Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: Proportional Rents. - Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo
Return to Title Page for Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
2.: Proportional Rents. - John Ramsay McCulloch, Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo 
Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
We come now to the second mode of fixing rent, or that which makes it a certain proportion of the produce. On a superficial view, this mode may, perhaps, seem one of the least objectionable, as it guards, in some measure, against the disturbing effects of variations in the seasons; for, supposing that the landlord receives as rent a fourth part of the produce, which amounts, in a good year, to 100 quarters and in a bad year to only 80, it is plain that 25 quarters in the former case are no greater, or are rather indeed a less, burden than 20 in the latter. It is contended, also, that a proportional rent cannot operate as any material check on the outlay on improvements. The tenant knows beforehand what proportion of the probable produce, arising from an improvement, will go to the landlord. Hence, he has only to consider whether it will yield, over and above this deduction, the ordinary rate of profit, and replace his capital during the currency of the lease. If it will do this, the fair presumption, we are told, is, that the tenant will immediately set about carrying it into effect.
But, notwithstanding what is now stated, this mode of fixing the rent of land, is probably the worst that can be devised, and it is difficult to suppose that the agriculture of any country in which it is adopted, can be in a really thriving condition. Practically speaking, tenants never make any considerable improvement, unless they are allowed to reap the whole advantage thence arising. It is in vain to contend that, as they know what proportion of the increased produce will go to the landlord, if the remainder be a due return on their capital, it will be for their interest to lay it out. Not one tenant amongst 100 would so act. There are always very considerable hazards to be run by improvers, and if to these were added the obligation to pay a half, a third, or a fourth part of the gross produce of improvements as rent, either none would ever be attempted by tenants, or none which required any considerable outlay, or where the prospect of a return was not very immediate. You cannot have a flourishing and improved system of agriculture, without securing the undisturbed possession of their farms to the tenants by leases of a reasonable length, and allowing them to reap, during their currency, the entire benefit of whatever improvements they may execute. If landlords encroach on either of these principles, or insist on immediately participating in the advantages of improvements effected by their tenants, they will certainly prevent their being undertaken. The influence of tithe in discouraging outlays, when it is commuted for a fixed money rent, is hardly perceptible; but, wherever it is exacted in kind, or fluctuates with the produce, it is equally powerful and prejudicial. Now, if such be the undoubted effect of a tax of a tenth, how prodigiously would its operation be increased were it three, four, or five times that amount, and rigidly exacted? And it is plain, that if rents were fluctuating quantities, forming a certain proportion, as a fourth, a third, or a half of the produce of farms, they would be, to all intents and purposes, identical in their operation on farmers and on agriculture with a tax of 25, 33⅓, or 50 per cent. Had such a mode of fixing the rent of land been generally adopted in Great Britain, it may be doubted whether agriculture would have been, at this moment, more improved than in the reign of James I. or Charles I.
Besides the influence of this method of letting in checking improvement and reducing agriculture to a mere system of routine, it is almost sure to lead to perjury and fraud. Rents which depend on proportions of produce, necessarily vary from year to year with the variations in the latter; and unless the landlord or his agent look very carefully after the proceedings of his tenants, he is sure to be cheated. Indeed it is hardly possible for him, do what he will, to obviate fraud. The tendency of this system is thus, in fact, twofold: first, to extinguish every germ of agricultural improvement; and, second, to imbue the agriculturists with some of the worst vices; leading them to found their hopes of advancement not so much on the exercise of their industry, as on their schemes to defraud the landlords.
But it is not necessary that we should argue this question speculatively. The practice of letting lands by proportional rents has been very widely introduced; and wherever it has been adopted, it has stopped all improvement and reduced the cultivators to the most abject poverty. Previously to the Revolution, about seven-eighths of the whole surface of France were occupied by metayers, that is, by a description of tenants paying a certain proportion, generally a half, and hardly ever less than a third part, of the produce to the landlord; the latter sometimes furnishing the oxen and other cattle used in farming, and a portion of the seed, and sometimes not. Even if we were unacquainted with the facts of the case, we might confidently pronounce, à priori, that such a system must have been ruinous. In England, it is not supposed that the rent of the land amounts to more than from a fifth to a fourth part of its produce. What, then, must be the effect of subjecting the occupiers of France, where rent is naturally lower than in England, to so excessive a demand as that of a half, or even a third part of the produce? Can any one be surprised to learn that French agriculture, at the æra of the Revolution, was in the most backward condition, and the tenants immersed in poverty and misery? Nor is this system less injurious to the proprietor than to the cultivator. The landlord gets, indeed, a large proportion of the produce raised upon his estate; but owing to the degraded condition of agriculture, and the wretchedness of the occupiers, caused by the exorbitancy of the demands upon them, the produce raised is comparatively trifling; so that the half which belongs to the landlord under this system is not nearly so large as the share falling to him would be were the rents moderate and fixed, and the tenants allowed to reap all the advantage of whatever skill and talent they might exert. The tenants having little or no interest in the proper treatment of the stock furnished by the landlords, the latter are perpetually losing by its mismanagement or destruction. “In this most detestable of all modes of letting land,” says Arthur Young, whose Travels in France and Lombardy contain a vast deal of information on this subject, “after running the hazard of such losses, fatal in many instances, the defrauded landlord receives a contemptible rent; the farmer is in the lowest state of poverty; the land is miserably cultivated; and the nation suffers as severely as the farmers themselves.” Where the stock is wholly furnished by the tenants, they are not, of course, so poor; but even in this case their condition is worse than that of day-labourers in England. Agriculture is at the lowest ebb, and no improvement is either attempted, or so much as thought of.
The Revolution changed many occupiers of land into proprietors, and lessened in so far the evils of the metayer system. Still, however, it is upheld, in its pristine vigour, in more than the half of France; and wherever it exists, the state of agriculture, and the condition of the occupiers, are quite as wretched as at the period described by Arthur Young.
In proof of this statement, we beg to subjoin the following passage from a valuable article on French agriculture, in the “Revue Trimestrielle” for April 1828.
“Where the proprietors do not cultivate their own estates, nothing has so much influence on their cultivation as the mode in which they are let. In France that mode is in general detestable. With the exception of Flanders, and of a very small number of provinces where the system of cultivation by rotation of crops has been long adopted, the duration of leases is far too short to enable the farmer to indemnify himself for the outlay which the introduction of a new system of cultivation would require, and to derive any profit from it. Indeed, in a very large part of the kingdom, in all the central provinces, farmers are hardly known. The land is cultivated by unfortunate metayers, who engage to occupy it for a period of three years, and to perform the various operations required in its husbandry, paying half the produce to the proprietor as rent. The metayer furnishes his labour, his ignorance, and his good appetite; the proprietor supplying an exhausted soil, the stock indispensable to its petty farming, the grain required for the first sowing, and that which may be required for the support of the metayer and his family until the first harvest. The metayer works, sows, reaps, and feeds on the produce. After he and his family are fed, the proprietor gets the remainder. Sometimes a middleman, under the name of a farmer, is interposed between the landlord and the metayer. This third party is, for the most part, a cunning inhabitant of the village, who agrees to pay the landlord a certain rent, independent of variations of harvests, acquiring in return a right to his share of the produce raised by the metayer. The middleman takes no part in the labours of cultivation, but he attends at all the harvestings of the metayer; he follows him to every market to get his half of the price of the produce. His art consists in getting more than his half; as he knows how to read and write, of which the other is most commonly ignorant, he is able to confuse the metayer’s accounts, and finally to plunder him. Under this master, who is constantly present, the condition of the metayer is still more miserable. The middleman, who has some capital, regularly pays the rent to the proprietor; he makes little speculations on the sale of his produce, and sometimes becomes rich. This division is very convenient for the proprietor, whom it releases from the necessity of all surveillance, and to whom it affords some security for the payment of his rent; but it is destructive of agriculture, because it keeps the metayer in a state of extreme indigence, who would cultivate less badly were he allowed to make any profits or savings in abundant years; it hinders him from ever rising to the condition of a petty farmer; it puts the reward due to labour into the pockets of fraud. Not less, perhaps, than a half of the whole kingdom of France is occupied by metayers; and the proprietors whose estates are so let, are hardly able to introduce a different system; for in the provinces where this miserable mode of occupying land is general, those who have capital and skill, and who consequently might cultivate land with advantage, become middlemen; so that the business of cultivation is entirely carried on by the poorest and most ignorant persons. Agriculture is there really the most abject and degraded of all employments.”
Such is the wretched state of French agriculture under the metayer system. “La France,” says the same writer, “est resté stationnaire dans presque tous les procédés de la culture.” And so long as this mode of letting land, and the equal partition of landed property amongst the children of proprietors is continued, it were idle to expect that it should improve. While these practices are permitted to subsist, France can enjoy no real prosperity; for no agricultural country can be prosperous, which is divided into small patches, occupied by a beggarly population, without either skill or capital; and who, though they possessed both, have little motive to exert the one or employ the other.
“The condition of the French metayers,” says a friend to this system, “is constantly the same; the son occupies exactly the same place as his father; he never thinks of becoming richer, and cares not for political changes. We are tempted to believe that we behold an Indian caste irrevocably attached, through the influence of religion, to the same trade and the same practices. In several provinces the metayers form nine-tenths of the population; and having continued stationary for four or five centuries, they are necessarily very far behind the rest of the nation.”1
An evil so deeply rooted, and so interwoven with the customs and habits of society, cannot be either easily or speedily eradicated. It may, however, be expected, that ultimately the landlords will open their eyes to their own interest, and see the propriety of exerting themselves to introduce a better system. To accomplish this desirable object, two things are indispensable: first, The granting of leases of a reasonable duration; and, second, The fixing of the rent in money, or in given quantities of produce. So long as the present mode of either granting no leases, or leases for only three years, and exacting a half or a third part of the produce as rent, is continued, it would be vain to expect that agriculture should make the least progress, or that the occupiers should ever rise above their present miserable level. The want of capital would at first prevent the land from being let in considerable portions, but as capital accumulated they might be increased. Where no tenants possessed of capital could be found, the landlords might do as they do at present, they might advance the capital to the tenants. But in this case the advance should not be made as a loan, but as a free gift. It is contradictory to suppose that a farmer will ever take the same care of capital belonging to another, that he will do of his own; and though the plan now proposed would occasion an immediate apparent loss to the landlord, it would prove in the end to be no loss, but an immense gain. It would give a stimulus to agriculture which it is not very likely to receive by any other means; and the landlord would be the great gainer by that improvement of his estate which the abolition of the present system, and the introduction of a better one in its stead, could not fail to occasion.
The metayer system is spread over most part of Italy, and it is there very little, if at all, less injurious than in France.
“If the intelligence with respect to the produce of wheat,” says Mr Young, speaking of Lombardy, “which I received be reviewed, it will be found at an average varying from five to seven and a half times the seed, generally between five and six: suppose the latter number, and we shall, with reason, be amazed at the miserable products of this rich plain, in everything except grass and silk. The average soil of England cannot be compared with the average soil of Lombardy, yet our mean produce is eleven times the seed, perhaps twelve. Every one must be curious to know the causes of such wretched crops: I attribute them to various circumstances; but the predominant cause must be sought for in the small farms, occupied either by little peasant proprietors, or, what is more general, by metayers. This abominable system of letting land is the origin of most of the evils found in agriculture, wherever the method prevails. Such poor farmers, who, in every part of Italy where I have been, are so miserable that they are forced to borrow of the landlord even the bread they eat, before the harvest comes round, are utterly unable to perform any operation of their culture with the vigour of a substantial tenantry. This evil pervades everything in a farm; it diffuses itself, imperceptibly to a common eye, into circumstances where none would seek it. There are but few districts where lands are let to the occupying tenant at a money rent, but wherever it is found, there crops are greater,—a clear proof of the imbecility of the metaying system. Yet there are politicians, if they deserve the name, everywhere to be found, who are violent against changing these metayers for farmers; an apparent depopulation is said to take place, and the same stupid arguments are heard that we have been pestered with in England, against the union of farms. Men reason against that improvement of their lands, which is the natural progress of wealth and prosperity, and are so grossly absurd as to think that doubling the produce of a country will deprive it of its people.”1
Cicero has somewhere said, that there is no opinion so absurd that it has not found a philosopher to support it; and it need not have surprised Mr Young that the metayer system has had its advocates. But what is more singular, they are not yet extinct. Sismondi, in his work already quoted, does not scruple to affirm that “cultivation by metayers, or occupiers paying half the produce, is one of the happiest inventions of the middle ages; that it contributes powerfully to diffuse happiness amongst the lower classes, to carry the soil to the highest pitch of cultivation, and to accumulate the greatest amount of capital upon it.”2 The reputation of Sismondi as an historian, must be our apology for noticing such statements. To suppose that a system of occupancy which robs the cultivator of almost all the fruits of superior industry and ingenuity, can either contribute to the advancement of agriculture, or the accumulation of capital, is a proposition of which it is needless to say more than that it contradicts and confutes itself. And, in point of fact, we are told by the late Italian economist, Gioja, in a review of Sismondi’s work, in the Biblioteca Italiana, that wherever agriculture is in a flourishing state in Italy, the land is occupied by tenants holding under leases, and paying fixed rents. The same economist published a treatise in 1803, entitled, “Discussione Economica sul Dipartimento d’Olona,” which, under the sway of the French, comprised Milan and the surrounding territory. The account which he has given in this work of the agriculture of the Milanese, is anything but flattering. Among the causes which have depressed it, Gioja lays the greatest stress on the too great division of the land, and, next to it, on the metayer system. “Industry,” says he, “is in proportion to the probable gain or loss; but when the metayer must give half the produce to his landlord, he has only half the motive to be industrious that he would have, and feels only half the injury from being idle that he would do, were he paying a fixed rent. It is plain, therefore, that industry must suffer by such a system; the object of the metayer is to cheat with address, not to farm better.”1 And he shows that this system, by preventing the accumulation of capital, has been one of the main causes that have led to that excessive subdivision of the land which has taken place in some districts, and which in Italy, as elsewhere, has had the worst consequences.
But it is not necessary that we should resort to the works of others for a refutation of Sismondi’s statements with respect to the good effects of the metayer system. One of his earliest works was a “View of the Agriculture of Tuscany,”2 in which he depicted the abject poverty and idleness of the peasantry under this, his subsequently favourite system, in the most striking terms. In the table of contents attached to this volume, the following occur among other references:—“Misery of the peasantry;” “those who hold under leases, more economical, and richer;” “all the metayers in debt;” “disadvantages of cultivation by metayers;” “metayers unable to execute their work at the proper time;” “contract careless and indolent habits,” etc. Speaking of the situation of the metayers in a bad year, Sismondi states:—
“As they possess nothing, they would then literally die of hunger (mourir de faim), if they were not assisted by the proprietors, who rarely refuse making them a loan upon security of the ensuing crop. Their debts are paid after the vintage, but before winter is over new ones are contracted. Of ten metayers there is hardly one to be found who owes nothing to his master.”
“The metayer lives from hand to mouth. He has rarely any corn in store, and still more rarely any oil or wine. He sells his oil when in the press, and his wine when in the vat. He has no provision of salt meat, butter, cheese, leguminous plants, etc. His kitchen utensils are of earthenware; and the furniture of his cottage consists only of a table and some wooden chairs, one or two boxes, and a miserable bed, on which father, mother, and children sleep. When the division of General Vatrain pillaged the Val di Nievole in 1792, the peasants reaped this advantage from their poverty, that when they had concealed their wearing apparel and their wives’ jewels, they had nothing more to lose.”
And such is their idleness, that “a hired labourer will execute three times as much work in a day as a metayer.”
Much has been said about the rich and beautiful appearance of the valley of the Arno (Val d’Arno), which is entirely occupied by metayers. But even here the verses of Addison are strictly applicable:—
When Arthur Young visited Italy, the occupiers of the Val d’Arno were so very poor, that the landlords were frequently obliged to lend them supplies of corn previously to harvest. And M. Lullin de Chateauvieux, who has given an interesting account of the agriculture of Italy in 1810-13, and whose leanings are rather on the side of the metayer system, shows that the condition of the occupiers of this famous valley had not improved in the interval.
“An immense population,” says he, “is supported on the produce of land thus distributed, but with extreme economy, and it is never able to lay by anything as a reserve against unfavourable years. It is neither the fertility of the soil nor the abundance that strikes the eye of the traveller, which constitutes the well-being of the inhabitants; it is the number of individuals among whom the total produce is divided, which fixes the proportion that each is able to enjoy. Here it is very small. I have thus far, indeed, exhibited a delightful country, well-watered, fertile, and covered with a perpetual vegetation. I have shown it divided into countless enclosures, which, like so many beds in a garden, display a thousand varying productions. I have shown that to all these enclosures are attached well-built houses, clothed with vines, and decorated with flowers; but, on entering these houses, we find a total want of all the conveniences of life, a table more than frugal, and a general appearance of privation. The occupiers of them are not the proprietors; they only farm them, paying in kind half the produce to the landlord.”2
In speaking of the metayers of Lombardy, M. de Chateauvieux observes,—“Always destitute of the means of acquiring capital, they remain stationary in their situation; the result is a torpor which nothing but the want of food can overcome.”3 In the most fertile districts of Naples, he found the metayers complaining of their abject condition. And, he adds, whenever the season happens to be unfavourable, they suffer the severest privations.
In ascribing the invention of the metayer system to the middle ages, Sismondi is not more accurate than in his estimate of its advantages. It is a system which might be expected to grow up in a rude state of civilisation, wherever large tracts of land had become the property of individuals. The advantages of granting leases of a reasonable length, at a fixed rent, are not then distinctly perceived either by the landlords or tenants; and it seems a plain and advantageous method for both parties, that the tenant should occupy and work the land, paying its owner a certain share of the produce. In Eastern countries this mode of occupying land has existed from the earliest period, and it also prevailed in ancient Italy. The early Roman farmers were, in fact, metayers. The stock on the farm belonged to the landlord, and the occupier received a certain proportion of its produce, varying according to its productiveness, in return for his labour in working it. The occupier of land upon these terms is called by Cato, the earliest of the extant writers De Re Rusticâ, a politor, or polintor, from his business being that of a cultivator or dresser of land; and sometimes a colonus partiarius, from his being in a sort of copartnership with the landlord, and entitled to a share of the produce of the land. This is the only description of farmers of whom Cato speaks. In his days, indeed, great part of Italy belonged to the resident owners of small estates, and was cultivated directly by them; the few large estates of the non-resident landlords being then more generally occupied by the slaves and servants of the owner, under the superintendence of a steward or bailiff (villicus), than by metayers. Cato mentions that, in his day, when the finest land was let to a politor, or colonus partiarius, he received an eighth part of the produce; that in the second best land he received a seventh; and in the third, a sixth.1 It will be observed, however, in accounting for the small share of the produce received by the Roman metayers, that, besides the land and live stock, the landlord furnished the seed and all the implements made use of on the farm. It is further conjectured by Dickson,1 and apparently with much probability, that the labourers on farms occupied by politors were mostly slaves, and that they were furnished by the landlord as well as the labouring cattle. And, besides his share of the crops of corn, or of the produce commonly so called, the politor, or colonus partiarius, had perquisites of milk, fruits and vegetables, and other minor articles, sufficient for the supply of his family.
This system, and the cultivation of land by slaves, were as hostile to the husbandry of ancient Italy, as the metayer system is to its modern husbandry, or prædial slavery to that of Russia. In the early ages of the republic, when the lands were generally divided into small portions, mostly occupied and farmed by their owners, agriculture was comparatively flourishing. But, instead of improving with the increase of capital and the size of properties, it gradually declined. The cause of this anomaly is to be found in the prevalence of the metayer system and of slave labour. Agriculture, carried on under such a mode of occupancy, and with such instruments, could not but degenerate. It was not, as Columella has observed, from an increasing sterility of the soil that the harvests had become less productive, but because the labourers, in the latter years of the republic, and under the imperial government, were mostly slaves, and because, from the prevailing mode of letting land, the farmers, even when free, had no sufficient motive to exert themselves.
Though cultivation by means of coloni partiarii was the most prevalent mode in ancient Italy, there can be little or no doubt that in the days of Columella there were free farmers, or liberi coloni, who occupied their lands under leases for money rents, somewhat in the mode in which farms are now occupied in England. This may be inferred from the statements in the eighth chapter of his first book, referring to the mode in which landlords should treat their tenants. That the rent paid by the latter was rated in money, seems evident from the circumstance of Columella recommending landlords not to be rigorous with respect to the term of payment, without, however, neglecting to demand the rent; because, as he observes, good debts, by not being called for, often become bad ones. It is likewise evident that the cattle upon the farms of the liberi coloni were their own property; for Columella gives as a reason for letting to such tenants, that when the landlord is absent, being obliged to trust the management to servants, the oxen and other cattle are ill-treated and ill-fed. But this, it is clear, could not have been a reason for letting, had the cattle upon the farm, after it was let, been the property of the landlord.1
No very satisfactory information can be obtained, in regard to the duration of the leases of farms occupied by liberi coloni. The public lands belonging to the state were let for periods of five years, and it is probable that such was also the usual length of the leases on private estates.
But, as already stated, the far greater part of Italy was occupied either by coloni partiarii, or by slaves or servants working on account of absentee proprietors; so that its agriculture, instead of improving, actually retrograded.
The preceding remarks will perhaps have satisfied the reader, that in whatever way the rent of land may be made payable, it should not be by a proportional share of the produce. This is the worst of all methods of fixing rent; and it is idle to look for flourishing agriculture or respectable tenants where it prevails.
[1 ] Sismondi, Nouveaux Principes d’Economie Politique, tome i. p. 196.
[1 ] Young’s “Travels in France,” etc., 2d edit. vol. ii. p. 216.
[2 ] Tome i. p. 192-194.
[1 ] Discussione Economica sul Dipartimento d’Olona, p. 54.
[2 ] Tableau de l’Agriculture Toscane. Geneve, 1801.
[1 ] Letter from Italy.
[2 ] We quote from Rigby’s translation, p. 78.
[3 ] Ibid. p. 46.
[1 ] De Re Rusticâ, § 137.
[1 ] Husbandry of the Ancients, vol. i. p. 60.
[1 ] Dickson’s “Husbandry of the Ancients,” vol. i. p. 74.