Systems of Land Tenure

To the Editor of Liberty:

The mere fact that there exists a land question may be taken as prima facie evidence that the prevailing system of private ownership of land, based on fraud or conquest, is to be rejected. Four systems of land tenure are advocated with more or less vigor:

  1. Cultivation in common, with division of product.
  2. Periodical division of land.
  3. Occupancy and use,—the system Liberty champions.
  4. Private possession, subject to a tax sufficient to absorb economic rent.

The objection to theories (a) and (b), in an advanced state of civilization under conditions of freedom, are so obvious that it would be a waste of time to recount them. The two systems that deserve the most careful consideration are the occupancy-and-use theory and the Single Tax theory.

I need not dwell on the difficulties involved in maintaining the most precarious form of occupancy and use. Its most able advocates fully appreciate these objections, and they rest their hopes on the uncertain and dilatory decisions of juries selected from the registered, or tax-paying, inhabitants of the community. If we keep in mind that it is feeling that determines the destinies of the human race, the question arises: will not the decisions of juries be determined mainly, if not wholly, by the tax-paying class. If such should be the case, the proposition resolves itself into a question of taxation: who will pay the taxes, when the revenues of the administration depend on voluntary contributions?

Individuals will locate where they think they can get the most advantages with the least effort; which is only a particular application of the general law that man will seek to satisfy his desires with the least exertion. Each land-owner will do all he can to induce people to live on his land. Whatever will increase the benefits obtainable in any location will draw more people, and each addition of population will increase the desirability of the locality. The land that possesses the greatest advantages in fertility, richness in minerals, proximity to harbors, or any other decided superiority would deserve and obtain the largest amount of improvement. It is evident that none but land-owners could be induced to pay taxes, for all the benefits from the proper expenditure of such taxes would go to increase land values. Non-land-owning individuals may occasionally insist on paying taxes, but this would only aid that much to their net expenses, and such policy would be abandoned sooner or later, for their non-tax-paying competitors would have that much advantage in the open market. Some may hastily decide that, if the above reasoning is correct, voluntary taxation would result in the application of the Single Tax without a resort to force. At first sight it does look like the Single Tax limited, but that the resemblance is illusory may be noticed by observing this essential difference: the Single Taxer limited, while not insisting, is prepared at all times to take a larger and larger portion of economic rent as occasion arises. In fact, his difficulty consists in being eternally tormented by the fear that by some chance he may take more than the actual economic rent. Of course the fear is absurd, when the effect of competition is taken into consideration. As civilization advances; as the sciences, the arts, and inventions more fully develop; as skill, enterprise, and ability become more general,—so will the value of land increase and more or less keep pace with this advance. Under occupancy and use all these advantages would go to land-owners and land-owners only. The correctness of the essentials of the foregoing reasoning will hardly be questioned; they may be considered as household truisms; but, if they are granted, we are forced to the surprising, yet logical, conclusion that the laborer, under the régime of occupancy and use, instead of being secured in the control of self and the results of self-exertion, would obtain a smaller and smaller portion of his product as he became more skillful and more enterprising, and as he is born in a more advanced state of civilization.

Now that I have shown that occupancy and use as a system of land tenure under conditions of freedom is untenable, it may be worth while to consider the only objection, urged with any force, against the Single Tax from a libertarian standpoint.

If all men are entitled to equal freedom, then all men are entitled to equal freedom to use the earth; it is physically impossible for each man to occupy the whole globe at the same time. But all men’s equal freedom may be maintained by each man collecting rent from those that occupy valuable land. Those that occupy valuable land have the option of paying rent or occupying valueless sites; a gold mine is discovered under the shanty of one of these moving spirits; he has to pay rent or vacate again. The libertarian will probably enter a demurrer that he is not responsible for the existence of gold beneath his habitation, and why should he be compelled to incommode himself? The answer is simple and complete. Equal freedom is to be maintained, or not. If the choice is made for equal freedom, then changes due to social growth which are just as inevitable as any other phenomena of nature must be submitted to. He who enjoys the advantage of equal freedom is secured in his freedom to control self and the results of self-exertion, but is not protected from the inevitable effects of the operations of nature.

Alex. Horr.