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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 71

Chapter XV. — The Existence of Unoccupied Land does not Neutralise the Fault

Chapter XV.

The Existence of Unoccupied Land does not Neutralise the Fault.

There are some who are prepared to admit that a good deal of what has been here said about the injustice of the present land system would be true if it were applied only to England and some of the older countries, but they deny that it is at all applicable to New Zealand. They assert that there are so many differences between the respective land systems, and that there are such large areas of Crown and native lands still unoccupied, and so much land which the owners would be page 32 only too glad to sell at less than it cost them ten or twenty years ago, that there is no chance of the shoe pinching the people here. The contention is that these vacant lands act as a safety-valve to prevent the monopolisation principle from doing harm.

If looked at superficially this contention appears to be feasible; but as it is incorrect its feasibility makes it the more dangerous, and it must be examined with the greater care. It is another of those statements which contains a half truth, and to this it owes its power for mischief. The true part of it is the obvious fact that much unappropriated land exists and is waiting to be occupied; that parts of it are from time to time taken up, and that it will act as a safety-valve to relieve undue congestion of population within the parts at present occupied. This is not denied by Single Taxers, but they assert that mere room to exist and mere permission to occupy is not everything, and won't satisfy them. They reject toleration with disdain, as men having respect for their manhood are bound to do. They contend for just and equal opportunities. They don't desire or expect equality amongst men, but the removal of legal inequality of opportunity. They don't ask for equal division of property; but, on the contrary, they object to any division at all. They complain that there is division now, that there is no need for it, that it is unjust, and should be abolished. They object to the drone joining in the division with the workers.

But if these lands provide "room," and if "permission to occupy" is not refused, in what respect do they fail to act as "safety-valves?" The answer is that they wholly fail to offer any better conditions of occupation than those provided by the lands already settled. The reason of this failure is that the new lands are to be settled on the same unjust condition as those already settled. That condition is that the owners will secure the private enjoyment of the ground-rent fund in perpetuity. This fund will not be devoted to public purposes on the new land, any more than it now is on the old. It will go into the owners' private pockets in both alike. Working proprietors, tenants, and wage-earners will be subject to similar disabilities in both areas. Competition will act in both under precisely similar conditions, and will regulate ground rent and selling price to the advantage of the drone and to the disadvantage of the worker. The fact is that the price or rent demanded for the unoccupied land is relatively as high as that asked for the occupied. That is to say, that the price of both is so regulated by competition that there is no greater margin of advantage left to the user in one locality than in the other. The landless man may as well, in these circumstances, stay where he is as go further afield, to take up land which offers only a delusive appearance of cheapness. Low price is not synonymous with cheapness in land or anything else; suitability is a factor in determining cheapness.

These being the facts of the case, of what account, in this question, are the Crown and native lands and the private estates which are for sale? So far from mitigating the evils of the system they rather tend page 33 to bolster them up. They are, us it were, reserve battalions resting out of action for the present, but similarly armed and trained, and prepared as soon as needed to fight on the same lines, for the same power and against the same victims, and to perpetuate the imposition of the same injurious yoke, as are the advanced troops. These lands cannot, if this be a true description, act in the way which they are popularly supposed to do—as effective safety-valves to the disabilities suffered by the landless people within the occupied area.

This assertion will not, however, be taken for granted, and it will appear to many to be so extraordinary that it will be necessary to justify it with some care. To make such a statement may, indeed, seem to draw a large draft on even the patience of the upholders of the present system.

The argument must therefore be proceeded with. In doing so, it is obvious that the question of land settlement must be considered in its relation to our needs and desires as human beings. It has already been pointed out, and will be at once admitted, that we are creatures who desire to live in communities rather than in isolated positions. Not only so, but it is observable that wherever communities have been formed the efforts of individuals have been more productive of wealth, comfort, and public convenience: more conducive to the study of art, and the successful pursuit of knowledge. The result of this experience is to strengthen the desire to live together. As long, therefore, as this desire operates and there are no signs of its abatement, but the contrary—it is unnecessary for speculators or landlords to extend their operations much beyond an area of land immediately surrounding the principal aggregations of people. Their closest attention, moreover, is devoted to special localities within this area, where the best natural opportunities exist, or where the people are most active or enterprising. To go much beyond this would be unnecessary, would be prospecting the future too far, and would be working at random and without data. For, be it observed, it is only where population desires, or can be attracted, to settle that there will be an advance in ground rents and consequently in selling values. The skill of the land-operator, therefore, lies in the successful feeling of the pulse of the community, and in the art with which he can attract its members to the localities which he has appropriated. The principal scene of his operations may therefore be appropriately termed "the operator's area."

It is of importance to inquire what, under the foregoing conditions, must be the effect of the offer of unappropriated land to the landless people within the occupied area. The previous statement will be admitted, that these lands are for the present in reserve, and awaiting an addition to the population before they will be required. It will also be admitted that a price—never mind how large or small—is asked as purchase-money for the freehold. Further, that whenever they come to be sold it is intended that they shall come under the same principle of private ownership which obtains in the occupied page 34 parts—viz., that the purchase-money shall secure to the owner the ground-rent fund. Now, the last two facts are those which constitute the "bolstering up" which has been alluded to. These two conditions are practically outside buttresses, which help to sustain the selling price and the toll-taking principle inside the "operator's area." First, as to the selling price inside the occupied area. Manifestly the asking of any price, however small, for the purchase of the freehold of outside lands must to that extent keep up the price of the inside lands. Access to these outside lands being impossible without some payment, the problem which presents itself to an intending settler is this: "Considering that the conveniences are greater, the access to markets readier, and that many more economies are possible inside the area than outside, how much more per acre do they make inside land worth to me than the lowest price for which I can obtain land outside?" Note carefully the form of the question—"how much more?"—because that indicates the crux of the problem. Observe that there is no escape from the outside price: it is a minimum below which no land is to be got; it is the foundation, the base line, above which competition acts. The "extra-desirability" measure starts upwards from this level. The outside price, therefore, to that extent bolsters up the selling price within the occupied area. But reduce the price for outside land to nothing, i.e., make selection free there, and the price inside will immediately fall to an extent proportioned to the reduction made.

Or, take an illustration. Two lakes, A and B, are joined by a short channel. It is decided to raise the level of the water by one foot in A. A stream of water is diverted into it until its level is raised a foot. The new supply flows first into A and passes through the channel into B, with the result that the water in both lakes assumes the same level. What is the explanation? It is that water obeys the law of gravitation, and falls to the lowest level which it can reach. It cannot heap itself up higher in A than in B when there is an open channel between the two. Lake A may be shallow, and B deep, but soundings taken before and after the operation will show an addition of precisely one foot to each lake—to the lesser depth of A and to the greater depth of B, indifferently. For the same reason, although not necessarily to a precisely equal extent, the fixing of any price to the outside lands adds a certain amount to the price of the inside lands. Abolish all price outside, and a proportionate fall will take place inside, just as surely as a subsequent lowering of the water level in lake A would to an equal extent lower that of B. It must be so, because the same land law regulates the two areas of land, just as the law of gravitation acts equally in both lakes. It must he so, further, because there is a free channel of human desire, acting competitively, always leading men to look from one area to the other, just as that between the two lakes facilitates the flow of water to the lower level until they are equalised.

The fact, then, that any price at all is asked for the outside lands, page 35 coupled with the fact that the ground rents will be secured to those who purchase, makes it impossible that the presence of these lands in the market shall help to remove the disabilities of the landless people within the zone. The conditions upon which they are offered makes them act essentially as buttresses to the system of private monopolisation of ground rent which exists within the zone.

So much for the influence of Crown lands, which have a price set upon them. It will be unnecessary to repeat these arguments in order to show that the other lands, which the opponents of the Single Tax point to—viz., the private estates, which are offered at low prices, and the native lands—must have the same influence as the Crown lands upon the condition of the landless people within the operators' area. Those who consider that the contention with regard to the former lands has been made good will see the fact at once, and as for the rest, they will never admit it.

The result of the foregoing argument is to confirm the statement that the fact of New Zealand possessing unoccupied lands does not at all tend to mitigate the disabilities under which its landless people suffer.