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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter XII. — Legal Ethics

page 58

Chapter XII.

Legal Ethics.

Truth compels me to record that the lawyer made me lose my patience, a circumstance which will surprise nobody acquainted with legal methods. His object was clearly to confuse rather than to argue. Instead of endeavoring to show that the people behind him had a right to the soil, he insisted on raising side issues. He argued either that others had no better right to the land—a point on which I heartily concurred with him—or that the administration would not be perfect—and so forth; matters which, however important, have nothing whatever to do with the right claimed by a few individuals to own the sources of nature.

"What you have to show," I said rather impatiently, "is that your clients have a right to own the land, and not that others have not. On this point we are agreed, of course. It is not our intention to take the land from Lord Rigmarole and [unclear: the] give it to Patrick O'Mahony, as some semi-idiots used to propose. If private ownership in land is wrong, as we contend then it is wrong in all cases, no matter who may be the owner. If, on the other hand, it is right, then I grant you not only the we have no right to tax away all its value, as we now are doing, but that the State has no right whatever to interfere with landowners in the disposal of their land—if theirs it is—nor to dictate to them on what terms they are to let it, or to whom. The question is not one of expediency or arbitrary force, but of right. Either the land is yours by right, or it is not."

L.: "That is the question."

I: "But this question cannot be decided in the way you argue. Your contention is that the proposed administration is faulty—is, in short, not absolutely perfect. Granted it is not; does it follow from that that you have a right to the soi[unclear: l]. If you intend to suggest better methods of administration, with the object of more thoroughly securing to every individual his jointure, we shall be glad to listen to you. But surely you cannot fail to see that in doing so you practically abandon all your claims to exclusive ownership."

L.: "How so?"

I: "Because when you urge that under the new system page 59 everybody would not get his full rights to the land, the inference is that more thorough nationalisation is required; but it does not establish your claim."

L.: "Our contention is this: You object to private ownership in land because some people are thereby deprived of what you call their natural rights. We now prove to you that even under State ownership—for your Single Tax amounts to State ownership of the land—everybody will not get a full equivalent of his share in it."

I: "From which you argue that inasmuch as our system is not the best conceivable, therefore we should continue the worst possible. This conclusion does not follow from the premises, and certainly does not make good your claim. At best you might submit such a proposal as an alternative method of disposing of the land, which the community may accept or refuse. But then again you would practically abandon your claims to the soil."

L.: "But that we have not admitted yet."

I: "Then it is no business of yours to discuss how the land should be dealt with, by those who, you contend, have no right to it. The raising of such side issues can then have one meaning only, viz., to avert attention from the main point by throwing dust into people's eyes. Confine yourself to proving that you have a valid title to the land, and not that you are good landlords or the community bad administrators. If you cannot do this the land belongs to the community to use."

L.: "And if we can?"

I: "Then we must abide by the consequences. The people stand up for their rights and not the law. If the land is yours, then you have a good legal right, if you choose, to give notice to all your tenants to quit, and turn the land into deer parks or sheep walks. If the land is yours, then you are legally entitled to say that you will not let your land to Baptists or to Methodists, nor allow people who vote Radical or Liberal to settle on your land. You may then decree when, where, whom, and how people should marry—"

"That would be an interference with the rights of liberty," suggested someone behind me sarcastically.

I: "So it would; and these gentlemen are all members of the Liberty and Property Defense League. But could they not say, 'I don't let my land to Baptists or Radicals or to carroty people,' nevertheless? Thus, for instance, you are free to be this and that, and I am free to do with my land as I please. Have not such things been done? Nay, are not the very objects of this sophistical league to secure to a comparatively few individuals the power to do with the rest of the community as they pleased? Is not that the kind of liberty for which they are fighting?"

page 60

L.: "Is not that remark beside the question?"

I: "I fear it is. Well, let us come to the point. Have [unclear: y] anything to support your claims?"

L.: "Yes, I am coming to the point as you desire it. [unclear: You] have yourself admitted that there are no natural rights Hence, the only existing right is that which the law gives Here then are our titles" (throwing a bundle of parchments [unclear: a] me), "where are yours? Can you show a better title tha[unclear: n] do?"

I: "Oh, oh! That is your little game. To that end [unclear: the] have you employed philosophers to show there are no natural rights. But, good sir, your philosophy falls somewhat short [unclear: of] common sense; for if there are no natural rights, then [unclear: th] 'rights' on which you rely might be suspected as bein[unclear: g] natural. Can I not make you understand that this is a great question of equity, of. right or wrong, and that such questions cannot be decided by cunning word conjurings? You want a better title than your parchments. In yonder field a man's l digging up potatoes. He tilled the field and planted the potatoes and now thinks he has a right to the result. We both say to the man that he has not a right to the whole crop. Honest man that he is, he declares himself willing to give up part or the whole of his crop, but before doing so would fain know if he, the tiller, has no right to those potatoes, who has? Is it not right and natural that the man who claims part of the crop should be required to show a better right to it than the man who raised it. This is the real issue. Show what better right you have tod produce, than the man who produced it?"

L.: "Nay, I put that question to you. Our right is here secured to us by these deeds."

I: "Signed by whom? By the original owner—the producer—of the soil?"

L.: "Signed by kings, in the name of the nation, and ratified by the common consent of the people."

I: "If that were true, it would not establish the validity of these deeds, since no generation has the right to command to future generations how they shall live on this globe. But it is not even true. When has this common consent been given, or even asked for? When the Romans butchered the ancient Britons? When the Danish hordes devastated the countr[unclear: y] Or when the Norman bastard and his fellow-robbers invaded these islands? Or when some king handed over whole tracts of country to his paramours or his bastard sons?"

L.: "The kings have acted in the name of the people, and these have not protested, which is equal to common consent."

I: "Another of your legal fictions, and one of which you ought to be heartily ashamed. Is it not true rather that the people have continually protested against the tyranny of [unclear: arb-] page 61 trary rule, but have been answered by dungeon or the gallows? Look down the list of your statutes, the penalties that were imposed on free speech, on 'sedition,' as every kind of protest against tyranny has been called, and you will find in the laws that have been passed to suppress these protests ample evidence of their reality. What were all the popular risings but protests? What, even in more recent times, were the meetings of the people in parks and squares but loud protests against tyranny and arbitrary rule, which you have suppressed whenever you could by main force?"

L.: "You refer to illegal assemblies."

I: "Because, after having robbed the people of their birthrights, their protests have been declared illegal. So that even granted that the people, either from inability or from ignorance—it is immaterial which—have not protested sooner, they are protesting now. Let it be granted that the validity of these deeds is now questioned for the first time. Is it a good answer to say that because you have exacted tribute by false deeds for so long, therefore you have a right to continue the practice?"

L.: "You do not put the case fairly. We say that our legal claims have always been held to be good."

I: Never! All you can say is that they have not been scrutinized before too closely. Let me read to you what Black-stone, your legal authority, has written on the subject:

"'There is nothing which so generally strikes the imaginations, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. And yet there are very few that will give themselves the trouble to consider the origin and foundation of this right. Pleased as we are with the possession, we seem afraid to look back to the means by which it was acquired, as if fearful of some defect in our title; or at best we rest satisfied with the decision of the laws in our favor, without examining the reason or authority upon which those laws have been built. We think it enough that our title is derived by the grant of the former proprietor, by descent from our ancestor, or by the last will and testament of the dying owner; not caring to reflect that (accurately and strictly speaking) there is no foundation in nature or in natural law why a set of words upon parchment should convey the dominion of land; why the son should have a right to exclude his fellow-creatures from a determinate spot of ground because his father has done so before him; or why the occupier of a particular field, when lying on his death-bed, and no longer able to maintain possession, should be entitled to tell the rest of the world which of them shall enjoy it after him. These inquiries, it must be owned, would be useless and even page 62 troublesome in common life. It is well if the mass of [unclear: mankind] will obey the laws when made, without scrutinizing too nicely into the reasons for making them—'"

The lawyer coughed and wiped his spectacles, but mad[unclear: e] reply. I continued:

"Nor has the land ever been regarded as your absolute property, even by the law, bad as it was. What did the fixation of judicial rents and compulsory expropriation mean bu[unclear: t] denial of that exclusive right which you claim? If the land had been held to be yours in the same sense as you may claim ownership of a watch or table, why this interference? And why did you submit to it so meekly? I will answer this last questions for you. Because your title was bad, and you were afrai[unclear: d] urge your claims to extremities lest the fraud might be discovered."

L.: "The law—"

I: "The law, as it stood, right up to 1893, imposed a tax on ground rents of four shillings in the pound. But though this was law, the tax had nevertheless not been paid."

L.: "But it has been paid according to assessment."

I: "That is, in Latin, a suppressio veri, or, in English, a and you know it well. The four shillings were on an assessment made about two hundred years ago, but the rent was collected on present values; so that in parts of London, instead of four shillings in the pound, as required by the said law, the tax did not amount to more than a fraction of a penny. Time and again a return has been moved for in the Commons, with a view of showing this fraudulent evasion of the tax, but has been arbitrarily refused by the House of Landlords. These four shillings meant only one-fifth of what the people were defrauded annually, and should, according to law, have been paid, and was yet withheld—withheld contrary to statute law. Was this, too, by common consent?"

L: "We cannot enter into that; nor can we reopen thing; of the past. It is a novel thing to come down on people to day for acts committed, or supposed to have been committed, centuries ago."

I: "Now it is you who states the case unfairly. We claim no restitution for acts committed in the past; but, on the other hand, do not allow that a wrong may be continued to-day because it has originated long ago. Let me illustrate the case. His lordship there told us that his family has been in possession of certain estates since the Norman invasion. A goodly long time indeed. Supposing now, that he discovered the steward of his estate had defrauded him of so much of his revenue annually, would it be a good defense if the steward pleaded that these frauds have been in vogue by his predecessors ever since the Conquest, and therefore claimed to be allowed to continue page 63 in abstracting a certain sum annually forever? This is precisely your case. You can show no valid title to the land; indeed, you have hardly attempted it. All you say is that this tribute has been collected by your predecessors for centuries."

L.: "And that we are not responsible for past actions."

I: "True. Nor was the steward responsible for what his predecessors had stolen. That is not the point. The question is, whether his lordship, on hearing his steward's defense, will say to him, 'Ah, that is all right then. Had you been thieving from me for a few years only, I would have sent you to the treadmill. But since you say this thieving has been going on for centuries, and that you actually paid my former steward a large sum for the privilege of stealing from me, as he and others have done before, I recognize your right to continue the theft for ever and ever;' or whether his lordship would not rather put a summary stop to the practice as soon as he discovered the fraud."