencer repudiates his legitimate offspring--Land Nationalization-- [[p. 334]] and for various stated reasons arrives at the conclusion that, though it may be, and is, right in principle, there are insuperable difficulties in putting it into practice, and that therefore "individual ownership subject to State-suzerainty should be maintained." This, of course, will be seized upon by our opponents as a great triumph for the cause of landlordism, though as yet they seem hardly to have realized that a Daniel has come to judgment in their behalf. But we must always remember that they mostly belong to what has been termed "the silly party," and that they cannot therefore be expected to read works on high philosophy. Land Nationalizers, however, who have long quoted, and will continue to quote, from Social Statics--not because the book was written by Herbert Spencer, but because it was among the earliest and the most forcible of the arguments against private property in land--are bound to show that the philosopher has not refuted his own work, and that it is his later and not his earlier writings that are illogical, and are even inconsistent with the main principles of his own philosophy.

    And first let us see what he still admits. After showing how land-ownership has been derived from conquest or usurpation, and that all the land originally belonged to the Crown as representing the whole nation, he says:--

    "If the representative body has practically inherited the governmental powers which in past times vested in the king, it has at the same time inherited that ultimate proprietorship of the soil which in past times vested in him. And since the representative body is but the agent of the community, this ultimate proprietorship now vests in the community."1

    And he then remarks that even the Liberty and Property Defence League admit this, saying in their Report of 1889 that:

    "The land can of course be resumed on payment of full compensation, and managed by the people if they so will it."

    In another place Mr. Spencer states, as proving the [[p. 335]] spread of more correct ideas of justice, that the truth has now come to be recognized, that--

"private ownership of land is subject to the supreme ownership of the community, and that therefore each citizen has a latent claim to participate in the use of the earth."2

    So far, then, Mr. Spencer and the Liberty and Property Defence League are perfectly in accord with us; but thenceforth we diverge. They believe and maintain that this latent claim of the people to the full and equal use of their native soil shall and will remain latent. We, on the other hand, believe and are determined that it shall now become an active claim, and very soon a realized possession.

    Now let us see what are Mr. Spencer's grounds for believing that land must, at all events in the immediate future, remain private property. It is as follows:

    "All which can be claimed for the community is the surface of the country in its original unsubdued state. To add that value given to it by clearing, fencing, draining, making roads, farm-buildings, &c., constituting nearly all its value the community has no claim. . . . All this value, artificially given, vests in existing owners and cannot without a gigantic robbery be taken from them. If, during the many transactions which have brought about existing landownership, there have been much violence and much fraud, these have been small compared with the violence and frauds which the community would be guilty of did it take possession without paying for it, of that artificial value which the labour of nearly two thousand years has given to the land."3

    This is all that Mr. Spencer has to say on the question in the body of the work, and before going on to consider his further discussion of it in an appendix, we must just notice the gigantic and almost incredible misstatement, that the improvements such as he specifies, made upon the land by human labour, constitute "nearly all its value!" Setting aside houses, fences and things of like character, which we have always recognized as being personal property to be purchased at fair value by the new occupiers, how much is the soil of England on the whole better for agricultural purposes than it was one [[p. 336]] hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand years ago? In all probability it is not ten per cent. better, because, though limited areas have been greatly improved, very large areas remain quite unimproved, and other large areas have been decidedly made worse. More than half the whole area of the country is permanent pasture which has been mown or grazed from time immemorial, and is probably no better and no worse than it was a hundred or five hundred years ago. But every one with an observant eye may notice all over the country poor weedy pastures bearing the ridge marks of former cultivation. These were once old pastures, broken up when wheat and rents were high, and afterwards left to return as they could to the poor weedy land we now see. This land has been positively deteriorated; and besides this, much of our farming is still so bad under yearly tenancies that a large part of the arable land is partially worn out, and is probably no better if it is not worse than five hundred years ago when we not only grew all the wheat we required but exported to the Continent.

    But Mr. Spencer's chief error consists in the latent assumption that increased value of land implies improvement in the soil, ignoring altogether that this increase is almost wholly due to the growth of population and improved means of communication. Let us take as an illustration the land around London. The late J. C. Loudon, the celebrated gardener and agriculturist, came to London from Scotland about the year 1804, and found the land to the west of the city--now occupied by the suburbs or by market gardens--let in small farms at 10s. or 12s. an acre. Now, probably, the lowest rent is as many pounds as it was then shillings, while much that is built over brings a hundred times the rent it did then; but that is not owing to any improvement of the soil itself, but wholly, or almost wholly, to railroads and to the consequent growth of London. Again, portions of the New Forest have remained wholly unimproved since the time of the Norman kings, yet if any of this unimproved land were for sale it would probably fetch a higher price than the best agricultural land in the kingdom if situated in a [[p. 337]] worse or less attractive locality. But neither these well-known facts, nor the other fact that, whatever improvement there is in the land itself has mostly been effected, not by the landlords but by successive generations of tenants, are much to the purpose; because, as Mr. Spencer truly states, all the value, by whomsoever created, now vests in the landlords. This has been recognized, and is still recognized, by the law, and by a large preponderance of public opinion, and therefore, I admit, as I think do most land-nationalizers, that it must not be taken from existing owners without reasonable and equitable compensation; and as Mr. Spencer thinks such a vast transaction to be financially impossible, he concludes that "individual ownership must be maintained."

    Before showing how superficial, illogical, and unjust is such a conclusion, we have to note the extraordinary argument set forth in his Appendix B. He there says:--

    "Even supposing that the English as a race gained possession of the land equitably, which they did not; and even supposing that existing landowners are the posterity of those who spoiled their fellows, which in large part they are not; and even supposing that the existing landless are the posterity of the despoiled, which in large part they are not; there would still have to be recognized a transaction that goes far to prevent rectification of injustices."4

    And what do you think this "transaction" is? I would give every one of my readers who is not familiar with the work we are discussing half-a-dozen guesses each, and probably not one person would hit upon this stupendous "transaction" which, apparently, in Mr. Spencer's opinion, settles the land question, and forbids all future generations of Englishmen from possessing their native land, the soil of which is to remain the absolute property of existing landlords--their heirs, administrators, or assigns, as the lawyers say--for ever. In no other way can I interpret the terrible dictum that it "goes far to prevent the rectification of injustices." This momentous transaction is nothing but our old and too familiar friend, the Poor-rate!

    Now for the solution of the problem. Mr. Spencer [[p. 338]] gives elaborate figures to show that the amount of that portion of the poor-rate contributed by the land during the last two-and-a-half centuries amounts to about 500 millions, and this he thinks is more than the "prairie-value" of the whole of the land! He says:

     "Thus, even if we ignore the fact that this amount, gradually contributed, would, if otherwise gradually invested, have yielded in returns of one kind or another a far larger sum, it is manifest that against the claim of the landless may be set off a large claim of the landed--perhaps a larger claim."

    Here is a turning of the tables with a vengeance! If this is the true state of the case we had better at once present a humble petition to the landlords, praying that they will let us off whatever balance may be due to them, on our undertaking to pay all the poor-rates for the future. For, if Mr. Spencer's reasoning is sound, this is what, in his own words, "Equity sternly commands should be done." But, first, let us look a little closer at this "new way to pay old debts." Mr. Spencer says, that "if we are to go back upon the past at all, we must go back upon the past wholly." These are his own words. Let us then do so, and what shall we find? We find that the landlords have, century by century, continuously evaded or thrown off the burdens and duties which appertained to their original tenure of the land. The whole costs of the maintenance of the crown, of the army and navy, of the church, and of the poor, were payable by the landlords or by the proceeds of land which they have stolen from the church and from the people. We find also that the tenants on their estates had originally rights of possession similar to their own, on performance of specified duties. We find that in the time of the Tudors, they themselves created the very pauperism that has been handed down to us, by over-riding those rights. They carried out wholesale evictions of the cultivators of the soil, because the high price of wool rendered the turning of arable land into pasture profitable to them.5 Again we find [[p. 339]] that the vast estates of the abbeys and monasteries whose inmates had educated the people and relieved the poor, were absorbed by them, often for no services at all, often for disgraceful services. We find a little later, in 1692, that the remnant of their feudal duties was, with their own consent, commuted into "a tax of 4s. in the pound on a rack-rent without abatement for any charges whatever;" and we find that the valuation made at that date, which we may be sure was a low one even then, has been fraudulently maintained by a landlord parliament to this day, notwithstanding the increase of land-values to many-fold its amount at that date. Yet again we find that even during the past century about three millions of acres of common lands have been most inequitably enclosed and divided among the landlords, thus robbing the people of the last remnant of their rights to their native soil, and creating more pauperism. And lastly, it must be remembered that pauperism itself has been a direct benefit to the landlords, inasmuch as the poor-rates were once openly, and are still actually, "relief in aid of low wages" paid by all classes of the community, and which enabled, and still enable, farmers to get cheap labour and landlords higher rents. Under these circumstances, and remembering all these iniquities of the past, even landlord assurance will probably recoil before making the claim Mr. Spencer suggests, that payment of poor-rates since 1630 is really a re-purchase of the land from the people!

    But in all this discussion and in much more of a like kind that I have neither time nor inclination to notice, Mr. Spencer misses the real point at issue. It matters not to us, now, whether existing landlords or their ancestors got possession of the land equitably or fraudulently, or whether all landlords (as some have done) bought the land at full value with hard-earned money. It matters not whether the ancestors of the present landless class were serfs or nobles, whether they never had land, or whether they sold or gambled away their inheritance. All this has nothing whatever to do with the main question, which is, the essential wrong to the community of private property in land; whether to deprive others of the use of [[p. 340]] the earth, now and for future generations, is or is not, in Herbert Spencer's own words, "a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their lives or personal liberties." If Mr. Spencer had taken the trouble to study the Programme of the Land Nationalization Society, which it would have been a natural and proper thing for him to have done before arguing against the possibility of such nationalization--he would have found that, among the eight reasons we give for holding private ownership of land to be wrong, the mode in which it has been acquired either by past or present generations of landlords finds no place. We ground our claim on considerations of absolute justice as well as of practical expediency, and as against us, all the good or evil deeds of landlords or their ancestors are wholly beside the question. We maintain, that, when a great wrong has been done in the past, a wrong which still produces and must ever produce evil results, a wrong which is the fundamental cause of the wide-spread pauperism and misery that pervades our land--it is our primary duty to find a means of abolishing that wrong. And when the great philosopher who first taught us how enormous was this wrong, goes back on his own words, declares that he sees no way out of the difficulty, and that the huge injustice to the living and to the unborn must go on indefinitely--then we refuse to accept the teachings of such a helpless guide, who sets before us this most impotent conclusion under the holy name of JUSTICE.

    Let us now turn for a while to consider the fundamental principles of Mr. Spencer's Social-philosophy--principles which are altogether excellent, and which, if he had boldly and logically followed them out, would have shown him how this great wrong--this wicked crime of land-monopoly may be easily and equitably abolished.

    In the second paragraph of his Chapter entitled Human Justice (as distinguished from animal and sub-human justice previously discussed), Mr. Spencer thus lays down the ethical correlative of the law of survival of the fittest in the animal world:--"Each individual ought to receive [[p. 341]] the benefits and the evils of his own nature and consequent conduct: neither being prevented from having whatever good his actions normally bring to him, nor allowed to shoulder off on to other persons whatever ill is brought to him by his actions." This law is appealed to again and again throughout the book, as being a decisive test of the right or wrong, the usefulness or the hurtfulness of certain social or governmental agencies. It is generally given under a shorter form of words, such as--"Each adult shall receive the results of his own nature and consequent actions"--or still more briefly--"Each shall receive the benefits and evils due to his own nature and conduct." This is the fundamental principle of social development according to the Spencerian philosophy; and from it is derived the formula of JUSTICE--"Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man," or briefly "The liberty of each limited only by the like liberty of all."

    From these principles Mr. Spencer deduces many important results as to personal and social rights--among others the right of property, the right of free industry, and the right of gift and bequest. Under this latter heading he makes an important qualification, as follows:--"One who holds land subject to that supreme ownership of the Community which both ethics and law assert, cannot rightly have such power of willing the application of it as involves permanent alienation from the community."6 With this rather vague statement he leaves the subject, and afterwards affirms those extraordinary propositions I have already quoted as to the permanence of private property in land, and the extinguishment of the people's right through payment of two centuries of poor-rates!

    But if we logically follow out the Spencerian principles we shall find that the right of bequest has far more extensive limitations than the author gives it, limitations which render it easy for the State, that is the people, equitably to regain possession of their own land. For, if the law that--"each shall receive the good or evil results of his own nature and actions" be a true guide to social [[p. 342]] development, then the correlative of it must also be true, that no one shall receive throughout life, that which is not the result of his own nature and actions; and this will absolutely forbid such bequests to children or others as will render them independent of all personal exertion, enabling them to live idle lives on the labour of others, and thus neutralize the operation of that beneficent law which gives to each the results of "his own nature and acts." To permit unlimited bequest is, in fact, doubly injurious. It is a positive injury to the recipient whenever it enables him to live a life of idleness and pleasure--to be a mere drone in the human hive. And it is also a gross injustice to the rest of the community, for when such parasites abound they become a burden on the industrious who necessarily support these idlers by their labour. We must further consider, that, so long as landlordism continues, this idle and generally useless portion of the community may increase almost indefinitely, because savings can be made by all large landlords, on which savings a larger and ever larger number of succeeding generations may live without exertion, and thus render the lot of the workers harder in proportion.

    It is strange that Mr. Spencer did not perceive that if this law of the connection between individual actions and their results is to be allowed free play, some social arrangement must be made by which all may start in life with an approach to equality of opportunities. While, as now, some are brought up from childhood among low and degrading surroundings--material, intellectual, and moral--and have to struggle amid fierce competition for the bare necessaries of life, it is absurd to maintain that they receive the legitimate results of their own nature and actions only; both of which may be and often are far superior to those of thousands whose early years are surrounded by all the refinements of a higher social life, and who find a place provided for them in which with little effort on their part they can provide for all their wants, their comforts, and their pleasures. Such a law as Mr. Spencer has formulated becomes a mockery and a delusion, unless each individual is given a fair start in life, [[p. 343]] and this can never be the case under a system of landlordism and unlimited bequest.

    Mr. Spencer's fundamental principle of social justice, therefore, logically implies that the power of free gift and bequest should be placed under strict limitations, the State taking to itself all above the amount which may be judged necessary for providing each heir with such ample education and endowment as may give him or her a favourable start in life--after which they must be left to receive the results of their own nature and actions; while the surplus property thus accumulated will form a fund out of which to endow in like manner all those whose parents are not able to provide for them. This branch of the subject however does not directly concern us here except in so far as it leads us to consider the application of the Spencerian principles of JUSTICE to the land question.7

    We are told distinctly that no landowner should be allowed to leave his land in such a way as to permanently alienate it from the community to which it rightly belongs. But to concede the right of unlimited gift or bequest does so alienate it; therefore no such right should exist. There is another principle, which was asserted by the great jurist Jeremy Bentham, and which is of some importance as a guide:--That laws should never be such as to disappoint "just expectations"--expectations which people had been brought up to consider both legal and equitable. Such an expectation, in our country, is that of succeeding to one's father's property. But no one can have such an expectation till he is born, nor even for some few years afterwards. We may therefore, from every point of view, equitably enact that, from the date of the law, no land shall descend to any person then unborn. We may also rightly add that it shall descend only in the direct line--that is to children and children's children living at the time of passing the Act, because no collateral relatives have any just or reasonable claim or expectation of succeeding to the land.

    [[p. 344]] Here then, by this simple and perfectly equitable principle, we have found a means of transferring the people's land back to the people, by a gradual process which would rob nobody and cost nothing; and thus the whole huge mountain of difficulty which has induced Mr. Spencer to look upon the restoration of the land as a moral and financial impossibility crumbles into dust. The mode of acquiring the land now suggested was advocated in my first article on land Nationalization (see Chap. XVI.), and I myself, and many of my friends, still think it to be the best. Of course we may and do also advocate the power of compulsory purchase by local authorities to supply the immediate wants of the people. But while this was being done, wherever needed, land would be continually accruing to the State by the dying out of the direct heirs of landlords; and land thus acquired, always administered by the local authority and the proceeds of the rents equitably divided between the State and the locality, would continually reduce the weight of both imperial and local taxation.

    This concludes all that needs now be said of Mr. Spencer's new work. There are some other points I should have liked to touch upon, but they are of less importance from our present point of view. I hope that I have shown with sufficient clearness the fallacies that underlie his recent utterances, and have thereby enabled all land reformers to continue with a good conscience to quote the burning and logical denunciation of landlordism to be found in Social Statics, notwithstanding the author's recent attempt to minimize the effect of them.

Notes Appearing in the Original (1900) Work

1. Justice, p. 92. [[on p. 334]]

2. Justice, p. 152. [[on p. 335]]

3. Justice, p. 92. [[on p. 335]]

4. Justice, p. 268. [[on p. 337]]

5. See Mr. Joseph Fisher's History of Landowning in England for authentic records of these cruel evictions and their consequences. Also Greene's Short History of the English People, p. 320. [[on p. 338]]

6. Justice, p. 124. [[on p. 341]]

7. This problem is more fully treated in chapter xxviii. of this volume. [[on p. 343]]

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