Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XIX

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Progress and Poverty (George) by Henry George
Chapter XIX: Property in land historically considered


Chapter XIX Property in land historically considered[edit]

The treatment of land as individual property is so thoroughly recognized in our laws, manners and customs that the vast majority never think of questioning it but look upon it as necessary to the use of land.

If it were true that land had always been treated as private property, that would not prove the justice or necessity of continuing so to treat it, any more than the universal existence of slavery, which might once have been safely affirmed, would prove the justice or necessity of making property of human flesh and blood. Wherever we can trace the early history of society, whether in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in America, or in Polynesia, land has been considered as common property. That is to say, all members of the community had equal rights to the use and enjoyment of the land of the community.

This recognition of the common right to land did not prevent the full recognition of the particular and exclusive right in things that are the result of labour, nor was it abandoned when the development of agriculture had imposed the necessity of recognizing exclusive possession of land in order to secure the exclusive enjoyment of the results of the labour expended in cultivating it. The division of land between the industrial units, whether families, joint families, or individuals, only went as far as was necessary for that purpose.

The causes that have operated to supplant this original idea of the equal right to the use of land by the idea of exclusive and unequal rights may, I think, be everywhere traced. They are everywhere the same that have led to the denial of equal personal rights and the establishment of privileged classes.

These causes may be summarized as the concentration of power in the hands of chieftains and the military class, consequent on a state of warfare, which enabled them to monopolize common lands.

Greece and Rome[edit]

It was the struggle between the idea of equal rights to the soil and the tendency to monopolize it in individual possession that caused the internal conflicts of Greece and Rome; and it was the final triumph of this tendency that destroyed both. Great states ruined Greece, as afterwards "great estates ruined Italy." (Latifundia perdidere Italiam - Pliny.) And as the soil, in spite of the warnings of great legislators and statesmen, passed finally into the possession of a few, population declined, art sank, the intellect became emasculate, and the race in which humanity had attained its most splendid development became a byword and reproach among men.

The idea of absolute individual property in land, which modern civilization derived from Rome, reached its full development there in historic times. When the future mistress of the world first loomed up, each citizen had his little homestead plot, which was inalienable, and the general domain - "the corn-land that was of public right" - was subject to common use. It was from this public domain, constantly extended by conquest, that the patrician families succeeded in carving their great estates. These great estates, by the power with which the great attracts the less, in spite of temporary checks by legal limitation and recurring divisions, finally crushed out all the small proprietors. Their little patrimonies were added to the latifundia of the enormously rich, while the small proprietors were forced into the slave gangs, became rent-paying colonii, or else were driven into the freshly conquered foreign provinces, where land was given to the veterans of the legions; or to the metropolis, to swell the ranks of the proletariat who had nothing to sell but their votes.

Caesarism, soon passing into an unbridled despotism of the Eastern type, was the inevitable political result, and the empire, even while it embraced the world, became in reality a shell, kept from collapse only by the healthier life of the frontiers, where the land had been divided between military settlers or where the primitive usages longer survived. But the latifundia, which had devoured the strength of Italy, crept steadily outward, carving the surface of Sicily, Africa, Spain and Gaul into great estates cultivated by slaves or tenants. The hardy virtues born of personal independence died out. An exhaustive agriculture impoverished the soil, and wild beasts supplanted men, until at length the barbarians broke through. Rome perished, and of a civilization once so proud nothing was left but ruins.

Feudal tenure[edit]

The feudal system, which is not peculiar to Europe, but seems to be the natural result of the conquest of a settled country by a race among whom equality and individuality are yet strong, clearly recognized, in theory at least, that the land belongs to society at large, not to the individual.

In the feudal scheme the crown lands supported public expenditures that are now included in the civil list, the church lands defrayed the cost of public worship and instruction, covered the care of the sick and the destitute, and maintained a class of men who were supposed to be, and no doubt to a great extent were, devoting their lives to purposes of public good; while the military tenures provided for the public defence. In the obligation under which the military tenant lay to bring into the field such and such a force when need should be, as well as in the aid he had to give when the sovereign's eldest son was knighted, his daughter married, or the sovereign himself made prisoner of war, was a rude and inefficient recognition, but still unquestionably a recognition, of the fact that land is not individual property but is common property.

Nor yet was the control of land by the possessor allowed to extend beyond his own life. Although the principle of inheritance boon displaced the principle of selection, as where power is concentrated it always must, yet feudal law required that there should always be some representative of a fief, capable of discharging the duties as well as of receiving the benefits that were annexed to a landed estate. Who this should be was not left to individual caprice, but was rigorously determined in advance.

Enclosures of common land[edit]

The feudal system in its rise and development changed an absolute tenure into a conditional tenure, and imposed peculiar obligations in return for the privilege of receiving rent. And amid that system there remained, or there grew up, communities of cultivators, more or less subject to feudal dues, who tilled the soil as common property; and although the lords, where and when they had the power, claimed pretty much all they thought worth claiming, yet the idea of common tight was strong enough to attach itself by custom to a considerable part of the land.

The commons, in feudal ages, must have embraced a very large proportion of the area of most European countries. The extent of the common land of England during the feudal ages may be inferred from the fact that though enclosures by the landed aristocracy began during the reign of Henry VII, it is stated that no less than 7,660,413 acres of common lands were enclosed under Acts passed between 1710 and 1843, of which 600,000 acres have been enclosed since 1845; and it is estimated that there still remain 2,000,000 acres of common in England.

Apprehension of land as common property[edit]

The doctrine of eminent domain, which makes the sovereign theoretically the only absolute owner of land, springs from nothing but the recognition of the sovereign as the representative of the collective rights of the people. Primogeniture and entail are but distorted forms of what was once an outgrowth of the apprehension of land as common property. The very distinction made in legal terminology between real and personal property is but the survival of a primitive distinction between what was originally looked upon as common property and what from its nature was always considered the peculiar property of the individual. And the greater care and ceremony still required for the transfer of land is but a survival, now meaningless and useless, of the more general and ceremonious consent once required for the transfer of rights that were looked upon as belonging not to any one member but to every member of a family or tribe.

The general course of the development of modern civilization since the feudal period has been to the subversion of those natural and primary ideas of collective ownership in the soil. Paradoxical as it may appear, the emergence of liberty from feudal bonds has been accompanied by a tendency, in the treatment of land, to the form of ownership that involves the enslavement of the working-classes. This is now beginning to be strongly felt all over the civilized world in the pressure of an iron yoke, which cannot be relieved by any extension of mere political power or personal liberty and which is mistaken by political economists for the pressure of natural laws, and by workmen for the oppressions of capital.

Creation of great estates[edit]

This is clear - that in Great Britain the right of the people as a whole to the soil of their native country is much less fully acknowledged than it was in feudal times. A much smaller proportion of the people own the soil, and their ownership is much more absolute. The commons, once so extensive and so largely contributing to the independence and support of the lower classes, have, all but a small remnant of yet worthless land, been appropriated to individual ownership and enclosed. The great estates of the Church, which were essentially common property devoted to a public purpose, have been diverted from that trust to enrich individuals. The dues of the military tenants have been shaken off, and the cost of maintaining the military establishment and paying the interest upon an immense debt accumulated by wars has been saddled upon the whole people, in taxes upon the necessaries and comforts of life. The Crown lands have mostly passed into private possession. The English yeoman is as extinct as the mastodon. The Scottish clansman, whose right to the soil of his native hills was then as undisputed as that of his chieftain, was driven out to make room for the sheep ranges or deer parks of that chieftain's descendants. The tribal right of the Irishman was turned into a tenancy-at-will. The vast majority of the British people have no right whatever to their native land save to walk the streets or trudge the roads. To them may be fittingly applied the words of a Tribune of the Roman People, Tiberius Gracchus:

"Men of Rome, you are called the lords of the world, yet have no right to a square foot of its soil. The wild beasts have their dens, but the soldiers of Italy have only water and air."

The growth of national power, either in the form of royalty or parliamentary government, stripped the great lords of individual power and importance, and of their jurisdiction and power over persons, and so repressed striking abuses. The disintegration of the large feudal estates operated to increase the number of landowners, and the abolition of the restraints by which landowners endeavoured to compel labourers to remain on their estates also contributed to draw away attention from the essential injustice involved in private property in land. At the same time, the steady progress of legal ideas drawn from the Roman law, which has been the great mine and storehouse of modern jurisprudence, tended to level the natural distinction between property in land and property in other things. Thus, with the extension of personal liberty, went on an extension of individual proprietorship in land.

The tenure of land - the fundamental fact[edit]

The political power of the barons, moreover, was not broken by the revolt of the classes who could clearly feel the injustice of land ownership. Such revolts took place, again and again; but again and again they were repressed with vile cruelties. What broke the power of the barons was the growth of the artisan and trading classes, between whose wages and rent there is not the same obvious relation. These classes, too, developed under a system of close guilds and corporations, which enabled them somewhat to fence themselves in from the operation of the general law of wages. These classes did not see, and do not yet see, that the tenure of land is the fundamental fact which must ultimately determine the conditions of industrial, social and political life. And so the tendency has been to assimilate the idea of property in land with that of property in things of human production, and steps backwards have even been hailed as steps in advance.

Origin of national debts[edit]

The French Constituent Assembly, in 1789, thought it was sweeping away a relic of tyranny when it abolished tithes and imposed the support of the clergy on general taxation. The Abbe Sieyes stood alone when he told them that they were simply remitting to the proprietors a tax that was one of the conditions on which they held their lands and re-imposing it on the labour of the nation. But in vain. The Abbe Sieyes, being a priest, was looked on as defending the interests of his order, when in truth he was defending the rights of man. In those tithes, the French people might have retained a large public revenue which would not have taken one centime from the wages of labour or the earnings of capital.

And so the abolition of the military tenures in England by the Long Parliament, ratified after the accession of Charles II, though simply an appropriation of public revenues by the feudal landholders who thus got rid of the consideration on which they held the common property of the nation and saddled it on the people at large in the taxation of all consumers, has been long characterized, and is still held up in the law books as a triumph of the spirit of freedom. Yet here is the source of the immense debts and heavy taxation of England. Had the form of these feudal dues simply been changed into one better adapted to the changed times, English wars need never have occasioned the incurring of debt to the amount of a single pound, and the labour and capital of England need not have been taxed a single farthing for the maintenance of a military establishment. All this would have come from rent, which the landholders since that time have appropriated to themselves.