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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 71

Chapter XXX. — Why the Reform would Not Be Unjust

Chapter XXX.

Why the Reform would Not Be Unjust.

However general the agreement might he upon the feasibility of the scheme when once brought into operation, there would still be many who would cry out against such a change on the ground that it would inflict injustice upon the existing owners of the land. "What!" they would say, "tax the selling-value out of land which a man has paid hard cash for under the sanction of law? That would be confiscation." The plea deserves the consideration previously given to it, and it must be at once conceded that if the proposal can be shown to be unjust it has received its death-blow. Not that every old injustice is dead and gone, but that it is less easy in these days to inflict new ones. The old ones, moreover, cannot last for ever, if the Creator is ultimately to rule and to evolve harmony and permanence out of the conditions of unrest and transition in which we now exist. More than that, no reformer should knowingly advocate that which he cannot recommend on the score of its justice. It is a hopeful sign of the times that appeals are now made to "justice;" it was not always so. Single Taxers put forward their proposal distinctly and avowedly as a means of removing a great and far-reaching injustice which is now in existence, and which they believe produces the greatest economic and social troubles of our time.

The onus of proof lies with the reformers, who must make good their assertion that the system which they seek to overthrow is an unjust one. They must, moreover, show that the remedy is not worse, in this respect, than the disease; that, indeed, it is not so bad. Nay, page 71 it is not too much for the public to ask them to show that their remedy is the best that can be found, and that it would entail the minimum of hardship upon those who are called upon to make a sacrifice. It is simply absurd, however, to ask that any injustice shall be removed without some sacrifice, being made by those who have benefitted by its existence.

First of all, then, as to whether the present system can be shown to be an unjust one. The alleged injustice consists in the monopolisation of ground rent by a section of the community by means of the legalised system of private ownership of land.

Single Taxers contend that this fund is not created merely by the section which receives it, but, in a more or less equal degree, by every member of the community. It is difficult to imagine any condition of life, in which a man could exist in a community, so low that his presence produced no perceptible increase in the demand for land, and therefore in the ground-rent fund. He must wear no clothes, sleep out of doors on public land, wash without soap in a public stream, never get his hair cut, eat nothing but what grew of itself or was thrown out as waste, he must never drink except at a public tap, and must not use any implement made by his fellows, or even by himself if the materials were produced or gathered by others. Such a person could not be found even now amongst the poorest of the poor, and under the proposed conditions none would even distantly approximate to such a condition. A man who used or consumed anything could not fail to bring some custom to the clothier, the builder, the soap-boiler, the barber, the provision dealer, the maker of tools or utensils, or the merchant who collected the materials necessary for their production. Every such increase of custom has a favourable influence upon some man's trade; it makes him willing to give more to stay where he can secure the increased custom, and it makes others anxious to procure the same stand in the favourable market. These are the causes, described in very homely words, which first create ground rent, and then increase its amount. It is clear that every individual does something towards it.

Under the present system, those who are fortunate enough to get possession of sites which come to be in demand on account of the superior facility which they afford to users for supplying the wants of the growing community, become entitled to the resulting increase of the ground rent and the selling value. Single Taxers consider that the possession of this contingent advantage by landowners is subversive of the only true, and therefore "natural," right of property, viz., "that a man should own that which his labour has produced." This is denied by some, who say that "natural rights" have no existence in a community, and who assert that no member has any "rights" but such as are conferred upon him by the community. Such persons point out that the community has, in its wisdom, and in the exercise of its right, seen fit to allow individuals to acquire freeholds, and to receive page 72 all the advantages, or the reverse, which may happen to come to them. Many consider that this is a complete answer to land reformers and their various "fads"—that there is no appeal from the decision of the community.

There can be no harm in meeting these people on their own ground. The community can get itself into an illogical position as easily as an individual can, if it does not act on sound principles. It will probably be admitted that the various decisions of a community should be consistent with each other; that they should not be based upon one principle when dealing with one man, and upon a different principle when dealing with another. If the necessity of mere consistency is admitted, then Single Taxers will be quite as willing to abide by the decisions of the community, as to fall hack upon the theory of "rights." They are appealing to the community to alter one of the customs which it has long sanctioned. If it has power to give or withhold rights, it must have power to vary those which it has conferred. If it can be shown that altered circumstances warrant a change, then the community is in duty and consistency bound to vary them.

The point which Single Taxers now submit to the community is as follows: The system of private ownership of land is based upon two principles, which act in direct opposition to each other in the cases of landowners and landless people. Take an illustration to show what is meant by the existence of two principles. Suppose a number of men are busy for some months in preparing a field, in sowing the crop, in weeding the ground, and then, in process of time, in reaping, gathering, and removing to market that which they have grown. Just as they are driving their wagons out of the gate, a man walks up to them and says that he claims part of their produce. At first they take no notice of him, and think it is only a joke on his part. But he insists, and shows that he is in earnest. Then they stop, and ask him for his title to share with them. He replies that the land upon which they have grown the crop belongs to him. To confirm his clain, he summonses a "grave and reverend seignior," with several strong attendants. He appeals to the former as the law-maker, and claims the help of his attendants to secure his lawful share. The cultivators plead their case, and say that it is quite true that they have seen the man before, but that he only walked past the field occasionally and sat on the fence watching them at work, and that he never offered to help them, never gave them any advice, nor, indeed, ever spoke to them at all. They say that they can't see that, as he failed to help them, any part of their produce can be due to him. But the law-maker confirms the landlord's claim, and says that the community has settled it in that way, irrespective of any assistance being given by the owner. It is in vain that they urge that they were not consulted in making the laws, and that they don't think this is a fair one. The strung attendants lead away one of the wagons, and place it at the disposal of the page 73 landlord, and then take a part of another load to help to maintain themselves and their master, the law-maker.

After all is done, the men meet together to discuss the matter. The conclusion at which they arrive is that the community, in two respects, applies one principle to the landlord and an opposite one to them.

The first respect is, that the landlord is allowed to claim a share of that which he has spent no labour in producing, whilst they are not permitted to make a similar claim to a part of his, or of anyone else's, productions. They readily see that such a permission would save them, as it does him, a lot of exertion, but they can't make out that it would be fair to those upon whom they call to make the necessary sacrifice. It is apparent that if they might act in this way, there could be no good reason why the other workers should not come next year and return the compliment.

The second respect is, that the landlord is allowed to hold possession of land which he does not use, while they are denied the same privilege. This is making "fish of one and flesh of the other," and applying directly opposite principles to the two cases.

In answer to the contention that the owner has inherited or bought the land, and that he has allowed them the use of it in consideration of payment, they say that they entirely fail to see how any set of rulers can ever have obtained the right to allow a man to acquire possession of more land than he needed for the support of his family. It is obvious to them that this is the present legal position, but they cannot understand its equity; neither can they see how it was possible for any bargain to have been made many years ago which should equitably dispose of the perpetual interest in any piece of land. No services rendered to the community of that day, and no price paid down, could justly have purchased such a right in perpetuity. No past generation of men could have any right to barter away that which the present generation needs for its existence. At any rate, they would be bound to keep intact the money or other consideration which they received for the "concession," and to hand it down to those who were to come after. The present generation has received no consideration in return for being deprived of the use of land. There was no means of knowing at any past date how much a concession of that sort might come to be worth in the future. They are not, therefore, inclined to view such titles as constituting a valid bar to their equal claims to work securely in order that they may live. They see that land is continually varying in annual value, and that only an equivalent annual payment made to the existing community can possibly discharge the debt due for the permission to continue to occupy.

It is apparent to them that there is plenty of land in the world for all; that it was provided by the Creator, and not made or brought there by the owners; and that it has not even been increased or rendered more useful by them. They see that the origin of land is, therefore, page 74 entirely different from that of produce, for the latter requires the constant attention and exertion of the workers, both to grow and to store it up.

At this stage, in order to assist themselves to grasp the problem thoroughly, they assume a case—viz., that all the people who exercised any industry were removed from the country. It is evident, in such an event, that the landlords and speculators would soon become extinct unless they set to work to produce things. Buying and selling the land amongst themselves would not supply their wants. They could not live as they now do, unless the industrious part of the community remained. It seems, therefore, to be a sound inference that the industrious people exist as a precedent necessity to the success of the operations, and even to the continued existence, of the landlord and speculator. The men wonder how long the industrious will thus continue to act the part of the "lion's provider." If the reverse of this operation were performed, and the landlords and speculators were removed from the country, they see that everything would go on better. The industrious part could work and live much better without them. All the producers being left in the country, the produce would be at least as great as ever. Not only so, but all the restrictions upon tenants being removed, the whole of their produce being left with them, and the lock-up being withheld from land now kept out of use, the total production would be much more than before. But to crown all, the whole of the former production, together with this large addition, would be shared amongst the workers only, so that each one would get very much more. After a few years the result of such a change for the better would be as marked in its character as is now the result, for evil and distress, of the operation of opposite conditions.

These men finally determine that they do not desire to be admitted to the same unjust privilege with the landlord, viz., to be allowed to hold land which they do not use. The claim which they decide to urge is that, on the other hand, the landlord's privilege should be revoked, and that all should have the same chance afforded to them. It appears to them, also, that it would only be just to alter the system, so that they who are prepared to work should have secure possession of as much land as they can use—always subject to payment tor its annual worth from time to time.

Single Taxers entirely agree with these workers in the conclusions at which they have arrived, after a temperate discussion of conditions which were calculated to arouse very different feelings. The fact that the landlord has inherited or bought this anomalous privilege may be dismissed, as affording no justification for its retention. The system stands condemned as inconsistent with itself, as utterly unjust, and as highly injurious to the moral and material welfare of the community which permits it to continue. It strikes at the root of the moral sense by confusing and rendering contradictory every just and even common-sense idea of what property is, or of what may properly page 75 be included in the term. It sanctions such an outrageous plan of distributing the produce of industry that some have barely enough left to serve for, or until, next season's sowing; while at the same time many others have no need to trouble about providing for this indispensable operation, but have merely to "watch the gate," and demand a share of what the industrious have produced.