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A Few Words About the Devil Part 14

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Property in land differs from ordinary property. Wealth, which is the acc.u.mulated result of labor, is sometimes, but not often, acc.u.mulated in the hands of the laborer, and is more frequently acc.u.mulated in the hands of some person who has purchased the result of the laborers toil. Such personal wealth is capable of indefinite increase; and the exclusive right to its disposal is protected in the hands of its possessor, so long as he does not avail himself of this legal protection to use the wealth mischievously to his fellows. There would be no incentive in the laborer to economy, or to increased exertion, unless the State gave him reasonable protection in the enjoyment of his savings. Unfortunately, to obtain the protection of the authorities, he has in this country to give up an unreasonably large portion of his earnings to defray the cost of local and imperial Government. During the reign of her present Majesty, imperial taxation alone has increased from about 48,000,000 to 73,833,000. The State has no right to interfere with a man's daily disposition of his personal wealth, merely on the ground that he might have used it more advantageously for his fellows.

With land it is quite different; it is limited in extent, and the portions of it capable of producing food with ease to the cultivator are still more limited. Every individual member of the commonwealth has an indefeasible interest in the totality of the land, and no man ought to a.s.sert an absolute freehold in land hostile to the interest of his fellow. The land is part of the general soil of the State, and should be held subject to the general welfare of the citizens. No man has a right so to hold land that his tenure is detrimental to the happiness of the dwellers upon it or around it. This principle is already recognized in much of our legislation. A man can not say to a railway company--which has obtained the usual compulsory powers of taking land--"You shall not cross my private estate;" the law would answer, if he did, by saying, "The railway is for the good of the State; you as an individual must give way to the general good, and must lose your land, receiving a fair and reasonable money value for it." This principle should be applied more widely: and if it be for the good of the commonwealth that some of the enormous land monopolies of this country should be broken up, no statesman ought to be deterred by the mere dread of interfering with the so-called rights of private property.

Mr. Mill says: "When the 'sacredness of property' is talked of, it should always be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property. No man made the land. It is the original inheritance of the whole species. Its appropriation is wholly a question of general expediency. When private property in land is not expedient it is unjust." The possession of land involves and carries with it the duty of cultivating that land, and, in fact, individual proprietorship of soil is only defensible so long as the possessor can show improvement and cultivation of the land he holds. To quote again from Mr. John Stuart Mill: "The essential principle of property being to a.s.sure to all persons what they have produced by their labor, and acc.u.mulated by their abstinence, this principle can not apply to that which is not the produce of labor, the raw material of the earth."

Mr. Mill urges that property in land "is only valid in so far as the proprietor of the land is its improver." "In no sound theory of private property was it ever contemplated that the proprietor of land should be merely a sinecurist quartered upon it." Yet, in England and Wales alone, the landlords who received for rent, in the year 1800, 22,500,000, now receive about 67,000,000, and for this have no obligation on them to cultivate. The holding cultivable land in an uncultivated condition in this overcrowded country ought to be made a statutory misdemeanor, the penalty for which should be the forfeiture to the State of the land so left uncultivated, at, say, a twenty years' purchase of its annual return in the neglected or misapplied state in which it was found at the time of conviction. The true theory of landholding should be that the State should be the only freeholder, all other tenures being limited in character; and cultivation ought to be a special condition of tenancy.... The holder of land should either cultivate it with his own hands, or, as would be most frequently the case, by the hands of others; but in the latter case, the landed proprietor is bound to allow the agricultural laborer to live by his labor. By living I mean that the laborer should have healthy food, shelter, and clothing, and sufficient leisure in which to educate himself and his family, besides the necessary leisure for rest from his labors. At present agricultural laborers do not live; they only drag wearily through a career but little higher in any respect than--and often not half so comfortable as--that of many of the other animals on the estate....

Little boys and girls, in the Midland, Eastern, Southern, and Southwestern counties of England, go into the fields to work, in some instances, soon after six years of age; in very many cases before they are seven years old, and in nearly all cases before they have attained eight. It is true, that the work at first may be the comparatively idle work of scaring birds or tending sheep, but it involves exposure of the child's yet delicate frame in the cold and damp of spring, and then to the heat of the summer sun, from day-dawn to evening. This too often results in the stunted growth and diseased frame found so frequently among the English poor. I say nothing of the demoralization of children consequent on their employment, without regard to s.e.x, in the field gangs. I pa.s.s by the fact that work at this early age utterly incapacitates them, as a body, for mental effort. It is enough to declare that no child ought to have to work on the land until he is ten years of age, and if I am told that the fathers--only earning, in the majority of instances, from nine to thirteen shillings per week--need the additional petty wage these wretched babes may bring home, then again I answer, that it is to the landholder's enormous income that the State ought to look for the means of educating the too often worse than savages who are reared on his estate, and who by their labors swell his rent-roll.

That a few landed proprietors should have gigantic incomes, while the ma.s.s of the people are so poor--that in Gloucester, the Rev. Mr. Frazer describes "type after type of social life almost degraded to the level of barbarism"--that near Lavenham, "the cottages are unfit for human habitation"--that in Norfolk the Parliamentary returns speak of their dwellings in one as "miserable," in a second as "deplorable," in a third as "detestable," in a fourth as "a disgrace to a Christian community;"

while near Docking, we are told, in consequence of the overcrowding of the wretched poor, "the whole atmosphere is sensual, and human nature is degraded into something below the level of the swine." This is a state of things that if the landholders will not redress willingly they must be made to remedy before it is too late.

A few men have vast estates and excessive incomes; the millions have seldom an inch of land until they inherit the grave, and have a starvation wage out of which a proportion is taken back for rent.

Take the vast property of the Marquis of Westminster, whose income is credibly stated at something near a million a year; or that of the Duke of Devonshire, amounting to 96,000 acres in the county of Derby alone, without regarding his Irish or other estates; or that of the Duke of Norfolk, whose Suss.e.x estate is fifteen miles in circuit; or that of the Duke of Sutherland, which stretches across and contains the whole of Sutherlandshire from sea to sea; or that of the Marquis of Bute, on which 2,000,-000 sterling were spent by his trustees during his minority; or that of the Marquis of Breadalbane, who is said to be able to ride from his own door one hundred miles straight to the sea on his own freehold land; or those of the Duke of Richmond and Lord Leconfield, who between them own nearly the whole of the eastern portion of the county of Suss.e.x, containing nearly 800 square miles. And such estates have a tendency to increase rather than to diminish. In Northumberland, the Ducal proprietor, whose t.i.tular rank is derived from the county, is a constant purchaser of any lands put up for sale. Mr. Bright, in 1864, spoke of one n.o.bleman who devoted 80,000 a year of his income to the purchase of additional land.

These large properties must all be broken up; they paralyze the people, and they corrupt their possessors. We prefer that the breaking up shall be voluntary and gradual, but it must begin at once, for hungry bellies are multiplying daily.

The State ought to put the peasantry in possession of the land, and this might be done in several ways at the same time.

1. There is the Prussian Land System, a modification of which might be made to work well here, and which since 1850 has enabled the smallest occupiers of peasants' land to acquire the proprietorship at twenty years' purchase; the amount of which is paid to the landlord, not in money, but in rent debentures issued by authority of the State, and bearing four per cent, interest, and gradually redeemable by means of the one per cent, difference, which at compound interest extinguishes the princ.i.p.al in a little over forty-one years. The Prussian peasant has, however, two other options: he may pay less by one-tenth to the State bank than the rent he formerly paid to his landlord, in which case the purchase debentures take fifty-six years to redeem; or he may, if he can raise the cash, compel his landlord to accept eighteen years'

purchase money of the annual rent. By this means nearly 100,000 peasant proprietors have been created in Prussia. Kent debentures to the extent of many millions have been issued to the landholders, and in less than nineteen years more than one-eighth of the debentures issued have been entirely redeemed and extinguished.

2. The Legislature should declare that leaving cultivable land uncultivated gave the Government the right to take possession of such land, a.s.sessing it by its actual return for the last live years, and not by its real value, and handing to the proprietor the amount of, say, twenty years' purchase in Consolidated Stock, redeemable in a limited term of years. The land so taken should not be sold at all, but should be let out to persons willing to become cultivators, on sufficiently long terms of tenancy to fairly recoup his labor and capital to the cultivator, who should yearly pay into the National Treasury, in lieu of all other imperial taxes, a certain proportion of the value of the annual produce.

3. The game laws should be abolished. Game preserving in England is not only injurious, in that it diverts land capable of corn-bearing from the purpose it should fulfill, of growing corn to feed the starving, but it is injurious in that it prevents proper cultivation of surrounding farms, and demoralizes and makes criminals of the neighboring agriculturial laborers, creating for them a kind and degree of crime which would be otherwise unknown. Poaching, which is so severely punished, is actually fostered and encouraged by the very landholders who punish it. Pheasants and partridges' eggs are bought to stock preserves; the gamekeepers who buy these eggs shut their eyes to the mode in which they have been procured. The lad who was encouraged to procure the eggs finds himself in jail when he learns that shooting or trapping pheasants gains a higher pecuniary reward than leading the plow horse, or tr.i.m.m.i.n.g the hedge, or grubbing the plantation. Poaching is the natural consequence of rearing a large number of rabbits, hares, partridges, and pheasants, in the midst of an underpaid, underfed, badly-housed, and deplorably ignorant body of people. The brutal outrages of gamekeepers of which we read so much are the regretable but easily-traceable measure of retaliation for a system which takes a baby child to work in the fields soon after six years of age, which trains all his worst propensities and deadens and degrades his better faculties, which keeps him in constant wretchedness, and tantalizes him with the sight of hundreds of acres on which game runs and flies well-fed, under his very nose, while he limps ill-fed along the muddy lane which skirts the preserve--game, which is at liberty to come out of its covert and eat and destroy the farmer's crop, but which is even then made sacred by the law, and fenced round by covenants, as in a Leitrim lease. The game laws must go; they starve our population by using land which might be golden to the autumn sun with the waving crop of wheat, barley, and rye; they feed our prisons, and rear a criminal cla.s.s in our midst, who have to be prosecuted and guarded at great cost, and all because hares and pheasants are higher in the landowners' eyes than human beings.

5. Any person holding more than, say, 5,000 acres of land, should be taxed at a far heavier rate than those having smaller holdings. That is, presuming, in order to take a figure as basis, the land-tax on 5,000 acres to be at the rate of 1s. per acre, then on every acre above that quant.i.ty it should be 2s. per acre up to 10,000 acres, and from thence 5s. per acre up to 15,000 acres, and from thence 10s. per acre up to 20,000 acres, so as to discourage all extravagantly large holdings.

6. The law of primogeniture should be repealed; the settlement of property, except for a widow and her children, be entirely prohibited and some limitation should be put on the power of devise, so as to prevent, say, the Marquis of Westminster from leaving the bulk of his property to his eldest son, while the younger ones are left as n.o.ble paupers, to be provided with places and pensions by the nation. Land should be made as easily and as cheaply transferable as any personal chattel.

The present land monopoly must be broken by legislation, or it will be destroyed by revolution.

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A Few Words About the Devil Part 14 summary

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