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Private Property in Manmade Things



Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

Believing that the social question is at bottom a religious question, we deem it of happy augury to the world that in your Encyclical the most influential of all religious teachers has directed attention to the condition of labor.

But while we appreciate the many wholesome truths you utter, while we feel, as all must feel, that you are animated by a desire to help the suffering and oppressed, and to put an end to any idea that the church is divorced from the aspiration for liberty and progress, yet it is painfully obvious to us that one fatal assumption hides from you the cause of the evils you see, and makes it impossible for you to propose any adequate remedy. This assumption is, that private property in land is of the same nature and has the same sanctions as private property in things produced by labor. In spite of its undeniable truths and its benevolent spirit, your Encyclical shows you to be involved in such difficulties as a physician called to examine one suffering from disease of the stomach would meet should he begin with a refusal to consider the stomach.

Prevented by this assumption from seeing the true cause, the only causes you find it possible to assign for the growth of misery and wretchedness are the destruction of working-men’s guilds in the last century, the repudiation in public institutions and laws of the ancient religion, rapacious usury, the custom of working by contract, and the concentration of trade.

Such diagnosis is manifestly inadequate to account for evils that are alike felt in Catholic countries, in Protestant countries, in countries that adhere to the Greek communion and in countries where no religion is professed by the state; that are alike felt in old countries and in new countries; where industry is simple and where it is most elaborate; and amid all varieties of industrial customs and relations.

But the real cause will be clear if you will consider that since labor must find its workshop and reservoir in land, the labor question is but another name for the land question, and will reexamine your assumption that private property in land is necessary and right.

See how fully adequate is the cause I have pointed out. The most important of all the material relations of man is his relation to the planet he inhabits, and hence, the “impious resistance to the benevolent intentions of his Creator,” which, as Bishop Nulty says, is involved in private property in land, must produce evils wherever it exists. But by virtue of the law, “unto whom much is given, from him much is required,” the very progress of civilization makes the evils produced by private property in land more wide-spread and intense.

What is producing throughout the civilized world that condition of things you rightly describe as intolerable is not this and that local error or minor mistake. It is nothing less than the progress of civilization itself; nothing less than the intellectual advance and the material growth in which our century has been so preeminent, acting in a state of society based on private property in land; nothing less than the new gifts that in our time God has been showering on man, but which are being turned into scourges by man’s “impious resistance to the benevolent intentions of his Creator.” ....

Your Holiness will remember the great London dock strike of two years ago, which, with that of other influential men, received the moral support of that Prince of the Church whom we of the English speech hold higher and dearer than any prelate has been held by us since the blood of Thomas à Becket stained the Canterbury altar.

In a volume called “The Story of the Dockers’ Strike,” written by Messrs. H. Llewellyn Smith and Vaughan Nash, with an introduction by Sydney Buxton, M.P., which advocates trades-unionism as the solution of the labor question, and of which a large number were sent to Australia as a sort of official recognition of the generous aid received from there by the strikers, I find in the summing up, on pages 164-165, the following:

If the settlement lasts, work at the docks will be more regular, better paid, and carried on under better conditions than ever before. All this will be an unqualified gain to those who get the benefit from it. But another result will undoubtedly be to contract the field of employment and lessen the number of those for whom work can be found. The lower-class casual will, in the end, find his position more precarious than ever before, in proportion to the increased regularity of work which the “fitter” of the laborers will secure. The effect of the organization of dock labor, as of all classes of labor, will be to squeeze out the residuum. The loafer, the cadger, the failure in the industrial race — the members of “Class B” of Mr. Charles Booth’s hierarchy of social classes — will be no gainers by the change, but will rather find another door closed against them, and this in many cases the last door to employment.

I am far from wishing that your Holiness should join in that pharisaical denunciation of trades-unions common among those who, while quick to point out the injustice of trades-unions in denying to others the equal right to work, are themselves supporters of that more primary injustice that denies the equal right to the standing-place and natural material necessary to work. What I wish to point out is that trades-unionism, while it may be a partial palliative, is not a remedy; that it has not that moral character which could alone justify one in the position of your Holiness in urging it as good in itself. Yet, so long as you insist on private property in land what better can you do?


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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper