Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 70

The Land Question. — To the Editor

The Land Question.

To the Editor.

Sir,—Mr. Ewington refers to the Bible (May 17) as giving a sanction to the purchase of land by individuals, but here again he does not look thoroughly page 18 into the question. His quotations are correct, and he might find other instances of land purchase, but it is important to note the legal limitations under which all these were made, A hint is given of the existence of limitations in the very chapter from which he quotes—Jeremiah xxxii. In the eighth verse the request is made to the prophet by his cousin to buy the field. These are the words—"Buy my field, I pray thee;. . . for the right of inheritance is thine: and the redemption is thine: buy it for thyself," Let us see why these reasons are urged. The leading principles of the Israelites' settlement on the land involved (1) inheritance, and (2) that none should be landless. This is made clear in the book of Joshua, which recounts the divisen of the country by lot to every family. The rigidity of this arrangement was, however, relaxed by the institution of the jubilee, or fiftieth year, and by permission being given to any owner to sell his field to another for the whole or any part of the interval between any two of these dates, No sale could in any case alienate the land beyond the jubilee year, and the original owner, or one of his kin, might at any time before the end of the period redeem it. In Leviticus xxv. 23, 24, we read, "The land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land," Then follows the law regulating the amount of redemption: "Let him count the years of the sate thereof, and restore the overplus unto the man to whom he sold it, that he may return unto his possession," It is made clear, both here and elsewhere, that the purchase was limited to the use of the land for the balance of years till the next jubilee. It was therefore nothing more than a lease, and is thus defined: "For according to the number of the years of the fruits doth he sell unto thee" (ver. 16). No man might sell or will away his land for ever to the disinheriting of his descendants, neither might it be transferred to another tribe. These, then, were the limitations ui.der which Jeremiah bought the field, There is no sanction given to Mr. Ewington's views by the transaction. As one near of kin, to whom the inheritance would fall, Jeremiah paid the redemption of the field3 and so bought a lease of it until the next jubilee year. The intention underlying these regulations clearly was the prevention of what has come to pass in England, viz., the accumulation of land in few hands, with the inevitable result of leaving the many landless. It is wholly on Henry George's side as to principle; but its practical application, however well it may have suited a people in those primitive times—almost purely pastoral, and agricultural in their pursuits—would scarcely be adapted to our, complicated civilisation. Our minute subdivision of labour, our large national and municipal undertakings (postal and parcel delivery, telegraphic and telephonic services, money-order and savings-bank facilities, gas and water supplies, railways, etc.,) have outgrown the practical application of such customs, Owing to government by the few, and owing to ignorance of economics, we have also abandoned the wise and important principle underlying them, The few have come to own the land, and the many have been, and are still, refused access to it, except upon terms, These have grown more and more onerous as our operations have become more complicated, Competition for existence is what has regulated the terms, with the inevitable result that the weakest have gone to the wall. What has happened with us could not have happened in Israel, provided they kept to their law. Their land system was an inalienable inheritance for each family. It was a system as wide as the nation, inasmuch as every family in the nation had its own share. To suit modern requirements, Henry George proposes (1) to make a periodical assessment of the ground rental value of our national estate, and (2) to continue the freehold tenure with unlimited power of safe, page 19 subject always to a tax or rate, payable annually to the State, upon the ground rental value; such tax, if considered desirable, to be fixed as high as 20s. in the £. By this means all the value of the whole land would be shared in by all the people of every generation. It would fully conserve the true principle laid down for the Israelites.

Mr. Ewington's next paragraph contains this question: "If it is contrary to 'natural justice' for one colonist to own land, how can it be less contrary to 'natural justice' for 650,000 colonists to own it?" The reasoning implied in this question is not at all sound. Henry George would not say that it was contrary to "natural justice" for one colonist to own land, provided that every other colonist did the same. What he contends is that it is wrong for any mere section to own all the land, to the exclusion of the rest. Mr. Ewington follows the question by the assertion, "If individual tenure is wrong, then communal tenure is wrong." This is a most singular piece of logic. Both systems might be wrong, but the wrongness of one does not prove the same of the other. It might, on the other hand, be said with much more plausibility, that if one is right, that fact affords at least prima-facie evidence that the other is wrong. But apart from the want of logic it is not easy to see why the statement is introduced here. It is a shot which certainly doesn't hit Henry George, for he does not propose communal tenure. Communal tenure is a possibility, The Mosaic plan was not such, but universal family inheritance. The present English plan is individual freehold by a section only of the population. Henry George proposes to accept the latter position so far, but to make it subject to an annual tax on the ground rental value. He would not object in principle to all owning land individually; but he sees, as a practical man, that the ownership in our complicated circumstances had better not be actual, but effective, In order to be so it must be contrived in such a way as to suit our intricate system of production. All the "social undertakings" to which I have alluded are worked on the principle of "service to all." No one's letter, parcel, or telegram may be refused; no one can be denied a railway journey, if he or she in each case pays the prescribed fee, which is made the same to all. The pecuniary benefit of the permission to use the land, like the payment for the foregoing services, should be spread as wide as the nation. By the land being made subject to a contribution; towards public services, proportioned to its annual value, this would be easily and justly accomplished, It is far more necessary to circumvent the purchase of ground-rent monopoly than it was to abolish the purchase of commissions in the British Army.

Mr. Ewington in the same connection (May 17) speaks of Henry George "denying the right of a State to dispose of its own land to its own citizens, in a way which it deems best for the whole of its members." I don't understand him to do so at all, but to go farther than Mr. Ewington, and to claim for the State the right not only to make but to amend its own laws. He always contends, however, that whether in making or amending laws the State is so bound by the higher and eternal laws of right and wrong, which are obligatory on each individual, that it cannot with impunity, and therefore ought not to, over-ride them of its own sweet will Henry George appeals, therefore, to the State to amend its past laws in the interests of justice and fair play.

This appeal brings me very appropriately to Mr. Ewington's claim for "compensation" to existing land-owners, in the event of Henry George's scheme being adopted. This claim requires but little examination to determine not only its injustice, but its impracticability. The compensation of West Indian slave-owners is often urged as a precedent. In reply to this I ask, “Did the slaves who were freed compensate their former owners?" "No, page 20 certainly not!" is the only possible reply. "Then who did?" I ask. "The British taxpayer," is the ready answer. I admit the fact, but beg to point out that the "British taxpayer" was the third party. He was neither the slave nor the slave-owner but a benevolent third party. Can Mr. Ewington find the third party in the land-owning; issue? I cannot do so. The whole of the people, if our contentions are sound, are in this ease divided into only two classes: (1) those who benefit, and (2) those who Jose, by the system. The losers can hardly be asked to compensate the gainers, the poor to help the rich. From whence, then, shall we get the fund? If our contentions are not sound, the system need not be altered, and therefore no claim for "compensation" will arise. All depends upon the soundness of our main contention; viz., that being; produced by the whole community, ground rental values naturally and equitably belong to the community. But this is just the point which Mr Ewington steadily abstains from tackling. May I suggest that if Henry George is right, the "compensation "claim should be reversed, and would then be called "restitution"? The difficulty, however, is to get hold of all the men who ought to make restitution. Some existing owners are rather victims of, than beneficial participants in, the system. They have bought at the high values which afforded a profit to the former owners. The former owners may be dead or gone, or their wealth may have departed from them. The existing owner, whose land has risen in value since its purchase, would, under Henry George's system, be unable to realise the unearned increment, and therefore could scarcely be asked to make restitution. No! the thing is too vast on either side to be dealt with, whatever the equity of the position may be. Both sides will have to be content to" let bygones be bygones," You can't take the breeches off a Highlandman.

Mr. Ewington alludes (May 26) to "an old man or a widow," whose only source of income is ground rent, and says, "Then the confiscation of it to the State would make him or her a pauper." I would remind him that there are among old men and widows many more who pay than receive ground rent, so that the appeal to compassion cuts both ways. It is probably ten to one, or may Be a hundred to one, more in my favour than in his, especially as the larger number are also the poorer individuals. But the appeal should depend, not on compassion, but upon the justice of the private claim to ground rent.

The latter half of the letter of May 26 is devoted to an examination of "the grounds of Mr. Withy's belief in the advantages which Mr. George's system would confer on the merchant, the cottager, and the farmer," I have followed-Mr. Ewington's criticism of the three paragraphs in which I dealt with the effect upon these representative persons, with the result that 1 confidently re-affirm them, On this point 1 cannot do better than refer your readers to a very short chapter beginning on p. 316 of "Progress and Poverty," dealing with "the effect upon individuals and classes." of course Mr. George's system involves the abolition of Customs duties. The protectionists will probably be our second strongest opponents. I did not know before which side Mr. Ewington took in the Free-trade v. Protection controversy; but it astonishes me beyond measure to see him coupling the "farmer" with the "manufacturer," as likely to be a loser by abandoning our tariff. If he could point to bonuses granted to our farmers upon their exports, I could understand his contention a little better; but there areno such things in existence here. It would be out of place to argue the point; but it is only fair that protectionists should know our views, and I would recommend to such of your readers a perusal of Henry George on "Protection or Free-trade,"

Finally, I would call attention to the confident attitude which Mr. Ewing page 21 ton has assumed in this controversy with me, He begins one letter (May 17) with—"I, having proved the injustice," etc.; he heads another (May 26)—"Going, going, gone!" and in the same one writes, "Georgeism evaporates into thin air under criticism." I cannot feel the same confidence on my side, because new truths take much instilling into the public mind. Neither am I wholly sorry for this, because to it may be attributed much of the stability of English institutions. What I trust is, that as a self-constituted champion for Henry George, I may have written something which your readers will carefully think over That it may enable them to see that, whether he is right or wrong in his conclusions, he cannot be lightly brushed aside, but stands in the front rank of modern reformers, and that he is a man imbued with some of the best and most approved sentiments of the day, many of which are already embodied in much remedial legislation of our generation. These letters are the product of much care, after years of thought and reading, and I only ask that they may be taken seriously, however little they may appeal to the sympathies of your readers, or however much they may have wearied some by their length.

I am, etc.,

Edward Withy.

Note.—Mr. Ewington's letters referred to in this correspondence wilt be found by reference to files of the N Z. Herald under the following dates; viz.—31st March, 28th April, 9th May, 17th May, and 26th May, 1892.

page 22

"Clement M. Bailhache discourses on the subject of Land Nationalisation, and, as might be expected from the advanced position taken by the Westminister on all social subjects, the article might please Mr. Ballance and the members of the Anti-Poverty Society."

N. Z. Herald, 25th June, 1892.

The Herald is quite right; the article does please us, and we are indebted to the editor for calling our attention to it. We thank him for the hint, as Gratiano thanks Shylock in the "Merchant of Venice." [Sec: A.P.S.]