Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/March 1890/Origin of Land-Ownership



IT has been asserted that nothing is so devoid of natural justice and moral right as private ownership in land—the sole dominion over a portion of the earth's surface which one man claims and exercises to the exclusion of the dominion of every other man therein. The proposition would be true, and private ownership in land would work the greatest injustice that the mind can conceive—human slavery absolute—if it were possible that one man or a set of men with one common motive could appropriate all land. But such a thing is absurd. And it is denied that private ownership in land as now constituted is unjust, or detrimental to the best interests of mankind associated in the social organization of the world.

Let us assume that primarily land was held in common, or a yet stronger proposition, that it is a law of nature that all land shall be so owned and enjoyed. By the same law of nature, and by reason, he who first began to use a particular spot or field acquired therein a kind of transient property that lasted so long as he was using it. The right to use it lasted so long as possession continued, and with death or removal, possession ceasing, the personal right of usage ceased also, and the land was open to the next occupant. That is, whoever was in occupation acquired for the time being a sort of ownership, a guasi-ownership for the purpose of subsistence, or rest if you please, and to drive him therefrom by force would be a violation of the same law of nature. But once he quitted it, another, having the same right of use and an equal claim to occupancy, might seize it without injustice. Applying this system to an imaginary or ideal state, to men having a common interest and few wants, and those supplied from nature by the simpler forms of industry, the result is a picture of comfort and competence for every one of the community; in fact, an extensive household, with its respected father or chief, around whom cluster the helpless and inexperienced.

But will any one say that no more stable way of holding land than this is required in a society teeming with population, where each man eager for gain is pressing, pushing, and jostling his neighbor—where the industry of one man may have added to the fertility and usefulness of his land what neglect and sloth have denied to that of another? Every man's hand would be raised against his neighbor, and there would be no domestic quietude or personal security; and, consequently, no social bond, civil government, or commercial life. This insecurity I apprehend to be the prime cause of establishing a more permanent property in land.

Necessity gave to the occupant more than a mere transient interest. Necessity gave a species of property in the soil, and, in order to insure that property, recourse was had to social organization, to laws, and punishments for violation of laws.

Now, when man enters into civil society and partakes of its benefits, he must surrender some of his absolute personal rights, or exchange them, as it were, for such relative rights as are incident to men as factors of society. This is no loss or hardship, for he gains by exchange that security of person and property which it is the object of civil government to insure; whereas, in the natural state, every other man being possessed of the same absolute rights of person and property, there would be no security either of person or property. The rights, then, belonging to a man in civil society, which we will call his civil rights, are the absolute right belonging to him by nature, so far restrained by civil law as is necessary and expedient for the general advantage of the community.

It being evidently natural that man should acquire a right of property in the soil, the next inquiry is, how property became actually vested. As occupancy gave the right to temporary use, so occupancy also gave the original right of property in the thing used. The same law of nature would suggest that the first occupant who had by his industry and thrift added to the utility of the soil—in fact, developed by labor the only value therein—should become the owner. The product of a man's labor, the work of his hands, is his. "Whatever he removes out of the condition that nature has left it in, he has mixed his labor with and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby acquires a property in the thing itself. Necessity, arising from insecurity of person and property, being assigned as the first and primary reason for private ownership in land, the right of a man to the product of his labor may be cited as a secondary reason.

Although by theory of civil law as well as by usage, ripening into universal sanction, the ownership of land is deemed to be in private individuals, can it be said, after all, honestly and rationally, that the individual has an ownership of the soil as absolute as in the case of personal property? His interest is rather possessory for the time being, the manner of his enjoyment usufructuary: he can not move the land or carry it with him from place to place; he can not change the nature of it; he can merely draw from its substance for the time being, to the exclusion of all others from such use. In such exclusive use he is as much supported and upheld by natural justice and moral right as in the case of personal property. His labor and capital have improved it, beautified it, rendered it more productive, and enhanced its utility; and, so far as value is concerned, it will be argued hereafter that land has no value except as labor has made one for it. So I suggest the possessory and usufructuary interest of the individual in land is not the absolute ownership and proprietorship of the soil.

Let us see if anything more than occupation, by successive individuals, is contemplated by social law, or by statute law in England or America. In England the proprietary ownership of all land is by common law in the people as represented by the king, the trustee under the social system of all their common interests, rights, and properties. In the United States it is vested directly in the people. By the Constitution and statute of New York State, "the people of the State in their right of sovereignty are deemed to possess the original and ultimate property in and to all lands within the jurisdiction of the State." This I understand to signify precisely what the common law of England and the universal law of nature are: namely, that all property in land was originally vested in the people in common; and if there ever happens a time when no person is in occupation of any portion thereof, the tenancy in common of the whole community immediately goes on again just the same as when, after the first occupant or squatter had relinquished his temporary occupancy, the whole community was again in possession, every man having the right to occupy it, but all in common. So I assert that private ownership, so called, is not a proprietary quality. It extends to and includes only the use; the absolute ownership of all land being, in fact, in the community composed of all individuals.

Suppose that every new-born offspring of that community by virtue of natural right becomes a tenant in common with all individuals then existing, should he share in the possessory right or use of a particular piece of land already in occupation of an individual? By being debarred from such possession, it may be that he is deprived of a natural right, but he becomes a member of the society into which he is born, governed by its laws for the time being, surrendering some portion of his natural and absolute rights for the protection guaranteed by the existing social laws, and participates in all the advantages now existing as well as in the advancement and social improvement of all previous time. Is he, then, defrauded?

The possession of land remains in the occupant by right and justice till such time as he does some act indicating his intention to abandon it, whereupon it becomes common property, and liable to be again appropriated by the next comer. Sale and delivery of possession to a purchaser are forms for the convenience of social government, and instituted with a view, I apprehend, of preserving the quiet and security of social order. By means thereof the present occupant indicates his intention to abandon the land appropriated. The deed of conveyance is an evidence of that intention; and the purchaser, being the first acquainted with such intention, steps in and seizes the vacant possession. Thus the act of abandonment gives the new taker a right against the first, acting by what is known in law as an estoppel, and possession or occupancy is by natural law good against all the world besides. The most effectual way of abandonment is by death of the occupant, when both the possession and intention of keeping possession ceasing, the right of occupancy by natural law also ceases, and the land is open to the next taker. The custom, which has ripened into statute law, that the next of blood take on decease of the occupant, has its foundation in natural law instead of mere civil right. A man's children, those of his blood, his nearest relatives, are usually about him on his death-bed, and are presumably the first witnesses of his decease. They become, therefore, presumably and by natural law, the next occupants, until in process of time this frequent usage ripened into social law.

I have gone to this length in discussing the origin of so-called private property in land to ascertain on what support of natural justice and moral right it rests. This consideration is the foundation upon which stands the whole superstructure of proposed single taxation; for, "if private property in land be just, then is the remedy proposed a false one." If the individual has no such property, or the tenure by which he holds occupancy is supported by natural law, and his use of the land is consistent with natural justice, even though it works a wrong to another, the fault is not due to "maladministration of social laws," in this particular at least.

Investigation leads me to assert that the occupant of to-day holds by a tenure as much supported by natural justice and moral right as did the first taker; and more so, because he has, by exchange of his capital, the product of his labor, purchased the improvements added by every occupant preceding him.

Land has no absolute value. In a natural state and unoccupied by man it produces no wealth. It is only as capital and labor are applied to it that it becomes a factor in wealth, and hence acquires a commercial value. I agree to the proposition that what a man makes or produces is his own to enjoy, to use, to exchange, or to give; that no one else can rightfully claim it, and his exclusive right to it involves no wrong to any one else. So, if by his labor and capital man in occupation of land removes it from the state in which Nature has left it, improves it, renders it more productive, or if he acquires by exchange the improvements already made therein by another, he has joined to it something that is his own, and has created a value in it that did not exist before. Admitting the proposition that government, representing in the social state the common rights of the community, may interfere and take the land occupied by such, individual, as the whole community acting in common as owners might have ejected the first taker, yet on the principle of natural justice and moral right it can do so only upon reimbursing the occupant for all improvements to the land that is, for all the product of labor expended upon it, including that which he has become possessed of by purchase. Since all the value in land is due to the employment of capital and labor, such reimbursement should equal the present commercial value of the land to the occupant (owner). Upon this naturally just and moral principle rests the constitutional restriction to eminent domain, that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.

Nor can I see that, because land occupied by an individual may have a value beyond the value of the labor expended upon it, by reason of its proximity to other lands upon which greater wealth has been expended by other individuals, the injustice of deprivation is lessened. The same rule of reasoning applies to this unearned increment as applies to the actual labor value of the land. The present owner has acquired it by the exchange of his capital, which was the product of his labor elsewhere, and it is really as much a value made in the land by the expenditure of capital and labor as that represented by the actual labor of the first occupant. If so, it is included in the present commercial value of the land.

And why should land alone be deprived of this unearned increment? Other possessions receive a borrowed value from extraneous circumstances, such as the occurrence of war, change of fashion, etc., and no one suggests that it is not a true value to which the property or commodity is entitled.

To recapitulate:

By natural law land is owned by all men in common.

The first taker or occupant might rightfully appropriate so much to his exclusive use as a proper use thereof permitted.

His possession, to the exclusion of every one else, might continue so long as he used the land, or while he was using it.

Upon possession ceasing, his right to use it ceased, and the land was again held in common, subject to be again appropriated for use.

Insecurity in the use, since the occupant's labor added to the soil what before it was devoid of—a commercial value—necessitated a more substantial tenure, a sort of property in the soil which is called private ownership.

To secure this to individuals, social governments and social laws sprang into being.

These latter, either by common usage long established and acquiesced in, or by express provision, not only recognize but assert the law of nature in respect to property in land.

Sale of land in occupation of an individual is an act indicating his intention to abandon it, a grant or conveyance being the means established by social law to signify this intention.

The purchaser, being the first acquainted with such purpose, seizes the vacant land and is the next taker by natural law. The consideration paid represents the capital and labor expended in the land by all occupants, and the justice of such payment is sustained by every principle of natural law and moral right, since the capital and labor so expended represent all the commercial value that the land possesses.

And, finally, to deprive the individual of his occupancy and possession, although it be to reinstate the owners in common, can only be in natural justice and moral right upon payment of the value of the capital and labor represented in the land, which is the whole commercial value of the land.

It follows, then, that the demands of natural justice and moral right would be ignored if all taxes were put upon land, because one form only of labor and capital would be thus compelled to bear the whole burden of taxation.