The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr.
Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.
CHAPTER II, THE CAUSE OF INEQUALITY
WHAT causes the unequal distribution of wealth by which one class is made superabundantly rich, while another, vastly greater, has a hard struggle to get a living?
The will of Heaven, some say. President George F. Baer of the Anthracite Coal Trust was credited by the newspapers of the country, in the summer of 1902, during the second great hard-coal strike in Pennsylvania, with writing to a correspondent: “The rights and interests of. the laboring man will be protected by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the property interests of the country.” Whether or not President Baer said this, it represents the thought, or at least the utterance, of a certain class of privileged people.
Others assign a scientific, rather than a religious cause. Mr. Carnegie, for instance, says in his book, “The Gospel of Wealth,” that we should “accept and welcome” the condition which “inevitably gives wealth to the few . . . as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race,” since the keen competition that such concentration involves insures “the survival of the fittest.”
Now, of course, if “God in His infinite wisdom” gave the major part of the wealth of the country to certain men , it would be sacrilege to question their possessions. Or if the operation of natural law “inevitably gives wealth to the few,” then that few would be justified in using any means whatever in defense of it.
But who really accepts either of these contentions? Certainly not Americans, as a people. Their great charter of liberties set out with the declaration that “all men are created equal.” Their national existence started on the principle that one man is entitled to as good a chance in the world as another, and no better. As a people, they simply asked for a fair field and no favor. And because it was possible for each to demonstrate that nature was open to him, — that he could take up and use for himself without let or hindrance of any some of its soil, its forests, its rocks, its watercourses, and so by his own exertions win direct from the natural elements his own and his family’s subsistence, — the early American was a bold, hardy, rugged, generous, independent man.
All he asked was to be let alone. He sought no one’s favor. Indeed, few had favors to grant, except such as pass between equals. Wealth, even learning, was not the measure of stature; it was manhood, truth, self-respect, self-reliance. The core of his religion was not that “God in His infinite wisdom” had given this world to some men. It was that God had made the world large enough for all men to enjoy in peace and plenty. And the science that most interested him was not the one relating to the survival of the fittest, but the one relative to a square show, which he believed our free political conditions and a vast, new, virgin, unappropriated continent guaranteed.
Writing to his father, De Tocqueville said of the Americans: “I am at present full of two ideas: first, that this people is one of the happiest in the world; second, that its immense prosperity is due not so much to peculiar virtues or to its form of government, as to the peculiar conditions in which it is placed. . . . Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions among the people.”
But when nature later became appropriated, — when all the accessible soil of the United States of America had become the private property of some to the exclusion of all others, — a privileged class appeared. Those who owned a share of nature possessed a material advantage over those who owned nothing of it.
Now the word “privilege” means not a natural, but an artificial condition. Even its derivation shows that. It comes from the Latin privilegium, meaning an ordinance in favor of a person; and privilegium comes from privus, private, and lex or legem, a law. Hence, in its essence, the word “privilege” means a private law, a special ordinance or a usage equivalent to a grant or an immunity in favor of a particular person.
This word privilege, or private advantage, had application to land monopoly which destroyed Rome. In Rome’s early, hardy, virtuous, independent, republican days the principle of equal rights to the soil was recognized in a way suited to a primitive agricultural community. Each citizen had his little plot for living on and working, and besides, each had access to the “public domain” for fuel and grazing. The committee from the Senate waiting upon Cincinnatus to call him to the dictatorship found him plowing his two-acre farm. After a time new laws were passed governing the public lands. But of these laws only comparatively few could avail themselves. Enacted nominally in the interest of all, they resulted really in the benefit of a few. They were in their practical workings private laws. They were general in form and language. On their face all had equal opportunity under them. But they really created and protected land monopoly. They were as distinctly to the advantage of particular persons as if private acts had been passed by the Roman Senate and sanctioned by the Tribunes.
In the same way our institution of private land ownership, derived from the later Roman usage and clothed with legal status and social sanction, as it is, has nominally been for the good of all, but really it has worked for the advantage of some, since it has stimulated land speculation and fostered land monopoly. While ostensibly for general benefit, it has been in effect a privilege or private law — an institution for the gain of chance individuals and to the general loss.
It was against this state of things as much as against anything else that Thomas Jefferson’s famous utterance, “equal rights for all, special privileges to none,” was directed. For earlier, in a letter written from France to Rev. James Madison (dated Fontainebleau, October 28, 1785), he wrote: —
Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for men to labor and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry, we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided for those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed. (Jefferson’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. VII, p. 36.)
This was not a stray, undigested remark of Jefferson’s. He was not given to haphazard utterances. He here stated a bedrock truth, which four years later he extended in a letter to his most intimate friend, James Madison, son of the foregoing Madison (Paris, September 6, 1789). “I set out on this ground,” said he, “which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. . . . This principle that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead is of very extensive application and consequences in every country . . . and it renders the question of reimbursement a question of generosity and not of right.” (Ibid., Vol. V, pp. 116-122.)
Jefferson saw no need of announcing the principle of equal rights to land more prominently, — in the Declaration of Independence, for instance, — for he never dreamed of the astounding, wholesale appropriation which has occurred. He thought that for “ages to come” there would be enough and plenty for all who wanted good, accessible land. But the then generally adopted principle of private property in land, taken with the later special enactments to get owners for the public domain, has resulted precisely as if particular laws had been passed for the advantage of such individuals as chanced to be first and to the disadvantage of all coming afterward.
When we examine the matter in the light of simple reason we may see that of all privileges land ownership is the greatest, — that, indeed, it is the chief cause of the unequal distribution of wealth. For consider: In the beginning God made nature and man. He did not endow man with the power to produce something from nothing, but required him to apply his powers — that is, his labor — to nature so as to draw forth the things necessary to satisfy human desire. The part of nature to which man was to apply his labor was land.
Now a man has an inherent right to himself, and, consequently, to the fruits of his labor. By the same reasoning, he has no right to another or to the fruits of that other’s labor. If this be so, it follows that land cannot in justice be made private property, for to be private property it must be owned by some to the exclusion of others, which would reduce to more or less dependence those others who must use it. Legally, however, in many parts of the world men have been, and in some parts of the world yet are, enslaved and are called “property.” Similarly, in most of the civilized world land is owned by a part of the inhabitants and is called “property.” Such “property” has the legal as well as what the moralists call the “social sanction.” But this reckless use of the word destroys its real and legitimate use. Property refers to something that may be owned without infringing the rights of another. It cannot mean a human being, nor the thing tn which a human being must apply his labor to satisfy his wants and desires. It can mean only that which his efforts may produce from nature. To that he can give title as producer. So that only such things as are derived from labor can be property. This is its sole source and title.
Ownership in a man would give the right to his exertions. Not a right to the slave’s body, but a right to his labor was the contention of some of the American pro-slavery advocates. “`The traffic of human souls,”‘ contended one, “which figures so largely in the speeches of the divines and demagogues, and which so fiercely stirs up the most unhallowed passions of their hearers, is merely the transfer of a right to labor. . . . When we say that slaves are property, we merely mean that their masters have a right to their service or labor.” (“An Essay on Liberty and Slavery,” by Albert Taylor Bledsoe, LL.D., Professor of Mathematics in the University of Virginia, published by J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1856. See pp. 91 and 326.)
Similarly, ownership of land gives a power to exact part of the fruits which labor upon it shall bring forth. This ownership is not a right of property springing from labor. It is a power to appropriate the fruit of labor. It is not property, but a power to take, to confiscate, property. American black slaves and Russian white serfs were in effect still slaves even after emancipation, owing to the retention by the masters of the land which the former had to use. The serfs while still in bondage admitted that they belonged to their masters, but asserted that the land they worked belonged to themselves. When emancipated, they contended that the land should have gone with them. But in fact emancipation meant only the exchange of one kind of servitude for another. The serfs themselves were freed, but the land from which they had to draw their subsistence was appropriated. In this way servitude was continued without involving the responsibilities which serfdom had imposed upon the masters, among them that of taking care of the laborers.
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