Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XX

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Progress and Poverty (George) by Henry George
Chapter XX: The rightful basis of property


Chapter XX The rightful basis of property[edit]

Though often warped by habit, superstition and selfishness into the most distorted forms, the sentiment of justice is yet fundamental to the human mind, and whatever dispute arouses the passions of men, the conflict is sure to rage, not so much as to the question "Is it wise?" as to the question "Is it right?".

This tendency of popular discussions to take an ethical form has a cause. It springs from a law of the human mind; it rests upon a vague and instinctive recognition of what is probably the deepest truth we can grasp. That alone is wise which is just; that alone is enduring which is right.

What constitutes the rightful basis of property? What is it that enables a man justly to say of a thing, "It is mine?" From what springs the sentiment that acknowledges his exclusive right as against all the world? Is it not, primarily, the right of a man to himself, to the use of his own powers, to the enjoyment of the fruits of his own exertions? Is it not this individual right, which springs from and is testified to by the natural facts of individual organization - the fact that each particular pair of hands obey a particular brain and are related to a particular stomach; the fact that each man is a definite, coherent, independent whole - which alone justifies individual ownership? As a man belongs to himself, so his labour when put in concrete form belongs to him. And for this reason, that which a man makes or produces is his own, as against all the world. No one else can rightfully claim it, and his exclusive right to it involves no wrong to any one else.

Thus there is to everything produced by human exertion a clear and indisputable title to exclusive possession and enjoyment, which is perfectly consistent with justice, as it descends from the original producer, in whom it vested by natural law.

Title to ownership - how derived[edit]

Now, this is not only the original source from which all ideas of exclusive ownership arise - as is evident from the natural tendency of the mind to revert to it when the idea of exclusive ownership is questioned, and the manner in which social relations develop - but it is necessarily the only source. There can be to the ownership of anything no rightful title that is not derived from the title of the producer and does not rest upon the natural right of the man to himself. There can be no other rightful title, because there is no other natural right from which any other title can be derived, and because the recognition of any other title is inconsistent with and destructive of this.

For what other right exists from which the right to the exclusive possession of anything can be derived, save the right of a man to himself. With what other power is man by nature clothed, save the power of exerting his own faculties? How can he in any other way act upon or affect material things or other men? Paralyse the motor nerves, and your man has no more external influence or power than a log or stone. From what else, then, can the right of possessing and controlling things be derived? If it spring not from man himself, from what can it spring?

Nature acknowledges no ownership or control in man save as the result of exertion. In no other way can her treasures be drawn forth, her powers directed, or her forces utilized or controlled. She makes no discriminations among men, but is to all absolutely impartial. She knows no distinction between master and slave, king and subject, saint and sinner. All men to her stand upon an equal footing and have equal rights. She recognizes no claim but that of labour, and recognizes that without respect to the claimant. If a pirate spread his sails, the wind will fill them as well as it will fill those of a peaceful merchantman or missionary barque. If a king and a common man be thrown overboard, neither can keep his head above water except by swimming. Birds will not come to be shot by the proprietor of the soil any quicker than they will come to be shot by the poacher. Fish will bite or will not bite at a hook in utter disregard as to whether it is offered them by a good little boy who goes to Sunday-school, or a bad little boy who plays truant. Grain will grow only as the ground is prepared and the seed is sown. It is only at the call of labour that ore can be raised from the mine. The sun shines and the rain falls alike upon the just and the unjust.

Secondly, this right of ownership that springs from labour excludes the possibility of any other right of ownership. If a man be rightfully entitled to the produce of his labour, then no one can be rightfully entitled to the ownership of anything that is not the produce of labour or of the labour of someone else from whom the right has passed to him. If production gives to the producer the right to exclusive possession and enjoyment, there can rightfully be no exclusive possession and enjoyment of anything not the production of labour, and the recognition of private property in land is wrong. For the right to the produce of labour cannot be enjoyed without the right to the free use of the opportunities offered by nature, and to admit the right of property in these is to deny the right of property in the produce of labour. When non-producers can claim as rent a portion of the wealth created by producers, the right of the producers to the fruits of their labour is to that extent denied. There is no escape from this position.

Confusions as to property[edit]

What most prevents the realization of the injustice of private property in land is the habit of including all the things that are made the subject of ownership in one category as property or, if any distinction is made, drawing the line according to the unphilosophical distinction of the lawyers between personal property and real estate, or things movable and things immovable. The real and natural distinction is between things that are the produce of labour and things that are the gratuitous offerings of nature; or, to adopt the terms of Political Economy, between wealth and land.

These two classes of things are in essence and relations widely different, and to class them together as property is to confuse all thought when we come to consider the justice or the injustice, the right or the wrong of property.

A house and the lot on which it stands are alike property, as being the subject of ownership, and are alike classed by the lawyers as real estate. Yet in nature and relations they differ widely. The one is produced by human labour, and belongs to the class in Political Economy styled wealth. The other is a part of nature, and belongs to the class in Political Economy styled land.

The essential character of the one class of things is that they embody labour, are brought into being by human exertion, their existence or non-existence, their increase or diminution, depending on man. The essential character of the other class of things is that they do not embody labour, and exist irrespective of human exertion and irrespective of man; they are the field or environment in which man finds himself; the storehouse from which his needs must be supplied; the raw material upon which, and the forces with which, his labour alone can act.

The moment this distinction is realized, that moment is it seen that the sanction that natural justice gives to one species of property is denied to the other; that the rightfulness that attaches to individual property in the produce of labour implies the wrongfulness of individual property in land; that, whereas the recognition of the one places all men upon equal terms, securing to each the due reward of his labour, the recognition of the other is the denial of the equal rights of men, permitting those who do not labour to take the natural reward of those who do.

The equal right to land[edit]

If we are all here by the equal permission of the Creator, we are all here with an equal title to the enjoyment of His bounty - with an equal right to the use of all that nature so impartially offers. This is a right which is natural and inalienable; it is a right which vests in every human being as he enters the world and which during his continuance in the world can be limited only by the equal rights of others.

There is in nature no such thing as a fee simple in land. There is on earth no power which can rightfully make a grant of exclusive ownership in land. If all existing men were to unite to grant away their equal rights, they could not grant away the right of those who follow them.

For what are we but tenants for a day? Have we made the earth, that we should determine the rights of those who after us shall tenant it in their turn? Let the parchments be ever so many, or possession ever so long, natural justice can recognize no right in one man to the possession and enjoyment of land that is not equally the right of all his fellows.

If one man command the land upon which others must labour, he can appropriate the produce of their labour as the price of his permission to labour. The fundamental law of nature, that her enjoyment by man shall be consequent upon his exertion, is thus violated. The one receives without producing; the others produce without receiving. The one is unjustly enriched; the others are robbed. To this fundamental wrong we have traced the unjust distribution of wealth which is separating modern society into the very rich bind the very poor. It is the continuous increase of rent, the price that labour is compelled to pay for the use of land, which strips the many of the wealth they justly earn and piles it up in the hands of the few who do nothing to earn it.

Distinction between ownership and use[edit]

The right to exclusive ownership of anything of human production is clear. No matter how many the hands through which it has passed, there was, at the beginning of the time, human labour - someone who, having procured or produced it by his exertions, had to it as against all the rest of mankind a clear title which could justly pass from one to another by sale or gift. But at the end of what string of conveyances or grants can be shown or supposed a like title to any part of the material universe? To improvements such an original title can be shown; but it is a title only to the improvements, and not to the land itself. If I clear a forest, drain a swamp, or fill a morass, all I can justly claim is the value given by these exertions. They give me no right to the land itself, no claim other than to my equal share with every other member of the community in the value that is added to it by the growth of the community.

But it will be said: There are improvements which in time become indistinguishable from the land itself! Very well. Then the title to the improvements becomes blended with the title to the land, the individual right is lost in the common right. It is the greater that swallows up the less, not the less that swallows up the greater. Nature does not proceed from man, but man proceeds from nature, and it is into the bosom of nature that he and all his works must return again.

Yet it will be said: As every man has a right to the use and enjoyment of nature, the man who is using land must be permitted the exclusive right to its use in order that he may get the full benefit of his labour. But there is no difficulty in determining where the individual right ends and the common right begins. A delicate and exact test is supplied by value, and with its aid there is no difficulty, no matter how dense population may become, in determining and securing the exact rights of each, the equal rights of all.

The value of land, as we have seen, is the price of monopoly. It is not the absolute, but the relative, capability of land that determines its value. No matter what may be its intrinsic qualities, land that is no better than other land that may be had for the using can have no value. And the value of land always measures the difference between it and the best land that may be had for the using. Thus the value of land expresses in exact and tangible form the right of the community to land held by an individual and rent expresses the exact amount which the individual should pay to the community to satisfy the equal rights of all other members of the community.

How to ensure the best use of land[edit]

It will be obvious to whoever will look around him that what is required for the improvement of land is not absolute ownership of the land, but security for the improvements.

Nothing is more common than for land to be improved by those who do not own it. The greater part of the land of Great Britain is cultivated by tenants, the greater part of the buildings of London are built upon leased ground, and even in the United States the same system prevails everywhere to a greater or less extent. Thus it is a common matter for use to be separated from ownership. Would not all this land be cultivated and improved just as well if the rent went to the State or municipality, as now when it goes to private individuals?

If no private ownership in land were acknowledged, but all land were held in this way, the occupier or user paying rent to the State, would not land be used and improved as well and as securely as now? There can be but one answer: Of course it would.

It is not necessary to say to a man, "this land is yours," in order to induce him to cultivate or improve it. It is only necessary to say to him, "whatever your labour or capital produces on the land shall be yours." Give a man security that he may reap, and he will sow; assure him of the possession of the house he wants to build, and he will build it. These are the natural rewards of labour. It is for the sake of the reaping that men sow; it is for the sake of possessing houses that men build. The ownership of land has nothing to do with it.

It is not the magic of property, as Arthur Young said, that has turned Flemish sands into fruitful fields. It is the magic of security to labour. This can be secured in other ways than by making land private property. The mere pledge of an Irish landlord that for twenty years he would not claim in rent any share in their cultivation induced Irish peasants to turn a barren mountain into gardens; on the security of a fixed ground rent for a term of years the most costly buildings of such cities as London and New York are erected on leased ground.

The complete recognition of common rights to land need in no way interfere with the complete recognition of individual rights to improvements or produce. Two men may own a ship without sawing her in half. The ownership of a railway may be divided into a hundred thousand shares, and yet trains be run with as much system and precision as if there were but a single owner. In London, joint stock companies have been formed to hold and manage real estate. Everything could go on as now, and yet the common right to land be fully recognized by appropriating rent to the common benefit.

The rights of successive generations[edit]

As for the deduction of a complete and exclusive individual right to land from priority of occupation, that is if possible the most absurd ground on which land ownership can be defended. Priority of occupation give exclusive and perpetual title to the surface of a globe on which, in the order of nature, countless generations succeed each other! Had the men of the last generation any better right to the use of this world than we of this? Or the men of a hundred years ago? Or of a thousand years ago? Or the moundbuilders, or the cave-dwellers, the contemporaries of the mastodon and the three-toed horse, or the generations still further back who, in dim aeons that we can only think of as geologic periods, followed each other on the earth we now tenant for our little day?

Has the first comer at a banquet the right to turn back all the chairs and claim that none of the other guests shall partake of the food provided, except as they make terms with him? Does the first man who present a ticket at the door of a theatre, and passes in, acquire by his priority the right to shut the doors and have the performance go on for him alone? Does the first passenger who enters a railway carriage obtain the right to scatter his baggage over all the seats and compel the passengers who come in after him to stand up?

Our rights to take and possess cannot be exclusive; they must be bounded everywhere by the equal rights of others. just as the passenger in a railway carriage may spread his baggage over as many seats as he pleases, until other passengers come in, so may a settler take and use as much land as he chooses, until it is needed by others - a fact that is shown by the land acquiring a value - when his right must be curtailed by the equal rights of the others, and no priority of appropriation can give a right that will bar these equal rights of others. If this were not the case, then by priority of appropriation one man could acquire and could transmit to whom he pleased, not merely the exclusive right to a few acres, but to a whole township, a whole country, a whole continent.