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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 55

A Letter From Mr. Webster

A Letter From Mr. Webster.

The Secretary read the following letter from Mr. William Webster, of Melbourne:—My dear friend, your respected President, has kindly invited me to attend the first anniversary celebration of the South Australian Land Nationalization Society. With great regret, I find that it is impossible for me to take advantage of this invitation. I must forego the pleasure I would have derived from renewing the intercourse I had with members of the S.A.LN.S. when I last visited Kapunda, and from making the acquaintance of others whom I have not yet seen. But although on this important occasion I shall be absent in the body, I shall be present in the spirit, for my warmest sympathies are enlisted in the great and glorious cause you are promoting, and I cannot withhold some expression of the admiration I feel at the spirited, self-devoted, and intelligent action taken by your Society throughout the whole of the brief period that has elapsed since its formation. It has been intimated to me, through your President, that a short address from me would be a not unwelcome contribution to the proceedings of your first annual meeting; and if I experience any hesitation in availing myself of the privilege that has been extended to me, it arises solely from the dread that I shall not be able to acquit myself in a manner worthy of the occasion. You are all acquainted with the objects this Society it formed to promote. They are stated in the briefest and clearest terms in its programme. And you are familiar with the simple and self-evident principle on which these objects are based. In the manifesto of the Society you have an exceedingly able exposition of these objects and of that principle, and also of the scheme by which it is proposed to apply the latter in South Australia, and accomplish the former. There are various ways of stating the principle of land nationalization. "Equity," as Mr. Herbert Spence said thirty-four years ago, "does not permit private property in land;" and therefore, I may add, private property in land is an inequity, or as we say—obscuring the meaning and weakening the force of the word—an iniquity. "We must all toil or steal, however we name our stealing," was Thomas Carlyle's way of expressing the same idea, without indicating specially its reference to the land. The latest and greatest apostle of the land gospel! Henry George, puts the doctrine still more explicitly, however, in a few sentences which I may be permitted to repeat, although they will be known already to all of you : "It' is not enough that men should vote; it is not enough that they should be theoretically equal before the law. They must have liberty to avail themselves of the opportunities and means of life; they must stand on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature. Either this, or liberty withdraw her light! Either this, or darkness comes on, and the very forces that progress baa evolved turn to powers that work destruction. . . Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree which increases as material progress goes on. Civilization so based cannot continue. The eternal laws of the universe forbid it. Ruins of dead empires testify, and the witness that is in every soul answers, that it cannot be. It is something-grander than benevolence, something more august than charity—it is justice herself that demands of us to right this wrong." I may also be permitted to repeat a few sentences in which I have embodied the principle that this Society is struggling to promulgate, and apply to the practical conduct of affairs in South Australia : "Only those things which are the products of human labor and skill are the just or legitimate subjects of private property. Land is a natural element as indispensable to the existence and welfare of all the human beings on its surface as is the air they breathe, and is not a product of human labor and skill. Therefore, land is not a just or legitimate subject of private property." I shall be glad if you regard these propositions as truisms, for no rational men can deny them; nevertheless, you may agree with me that they are truisms which are ignored everywhere that the institution of private property in land is established, and that, so long as it exists it will be necessary to repeat them, even with "damnable iteration." You may have noticed that in the passage I quoted from Mr. George, he speaks of "our primary social adjustment." Well, I hold that the relation in which the people as a whole stand towards the land, from which they must ever derive an indispensable means of subsistence, determines the charactcr of their social and political organization. No [unclear: mad]is free that is disinherited, divorced, page break alienated from that portion of the bosom of their mother earth from which they draw, their nourishment; and as a matter of fact there never has been a period in history, or a country in the world, when and where the rights of private property in land have been as fully enforced as they are in England and throughout the British Empire to-day, without having entailed the collapse of that civilization. It is the condemnation of the existing land laws that they cannot possibly be administered in their integrity, because of their inherent and flagrant injustice and unreasonableness, and, undoubtedly, the speediest method that could be pursued to procure their abolition would be to compel their strict observance. Let the landlords manage their estates with an exclusive view to their own enrichment, and an entire indifference to the interests of their fellow beings, as they certainly are quite entitled to do, if the land is rightly and justly their private property, and the silliest wretch who is not a landlord will see at once that they are, from the position which they occupy, the worst imaginable enemies of the human race. The giants and dragons that preyed on humanity in medieval times, and that were exterminated by such heroes as the Jack of the nursery tale and the St. George of English heraldry, were not—could not have been—a greater scourge than are the landlord who now exercise the rights they claim. Here on this vast island-continent of Australia there are millions of acres of unoccupied and unappropriated lands in certain quarters, although in the settled districts the evils of land monopoly already make themselves keenly felt, but not till our population has increased ten or twenty or thirty-fold will its full effects be experienced. Nevertheless, the man who holds land in and near our centres of population, where, because of the industry, the supply, or products, and the needs, of the community, it is of high value, is able to exact a corresponding portion of the fruits of labour. When we hear, as we frequently do, of sites in our cities fetching over £900 a foot of frontage, game among us hastily draw the inference that that is a proof of our prosperity. The conclusion would be justified, no doubt, if the increase in the value of the land were the result of any efforts that its individual owner had put forth; but it is plainly the reverse of correct when that increase is taken out of the pockets of the producers, and goes into the pockets of one who has contributed nothing towards it, but, on the contrary, may have actually done everything that lay in his power to impede the progress of the community. Under the exiting land system the revenue derived from land, indeed, is the measure of the extent to which the workers are deprived of the fruits of their toil, for, simply as owner of land, the landlord does nothing whatever to enhance its value. He is the drone of the social, hive, who, toils not, neither does he spin, and yet fares sumptuously every day, and is clothed in what corresponds with us to the Scriptural purple and fine linen. It may seem somewhat strange that it has been reserved for these latter days to witness the outcry that is now being raised, and that is growing every: day louder and more widespread, against private property in land; but any one who studies the history of the land system will readily understand the reason of this. Theoretically the institution of private property in land in its fully-developed form is not yet two centuries old in England, and there it has only even yet been partially applied. There are still, in certain districts in the old country, landlords who regard their tenants as dependants, and entertain a friendly feeling towards them, and tenants who look on their landlords with loyal respect and esteem. To be sure, these relationships are nearly obsolete, and are fast dying away. The commercial spirit has nearly everywhere extinguished the bonds that united the landlord and his tenantry in past times, and freedom of contract, the higgling of the market, and competition, now determine the terms on which they associate together. Land is recognised as a marketable article, like coats, boots, loaves of bread, snuff-boxes, or diamond rings, and there are even men who; wish to facilitate the sale and transfer of it like other commodities, irrespective altogether of the interests of anybody but the holders of the title deeds. It is fortunate that in the jurisprudence of England, however, all land is held from the Crown—i.e., the State, or the nation—and though this is at p resent an almost wholly worthless legal figment, it covers a truth of the very highest moment to the people at large, and a truth which has been rediscovered of late, and will shortly be revived and re-invigorated. No man, as the Text Book on the Law of Real Property in England truly affirms, is the absolute owner of land in Great Britain; he has only an estate in it, or, in other words, he only holds it "from the State"—the. State is his superior. Salus populi suprema lex—the welfare of the people is the supreme law—is a maxim that is embedded, it may be like a mere fossil, in the Statute-book of England; but when the people of England attain their majority and are really self-govered, it is, I think, highly probable that they will make a strenuous attempt to galvanise this seemingly dead doctrine into life and activity again. It is clear that many amongst them are already awakening to a perception of the necessity that the land should be administered in the interest of the community at large, and not in the interest of those who hold it as property, if the great body of the people are to be saved from the pit of abject poverty and degradation into which so large a proportion of them have sunk under the existing system. Since I spoke on this subject in Kapunda some sixteen months ago, the movement for the abolition of private property in land has page break made astounding progress in Great Britain. The Herald, to its great credit, appreciating the importance and urgency of the land question to the men and women who are laying here the foundations of mighty States, has kept you well informed as to the main events that have marked its history during that interval; but I may be permitted to take a hasty survey of the situation at the present moment. You know that an Act has been passed in Great Britain conferring the franchise on two millions of working men, in addition to the three millions that previously constituted the national electorate, and of whom only about one million were workers. In the next general election, which will take place in November, the working-classes in the old country will for the first time in its history form the majority in the electorate. It would, perhaps, be wrong to assume that the new electors are aware of the power that they possess, and will immediately make effective use of it; but there cannot be the slightest doubt that their political enfranchisement will be followed by legislation in the interests of the majority of the people. There are several important institutions in Great Britain that will have to be "mended or ended," but the institution of private property in land is precisely theinstitution which furnishes all privilege with the substantial basis on which it rests. The emancipation of the soil in the old country is a task of gigantic magnitude, and one that is clearly not to be accomplished at once, no matter how great the effort put forth to that end may be. It will only be gradually, and step by step, that the people of England will be able to resume possession of the land, and relieve themselves from the exactions of the class who now legally intercept and appropriate to themselves the lion's share of the fruits of labour and the bounty of nature. Probably one of the earliest measures relating to the land, that the People's Parliament, when it assembles, will he called upon to consider, will be a Bill for the revaluation of the annual revenue derived from the soil, and the imposition on it of the tax of 4s. in the £, with which the landlords in 1692 commuted the then remaining portion of their feudal obligations, and which they have ever since paid only on the valuation of that date. The effect of such an Act would be that the land tax which now yields a little over one million sterling, would yield between thirty and thirty-five millions, and that of itself would be a great relief to the nation. This is one of the most glaring anomalies in the land system of England, and when it is once fairly faced it will have to be rectified. But there is vastly more involved in this question, and I, for one, should not be surprised if the struggle for its settlement actually entailed the overthrow of the institution of private property in land in Great Britain. Just think for a moment on the issues that will arise in the course of the discussion! There are the feudal obligations of the landlord. These obligations were the conditions under which he previously held the land, and in order to hold it he was obliged to fulfil them. He was not then the absolute owner of the land. How did he transform himself into a landlord? By commuting the remnant of his obligations, as I have already said, into a tax of 4s. in the £ of actual rental, which since 1692 he has only paid on the valuation of that year, notwithstanding that the revenues from the land have increased from £9,000,000 to a sum variously estimated at from £200,000,000 to £300,000,000. The inquiry in connection with this matter will reveal transactions that are calculated to rouse strong feeling, and to render it very difficult to settle the compensation to be paid to the present land owners in a strictly equitable manner. But let us turn to other phases of the movement. It is surely a very significant thing that a Cabinet Minister, who is regarded by many as the inevitable successor to Mr. Gladstone in the leadership of the Liberal party, should have boldly declared that men and women are born into the world with certain "natural rights." This phrase reminds us of the "self-evident" truth that is the heart and soul of the American declaration of Independence:—" That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; " and that these rights, every one of them, are denied when the equal right to land—on which and by which men alone can live—is denied. Mr. Chamberlain has been challenged for uttering these revolutionary words "natural rights" but he has replied by repeating them with emphasis, and when the time comes he will strive to give effect to them on the floor of the House of Commons. The attention of the public in England, as well as in Australia, as been of late frequently diverted from domestic to foreign affairs; but curiously enough, these complications seem hardly to have impeded the progress of the land agitation. There are many people in England to-day who believe that the extension of the franchise will bring the land question at once to the front, and that in the struggle over it the whole system of aristocratic government will be overthrown. As Henry George has remarked, "It seems to me that the great English revolution, which means a social revolution throughout the civilized world, is already begun." The assumption of office by a Conservative Ministry, which will probably exist through the brief interval that separates the peoples of England from the general election, is, in my opinion, a fortunate thing for the Liberal party, and especially for the advocates of radical land reform. I have no faith whatever in Lord Randolph Churchill; but his presence in a Conservative Cabinet is very significant, for it is a sure indication that page break the leaders of that party recognise that the power with which the democracy has been invested cannot be successfully encountered by the old means they employed. The people in the future will have to be wheedled, if they are to be manipulated at all, and the imperialism of Beaconsfield, the mantle of which has fallen on Lord Randolph's shoulders, offers the readiest means of effecting this that lies to their hand. We shall probably soon see Lord Randolph "educating" his party in the same way that his predecessor educated them, and the result will be an advance in a democratic direction of the vis inertiaof English politics. In stirring times even the densest Tory cannot maintain his statu quo. he too must move, were it never so little and never so slowly, and no matter how distasteful to him the exercise may be. In this connection I may refer briefly to the project for the enormous increase of landlords in Great Britain, which has been started by the Duke of Argyll, the Earl of Carnarvon, and other titled and untitled landed proprietors, under the name of the National Land Company. The landlords of Britain have discovered that they form only a small numerical fraction of the nation. Accordingly they propose to purchase land in large quantities and sell it in small—the smaller the better, they kindly tell us, for by so doing they hope to retard, or prevent altogether, the downfall of the institution of private property in land, by means of which they have won and maintain their ascendancy over the people. Their policy is very simple and easily understood. We shall see whether it is too simple and transparent to deceive the mass of the English people; it will, doubtless, attract a few of the more needy, greedy, and ignorant of the working clashes, who are incapable of loyalty to their fellows. As a sigh of the times, however, this National Land Company is surely very significant. It ought, I think, to inspire the radical land reformer with new hope and vigor, and I do not doubt that this will be the best and most powerful result it will have. The crofters in the highlands and islands of Scotland have, as you know, been making a strong and persistent protest against the land system to which they have been subjected, and have evoked the warm sympathy of thousands, and perhaps millions, throughout the kingdom and the empire. They are men of stern character, and will not be easily repressed. "They have got a firm grasp of the truth," an authority has told us, "that God made the land, not for the landlord, but for all the people," and they are animated by the trust-in-God-and-keep-your-powder-dry spirit. Their case will, doubtless, receive immediate attention from the new Parliament, and it will hardly be found possible, one would think, to do less for them than has been done for the Irish crofters. But then, if this process is once started in Britain, where is it to stop? It will be seen, even from the imperfect survey I have made of the situation at the present moment, that radical changes in the land system of England are impending. What, I may ask, would be the result of these changes in the Australian colonies and the other dependencies of England? Would we be compelled to follow suit? Is this question susceptible of more than one answer? We borrowed our land laws from the mother country, brought them over the seas with us, and have maintained them till now without essential change. If the English people, now that they have obtained the franchise, come to the conclusion that the institution of private property in land is inherently unjust, and the parent of manifold and grievous evils, and that the common weal demands its abolition, it will hardly be possible, I should say, to retain that institution in any corner of the British Empire. But ought we in Australia to follow in the rear, or lead in the van, of progress? Must we wait till the institution, which has produced so large a portion of the crime and pauperism that affects England so heavily, in spite of constant emigration from her shores, has worked out similar results here, before wedeal with it? Is the experience of the mother country to teach us nothing? It is impossible that an intelligent and spirited people like those who are now engaged in developing the resources of Australia should long ignore the lessons that are now being taught so plainly by the condition of the English nation, and which the English people themselves are, it may be slowly, but surely, learning. Anything approaching to an exhaustive treatment of the land question as radically conceived—that is, as it affects the whole of the people—would be impossible within the compass of a single address. But it is not imperatively necessary that it should be exhaustively treated. It is enough to show that the only solution of the land question that is in accordance with the plain dictates of justice or equity involves the abolition of private property in land, and its resumption by the people, whose inalienable and indispensable heritage if is. The appeal is addressed to the, conscience even more than to the intelligence. As an intellectual problem, indeed, the land problem is self-evident to every reasonable mortal who can regard it apart from his experience of the system under which he has lived. If he holds that "whatever is is right," he must hold that private property in land is right, for the word right, in his mouth, has no relation whatever to righteousness. It is as a test of the wisdom and virtue of men—two qualities that are essentially inseparable — that the doctrine that the land is not a just or legitimate subject of private property seems to me specially to present itself to the present generation. But let me turn to another aspect of this doctrine, and one that is equally obvious. If it is true at all, it is a universal truth, as applicable in one portion of the globe as in another, here in Australia as in Great Britain or any of the older countries now at the close of the nineteenth century of page break the Christian era as in the days of Adam. But our land system is a human institution. Surely nobody could ever for a moment imagine that it was Divine! Men have made it, and men can remake it. It has undergone radical changes in the past for the better and for the worse. It may, and, indeed, of necessity, it will undergo radical changes in the future. The changes that it will undergo will be determined by the wisdom or the unwisdom, the virtue or the non-virtue, of the men who make these changes. If class interests dominate a community the land system will be constructed for the maintenance of these class interests. It has been so in the past; it will be so in the future. If the mass of a community have the intelligence and the public spirit to regulate, their affairs on the principle of right, justice, or equity if they are democrats, specialists, communists, or Christians—for at the root the meaning of these words is essentially the same—their institutions will recognize and preserve the rights of all, not only to the air, the water, and the land, which no individual ever created, and all need for their existence and their welfare, but also to the full products of the toil they may expend. It is impossible that the labourer, with hand, brain, or heart, can ever reap the full fruits of his industry and skill, so long as a natural element from which he must derive an indispensable portion of his subsistence, is allowed to remain in the exclusive or absolute possession of individual or class. And it is the manual laborer, the tiller of the field, the baker, shoemaker, tailor, and the distributor, importer, merchant, carrier—the men who contribute, in short, to the material welfare of the community, who, under the present land system, directly and indirectly, are most heavily burdened. There is no denying, I think, that the working men have suffered most by their alienation from the soil, and that they cannot be freed entirely from blame for the privations they have been subjected to. It must be confessed that they have not in the past been animated by the sentiment of loyalty towards their fellows, or, I might even venture to put the idea in Scriptural language, by love to man—all men and women—and that they have not made a judicious choice of their leaders or rulers. These leaders and rulers, certainly, have not acted towards them on the principle that "he that is greatest amongst you let him be the servant of all;" but, on the contrary, have with wonderful unanimity sacrificed the life, liberty, and welfare of their followers, without whom they would all along have been powerless. The wise choice of leaders, rulers, legislators, magistrates, policemen, all public servants from the highest to the lowest, determines whether a people is free, and capable of self-government, for the phrases are equivalent. In such a community as this in South Australia, where the people have practically the power to elect their representatives in Parliament, and through their representatives to control the conduct of public affairs, they are clearly themselves, in the final analysis, the source or arbitrators of their fortunes. To be sure, they have, of necessity, inherited many institutions and customs from their forefathers, and they ought not to be hasty in discarding these institutions and customs without reason, but neither should they retain them if they are proved to be evil and; unjust. As I have said, the institution of private property in land was brought to Australia by the first settlers from the old country, and it has been maintained here ever since in its essential integrity. In Ireland it has undergone most important, indeed radical, modifications; it has to some extent been essentially altered, for in the Green Isle, as you all know, the State has interposed to adjust the terms entered into between the tenant and the landlord. The time is manifestly not far distant when the landlords' power in England and Scotland will be curtailed; and when this process has once been fairly etarted, there can be no doubt that it will develop with considerable rapidity. It has been evident for some time to many—it will soon be evident to all—thinking, independent, and public-spirited men in Great Britain that the civilization which has been reached there will be stopped, and, more, that it cannot even be maintained at its present point if the existing laud system continues in force. There is, fortunately, an inevitable tendency in the institution of private property in land to produce ever-increasing evils, which must, in the very nature of things, eventually become intolerable. Let the landlord believe that the land is his property, and he naturally seeks to promote his own interest, or what he regards as his own interest, by his administration of it, irrespective altogether of the people who may live upon it and have been born on it, but have no legal right, nor right that he acknowledges, to the use of any portion of it, except at his pleasure and on the terms he dictates. Unless he can clear his land of its inhabitants, either by evicting them or inducing them to emigrate, there must of necessity arise a conflict of interests. So long as he has the law on his side, he will keep his power and may exercise it; but when the majority, or even a considerable number of the people of a country, come to perceive that the law from which they suffer is not only fatal to their interests, but inherently and heinously unjust, and have the means of altering that law, can anyone suppose for a moment that they will not alter it? What the S.A.L.N. Society is striving to do is—to convince the community that the institution of private property in land is unrighteous, incompatible with any high stage of civilization, certain to entail the most grievous misery on the great mass of the people, and lead to the overthrow of any authority whatever—democratic or autocratic—that favors or even condones it, and that it ought consequently to be abolished.

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Of a portion of the evils it produces, and no small portion, you have already abundant experience; but every step that is made in the settlement of the country will increase these evils. Are you to repeat here the errors and wrongs that have produced and are producing such vast and ever-extending pauperism and crime in Great Britain and throughout Europe, and are you to repeat these errors and wrongs in face of the fact that their character and consequences are now being discovered and deplored in the old country, and that strenuous and promising efforts are being made for their rectification now that the people have gained the franchise? Will you help the S. A.L.N. Society to continue to extend the work in which it has been engaged for the past thirteen or fourteen months, and which has been the dissemination of sound ideas on the groat land question? It would certainly not only be a great thing for South Australia, but it would also be a somewhat strange thing, if it were to be the first of the governing dependencies of the British Empire to proclaim the emancipation of the soil! What a bound forward this would be in the race of progress. The rush of men and women to the land where they would reap the full fruits of their toil would be very great, and the effect on other communities would be simply incalculable. Very great and very noble is the work the S.A.L.N. Society is doing, not only for the inhabitants of South Australia, but for humanity. That the cause they are so devotedly promoting is destined to triumph is not denied even by those who desire for selfish reasons to oppose its triumph as long as possible. The time will come, and that soon, when men and women and children will rise up and call the men and women blessed who have mustered under the banner of the S.A.L.N.S., and sounded the Land Gospel through the land—

Others, if not we,
The issue of our toil shall see,
Young children gather as their own
The harvest that the dead had sown—
The dead—forgotten and unknown.