Rights in the Land

To the Editor of Liberty:

The discussion of the land question carried on some time ago by you and Mr. Yarros is, to say the least, interesting to one up a tree. Still, I cannot see that either you or Mr. Yarros has disposed of the question as to whether men have an equal right to the use of the earth, either from your point of view as a matter of expediency, or from Mr. Yarros’s position of absolute ethics.

In No. 307 of Liberty you say: The contract to observe and enforce equal freedom is, in Liberty’s eyes, simply an expedient adopted in consequence of the discovery that such observance and enforcement is the best, nay, the only means by which men can steadily and securely and harmoniously avail themselves of the highest advantages of life. [Italics mine.]

Your purpose was, as I understand, to show (1) that the equal right to the use of the earth is a corollary of the law of equal freedom; and (2) that the principle of equal freedom is not a law at all. You have proven to my entire satisfaction the second proposition; but that does not dispose of the question of the equal right to the use of the earth. If it is found expedient to enforce equal rights in other things, why not in the matter of land? Without the right to use land, the enforcement of equal liberty in all other matters would be worse than mere patchwork; it would be the enslavement of the masses of the people in perpetuity. They could not emancipate themselves as long as they recognized the spurious rights of land-owners.

My contention is not vitiated by your disclaimer that in special cases and under abnormal circumstances liberty may be disregarded without invalidating the truth of the general principle, for you do not claim that the question of land tenure is special or abnormal. Under the Single Tax régime a few unimportant cases might have to be considered as special or even abnormal, but this would occur in most other departments of societary functions.

If the foregoing reasoning is correct, there is no room for the occupancy-and-use theory, whatever that may mean. I have often seen the phrase in Liberty, but it was usually used in so loose a way that in my opinion it has not risen to the dignity of respectable empiricism. I have never seen an explanation, or even a definition, of use and occupancy in regard to land. It has always seemed to me one of those pleasantly indefinite magical words, with which inconvenient difficulties are disposed of with a wave of the pen. Liberty would oblige a large contingent by discussing the question fully.

Now a word in regard to the statement of Mr. Yarros in No. 319 that he is free to admit that the taxation of economic rent for general public ends, if voluntarily agreed to, would be a more perfect arrangement in some respects, but the use of force to bring it about would be extremely unwise. This is not quite clear; it may mean the use of force in the initiation of the Single Tax, or in special and abnormal cases. I take it to refer to the latter. The manner of determining what the economic rent amounts to is purely voluntary, or what amounts to the same thing—automatic. If equal rights to the use of the earth be granted (whether from principle or laws cuts no figure) then all men have a right to collect rent from those who use better than free land, because each individual would collect such rent himself, if he had the power; failing in this, a contract is entered into, tacitly or formally, for the purpose of collecting rent. There is no more difficulty in forming a contract like this than one to maintain occupancy and use, for the evident reason that a decided minority would hold the most valuable land under the occupancy-and-use land tenure, which is at best only a second-cousin remove from the eternal cry of restricting aliens from holding land.

Alex. Horr.