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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

Free Sale of Land

Free Sale of Land.

The measure known as the three F's is aside from the scope of my argument. I will only say of it, therefore, that it is evidently a compromise devoid of all system and all principle, and which can never possibly prove a permanent solution of the Irish problem. But in regard to a fourth F, much spoken of, namely free land—that is to say, the rendering of the sale of land cheap and easy by means of a system of registration, what would result therefrom? The analogy of the Continent seems to show that it would lead to a wide extension of peasant proprietorship. Arguments to the contrary are usually based upon a mistake about the facts, upon the belief, namely, that laud of equal quality is generally dearer in Great Britain than upon the Continent, whereas the reverse is true. Mr. Jevons, in the Fortnightly Review, argues that free land would not extend peasant proprietorship in England, because the tendency is for large owners to buy and small owners to sell, and he thinks that increased facilities of sale could no more alter this than large pipes will make water run up hill. At present large landowners are eager buyers of petty parcels of land adjoining their estates; but I believe they are often page 37 obliged to buy such parcels at a fancy price, which seems to show that the anxiety is all on one side. It does not appear to me by any means clear that increased facilities of sale, which are all in favor of the small purchaser, as compared with the present law, would not change this state of things. There is no existing class of peasant farmers in England, but with free land such a class might arise, and from the analogy of the Continent it appears as though small buyers will give a better average price for land than large buyers. The obvious advantage of peasant proprietorship, namely, that the peasant works for himself, appears to more than counterbalance, at least in the peasant's own eyes, the equally obvious disadvantages of it. Co-operation may remove or diminish some of the drawbacks of the small farm system, but by no amount of co-operation, short of merging the small farms into large co-operative farms, can the small agricultural capitalist ever rid himself of all or of some of the most considerable of those drawbacks.

Regarding the matter from the public stand-point, two questions present themselves, namely, whether peasant proprietorship, supposing it to result from free laud, would be an improvement upon the existing system, and, whether it be the best system attainable. To say that peasant proprietors live, and are satisfied, and are morally superior to farm laborers—granting it to be true—does not dispose of the problem. Statistics show a better return of crops in England than in any country under the small farm system, and this is a head point.

But there is another aspect of the question quite equally important. The peasant proprietor is said by his friends to be a very good citizen. He might be much worse, but he also might be better. He is pretty sure to be to some extent soundly conservative, but he is very likely to be also to some extent unsoundly conservative. The proletariat of Lyons, Paris, and Marseilles will not soon forget that the man of the 2nd of December leaned upon the peasantry. The women of the peasantry are often priest-led, and the men, although seldom very believing, have yet seldom that jealousy of sacerdotalism which is wholesome. As compared with farm laborers generally, peasant proprietors generally are doubtless very intelligent and ambitious. The peasantry of the Swiss Cantons are enthusiastic for educa- page 38 tion, and grudge neither time nor money for it, an throughout France and Belgium I believe it is appreciated.

But whatever may be the defects or the merits of the peasants themselves—and I am far from having a low opinion of the morally educative advantages of the life—we must always bear in mind that they together with their families will seldom amount to so much as fifty per cent, of the population. Even where towns are fewest there will always be a large class outside, a large unpropertied class. Even in Ireland itself, if all her cottier farmers should be converted into proprietors, there would still be a very large proletariat outside. I believe that it is not generally known how numerous a proletariat class Ireland has. Thus wherever peasant proprietorship prevails the population will be split into two hostile camps. And will the proletariat under this system be any more conservative, or satisfied, or pacific than even under an aristocratic regime? I should rather suppose the contrary.