Front Page Titles (by Subject) 426.: SHOULD PUBLIC BODIES BE REQUIRED TO SELL THEIR LANDS? EXAMINER, 11 JAN., 1873, PP. 29-30 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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426.: SHOULD PUBLIC BODIES BE REQUIRED TO SELL THEIR LANDS? EXAMINER, 11 JAN., 1873, PP. 29-30 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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SHOULD PUBLIC BODIES BE REQUIRED TO SELL THEIR LANDS?
For the background of Goschen’s proposal and The Times’ support, and for the article’s appearance in Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. IV, pp. 272-7, see No. 425. This leader, in the “Political and Social” section and headed as title, is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘Should public bodies be required to sell their lands?’ in the Examiner of 11th January 1873” (MacMinn, p. 101). This is the final entry in Mill’s bibliography.
a considerable sensation seems to have been excited by the quite unexpected appearance a few weeks ago, in the Times, of two articles strenuously contending that corporate bodies and endowed institutions should no longer be permitted to withhold land from the market, and that the principle of the Mortmain Acts1 should be so far extended as to compel all such bodies or institutions to sell their lands and invest the proceeds in Government securities. The coincidence of this manifestation by the Times with a speech of Mr. Goschen, some expressions in which were supposed to point to a similar conclusion, has led to a suspicion that the Government is throwing out feelers preparatory to some actual proposal of the kind suggested. And the papers that are bitterly hostile to the present Government, whenever its political and social policy is other than that of keeping things as they are, have not missed the opportunity of upbraiding the Government with making an unworthy concession to the land tenure reformers, who are represented as grasping at the opportunity of attacking landed property at its most easily assailable point.2
It is an odd supposition that reformers who are asserted to have, and some of whom really have, for their object the extinguishing of private and hereditary landed property altogether, desire to begin their operations by making a great mass of landed property private and hereditary which was not so before. Nothing could be more opposed to the principles and purposes of thorough-going land tenure reformers of every shade of opinion, than any further conversion of what is still, in some sense, a kind of public property, into private. The point on which they are all agreed, whether they desire anything further or not, is that, at all events, the appropriation of the land of the country by private individuals and families has gone far enough; and that a determined resistance should be made to any further extension of it, either by the stealing, euphemistically termed the inclosure, of commons, or by the alienation of lands held upon trust for public or semi-public objects. Far from allowing any land which is not already private property to become so, the most moderate of these land reformers think that it may possibly be expedient, in districts where land not already appropriated does not abound, to redeem some part of that which is in private hands, by repurchasing it on account of the State.
Those countries are fortunate, or would be fortunate if decently governed, in which, as in a great part of the East, the land has not been allowed to become the permanent property of individuals, and the State consequently is the sole landlord. So far as the public expenditure is covered by the proceeds of the land, those countries are untaxed; for it is the same thing as being untaxed, to pay to the State only what would have to be paid to private landlords if the land were appropriated. The principle that the land belongs to the Sovereign, and that the expenses of government should be defrayed by it, is recognised in the theory of our own ancient institutions. The nearest thing to an absolute proprietor whom our laws know of is the freeholder, who is a tenant of the Crown; bound originally to personal service, in the field or at the plough, and, when that obligation was remitted, subject to a land tax intended to be equivalent to it. The first claim of the State has been foregone; the second has for two centuries been successfully evaded:3 but the original wrongdoers have been so long in their graves, and so much of the land has come into the hands of new possessors, who have bought it with their earnings at a price calculated on the unjust exemption, that the resumption of the land without indemnity would be correcting one injustice by another, while, if weighted with due compensation, it would be a measure of very doubtful profit to the State. But, though the State cannot replace itself in the fortunate condition in which it would now have been if it had reserved to itself from the beginning the whole rent of the land, this is no reason why it should go on committing the same mistake, and deprive itself of that natural increase of the rent which the possessors derive from the mere progress of wealth and population, without any exertion or sacrifice of their own. If the Grosvenor, Portman, and Portland estates belonged to the municipality of London, the gigantic incomes of those estates would probably suffice for the whole expense of the local government of the capital.4 But these gigantic incomes are still swelling; by the growth of London they may again be doubled, in as short a time as they have doubled already: and what have the possessors done, that this increase of wealth, produced by other people’s labour and enterprise, should fall into their mouths as they sleep, instead of being applied to the public necessities of those who created it? It is maintained, therefore, by land reformers, that special taxation may justly be levied upon landed property, up to, though not exceeding, this unearned increase; excess being guarded against by leaving the possessors free to cede their land to the State at the price they could sell it for at the time when the tax is imposed, but no higher price to be claimable on account of any increase of value afterwards, unless proved to have been the effect of improvements made at the landlord’s expense.5 Now, if the nation would be justified in thus reasserting its claim to the unearned increase of value, even when it has allowed the legal right to that increase to pass into the hands of individuals; how much more ought it to prevent further legal rights of this description from being acquired by those who do not now possess them? The landed estates of public bodies are not family property; the interest that any individual has in them is never more than a life interest, often much less; the increase of value by lapse of time would go to enrich nobody knows whom, and its appropriation by the State would give no one the shadow of a moral title to compensation. But if these lands are sold to individuals, they become hereditary, and can only be repurchased by the State at their full value as a perpetuity.
Neither would this compulsory sale be attended with any of the advantages in the form of increased production, which would result from facilitating the voluntary sale of land by individual to individual. As long as, by the theory and practice of landed proprietorship, the landlord of an estate is a mere sinecurist quartered on it, improvement by the landlord is an accident dependent on his personal tastes. But he who sells his land, voluntarily or from necessity, is almost always below the average of landlords in disposition and ability to improve; the tendency of the change of proprietors is, therefore, in favour of improvement. But there is no reason to think that public bodies in general are worse than average landlords in any particular; it is matter of common remark that they are less grasping: and, if they do not come up to the most enterprising landlords in what they themselves accomplish, they leave more power of improvement, and more encouragement to it, to their tenants, than the majority of private landlords. It would, therefore, be no gain, but all loss, to reinforce the enemies of the reform of landed tenure by the addition of a new class of wealthy hereditary landholders, quartered upon land which is as yet devoted more or less faithfully to public uses. If public bodies are required to part with their lands, they should part with them to the State, and to that alone.
Whether it is desirable that such bodies should be holders of lands; whether it is wise that their time and attention should be divided between their appointed duties, certain to be enforced with increasing strictness as improvement goes on, and the management of a tenantry, with the duties which, if private property in land continues to exist, are sure to be more and more attached to it,—is a question of the future, which it may be left to the future to decide. We do not think it can be properly decided, until the fermentation now going on in the public mind respecting the constitution of landed property, has subsided into a definite conviction respecting the end to be aimed at and the means of practically drawing nearer to that end. But the time has come for announcing with the utmost decision, and we hope to see land reformers uniting as one body in the demand, that no private appropriation of land, not yet private property, shall hereafter take place under any circumstances or on any pretext.
[1 ]The Mortmain Acts include 7 & 8 William III, c. 37 (1696), 9 George II, c. 36 (1736), and 43 George III, c. 108 (1803).
[2 ]E.g., Leading article on land tenure reform, Standard, 25 Nov., 1872, p. 4.
[3 ]Feudal tenures were finally abolished by 12 Charles II, c. 24 (1660), and a land tax, as part of the property tax, was imposed by 4 William and Mary, c. 1 (1692). Mill says the claim was “evaded” presumably because the land was rated at its valuation in the reign of Edward I, rather than at a rental value, which would have gradually increased. In 1798 Pitt allowed for the redemption of the land tax by a lump payment, and subsequently the annual revenue from land was even lower.
[4 ]Estates whose commercial value was enormously increased by the expansion of fashionable London westwards.
[5 ]See Programme of the Land Tenure Association, Art. 4, p. 3 (CW, Vol. V, p. 690).