Front Page Titles (by Subject) APPENDIX B.: The Land Question - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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APPENDIX B.: The Land Question - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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The Land Question
The course of nature, “red in tooth and claw,” has been, on a higher plane, the course of civilization. Through “blood and iron” small clusters of men have been consolidated into larger ones, and these again into still larger ones, until nations have been formed. This process, carried on everywhere and always by brute force, has resulted in a history of wrongs upon wrongs: savage tribes have been slowly welded together by savage means. We could not, if we tried, trace back the acts of unscrupulous violence committed during these thousands of years; and could we trace them back we could not rectify their evil results.
Landownership was established during this process; and if the genesis of landownership was full of iniquities, they were iniquities committed not by the ancestors of any one class of existing men but by the ancestors of all existing men. The remote forefathers of living Englishmen were robbers, who stole the lands of men who were themselves robbers, who behaved in like manner to the robbers who preceded them. The usurpation by the Normans, here complete and there partial, was of lands which, centuries before, had been seized, some by piratical Danes and Norsemen, and some at an earlier time by hordes of invading Frisians or old English. And then the Celtic owners, expelled or enslaved by these, had in bygone ages themselves expropriated the peoples who lived in the underground houses here and there still traceable. What would happen if we tried to restore lands inequitably taken–if Normans had to give them back to Danes and Norse and Frisians, and these again to Celts, and these again to the men who lived in caves and used flint implements? The only imaginable form of the transaction would be a restoration of Great Britain bodily to the Welsh and the Highlanders; and if the Welsh and the Highlanders did not make a kindred restoration, it could only be on the ground that, having not only taken the land of the aborigines but killed them, they had thus justified their ownership!
The wish now expressed by many that landownership should be conformed to the requirements of pure equity, is in itself commendable; and is in some men prompted by conscientious feeling. One would, however, like to hear from such the demand that not only here but in the various regions we are peopling, the requirements of pure equity should be conformed to. As it is, the indignation against wrongful appropriations of land, made in the past at home, is not accompanied by any indignation against the more wrongful appropriations made at present abroad. Alike as holders of the predominant political power and as furnishing the rank and file of our armies, the masses of the people are responsible for those nefarious doings all over the world which end in the seizing of new territories and expropriation of their inhabitants. The filibustering expeditions of the old English are repeated, on a vastly larger scale, in the filibustering expeditions of the new English. Yet those who execrate ancient usurpations utter no word of protest against these far greater modern usurpations–nay, are aiders and abettors in them. Remaining as they do passive and silent while there is going on this universal land-grabbing which their votes could stop; and supplying as they do the soldiers who effect it; they are responsible for it. By deputy they are committing in this matter grosser and more numerous injustices than were committed against their forefathers.
That the masses of landless men should regard private landownership as having been wrongfully established, is natural; and, as we have seen, they are not without warrant. But if we entertain the thought of rectification, there arises in the first place the question–which are the wronged and which are the wrongers? Passing over the primary fact that the ancestors of existing Englishmen, landed and landless, were, as a body, men who took the land by violence from previous owners; and thinking only of the force and fraud by which certain of these ancestors obtained possession of the land while others of them lost possession; the preliminary question is–Which are the descendants of the one and of the other? It is tacitly assumed that those who now own lands are the posterity of the usurpers, and that those who now have no lands are the posterity of those whose lands were usurped. But this is far from being the case. The fact that among the nobility there are very few whose titles go back to the days when the last usurpations took place, and none to the days when there took place the original usurpations; joined with the fact that among existing landowners there are many whose names imply artisan-ancestors; show that we have not now to deal with descendants of those who unjustly appropriated the land. While, conversely, the numbers of the landless whose names prove that their forefathers belonged to the higher ranks (numbers which must be doubled to take account of intermarriages with female descendants) show that among those who are now without land, many inherit the blood of the land-usurpers. Hence, that bitter feeling towards the landed which contemplation of the past generates in many of the landless, is in great measure misplaced. They are themselves to a considerable extent descendants of the sinners; while those they scowl at are to a considerable extent descendants of the sinned-against.
But granting all that is said about past inequities, and leav ing aside all other obstacles in the way of an equitable rearrangement, there is an obstacle which seems to have been overlooked. Even supposing that the English as a race gained possession of the land equitably, which they did not; and even supposing that existing landowners are the posterity of those who spoiled their fellows, which in large part they are not; and even supposing that the existing landless are the posterity of the despoiled, which in large part they are not; there would still have to be recognized a transaction that goes far to prevent rectification of injustices. If we are to go back upon the past at all, we must go back upon the past wholly, and take account not only of that which the people at large have lost by private appropriation of land, but also that which they have received in the form of a share of the returns-we must take account, that is, of Poor Law relief. Mr. T. Mackay, author of The English Poor, has kindly furnished me with the following memoranda, showing something like the total amount of this since the 43rd Elizabeth (1601) in England and Wales.
Sir G. Nicholls [History of Poor Law, appendix to Vol. II] ventures no estimate till 1688. At that date he puts the poor rate at nearly £700,000 a year. Till the beginning of this century the amounts are based more or less on estimate.
The above represents the amount expended in relief of the poor. Under the general term “poor rate,” moneys have always been collected for other purposes–county, borough, police rates, &c. The following table shows the annual amounts of these in connection with the annual amounts expended on the poor.
In addition, therefore, to sums set out in the first table, there is a further sum, rising during the century from 1 1/4 to 7 1/2 millions per annum “for other purposes.”
Mulhall on whom I relied for figures between 1853 and 1875 does not give “other expenditure.”
Of course of the £734,000,000 given to the poorer members of the landless class during three centuries, a part has arisen from rates on houses; only such portion of which as is chargeable against ground rents, being rightly included in the sum the land has contributed. From a landowner, who is at the same time a Queen's Counsel, frequently employed professionally to arbitrate in questions of local taxation, I have received the opinion that if, out of the total sum received by the poor, £500,000,000 is credited to the land, this will be an underestimate. Thus even if we ignore the fact that this amount, gradually contributed, would, if otherwise gradually invested, have yielded in returns of one or other kind a far larger sum, it is manifest that against the claim of the landless may be set off a large claim of the landed–perhaps a larger claim.
For now observe that the landless have not an equitable claim to the land in its present state–cleared, drained, fenced, fertilized, and furnished with farmbuildings, &c.–but only to the land in its primitive state, here stony and there marshy, covered with forest, gorse, heather, &c.: this only, it is, which belongs to the community. Hence, therefore, the question arises–What is the relation between the original “prairie value” of the land, and the amount which the poorer among the landless have received during these three centuries. Probably the landowners would contend that for the land in its primitive, unsubdued state, furnishing nothing but wild animals and wild fruits, £500,000,000 would be a high price.
When, in Social Statics, published in 1850, I drew from the law of equal freedom the corollary that the land could not equitably be alienated from the community, and argued that, after compensating its existing holders, it should be reappropriated by the community. I overlooked the foregoing considerations. Moreover, I did not clearly see what would be implied by the giving of compensation for all that value which the labor of ages has given to the land. While, as shown in chap. 11, I adhere to the inference originally drawn, that the aggregate of men forming the community are the supreme owners of the land–an inference harmonizing with legal doctrine and daily acted upon in legislation–a fuller consideration of the matter has led me to the conclusion that individual ownership, subject to state suzerainty, should be maintained.
Even were it possible to rectify the inequitable doings which have gone on during past thousands of years, and by some balancing of claims and counterclaims, past and present, to make a rearrangement equitable in the abstract, the resulting state of things would be a less desirable one than the present. Setting aside all financial objections to nationalization (which of themselves negative the transaction, since, if equitably effected, it would be a losing one), it suffices to remember the inferiority of public administration to private administration, to see that ownership by the state would work ill. Under the existing system of ownership, those who manage the land, experience a direct connection between effort and benefit; while, were it under state ownership, those who managed it would experience no such direct connection. The vices of officialism would inevitably entail immense evils.