The Right to the Use of the Earth
1. Given a race
of beings having like claims to pursue the objects of their desires; given
a world adapted to the gratification of those desires–a world into which
such beings are similarly born–and it unavoidably follows that they have
equal rights to the use of this world. For if each of them "has freedom
to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of
any other," then each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction
of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty. And conversely,
it is manifest that no one, or part of them, may use the earth in such a
way as to prevent the rest from similarly using it; seeing that to do this
is to assume greater freedom than the rest, and consequently to break the
2. Equity, therefore, does not permit property
in land. For if one portion of the earth's surface may justly become the
possession of an individual and may be held by him for his sole use and
benefit as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions
of the earth's surface may be so held; and eventually the whole of the earth's
surface may be so held, and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private
hands. Observe now the dilemma to which this leads. Supposing the entire
habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have
a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners have no right at
all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only.
They are all trespassers. Save by the permission of the lords of the soil,
they can have no room for the soles of their feet. Nay, should the others
think fit to deny them a resting place, these landless men might equitably
be expelled from the earth altogether. If, then, the assumption that land
can be held as property involves that the whole globe may become the private
domain of a part of its inhabitants; and if, by consequence, the rest of
its inhabitants can then exercise their faculties–can then exist even–only
by consent of the landowners, it is manifest that an exclusive possession
of the soil necessitates an infringement of the law of equal freedom. For
men who cannot "live and move and have their being" without the leave of
others cannot be equally free with those others.
3. Passing from the consideration of the
possible to that of the actual, we find yet further reason to deny the
rectitude of property in land. It can never be pretended that the existing
titles to such property are legitimate. Should anyone think so, let him
look in the chronicles. Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims
of superior cunning–these are the sources to which those titles may be traced.
The original deeds were written with the sword rather than with the pen:
not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers; blows were the current
coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax.
Could valid claims be thus constituted? Hardly. And if not, what becomes of
the pretensions of all subsequent holders of estates so obtained? Does sale
or bequest generate a right where it did not previously exist? Would the
original claimants be nonsuited at the bar of reason because the thing stolen
from them had changed hands? Certainly not. And if one act of transfer can
give no title, can many? No; though nothing be multiplied forever, it will
not produce one. Even the law recognizes this principle. An existing holder
must, if called upon, substantiate the claims of those from whom he purchased
or inherited his property; and any flaw in the original parchment, even
though the property should have had a score of intermediate owners, quashes
"But Time," say some, "is a great legalizer.
Immemorial possession must be taken to constitute a legitimate claim.
That which has been held from age to age as private property, and has
been bought and sold as such, must now be considered as irrevocably belonging
to individuals." To which proposition a willing assent shall be given
when its propounders can assign it a definite meaning. To do this, however,
they must find satisfactory answers to such questions as: How long does
it take for what was originally a wrong to grow into a right? At what
rate per annum do invalid claims become valid? If a title gets perfect
in a thousand years, how much more than perfect will it be in two thousand
years?–and so forth. For the solution of which they will require a new
Whether it may be expedient to admit claims
of a certain standing is not the point. We have here nothing to do with
considerations of conventional privilege or legislative convenience. We
have simply to inquire what is the verdict given by pure equity in the matter.
And this verdict enjoins a protest against every existing pretension to the
individual possession of the soil, and dictates the assertion that the right
of mankind at large to the earth's surface is still valid, all deeds, customs,
and laws notwithstanding.
4. Not only have present land tenures an
indefensible origin, but it is impossible to discover any mode in which
land can become private property. Cultivation is commonly considered to
give a legitimate title. He who has reclaimed a tract of land from its
primitive wildness is supposed to have thereby made it his own. But if
his right is disputed, by what system of logic can he vindicate it? Let
us listen a moment to his pleadings.
"Hallo, you, sir," cries the cosmopolite
to some backwoodsman smoking at the door of his shanty, "by what authority
do you take possession of these acres that you have cleared, round which
you have put up a snake fence and on which you have built this log house?"
"By what authority? I squatted here because
there was no one to say nay–because I was as much at liberty to do so as
any other man. Besides, now that I have cut down the wood and plowed and
cropped the ground, this farm is more mine than yours or anybody's, and
I mean to keep it!'
"Ay, so you all say. But I do not yet see
how you have substantiated your claim. When you came here you found the
land producing trees–sugar maples, perhaps; or maybe it was covered with
prairie grass and wild strawberries. Well, instead of these you made it
yield wheat, or maize, or tobacco. Now I want to understand how, by exterminating
one set of plants and making the soil bear another set in their place,
you have constituted yourself lord of this soil for all succeeding time."
"Oh, those natural products which I destroyed
were of little or no use; whereas I caused the earth to bring forth things
good for food–things that help to give life and happiness."
"Still you have not shown why such a process
makes the portion of earth you have so modified yours. What is it that
you have done? You have turned over the soil to a few inches in depth with
a spade or a plow; you have scattered over this prepared surface a few
seeds; and you have gathered the fruits which the sun, rain, and air helped
the soil to produce. Just tell me, if you please, by what magic have these
acts made you sole owner of that vast mass of matter, having for its base
the surface of your estate and for its apex the center of the globe? All
of which it appears you would monopolize to yourself and your descendants
"Well, if it isn't mine, whose is it? I have
dispossessed nobody. When I crossed the Mississippi yonder I found nothing
but the silent woods. If someone else had settled here and made this clearing,
he would have had as good a right to the location as I have. I have done
nothing but what any other person was at liberty to do had he come before
me. While they were unreclaimed, these lands belonged to all men–as much
to one as to another–and they are now mine simply because I was the first
to discover and improve them."
"You say truly when you say that 'while they
were unreclaimed these lands belonged to all men.' And it is my duty to
tell you that they belong to all men still, and that your 'improvements,'
as you call them, cannot vitiate the claim of all men. You may plow and
harrow, and sow and reap; you may turn over the soil as often as you like;
but all your manipulations will fail to make that soil yours, which was
not yours to begin with. Let me put a case. Suppose now that in the course
of your wanderings you come upon an empty house, which in spite of its dilapidated
state takes your fancy; suppose that with the intention of making it your
abode you expend much time and trouble in repairing it–that you paint and
paper and whitewash, and at considerable cost bring it into a habitable
state. Suppose further that on some fatal day a stranger is announced who
turns out to be the heir to whom this house has been bequeathed, and that
this professed heir is prepared with all the necessary proofs of his identity;
what becomes of your improvements? Do they give you a valid title to the
house? Do they quash the title of the original claimant?"
"Neither, then, do your pioneering operations
give you a valid title to this land. Neither do they quash the title of
its original claimants–the human race. The world is God's bequest to mankind.
All men are joint heirs to it; you among the number. And because you have
taken up your residence on a certain part of it and have subdued, cultivated,
beautified that part–improved it, as you say–you are not therefore warranted
in appropriating it as entirely private property. At least if you do so,
you may at any moment be justly expelled by the lawful owner–Society."
"Well, but surely you would not eject me
without making some recompense for the great additional value I have given
to this tract, by reducing what was a wilderness into fertile fields.
You would not turn me adrift and deprive me of all the benefit of those
years of toil it has cost me to bring this spot into its present state."
"Of course not; just as in the case of the
house, you would have an equitable title to compensation from the proprietor
for repairs and new fittings, so the community cannot justly take possession
of this estate without paying for all that you have done to it. This extra
worth which your labor has imparted to it is fairly yours; and although
you have, without leave, busied yourself in bettering what belongs to the
community, yet no doubt the community will duly discharge your claim. But
admitting this is quite a different thing from recognizing your right to
the land itself. It may be true that you are entitled to compensation for
the improvements this enclosure has received at your hands; and at the same
time it may be equally true that no act, form, proceeding, or ceremony can
make this enclosure your private property."
5. It does indeed at first sight seem possible
for the earth to become the exclusive possession of individuals by some
process of equitable distribution. "Why," it may be asked, "should not
men agree to a fair subdivision? If all are co-heirs, why may not the estate
be equally apportioned and each be afterward perfect master of his own share?"
To this question it may in the first place
be replied that such a division is vetoed by the difficulty of fixing
the values of respective tracts of land. Variations in productiveness,
different degrees of accessibility, advantages of climate, proximity to
the centers of civilization–these and other such considerations remove
the problem out of the sphere of mere mensuration into the region of impossibility.
But, waiving this, let us inquire who are
to be the allottees. Shall adult males and all who have reached twenty-one
on a specified day be the fortunate individuals? If so, what is to be done
with those who come of age on the morrow? Is it proposed that each man,
woman, and child shall have a section? If so, what becomes of all who are
to be born next year? And what will be the fate of those whose fathers sell
their estates and squander the proceeds? These portionless ones must constitute
a class already described as having no right to a resting place on earth–as
living by the sufferance of their fellow men–as being practically serfs.
And the existence of such a class is wholly at variance with the law of equal
Until, therefore, we can produce a valid
commission authorizing us to make this distribution, until it can be proved
that God has given one charter of privileges to one generation and another
to the next, until we can demonstrate that men born after a certain date
are doomed to slavery, we must consider that no such allotment is permissible.
6. Probably some will regard the difficulties
inseparable from individual ownership of the soil as caused by pushing
to excess a doctrine applicable only within rational limits. This is a very
favorite style of thinking with some. There are people who hate anything
in the shape of exact conclusions, and these are of them. According to such,
the right is never in either extreme, but always halfway between the extremes.
They are continually trying to reconcile Yes and No. Ifs and buts and excepts
are their delight. They have so great a faith in "the judicious mean" that
they would scarcely believe an oracle if it uttered a full-length principle.
Were you to inquire of them whether the earth turns on its axis from east
to west or from west to east, you might almost expect the reply, "A little
of both," or "Not exactly either." It is doubtful whether they would assent
to the axiom that the whole is greater than its part, without making some
qualification. They have a passion for compromises. To meet their taste,
Truth must always be spiced with a little Error. They cannot conceive of
a pure, definite, entire, and unlimited law. And hence, in discussions like
the present, they are constantly petitioning for limitations–always wishing
to Abate and modify and moderate–ever protesting against doctrines being
pursued to their ultimate consequences.
But it behooves such to recollect that ethical
truth is as exact and as peremptory as physical truth, and that in this
matter of land tenure the verdict of morality must be distinctly yea or
nay. Either men have a right to make the soil private property or they have
not. There is no medium. We must choose one of the two positions. There
can be no half-and-half opinion. In the nature of things the fact must be
either one way or the other.
If men have not such a right, we are at once
delivered from the several predicaments already pointed out. If they have
such a right, then is that right absolute, sacred, not on any pretense
to be violated. If they have such a right, then is his Grace of Leeds justified
in warning off tourists from Ben Mac Dhui, the Duke of Atholl in closing
Glen Tilt, the Duke of Buccleugh in denying sites to the Free Church, and
the Duke of Sutherland in banishing the Highlanders to make room for sheep
walks. If they have such a right, then it would be proper for the sole proprietor
of any kingdom–a Jersey or Guernsey, for example to impose just what regulations
he might choose on its inhabitants–to tell them that they should not live
on his property unless they professed a certain religion, spoke a particular
language, paid him a specified reverence, adopted an authorized dress, and
conformed to all other conditions he might see fit to make. If they have
such a right, then is there truth in that tenet of the ultra-Tory school,
that the landowners are the only legitimate rulers of a country–that the
people at large remain in it only by the landowner's permission and ought
consequently to submit to the landowners' rule and respect whatever institutions
the landowners set up. There is no escape from these inferences. They are
necessary corollaries to the theory that the earth can become individual property.
And they can be repudiated only by denying that theory.
7. After all, nobody does implicitly believe
in landlordism. We hear of estates being held under the king–that is,
the State–or of their being kept in trust for the public benefit; and
not that they are the inalienable possessions of their nominal owners.
Moreover, we daily deny landlordism by our legislation. Is a canal, a railway,
or a turnpike road to be made, we do not scruple to seize just as many acres
as may be requisite, allowing the holders compensation for the capital invested.
We do not wait for consent. An act of Parliament supersedes the authority
of title deeds and serves proprietors with notices to quit, whether they
will or not. Either this is equitable or it is not. Either the public are
free to resume as much of the earth's surface as they think fit, or the
titles of the landowners must be considered absolute, and all national works
must be postponed until lords and squires please to part with the requisite
slices of their estates. If we decide that the claims of individual ownership
must give way, then we imply that the right of the nation at large to the
soil is supreme; that the right of private possession exists only by general
consent; that general consent being withdrawn, it ceases–or, in other words,
that it is no right at all.
8. "But to what does this doctrine, that
men are equally entitled to the use of the earth, lead? Must we return
to the times of unenclosed wilds and subsist on roots, berries, and game?
Or are we to be left to the management of Messrs. Fourrier, Owen, Louis
Blanc, and Co.?" Neither. Such a doctrine is consistent with the highest
state of civilization; may be carried out without involving a community
of goods; and need cause no very serious revolution in existing arrangements.
The change required would simply be a change of landlords. Separate ownerships
would merge into the joint-stock ownership of the public. Instead of being
in the possession of individuals, the country would be held by the great
corporate body–Society. Instead of leasing his acres from an isolated proprietor,
the farmer would lease them from the nation. Instead of paying his rent
to the agent of Sir John or His Grace, he would pay it to an agent or deputy
agent of the community. Stewards would be public officials instead of private
ones, and tenancy the only land tenure.
A state of things so ordered would be in
perfect harmony with the moral law. Under it all men would be equally
landlords; all men would be alike free to become tenants. A, B, C, and
the rest might compete for a vacant farm as now, and one of them might
take that farm, without in any way violating the principles of pure equity.
All would be equally free to bid; all would be equally free to refrain. And
when the farm had been let to A, B, or C, all parties would have done that
which they willed–the one in choosing to pay a given sum to his fellow
men for the use of certain lands–the others in refusing to pay that sum.
Clearly, therefore, on such a system, the earth might be enclosed, occupied,
and cultivated in entire subordination to the law of equal freedom.
9. No doubt great difficulties must attend
the resumption, by mankind at large, of their rights to the soil. The
question of compensation to existing proprietors is a complicated one–one
that perhaps cannot be settled in a strictly equitable manner. Had we
to deal with the parties who originally robbed the human race of its heritage,
we might make short work of the matter. But, unfortunately, most of our
present landowners are men who have, either mediately or immediately–either
by their own acts or by the acts of their ancestors–given for their estates
equivalents of honestly earned wealth, believing that they were investing
their savings in a legitimate manner. To estimate justly and liquidate the
claims of such is one of the most intricate problems society will one day
have to solve. But with this perplexity and our extrication from it, abstract
morality has no concern. Men, having got themselves into the dilemma by disobedience
to the law, must get out of it as well as they can, and with as little injury
to the landed class as may be.
Meanwhile, we shall do well to recollect
that there are others besides the landed class to be considered. In our
tender regard for the vested interests of the few, let us not forget that
the rights of the many are in abeyance, and must remain so, as long as
the earth is monopolized by individuals. Let us remember, too, that the
injustice thus inflicted on the mass of mankind is an injustice of the
gravest nature. The fact that it is not so regarded proves nothing. In early
phases of civilization even homicide is thought lightly of. The suttees
of India, together with the practice elsewhere followed of sacrificing a
hecatomb of human victims at the burial of a chief, shows this; and probably
cannibals consider the slaughter of those whom "the fortune of war" has
made their prisoners perfectly justifiable. It was once also universally
supposed that slavery was a natural and quite legitimate institution–a condition
into which some were born and to which they ought to submit as to a Divine
ordination; nay, indeed, a great proportion of mankind hold this opinion
still. A higher social development, however, has generated in us a better
faith, and we now to a considerable extent recognize the claims of humanity.
But our civilization is only initial. It may by and by be perceived that
Equity utters dictates to which we have not yet listened; and men may then
learn that to deprive others of their rights to the use of the earth is to
commit a crime inferior only in wickedness to the crime of taking away their
lives or personal liberties.
10. Briefly reviewing the argument, we see
that the right of each man to the use of the earth, limited only by the
like rights of his fellow men, is immediately deducible from the law of
equal freedom. We see that the maintenance of this right necessarily forbids
private property in land. On examination, all existing titles to such property
turn out to be invalid; those founded on reclamation, inclusive. It appears
that not even an apportionment of the earth among its inhabitants could generate
a legitimate proprietorship. We find that if pushed to its ultimate consequences
a claim to exclusive possession of the soil involves a landowning despotism.
We further find that such a claim is constantly denied by the enactments
of our legislature. And we find lastly that the theory of the co-heirship
of all men to the soil is consistent with the highest civilization, and that,
however difficult it may be to embody that theory in fact, Equity sternly
commands it to be done.