Alfred Russel Wallace's Campaign
to Nationalize Land
[A paper presented at the annual meeting of AAAS,
Pacific Division, San Diego, 17 June 1987]
A.R. Wallace would have bolted upright to see a recent article on
side-effects of vaccination. Pierce Wright, Science Editor of The
London Times, reports that a WHO researcher has found smallpox
vaccination to be spreading AIDS in Africa (11 May 1987).
One hundred years ago, Wallace had questioned what he saw as the
uncritical vogue for smallpox vaccination, chic and "scientific"
in his day. He analyzed data to show it was likely to do more harm
than good, and publicized his claims. For this Political
Incorrectness he was attacked and ridiculed. Whether he was right
then, or now, is not today's subject nor my expertise. It just shows
the kind of man he was: his own man, inner-directed, collecting his
own data and interpreting them himself, unswayed by cheering or
jeering from the crowd. We may surmise he might dislike the
oppressiveness of modern peer review, too, although he was on
intimate terms with his own peers in his own profession.
He was a man who jumped disciplinary lines - critics would say "like
a grasshopper," but we will see he landed on economic policy
with the thud of a 600 pound gorilla. As Darwin's peer (and possible
predecessor), his opinions were widely sought and heeded in many
fields by social leaders. He mingled with Brahmins in Boston, Robber
Barons in California, and a U.S. President in Washington. The
success of evolution gave natural scientists new authority to
prescribe rules of social conduct. He also leapt into political
economy. His invasion was probably a good thing. Political economy
has benefited from many interlopers. Quesnay was a physician; Adam
Smith a philosopher; Ricardo a broker and sometime MP; Mill a
customs official and sometime MP; Malthus and Wicksteed, clergymen;
Marx a sometime journalist and professional revolutionary; von Thünen
a Baron; Henry George a journalist; Böhm-Bawerk a bureaucrat;
Francis A. Walker a General; William Vickrey a physicist.
Today, economists have become isolated even from each other, each
deep in a pigeonhole paltering over pointless paradoxes with a few
pals prating in their own private patois. Francis A. Walker in 1886
already was complaining about isolation and narcissism within the
profession, yet his contemporaries were Renaissance men compared
with most economists today. Ironically, at the same time, some
emerge from their holes to become imperialists who flatter
themselves with such titles as "The Expanding Domains of
Economics" (friendship and admiration stay me from naming the
The years have taught me that economists are difficult. They want
to rule you by messing with your minds, but at the same time keep
you at a distance with bafflegab. To get some forward motion,
outside stimuli help. Wallace applied a strong one. Wallace invaded
political economy (as it was then called) along a route he knew
well: land economics. Like George Washington and Anthony Wayne, he
had been a surveyor. As a zoologist he was best known as a
zoogeographer (The Geographical Distribution of Animals, 1876). He
had drawn the "Wallace Line" through the Makassar Straits:
crookeder and trickier than the Mason-Dixon Line, and marking a more
ancient, enduring separation. Wallace's insights were not just into
man and nature, but man and nature in relation to land.
We might easily, but wrongly, infer that he entered political
economy as an élitist eugenicist, a 19th Century Garrett
Hardin. His peers did. His friend Darwin was related to Galton, and
credit his inspiration to Thomas Malthus, the original and most
dismal of dismal scientists. Malthus had prescribed famine,
pestilence, warfare and other instruments of death as remedies for
poverty, somewhat as Hardin wrote understandingly of the need to
push excess people out of overcrowded lifeboats.
Other contemporaries moving parallel to Darwin, like Huxley and
Sumner and Spencer, had reinforced that impression. Spencer, who
coined "survival of the fittest," had also said society
can progress only by slow race improvement that results from
eliminating the unfit. Unfitness was manifested by poverty: this was
John Calvin restated for a secular age. Huxley devoted chapters in
several books to defending the concentrated control of land in
England, and attacking the egalitarian land reformer, Henry George.
Huxley's ideal was nature "red of tooth and claw."
William Graham Sumner of Yale used Darwin to buttress Malthus.
Sumner subordinated all values to acquiring property, the highest
virtue (Bannister, p.112).
People came to call the élitists "social Darwinists,"
although Darwin himself stayed discreetly mum on such matters. He
stuck to his last and kept his reputation as a scientist (in spite
of his odd belief in inheritance of acquired traits). He did not,
however, disown the term "social Darwinism," so perhaps he
deserves being stuck with it, for better or worse. It was his name,
after all, being used.
One can unearth scattered evidence in Spencer, Huxley and Sumner
that they would temper the harshness of their doctrines, but one may
dismiss most of the temperance as double-talk. One may interpret the
forked tongue of ambiguity by finding the bottom line. What all
three did was devote major effort to defending concentrated
ownership of land, even in the radically extreme and novel form it
took in England after the vast enclosure movements of the early 19th
For them, the relationship of man and nature must be filtered
through pre-existing socio-political arrangements. This meant that "Nature"
belonged to a tiny fraction of the population. "Natural
selection" among humans, thus, was not for each generation; the
results of earlier strife, politics and predation were to be frozen,
sanctified, and held fixed through all generations. This "acquired
characteristic" was to stay within families, to be inherited
(under English law) solely by the eldest son, in trust for his
eldest son, and so on. It was to be free of tax on either inheriting
or holding it.
Wallace was different, at the other pole from Huxley et al. It
says a lot for the civility and tolerance of Victorians and
scientists that Huxley and Wallace remained personal friends and
mutual fans. They were able to dispute social policy, even at the
gut-wrenching level discussed here, and remain loyal and supportive.
May their honorable example instruct us.
Unlike the three "social Darwinians," Wallace saw
mental, social and spiritual factors guiding human evolution. He put
his scientist's prestige on the popular side of social issues. Land
policy was aflame with strife. Wallace was outraged by the
clearances of the times, and past enclosures, and Irish landlordism,
and Dickensian slums where evictees huddled. In The Malay
Archipelago (1869) he digressed from natural science to laud
primitives as civilized, and score Britain as barbaric. John Stuart
Mill sought Wallace out to join the Land Tenure Reform Association
which occupied Mill's last years, 1871-73. Mill's object was to
nationalize only future increments of land value (or perhaps of
rent). Wallace deferred to Mill, the great and the good "Saint
of Socialism," who scrupled at undoing wrongs inherited from
the past, recent as these were. After Mill died, Wallace grew more
importunate, moved especially by the Irish land agitation. In 1880
he criticized Parnell's program for Irish peasant proprietorship as
not abolishing privilege, but merely reshuffling some land titles
from a smaller to a larger minority. Wallace sought more
thoroughgoing and lasting systemic change.
In 1881 Wallace formed The Land Nationalization Society on his
lines, with himself as President. In Land Nationalization (1882) he
laid out his program. The state was to assume title to all land. To
meet a conservative debating ploy, he would compensate present
landowners. However, he ingeniously minimized the amount in a manner
that tells us he knew the nuts and bolts of his subject.
Compensation was to be an annuity limited to the duration of lives
in being. It was to be based only on the net income actually being
derived from the land before nationalization - i.e. not from the
highest and best use, and not from future higher uses. All men could
now bid to lease parcels from the state for actual use. This would
consummate the natural relation of man to nature. It would also let
men alternate between industry and agriculture as Wallace, a loving
gardener, himself did.
Wallace's Land Nationalization was individualist, not
collectivist. Individual lessees were to have secure tenure, and
tenant-rights to improvements. Rents to the state would be used, not
to engross the state, but to obviate taxes. These rents would be
based on the assessed "inherent value" of land, dependent
only on natural and social conditions. As a surveyor and a
biogeographer, Wallace readily distinguished "inherent value"
from man's improvements to land, which he saw as transitory. Tax
assessors in most American states and other former English colonies
distinguish land and improvements routinely today, and many did
then, too, although in England itself the concept was somewhat
Present holders would lose the right to sell; to bequeath; and to
let land. They could only hold what they occupied and used
themselves. Wallace saw land inheritance as a dysgenic factor in
human evolution, giving an artificial advantage to unfit heirs, both
individually and in their collective power to control social
evolution. Wallace struck at the roots of ancient British
aristocracy - a heady but hazardous move. Gilbert and Sullivan could
do it through comedy and win a knighthood, at least for the musician
of the pair; but Wallace was deadly serious and impossible to
misunderstand. He met with traducement and loss of name.
Wallace held that man's mind overrode the action of natural
selection on his body. The mind understood and controlled natural
forces. Without inheritance of land, said Wallace, natural selection
would be based more on individual merit. Universal education would
delay marriage; social reform would lower male death rates. Female
choice of mates would then take over natural selection, and replace
Malthusian frightfulness as Nature's plan to improve the race. This
wonderful yet awful truth was perhaps the crowning blow to male
illusions, and the traditional British primacy of "the eldest
son." George Bernard Shaw put it on stage (Man and Superman)
and preached through comedy - who could say if tongue was in cheek?
- but Wallace was deadly serious. It was a bitter pill for male
pride and self- confidence in courtship. Wallace evoked some spite,
although he was only the messenger who brought the news to others of
Wallace's view of land reform was kindred in spirit to Henry
George's Progress and Poverty (1879), although Wallace had less
regard than George did for the free market. Both saw mankind as
needing land. Their mutual disapproval of Parnell's temporizing in
Ireland brought them together. Both submerged methodological
differences to further their common concept. Wallace used his Land
Nationalization Society to give George a platform when George toured
Wallace modestly played second fiddle to George, the spellbinding
orator, but it was possibly repressed jealousy that made him cast
George as simply a theorist who confirmed Wallace's inductive
argument. It was and is a small matter, but perhaps for once
Wallace, a man of noblest character, was unfair. Even a saint may
lapse. George was a journalist; his first book, Our Land and Land
Policy (1871), was based on his original investigative reporting of
high quality, and as such is still praised by historians.
For many years, George's Single Tax and Wallace's Land
Nationalization were closely linked and identified, both by friend
and foe. To Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, a friend, they
were two arms of a pincers, driven together by land valuation: "Tax
or Buy" was his slogan. If valuation was too low, Buy! If too
high, Tax! Like Wallace, he was deadly serious.
In later years Wallace went socialist, while George moved the
other way. Still, Wallace selflessly continued to support George's
Single Tax movement which, in spite of George's death in 1897,
dominated land reform efforts in Britain from 1895 to 1914, and even
beyond. But British land reform, when it finally came in the Town
and Country Planning Act (1947), evinced more Wallace than George.
George would not have owned it; his followers condemned it. Chances
are that Wallace would not have liked it, either. Like George, he
was looking for something much more sweeping and egalitarian and, in
his own Shavian sense, eugenic. Wallace as both a natural scientist
and a social thinker is enjoying a revival today (Fichman,
Clements), and deservedly so.
Wallace showed one can be a social Darwinist without being
schrechlich like Dr. Strangelove. His specific ideas about land
reform were timely, well-considered in grand concept, and well
thought out in practical details. He treated his adversaries with
courtesy and respect. He pursued his humanitarian goals with a
selflessness and sincerity all too rare in his times and, alas, in
BIBLIOGRAPHY, Re Alfred Russel Wallace
Bannister, R.C. 1979. Social Darwinism.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Clements, H. 1983. Alfred Russel Wallace, Biologist and Social
Reformer. London: Hutchinson. Durant, John R. 1979.
"Scientific Naturalism and Social Reform in the Thought of
Alfred Russel Wallace". British Journal for the History of
Fichman, M. 1981. Alfred Russel Wallace.
Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Gaffney, Mason. 1987. "Alfred Russel
Wallace." In Eatwell, John; Peter Newman, and Murray Milgate
(eds.) The New Palgrave Dictionary of Political Economy
(London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd.
Lawrence, E.P. 1957. Henry George in the
British Isles. E. Lansing, Michigan: The Michigan State
Wallace, A.R. 1869. The Malay Archipelago. 2
vols. London: Macmillan and Co.
------------- 1876. The Geographical Distribution
------------- 1882. Land Nationalization. London:
Swan Sonnenschein and Co., Lim.
------------- 1905. My Life: A Record of Events
and Opinions. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd.