Spencer’s Defence of “Robbery.”

Liberty once charged the editor of a Spencerian journal with a brutish admiration for Spencer, and I am free to confess that, in many respects, I have been, and still am, open to the same charge. But Spencer’s treatment of certain social problems certainly fails to command the least respect of unbiassed and logical thinkers, if it does not come perilously near provoking contempt. The sincerest friends of Spencer prefer to pass over in silence his amazing self-stultification in connection with the subject of land tenure,—a self-stultification lately again forced by him upon our notice. In the course of a controversy with the English land-nationalizers, who had inflicted great annoyance on Spencer by persistent use of his name in their propaganda, he wrote a letter to the London Chronicle in explanation of his change of opinion on the land question, which was significantly headed Robbers All Round (to the cynic it doubtless irrepressibly suggests another expressive motto, humbugs all round). The gist is contained in the following passage:

My argument in Social Statics was based upon the untenable assumption that the existing English community had a moral right to the land. They never had anything of the kind. They were robbers all round: Normans robbed Danes and Saxons, Saxons robbed Celts, Celts robbed the aborigines, traces of whose earth-houses we find here and there. Let the English Land Restoration League find the descendants of these last and restore the land to them. There never was any equity in the matter, and reëstablishment of a supposed original equity is a dream. The stronger peoples have been land-thieves from the beginning, and have remained land-thieves down to the present hour.

The inference intended is obvious: it is silly to dream of, and criminal to attempt, a change in the system of land tenure apart from the free acquiescence of the present holders. The fact that the landlords are not ethically entitled to their possessions does not invest other classes of the community with a superior title, since from the very beginning they were robbers all around. Nothing remains to be done except persuade the landlords (or force them under the theory of eminent domain, recognized by Spencer in his latest work on sociology) to sell their estates to the community. No, not even this remedial plan is left to comfort us, for Spencer has, by a remarkable appeal to arithmetic, shown the ruinous nature of such a speculation. More would be paid to the landlords, according to him, than their lands would ever be worth, and the result of the transaction would be a loss offset by no advantage whatever. The happiest solution is to leave matters in statu quo and—pray for the best. Mr. Auberon Herbert eagerly and gleefully seizes upon Spencer’s defence, and develops it with keen relish, thus:

If there were a true equity in taking land from its present holders, there would be further equity in dividing up all Europe, and indeed Asia also. If we are to divide up, why is one race to be worse off than another race? It will want some very persuasive logic to convince the Russian—since the faulty origins of land settlement everywhere are to be made an excuse for breaking up present arrangements—that he is to say in the frosts and the snows.... There never has been equity is the true history of the whole transaction; and how what has been throughout inequitable could be mended by another glaring act of inequity only a nationalizer can explain. The free and open market is the one equitable system, and through all past violences and inequities we must slowly make our way up to that goal.

The gratuitous assumptions, transparent sophistry, and loose thinking characterizing these quotations from Spencer and Auberon Herbert are such that a person who was not aware of the intellectual status of these men would be abundantly justified in dismissing them as unworthy of serious consideration. Let us analyze the propositions and the deductions drawn from them.

Bear in mind that the problem is to secure, if possible, equity in land tenure. Spencer assures us that equal freedom is the first condition of social stability and harmony, and equity and expediency are really synonymous terms. Now, still according to Spencer, under the law of equal freedom, men—each and all—are entitled to certain particular freedoms or rights, and one of these rights is that of using land and other natural media. To tell us that one of these rights is unattainable, and that we had better cease our vain agitation for it, is tantamount to discrediting the so-called law of equal liberty altogether. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and, if one clear and unescapabl corollary from the law of equal freedom is invalid, inexpedient, inequitable, impossible, the whole law is shown to be a sham and fallacy. It ceases to be a law. There is no way of rehabilitating it, except by proving that the alleged right to natural media is not strictly a deduction from the law, but a false conclusion illogically drawn from it. Were this done, it would devolve on Spencer to reason out and formulate the proper and true injunction of equal freedom with regard to the question of natural media. Since, however, he still insists that, in the abstract, the right to the use of nature is a corollary from equal freedom, his assertion that men cannot equitably obtain a recognition of this particular right under existing conditions involves the total collapse of the whole edifice. Spencer’s sociology and political system are a wreck, and all his talk about justice, equity, and social law is cant and empty sound.

But perhaps I am too hasty. Reflection discovers another possible solution to the dilemma. Let us assume that neither the major premise or the minor premise of Mr. Spencer can be successfully impugned, and see what the conclusion must be.

Major premise: Under the law of equal freedom,—the fundamental condition of society,—men are entitled to the use of the land,—satisfaction of needs, or use, being the criterion.

Minor premise: The law of equal freedom having been systematically violated from the beginning, it is now utterly impossible to establish equity in land tenure.

Conclusion: Society must perish as the victim of its own folly and wickedness.

Grant the premises, and there is no avoidance of the conclusion. Society cannot long survive the violation of a fundamental law; war, chaos, and savagery must naturally be unchained and let loose. A glance at the actualities around us attests the absolute correctness of this conclusion. Bombs, violent strikes, advocacy of wholesale massacres,—all are the direct result of the violation of the fundamental condition, and all proclaim the existence of a state of war. Ignoramuses are appalled at the spectacle, and rave about the fiendishness of the poor and working classes; rascals are aware of the true causes, but pretend ignorance and strive to get the spoils of war. But the intelligent and conscientious are endeavoring to secure observance of the fundamental condition as a means of establishing peace. And what assistance do they now get from Spencer? He virtually abandons the scene of the struggle, and leaves society to its doom. Such an attitude, however justifiable on the part of a theologian who despairs of enforcing God’s will, is irrational and inconsistent on the part of an evolutionist. An evolutionist can never despair of securing obedience to a social law. It is by studying human conduct that he discovers the law, and he knows that the very misery produced by imperfect observance of it is the best school in which men learn the need of stricter conformity.

But to recur to Spencer’s reason for discontinuing attacks on the present land system. Nobody, he declares, has a better title than the present holders; there has never been equity in the transaction. Now, this assertion requires much more evidence than Spencer has thus far supplied. Some writers on early English tenures maintain that there existed at one time in that country a peasant proprietorship which closely approximated equitable requirements. They may have robbed the aborigines, just as the first American settlers robbed the Indians; but Spencer ought to be the last man to introduce such a dubious and uncertain element into a discussion of equitable land tenure. No attempt has yet been made to define, in the light of justice and equity, the right relation between civilized societies and uncivilized tribes. Kindness and gentleness have often been urged on white invaders of new territory inhabited by savages, but kindness is not justice. Expropriation of savages is not necessarily robbery; from the standpoint of the race, it would seem to be unjust for a few thousands to monopolize land capable of sustaining millions.

All this, however, is said merely in passing, by way of showing the unphilosophical, un-Spencerian way in which these assertions are piled on to prop up a foregone conclusion. Let us concede that there never has been any equity in the appropriation of the land, and that, therefore, there can be no question of restoration. Let us admit that none of the holders in the past had any better title than those now owning the land. Does that relieve us from the necessity, or deprive us of the right, of establishing equity here and now,—of making a new departure? Having learned to comprehend equity, ought we not to realize it? Our ancestors may have been all both robbers and idiots; but we, who glory in our abstract conceptions as well as in our strong sentiments, have certainly no reason for acquiescing in inequity. In our efforts to secure equal freedom, we are bound to adjust the relations of men to natural media along with the other changes embraced in our programme. Are we to strive for all rights except the right to land? What has become of our right to land?

Yes, replies Spencer, this is precisely what we must do. Equity in land-ownership is a dream. We cannot justly expropriate present holders without compensation, while any fair compensation would entail greater burdens than society could bear. The rejoinder to this is that, even if the computation yielding such a curious result were not extremely faulty,—and it is,—the dilemma would have no terrors for us. The State may be under some obligation to compensate the landlords, but the people are certainly not, and they are in no way responsible for the State. They are not endorsers or guarantors, and are entirely free to repudiate the State’s promises. In other words, I am audacious enough to hint at expropriation by the people without compensation. The landlords, you admit, are robbers; well, then, robbers have no title, and those to whom the land belongs under equal freedom will take it. A good many sensible and intelligent people are appalled at such a revolutionary suggestion, but they may be safely left to the enlightening influences of time and tide. Their wrath will be great, no doubt, but their children will recognize the justice of the revolution. An amusing and striking proof of this is at hand. One of the staunchest supporters of the present pseudo-individualist régime, the New York Evening Post, says, in referring to inroads of State Socialism in France, that one of the greatest results of the French Revolution, which must be duly weighed in reckoning up the good and evil of that mighty convulsion, is that it at least broke down the feudal land laws of France and made land-owners out of two millions who were serfs. Should anybody suggest a mighty convulsion against modern landowners which might make landowners of millions of men who are little better, or much worse, than serfs, of course the Post would foam at the mouth and call for the immediate imprisonment of the dangerous rebel. But that need not cause anybody any uneasiness. The Posts of the future would praise the mighty convulsion at the end of the nineteenth century, and point to the change of land tenure as one of its greatest results.

Let those who gravely talk about the duty of compensating landlords explain why the people are bound to carry out the contracts of an invasive, corrupt, and inefficient State resting on violence and living on plunder. Were the people under any obligation to compensate the slave-holding class? Yet the State was as clearly bound to compensate the slaveholders as it is to compensate the landlords, for every argument employed in the latter behalf can be applied in defence of the former.

Auberon Herbert begs the question in saying that what has been throughout inequitable cannot be mended by another inequity. By denying, with Spencer, that there was an original equity in land-ownership, you do not at all weaken the case of those who claim, not by a title derived from past holders, but by a title conferred directly on themselves by the law of equal freedom. It is not an act of inequity to expropriate the robbers now in possession; nor is the act intended to mend any past inequity. It is intended to assert the valid title of present claimants, who are not land thieves, and who wish to put an end to land-thieving by recognizing none but equitable titles hereafter.

A curious contrivance is the human mind. Nothing in nature is more marvellous than its capacity for inconsistency and self-contradiction. The wild nonsense, the impossible mental gymnastics, to which men were driven by their attempts to reconcile slavery with equity are now paralleled in the attempts to protect landlordism against the assaults of modern reformers. These attempts, however, excite amusement rather than indignation.

V. Y.