Your Holiness will see from the explanation I have given that the reform we propose, like all true reforms, has both an ethical and an economic side. By ignoring the ethical side and pushing our proposal merely as a reform of taxation, we could avoid the objections that arise from confounding ownership with possession and attributing to private property in land that security of use and improvement that can be had even better without it. All that we seek practically is the legal abolition, as fast as possible, of taxes on the products and processes of labor, and the consequent concentration of taxation on land-values irrespective of improvements. To put our proposals in this way would be to urge them merely as a matter of wise public expediency.
There are indeed many single-tax men who do put our proposals in this way; who, seeing the beauty of our plan from a fiscal standpoint, do not concern themselves farther. But to those who think as I do, the ethical is the more important side. Not only do we not wish to evade the question of private property in land, but to us it seems that the beneficent and far-reaching revolution we aim at is too great a thing to be accomplished by “intelligent self-interest”, and can be carried by nothing less than the religious conscience.
Hence we earnestly seek the judgment of religion. This is the tribunal of which your Holiness, as the head of the largest body of Christians, is the most august representative.
It therefore behooves us to examine the reasons you urge in support of private property in land—if they be sound, to accept them; and if they be not sound, respectfully to point out to you wherein is their error.
To your proposition that “Our first and most fundamental principle, when we undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property,” we would joyfully agree if we could only understand you to have in mind the moral element and to mean rightful private property, as when you speak of marriage as ordained by God’s authority we may understand an implied exclusion of improper marriages. Unfortunately, however, other expressions show that you mean private property in general and have expressly in mind private property in land. This confusion of thought, this non-distribution of terms, runs through your whole argument, leading you to conclusions so unwarranted by your premises as to be utterly repugnant to them, as when from the moral sanction of private property in the things produced by labor, you infer something entirely different and utterly opposed: a similar right of property in the land created by God.
Private property is not of one species, and moral sanction can no more be asserted universally of it than of marriage. That proper marriage conforms to the law of God does not justify the polygamic or polyandric or incestuous marriages that are in some countries permitted by the civil law. And as there may be immoral marriage, so may there be immoral private property. Private property is that which may be held in ownership by an individual, or that which may be held in ownership by an individual with the sanction of the state. The mere lawyer, the mere servant of the state, may rest here, refusing to distinguish between what the state holds equally lawful. Your Holiness, however, is not a servant of the state, but a servant of God, a guardian of morals. You know, as said by St. Thomas of Aquin, that:
“Human law is law only in virtue of its accordance with right reason, and it is thus manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason, it is called an unjust law. In such case it is not law at all, but rather a species of violence.”
Thus, that any species of property is permitted by the state does not of itself give it moral sanction. The state has often made things property that are not justly property, but involve violence and robbery. For instance, the things of religion, the dignity and authority of offices of the Church, the power of administering her sacraments and controlling her temporalities, have often by profligate princes been given as saleable property to courtiers and concubines. At this very day in England, an Atheist or a Heathen may buy in open market, and hold as legal property to be sold, given, or bequeathed as he pleases, the power of appointing to the cure of souls, and the value of these legal rights of presentation is said to be no less than £17,000,000.
Or again: Slaves were universally treated as property by the customs and laws of the classical nations, and were so acknowledged in Europe long after the acceptance of Christianity. At the beginning of this century there was no Christian nation that did not, in her colonies at least, recognize property in slaves, and slave-ships crossed the seas under Christian flags. In the United States little more than thirty years ago, to buy a man gave the same legal ownership as to buy a horse; and in Mohammedan countries, law and custom yet make the slave the property of his captor or purchaser.
Yet your Holiness, one of the glories of whose pontificate is the attempt to break up slavery in its last strongholds, will not contend that the moral sanction that attaches to property in things produced by labor can, or ever could, apply to property in slaves.
Your use in so many passages of your Encyclical of the inclusive term property, or private property, of which in morals nothing can be either affirmed or denied, makes your meaning, if we take isolated sentences, in many places ambiguous. But reading it as a whole, there can be no doubt of your intention that private property in land shall be understood when you speak merely of private property. With this interpretation I find that the reasons you urge for private property in land are eight. Let me consider them in order of presentation. You urge:
1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (5.)(3)
Clearly purchase and sale cannot give, but can only transfer, ownership. Property that in itself has no moral sanction does not obtain moral sanction by passing from seller to buyer.
If right reason does not make the slave the property of the slave-hunter, it does not make him the property of the slave-buyer. Yet your reasoning as to private property in land would as well justify property in slaves. To show this it is only needful to change in your argument the word land to the word slave. It would then read:
“It is surely undeniable that when a man engages in remunerative labor, the very reason and motive of his work is to obtain property and to hold it as his own private possession. If one man hires out to another his strength or his industry, he does this for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for food and living; he thereby expressly proposes to acquire a full and real right, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of that remuneration as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and invests his savings for greater security in a slave, the slave in such a case is only his wages in another form; and consequently a working man’s slave thus purchased should be as completely at his own disposal as the wages he receives for his labor.”
Nor in turning your argument for private property in land into an argument for private property in men am I doing a new thing. In my own country, in my own time, this very argument—that purchase gave ownership—was the common defense of slavery. It was made by statesmen, by jurists, by clergymen, by bishops; it was accepted over the whole country by the great mass of the people. By it was justified the separation of wives from husbands, of children from parents, the compelling of labor, the appropriation of its fruits, the buying and selling of Christians by Christians. In language almost identical with yours it was asked, “Here is a poor man who has worked hard, lived sparingly, and invested his savings in a few slaves. Would you rob him of his earnings by liberating those slaves?” Or it was said: “Here is a poor widow; all her husband has been able to leave her is a few Negroes, the earnings of his hard toil. Would you rob the widow and the orphan by freeing these Negroes?” And because of this perversion of reason, this confounding of unjust property rights with just property rights, this acceptance of man’s law as though it were God’s law, there came on our nation a judgment of fire and blood.
The error of our people, in thinking that what in itself was not rightful property could become rightful property by purchase and sale, is the same error into which your Holiness falls. It is not merely formally the same; it is essentially the same. Private property in land, no less than private property in slaves, is a violation of the true rights of property. They are different forms of the same robbery—twin devices by which the perverted ingenuity of man has sought to enable the strong and the cunning to escape God’s requirement of labor by forcing it on others.
What difference does it make whether I merely own the land on which another man must live or own the man himself? Am I not in the one case as much his master as in the other? Can I not compel him to work for me? Can I not take to myself as much of the fruits of his labor—as fully dictate his actions? Have I not over him the power of life and death? For to deprive a man of land is as certain to kill him as to deprive him of blood by opening his veins, or of air by tightening a halter around his neck.
The essence of slavery is in empowering one man to obtain the labor of another without recompense. Private property in land does this as fully as chattel-slavery. The slave-owner must leave to the slave enough of his earnings to enable him to live. Are there not, in so-called free countries, great bodies of working-men who get no more? How much more of the fruits of their toil do the agricultural laborers of Italy and England get than did the slaves of our Southern States? Did not private property in land permit the landowner of Europe in ruder times to demand the jus primæ noctis? Does not the same last outrage exist today in diffused form in the immorality born of monstrous wealth on the one hand and ghastly poverty on the other?
In what did the slavery of Russia consist but in giving to to the master land on which the serf was forced to live? When an Ivan or a Catherine enriched their favorites with the labor of others they did not give men; they gave land. And when the appropriation of land has gone so far that no free land remains to which the landless man may turn, then, without further violence, the more insidious form of labor-robbery involved in private property in land takes the place of chattel-slavery, because more economical and convenient. For under it the slave does not have to be caught or held, or to be fed when not needed. He comes of himself, begging the privilege of serving, and when no longer wanted can be discharged. The lash is unnecessary; hunger is as efficacious. This is why the Norman conquerors of England, and the English conquerors of Ireland, did not divide up the people, but divided the land. This is why European slave ships took their cargoes to the New World, not to Europe.
Slavery is not yet abolished. Though in all Christian countries its ruder form has now gone, it still exists in the heart of our civilization in a more insidious form, and is increasing. There is work to be done for the glory of God and the liberty of man by other soldiers of the Cross than those warrior monks whom, with the blessing of your Holiness, Cardinal Lavigerie is sending into the Sahara. Yet your Encyclical employs in defense of one form of slavery the same fallacies that the apologists for chattel-slavery used in defense of the other!
The Arabs are not wanting in acumen. Your Encyclical reaches far. What shall your warrior monks say if, when at the muzzle of their rifles they demand of some Arab slave merchant his miserable caravan, he shall declare that he bought them with his savings and, producing a copy of your Encyclical, shall prove by your reasoning that his slaves are consequently “only his wages in another form”, and ask if they who bear your blessing and own your authority propose to “deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thus of all hope and possibility of increasing his stock and bettering his condition in life?”
2. That private property in land proceeds from man’s gift of reason. (6–7.)
In the second place your Holiness argues that man, possessing reason and forethought, may not only acquire ownership of the fruits of the earth but also of the earth itself, so that out of its products he may make provision for the future.
Reason, with its attendant forethought, is indeed the distinguishing attribute of man, that which raises him above the brute and shows, as the Scriptures declare, that he is created in the likeness of God. And this gift of reason does, as your Holiness points out, involve the need and right of private property in whatever is produced by the exertion of reason and its attendant forethought, as well as in what is produced by physical labor. In truth, these elements of man’s production are inseparable and labor involves the use of reason. It is by his reason that man differs from the animals in being a producer, and in this sense a maker. Of themselves his physical powers are slight, forming, as it were, but the connection by which the mind takes hold of material things so as to utilize to its will the matter and forces of nature. It is mind, the intelligent reason, that is the prime mover in labor, the essential agent in production.
The right of private ownership does therefore indisputably attach to things provided by man’s reason and forethought. But it cannot attach to things provided by the reason and forethought of God!
To illustrate: Let us suppose a company travelling through the desert as the Israelites travelled from Egypt. Such of them as had the forethought to provide themselves with vessels of water would acquire a just right of property in the water so carried; and in the thirst of the waterless desert, those who had neglected to provide themselves, though they might ask water from the provident in charity, could not demand it in right. For while water itself is of the providence of God, the presence of this water in such vessels, at such place, results from the providence of the men who carried it. Thus they have to it an exclusive right.
But suppose others use their forethought in pushing ahead and appropriating the springs, refusing, when their fellows come up, to let them drink of the water save as they buy it of them. Would such forethought give any right?
Your Holiness, it is not the forethought of carrying water where it is needed, but the forethought of seizing springs, that you seek to defend in defending the private ownership of land!
Let me show this more fully, since it may be worthwhile to meet those who say that, if private property in land be not just, then private property in the products of labor is not just, as the material of these products is taken from land. It will be seen on consideration that all of man’s production is analogous to such transportation of water, as we have supposed. In growing grain, or smelting metals, or building houses, or weaving cloth, or doing any of the things that constitute production, all that man does is to change in place or form pre-existing matter. As a producer, man is merely a changer, not a creator; God alone creates. And since the changes in which man’s production consists inhere in matter so long as they persist, the right of private ownership attaches the accident to the essence, and gives the right of ownership in that natural material in which the labor of production is embodied. Thus water, which in its original form and place is the common gift of God to all men, when drawn from its natural reservoir and brought into the desert passes rightfully into the ownership of the individual who, by changing its place, has produced it there.
But such right of ownership is in reality a mere right of temporary possession; for though man may take material from the storehouse of Nature and change it in place or form to suit his desires, yet, from the moment he takes it, it tends back to that storehouse again. Wood decays, iron rusts, stone disintegrates and is displaced, while of more perishable products, some will last for only a few months, others for only a few days, and some disappear immediately on use. Though, so far as we can see, matter is eternal and force forever persists; though we can neither annihilate nor create the tiniest mote that floats in a sunbeam or the faintest impulse that stirs a leaf, yet in the ceaseless flux of Nature, man’s work of moving and combining constantly passes away. Thus the recognition of the ownership of what natural material is embodied in the products of man never constitutes more than temporary possession—never interferes with the reservoir provided for all. As taking water from one place and carrying it to another place by no means lessens the store of water—since, whether it is drunk or spilled or left to evaporate, it must return again to the natural reservoirs—so is it with all things on which man, in production, can lay the impress of his labor.
Hence, when you say that man’s reason puts it within his right to have in stable and permanent possession not only things that perish in the using, but also those that remain for use in the future, you are right in so far as you may include such things as buildings, which with repair will last for generations, with such things as food or firewood, which are destroyed in the use. But when you infer that man can have private ownership in those permanent things of Nature that are the reservoirs from which all must draw, you are clearly wrong. Man may indeed hold in private ownership the fruits of the earth produced by his labor, since they lose in time the impress of that labor and pass again into the natural reservoirs from which they were taken, and thus the ownership of them by one works no injury to others. But he cannot so own the earth itself, for that is the reservoir from which must constantly be drawn not only the material with which alone men can produce, but even their very bodies.
The conclusive reason why man cannot claim ownership in the earth itself, as he can in the fruits that he, by labor, brings forth from it, is in the facts stated by you in the very next paragraph (7), when you truly say:
“Man’s needs do not die out, but recur; satisfied today, they demand new supplies tomorrow. Nature, therefore, owes to man a storehouse that shall never fail, the daily supply of his daily wants. And this he finds only in the inexhaustible fertility of the earth.”
By man you mean all men. Can what Nature owes to all men be made the private property of some men, from which they may debar all other men?
Let me dwell on the words of your Holiness, “Nature, therefore, owes to man a storehouse that shall never fail.” By Nature you mean God. Thus your thought, that in creating us God himself has incurred an obligation to provide us with a storehouse that shall never fail, is the same as is thus expressed and carried to its irresistible conclusion by the Bishop of Meath:
“God was perfectly free in the act by which He created us; but, having created us, He bound himself by that act to provide us with the means necessary for our subsistence. The land is the only source of this kind now known to us. The land, therefore, of every country is the common property of the people of that country, because its real owner, the Creator who made it, has transferred it as a voluntary gift to them. “Terram autem dedit filiis hominum.” Now, as every individual in that country is a creature and child of God, and as all His creatures are equal in His sight, any settlement of the land of a country that would exclude the humblest man in that country from his share of the common inheritance would be not only an injustice and a wrong to that man, but, moreover, would be AN IMPIOUS RESISTANCE TO THE BENEVOLENT INTENTIONS OF HIS CREATOR.”
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (8.)
Your own statement that land is the inexhaustible storehouse that God owes to man must have aroused in your Holiness’s mind an uneasy questioning of its appropriation as private property; for, as though to reassure yourself, you proceed to argue that its ownership by some will not injure others. You say, in substance, that even though divided among private owners, the earth does not cease to minister to the needs of all, since those who do not possess the soil can, by selling their labor, obtain in payment the produce of the land.
Suppose that to your Holiness as a judge of morals one should put this case of conscience:
“I am one of several children to whom our father left a field abundant for our support. As he assigned no part of it to any one of us in particular, leaving the limits of our separate possession to be fixed by ourselves, I being the eldest took the whole field in exclusive ownership. But, in doing so, I have not deprived my brothers of their support from it, for I have let them work for me on it, paying them from the produce as much wages as I would have had to pay strangers. Is there any reason why my conscience should not be clear?”
What would be your answer? Would you not tell him that he was in mortal sin, and that his excuse added to his guilt? Would you not call on him to make restitution and to do penance?
Or suppose that, as a temporal prince, your Holiness were ruler of a rainless land such as Egypt, where there were no springs or brooks, their want being supplied by a bountiful river like the Nile. Supposing that having sent a number of your subjects to make fruitful this land, bidding them do justly and prosper, you were told that some of them had set up a claim of ownership in the river, refusing the others a drop of water except as they bought it of them, and that thus they had become rich without work, while the others, though working hard, were so impoverished by paying for water as to be hardly able to exist.
Would not your indignation wax hot when this was told?
Suppose that then the river-owners should send to you and thus excuse their action:
“The river, though divided among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, for there is no one who drinks who does not drink of the water of the river. Those who do not possess the water of the river contribute their labor to get it; so that it may be truly said that all water is supplied either from one’s own river, or from some laborious industry which is paid for either in the water, on in that which is exchanged for the water.”
Would the indignation of your Holiness be abated? Would it not wax fiercer yet for the insult to your intelligence of this excuse?
I do not need more formally to show your Holiness that between utterly depriving a man of God’s gifts, and depriving him of God’s gifts unless he will buy them, is merely the difference between the robber who leaves his victim to die and the robber who puts him to ransom. But I would like to point out how your statement that “the earth, though divided among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all” overlooks the largest facts.
From your palace of the Vatican the eye may rest on the expanse of the Campagna, where the pious toil of religious congregations and the efforts of the state are only now beginning to make it possible for men to live. Once that expanse was tilled by thriving husbandmen and dotted with smiling hamlets. What for centuries has condemned it to desertion? History tells us. It was private property in land; the growth of the great estates of which Pliny saw that ancient Italy was perishing; the cause that, by bringing failure to the crop of men, let in the Goths and Vandals, gave Roman Britain to the worship of Odin and Thor, and, in what were once the rich and populous provinces of the East, shivered the thinned ranks and palsied arms of the legions on the scimitars of Mohammedan hordes, and in the sepulcher of our Lord and in the Church of St. Sophia trampled the Cross to rear the Crescent!
If you go to Scotland, you may see great tracts that under the Gaelic tenure, which recognized the right of each to a foothold in the soil, bred sturdy men, but that now, under the recognition of private property in land, are given up to wild animals. If you go to Ireland your Bishops will show you, on lands where now only beasts graze, the traces of hamlets that, when they were young priests, were filled with honest, kindly, religious people.(4)
If you will come to the United States you will find, in a land wide enough and rich enough to support in comfort the whole population of Europe, the growth of a sentiment that looks with evil eye on immigration, because the artificial scarcity that results from private property in land makes it seem as if there were not room enough and work enough for those already here.
Or go to the Antipodes, and in Australia as in England you may see that private property in land is operating to leave the land barren and to crowd the bulk of the population into great cities. Go wherever you please where the forces loosed by modern invention are beginning to be felt, and you may see that private property in land is the curse, denounced by the prophet, that prompts men to lay field to field till they “alone dwell in the midst of the earth.”
To the mere materialist this is sin and shame. Shall we to whom this world is God’s world—we who hold that man is called to this life, only as a prelude to a higher life—shall we defend it?
4. That industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (9–10).
Your Holiness next contends that industry expended on land gives a right to ownership of the land, and that the improvement of land creates benefits indistinguishable and inseparable from the land itself.
This contention, if valid, could only justify the ownership of land by those who expend industry on it. This would not justify private property in land as it exists. On the contrary, it would justify a gigantic no-rent declaration that would take land from those who now legally own it, the landlords, and turn it over to the tenants and laborers. And if it also be that improvements cannot be distinguished and separated from the land itself, how could the landlords claim consideration even for improvements they had made?
But your Holiness cannot mean what your words imply. What you really mean, I take it, is that the original justification and title of land ownership is in the expenditure of labor on it. But neither can this justify private property in land as it exists. For is it not all but universally true that existing land titles do not come from use, but from force or fraud?
Take Italy! Is it not true that the greater part of the land of Italy is held by those who, so far from ever having expended industry on it, have been mere appropriators of the industry of those who have? Is this not also true of Great Britain and of other countries? Even in the United States, where the forces of concentration have not yet had time fully to operate and there has been some attempt to give land to users, it is probably true today that the greater part of the land is held by those who neither use it nor propose to use it themselves, but merely hold it to compel others to pay them for permission to use it.
And if industry gives ownership to land, what are the limits of this ownership? If a man may acquire the ownership of several square miles of land by grazing sheep on it, does this give to him and his heirs the ownership of the same land when it is found to contain rich mines, or when by the growth of population and the progress of society it is needed for farming, for gardening, for the close occupation of a great city? Is it on the rights given by the industry of those who first used it for grazing cows or growing potatoes that you would found the title to the land now covered by the city of New York and having a value of thousands of millions of dollars?
But your contention is not valid. Industry expended on land gives a right of ownership in the fruits of that industry, but not in the land itself, just as industry expended on the ocean would give a right of ownership to the fish taken by it, but not a right of ownership in the ocean. Nor yet is it true that private ownership of land is necessary to secure the fruits of labor on land; nor does the improvement of land create benefits indistinguishable and inseparable from the land itself. That secure possession is necessary to the use and improvement of land, I have already explained; but that ownership is not necessary is shown by the fact that in all civilized countries land owned by one person is cultivated and improved by other persons. Most of the cultivated land in the British Islands, as in Italy and other countries, is cultivated not by owners but by tenants. And so the costliest buildings are erected by those who are not owners of the land, but who have from the owner a mere right of possession for a time on condition of certain payments. Nearly the whole of London has been built in this way, and in New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as in continental cities, the owners of many of the largest edifices will be found to be different persons from the owners of the ground. So far from the value of improvements being inseparable from the value of land, it is in individual transactions constantly separated. For instance, one-half of the land on which the immense Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago stands was recently separately sold, and in Ceylon it is a not infrequent occurrence for one person to own a fruit tree and another to own the ground in which it is implanted.
There is indeed no improvement of land, whether it be clearing, plowing, manuring, cultivating, the digging of cellars, the opening of wells, or the building of houses, that so long as its usefulness continues does not have a value clearly distinguishable from the value of the land. For land having such improvements will always sell or rent for more than similar land without them.
If, therefore, the state levy a tax equal to what the land irrespective of improvement would bring, it will take the benefits of mere ownership, but will leave the full benefits of use and improvement, which the prevailing system does not do. And since the holder, who would still in form continue to be the owner, could at any time give or sell both possession and improvements, subject to future assessment by the state on the value of the land alone, he will be perfectly free to retain or dispose of the full amount of property that the exertion of his labor or the investment of his capital has attached to or stored up in the land.
Thus what we propose would secure, as it is impossible in any other way to secure, what you properly say is just and right—”that the results of labor should belong to him who has labored”. But private property in land—to allow the holder, without adequate payment to the state, to take for himself the benefit of the value that attaches to land with social growth and improvement—does take the results of labor from him who has labored, does turn over the fruits of one man’s labor to be enjoyed by another. For labor, as the active factor, is the producer of all wealth. Mere ownership produces nothing. A man might own a world, but so sure is the decree that “by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread” that without labor he could not get a meal or provide himself a garment. Hence when the owners of land, by virtue of their ownership and without laboring themselves, get the products of labor in abundance, these things must come from the labor of others, must be the fruits of others’ sweat, taken from those who have a right to them, and enjoyed by those who have no right to them.
The only utility of private ownership of land, as distinguished from possession, is the evil utility of giving to the owner products of labor he does not earn. For until land will yield to its owner some return beyond that of the labor and capital he expends on it—that is to say, until by sale or rental he can, without expenditure of labor, obtain from it products of labor—ownership amounts to no more than security of possession and has no value. Its importance and value begin only when, either in the present or prospectively, it will yield a revenue—that is to say, will enable the owner as owner to obtain products of labor without exertion on his part, and thus to enjoy the results of others’ labor.
What largely keeps men from realizing the robbery involved in private property in land is that in the most striking cases, the robbery is not of individuals but of the community. For, as I have before explained, it is impossible for rent in the economic sense—that value which attaches to land by reason of social growth and improvement—to go to the user. It can go only to the owner or to the community. Thus those who pay enormous rents for the use of land in such centers as London or New York are not individually injured. Individually they get a return for what they pay, and must feel that they have no better right to the use of such peculiarly advantageous localities without paying for it than have thousands of others. And so not thinking or not caring for the interests of the community, they make no objection to the system.
It recently came to light in New York that a man having no title whatever had been for years collecting rents on a piece of land that the growth of the city had made very valuable. Those who paid these rents had never stopped to ask whether he had any right to them. They felt that they had no right to land that so many others would like to have, without paying for it, and did not think of, or did not care for, the rights of all.
5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned by the Divine Law. (11.)
Even were it true that the common opinion of mankind has sanctioned private property in land, this would no more prove its justice than the once universal practice of the known world would have proved the justice of slavery.
But it is not true. Examination will show that wherever we can trace them, the first perceptions of mankind have always recognized the equality of right to land, and that when individual possession became necessary to secure the right of ownership in things produced by labor, some method of securing equality, sufficient in the existing state of social development, was adopted. Thus, among some peoples, land used for cultivation was periodically divided, land used for pasturage and wood being held in common. Among others, every family was permitted to hold what land it needed for a dwelling and for cultivation, but the moment that such use and cultivation stopped, any one else could step in and take it on like tenure. Of the same nature were the land laws of the Mosaic code. The land, first fairly divided among the people, was made inalienable by the provision of the jubilee, under which, if sold, it reverted every fiftieth year to the children of its original possessors.
Private property in land as we know it, the attaching to land of the same right of ownership that justly attaches to the products of labor, has never grown up anywhere save by usurpation or force. Like slavery, it is the result of war. It comes to us of the modern world from your ancestors, the Romans, whose civilization it corrupted and whose empire it destroyed.
It made with the freer spirit of the northern peoples the combination of the feudal system, in which, though subordination was substituted for equality, there was still a rough recognition of the principle of common rights in land. A fief was a trust, and to enjoyment was annexed some obligation. The sovereign, the representative of the whole people, was the only owner of land. Of him, immediately or mediately, held tenants, whose possession involved duties or payments, which, though rudely and imperfectly, embodied the idea that we would carry out in the single tax, of taking land-values for public uses. The Crown lands maintained the sovereign and the civil list; the Church lands defrayed the cost of public worship and instruction, of the relief of the sick, the destitute, and the wayworn; while the military tenures provided for public defense and bore the costs of war. A fourth and very large portion of the land remained in common, the people of the neighborhood being free to pasture it, cut wood on it, or put it to other common uses.
In this partial yet substantial recognition of common rights to land is to be found the reason why, in a time when the industrial arts were rude, wars frequent, and the great discoveries and inventions of our time unthought of, the condition of the laborer was devoid of that grinding poverty which despite our marvelous advances now exists. Speaking of England, the highest authority on such subjects, the late Professor Thorold Rogers, declares that in the thirteenth century there was no class so poor, so helpless, so pressed and degraded as are millions of Englishmen in our boasted nineteenth century, and that, save in times of actual famine, there was no laborer so poor as to fear that his wife and children might come to want even were he taken from them. Dark and rude in many respects as they were, these were the times when the cathedrals and churches and religious houses whose ruins yet excite our admiration were built; the times when England had no national debt, no poor law, no standing army, no hereditary paupers, no thousands and thousands of human beings rising in the morning without knowing where they might lay their heads at night.
With the decay of the feudal system, the system of private property in land that had destroyed Rome was extended. As to England, it may briefly be said that the Crown lands were for the most part given away to favorites; that the Church lands were parcelled among his courtiers by Henry VIII., and in Scotland grasped by the nobles; that the military dues were finally remitted in the seventeenth century, and taxation on consumption substituted; and that by a process beginning with the Tudors and extending to our own time, all but a mere fraction of the commons were enclosed by the greater landowners, while the same private ownership of land was extended over Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, partly by the sword and partly by bribery of the chiefs. Even the military dues, had they been commuted, not remitted, would today have more than sufficed to pay all public expenses without one penny of other taxation.
Of the New World, whose institutions but continue those of Europe, it is only necessary to say that to the parcelling out of land in great tracts is due the backwardness and turbulence of Spanish America; that to the large plantations of the southern states of the Union was due the persistence of slavery there, and that the more northern settlements showed the earlier English feeling, land being fairly well divided, and the attempts to establish manorial estates coming to little or nothing. In this lies the secret of the more vigorous growth of the northern states. But the idea that land was to be treated as private property had been thoroughly established in English thought before the colonial period ended, and it has been so treated by the United States and by the several states. And though land was at first sold cheaply and then given to actual settlers, it was also sold in large quantities to speculators, given away in great tracts for railroads and other purposes, until now the public domain of the United States, which a generation ago seemed illimitable, has practically gone. And this, as the experience of other countries shows, is the natural result in a growing community of making land private property. When the possession of land means the gain of unearned wealth, the strong and unscrupulous will secure it. But when, as we propose, economic rent, the “unearned increment of wealth”, is taken by the state for the use of the community, then land will pass into the hands of users and remain there, since, no matter how great its value, its possession will be profitable only to users.
As to private property in land having conduced to the peace and tranquillity of human life, it is not necessary more than to allude to the notorious fact that the struggle for land has been the prolific source of wars and of lawsuits, while it is the poverty engendered by private property in land that makes the prison and the workhouse the unfailing attributes of what we call Christian civilization.
Your Holiness intimates that the Divine Law gives its sanction to the private ownership of land, quoting from Deuteronomy, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; nor his house, nor his field, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything which is his.”
If, as your Holiness conveys, this inclusion of the words “nor his field” is to be taken as sanctioning private property in land as it exists today, then, but with far greater force, must the words “nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant” be taken to sanction chattel-slavery, for it is evident from other provisions of the same code that these terms refer both to bondsmen for a term of years and to perpetual slaves. But the word “field” involves the idea of use and improvement, to which the right of possession and ownership attaches without recognition of property in the land itself. And that this reference to the field is not a sanction of private property in land as it exists today is proved by the fact that the Mosaic code expressly denied such unqualified ownership in land, and with the declaration “The land also shall not be sold forever: because it is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with me,” provided for its reversion every fiftieth year—thus, in a way adapted to the primitive industrial conditions of the people and time, preventing men from being deprived of a foothold in the soil.
Nowhere, in fact, throughout the Scriptures can the slightest justification be found for the attaching to land of the same right of property that justly attaches to the things produced by labor. Everywhere is it treated as the free bounty of God, as “the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”.
6. That fathers should provide for their children, and that private property in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (14–17.)
With all that your Holiness has to say of the sacredness of the family relation we are in full accord. But how the obligation of the father to the child can justify private property in land we cannot see. You reason that private property in land is necessary to the discharge of the duty of the father, and is therefore requisite and just, because—
It is a most sacred law of Nature that a father must provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and similarly Nature dictates that a man’s children, who carry on, as it were, and continue his own personality, should be provided by him with all that is needful to enable them honorably to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of profitable property which he can transmit to his children by inheritance. (14.)
Thanks to Him who has bound the generations of men together by a provision that brings the tenderest love to greet our entrance into the world and soothes our exit with filial piety, it is both the duty and the joy of the father to care for the child till its powers mature, and afterwards in the natural order it becomes the duty and privilege of the child to be the stay of the parent. This is the natural reason for that relation of marriage, the groundwork of the sweetest, tenderest, and purest of human joys, which the Catholic Church has guarded with such unremitting vigilance.
We do for a few years need the providence of our fathers after the flesh. But how small, how transient, how narrow is this need as compared with our constant need for the providence of Him in whom we live, move, and have our being—Our Father who art in Heaven! It is to Him, “the giver of every good and perfect gift”, and not to our fathers after the flesh, that Christ taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” And how true it is that through Him the generations of men exist. Let the mean temperature of the earth rise or fall a few degrees, an amount as nothing compared with differences produced in our laboratories, and mankind would disappear as ice disappears under a tropical sun, would fall as the leaves fall at the touch of frost. Or let for two or three seasons the earth refuse her increase, and how many of our millions would remain alive?
The duty of fathers to transmit to their children profitable property that will enable them to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life! What is not possible cannot be a duty. And how is it possible for fathers to do that? Your Holiness has not considered how mankind really lives from hand to mouth, getting each day its daily bread—how little one generation does or can leave another. It is doubtful if the wealth of the civilized world all told amounts to anything like as much as one year’s labor, while it is certain that if labor were to stop and men had to rely on existing accumulation, it would be only a few days ere in the richest countries pestilence and famine would stalk.
The profitable property your Holiness refers to is private property in land. Now profitable land, as all economists will agree, is land superior to the land that the ordinary man can get. It is land that will yield an income to the owner as owner, and therefore that will permit the owner to appropriate the products of labor without doing labor, its profitableness to the individual involving the robbery of other individuals. It is therefore possible only for some fathers to leave their children profitable land. What therefore your Holiness practically declares is that it is the duty of all fathers to struggle to leave their children what only the few peculiarly strong, lucky, or unscrupulous can leave, and that a something that involves the robbery of others—their deprivation of the material gifts of God.
This anti-Christian doctrine has been long in practice throughout the Christian world. What are its results?
Are they not the very evils set forth in your Encyclical? Are they not, so far from enabling men to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life, to condemn the great masses of men to want and misery that the natural conditions of our mortal life do not entail—to want and misery deeper and more widespread than exist among heathen savages? Under the régime of private property in land and in the richest countries, not five per cent of fathers are able at their death to leave anything substantial to their children, and probably a large majority do not leave enough to bury them! Some few children are left by their fathers richer than it is good for them to be, but the vast majority not only are left nothing by their fathers, but by the system that makes land private property are deprived of the bounty of their Heavenly Father; are compelled to sue others for permission to live and to work, and to toil all their lives for a pittance that often does not enable them to escape starvation and pauperism.
What your Holiness is actually, though of course inadvertently, urging is that earthly fathers should assume the functions of the Heavenly Father. It is not the business of one generation to provide the succeeding generation with “all that is needful to enable them honorably to keep themselves from want and misery”. That is God’s business. We no more create our children than we create our fathers. It is God who is the Creator of each succeeding generation, as fully as of the one that preceded it. And, to recall your own words (7), “Nature [God], therefore, owes to man a storehouse that shall never fail, the daily supply of his daily wants. And this he finds only in the inexhaustible fertility of the earth.” What you are now assuming is that it is the duty of men to provide for the wants of their children by appropriating this storehouse and depriving other men’s children of the unfailing supply that God has provided for all.
The duty of the father to the child—the duty possible to all fathers! Is it not so to conduct himself, so to nurture and teach it, that it shall come to manhood with a sound body, well developed mind, habits of virtue, piety, and industry, and in a state of society that shall give it and all others free access to the bounty of God, the providence of the All-Father?
In doing this the father would be doing more to secure his children from want and misery than is possible now to the richest of fathers—as much more as the providence of God surpasses that of man. For the justice of God laughs at the efforts of men to circumvent it, and the subtle law that binds humanity together poisons the rich in the sufferings of the poor. Even the few who are able in the general struggle to leave their children wealth that they fondly think will keep them from want and misery in the uncertainties of this mortal life—do they succeed? Does experience show that it is a benefit to a child to place him above his fellows and enable him to think God’s law of labor is not for him? Is not such wealth oftener a curse than a blessing, and does not its expectation often destroy filial love and bring dissensions and heart-burnings into families? And how far and how long are even the richest and strongest able to exempt their children from the common lot? Nothing is more certain than that the blood of the masters of the world flows today in lazzaroni, and that the descendants of kings and princes tenant slums and workhouses.
But in the state of society we strive for, where the monopoly and waste of God’s bounty would be done away with and the fruits of labor would go to the laborer, it would be within the ability of all to make more than a comfortable living with reasonable labor. And for those who might be crippled or incapacitated or deprived of their natural protectors and breadwinners, the most ample provision could be made out of that great and increasing fund with which God in His law of rent has provided society—not as a matter of niggardly and degrading alms, but as a matter of right, as the assurance which in a Christian state society owes to all its members.
Thus it is that the duty of the father, the obligation to the child, instead of giving any support to private property in land, utterly condemns it, urging us by the most powerful considerations to abolish it in the simple and efficacious way of the single tax.
This duty of the father, this obligation to children, is not confined to those who have actually children of their own, but rests on all of us who have come to the powers and responsibilities of manhood.
For did not Christ set a little child in the midst of the disciples, saying to them that the angels of such little ones always behold the face of his Father; saying to them that it were better for a man to hang a millstone about his neck and plunge into the uttermost depths of the sea than to injure such a little one?
And what today is the result of private property in land in the richest of so-called Christian countries? Is it not that young people fear to marry; that married people fear to have children; that children are driven out of life from sheer want of proper nourishment and care, or compelled to toil when they ought to be at school or at play; that great numbers of those who attain maturity enter it with under-nourished bodies, overstrained nerves, undeveloped minds—under conditions that foredoom them not merely to suffering, but to crime; that fit them in advance for the prison and the brothel?
If your Holiness will consider these things we are confident that instead of defending private property in land you will condemn it with anathema!
7. That the private ownership of land stimulates industry, increases wealth, and attaches men to the soil and to their country. (51.)
The idea, as expressed by Arthur Young, that “the magic of property turns barren sands to gold” springs from the confusion of ownership with possession, of which I have before spoken, that attributes to private property in land what is due to security of the products of labor. It is needless for me again to point out that the change we propose—the taxation for public uses of land-values, or economic rent, and the abolition of other taxes—would give to the user of land far greater security for the fruits of his labor than the present system, and far greater permanence of possession. Nor is it necessary further to show how it would give homes to those who are now homeless and bind men to their country. For under it every one who wanted a piece of land for a home or for productive use could get it without purchase-price and hold it even without tax, since the tax we propose would not fall on all land, nor even on all land in use, but only on land better than the poorest land in use, and is in reality not a tax at all, but merely a return to the state for the use of a valuable privilege. And even those who from circumstances or occupation did not wish to make permanent use of land would still have an equal interest with all others in the land of their country and in the general prosperity.
But I should like your Holiness to consider how utterly unnatural is the condition of the masses in the richest and most progressive of Christian countries; how large bodies of them live in habitations in which a rich man would not ask his dog to dwell; how the great majority have no homes from which they are not liable on the slightest misfortune to be evicted; how numbers have no homes at all, but must seek what shelter chance or charity offers. I should like to ask your Holiness to consider how the great majority of men in such countries have no interest whatever in what they are taught to call their native land, for which they are told that on occasions it is their duty to fight or to die. What right, for instance, have the majority of your countrymen in the land of their birth? Can they live in Italy outside of a prison or a poorhouse except as they buy the privilege from some of the exclusive owners of Italy? Cannot an Englishman, an American, an Arab, or a Japanese do as much? May not what was said centuries ago by Tiberius Gracchus be said today: “Men of Rome! you are called the lords of the world, yet have no right to a square foot of its soil! The wild beasts have their dens, but the soldiers of Italy have only water and air!“
What is true of Italy is true of the civilized world—is becoming increasingly true. It is the inevitable effect, as civilization progresses, of private property in land.
8. That the right to possess private property in land is from Nature, not from man; that the state has no right to abolish it, and that to take the value of land-ownership in taxation would be unjust and cruel to the private owner. (51.)
This, like much else that your Holiness says, is masked in the use of the indefinite terms private property and private owner—a want of precision in the use of words that has doubtless aided in the confusion of your own thought. But the context leaves no doubt that by private property you mean private property in land, and by private owner the private owner of land.
The contention thus made that private property in land is from Nature, not from man, has no other basis than the confounding of ownership with possession and the ascription to property in land of what belongs to its contradictory, property in the proceeds of labor. You do not attempt to show for it any other basis, nor has any one else ever attempted to do so. That private property in the products of labor is from Nature is clear, for Nature gives such things to labor and to labor alone. Of every article of this kind, we know that it came into being as Nature’s response to the exertion of an individual man or of individual men—given by Nature directly and exclusively to him or to them. Thus there inheres in such things a right of private property, which originates from and goes back to the source of ownership, the maker of the thing. This right is anterior to the state and superior to its enactments so that, as we hold, it is a violation of natural right and an injustice to the private owner for the state to tax the processes and products of labor. They do not belong to Caesar. They are things that God, of whom Nature is but an expression, gives to those who apply for them in the way He has appointed—by labor.
But who will dare trace the individual ownership of land to any grant from the Maker of land? What does Nature give to such ownership? How does she in any way recognize it? Will any one show from difference of form or feature, of stature or complexion, from dissection of their bodies or analysis of their powers and needs, that one man was intended by Nature to own land and another to live on it as his tenant? That which derives its existence from man and passes away like him, which is indeed but the evanescent expression of his labor, man may hold and transfer as the exclusive property of the individual; but how can such individual ownership attach to land, which existed before man was and which continues to exist while the generations of men come and go—the unfailing storehouse that the Creator gives to man for “the daily supply of his daily wants”?
Clearly the private ownership of land is from the state, not from Nature. Thus, not merely can no objection be made on the score of morals when it is proposed that the state shall abolish it altogether, but insomuch as it is a violation of natural right, its existence involving a gross injustice on the part of the state, an impious violation of the benevolent intention of the Creator, it is a moral duty that the state so abolish it.
So far from there being anything unjust in taking the full value of land-ownership for the use of the community, the real injustice is in leaving it in private hands—an injustice that amounts to robbery and murder.
And when your Holiness shall see this I have no fear that you will listen for one moment to the impudent plea that before the community can take what God intended it to take, before men who have been disinherited of their natural rights can be restored to them, the present owners of land shall first be compensated.
For not only will you see that the single tax will directly and largely benefit small landowners, whose interests as laborers and capitalists are much greater than their interests as landowners, and that though the great landowners—or rather the propertied class in general, among whom the profits of land-ownership are really divided through mortgages, rent charges, etc.—would relatively lose, they too would be absolute gainers in the increased prosperity and improved morals. But more quickly, more strongly, more peremptorily than from any calculation of gains or losses would your duty as a man, your faith as a Christian, forbid you to listen for one moment to any such paltering with right and wrong.
Where the state takes some land for public uses, it is only just that those whose land is taken should be compensated; otherwise some landowners would be treated more harshly than others. But where, by a measure affecting all alike, rent is appropriated for the benefit of all, there can be no claim to compensation. Compensation in such case would be a continuance of the same injustice in another form—the giving to landowners in the shape of interest of what they before got as rent. Your Holiness knows that justice and injustice are not thus to be juggled with, and when you fully realize that land is really the storehouse that God owes to all His children, you will no more listen to any demand for compensation for restoring it to them than Moses would have listened to a demand that Pharaoh should be compensated before letting the children of Israel go.
Compensated for what? For giving up what has been unjustly taken? The demand of landowners for compensation is not that. We do not seek to spoil the Egyptians. We do not ask that what has been unjustly taken from laborers shall be restored. We are willing that bygones should be bygones and to leave dead wrongs to bury their dead. We propose to let those who by the past appropriation of land-values have taken the fruits of labor to retain what they have thus got. We merely propose that for the future such robbery of labor shall cease—that for the future, not for the past, land-holders shall pay to the community the rent that to the community is justly due.