Letter to The Times
No one can boldly
utter a great truth, and then, when the times have become ripe for
it, and his utterance voices what is burning in hearts and consciences,
whisper it away. So despite his apology to landlords in the St. James's
, and the pains he had taken to make his peace with them
in The Man versus the State
, what he had said on the land question
in Social Statics
came up again to trouble Mr. Spencer.
But for a long time his position on
the land question was almost as dual as that of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In his personal circle it was doubtless assumed that he was a stanch
supporter of private property in land, and if his earlier opinions were
known there it was understood that he was sorry for them. And he had
become, if not an active member, at least a valued ally of the Liberty
and Property Defence League
. But in a wider circle what he had written
against private property in land was telling with increasing force.
For to this wider circle his St. James's
apology had hardly reached,
and even when known was not deemed a recantation of the opinions deliberately
expressed in Social Statics
, which he still, through
D. Appleton & Co., continued to publish, without any modification whatever.
The steady growth of the movement that began with the publication of Progress
everywhere enlisted active men in the propagation of the
idea of the equality of rights to land and called wide attention to what
he had said on that subject. They naturally seized on the argument against
the justice of private property in land in Chapter IX of Social Statics
and spread it broadcast, as the utterance of one now widely esteemed the
greatest of philosophers. Of all else that Mr. Spencer has written, there
is nothing that has had such a circulation as has thus been given to this
chapter. It was printed and is still being printed by many American newspapers*,
and was issued in tract form for free distribution in the United States,
Canada and Australia; editions of hundreds of thousands being issued
at a time**, many of which must have reached Great Britain, even if it
was not reprinted there.
* Even as I write
I am constantly receiving, especially from the West, copies of papers
which contain Chapter IX of Social Statics, and which in ignorance of
all he has since said, continue to speak of Mr. Spencer as an advocate
of equal rights to land.
**About the time I ran for Mayor of
New York (1886) on a platform which attracted great attention to the
idea of equal rights to land, one enthusiastic advocate of the idea, Mr.
W. J. Atkinson, himself printed some 500,000 copies.
This wide circulation
of his condemnation of private property in land did not, it is probable,
much trouble Mr.. Spencer, since it did not reach his London circle.
But in November, 1889—six years after his letter to the St. James's
—some echoes of it made their way into The Times
very journalistic center of high English respectability.
The matter thus got into The Times
Mr. John Morley, Member of Parliament for Newcastle, being in that city,
was interviewed by some of his constituents, representing a labor organization.
Among other questions land nationalization was brought up; Mr. John
Laidler, a bricklayer, speaking for it. Mr. Morley expressing dissent,
Mr. Laidler cited the authority of Mr. Spencer in support of the ideas
that land had been made private property by force and fraud, and should
be appropriated by the community for the benefit of all.
of November 5, contained a report of this interview.
This report in The Times
Mr. Spencer at once. For although he had no objection to the circulation
of his radical utterances in America, where through D. Appleton &
Co. he was still publishing and advertising Social Statics
, it was
evidently quite a different matter to him that they should be known in
the pleasant circle wherein with Sir John and his Grace and the peers and
judges of the Liberty and Property Defence League he was personally dwelling.
He promptly sent this letter to The Times
. It appeared on the 7th.
To the Editor of The
Sir: During the interview between Mr. Morley
and some of his constituents, reported in your issue of the 5th inst.,
I was referred to as having set forth certain opinions respecting landownership.
Fearing that, if I remain silent, many will suppose I have said things
which I have not said, I find it needful to say something in explanation.
Already within these few years
I have twice pointed out that these opinions (made to appear by those
who have circulated them widely different from what they really are,
by the omission of accompanying opinions) were set forth in my first
work, published forty years ago; and that, for the last twelve or fifteen
years, I have refrained from issuing new editions of that work and have
interdicted translations, because, though I still adhere to its general
principles, I dissent from some of the deductions.
The work referred to—Social
Statics—was intended to be a system of political ethics— absolute
political ethics, or that which ought to be, as distinguished from
relative political ethics, or that which is at present the nearest
practicable approach to it. The conclusion reached concerning landownership
was reached while seeking a valid basis for the right of property, the
basis assigned by Locke appearing to me invalid. It was argued that a
satisfactory ethical warrant for private ownership could arise only by
contract between the community, as original owner of the inhabited area,
and individual members, who became tenants, agreeing to pay certain portions
of the produce, or its equivalent in money, in consideration of recognized
claims to the rest. And in the course of the argument it was pointed out
that such a view of landownership is congruous with existing legal theory
and practice; since in law every landowner is held to be a tenant of the
Crown—that is, of the community, and since, in practice, the supreme right
of the community is asserted by every Act of Parliament which, with a
view to public advantage, directly or by proxy takes possession of land
after making due compensation.
All this was said in the belief
that the questions raised were not likely to come to the front in our
time or for many generations; but, assuming that they would sometime come
to the front, it was said that, supposing the community should assert
overtly the supreme right which is now tacitly asserted, the business of
compensation of landowners would be a complicated one—
"One that perhaps cannot be
settled in a strictly equitable manner- … Most of our present landowners
are men who have, either mediately or immediately, either by their own
acts or by the acts of their ancestors, given for their estates equivalents
of honestly earned wealth, believing that they were investing their
savings in a legitimate manner. To justly estimate and liquidate the
claims of such is one of the most intricate problems society will one
day have to solve."
To make the position I then
took quite clear, it is needful to add that, as shown in a succeeding
chapter, the insistence on this doctrine, in virtue of which "the right
of property obtains a legitimate foundation," had for one of its motives
the exclusion of Socialism and Communism, to which I was then as profoundly
averse as I am now.
Investigations made during
recent years into the various forms of social organization, while writing
the Principles of Sociology, have in part confirmed
and in part changed the views published in 1850. Perhaps I may be allowed
space for quoting from Political Institutions a paragraph showing
the revised conclusions arrived at:
"At first sight it seems fairly
inferable that the absolute ownership of land by private persons must
be the ultimate state which industrialism brings about. But though industrialism
has thus far tended to individualise possession of land while individualising
all other possession, it may be doubted whether the final stage is at present
reached. Ownership established by force does not stand on the same footing
as ownership established by contract; and though multiplied sales and
purchases, treating the two ownerships in the same way, have tacitly assimilated
them, the assimilation may eventually be denied. The analogy furnished
by assumed rights of possession over human beings helps us to recognize
this possibility. For, while prisoners of war, taken by force and held
as property in a vague way (being at first much on a footing with other
members of a household), were reduced more definitely to the form of
property when the buying and selling of slaves became general; and, while
it might centuries ago have been thence inferred that the ownership of
man by man was an ownership in course of being permanently established,
yet we see that a later stage of civilization, reversing this process,
has destroyed ownership of man by man. Similarly, at a stage still more
advanced, it may be that private ownership of land will disappear. As
that primitive freedom of the individual which existed before war established
coercive institutions and personal slavery comes to be reestablished as
militancy declines, so it seems possible that the primitive ownership of
land by the community, which, with the development of coercive institutions,
lapsed in large measure or wholly into private ownership. will be revived
as industrialism further develops. The regime of contract, at present so
far extended that the right of property in movables is recognized only as
having arisen by exchange of services or products under agreements, or by
gift from those who had acquired it under such agreements, may be further
extended so far that the products of the soil will be recognized as property
only by virtue of agreements between individuals as tenants and the community
as landowner. Even now, among ourselves, private ownership of land is not
absolute. In legal theory landowners are directly or indirectly tenants
of the Crown (which in our day is equivalent to the state, or, in other
words, the community); and the community from time to time resumes possession
after making due compensation. Perhaps the right of the community to the
land, thus tacitly asserted, will in time to come be overtly asserted and
acted upon after making full allowance for the accumulated value artificially
given. … There is reason to suspect that, while private possession of things
produced by labor will grow even more definite and sacred than at present,
the inhabited area, which cannot be produced by labor, will eventually be
distinguished as something which may not be privately possessed. As the
individual, primitively owner of himself, partially or wholly loses ownership
of himself during the militant regime, but gradually resumes it as the
industrial regime develops, so possibly the communal proprietorship of
land, partially or wholly merged in the ownership of dominant men during
evolution of the militant type, will be resumed as the industrial type
becomes fully evolved" (pp. 643-646).
The use of the words "possible
... … possibly," and "perhaps," in the above extracts shows that I
have no positive opinion as to what may hereafter take place. The reason
for this state of hesitancy is that I cannot see my way toward reconciliation
of the ethical requirements with the politico-economical requirements.
On the one hand, a condition of things under which the owner of, say,
the Scilly Isles might make tenancy of his land conditional upon professing
a certain creed or adopting prescribed habits of life, giving notice
to quit to any who did not submit, is ethically indefensible. On the
other hand, "nationalization of the land," effected after compensation
for the artificial value given by cultivation, amounting to the greater
part of its value, would entail, in the shape of interest on the required
purchase money, as great a sum as is now paid in rent, and indeed a greater,
considering the respective rates of interest on landed property and other
property. Add to which, there is no reason to think that the substituted
form of administration would be better than the existing form of administration.
The belief that land would be better managed by public officials than
it is by private owners is a very wild belief.
What the remote future may bring forth there
is no saying; but with a humanity anything like that we now know, the
implied reorganization would be disastrous.
I am, etc.
ATHENÆUM CLUB, Nov. 6.