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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 67

The Nationalization of the Land. — [Dunedin "Echo," April 15, 1882.] — I

The Nationalization of the Land.

[Dunedin "Echo," April 15, 1882.]


"Compulsory expropriation is a thing, which for an adequate public object, is itself admissible, and so far, sound in principle."—Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone.

No political doctrine has made more progress among the people in recent years than that expressed in the nationalization of the land. The profound and far-seeing mind of Mill grappled with the problems and laid down the conditions of its solution, though his proposals only went the length in practice of modifying existing systems of land tenure. He had to deal with the customs and habit of thought of centuries, and, what he approached with no uncertain step in England, we may surely attempt with some confidence in a country barely fifty years subject to the rule of a civilised power.

An American writer, Mr. H. George, in his clever book entitled, "Progress and Poverty," has ventured beyond Mill in his plan of recovering to the State land which it has alienated. Mill would appropriate that portion of the rent in future which arises from the pressure of population, or the general progress of society, and not from any exertions or expenditure on the part of the owner. Mr. George seems to adopt as a fundamental position the theory, that the State has a right to appropriate all rent, from whatever cause it might have arisen, on the ground that private property in land is indefensible. Mr. George would not pay from the public exchequer for the economic errors of society in the past, but would make the individual who accepted the guarantee of the State the victim of the national wrongdoing. To state the doctrine is to condemn it, and it is the blot on a work which, so far as it refers to the economic advantages of State ownership, has comprehensively and conclusively dealt with the subject.

It is not our purpose here to go over the ground taken up by the advocates of nationalization. We accept the principle, and propose to address ourselves to the means which we think should be adopted by our legislators to apply it. It is not too soon to approach the subject from the practical side. The number of those who accept the theory are already formidable, and are daily increasing. Many able and eloquent men, both in and out page 8 of Parliament, are sparing no pains to bring the question into the front rank of measures of legislative importance, and are devising practical means to give effect to their opinions.

In what way is the stronghold of individual property in land to be assailed? By one heroic measure, when public opinion is ripe for it, after the plan of Mr. George, either with or without compensation; or by a system of progressive legislation, moving forward gradually in accordance with the growth and development of public opinion? We give our preference to the latter system of attack, as more in accordance with sound principles of strategy, and as more likely to meet with ultimate success. A chess player who understands something about the strategy of the game does not rush right away and concentrate all his forces on the quarters of the King, but operates on mam parts of the field at the same time, hoping that the sum of his advantages will render his Majesty's position ultimately untenable. In actual warfare, great victories are won in the same manner.

It may be necessary here to say a word or two in respect of an objection which is often urged to the nationalization of the land. When the land, or any considerable portion of it, has been leased, will not the State tenants be powerful enough to combine to obtain the freehold? If this result is at all probable, it is useless to expend a life's work on an object which is no sooner gained than lost. When devoted men make great sacrifices, they must be assured of a response. Let us glance at the conditions. In our opinion the principal reason in favour of the nationalization of the land is that the land of any country soon becomes a monopoly, the possessors being few in comparison with the population. The monopolists without effort grow rick The landless, continually increasing their number, grow poor, and, having the franchise, live in a state of agitation, and attach the privileged. We do not need to give illustrations: every country in the world abounds with them. Let us suppose, now, that we have only national land. The phenomena presented in this case would be, on the one hand a body of cultivators paying rent, to the State; and on the other a greater body living by wages, mainly in towns, deriving a beneficial interest from the rents, and remaining content in the knowledge that they participate in the prosperity of the agricultural tenant. On the ground of self-interest the more numerous class will cast the votes against the disturbance of a system which works in their favour.

In a system of State leasing, we may assume the right of the first tenant to sub-let. Now, though we have [unclear: found] the case of the Greymouth Native reserves, for instance) [unclear: th] the original tenant will desire to turn his leasehold into a free hold, all the sub-tenants will firmly resist any attempt of the kind. On the land itself we have thus two forces which [unclear: will] page 9 to conserve the principle of State-leasing: the labourers who work for wages, and who have a vested interest in the rents, and the subtenants, who would always prefer the State to the individual to deal with. In a word, in the conflict of interests the system becomes secure.

A further security exists in the mode of applying the land revenue. If this revenue were localised and set apart for definite purposes, two objects would be gained—the sentiment as well as the interest of the community would be opposed to denationalisation, and a check would be provided against the inevitable tendency to minimise rents. When local institutions depended on a certain income, there could be no improper sympathy with every attempt to reduce the income. The full security for all improvements would provide against rack-renting, an evil we cannot conceive possible under the State. One part of the revenue ought to be appropriated for intercommunication in the land district; one part for education; and one part for police, gaols, hospitals, lunatic asylums, and so forth. The first charge, of course, would be for administration, central as well as local, and the remainder would be localised. In the course of time, as the revenue increased and exceeded that necessary for the services to which it was applied, readjustment would be made. We have seen how insuperable has been the difficulty to obtain any reduction in the indefensible export duty on gold, because it happened to be made local revenue. It would seem that the most obnoxious tax can be made palatable if only it is applied to local purposes; and we may justly reason that the economic rent of land, which is not only unobjectionable but absolutely essential to the existence of society, whether it is paid to an individual or to the State, would, under the conditions we have named, be looked upon as an order of nature, and be no more disputed than is the moral obligation on a man to pay his debts.

We now come to the consideration of the steps which might be taken to reach the goal. The land of the Colony may for our purpose be divided into three classes. The first is land which is the property of the Crown, or exists in the form of endowments for public institutions, and therefore still belongs to the State. The second is land which has not passed from the possession of the aboriginal Natives, whether it be land under the primitive title, under any Crown title, or as reserves. The third class is land owned by private persons or public companies. The quantity of land alienated by the Crown and owned privately is about 14 million acres. About three million acres have been purchased directly from the Natives, making 17 million acres held and owned by private individuals. The Natives still retain about 16 million acres. Taking the area of the Colony at 65 million acres, the Crown owns 32 million acres—about as much in area, though not in natural quality, as private persons and Natives combined.

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It is unnecessary here to go into the question as to how much of these 32 million acres of Crown lands is available for any industrial purpose. A large proportion is unavailable for agriculture or pasture, as it includes mountain and gully, river and lake. Our object is simply to show how we may retain what we have got, and how we should proceed to redeem and recover what we have either parted with, or, in the case of the Native land, what has not yet been in the possession of the Crown. The advocate of nationalization will have mountains of prejudice to contend with, and the best course for him to [unclear: pursh] in legislation and administration is to meet each point on its own merits, advancing just sufficient argument to meet the cast, and proving that his plan is the one best adapted to promote the interests of those affected. We shall make this idea clear as was proceed.