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Note on Compensation to Landlords (S508: 1895)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed on page 5 of the January 1895 issue of Land and Labor. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S508.htm

    The question of how to treat Landlords when the land is nationalised is not urgent, since it is quite certain that for many years to come all land required for the people will have to be paid for at fair market value. Yet it is important to determine the principle that should be adopted by land nationalisers, because the question of compensation is one of the main difficulties in the way of making converts to our views.

    Herbert Spencer has well said, that wrongs of ancient date which have permeated the social system, cannot be righted by the application of any abstract principles of justice, since to do so would almost always create fresh wrongs; and this is nowhere more evident than in the case of the land. Looked at from the point of view of the dispossessed people, it is urged by some that no compensation of any kind is necessary, and that the injury to hundreds of thousands of persons--many of them widows and children--whose sole maintenance is derived directly or indirectly from landed estates, and also to other thousands who have invested all their earnings in land, should be no obstacle to restoring it to the nation. But it is certain that an overwhelming majority of voters are opposed to any such scheme of partial or entire confiscation, while even among land nationalisers there are a large minority--perhaps even a majority--who look upon it as altogether unjust and unnecessary.

    Here, as in so many other matters, a compromise must be adopted, and in this case fortunately, there is a method of evading the difficulty which will ultimately obtain for the people their whole patrimony, and not improbably even quicker than by more heroic methods. This method is to allow the interests of existing landlords to die with them, with a reasonable provision for such of their direct heirs as may be over age, and for the education and starting in life of minors, the principle being that while existing life-interests are recognised, all rights of succession are limited to a reasonable provision against want.

    I think myself that it would be an excellent thing if this principle were adopted as of universal application, not as regards succession to land only, but to all realised wealth. Thus might the National Debt be extinguished and the railways obtained by the State, by the abolition of the right of succession to all property. A few years ago such a proposal would have had no chance of being fairly discussed; but now we have as the key-note of Herbert Spencer's work on "Justice," the principle that "every one should be subject to the natural consequences of his own nature and actions," and more recently we have Mr. Kidd's powerful claim for "equality of opportunities" for every man and woman that comes into the world. To both these principles the hereditary succession to great wealth is absolutely antagonistic, since it prevents the individual from being subject to the full consequences of his own nature, and especially of his idleness, his ignorance, his extravagance, and his injustice; while, as the wealth he squanders, is necessarily provided by the labor of others, those others are deprived of the "equal opportunities" only to be reached when every one does his fair share of the work of society.

    Hitherto it does not seem to have been considered possible to apply such principles as these in any practical way, though the example ever before us of the evils caused to society by the succession of young men and women to great wealth, which they so often waste in luxury and vice, are distressing to all who have the welfare of humanity at heart. But when it is seen that these evils can be entirely abolished by altering the law of succession--a purely man-made law, which has no ethical foundation, and is now seen to be inimical to those who receive the wealth as well as to society at large--there seems every probability that the principle in question will be adopted by all advanced thinkers.

    It seems to me, therefore, that before the question of compensation to dispossessed landlords on a large scale becomes urgent, the problem will have been solved by the abolition of the right of succession to all great accumulations of wealth. We shall thus avoid the difficulty, which is a great and real one, of the case of two men of equal wealth, one of whom invests his money in the funds, the other in land. To the average intellect and moral sense we cannot justify the different treatment of these two men. But when we treat them alike; when we allow each to enjoy the income he has secured by his investment during his own life, but deny to both alike the power to injure their heirs as well as society, by the transfer to their successors of sufficient wealth to enable them to live idle and luxurious lives, this difficulty is entirely removed, and the question rests wholly upon great ethical principles, and on consideration of public policy which it will be very hard to resist.

    Personally, therefore, I would urge that this question of compensation to dispossessed landlords under complete land nationalisation, may be treated as part of a greater question, which will in all probability be settled at an earlier date than the accomplishment of our great reform. In the meantime we have far more important and more pressing work, in the acquisition everywhere of land for the use of the people, under the most favorable conditions, and at the smallest cost. This is the work of the hour. This is the practical work to which we should now devote our whole combined forces, and thereby obtain the gratitude of an enfranchised people.

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