The Economics of Anarchy

A Study of the Industrial Type (1890)

by Dyer D. Lum (1839-1893)

III. Free Land

EA-3.1 Volumes have been written upon the land question and the end is not yet, for that there is a land question is now indubitable. The complacent assumptions of earlier Economists, who were simply satisfied with debating how much of the burden of taxation should fall upon land, as the physiocrates in France; or later writers whom Malthus’ deductions called out, who hardly felt the need for justifying ownership in land as distinguished from chattels; as well as the labored defence of modern writers who have diligently sought for reasons; – have all been called into question. Throughout the whole century, from Godwin [Online editor’s note: William Godwin (1756-1836), English anarchist philosopher who advocated voluntary equality of property. – RTL] down to the correspondent of the village weekly, from the man of intellect struggling with logical propositions to the sentimental admirer of nationalism, voices have been raised against land ownership. But they were scarcely heard[,] so strongly entrenched was “the great political superstition” – that the State could do no wrong. Yet in the hold this question has now taken on public attention, the rapid growth of a conviction that monopolization of land is indefensible, the awakening of conscience to consider whether he is not a thief who deprives willing hands from idle land, we see new evidence of the ever increasing assertion of the industrial type to a hearing. And here at the outset we are brought to apply the plumet test of progress, the application of the sociological “law of equal freedom” to the use of land. We have seen from our premises that land is an essential prerequisite of social growth, aside from the fact that it forms the surface upon which life can alone exist. The question therefore becomes pertinent: By what manner of land tenure is social progress best subserved and equity secured? Equity would seem to give but one answer, however expediency trimmers may try to obscure it. No title deed can give more than possession, the equity remaining unsettled. If the question be asked whence the original grantor obtained the right to dispose at will of that which constitutes the primal source of wealth, no answer more rational can be given than the right of conquest. In other words compulsory might having obtained possession by enforced ejectment or subjugation of its former inhabitants, the lapse of time has converted an original wrong into an accepted right, a process of militant reasoning which will not bear examination here.
EA-3.2 Again, we are told that granting the original title to be defective in equity, still the fact of the original spoliators having been long dead, it would be equally inequitable to resort to new spoliation upon innocent inheritors. Waiving the point that under “the law of equal freedom” no writ of ejectment could be served upon the occupier and user, the objection is too specious for prolonged investigation, for it assumes that an indefinite lapse of time can condone a definite wrong; that the receiver of stolen goods is justified in retaining ill-gotten possession; that possession once acquired gives equitable warrant to deny use to land, a claim in which time is no factor; a denial of the equal right of the living because the dead have otherwise disposed of the soil; the claim that personal ownership may exist where no labor has been expended; that artificially created privilege is of greater force than natural necessities; that one generation may determine upon what terms a succeeding one may exist; that natural resources may be monopolized for the purpose of exaction; that equity is a creature of and subservient to custom; finally, it justifies human slavery wherever it may exist.
EA-3.3 That no generation has the right to deprive the unborn of equal opportunities (not raising the question that an ever-changing generation is not a determinable quantity), resolves itself in final analysis that no one has a right to do so; and what no one possesses only metaphysical reasoning can find in two or more; a proposition which is commended to our single tax adjustors of other people’s needs. That man’s right to utilize the source of existence is a common one, can only be denied by those who hold to the metaphysical philosophy of the last century that rights are natural and conferred; but this involves a confusion in terms between common and special rights, the latter being privileges, the opposite of which are duties; while rights said to be inherent and inalienable is [sic] but the assertion of “the law of equal freedom” and their opposite necessarily are privileges. Consequently “rights” are evolved, not instituted, and the assertion of rights is negative rather than positive in character, being a protest against inequitable relations. Thus a “right to the soil” is but the equal freedom of all to utilize the means of life itself involving no “duties” but protesting against privileges, an assertion that at once denies encroachment by any combination of persons dead or living, and affirms it as a condition of existence of which the denial is tantamount to enslavement. Land ownership therefore involves a pre-emption lien upon the labor of others, and logically glosses poverty into a pre-ordained condition, making nature a steward for the privileged. That labor exists for land rather than land for labor; that custom, accident, or greed is of superior validity to natural requirements of existence; that the functions of life may be scheduled in a legislative “bill of rights” as a compass to attain liberty; – are all involved in any justification of either individual or collective ownership and control of use of vacant land, and this is contained in our system of land tenure.
EA-3.4 But Economists, and however much they may strive to reject the qualifying prefix, “political”, are almost always the sycophantic adulators of State authority, have been driven to the justification of land ownership that it alone guarantees adequate incentives to the application of labor and the gratification of social needs. But this also assumes too much; in that he whom the title deed declares owner is better qualified to determine social needs than one without such deed; that incentive to exertion is furthered by obstacles; that the owner thereby becomes the natural guardian of the non-owners; that his heirs-at-law inherit this prerogative; that artificial distinction[s] born of invasion of equal freedom are natural endowments; that ownership and inheritance work a social alchemy in character not attainable by the disinherited; that the main incentive to tilling the soil is to divide the profits of exertion with another; that personal and family requirements would be insufficient but for the benignant influence of rent; that social relations under equality of opportunities would tend to savagery; [sic] that equity is never “practical” till it has received the sanctifying blessing of inequity; that between the social efficacy of Rent and the saving grace of Jesus Christ the wheels of industry are kept free from rust and social blessings result here for the legally elect and eternal happiness hereafter to the drudges employed.
EA-3.5 But if individuals have no right, in equity, to usurp control over land other than lies in use, has society such right? Such is the assumption of the twilight reformers of the left wing of the authoritarian army who marshal under the borrowed standard of George, or are looking backward to Sparta and Peru with Bellamy. [Online editor’s note: American economist Henry George (1839-1897), who though generally a free-market advocate regarded society as the legitimate owner of all land, and consequently favoured replacing all taxation with a single tax on land; American state-socialist writer Edward Bellamy (1850-1898); Lum’s line “looking backward to Sparta and Peru” is a sarcastic reference to Bellamy’s utopian 1888 novel Looking Backward. – RTL] But this also assumes too much. It assumes that beyond equal rights there are social rights; that over and above the equal freedom of individuals there is a desired mythical liberty of the collectivity to secure; that the aggregation of individual personalities constituting society has a life of itself, thus involving the postulate of militancy – that man exists for the State; that in social life the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that rights increase in some metaphysical manner and become incarnate in half the whole plus one; that industrial ends are best served by compulsory “direction;” that power possessed by no unit becomes regnant where three or more accidently [sic] meet to cultivate land; that robbery in the individual case becomes a social virtue when committed by two upon one; that land ownership being a moral crime in “the great grandson of Captain Kidd” [Online editor’s note: A reference to an example in Henry George’s 1881 book The Land Question. – RTL] becomes a collective blessing when sanctified by taxation; that man’s capacity to intelligently co-operate with his fellows is limited, but the capacity to adjust differences and regulate equity by half the crowd plus one is unlimited, and that collective equity is thus obtainable; that economic rent is a natural factor and not the creature of artificial conditions; that collective ownership carries with it ability to use independent of monopoly over exchange. Our equal right t natural resources can no more be curtailed by a generation living than by one dead. It is neither the fact that of being living nor dead that decides the claim an usurpation, but the fact that it is prima facie an invasion of the law of equal freedom, which constitutes the industrial ideal, by justifying intermeddling interference to regulate it.
EA-3.6 The argument of the collectivist is logically the same as that of the orthodox Economist that “direction” is necessary to civilization and commercial progress to preserve incentive and prevent idleness. Thus, insisted upon by all Economists, is thus tersely put by Roscher: [Online editor’s note: German economist Wilhelm Roscher (1817-1894), an important influence (perhaps surprisingly) on both the German Historical School and the French Liberal School. The passage quoted is from Joseph Lalor’s 1878 translation of Roscher’s 1854 Principles of Political Economy. – RTL]
“We so frequently hear rent called the result of the monopoly of land, and an undeserved tribute paid by the whole people to landowners, that it is high time we should call attention to the common advantage it is to all. There is evidently danger that, with the rapid growth of population, the mass of mankind should yield to the temptation of gradually confining themselves to the satisfaction of coarse, palpable wants; that all refined leisure, which makes life and the troubles that attend it worth enduring, and which is the indispensable foundation of all permanent progress and all higher activity, should be gradually surrendered. Here rent constitutes a species of reserve fund, which grows greater as these dangers impend by reason of the decline of wages and of the profits of capital, or interest. Besides, precisely in times when rent is high, the sale and divisibility of landed estates act as a beneficent reaction against the monopoly of land, which is always akin to the condition of things created by rent.
“But it is of immeasurably greater importance that high rents deter the people from abusing the soil in an anti-economic way; that they compel men to settle about the centers of commerce, to improve the means of transportation, and under certain circumstances to engage in the work of colonization; while, otherwise, idleness would soon reconcile itself to the heaping together of large swarms of men. The anticipation of rent may render possible the construction of railroads, which enable the land to yield that very anticipated rent.”
EA-3.9 Let us briefly analyze this.
EA-3.10 1. It starts out like the protectionists’ plea for infant industries; it denies man’s capacity for freedom and with the assumption that other men must guide them. As when “infant” industries mature protection is still claimed, so here, notwithstanding progress, infancy is still maintained.
EA-3.11 2. It assumes that because progress has resulted under onerous restrictions, therefore it is because of these restrictions. Consequently, without the restrictions upon activity against which all progress has been a struggle, he would lose all incentive.
EA-3.12 3. That equality of opportunities would substitute coarse and palpable wants only for the refined leisure of the few that now casts a reflected light upon the many condemned by it to enforced poverty.
EA-3.13 4. That receiving rent may tend to “refined leisure” may be conceded, but to this wholesale want of faith in human nature, the readiness with which society not only adapts itself to greater freedom, but also extends refinement, wherein supply naturally follows demand, is an all-sufficient answer. This distrust has ever been the tyrant’s plea and the slaveholder’s excuse. It is flatly contradicted by the progress of the race which shows that every removal of a burden artificially imposed has given greater elasticity to the springs of activity, and roves that these springs lie in human nature and not in the adventitious props men in their ignorance have sought. The same argument would justify feudal tenure as well.
EA-3.14 5. That great cities as centers of commerce are essential to social life is an unproved assumption, and leads to the inference that poverty, “which is always akin to the condition of things created by rent,” must be preserved to justify artificial incentive.
EA-3.15 The sovereignty of the individual, as the goal of all progressive advancement, recognizes no source of compulsion, whether incarnate in priest, king, or alleged collectivity. In use of land it sees but an essential requirement of existence, and the only possible equitable adjustment is upon the law of equal freedom where no title can be considered valid save that of occupancy and sue. The quantity of land is not yet restricted nor can we aver that it ever will be. The entire population of the globe could live well in Europe with far less density than now prevails in some of its localities.
EA-3.16 With occupancy and use the sole tenure every square rod of unused land capable of use, would be thrown open on equal terms, and the much vaunted “law of natural rent” be quickly seen not to have the substance of “baseless fabric of a dream.” [Online editor’s note: A frequent misquotation from Shakespeare’s Tempest IV.1.151-57, eliding “the baseless fabric of this vision” with “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” a few lines later. – RTL] The “natural productiveness of best soil,” which so alarms our twilight adjustors of social relations as needing a collective curb, never remains the same after use begins. Its yield determines no “natural rent,” for the claim ignores the value of labor, experience, manures, etc., to, at first appearance, less inviting land. The question of what would constitute “use” would not cause half the difficulty it now does to inventors of ready-made objections, for as co-operation could always guarantee security, what would be regarded as use would quickly settle itself.
EA-3.17 Therefore, we conclude that an essential requirement of the industrial type of society is free land; that is, freedom of access to utilize unused land, and that its frustration in whatever form clothed is born of the militant regime, reactionary, and detrimental to progress and order.

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