The Distribution of Rent.

The Distribution of Rent.

[Liberty, February 23, 1889.]

To the Editor of Liberty:(113 ¶ 1)

Before replying to your rejoinder regarding land vs. skill, I should be pleased to know whether in an Anarchistic state, in the event of a transgression of equal liberty, the injured party is to resent the act according to his judgment and caprice, or is repression to be exercised by an organized power according to rules determined by previous agreement? In the one case the unavoidable difference of opinions must be a source of interminable disturbances; in the other, we have the operation of an organized society with laws and supreme power,—in fact a political State. If an agreement exists, who is to execute its provisions? And if some refuse to assist, and shirk social duties, have they any claim to the assistance of the organization, have they any social rights? Until we have a clear understanding on these points, we might argue forever without avail.(113 ¶ 2)

Assuming that equal liberty can be attained only through some social compact, I fail to see a distinction between the monopoly of a gold-mine and that of an invention. The exclusive possession of either is the result of a social compact, all persons agreeing not to exploit the natural deposit of the precious metal, or to make use of the device suggested by the inventor. The monopoly of a gold-mine can, therefore, have no existence except by mutual agreement, or eventually a forcible prevention of those who claim equal liberty and attempt to extract gold from the same deposit. In like manner, every other peaceable enjoyment of a natural or local advantage is a result of mutual agreement, supported by the power without which the agreement would be a dead letter. The occupier of superior land or location is therefore indebted to society for the right of undisturbed possession, and a society of egoists will naturally confer this right to the highest bidder, who will then, as now, determine the rent. An occupier is not a transgressor of equal liberty unless he claims and receives this right without giving an equivalent in return, and the return is equitable if it equals what others are willing to give for the same right.(113 ¶ 3)

If we keep this in view, I may be able to more intelligently convey my views on the land vs. skill question. The social agreement, and not the physical constitution of things, is the factor determining the distribution of land, while the distribution of skill is absolutely independent of this agreement, depending upon the physical and mental constitution of men. Some men may have reason to be dissatisfied with the distribution of land, knowing that it can be changed, while a dissatisfaction with the distribution of skill is like the crying of a child because it cannot fly.(113 ¶ 4)

Having shown that a vital difference exists between land and skill, the distribution of the one being due to human laws, that of the other to natural laws, I wish to further demonstrate that only by inequitable, despotic laws can an equalization of natural opportunities be prevented.(113 ¶ 5)

In a state of liberty rent will invariably be offered, by the occupiers of the poorest land yet needed, for the possession of better or more favorably located land. Shall law forbid such offers, or invalidate contracts made in compliance therewith, incidentally suppressing competition; shall it permit certain individuals, the so-called land-owners, to appropriate this rent; or shall society so distribute it that no citizen has any reason to complain of political favoritism? Is there a fourth possibility, and if not, which of the three is consistent with the law of equal freedom? Which tend to establish artificial inequalities? I reiterate my conviction that a nationalization of rent will be an inevitable result of the establishment of equal liberty.(113 ¶ 6)

If I were the possessor of land on which the productivity of labor exceeds that obtainable on land held by others, they would be willing to lease my land and pay a rent of nearly the excess of productivity. But since under the system of occupying land-ownership such a contract must be void, I shall never vacate the land, whatever inducements should be offered me; for, upon leaving it, I and my descendants would forever receive for the same efforts a less return than if I had retained possession of the said land. If for any reason some valuable land should become vacant, the number of applicants would naturally be very large. Each would be willing to give very nearly the annual excess of productivity afforded by this land, in his competitive attempt to outbid others. Who shall become the future occupier? Shall appointment decide, or shall the land be given to the highest bidder? In the one case, favoritism would reign; in the other, the nationalization of rent would be realized, which you condemn. Moreover, if production is carried on in groups, as it now is, who is the legal occupier of the land? The employer, the manager, or the ensemble of those engaged in the co-operative work? The latter appearing the only rational answer, it is natural that those in possession of the lesser opportunities will offer themselves to the favored groups for wages slightly greater than what they can obtain on the less favorable land and less than the members of the favored group would obtain as a share of their co-operation (which is only another form of an offer of rent). But as such an accession to a group would displace some of those previously employed, pushing them upon the less favorable land, such competitive applications will be resisted to the utmost, and competition would be harassed. A development of a class distinction could not be avoided.(113 ¶ 7)

The relation of social agreement to the distribution of the products of skill is totally different. An attempt to distribute by law the products of labor will discourage production, diminish happiness, and reduce the power to resist adverse influences, enabling those people to survive in the struggle for existence who encourage production by protecting the producer in the peaceable enjoyment of the fruits of his labor, provided he pays the value of that protection.(113 ¶ 8)


I cannot excuse Egoist, for several years a subscriber for Liberty, when he requires me to answer for the thousand-and-first time the questions which he puts to me in his opening paragraph. It has been stated and restated in these columns, until I have grown weary of the reiteration, that voluntary association for the purpose of preventing transgression of equal liberty will be perfectly in keeping with Anarchism, and will probably exist under Anarchism until it costs more than it comes to; that the provisions of such associations will be executed by such agents as it may select in accordance with such methods as it may prescribe, provided such methods do not themselves involve a transgression of the liberty of the innocent; that such association will restrain only the criminal (meaning by criminal the transgressor of equal liberty); that non-membership and non-support of it is not a criminal act; but that such a course nevertheless deprives the non-member of any title to the benefits of the association, except such as come to him incidentally and unavoidably. It has also been repeatedly affirmed that, in proposing to abolish the State, the Anarchists expressly exclude from their definition of the State such associations as that just referred to, and that whoever excludes from his definition and championship of the State everything except such associations has no quarrel with the Anarchists beyond a verbal one. I should trust that the understanding on these points is now clear, were it not that experience has convinced me that my command of the English language is not adequate to the construction of a foundation for such trust.(113 ¶ 9)

The fact that Egoist points out a similarity between the monopoly of a gold-mine and that of an invention by no means destroys the difference between them which I pointed out,—this difference being that, whereas in the former case it is impossible to prevent or nullify the monopoly without restricting the liberty of the monopolist, in the latter it is impossible to sustain it without restricting the liberty of the would-be competitors. To the Anarchist, who believes in the minimum of restriction upon liberty, this difference is a vital one,—quite sufficient to warrant him in refusing to prevent the one while refusing to sustain the other.(113 ¶ 10)

Egoist says that an occupier is not a transgressor of equal liberty unless he claims and receives the right of undisturbed possession without giving an equivalent in return. Anarchism holds, on the contrary, in accordance with the principles stated at the outset of this rejoinder, that an occupier is not a transgressor even if, not claiming it or paying for it, he does receive this right. The question of Liberty in the Incidental has been elaborately and clearly discussed in these columns within a few months by J. Wm. Lloyd, and an extract in confirmation of his position has been reprinted from Humboldt. I refer Egoist to those articles.(113 ¶ 11)

The assertion that the distribution of skill is absolutely independent of social agreement is absolutely erroneous. In proof of this I need only call attention to the apprenticeship regulations of the trade unions and the various educational systems that are or have been in vogue, not only as evidence of what has already been done in the direction of controlling the distribution of skill, but also as an indication of what more may be done if State Socialism ever gets a chance to try upon humanity the interesting experiments which it proposes. On the other hand, the collection of rent by the collectivity does not necessarily affect the distribution of land. Land titles will remain unchanged as long as the tax (or rent) shall be paid. But it does distribute the products resulting from differences of land, and it is likewise possible to distribute the products resulting from differences of skill. Now until this position is overthrown (and I defy any one to successfully dispute it), it is senseless to liken dissatisfaction with the distribution of skill to the crying of a child because it cannot fly. The absurdity of his analogy, in which the possibility of distributing products is ignored, would have been apparent if it had been immediately followed by the admission of this possibility which Egoist places several paragraphs further down. To be sure, he declares even there that it is impossible, but only in the sense in which Proudhon declares interest-bearing impossible,—that of producing anti-social results which eventually kill it or compel its abandonment. I contend that similarly anti-social results will follow any attempt to distribute by law the products arising from differences of land; and I ask, as I have asked before without obtaining an answer, why the collectivity, if in its right of might it may see fit to distribute the rent of land, may not find it equally expedient to distribute the rent of skill; why it may not reduce all differences of wealth to an absolute level; in short, why it may not create the worst and most complete tyranny the world has ever known?(113 ¶ 12)

In regard to the attitude of Anarchistic associations towards rent and its collection, I would say that they might, consistently with the law of equal freedom, except from their jurisdiction whatever cases or forms of transgression they should not think it expedient to attempt to prevent. These exceptions would probably be defined in their constitutions. The members could, if they saw fit, exempt the association from enforcing gambling debts or rent contracts. On the other hand, an association organized on a different basis which should enforce such debts or contracts would not thereby become itself a transgressor. But any association would be a transgressor which should attempt to prevent the fulfilment of rent contracts or to confiscate rent and distribute it. Of the three possibilities specified by Egoist the third is the only one that tends to establish an artificial inequality; and that the worst of all inequalities,—the inequality of liberty, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the equality of slavery. The first or second would at the worst fail to entirely abolish natural inequalities.(113 ¶ 13)

The possibility of valuable land becoming vacant is hardly worth consideration. Still, if any occupant of valuable land should be foolish enough to quit it without first selling it, the estate would be liable to seizure by the first comer, who would immediately have a footing similar to that of other land-holders. If this be favoritism, I can only say that the world is not destined to see the time when some things will not go by favor.(113 ¶ 14)

Egoist’s argument that free competition will tend to distribute rent by a readjustment of wages is exactly to my purpose. Have I not told him from the start that Anarchists will gladly welcome any tendency to equality through liberty? But Egoist seems to object to reaching equality by this road. It must be reached by law or not at all. If reached by competition, competition would be harassed. In other words, competition would harass competition. This wears the aspect of another absurdity. It is very likely that competitors would harass competitors, but competition without harassed competitors is scarcely thinkable. It is even not improbable that class distinctions would be developed, as Egoist says. Workers would find the places which their capacities, conditions, and inclinations qualify them to fill, and would thus be classified, or divided into distinct classes. Does Egoist think that in such an event life would not be worth living? Of course the words harass and class distinction have an ugly sound, and competition is decidedly more attractive when associated instead with excel and organization. But Anarchists never recoil from disagreeable terms. Only their opponents are to be frightened by words and phrases.(113 ¶ 15)