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An Essay on the Right of Property in Land
by William Ogilvie, of Pittensear
Professor of Humanity,
and Lecturer on Political and Natural History, Antiquities, Criticism, and Rhetoric
in the University and King's College of Aberdeen
edited by Peter Gibb
(The municipal laws of every country are not only observed as a rule of conduct, but by the bulk of the people they are regarded as the standard of right and of wrong, in all matters to which their regulations are extended.
In this prejudice, however natural to the crowd, and however salutary it may be deemed, men of enlarged and inquisitive minds are bound by no ties to acquiesce without enquiry.
Property is one of the principal objects of municipal law, and that to which its regulations are applied with greatest efficacy and precision. With respect to property in movables, great uniformity takes place in the laws of almost all nations; they differ only as being more or less extended to details, comprehending the diversity of commercial transactions; and this branch of jurisprudence may be said to have almost attained to its ultimate maturity and perfection.
But with respect to property in land, different principles have been adopted by different nations in different ages; and there is no reason why that system which now prevails in Europe, and which is derived from an age not deserving to be extolled for legislative wisdom, or regard to the equal rights of men, should be supposed to excel any system that has taken place elsewhere, or to be in itself already advanced beyond the capacity of improvement, or the need of reformation.
So let it be considered what regulations a colony of men settling in a small island, just sufficient to furnish them subsistence, by the aid of high cultivation, would probably establish in order to render the independent subsistence of each individual secure, and to prevent any one, or a few, from engrossing the territory, or acquiring a greater share than might be consistent with the public good? Just such regulations respecting property in land, it would be in the interest of every state to establish at any period of its history.
It is to a free and speculative disquisition, concerning the foundation of this right of property in land, and concerning those modifications, by which it may be rendered in the highest degree beneficial to all ranks of men, that the author of these pages wishes to call the attention of the learned, the ingenious, and the friends of mankind. )
All Right of property is founded either in occupancy or labour. The earth having been given to mankind in common occupancy, each individual seems to have by nature a right to possess and cultivate an equal share. This right is little different from that which he has to the free use of the open air and running water; though not so indispensably requisite at short intervals for his actual existence, it is not less essential to the welfare and right state of his life through all its progressive stages.
This right cannot be precluded by any possession of others and nor is it tacitly renounced by those who have had no opportunity of entering upon it. The opportunity of claiming this right ought to be reserved for every citizen. In many rude communities, this original right has been respected, and their public institutions accommodated to it; whenever conquests have taken place, this right has been commonly subverted and effaced; in the progress of commercial arts and refinements, it is suffered to fall into obscurity and neglect.
Speculative reasoners have confounded this equal right with that which is founded in labour, and ascertained by mutual law. The right of a landholder to an extensive estate must be founded chiefly in labour, and the progress of cultivation gives an ascendant to the right of labour over that of general occupancy. But the public good requires that both should be respected and combined together, and although such combination is difficult, and has rarely been established for any length of time, it is the proper object of Agrarian laws, and effectual means of establishing it may be devised. Almost all of Agrarian laws have proceeded on the plan of restricting that extent of landed property which an individual may acquire, and not the nature and the force of that right with which the landholder is invested.(1) Thus endeavouring to establish an equality of fortune, they have been found impracticable, and, could they have been carried into execution, must have proved detrimental.
The value of an estate in land consists of three parts - the original, the improved, and the improvable value. That every man has a right to an equal share of the soil, in its original state, may be admitted to be a maxim of natural law. It is also a maxim of natural law, that everyone, by whose labour any portion of the soil has been rendered more fertile, has a right to the additional produce of that fertility, or to the value of it, and may transmit this right to other men. The original and the improvable value of a great estate still belong to the community, the improved alone to the landholder. (2)
If the original value of the soil be the joint property of the community, no scheme of taxation can be so equitable as a land-tax, by which alone the expenses of the state ought to be supported until the whole amount of that original value be exhausted; for the persons who have retained no portion of that public stock, but have suffered their shares to be deposited in the hands of the landholders, may be allowed to complain, if, before that fund is entirely applied to the public use, they are subjected to taxes, imposed on any other kind of property, or any articles of consumption.
A just and exact valuation of landed property is the necessary basis of an equal land-tax. The original value is the proper subject of land-taxes: the improvable value may be separated from the improved, and ought to be still open to the claims of the community.
How preposterous, then, is the system of that country which maintains a civil and military establishment, by taxes of large amount, without the assistance of any land-tax at all! - In that example may be perceived the true spirit of legislation as exercised by landholders alone. Property in land is the fittest subject of taxation; and could it be made to support the whole expense of the public, great advantages would arise to all orders of men. What then, it may be said, would not in that case the proprietors of stock in trade, in manufacture and arts, escape taxation, that is, the proprietors of one-half the national income? They would indeed, be so exempted; and very justly, and very profitably for the State; for it accords with the best interests of the community, through successive generations, that active progressive industry should be exempted, if possible, from every public burden.
All property ought to be the reward of industry; all industry ought to be secure of its full reward; the exorbitant right of the landholders subverts both these maxims of good policy. It is the indirect influence of this monopoly which makes a poors-rate necessary; requires unnatural severity in penal laws; renders sumptuary laws unpolitical, and the improvement of machinery for facilitating labour unpopular, and perhaps pernicious. The oppressed state of the cultivators, being universal, has been regarded by themselves and others as necessary and irremediable. A sound policy respecting property in land is perhaps the greatest improvement that can be made in human affairs.
(And reformation in this important point is not to be despaired of; the establishment of property in land has changed, and may hereafter receive other innovations.)
The chief obstacle to rapid improvement of agriculture is plainly that monopoly of land which resides in the proprietors, and which the commercial system of the present age has taught them to exercise with artful strictness, almost everywhere. Hereafter, perhaps, some fortunate nation will give the example of setting agriculture free from its fetters. A new emulation will then arise among the nations hastening to acquire that higher vigour and prosperity, which the emancipation of the most useful of all arts cannot fail to produce.
The actual state of Europe, with respect to property in land, is very different from what might be desired. That exclusive right to the improvable value of the soil which a few men, never in any country exceeding one hundredth part of the community, are permitted to engross, is a most oppressive privilege: by its operation, the happiness of mankind has been for ages more invaded and restrained, than by all the tyranny of kings, the imposture of priests, and the chicane of lawyers taken together, though these are supposed to be the greatest evils that afflict the societies of human kind.
The rent which may be taken for land ought to be submitted to regulations not less than the interest of money. Whatever good reasons may be given for restraining money-holders from taking too high interest, may with still greater force be applied to restraining proprietors of land from an abuse of their right. By exacting exorbitant rents, they exercise a most pernicious usury, and deprive industry that is actually exerted of its due reward. By granting only short leases, they stifle and prevent the exertion of that industry which is ready at all times to spring up, were the cultivation of the soil laid open upon equitable terms. It is of more importance to the community, that regulations should be imposed on the proprietors of land, than on the proprietors of money; for land is the principal stock of every nation, the principal subject of industry, and the use of which is most necessary for the happiness and due employment of every individual.
Nor is it less practicable to adapt regulations to the use of land than to the use of money, were the legislative body equally well inclined to impose salutary restrictions on both. The glaring abuses of the one might be as effectually prevented as those of the other; although the total exclusion of all manner of abuse from either is not to be looked for. But that class of men in whom the strength of every government resides, and the right of making or the power of influencing and controlling those who possess the right of making laws, have generally been borrowers of money and proprietors of land.
The monopoly of rude materials, indispensably requisite for carrying on any branch of industry, is far more pernicious than the monopoly of manufactured commodities ready for consumption. The monopoly possessed by landholders is of the first sort, and affects the prime material of the most essential industry.
The monopoly possessed by land-holders enables them to deprive the peasants not only of the due reward of industry exercised on the soil, but also of that which they may have opportunity of exercising in any other way, and on any other subject; and hence arises the most obvious interest of the landholder, in promoting manufactures.
That nation is greatly deceived and misled which bestows any encouragement on manufactures for exportation, or for any purpose but the necessary internal supply, until the great manufactures of grain and pasturage are carried to their utmost extent -- it can never be in the interest of the community; it may be in that of the landholders, who desire indeed to be considered as the nation itself, or at least as being representatives of the nation, and having the same interest with the whole body of the people.
(When mention is made in political reasonings of the interest of any nation, and those circumstances, by which it is supposed to be injured or promoted, are canvassed, it is generally the interest of the landholders that is kept in view.)
In fact, however, their interest is, in some most important respects, directly opposite to that of the great body of the community, over whom they exercise an ill-regulated jurisdiction, together with an oppressive monopoly in the commerce of land to be hired for cultivation.
Property in Land, as at present established, is a monopoly of the most pernicious kind. The interest of landholders is substituted for that of the community; it ought to be the same, but it is not. The landholders of a nation levy the most oppressive of all taxes; they receive the most unmerited of all pensions: if tithes are oppressive to industry, rents capable of being raised from time to time are much more so.
Regarding the whole wealth of the community, as belonging of right to themselves, landholders stand foremost in opposing the imposition of exorbitant taxes by the State, forgetting the exorbitancy of that taxation which they themselves impose on the cultivators of the soil, and which the sovereign may in justice, and in the way of retaliation ought to, regulate and restrain. They clamour aloud against pensions and sinecure places, bestowed by the sovereign, not adverting that their own large incomes are indeed pensions, and salaries of sinecure offices, which they derive from the partiality of municipal law in favour of that order of men by whom its regulations are virtually enacted.
There are districts in which the landholder's rents have been doubled within fifty years, in consequence of a branch of manufacture being introduced and flourishing, without any improvement in the mode of agriculture, or any considerable increase of the produce of the soil. Here, therefore, the landlords are great gainers, but by what industry or attention have they earned their profits? How have they contributed to the progress of this manufacture, unless by forbearing to obstruct it? And yet from the necessity under which the manufacturing poor lived, of resorting to these landholders to purchase from them the use of houses and land, for the residence of their families, they have been enabled to tax their humble industry at a very high rate, and to rob them of perhaps more than one-half of its reward.
Had the manufacturers of such districts possessed what every citizen seems entitled to have, a secure home of their own - had they enjoyed full property in their lands; would not then the reward of their industrious labour have remained entire in their own hands?
The encouragements granted to commerce and manufactures, and so universally extolled, seem merely schemes devised for employing the poor and finding subsistence for them, in that manner which may bring most immediate profit to the rich: and these methods are, if not deliberately, at least without inquiry, preferred to others, which might bring greater advantage to the body of the people directly, and ultimately even to the rich themselves.
What is it that in England restrains the early marriages of the poor and industrious classes of men? Alas! not the Marriage Act but a system of institutions more difficult to be reformed; establishing in a few hands that monopoly of land by which the improvable as well as the improved value of the soil is engrossed. It is this which chiefly occasions the difficulty of their finding early and comfortable settlements in life, and so prevents the consent of parents from being given before the legal age. It is this difficulty which even after that age is passed still withholds the consent of parents, restrains the inclinations of the parties themselves, and keeps so great a number of the lower classes unmarried to their thirtieth or fortieth years, perhaps for their whole lives.
What other reason can be given, than the influence of this monopoly, why in countries, for many ages not thinly inhabited, nor unacquainted with the arts of agriculture, so great a proportion of the soil should still remain barren, or at least far below that state of fertility, to which the judicious cultivation of independent occupiers could bring it?
While the cultivable lands remain locked up, as it were, under the present monopoly, any considerable increase of population, though it seems to add to the public strength, must have a pernicious influence on the relative interests of society, and the happiness of the greater number. By diminishing the wages of labour, it favours the rich, fosters their luxury, their vanity, their arrogance; while on the other hand, it deprives the poor of some share of their just reward and necessary subsistence.
It were unjust to censure the proprietors of land, however, for retaining and exercising, as they do, a right whose foundations have not been inquired into, and whose extent no one has ever yet controverted. It is the situation in which they find themselves placed that prompts their conduct; nor can they readily conceive either the injustice or the detriment which the public suffers, by permitting such rights to be exercised. On the other hand, the farmers and cultivators have no clear perception of the injustice and oppression which they suffer. They feel indeed, and they complain, but do not understand, or dare not consider steadily, from what cause their grievances take their rise. The oppressive rights of the one order, and the patient submission of the other, have grown up together insensibly from remote ages, in which the present state of human affairs could not have been foreseen.
The public good requires that every individual should be excited to employ his industry in increasing the public stock, or to exert his talents in the public service, by the certainty of a due reward. Whoever enjoys any revenue, not proportioned to such industry or exertion of his own, or of his ancestors, is a freebooter, who has found means to cheat or to rob the public, and more especially the indigent of that district in which he lives. But the hereditary revenue of a great landholder is wholly independent of his industry, and secure from every danger that does not threaten the whole State. It increases also without any effort of his, and in proportion to the industry of those who cultivate the soil. In respect of their industry, therefore, it is a taille or progressive tax of the most pernicious nature; and in respect of the landholder himself, it is a premium given to idleness, an inducement to refrain from any active useful employment, and to withhold his talents, whatever they are, from the service of his country. If the circumstances in which he finds himself placed stimulate to any exertion at all, it is that insidious vigilance by which he himself is debased, and his dependents at once corrupted and oppressed.
It has been required of the magistrate that he should with the same assiduity apply rewards to virtue as punishment to vice. The part which he has to act in respect or these cases is very different. The natural sentiments of men are sufficient to repress smaller vices, and to encourage and reward great and striking virtues; but they are not vigorous enough to apply adequate punishment to great crimes, nor steady and uniform enough to secure due reward and regular encouragement to the common and ordinary virtues of human life.
Every man, and every order of men, have their peculiar commodity, which they bring to market for the service of the community, and for procuring the means of their own subsistence. It would be injustice and oppression, therefore, if any one order were to impose restrictions on any other, respecting the price they may demand for their peculiar commodity. This injustice, however, certain higher orders have attempted, though generally without success, to put in practice, on various occasions, against their inferiors -- against hired servants, day labourers, journeymen, artists of various kinds -- by prescribing limits to the wages they are allowed to ask or to receive.
These lower classes of citizens have only the labour of their hand for their commodity, and if any is more than another entitled to the privileges of a free and equal market, it is surely that which may be accounted more immediately the gift of nature to each.
The community has a right, no doubt, to restrain individuals from doing aught that may be pernicious or offensive: what right it can have to compel them to exert their industry for the public service, at a regulated price, may admit of question, excepting only those cases in which the safety of the state is brought into immediate and evident danger.
The indirect and remote influences of this monopoly are productive of many unnatural situations and many pernicious effects, which the skill of legislature is frequently employed in vain to redress. Were this monopoly anywhere removed, and the cultivation of the soil laid open upon reasonable terms, the lowest classes of men would not be destitute of wherewithal to maintain their decayed and infirm relations and neighbours. These charitable attentions, prompted by private affection, would be better discharged, than when they devolve on the public; and all that encouragement to idleness, that waste, and mismanagement, inseparable from poor rates, and other public institutions of this sort, would be spared.
Sumptuary laws have been frequently turned into ridicule, and not unjustly, as pretending to maintain an impracticable simplicity, and an unnecessary austerity of manners, among the great body of citizens; but they deserve a very different estimation, if considered as means of directing the public industry to those exertions which may be productive of the most extensive utility, and most valuable enjoyments to the community at large.
If those persons who spend their days in the manufactures of velvet and of lace could be induced to employ the same industry in raising grain, potatoes, and flax, would they not, by increasing the plenty of these necessary commodities, augment the real accommodation of a very numerous class of citizens? And would not the happiness thence arising more than compensate the scarcity of those frivolous refinements which may be required for the gratification of a few?
Why should it be necessary to restrain the industry which ministers to luxury ? - Because the industry which is productive of essential plenty, is restrained.
In a country where the opportunities of exercising a natural employment, and finding an easy subsistence, were thus laid open to all, the temptations to theft and other violations of property would be very much diminished; nor could it be thought necessary to restrain such crimes by the unnatural severity of capital punishments.
In such a country no suspicion could arise, no surmise would be listened to, that the invention of machines for facilitating mechanical labour, could ever be pernicious to the common people, or adverse to the prosperity of the State.
Perhaps no government can claim to itself the praise of having attended with the same impartial care, to the interests of the lower, as of the higher classes of men. Those who are employed in cultivating the soil are placed below the regard of men in higher stations of public dignity and trust; nor are their sufferings and wrongs obtruded on every eye, like the misery of the begging poor. They themselves are not much accustomed to reflection; they submit in most countries to their hard fate, as to the laws of nature; nor are they skilled, when severer oppression has at any time awaked them to a sense of the injustice they suffer, in making known their feelings and their complaints to others. But if the intelligent, and the friends of mankind, will take some pains to inquire into the nature and extent of that oppression, under which the industrious groan, and the force of that exorbitant monopoly, from whence their grievances proceed; and if such men will employ the talents which nature has given them, in explaining these grievances, and the rigour of that monopoly, to the whole world, -- Europe, enlightened Europe, will not be able to endure it much longer; and the subversion -- nay, even the abatement-- of this monopoly, with the abuses flowing from it, may well deserve to be accounted the best, and most valuable fruit of all her refinements and speculations.
If it be indeed possible to accomplish any great improvement in the state of human affairs, and to unite the essential equality of a rude state, with the order, refinements, and accommodations of cultivated ages, such improvement is not so likely to be brought about by any means, as by a just and enlightened policy respecting property in land. It is a subject intimately connected with the proper occupation and the comfortable subsistence of men; that is, with their virtue and their happiness. It is of a real substantial nature, on which the regulations of law may be made to operate with efficacy, and even with precision.
So powerful and salutary might the good effects of such an enlightened policy prove, so beneficial such a restoration of the claims of nature and the general birth rights of mankind, that it might alone suffice to renovate the strength of nations, exhausted by civil war, or by great and unsuccessful enterprises; and even in the most flourishing states, it might give rise to a new era of prosperity, surpassing all example, and all expectation that may reasonably be founded on any other means of improvement.
If we consider only how far the present state of property in land even in the best governed nations of Europe, is removed from that more equitable and advantageous system, we may almost be led to despair that any great progress can be made towards so remote an improvement, however much it may be desired. On the other hand, the actual system of landed property in Europe is greatly changed from what it has formerly been. It has varied its form, with the prevailing character of successive ages; it has been accommodated to the rude simplicity of the more ancient times, to the feudal chivalry of the middle centuries, and to the increasing industry and cultivation of later more tranquil periods. It may now therefore be expected to receive a new modification, from the genius and maxims of a commercial age, to which it is too manifest that the latest establishment of landed property is by no means adapted, and that from this incongruity the most pernicious and most flagrant oppressions arise.
In the progress of the European system of landed property, the domestic, the feudal, and the commercial stages may be distinguished. In the first, the condition of the cultivator was secured from any great oppression, by the affectionate sympathy of the chief of his clan. In the second, it was still secured, and almost as effectually secured, by that need which his lord had of attachment, assistance, and support, in the frequent military enterprises and dangers in which he was engaged.
But in the commercial state there is no natural check which may establish the security of the cultivator; and his lord has hardly any obvious interest but to squeeze his industry as much as he can. It remains, therefore, for the legislatures of different countries to establish some control for protecting the essential interests of their common people. It is an object which deserves, and will reward, their care. In the dark and disorderly ages the oppression exercised over the cultivators could not be reduced to a system. Their landlords depended on their assistance and military services, and would not, therefore, hazard the diminution of their attachment. If at any time the landlord endeavoured to exact more than they were inclined to give, means of concealment and evasion were not wanting, by which his rapacity might be effectually eluded. But in the present times there is no reciprocal dependence, and all means of concealment and evasion are rendered by the order of our laws uncertain, or, indeed, vain.
In those disorderly times, whatever oppression, or chance of oppression, the cultivators of the field were exposed to, they saw their landlord exposed to others, perhaps greater and more frequent. There was common to both an uncertainty in the possession of their just rights; and to compensate this, a chance of obtaining by address somewhat beyond these rights. In the present times, these common chances are removed by the protection of established government. The rights of the higher orders are rendered perfectly secure, while those of the cultivators are laid open to their oppressions.
That free discussion which every subject now receives gives reason to hope that truth and utility will always triumph, however slowly. In politics, in agriculture, in commerce, many errors have been rectified in theory, and even the practice in some (though not in an equal degree) reformed. And shall it be reckoned, then, that in this, the most important of all temporal concerns to the greatest number of mankind, the most pernicious errors will be suffered to remain still unrefuted, or if not unrefuted still unreformed? It is not permitted to the friends of mankind to despair of aught which may tend to improve the general happiness of their species, any more than it is consistent with a magnanimous and genuine patriotism ever to despair of the safety of our country.
The collective body of the people, if at any time their power shall predominate, ought above all things to insist on a just regulation of property in land. It belongs to the community to establish rules by which this general right may become definite; but not to recognise such a right at all, not to have established any rules by which its claims may be ascertained and complied with, ought to be accounted essentially unjust. Means may certainly be discovered by which this general right of the community in the property of the soil may be clearly and practically ascertained.
Internal convulsions have arisen in many countries by which the decisive power of the State has been thrown, for a short while at least, into the hands of the collective body of the people. In these junctures they might have obtained a just re-establishment of their natural rights to independence of cultivation and to property in land, had they been themselves aware of their title to such rights, and had there been any leaders prepared to direct them in the mode of stating their just claim, and supporting it with necessary firmness and becoming moderation. Such was the revolution in 1688, at which time, surely, an article declarative of the natural right of property in land might have been inserted into the Bill of Rights, had the people at large been beforehand taught to understand that they were possessed of any such claim.
Under circumstances of public distress, even the higher and privileged ranks, awed into wisdom and humanity by the impending gloom, may be inclined to acquiesce in those regulations which tend to renovate the whole body of the State, though at the expense of diminishing in some degree the privileges and emoluments of their own order. They will consider that, unless the numbers, the industry, and the manly temper of the body of the people can be kept up, the fortune of the community must fall into continual and accelerated decline, and the privileges of every rank become insecure.
If, in the meantime, commerce is restrained and manufactures decline, let the cultivation of the soil be laid open, on reasonable terms and without delay, to the people thus deprived of their usual employment; such a resource would convert what they must account a misfortune into an opportunity of finding real and natural happiness.
What more effectual preparation can be made for the most vigorous defence of national liberty and independence, than to interest every individual citizen more immediately and directly in the welfare of his country, by giving him a share in the property of the soil, and training him to the use of arms for its defence. The former of these means of public security and defence is scarcely less requisite than the latter, the propriety of which is so generally understood.
As for the beneficial effects of such a statute, the candid and intelligent are requested to estimate in their own thoughts what these might prove in the district with which they are most particularly acquainted, and to consider whether it would not very much improve the condition and the prospects of the day labourer, the hired servant and the working manufacturer, without imposing on the established farmer or the landlord any unjust inconvenience? Whether it would not lessen the number of the indigent and the idle? After having made this estimate, let them consider what might have been the present state of that district had such a progressive Agrarian law been established there one hundred or even fifty years ago.
Various objects have engaged the enthusiasm and excited the efforts of mankind in successive ages; schemes of conquest and settlement in one age; plans of civil and religious liberty in another; manufactures and commerce have now their turn; and perhaps in some not very distant age a just regulation of property in land may become the chief object of public spirited endeavours.
“ Sic poscere fata, et reor, et si
quid veri mens augurat, opto. ”
“Destiny is pointing us to it;
as the birds in the air forecast,
my own good reasoning tells me:
- this is where we are going. ”
(1) In Scotland today the same mistake is still being made!
Under land monopoly, the “nature” of the landowner’s ‘right’ - actually a ‘privilege’ - is society’s permission to extract that rental payment which by right (birthright) is the community’s own: and the “force” of this ‘right’ is delivered by The Law of Rent and Depression of Wages (see Further Reading). [Editor].
The value of any piece of land can indeed be divided into the three separate parts Ogilvie proposes, viz:
(2) Although Ogilvie wrote his Essay essentially as an agrarian-based proposal for change, the land and tax reform he sets out addresses and resolves the key urban as well as rural problems in Scotland today. After all, it is in our cities, in the presence of concentrated populations, that by far the highest land values are found; and the effects of the Community Ground Rent measure would be just as beneficial here as in the country. [Editor].
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper