The Menace of Privilege

Chapter 8:
Despoilment of the Masses

Henry George Jr.


Victims of Privilege

WHAT makes privileges springlng from governmental enactment or sancfion a double eviI is that while they exalt the few to superabundant, intoxicating riches, they sink the many into hope-killing, brutalizing poverty. For, as we have seen, these privileges are in effect nothing less than private laws enabling some to appropriate from others. Privilege is essentially a power of appropriation, which robs some into riches and others into poverty. We have considered riches. Let us consider the other side -- poverty

A few generations ago there was such abundance of unappropriated land that any who wanted it could sooner or later have a farm. The wages of those who preferred to work in one way or another in the villages, towns and cities were high, depending, as the rate of wages must always depend, upon what such men could earn at the margin of cultivation; that is, from the best land which could be had without the payment of rent. If for a time more could be earned by laborers in selling their services to another than by going upon free land and employing themselves, then the flow of laborers would tend toward the selling of their sendces. Wben the greater gain was to be had by working for themselves, then the tendency was to take up land and work it. Hence there was and always must be a close relationship between the wages for which a laborer will part with his services to another and the wages he can earn by applying his powers directly to nature without intervention of another; that is, without payment of rent.

If the land free to him is fertile and accessible for agriculture, his efforts will bring him large results. If it is rich with desirable minerals, easy to work and accessible, his efforts will be rewarded still more largely. If these free natural opportunities are plentiful, wages generally must be high; for, with everything else equal, no one will take less for his labor than he can obtain by it on the best free land open to him.

As long as there seemed to be a large supply of free land in the United States few thought it of moment to consider what might happen when the supply gave out. At the time of the establishment of the Republic a sparse population scattered along the Atlantic seaboard. Westward lay the vast, unexplored continent. To populate that seemed to Thomas Jefferson a matter of centuries. (See Letter to Madison, written from Paris Dec.20, 1787; Jefferson's Wntings, Ford Edition, Vol. IV, pp.479-480.) At first efforts were made to restrict appropriations to small quantities, and those to actual settlers. And so easy was it for the man of little means to get land that there was no practice of renting as late as 1850, De Tocqueville testifying, "In America there are, properly speaking, no farming tenants; every one owns the ground he tills." ("Democracy in America," Chap. VI (Vol.11, p.226).)

But behold the startling state of things that now confronts us. Estimates based upon Federal census statistics indicate that in 1900 only thirty-one per cent. of the families of the United States owned homes or farms free and clear of debt. Another fifteen per cent. owned homes and farms that were encumbered ; while fifty-four per cent., or more than half the families, were paying rent. Indeed, it is considered that two thirds of the mortgagees are really tenants, so that practically only seven twentieths; are really owners of homes and farms. Professor J. G. Collins, engaged in the 1890 census work, computed that about ten per cent. of the total population owned or controlled approximately ninety per cent. of the total land values of the nation. (Statistics relating to this and kindred subjects are compiled in condensed and very suggestive form in a little indexed work entitled "Free America," by Bolton Hall. Also see "Abstract of the Twelfth Census," pp. 30-31.)

That is to say, the great "open West" has been appropriated, save the Indian reservations, for which there are mad "sooner" and "boomer" rushes whenever the General Government, removing the Indians, opens parts to homestead entry and settlement.

Not that all this vast territory is settled and in use. Far from it. There are thousands upon thousands of square miles of productive, accessible land that would yield bountifully to labor. (What may be done with a patch of ground and the new life that this may awaken is to be witnessed in the operations of the vacant lot cultivation charitable societies in any of our large cities. Men, women and children from the densest of the poor quarters are, under supervision, permitted to earn what they may by the cultivation of a few square feet of accessible land, otherwise kept idle by speculation. The anecdotes related in reports of these associations are most pathetic. The Philadelphia association report for 1904 says: "One of the best gardens from the standpoint of value of produce, as well as for the many varieties of product it contains and the artistic arrangement, was worked by a man who had but one arm.") But it is not used. It is preempted and belongs to this or that individual, who chooses to hold it, not for use, but for what it will bring its owners when the increasing population has made a greater demand for it. The owners ask for its present use a price based upon their expectation of its value for the future. Vast quantities of unused land can be had, but not from the Government, and free, as of yore. It is to be had only from private owners and on the payment of a price -- a price that the growing needs of the community and the monopoly power of speculation is constantly augmenting.

Since the lowest wages that laborers in the United States will accept rest upon what they can earn from land at the margin of cultivation, and if all the land here is appropriated and bears a price, the basis of wages must be what such laborers could draw by their labor from free land in some other country that is most easily accessible. ( I am not here considering the united action of laborers. Trade unions can and do force advances in wages, which in the end must be deducted from speculative rent.) If such other country containing free land be far removed, the rate of wages in the United States must to that degree fall.

The simple remedy for this speculation in land is taxation -- the removal of all taxes from production and its fruits, and the concentration of the whole tax burden in a single tax on the value of land, irrespective of improvements. This would compel the payment of taxes on the value of land whether such land were used or not. It would cut the heart out of land speculation. Monopolized tracts would be thrown open to users. The speculative value of land would be destroyed. Much good land would become free again. The general rate of wages, depending upon what laborers can earn from free land, would advance.

I shall treat of this more fully later on. I briefly refer to it here in order to relieve the reader from any thought that, because I present a somber picture of social and political conditions in the United States, I am wrapped in pessimism.

Jefferson said that our people would continue "independent and moral . . . so long as there are vacant lands [meaning unappropriated lands] for them to resort to"; because whenever it should be attempted by the other classes to reduce them to the minimum of subsistence they would "quit their trade and go to laboring the earth." (Letter to J. Lithgow, Jefferson's Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. III, p.269, note.) In another place he declared it his belief that "our Governments" [meaning State as well as Federal] would remain virtuous as long as there were "vacant [unappropriated] lands in any part of America." And looking forward to what appeared to him to be the remote future, he said:

"When our people get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt, as in Europe." (Letter to James Madison, from Paris, Jefferson's Wntings, Ford Edition, Vol. IV, p.479.)

Have we not now reached that state of things which Jefferson thought so remote?

The effect of the appropriation of all the free land and of the general advancement in the price of land by speculation has been to slacken the growth and in some places actually lessen the population of the rural districts, and, on the other hand, to quicken the growth of the cities. (According to the "Abstract of the Twelfth Census" (p. 100), while the general population increased eighteen per cent. from 1890 to 1900, that of i60 cities of the United States having 25,000 or more inhabitants within the same decade increased thirty-two per cent. Indeed, while during the eleven decades from 1790 to 1900 the rural population increased thirteen fold, the urban population increased two hundred and twenty fold.)

Census figures appear on their face to show that the large agricultural holdings are being subdivided and that there is a pretty steady decrease in the size of the farms. This is against common observation, one of the clearest of facts being the absorption of great areas in the West and Middle West through foreclosure by mortgage companies. The truth is that, in respect to the size of farms, each census has been conducted on different lines. Marked variations have been made relative to the things included and excluded from the classifications. This makes comparisons of the several censuses on the size of farms of little value. (My father, as early as 1883, drew attention to the absurdity of the census comparisons respecting the average size of farms. See Chap. V, "'The March of Concentration," of Henry George's " Social Problems," in which is also published an appendix correspondence on the subject with General Francis A. Walker, Superintendent of the Ninth and Tenth Censuses. Somewhat similar examinations of the Eleventh and Twelfth Censuses have been made by Mr. Henry L. Bliss. See signed articles in The Public, Chicago, April 16 and May 7, 1904.)

All this means, obviously, that so far as the farming population is concerned, the tenant class is rapidly increasing, and that many of that tenant class is being forced into the cities.

And below the tenant class is the class of hired laborers -- the "hands." More and more of these hired laborers are being fixed to that condition for life, which President Lincoln, in one of his messages to Congress, asserted was not the case at the Civil War period. (Lincoln indignantly denied this assumption of the proslavery advocates. See his First Annual Message to Congress, dated Dec 3, 1861, Messages and Papers of the Presidents," Vol. VI, pp. 57-58. Alabama and Georgia have recently revealed an extensive condition of negro peonage systematically practiced by irresponsible justices of the peace, who, for the most trivial debts and often on trumped-up charges of deht, have been selling negro men and women into protracted service that amounted to a kind of slavery. This was done in defiance of the spirit of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution against servitude and against the express letter of Secs. 5526 and 5527 of the Revised Statutes of the United States against every condition of peonage. The Federal authorities and courts have recently been laying a heavy hand on the practice. See "Peonage in America," by Herbert D. Ward, Cosmopolitan, August, 1905.)

Not only this. It also means the creation in increasing numbers of those who, tramping about for a chance to work and finding nowhere fixed employment, lose the fire of ambition, then hope, and are reduced at last to a state of vagabondage. The Western country, whose broad, fertile, idle acres call for men, contains thousands upon thousands of tramps. A dog-in-the-manger monopolization keeps acres and laborers apart, putting more and more roving pariahs on the public highways.

It calls to mind the biting words of John Moore in the seventeenth century, when describing a similar tyranny of conditions in his day: --

Shame it is for any Christian society, city or town, to take no more care for the poor than they be forced to beg. But how great a shame is it for a gospel magistracy not to suppress make-beggars, which make such swarms of beggars in counties, cities and towns. I cannot but lift up my voice like a trumpet, and tell these make-beggars their sins, and these greedy gripes their transgressions. They care not how many beggars they make so themselves may be gentlemen, nor how many poor they make so themselves may be rich. I mean the unsociable, covetous, greedy broods of those wretches who, by their inclosures, do un-people towns and un-corn fields. Question many of our beggars that go about from door to door, where they dwell, and why they go a-begging. "Alas, Master," say they, "we were forced out of such a town when it was inclosed, and since we have continued a generation of beggars."