The Road To Freedom,
And What Lies Beyond


Josiah and Ethel Wedgwood

[Published in London by C.W. Daniel, Ltd., 1913]


Free Land necessary to economic freedom.

The existence of free land somewhere is the fundamental postulate of any economic freedom for individuals; and such free land would naturally be land which is the least valuable in use, for which there is no competitive demand -- that is to say, which is on the margin of cultivation. If no land is available, except by favour or by payment of rent, then, however well paid the worker, he must always be at the mercy of combinations and exactions by the givers of work.

Under free conditions, rent would not be -- as is commonly supposed -- a payment for the use of all land, but only for the use of superior lands, and strictly according to their superiority, whether in natural fertility or in position. The least productive land at any time in use (i.e. land on the margin of cultivation), would be rent-free; for, in a country not over-populated, there would be no competition for the use of such land. Rent under free conditions can only appear when more than one man desires to use the same piece of land.

The existence of marginal land [Marginal land -- i.e. land on or below the margin of cultivation].

This marginal land must exist, because if it did not, there would be too many people in the world. If, when all land was fully used, there existed anywhere a site which would support only one human life, and two people were competing for its occupancy -- then one of those two must starve.

It obviously does exist even under present conditions, because the small amount of land actually in use in the United Kingdom supports all the inhabitants -- and even keeps some of them in great luxury. It does not, it is true, support them directly with food, but it supports them by the products of industries on land of high site value, exchanged for food imported from foreign soil.

It will continue to exist (and even to increase in quantity), because the wealth to be got out of the soil is practically inexhaustible.

Unlimited "productivity of land.

Not only are there to be reclaimed great quantities of land never yet cultivated, or fallen out of cultivation, but every day teaches the application of new methods which increase the amount producible from both agricultural and industrial land already in use. Materials previously wasted are turned to account to enrich the soil and improve mechanical efficiency, or to be fabricated into some fresh article of utility: and each new human being is not merely a consumer, but to a certain extent adds to the proportional productivity of the soil. Moreover, so far, we have only touched the surface of the globe, except for a few materials such as stone, coal and iron. Great depths lie beneath our feet, only waiting proper treatment to turn them to account. Ultimately, indeed, it is conceivable that even the most unpromising inorganic matter could by chemical methods be converted into organic matter capable of feeding an almost limitless population.

Definition of Marginal Land.

Marshall describes Land on the Margin of Cultivation as land "that is cultivated but only just pays its expenses, and so gives no surplus for rent."

This definition is not a scientific one, because it would not satisfy all possible cases. br>
Suppose a country having 100 square miles of fertile land in good climate, and having, say, twenty inhabitants. There would obviously be in such a country plenty of unused land for which there was no competition, which would yield such a profit to labour as could amply provide both subsistence to its user and also tribute (in the shape of a rent) to the legal owner of the territory. Such land, being presumably less advantageous than the sites cultivated, or otherwise used, by the twenty citizens, would certainly be land "on the margin of cultivation." Actual examples are still to be found in a few places, such, for instance, as British East Africa.

Similarly, if the whole surface of the earth were available, and the world's population free and able to spread out over it, there would certainly be fertile land on the margin of cultivation yielding more than a bare subsistence in return to labour.

Whether land on the margin of cultivation is such that it can pay rent, or no, evidently depends on the ratio of population to available territory.

Private ownership of land drives down the margin of cultivation by monopoly rents, and also by artificial shortage.

In ordinary civilised countries, where land is privately owned, land that could be obtained freely would be cultivated, although it only afforded a bare subsistence in return. Such land therefore, if and where it exists, might be said to be "on the margin of cultivation."

In so far, Marshall's definition holds good; but only because the land is held in private ownership. It would be falsified, were land monopoly overthrown. The terrible thing is, that private property in land is so assumed as a natural phenomenon by almost all writers on economics that they do not even realise, when they frame their definitions and theories, that it is an accidental condition. If, owing to private or bureaucratic ownership of the whole land of the country, land, for which under free conditions there would be no competition, can only be had by paying rent (a monopoly rent, since it has no economic rent) then the return which the worker secures to himself on such land is bound to be driven down towards the level of the lowest standard of subsistence -- all above that going of necessity to the land-proprietor. The rent also of all superior land will be enhanced in proportion to the monopoly rent of this marginal land. The worker, therefore, being in no case able to get for his labour (directly, or in wages) more than a poor subsistence (the standard of comfort being kept down by the payment, not of economic, but of monopoly rent), will take under cultivation, if he can get it, land which would be below competition if his standard of life were not so low. In this way, a low standard of wage and life may bring under cultivation land which would otherwise be neglected.

But the margin of cultivation is actually forced down in another way. For the artificial shortage in land, which is the outcome of exclusive private ownership, makes the world actually smaller in size for the purposes of use. Thus, owing to the direct withholding of some land, the partial and inefficient use of other land, and the degeneration of much agricultural land is through disuse, there is competition now for all available land, except for such as under existing conditions of tenancy, rent, insecurity, lack of capital, etc., cannot yield profit enough for decent maintenance, while the only land obtainable at no rent (or at a nominal rent) will be -- if any be obtainable at all -- land which will afford in return to labour the barest subsistence; and which is really below the true margin of cultivation.

It is, therefore, true, that in England and other 14 old "countries land on the margin of cultivation is only such land as will afford a bare subsistence. It is unfortunately true to-day of the "new" countries also. They started with a large free margin, but owing to their unquestioning adoption of the theory of exclusive ownership, land monopoly there too has forced the margin down to land which can only yield a poor subsistence either because of its inferior fertility, or of its remote situation. In Canada, for instance, the immigrant in seeking farm land might have to traverse miles of virgin prairie land held up by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Hudson Bay Company, or other monopolising syndicates and individuals, in order to get to land where he may farm rent free, but which, owing to its distance from supplies, will afford him only a bare living. This land, Professor Marshall would designate as land on the margin; so it is -- but it is an artificial margin. If these more accessible lands, that are now withheld, were available to labour, there would be no competition for the greater part of them, and the marginal line would lie along land which would afford much more than a bare subsistence. It is this legalised restriction of use which has driven down the standard of life in Canada almost as low as in this country.

Marshall's definition of marginal land is therefore correct for civilised countries in this present state of society; and the object of those who would increase the profits of labour must be, to make his definition incorrect, by overthrowing the system which depresses the free margin and with it the wages of labour in all employments.

It is a truism, that with more capable workers, more accessible capital and more reasonable terms of tenure, and, above all, with wider and more intelligent application of science, even such poor land as is now on the margin could produce per head of workers manifold what it produces to-day. But under existing conditions, such increased possibilities do not go to the permanent benefit of the workers, but to increase the tribute exacted in the form of monopoly rent by the landowners.

It must be remembered that monopoly rent is the tribute paid for permission to live and to work, and is not identical with economic rent, which represents the superior advantages of any given site. The rent at present paid to landowners is a compound of both monopoly and economic rent. Under a free system it would, of course, be the economic rent which would be payable to the community.

Monopoly rent due to artificial restrictions cannot in justice be exacted either by the State or individuals and would, as a matter of fact, disappear of itself so soon as the artificial barriers were removed. It is only when there is a margin of free land, able to support life in comfort, that the rent-paying tenants will be able permanently to secure any addition of produce to themselves, and will be able to keep down the rent of superior land to what will leave the worker on it a profit equal to the profits got on the free marginal land.

The quality of the marginal land depends on the whole of the superior lands being in use, and used to their full capacity. This is one of the most important factors in determining the position of the marginal line.

Improvements in the crafts raise the margin.

Moreover, under this condition of free marginal land, improvements in industrial crafts and in agricultural methods, which enable men to get more wealth from the same area of land, must raise the margin of cultivation, and set free land of a higher grade, and consequently increase the direct return to labour and cause a corresponding rise in wages, wherever there is also wage labour.

Suppose the unit area to be as much land on the margin of cultivation as will support one man, then the site-value of the unit area of such land is unit site-value. Then equal areas on better sites will be represented in site-value by 2, or 10, or 100, or 1000 units respectively. Suppose then that under free conditions some land of a quality of 60 units of site- value -- that is to say, which on unit area can support, either by industry or agriculture, 60 people -- became capable, through a new invention, of producing food or manufactured articles equivalent to the support of 90 persons. This improvement in a special industry would not, of course, affect the whole land of one grade in the world, or country; but it would probably affect land of different grades, so that some land of 40 units would rise to 60 units, and that of, perhaps, 100 to 150. This would mean that the actual number of site-value units would be increased, not, of course, 50 per cent., since the improvement presumably would only be applicable to certain trades, but so that perhaps the whole population could be provided for on, say, 95 per cent, of the total area formerly needed by them. It is exactly as though the actual territory had been extended in space while the population had remained constant (which, as we have shown before, means a higher marginal line). The whole population, then, would, as it were, shift upwards 5 per cent, to occupy grades of land better than those they previously occupied; and what was before land on the margin would be discarded for the better now available. So the marginal line rises and the marginal unit -- or, to put it otherwise, the standard of comfort -- rises 5 per cent.

As example of such scientific improvements as would raise, under free conditions, the margin of cultivation, but which to-day have merely increased monopoly rent, one might cite the use of basic slag for artificial manures, the application of steam and electricity to transport, the manufacturing of soil for French gardening, etc.

Assuming continued improvements in the crafts and applied sciences, then, either the standard of comfort would continue to rise; or, as seems more probable, when it reached a certain point, free men would lessen their activities in the production of tangible wealth, and a rise in the margin of cultivation would mean, not increased output, but a shortening in the hours of productive labour.

Of course it is not necessary that the marginal line of cultivation should actually shift geographically from land of one quality to land of a superior quality. "The raising of the margin" might only mean that the unit site-value became a higher one.

The whole subject bristles with difficulties, especially as the possibility of free marginal land is seldom considered together with its effects on wages, economic rent, and so forth. The above remarks are only an attempt to disentangle some of the problems which offer themselves, in considering the part which marginal land must play in an endeavour to regain economic freedom.


Chapter I
Where The Road Leads
Chapter II
On Free and Forced Exchange
Chapter III
On Social Reform
Chapter IV
The Strengthening of Government
Chapter V
The Roots of Slavery
Chapter VI
On Land and Capital
Chapter VII
Various Theories About Land Reform
Chapter VIII
Marginal Land and Economic Rent
Chapter IX
The Single Tax as a Method of Destroying Land Monopoly
Chapter X
The Next Revolution
Chapter XI
The Steps of the Change
Chapter XII
What It Would Mean
Chapter XIII
What Lies Beyond
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