Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter XI.: UNDERSTAND BEFORE YOU COMPLAIN. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter XI.: UNDERSTAND BEFORE YOU COMPLAIN. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.
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UNDERSTAND BEFORE YOU COMPLAIN.
“Angus!” said Murdoch, the next morning, “look through your glass, and tell me if you see Mr. Callum's boat yet. The day is none of the clearest, but there is a gleam passing over the Sound at this moment.”
The mountains were wholly hidden and a dark grey cloud hung round the horizon; but, after a little patient watching, Angus saw a boat emerging from the mist, and observed that a sail was hoisted and began to swell with the breeze which was chasing the fogs.
“I have not seen such a bark since the laird left us,” observed Angus; “and she is full of people and heavily laden. There ia company coming, unless Mr. Callum is bringing over the tenants of the new house down below.”
“That can hardly be, Angus; for the tenant of that house stands at your elbow.”
“Well, you can keep a secret, I must own,” said Angus, laughing. “However, I am truly glad, neighbour, that you think so much better of your affairs than you did as to venture on following two occupations.”
When Murdoch explained that he was going to quit the farm this very day, and should have no further interest in it after receiving an equivalent for his growing crops, he was surprised to see how pleased Angus looked, and asked the reason.
“You know how much I wish for more neighbours,” was the reply, “and for improved tillage and increased traffic, and you cannot therefore wonder that I am glad to find that the soil is likely to be taken care of now that I have done my best for it.”
“But are you not vexed to give it up, Angus? Would not you like to have kept it yourself!”
“I!” said Angus. “I have something else to do. My packet and Ella's farm will be as much as I can manage.”
“Well, I always thought you wished to keep the management of these fields!”
“I wonder at that. Our engagement terminates to-day, you know. Was not that made clear from the beginning, neighbour?”
“O yes.” Murdoch had no more to say. So Angus proceeded to Ella's dwelling, where he had promised to be present when the lease was talked over.
Mr. Callum appeared immediately after landing, leaving the new tenants and the Murdochs to settle themselves each in their dwelling,—a proceeding which took very little time where there was but a small stock of furniture, and where nobody dreamed of cleaning an empty house before it was again occupied.
Mr. Callum explained that blanks were left in the lease, which were to be filled up when the parties should have agreed upon the yearly rent to be paid. It was necessary that he should survey the place afresh, and that they should know that they no longer had the fishery to them selves. Ella was prepared for this; but not so Ronald, for finding that by tilling his piece of moorland he had created a rent on his sister's field. It was in vain that he wished he had let it alone at present, that he remonstrated, that he grew angry: Mr. Callum was right, and kept his temper, and was moreover supported by Angus and Ella against the opposition of the two lads.
“But Ella had nothing to do with it,” argued Ronald. “It comes into my share, and it is very hard that she should have to pay for what I have taken it into my head to do.”
“This is no concern of the laird's or mine,” replied Callum. “We let the whole to your sister, and all we have to do is to ascertain the difference in the productiveness of different parts, and to charge according to the average.”
“Besides,” observed Angus, “the case would have stood the same if Murdoch or any body else had tilled the moor. Rent is not an arbitrary demand of the landlord, but a necessary consequence of the varying qualities of the soil.”
Callum grew very civil towards Angus at once.
“You have seen much of the world, Mr. Angus; and I dare say you have found discontent wherever you went upon this subject of rent. The farmers will have it that the landlord lowers their profits.”
“And the people,” observed Angus, “that rent is an arbitrary tax imposed on the consumer: each of which notions is as mistaken as the other.”
“I cannot say,” observed Ella, “that it is the laird that lessens my profits. He asked for no rent while my field was the lowest soil tilled; and he never would have asked it, if a worse land had not been taken into cultivation. It is therefore the different degree of fertility which causes rent, and not the will of the landlord.”
“And when the people complain,” said Angus, “that rent is paid by the consumer as an arbitrary tax, they forget or do not know that rent is the consequence and not the cause of high price. Your barley bannocks and Murdoch's look pretty much alike on the table, and would sell for the same price; but yours are produced at near double the cost of his, and therefore Murdoch pays the laird a part of the profits of his.”
“And very fair,” observed Callum; “and so it will be with your fish in a little while, Mrs. Ella. Murdoch will sell fish which look like yours, and at the same price: but it will have cost him more time and labour to get them, and therefore the laird calls on you for a part of the profits which you have till now kept to yourself, and would have kept still if the fish had not brought a good enough price to tempt Murdoch to try his luck.”
Angus hoped that rent would go on to rise, being, as it is, a symptom of prosperity. Ronald wondered he could say so; for his part, he wished there was no such tiling as rent.
Angus explained that as rent rises in consequence of a rise of prices, and a rise of prices shows that the article is in request, and that there are purchasers able to buy it, a rise of rent is a symptom of wealth, though many people err in supposing it a cause.
Mr. Callum observed that many wished for an abolition of rent, because they thought high prices an evil in every case.
“Well,” said Fergus, “surely everybody had rather pay little than much for a peck of oatmeal.”
“That depends on what causes the prices to be low or high,” replied Callum. “If I take upon myself to forbid anybody in these islands to buy oatmeal in Lorn when they have not enough at home, or if a bad season should make a scarcity, and prices should rise in consequence, such a rise of prices would be an evil, because the people would not have any more wealth to give in exchange than if the meal was plentiful. But if (which is a very different case) farmers find that their customers have money enough to buy more and more oatmeal, and make it worth the farmers' while to take poorer and poorer soils into cultivation, the consequent rise of price is no evil. It not only shows that wealth is increasing, but also helps to increase it;—it causes oats to grow where only heather grew before.”
“But after all,” said Ronald, “the landlord gets all the benefit of the change. He grows richer and richer, the more prices rise.”
“Not so,” replied Angus. “Do not you remember my telling you that there is a perpetual tendency to render the productiveness of land more equal by improvements in the art of cultivation? and rent depends not on the quantity produced, but on the inequality in the productiveness of soils. An estate which once yielded one-third of its produce to the landlord may afterwards yield him only one-fourth, and then again one-fifth, though he may receive a larger amount of rent each time.”
“This has actually been the case,” said Callum; “and therefore it is a mistake to say that the landlord has all the advantage of a rise of prices.”
“I should like to know,” said Fergus, “what would happen if landlords had no rent, and so bread became cheaper.”
“If landowners gave away their land! Very reasonable truly!” exclaimed Callum.
“I rather think,” said Angus, “that the first consequence would be that there would soon be no landlords. All land would be in the possession of those who would cultivate it themselves, and then, in consequence of a fall of prices, inferior lands would be let out of tillage, there would be less food raised, and things would go back to the state they were in centuries ago.”
“But if not,” persisted Fergus,—“if they did not sell their land, but lent it without receiving any pay, bread would be cheaper surely, and that would be a good thing.”
“Far from it,” replied Angus. “The next thing would be that we should have a famine.”
“A famine from bread being cheaper!”
“Yes; for you must remember that we could not make the grouud yield in a hurry any quantity of grain we might happen to want. We have already seen that land would not produce more for rent being abolished, and we shall soon see that it would produce less; and if less was produced while the price was so lowered as to tempt people to consume more, a famine would soon overtake us.”
“If,” said Ella, “we have no more oatmeal in the islands than will last till next harvest at the present price, and if people are tempted to use more by the price being lowered, do not you see that the supply will fall short before harvest? And then again, the lowering of the price will have made it no longer worth while'to till much that is tilled now, and there will be still less produced next year.”
“In order to keep up the same extent of tillage,” said Angus, “how high must the price rise again?”
“To what it is now, to be sure,” replied Ronald. “I see what you mean:—that we must come round to rent-price again, even if the landlords did not take rent, So, Mr. Callum, I beg your pardon for being angry about Ella's field; and I will say no more against rent being paid for it, or for my line of shore, or for whatever will bear proper rent.”
“Your sister has made you a sensible lad,” was Mr. Callum's reply, “and that is more than I can say for most lads I meet in the islands. They grumble at me, and tell all strangers about the hardship of paying high rents, and the shame that rich men should empty the pockets of the poor.”
“And what do strangers say?” inquired Ella.
“They look with contempt upon the tumbledown dirty huts in which the people live, and ask what rent; and when they hear, they hold up their hands and cry out upon the laird.”
“Not distinguishing, I suppose, between the real and nominal rent.”
“Just so. They do not inquire how much is for the fishery, and how much for the land, and how much for the kelping-shore, and how very little for the house; but they run away with the idea that the total rent is for the roof and four walls, and tell their friends at home how hard the Highland proprietors are upon their tenantry.”
“But is it not possible to make the people understand the true state of the case?”
Callum said he had never tried, for they were a stupid, unmanageable set that he had under him, and only fit to do the laird's pleasure whatever it might be. He began, however, to think that it would make matters rely easy to have the tenantry enlightened upon the subject of rent: and when an amicable agreement was presently concluded about the lease, and the blanks filled up without dispute, he said to himself that it was pleasant to have to do with reasonable people where business was in question, while their independence on other occasions was not perhaps more troublesome than the ill behaviour of the ignorant.
Ella, being quite of this opinion, was anxious to know something of the character of their new neighbours at the farm. As Mr. Callum said little about them, and she did not choose to in. quire, she must leave it to time to satisfy her curiosity; but she augured well from Mr. Callum's expectation that they would find their rent no hardship, though it was considerably higher than Murdoch had lately paid. The furniture, too, of which she obtained a sight as it was being carried up, was of a superior kind to what was often seen in Garveloch, and nearly equal to her own; so that there was hope that the family were sober and industrious at any rate, and that other virtues would show themselves as opportunity offered.