Liberty and Land.

Liberty and Land.

[Liberty, December 15, 1888.]

To the Editor of Liberty:(111 ¶ 1)

Encouraged by the prompt and considerate attention given to my letter (in your issue of October 27), I beg leave to continue the discussion, especially since some of your arguments are not at all clear to me.(111 ¶ 2)

You say that my definition of the right of possession of land rests on an assumption that there is an entity known as the community, which is the rightful owner of all land. I do not understand what you mean by rightful ownership. Ownership outside of a combination of individuals is to me as inconceivable as distance would be were there but one grain of matter in the universe. And regarding the community formed by a compact entered into or sanctioned by a dynamic majority of individuals as an entity, I can conceive only the physical relation of possession and that of ability to maintain it; but ownership I can recognize only as the result of this ability of the community, applied for the benefit of individuals. Hence I deny that my definition is based upon the premise stated by you, unless you have a conception of the term ownership unknown to me. (1) If I had the strength to back it up, all land would be mine, and egoism would prompt me to dominate over mankind as naturally as mankind now dominates over the animal kingdom. (2) But since my egoism is not coupled with such a power, submission to the stronger is a necessity which may be good or evil. Community I only mention in recognition of its supreme power. It can have and need have no title to the land while there is no other power capable of successfully disputing its possession, a title being nothing else than an effective promise of those who wield the supreme power. Nor can I agree that the right of the strongest will lead to serious results, except when applied to create an inequitable relation between individuals; and for the same reason that I advocate the distribution of rent as conducive to the establishment of an equilibrium, I do object to the collection of any other tribute. (3) Suppose I were to discover a gold mine that would enable me to command, by one hour’s work, one year’s labor of other men: a refusal to pool the rent with others with the expectation to be let alone in the exclusive enjoyment of this mine would imply that I consider all others to be devoid of even a trace of egoism, which my experience forbids. (4) There is one vital difference between the advantage which a man possesses by reason of superior skill and that due to the possession of valuable local opportunities: the one is inseparably attached to the individual; the other can be transferred by a mere transfer of the possession of the territory. The former will therefore always remain the individual’s; the disposition of the latter will invariably be controlled by the strongest. (5)(111 ¶ 3)

If you can convince the majority that occupation is the proper title for the ownership of land, your measure will be adopted. But local opportunities being of different values and the most valuable limited, those who are less liberally provided by the existing social conditions will covet the superior advantages possessed by others. This dissatisfaction, this germ of social disturbances and revolutions, will grow as the existing valuable opportunities are more and more appropriated and those who must do without them increase in numbers. Under such conditions it will be easy to convince the masses that, by giving the local opportunities to the highest bidder and equitable distributing the rent, all will feel that they have an equal share in the blessings of social peace and all egoism in that direction is as fully satisfied as any intelligent man can expect. (6)(111 ¶ 4)

As to the question of how to accomplish the end and what to do first, I agree with you when you wish the first blow directed against the monopolization of the medium of exchange; I only hold that, if the social state following would not imply a nationalization of the rent, the measure would be incomplete. (7)(111 ¶ 5)

From all appearances the difference between us is this: You consider that the rule of the superior will invariably lead to serious results, and in this respect you place yourself in opposition to what must naturally result from an association of egoists, i.e., the rule of the superior, while I hold that superior ability will always rule and that this rule will be beneficial if administered so that no individual has any reasonable cause for complaint, which implies that all have an equal share in the transferable opportunities. I admit that what I consider a reasonable cause may not be so considered by others: the decision must be left to the intelligence of the people, as there is no other tribunal. (8)(111 ¶ 6)


(1) It was only because I conceived it out of the question that Egoist, in maintaining that the value of protection in the possession of land is equal to its economic rent, could be discussing value without regard to the law of equal liberty as a prior condition, or soberly advocating the exercise of the right of might regardless of equity, that I interpreted his words as implying a superiority in equity in the community’s title to land over that of the individual,—a superiority other than that of might; a superiority, in short, other than that by which the highwayman relieves the traveller of his goods. I was bound to suppose (and later statements in his present letter seem to strengthen the supposition) that he looked upon the giving up, by the community of its right to land as the giving up of a superior equitable right; for otherwise, in demanding value in return for this sacrifice, he would be compelled in logic to demand, on behalf of a burglar, value in return for the sacrifice made in declining to carry off a householder’s wealth by stealth. But Egoist repudiates this supposition (though he does not follow the logic of his repudiation), and I must take him at his word. He thus lays himself open to a retort which I could not otherwise have made. In his previous letter he criticised me for making sentiment a factor in the estimation of value. Whether or not this was a transgression, on my part, of the limits of economic discussion, he certainly has transgressed them much more seriously in making force such a factor. Exchange implies liberty; where there is no liberty there is no exchange, but only robbery; and robbery is foreign to political economy. At least one point, however, is gained. Between Egoist and myself all question of any superior equitable right of the community is put aside forever. Equity not considered, we agree that the land belongs to the man or body of men strong enough to hold it. And for all practical purposes his definition of ownership suits me, though I view ownership less as the result of the ability of the community to maintain possession and an application of this result for the benefit of individuals, than as a result of the inability of the community to maintain itself in peace and security otherwise than by the recognition of only such relations between man and wealth as are in harmony with the law of equal liberty. In other words, ownership arises not from superiority of the community to the individual, but from the inferiority of the community to the facts and powers of nature.(111 ¶ 7)

(2) This would depend upon whether such domination would prove profitable or disastrous to Egoist. I contend that it would prove disastrous, and that experience would lead him to abandon such a policy if foresight should not prevent him from adopting it.(111 ¶ 8)

(3) Here we have an acknowledgment of a principle of equity and a contemplation of its observance by the mighty, which goes to sustain my original supposition, despite Egoist’s protest. It implies an abandonment by the mighty of their right of domination and a willingness to contract with the weak. Now, I agree that the contracts thus entered into will not lead to serious results, unless they create inequitable relations between individuals. But the first of all equities is not equality of material well-being, but equality of liberty; and if the contract places the former equality before the latter, it will lead to serious results, for it logically necessitates the arbitrary levelling of all material inequalities, whether these arise from differences of soil or differences of skill. To directly enforce equality of material well-being is meddlesome, invasive, and offensive, but to directly enforce equality of liberty is simply protective and defensive. The latter is negative, and aims only to prevent the establishment of artificial inequalities; the former is positive, and aims at direct and active abolition of natural inequalities. If the former is the true policy, then it is as equitable to enforce the pooling of interest, profit, and wages as the pooling of rent. If the latter is the true policy, we have only to see to it that no artificial barriers against individual initiative are constructed. Under such conditions, if the natural inequalities tend to disappear, as they surely will, then so much the better.(111 ¶ 9)

(4) Not at all. It would only imply that Egoist considers others wise enough to see that, from the standpoint of self-interest, even so great a natural inequality as is here supposed is preferable to an arbitrary distribution of the products of labor.(111 ¶ 10)

(5) In speaking of skill as inseparably attached to the individual, Egoist surely does not mean to argue the impossibility of seizing and distributing the results of skill, for that would be a ridiculous contention. Then he can only mean that there is something sacred about the individual which the mighty are bound to respect. But this again is inconsistent with his theory of the right of might. If the strongest is to exercise his right, then he need stop at nothing but the impossible; if, on the other hand, he contracts with the weaker on a basis of equal liberty, then both strong and weak must be left secure in their possession of the products of their labor, whether aided by superior skill or superior soil.(111 ¶ 11)

(6) This is not true, unless Malthusianism is true; and, if Malthusianism is true, it is as true after the pooling of rent as before. If the encroachment of population over the limit of the earth’s capacity is inevitable, then there is no solution of the social problem. Pooling the rent or organizing credit would only postpone the catastrophe. Sooner or later the masses would find nothing to share but the curses of war rather than the blessings of peace, and at that stage it would matter but little to them whether they shared equally or unequally.(111 ¶ 12)

(7) And I only hold that, if in that case rent were to be nationalized by force, liberty would be incomplete; and liberty must be complete, whatever happens.(111 ¶ 13)

(8) No, I too hold that superiority will always rule; and it is only when real superiority is known and recognized as such, and therefore allowed to have its perfect work unresisted and unimpeded, that the minimum of evil will result. The really serious results are those that follow the attempts of inferiority, mistaking itself for superiority, to fly in the face of the real article. In other words, when individuals or majorities, seeing that they are stronger for the time being than other individuals or minorities, suppose that they are therefore stronger than natural social laws and act in violation of them, disaster is sure to follow. These laws are the really mighty, and they will always prevail. The first of them is the law of equal liberty. It is by the observance of this law, I am persuaded, rather than by an equal share in the transferable opportunities, that the ultimate intelligence of the people will remove every reasonable cause of complaint.(111 ¶ 14)