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

The Conditions Essential to the
Success of Small Holdings (S471: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Originally presented as the President's Address at the twelfth annual meeting of the Land Nationalisation Society on 15 June 1893, and shortly thereafter printed in Number 45 of the Society's journal Land and Labour. Original pagination in the latter indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S471.htm

    [[p. 3]] As there seems to be considerable difference of opinion on this question, and as success or failure in the first steps towards obtaining free access to land for all who desire it is a matter of vital importance for the progress of our cause, I think it will be useful to set forth for the consideration of Land-nationalisers what seem to me to be the principles which should guide us in this matter.

    I begin with the proposition, which will probably be generally accepted, that the primary object of giving the people free access to land is, to enable as many as possible to obtain either the whole or a portion of their living by its cultivation, and, by thus withdrawing some of them altogether from competition with wage-earners, and by giving others a temporary alternative to wage labor, to raise the rate of wages of the less remunerative kinds of work all over the country. And as secondary benefits resulting from this, we shall have, in the first place, an enormous increase in the production of food, displacing much that is now imported from abroad; secondly, an increased consumption of manufactured goods by these self-supporting workers; thirdly, a diminution in the poors' rate from the disappearance of paupers and out-of-works; and, lastly, a public revenue arising from the continuous increase in the value of land owing to the growth and increased well-being of the population. These various benefits I conceive to be important, somewhat in the order in which I have given them; at all events the first is undoubtedly the most important, while the last--the money profit-is the least important. It is a valuable incidental result, but is not to be sought after as one of the chief ends in itself to the diminution of the other kinds of benefit.

    Now in order that the various good results above enumerated shall be, in their due order, most certainly obtained, it is of the highest importance that the workers who gain access to the soil shall be able, not only to live upon it, but to live well and thrive upon it. We do not want them merely to earn a living as long as they can work, and go to the poor-house in their old age or during sickness; neither do we want them to be ruined by the first bad season, or by any of the chances and misfortunes to which Agriculture is especially liable. On the contrary, it is of the highest importance to the whole community that the land-cultivators should be in such a position that even in bad years they should not lose, while in average years they should obtain such profits, that, either by increase of the size of their holding or the amount of their stock, their condition should steadily improve, and thus insure them against poverty in old age. If land-nationalisation is to be the success we hope it will be, some such result as this must be aimed at, and we must be sure that we do nothing to prevent its attainment.

    In order to bring about this result two things are especially required,--first, a certain amount of knowledge, of experience, of prudence, and of industry in those who first obtain small holdings; in the second place, such very moderate rents and such favorable conditions of tenure as to give them not only a chance but almost a certainty of success. Nothing, in my opinion, is more likely to bring about the failure of the first, and therefore the most important experiments, than the methods usually suggested by politicians, and more or less implied in the various Acts of Parliament, whether already passed or proposed, dealing with this matter. It is, for example, almost always proposed or taken for granted, that before the men can have the land a large cost must be incurred in preparing it for them. We hear of road-making, fencing, draining, and house-building, as if these were absolutely necessities; and in addition to all this, it is generally thought that it will be necessary to advance capital to the proposed tenants to enable them to stock and crop their holdings, and support themselves till they get a return from the land. Now I can hardly imagine a more certain way of bringing discredit on the whole system of small holdings--and with it of land-nationalisation--than such a method. In the first place, this work of "laying out" and "improvement," when it is not done by the occupiers themselves, but for them, by persons who have no interest in doing the work economically but often the reverse, and who have besides no personal knowledge of what these small cultivators really require, will often be unnecessary work and will always be done in an unnecessarily costly way, and will thus add to the rent of the land, without proportionately increasing its value. Then again, the advance of money on loan to men who have never, perhaps, had ten pounds to spend at once in their lives, will in many cases lead to its injudicious expenditure, and be antagonistic to that prudence, thrift, and industry, which are vital to success.

    There is yet another, and a very important objection to such methods as these. All this expenditure of public money by other people than those who are to directly benefit by it, will certainly lead to wastefulness and jobbery, since they constitute that very "management of land by public officials," the evils of which form one of the chief objections to land-nationalisation, and which all our proposals and methods have been calculated to avoid. We must therefore never cease to urge that such management is not only unnecessary, but is calculated to defeat the very purpose for which free access to land is required.

    If we consult the reports of the various Royal Commissions on Agriculture we shall find numerous cases of laborers, miners, mechanics, and others, who have become successful cultivators of small holdings and sometimes of considerable farms, often having begun with a lease of waste land which they enclosed, improved, and built houses on, entirely on their own resources and through their own industry; and whenever we find a successful small farmer he has usually worked his way up in some such way. It is an extraordinary thing that whenever it is proposed to allow men to obtain small holdings in England, there is always this talk of "improvements" and "house-building," in addition to giving the land at a fair rent and on a secure tenure; while over a large part of Scotland and Ireland all improvements and all buildings have been done by the tenants themselves, with no security of tenure whatever, so that whenever a misfortune prevents payment of rent--usually rent on the tenants' own improvements--the landlord ejects the poor tenant and confiscates his improvements. The Irish cottar and the Highland crofter ask nothing better than a sufficiency of land at a moderate rent and on a secure tenure. All the perennial misery and often-recurring famine of these two countries have arisen from a denial of this very moderate instalment of bare justice; and if we give this easy access to the land to our English workers, they too will ask for nothing else, and will be far more likely to succeed without any attempt to do for them what they will do much better and more economically themselves. But we do undoubtedly require some process of selection of the best men for this great experiment in the regeneration of our country; and the natural, self-acting, and therefore best mode of selection, will arise from the fact that no man can take a holding unless he has saved money to stock and crop it, or has such a character for industry, sobriety, and capacity as to induce some friend to advance him the money; while the certainty that he is risking the loss of his own savings if he fail, will be the best guarantee that he will have some amount of intelligence and some agricultural experience. No artificial mode of selection will compare with this. A man may get testimonials to character, but no testimonials can show that he will spend borrowed money prudently, or be able to make a profit on land burdened with unnecessary and costly improvements, which, for his purpose, will often be no improvements at all.

    We have now to consider the second great essential of success, which is, the rental to be paid for the land and the conditions of tenure. Many of our fellow-workers maintain that the competition-rent offered for land is the best, and in fact the only certain way, of determining its value, and therefore what should be paid for it. From a landlord's or speculator's point of view--considering the money income to be got from the land to be everything, the well-being of the tenants nothing--this is [[p. 4]] undoubtedly the case; but, from our point of view--looking at the cultivation of the land as leading primarily to the well-being and progressive advancement of the cultivator, and through him the similar advancement of all other manual laborers--it seems to me to be the very worst mode possible. Let us therefore consider it a little in detail.

     At the present time, wherever there are allotments to let, there we find it to be the rule that agricultural laborers do most willingly hire them at a rental per acre, sometimes double, sometimes four or five times as much as is paid by Farmers for the same quality of land, and there can be no doubt that if arable land were now offered for allotments and small holdings almost anywhere in England, and the quantity thus offered was not in excess of the demand at the time, it would, if let by auction, realise somewhat similar rentals. Many agricultural laborers, as well as village tradesmen and mechanics, find it advantageous to them to have land even at these high rents, and there is sufficient land thus held all over the country to afford a guide to the prices at which such land would let by auction, even in quantities of from one to five acres. Now the reason such high rents have been, and are paid, is, simply, that the laborers' wages have been always so low and his condition so miserable, that anything by which he could add two or three shillings a week to his earnings by means of overtime work and the assistance of his wife and family, was eagerly accepted. It was his low standard of living that rendered him willing to pay a rent which left him some little profit on his labor; and if he were now offered a small holding on which to live he would be willing (if he could not get it cheaper), to pay a rent which would enable him to live in about the same way as he had hitherto done, but with the chance of occasional better luck and with the satisfaction of being his own master. We see this result very prevalent on the continent, especially in Belgium and in parts of France, where the price of land, and consequently its rental, is very much higher than with us, and as a consequence the small holders often work harder and live as near the starvation line as our poorly paid agricultural laborers or our rack rented Irish cottars. It will be said, no doubt, that this arises from the demand for land being greater than the supply, and that if the land were offered in larger quantities, competition would be less keen and prices lower. But is it at all likely that for a long time the supply of land will be greater than the demand, except quite locally, and temporarily? Is it not, on the contrary, almost certain that the demand will, at first and for a long time to come, perhaps always, be greater than the supply? Is it not our contention that the depression of agriculture and the deplorable condition of so many of our workers is due to the denial of access to land, and that when that access is freely given it will bring about the well-being, first of those who cultivate it, and afterwards of all other wage-earners? There will therefore be a constant and ever increasing demand for land; but unless we take care that those who apply for it have it on such terms that they can not only make a good living from it, but also provide for a comfortable old age, the benefits we anticipate will not arise. It is to avoid any such failure, to prevent the recurrence of the miserable spectacle of men being ejected from their holdings for non-payment of rent, to secure for them something better than a struggle ending in dependence on charity in old age, that I urge the fixing of rents by valuation, taking always the amount paid by prosperous farmers in the same district, rather than that of allotment-holders, as the standard of value. The land when purchased by the local authorities, will be purchased at the farm value, and it can be let at that value at first without loss to the community.

    The above sketch of the reasons why I object to the system of competition-rents sufficiently exhibits the principle on which, in my opinion, our dealings with the land should be founded. But there is also a practical objection to that system--that it would be very unequal in its results, and also that it can hardly be carried out unless based on a preliminary valuation. I presume the advocates of competition rents do not propose that land should always be let to the highest bidder, without any reserve whatever. For, if so, whenever the intending tenants were less numerous than the lots to be offered, these lots might be let at much less than agricultural rents. No doubt it will be said there must be a reserved price for each lot, or group of lots of the same kind of land; but such a reserve cannot be fixed without a careful valuation by an expert; so that we should require two processes, both involving some expense, first the valuation, then the auction. The result would be, that in some cases, where there happened to be little competition, the land would be let at the reserved rent, while in other cases--perhaps a few months later, and in the same place--similar land would be run up by competition to much higher rents; and this would inevitably lead to dissatisfaction, and inequality in the prosperity of the tenants,--a dissatisfaction which would compel the authorities to adopt the plan of letting all land at the reserved rent, that is at that fair but low rent which should have been adopted at first.

    I maintain, therefore, that it is essential to adopt from the first the only just and equable method, which is, the valuation of the lots by an expert, founded on what would be fair rents of similar land to a large tenant farmer. These lots, with the rents thus determined, would then be open to selection, either on the system of "first come first served," or if thought fairer, of a ballot for the order of choice on certain fixed days. By either of these two methods, supposing the valuation to be fairly made, there would be no inequality of opportunities, no feeling that either by chance or through any other cause, some of the tenants were paying higher rents than others.

    Another point of some importance is, that men should be allowed to have as much land as they wished, up to a certain limit--say five or ten acres according to circumstances; and also that the land first let should always be that abutting upon roads or lanes, the inner portion of the farms thus let being reserved for some years, so that any man wishing to add to his holding could have it extended by taking a plot or field behind it, thus avoiding the great inconvenience and loss arising from the separation of plots under one holding. In the meantime this central portion of the farm could be let by the year to any adjacent farmer.

    One other point arises in connection with this question, the vital importance of security to the occupier and cultivator of land. We want men to be able to form and keep a home; to be practically as secure in that home, so long as they pay the moderate ground-rent for the land, as if they were the actual owners of the freehold, subject only to the payment of taxes. We want the new tenants under land nationalisation to be really free holders in the old sense--free men holding land from the community never to be interfered with so long as they continued to pay the moderate dues and to be law-abiding citizens. To give this full security all the rights of bequest or sale now appertaining to freehold land should appertain to these state tenancies.

    It is, I believe, only by some such process as that which I have here indicated that we can possibly obtain the full benefit of land nationalisation or of the first steps which we may be able to make towards it. We must always remember that the community will be benefited just in proportion to the well-being of the cultivators and of those who obtain access to land. If we rack-rent them so that they just make a living out of the land, they will have little influence in raising the wages of other workers or in enabling them to make a successful bargain with capitalist employers. But if, on the other hand, we allow all occupiers of land to have it on such terms and conditions that they are able to make a good living, provide well for their families, and enjoy an old age of secure repose in their own homesteads, this state of well-being will serve to establish a standard of living which will react on the whole working population, and lead to a corresponding rise in the rate of wages throughout the whole industrial world. There appears to me to be no proposition in the domain of political and social science more certain than this. On the other hand, no mistake can be more fatal than to think that the community would be benefited by screwing from 20 to 50 per cent. more rental from the occupiers of land, thus reducing their profits, rendering their position less secure, and lowering their standard of living, and with it that of the whole working population.

    In conclusion, therefore, I would, urge most strongly, that in all our arrangements or proposals with regard to the land, we should throw aside altogether the idea of getting the highest possible rents, but should always aim at the maximum of well-being for the cultivators. By thus acting we shall best secure the equal well-being of the whole of the industrial community, and shall initiate that progressive improvement, with the diminution and ultimate abolition both of enforced idleness and of undeserved poverty, which is the whole aim and object of land nationalisation.

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