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Charging Tenants for Their Improvements

When the average community member is stuck paying both rent and taxes, and the effect of the tax spending is to raise the rent the landlord can collect, the system is unjustly tilted in favor of the landlords.

We might perceive that if we are landholders — even if all we've got is a small amount of home equity — then the system is tilted in our favor, but if one looks carefully, it will be clear that few of us are "net beneficiaries" of the existing system.

The big winners are those who own our best land, who get rich in their sleep — and the losers are the vast majority of the rest of us, because our land is less well located and because we work for a living and we pay taxes on our income and on our purchases and on our houses, taxes whose net effect is to make land more valuable.

The Most Rev. Dr Thomas Nulty, Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath (Ireland): Back to the Land (1881) 

Landlordism Confiscates the Work of Improvers.
But the present system of Land Tenure not merely enables a class to exact from the people of the country a famine price for the use of the land which God made: it also enables them to charge a rent for the use of the improvements on the land which the people themselves made, which are purely the result of their own industry and capital, and which, in fact, on the strictest principles of justice are their own private property. With the knowledge and experience which we have acquired all our lives long of the transactions that are daily taking place between landlords and tenants, the clearest and most convincing proof that can be given of this fact will perhaps be found in the plain and simple statement of it.

The land of Ireland would at this moment still be in its original state of nature had it not been drained, cleared, reclaimed and fertilised by the enormous outlay of labour and capital which has been expended on it by the people of the present and their forefathers in past generations. The landlords contributed nothing, or next to nothing, for its improvement.

Mr. Mill thus writes of the improvement of land in Ireland: "Whenever in any country the proprietors, generally speaking, cease to improve their lands, political economy has nothing to say in defence of landed property as there established.

Reports of Government Commissions.
The Bessborough and Richmond Commissions recently appealed directly to the nation for information on this important point. The answer which the nation returned was (as everyone knew should be the case), that all, or nearly all the permanent improvements in the soil of the country were effected by the labour and capital of the people of the country. The Bessborough Commissioners write in their report: "As a fact, the removal of masses of rock and stone which, in some parts of Ireland, encumbered the soil, the drainage of the land and erection of buildings, including their own dwellings, have generally been effected by the tenants' labour, unassisted, or only in some instances assisted, by advances from the landlord."

The Work of the Tenants.
The Liberal section of the Richmond Commission write, in their report on the same subject: "In a country like Ireland, where the dwelling houses, farm buildings and other elements of a farm, including often the reclamation from the waste of the cultivated land itself, have been, and must, in our opinion, continue to be, for the most part, the work of the tenants."

Even the Tory section of this Richmond Commission, composed as it is of men of the highest type of Conservatism and Landlordism, observe with a frankness that shows the force of the evidence brought before them:

"Bearing in mind the system by which the improvements, and equipments of a farm are very generally the work of the tenant, and the fact that a yearly tenant is at any time liable to have his rent raised in consequence of the increased value that has been given to his holding by the expenditure of his own capital and labour, the desire for legislative interference to protect him from an arbitrary increase of rent does not seem unnatural."

But further argument in proof of this fact is quite unnecessary, seeing that both Houses of the Legislature bear emphatic testimony to it in that section of the Land Act of 1870, which declares that "all permanent improvements in the soil and on the farm are assumed to have been made by the tenant, except in those cases in which it has been clearly proved they have been made by the landlord." The vast property thus created by the labour and capital of the people, in the permanent improvement of the soil and in the buildings and equipments of their farms, and which has been growing and accumulating for centuries, covers a very considerable part of the aggregate value of the land of the country.

Driven From the Land.
The question then arises, what has become of this enormous property? The correct answer to this question will, I think, be found to be that one part of it has been wantonly wasted and destroyed; that the landlords have coolly appropriated to their own use a second part of it; and that the people pay, at the present moment, a rent for the use of the residue of what was once all their own property.

In the one County of Meath, in this Diocese, there are about 369,000 acres of land laid down in grass seeds or pasture. That vast territory was nearly all parcelled out about the commencement of this century in farms of various sizes, ranging from ten to seventy, eighty or a hundred acres each. These farms were dotted over with clean, commodious, comfortable, whitewashed dwellings, with offices, outhouses and the plant of well-to-do farmers. These dwellings were occupied by a race of the most laborious, industrious, hardworking and virtuous people that ever lived in any country. But, owing to the iniquitous system of Land Tenure, they have been almost all mercilessly evicted and swept away, and every vestige of the vast amount of human life, industry, contentment and happiness that once flourished on these lands has been so carefully obliterated that, looking at them in their present melancholy solitude, one would imagine them to have always been "prairie lands" since the creation.

The property which these poor people possessed in their dwellings and farm houses has been thus wantonly destroyed, and the permanent improvements they had created in the productiveness of the soil were coolly appropriated by the landlords who evicted them.

How Tenants are Rack-rented.
Until the Irish Land League interfered with their operations, these exterminators sold out by public auction every year the use of the people's property, as well as the natural productiveness of the soil, to cattle dealers, for a term of nine, ten or eleven months, and at a rent ranging from £4 to £6 an acre; and they drew from their estates an income twice, and in many instances three times as large as the few honest and honourable proprietors in their neighbourhood who never evicted anyone at all. I need hardly direct attention to the notorious fact that those who have been suffered to remain, were only too glad to be allowed the privilege of paying a rent for the use of the residue of what was once their own property.

The proof of this is plain. Proprietors, in letting their land, do not distinguish between the enormous value superadded to the land by the people's labour and capital for centuries, and the value it has inherited from nature, and, perhaps in some instances, from their own improvements.

They let its whole value from every source at the highest price it will bring. And yet this sorely aggrieved class of men complain that they can not now let their lands as they always let them before, and as all other owners are allowed to sell their property still, on the principle of open competition and free sale!

During the long, large and varied experience the world has had of the letting of land on that principle, was it ever heard that an owner let his land at less than its fair value? -- and surely that fair value included the people's improvements on the land as well as his own. We have seen, on the high authority of Mr. Mill, that it is the almost universal practice of Irish landlords to exact from their tenants in the form of rent the whole produce of the land minus the potatoes that are necessary to keep them from dying of hunger; and surely rack-rents like these cover every form of value the land possesses, and consequently the people's improvements.Read the whole letter

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Wealth and Want
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