Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XIV

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Chapter XIV The persistence of poverty amidst advancing wealth[edit]

Look over the world today. In countries the most widely differing - under conditions the most diverse as to government, as to industries, as to tariffs, as to currency - you will find distress among the working-classes; but everywhere that you thus find distress and destitution in the midst of wealth you will find that the land is monopolized; that, for its use by labour, large revenues are extorted from the earnings of labour.

Look over the world today, comparing different countries with each other, and you will see that it is not the abundance of capital nor the productiveness of labour that makes wages high or low, but the extent to which the monopolizers of land can, in rent, levy tribute upon the earnings of labour.

Is it not a fact that new countries, where the aggregate wealth is small but where land is cheap, are always better countries for the labouring classes than the rich countries, where land is dear?

In the new settlements, where land is cheap, you will find no beggars, and the inequalities in condition are very slight. In the great cities, where land is so valuable that it is measured by the foot, you will find the extremes of poverty, and of luxury. And this disparity in condition between the two extremes of the social scale may always be measured by the price of land. Compare the same country in different times, and the same, relation is obvious.

There is no mystery for example as to the cause to which so suddenly and so largely raised wages in California in 1849. It was the discovery of the placer mines in unappropriated land to which labour was free that raised the wages of cooks in San Francisco restaurants to $500 a month, and left ships to rot in the harbour without officers or crew until their owners would consent to pay rates that in any other part of the globe seemed fabulous. Had those mines been on appropriated land, or had they been immediately monopolized so that rent could have arisen, it would have been land values that would have leaped upwards, not wages. The Comstock Lode (1) has been richer than the placers, but the Comstock Lode was readily monopolized, and it was only by virtue of the strong organization of the miners' association and the fears of the damage which it might do, that men were enabled to get four dollars a day before they would parboil themselves two thousand feet underground, where the air that they breathed had to be pumped down to them. The wealth of the Comstock Lode has added to rent. The selling price of those mines has run into hundreds of millions, and it has produced individual fortunes whose monthly returns can only be estimated in hundreds of thousands, if not in millions.

(1)The Comstock Lode, a famous silver mine in Nevada, U.S.A., discovered in 1859.

Nor is there any mystery about the cause which has operated to reduce wages in California from the maximum of the early days to very nearly a level with wages in the Eastern States. The productiveness of labour did not decrease, on the contrary it increased; but out of what it produced, labour had to pay rent. As the placer deposits were exhausted, labour had to resort to the deeper ones and to agricultural land, but monopolization of those resources being permitted, men walked the streets of San Francisco ready to go to work for almost anything - for natural opportunities were no longer free to labour.

The island of free opportunity[edit]

Put to any one capable of consecutive thought this question: "Suppose there should arise from the English Channel or the North Sea a No-man's Land, on which common labour to an unlimited amount should be able to earn twice or thrice its present wage, the land remaining unappropriated and of free access, like the commons which once comprised so large a part of English soil. What would be the effect upon wages in England?"

He would at once tell you that common wages throughout England must soon increase to the equivalent of what could be gained on that island.

And in response to another question, "What would be the effect on rents?" he would at a moment's reflection say that rents must necessarily fall; and if he thought out the next step he would tell you that all this would happen without any very large part of English labour being diverted to the new natural opportunities, or the forms and direction of industry being much changed; only that kind of production being abandoned which now yields to labour and to landlord together less than labour could secure on the new opportunities. The rise in wages would be at the expense of rent.

Take now the same man or another - some hard-headed business man, who has no theories, but knows how to make money. Say to him: "Here is a little village; in ten years it will be a great city - in ten years it will abound with all the machinery and improvements that so enormously multiply the effective power of labour, will, in ten years, interest be any higher?"

He will tell you, "No!"

"Will the wages of common labour be any higher; will it be easier for a man who has nothing but his labour to make an independent living?"

He will tell you, "No; the wages of common labour will not be any higher; on the contrary, all the chances are that they will be lower; it will not be easier for the mere labourer to make an independent living; the chances are that it will be harder."

"What, then, will be higher?"

"Rent; the value of land. Go, get yourself a piece of ground, and hold possession."

And if, under such circumstances, you take his advice, you need do nothing more. You may sit down and smoke your pipe; you may lie around like the lazzaroni of Naples or the leperos of Mexico; you may go up in a balloon, or down a hole in the ground; and without doing one stroke of work, without adding one iota to the wealth of the community, in ten years you will be rich! In the new city you may have a luxurious mansion; but among its public buildings will be an almshouse.

The picture made clear[edit]

In our investigation we have been advancing to the truth: That as land is necessary to the exertion of labour in the production of wealth, to command the land that is necessary to labour is to command all the fruits of labour save enough to enable labour to exist. This simple truth, in its application to social and political problems, is hid from the great masses of men partly by its very simplicity, and in greater part by widespread fallacies and erroneous habits of thought that lead them to look in every direction but the right one for an explanation of the evils that oppress and threaten the civilized world. And back of these elaborate fallacies and misleading theories is an active, energetic power, a power that in every country, be its political forms what they may, writes laws and moulds thought - the power of a vast and dominant pecuniary interest.

But so simple and so clear is this truth, that fully to see it once is always to recognize it. There are pictures which, though looked at again and again, present only a confused labyrinth of lines or scroll work - a landscape, trees, or something of the kind - until once the attention is called to the fact that these things make up a face or a figure. This relation once recognized, is always afterwards clear. It is so in this case.

In the light of this truth all social facts group themselves in an orderly relation, and the most diverse phenomena are seen to spring from one great principle. It is not in the relations of capital and labour, it is not in the pressure of population against subsistence, that an explanation of the unequal development of our civilization is to be found. The great cause of inequality in the distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land.

The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact that ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people. And it must be so. For land is the habitation of man, the storehouse upon which he must draw for all his needs, the material to which his labour must be applied for the supply of all his desires; for even the products of the sea cannot be taken, the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces of nature utilized, without the use of land or its products. On the land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again - children of the soil as truly as is the blade of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from man all that belongs to land, and he is but a disembodied spirit.

Material progress cannot rid us of our dependence upon land; it can but add to the power of producing wealth from land; and hence, when land is monopolized, it might go on to infinity without increasing wages or improving the condition of those who have but their labour. It can but add to the value of land and to the power that its possession gives.

Everywhere, in all times, among all peoples, the possession of land is the base of aristocracy, the foundation of great fortunes, the source of power. As said the Brahmins, ages ago:

"To whomsoever the soil at any time belongs, to him belong the fruits of it. White parasols and elephants mad with pride are the flowers of a grant of land."