Monopoly in Land a National Peril

Herbert S. Bigelow

[Reprinted from Twentieth Century Magazine, April 1911]

Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room, and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land! - Isaiah.

OUT of the present ferment of economic discussion is coming a restatement of property rights.

Land is a necessity. Labor cannot supply this necessity. It is folly and it is fatal to apply the same rule of property to a necessity which cannot be produced by labor as to necessities which labor can produce.

Property rights in the products of labor should be absolute. Property in land is different. There attaches to every parcel of land an inalienable public property right. Since land is a common necessity which cannot be produced by labor, it is in the interest of all that no one should be permitted to speculate in or monopolize land, but that the private holding of land should be made conditional upon its use.

It is monstrous that one man should be permitted to hold out of use land for the lack of which others are starving. Henry George proposed to create for the nation a mighty defense. He proposed to convert a nation of increasing tenancy into a nation of independent home owners. By applying the principle that the possession of land should be made conditional upon its legitimate use, he proposed to avoid the evil against which Isaiah cried.

Now comes President Taft's Commissioner of Corporations, issuing from the White House a report which confirms the prophecy of Henry George, admitting that the monopoly of land is a national peril of the gravest magnitude. Here, in official Washington, is the voice of Isaiah, crying out against those who join house to house, and lay field to field.

This report of Mr. Herbert Knox Smith, on the concentration of private ownership of the nation's standing timber, will abundantly reward its study. It may not be extravagant to say that it is one of the most remarkable, and, if read, destined to be one of the most useful documents that the government has ever issued.

Forty years ago, says the Commissioner, three-fourths of the nation's timber lands were publicly owned. Who has it now? Here are gleanings from the report.

The Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Weyerhaeuser Company are the three largest holders of standing timber in the United States. The Southern Pacific alone owns 105.6 billion feet, or more than all the timber in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. About 71 billion feet of this Southern Pacific timber is in Oregon and 35 billion in California.

Now follows a statement which could hardly have been equalled, one fancies, by the indignant protest and graphic eloquence of Tiberius Gracchus. Had Rome of his day the parallel of this?

"It is difficult," says the Commissioner, "to give an adequate idea of the immensity of this holding. (The holding of the Southern Pacific.) It stretches practically all the way from Portland, Oregon, to Sacramento, California, a distance of six hundred and eighty-two miles. The running time of the fastest train between these two points is thirty-one hours; yet during all that time the traveler is passing through…"