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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

Nationalisation of Land

Nationalisation of Land.

The scheme for nationalising the land meets with but little favor. It may be, however, that even among Radicals the opposition to it, or distrust of it, proceeds more from the inertia of Conservatism than from any reasoned objections to it. The utter strangeness and novelty of the project must be conceded, because of course a government property in land, as it would now have to be constituted, would bear no manner of resemblance to the rude Socialism of half-barbarous times. It must be allowed, however, that if the project be practicable it would possess some very important advantages. 1. It would provide the State with a certain and perpetual source of a very large revenue. 2. It would secure a means whereby the unearned increment in the value of the soil would continually accrue to the public exchequer without trouble. 3. By drawing revenue from the land, it would case the burdens of the poor and afford more hope to them than any other system. 4. It would give more unity to the people than any other system. 5. It would diffuse the prime citizen virtues of ambition and Conservatism more widely among the people than any other system.

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The lands of Great Britain have always been public property in the theory of English law. And there has always been some recognition of the fact that the irresponsible and absolute ownership of land is inconsistent with any degree of public liberty, for the plain reason that the land actually is the country. It is the country and it is more beside; it is the sole source of all material wealth. It is evident that a people which should possess all imaginable privileges, except to walk upon the ground and eat the bread which grows on it, would subsist in a condition of slavery the most absolute and the most unqualified. Valuable privilege, indeed, to go where one will and do what one will, providing always that one can compress one's self into no dimensions and subsist upon nothing. Such is the vaunted liberty of the proletaire, the only liberty which the law guarantees him outside the workhouse or the jail. I really wonder that the religious do not think it blasphemy for a man to tread upon the ground and say, "This land is mine;" for a man to say to men, "Ye shall not walk on God's fair earth saving through my permission." It is scarcely a figure of speech that Emile de Lavelaye, in his "Propriété Primitive," calls the soil "La mère nourricière de la race humaine."

To lay claim to be privileged to be idle, useless, even imbecile, and to dispense with the aid of free men, and, notwithstanding all this, to bear despotic sway over broad tracts of fertile country, pastured with cattle, tended by servants or by slaves—this is the last insanity of pride and egoism. It has been attempted at various times, and has always resulted in disaster, but, happily, nothing so disastrous as its own success is possible. It was attempted in the Roman campaign, and was applauded by the elder Cato, a man who has been held up as a pattern of public and private virtues, but who was in fact a hypocrite, and whose humanity we may estimate from a precept which he has left in favor of selling off old broken-down slaves, upon which Plutarch comments that some men are more tender of their working oxen. By following the counsel of men of this stamp, the patriciate of the campaign brought things to such a pass that the farmers had nothing left to lose, and those men formed the legions of Cæsar. Cæsar fell beneath the daggers of Brutus and his co-assassins, who perpetrated that page 40 outrage, not to free Rome, but to enslave her to the members of their own order. Cæsar fell, but the assassins did not succeed in their intent, not even in averting the empire, much less in perpetuating their own iniquitous regime. Well, times and men have changed, and Mr. Parnell is not Cæsar, nor would I for a moment compare the English-Irish aristocracy with the decaying aristocracy of Rome. Yet Mr. Parnell's movement may prove as fatal to landlordism in Ireland as Cæsar's sway was to the Roman patriciate, and to that extent I venture to state that many an Englishman's heart goes with him, national prejudices and antipathies notwithstanding.

The great obstacle to the nationalisation of the land is the circumstance that it must inevitably be at the least a full generation before the chief benefit of the measure could be realised.

If the lands were let by the State upon long leases, I see no reason to fear but what quite as much capital would be attracted on to it as on any other system, and that the tenants would show quite as much energy and ambition as any peasant proprietors. Nor is this mere matter of theory. Immense sums of money have been sunk in houses, and even costly public buildings, upon land let upon ninety-nine years, or even shorter leases, and expensive farm improvements have been executed, especially in Scotland, upon very much less favorable terms. There would be no objection to granting long leases, but there would be no need whatever to make them so long as a hundred years.

Whatever we may think of the advisability of nationalising the land in old countries, in new ones, I think, there can hardly be room for doubt. It is a gratifying sign, therefore, that there is an energetic society established in New South Wales to oppose the further sale of the public lands. Never was political society actuated by purpose at once more far-seeing and more practical. The Government of the United States, on the other hand, is throwing about the public lands right and left with a reckless prodigality which may lead to trouble, and a similar policy is being pursued in Canada.