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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/344

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The spur to the accumulation of wealth is undoubtedly sharpened by the power of bequeathing one's possessions to one's family and friends; yet it is this power of bequest, gradually increased through the centuries to its present breadth, which furnishes the most difficult part of the problem of property. Re-enforced in Great Britain by the laws of entail and primogeniture, it has led to the concentration in the hands of a few of a large proportion of the entire wealth of the country. The heirs of unearned lands, houses, and funds are without the healthy natural spur to useful work which universal experience declares necessity to furnish; and subtile moral poison is distributed through society when, as in Great Britain, long trains of bequest bestow the choicest estates and social positions in the realm upon a few individuals through the mere accident of birth. When merit and the means of enjoyment are so often unrelated, as we see them in Great Britain, there is valid ground for complaint and a plain source of envy on the part of the millions apportioned to toil, while some have unearned luxury and ease. Is it right that, because a man, centuries ago, was successful in battle or a favorite of his king, or generations ago was engaged in lucrative trade and thus gathered possessions together, his posterity should be maintained for indefinite time by the working world? And is it right that his descendants should reap richer and richer rewards, as years roll by, from the increase in value conferred upon their estates as the surrounding population grows more numerous and advances in intelligence and industry? Why should books and inventions, which are peculiarly the creations of a man, be so imperfectly protected, and only confer rights terminable in a few years, when rights in ordinary property are so nearly absolute? Such are the questions which are being put to the political economists and legislators of to-day, and their just and peaceful solution will demand a wisdom and forbearance which we may be disappointed in expecting.

The most patent evils with which the institution of property is commonly charged are those connected with land, and here it is that the agitation for property reform has usually begun. The researches of Sir Henry Maine and M. Laveleye show that the primitive cultivation of land was communal. Such still is the Russian mir and Swiss Allmend. Under communal systems every child born upon the land was guaranteed subsistence, and wide disparity in fortune between individual and individual was scarcely possible, so that pauperism was unknown. How the communal systems gave birth to our existing methods of individual possession M. Laveleye tells in an interesting way in his work on "Primitive Property." The practical fact which concerns us is that, among civilized nations individual property is established and is held to need reform. The change from communal and clan ownership of land to the tenure of recent times has been attended by a gradual divorce of the responsibility which formerly attached to land-owning; if the responsibility now exists at all,