Land Occupancy and its Conditions

Land Occupancy and its Conditions

[Liberty, August 27, 1887.]

To the Editor of Liberty:(108 ¶ 1)

Your reply of July 16, 1887 to my letter is not at all satisfactory to me. I cannot with my best endeavor harmonize your statement: I am convinced, however, that the abolition of the money monopoly and the refusal of protection to all land titles except those of occupiers would … reduce this evil to a very small fraction of its present proportions (the italics are mine), with your opposition to all government. The natural inference of your statement is that you are in favor of protecting the occupier of land. Who is to give this protection? Who is to wield the authority? As regards the application of authority, I can see a distinction in degree only, none in principle, between the tacit, unwritten agreement of an uncultured tribe to ostracize the thief and wrong-doer and the despotic government of a tyrannical autocrat. Without authority of some kind rights cannot exist. The right undisturbed possession, called ownership, is invariably the result of an agreement, by which all others not only abstain from taking possession, but even give assistance socially or physically, should any one trespass this agreement. But just therein consists the authority which the strong exercise over the weak, or the many over the few. In my opinion there can be no objection to such agreements or laws, when they are strictly based upon equity,—nay, they are the necessary basis of order and civilization; they are, in fact, the ideal of a government. Only when they favor one class at the expense of another, when they are inequitable, can they become the instrument of oppression, and some men will find it to their supposed advantage to support such laws by fair or unfair means, most frequently by making use of the ignorance and superstition of the masses, who are known to fly to arms and shed their blood even for the most tyrannical dictator.(108 ¶ 2)

I understand you to favor the ownership of land based upon occupancy. You believe that under absolute individual freedom all men will abstain from disturbing the occupier of land in his possession. To this view I take exception. The choice spots will be coveted by others, and it is not human nature to relinquish any advantage without a sufficient cause. If you say the occupiers of these choice spots should be left undisturbed possessors without paying an equivalent for the special advantage they enjoy, you will find many of contrary opinion who must be coerced to this agreement. Egoism, when coupled with the knowledge that iniquity must inevitably lead to revolution, will accept as a most equitable condition that in which the recipient of the necessary protection pays to the protector the value of the right of undisturbed possession; in which he returns to those who agree to abandon to him a special natural or local advantage its full value—i.e., the unearned increment—as compensation for the grant of the right of ownership.(108 ¶ 3)

The defence of occupying ownership of land seems to me at a par with the frequent retort to money reformers that everybody has an equal right to become a banker or a capitalist. An equitable relation will be prevented by the natural limitation of land in one, by the artificial limitation of the medium of exchange in the other case. You may perhaps have reason to object to applying the rent, after it has been collected, in the manner suggested by Henry George; but I fail to see how you can reasonably oppose the collection of rent for the purpose of an equitable distribution.(108 ¶ 4)


Egoist’s acquaintance with Liberty is of comparatively recent date, but it is hard to understand how he could have failed to find out from it that, in opposing all government, it so defines the word as to exclude the very thing which Egoist considers ideal government. It has been stated in this columns I know not how many times that government, Archism, invasion, are used here as equivalent terms; that whoever invades, individual or State, governs and is an Archist; and that whoever defends against invasion, individual or voluntary association, opposes government and is an Anarchist. Now, a voluntary association doing equity would not be an invader, but a defender against invasion, and might include in its defensive operations the protection of the occupiers of land. With this explanation, does Egoist perceive any lack of harmony in my statements? Assuming, then, protection by such a method, occupiers would be sure, no matter how covetous others might be. But now the question recurs: What is equity in the matter of land occupancy? I admit at once that the enjoyment by individuals of increment which they do not earn is not equity. On the other hand, I insist that the confiscation of such increment by the State (not a voluntary association) and its expenditure for public purposes, while it might be a little nearer equity practically in that the benefits would be enjoyed (after a fashion) by a larger number of persons, would be exactly as far from it theoretically, inasmuch as the increment no more belongs equally to the public at large than to the individual land-holder, and would still be a long way from it even practically, for the minority, not being allowed to spend its share of the increment in its own way, would be just as truly robbed as if not allowed to spend it at all. A voluntary association in which the landholders should consent to contribute the increment to the association’s treasury, and in which all the members should agree to settle the method of its disposition by ballot, would be equitable enough, but would be a short-sighted, wasteful, and useless complication. A system of occupying ownership, however, accompanied by no legal power to collect rent, but coupled with the abolition of the State-guaranteed monopoly of money, thus making capital readily available, would distribute the increment naturally and quietly among its rightful owners. If it should not work prefect equity, it would at least effect a sufficiently close approximation to it, and without trespassing at all upon the individualities of any. Spots are choice now very largely because of monopoly, and those which, under a system of free land and free money, should still remain choice for other reasons would shed their benefits upon all, just in the same way that choice countries under free trade will, as Henry George shows, make other countries more prosperous. When people see that such would be the result of this system, it is hardly likely that many of them will have to be coerced into agreeing to it. I see no point to Egoist’s analogy in the first sentence of his last paragraph, unless he means to deny the right of the individual to become a banker. A more pertinent analogy would be a comparison of the George scheme for the confiscation of rent with a system of individual banking of which the State should confiscate the profits.(108 ¶ 5)