An excerpt from Progress and Poverty.
Though often warped by habit, superstition and selfishness into the most distorted forms, the sentiment of justice is yet fundamental to the human mind, and whatever dispute arouses the passions of men, the conflict is sure to rage, not so much as to the question “Is it wise?” as to the question “Is it right?”
What constitutes the rightful basis of property? What is it that enables a man justly to say of a thing, “It is mine?” From what springs the sentiment that acknowledges his exclusive right as against all the world? Is it not, primarily, the right of a man to himself, to the use of his own powers, to the enjoyment of the fruits of his own exertions? Is it not this individual right, which springs from and is testified to by the natural facts of individual organization — the fact that each particular pair of hands obey a particular brain and are related to a particular stomach; the fact that each man is a definite, coherent, independent whole? As a man belongs to himself, so his labor when put in concrete form belongs to him. And for this reason, that which a man makes or produces is his own, as against all the world. No one else can rightfully claim it, and his exclusive right to it involves no wrong to any one else.
Title to Ownership — How Derived
This is the original source from which all ideas of exclusive ownership arise — and it is necessarily the only source. There can be to the ownership of anything, no rightful title, that is not derived from the title of the producer and does not rest upon the natural right of the man to himself.
Nature acknowledges no ownership or control in man save as the result of exertion. In no other way can her treasures be drawn forth, her powers directed, or her forces utilized or controlled. She makes no discriminations among men, but is to all absolutely impartial. She knows no distinction between master and slave, king and subject, saint and sinner. All men to her stand upon an equal footing and have equal rights. She recognizes no claim but that of labor. If a pirate spread his sails, the wind will fill them as well as it will fill those of a peaceful merchantman. If a king and a common man be thrown overboard, neither can keep his head above water except by swimming. Birds will not come to be shot by the proprietor of the soil any quicker than they will come to be shot by the poacher. Fish will bite or will not bite at a hook in utter disregard as to whether it is offered them by a good little boy who goes to Sunday-school, or a bad little boy who plays truant. Grain will grow only as the ground is prepared and the seed is sown. It is only at the call of labor that ore can be raised from the mine. The sun shines and the rain falls alike upon the just and the unjust.
This right of ownership that springs from labor excludes the possibility of any other right of ownership. If a man be rightfully entitled to the produce of his labor, then no one can be rightfully entitled to the ownership of anything that is not the produce of labor or of the labor of someone else from whom the right has passed to him. If production gives to the producer the right to exclusive possession and enjoyment, there can rightfully be no exclusive possession and enjoyment of anything not the production of labor, and the recognition of private property in land is wrong. For the right to the produce of labor cannot be enjoyed without the right to the free use of the opportunities offered by nature, and to admit the right of property in these is to deny the right of property in the produce of labor. When non-producers can claim as rent a portion of the wealth created by producers, the right of the producers to the fruits of their labor is to that extent denied. There is no escape from this position.
Confusions as to Property
What most prevents the realization of the injustice of private property in land is the habit of including all the things that are made the subject of ownership in one category as property. The real and natural distinction is between things that are the produce of labor and things that are the gratuitous offerings of nature. These two classes of things are in essence and relations widely different, and to class them together as property is to confuse all thought when we come to consider the justice or the injustice, the right or the wrong of property.
A house and the lot on which it stands are alike property, as being the subject of ownership, and are alike classed by the lawyers as real estate. Yet in nature and relations they differ widely. The one is produced by human labor, and the other is a part of nature.
The essential character of the one class of things is that they embody labor, are brought into being by human exertion, their existence or non-existence, their increase or diminution, depending on man. The essential character of the other class of things is that they do not embody labor, and exist irrespective of human exertion and irrespective of man; they are the field or environment in which man finds himself; the storehouse from which his needs must be supplied; the raw material upon which, and the forces with which, his labor alone can act.
The Equal Right to Land
If we are all here by the equal permission of the Creator, we are all here with an equal right to the use of all that nature so impartially offers. This is a right which is natural and inalienable; it is a right which vests in every human being as he enters the world and which during his continuance in the world can be limited only by the equal rights of others.
There is in nature no such thing as a fee simple in land. There is on earth no power which can rightfully make a grant of exclusive ownership in land. If all existing men were to unite to grant away their equal rights, they could not grant away the right of those who follow them.
For what are we but tenants for a day? Have we made the earth, that we should determine the rights of those who after us shall tenant it in their turn? Let the parchments be ever so many, or possession ever so long, natural justice can recognize no right in one man to the possession and enjoyment of land that is not equally the right of all his fellows.
If one man command the land upon which others must labor, he can appropriate the produce of their labor as the price of his permission to labor. The fundamental law of nature, that her enjoyment by man shall be consequent upon his exertion, is thus violated. The one receives without producing; the others produce without receiving. The one is unjustly enriched; the others are robbed. To this fundamental wrong we have traced the unjust distribution of wealth which is separating modern society into the very rich bind the very poor. It is the continuous increase of rent, the price that labor is compelled to pay for the use of land, which strips the many of the wealth they justly earn and piles it up in the hands of the few who do nothing to earn it.
Distinction between Ownership and Use
The right to exclusive ownership of anything of human production is clear. To improvements such an original title can be shown; but it is a title only to the improvements, and not to the land itself. If I clear a forest, drain a swamp, or fill a morass, all I can justly claim is the value given by these exertions. They give me no right to the land itself, no claim other than to my equal share with every other member of the community in the value that is added to it by the growth of the community.
But it will be said: There are improvements which in time become indistinguishable from the land itself! Very well. Then the title to the improvements becomes blended with the title to the land, the individual right is lost in the common right. It is the greater that swallows up the less, not the less that swallows up the greater. Nature does not proceed from man, but man proceeds from nature, and it is into the bosom of nature that he and all his works must return again.
Yet it will be said: As every man has a right to the use and enjoyment of nature, the man who is using land must be permitted the exclusive right to its use in order that he may get the full benefit of his labor. But there is no difficulty in determining where the individual right ends and the common right begins. A delicate and exact test is supplied by value, and with its aid there is no difficulty, no matter how dense population may become, in determining and securing the exact rights of each, the equal rights of all.
The value of land, as we have seen, is the price of monopoly. It is not the absolute, but the relative, capability of land that determines its value. No matter what may be its intrinsic qualities, land that is no better than other land that may be had for the using can have no value. And the value of land always measures the difference between it and the best land that may be had for the using. Thus the value of land expresses in exact and tangible form the right of the community to land held by an individual and rent expresses the exact amount which the individual should pay to the community to satisfy the equal rights of all other members of the community.
How to Ensure the Best Use of Land
It will be obvious to whoever will look around him that what is required for the improvement of land is not absolute ownership of the land, but security for the improvements.
It is not necessary to say to a man, “this land is yours,” in order to induce him to cultivate or improve it. It is only necessary to say to him, “whatever your labor or capital produces on the land shall be yours.” Give a man security that he may reap, and he will sow; assure him of the possession of the house he wants to build, and he will build it. These are the natural rewards of labor. It is for the sake of the reaping that men sow; it is for the sake of possessing houses that men build. The ownership of land has nothing to do with it.
The complete recognition of common rights to land need in no way interfere with the complete recognition of individual rights to improvements or produce. Two men may own a ship without sawing her in half. The ownership of a railway may be divided into a hundred thousand shares, and yet trains be run with as much system and precision as if there were but a single owner. In London, joint stock companies have been formed to hold and manage real estate. Everything could go on as now, and yet the common right to land be fully recognized by appropriating rent to the common benefit.
The Rights of Successive Generations
The deduction of a complete and exclusive individual right to land from priority of occupation is, if possible, the most absurd ground on which land ownership can be defended. Had the men of the last generation any better right to the use of this world than we of this? Or the men of a hundred years ago? Or of a thousand years ago? Or the moundbuilders, or the cave-dwellers, the contemporaries of the mastodon and the three-toed horse, or the generations still further back who, in dim aeons that we can only think of as geologic periods, followed each other on the earth we now tenant for our little day?
Has the first comer at a banquet the right to turn back all the chairs and claim that none of the other guests shall partake of the food provided, except as they make terms with him? Does the first man who present a ticket at the door of a theatre, and passes in, acquire by his priority the right to shut the doors and have the performance go on for him alone? Does the first passenger who enters a railway carriage obtain the right to scatter his baggage over all the seats and compel the passengers who come in after him to stand up?
Our rights to take and possess cannot be exclusive; they must be bounded everywhere by the equal rights of others. Just as the passenger in a railway carriage may spread his baggage over as many seats as he pleases, until other passengers come in, so may a settler take and use as much land as he chooses, until it is needed by others — a fact that is shown by the land acquiring a value — when his right must be curtailed by the equal rights of the others, and no priority of appropriation can give a right that will bar these equal rights of others. If this were not the case, then by priority of appropriation one man could acquire and could transmit to whom he pleased, not merely the exclusive right to a few acres, but to a whole township, a whole country, a whole continent.