Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. BRIGHT ON LANDOWNING. ( From The Economist, 29 th January, 1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MR. BRIGHT ON LANDOWNING. ( From “ The Economist, ” 29 th January, 1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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MR. BRIGHT ON LANDOWNING.
Mr. Bright has a controversy with Lord Derby as to the number of landowners in the country, and especially in Scotland, as to the figures of which we shall not say anything. But there are some underlying points of principle in the matter to which sufficient attention is not, we think, given.
First, certainly in England, and probably in Scotland too, the number of nominal proprietors is very greatly less than that of the real owners. The habit of England as to land is family ownership. The estate is settled in such a way as to secure the wife, to secure the children, to regulate the enjoyment of the property in a settled way as the family convenience provides; to prevent its being wasted and the whole family made penniless by the fault of any single person. How much of the land of England is held in “family tenure,” if we may coin a word for it, we cannot tell; but it is very large indeed, and you could not get at it by any return of nominal proprietors. In most cases, such a return would only give the names of trustees who have no real interest in the property at all; to get at the real truth, the deeds of every family must be examined, the equitable as well as legal interests counted, and the results tabulated, which would be impossible. A “Doomsday book” for the nineteenth century, for which Lord Derby once wished, is an unattainable ideal, to which in England there can be hardly any approximation. The present species of conjoint ownership is too complex to be described in any return. But nothing can be more strange than that Mr. Bright should wholly ignore its existence; he never mentions the word family settlement; he does not seem to know that any such arrangements exist.
The singularity is greater because this is the cardinal difficulty which impedes every attempt to simplify English land tenure. The great obstruction to the free transfer of the soil is that so many people are more or less interested in it. A conveyancer, when he examines a title, has to see that all the existing owners convey, and that all those whom he sets down as extinct owners are really such, and have passed away. How far this system is good—whether the security of families is a better or worse thing than the free transfer of land—whether some of the advantages of that security may not be gained without sacrificing so much as we sacrifice now—are questions; but it is not a question, for it is certain, that what now impedes land-dealing is this system of many owners, and not, as Mr. Bright says, a system of single ones. Mr. Bright thinks too that the English laws of land tenure are constructed on feudal principles. But the greatest characteristic of these laws, as compared with all others which have descended from the middle ages, is the quickness and the facility with which they emancipated themselves from feudalism. Though perpetual, or very long entails prevailed almost everywhere else in Europe, they have long been abolished here; and the tying up of property has been restricted to limits which may be too long or too short, but have nothing to do with feudality.
And the proof that they have nothing to do with it is that they extend to money which never was “feudal” as well as to land which was. The funds can be tied up just as long as land, and in fact are so. A very large sum in them is so set apart for the security of families just as land is, and by deeds whose operation lasts just the same time. No good can, but much harm must come from discussing the transfer of land, ignoring the main obstruction, and inventing an imaginary one.
But there is a second and worse mistake in Mr. Bright’s reasoning. He assumes—he does not try to prove, he simply takes for granted—that cheap and easy transfer of land will tend in England to produce a class of peasant proprietors. But there cannot be a greater error. A little examination will, we think, establish that an increased cheapness of land transfer would consolidate the main part of the land of England in the hands of the monied classes even more effectually than now, and that the working men who cultivate the fields would own just as little of them.
The principle is that a dear thing will, as a rule, and in the long run, be bought by those who can give most for it. And in England, as in all old countries, land is a very dear thing. If land is at £80 an acre, five acres would take £400, and to suppose that an English agricultural labourer is likely to possess £400 is to go out of the present world. His imagination could not rise to the magnitude of such a sum; if he had only the tenth part of it he would be off to the beer-house, and be drunk for weeks. And even the small farmer who has such a capital can employ it much better in cultivating a farm say of 100 acres than in buying five of his own. Land in England will scarcely pay 3 per cent. on the purchase money, whereas a small farmer looking after things himself, and watching each item of outlay, probably makes 15 per cent., or more. Nothing, therefore, is more ruinous to such a farmer than to change him to a proprietor. In so doing you would at once make a poor man of him.
In the long run, when countries have attained a certain measure of intelligence, money goes with quickness and certainty where there is most to be made of it—at any rate, it is bad political economy, and most unsafe besides, to expect to create a whole new class of men on the assumption that money will not so go. But every attempt to create peasant proprietors in England by making land cheap really assumes this, and will, therefore, fail. Persons of small capital who know how to cultivate land will find they can live far better by cultivating a fair quantity of other people’s land than by keeping to a petty patch of their own.
In the present state of agriculture this becomes palpable, because there are so many things to illustrate its principle. Nothing could be more wasteful or more absurd than for a small farmer to own his own steam plough. Such a man would at once say he could not afford to lock up so much capital. But his buying land is in its financial effect just the same, for land is but one instrument of cultivation just as this plough is another.
We shall be asked, if peasant proprietorship is thus economically unprofitable, why does it exist in so many countries? The continent of Europe is pretty well exclusively so cultivated. The answer is that the continent inherited this system from the middle ages, and that now though it might be economically advantageous to extricate itself from it, the fixed habits of society forbid, and the system cannot be changed. In early times this method of cultivation is substantially the only one possible. There is, then, no scientific agriculture, no large moving capital, no steam ploughs, or other machines. The only way, then, to till the soil is to get some peasant with his own hands to do so. All through mediæval Europe some serf—some villain—some adscriptus glebæ—is to be found fixed to the land, and cultivating it. Gradually, being fixed to the soil, he obtains fixed rights in it; he comes to pay some settled rent or payment, or sort of service to his lord, and all above is more or less his. Thus a hundred years ago there was in most European States a double ownership, a seigneur under some name claiming services or dues, and a peasant under some name paying them. In many places this exists still; but in the best parts, either by revolution or purchase, the lord has ceased to exist. He has been either bought out or thrust out; and so peasants have become the sole proprietors. But it is a system which would not now create itself. It remains, because man is not a purely economical animal; because these peasants love their lands with an intense passion. But it remains in the richest parts with difficulty. Even in France wealth begins to make inroads upon it.
The growth of this system was interrupted in England by the demand for labour, which made the “villain” glad to leave the land and seek town wages; and by the growth of sheep-farming, natural when this country was an exporter of wool, as well as a great manufacturer of it. We never had peasant proprietors, because the labourers could go elsewhere (which on the continent, they could not), and the landowners were glad they should (which on the continent they were not). That the English agricultural labourer is now ill paid is true, but this is mainly the result of improvident multiplication, stimulated by a disastrous poor-law; originally it was prosperity—comparative prosperity, as compared with the continent—which unfixed him from the soil, and prevented his acquiring an interest in it. But it will be urged there are peasant proprietors not only on the continent, where they have thus inherited them, but in the United States, and almost everywhere in English colonies. But the reply is, that there the economical conditions are different. Land is very cheap, and a person of a little capital can acquire quite as much of it as he is able to cultivate. No one there will work on other people’s land, because virgin land worth only a trifle is lying idle. In such a place and period peasant proprietorship arises like a weed in the soil. Nothing else is possible then and there. But you cannot infer from its naturalness in new countries the possibility of transplanting it to an old country like England, where economical circumstances are not such as to favour, but such as to oppose it.
Mr. Bright seems to approve of the French law of compulsory equal division at a father’s death between children. But this does not seem to be the best French opinion. Putting aside the effect on land, which is not so formidable in France where population is so nearly stationary, as it would be in England, where it augments fast, the result on business is pernicious. A capitalist in various undertakings cannot leave one to one son and another to another, and portion off the daughters as he can here, but the law gives all equal shares in each. At each generation the most complex affairs are thrown into a compulsory and often ill-assorted partnership, which often causes evil, and the apprehension of which discourages enterprise. Instead of a rich and active capitalist being able, as with us, to feel that he can provide comfortably for his children by a proper adjustment of bequests to circumstances, he feels in France that after his death his family must squabble in a vain attempt at an unattainable equal division. No law could be devised more likely to make men shun business or to make them uncomfortable in it.
Some years ago peasant proprietorship was much pressed, because it gave the mass of the people the sanction of property, and so settled society on a stable basis. But now France, the greater educator of Europe by her misfortunes, has taught us a new lesson in this matter. We now know that peasant proprietorship spreads not only the sense of property but a panic of property. The one idea of a French paysan is that he may lose his terre. All politics to him begin and end in finding some one to keep it safe for him. A main difficulty in the way of—perhaps an insuperable obstruction to—free Government in France, is the fright of small holders about their plots of land, which makes them hate agitation, fear discussion, and be always ready to run to a despot.
We can imagine nothing, therefore, less in the spirit of the present time, or less likely to happen, than the creation of a peasant proprietorship in England, and we are glad to feel sure that the Liberal party will not, as Mr. Bright advises, agitate for it, for they would be binding themselves to attempt an undesirable impossibility.