Nature of Society † by † Leon Maclaren

Chapter IX

The† Natural† Law† of† Property

In every well-ordered community, the relations between men rest upon recognized rights and duties. Thus it is thought that every man has a right to come and go on the king's highway, and everyone else has a duty to respect that right and not obstruct his passage. Therefore it is said, each must so conduct himself in public places and so preserve his buildings and close where they abut on the public way as not to endanger passers-by. These rights and duties are ideas, ideas which are generally accepted in society and without which social life would be chaotic. They are the principles which govern human conduct and many of them are turned into laws, upon breach of which penalties are enforced by the strong hand of government. Other notions of this nature are purely customary. Such is the practice in England by which motor drivers keep to the left side of the road. Progress in society depends upon the proper ordering of these ideas. If they are wrong, difficulties must result; if right, harmony must ensue. The purpose of this chapter is to enquire into the bases upon which the fundamental rights and duties of men rest.

In pursuit of truth, man finds himself delving into spheres so vast that he has been forced to break up the study into departments. As these develop, and the volume of knowledge accumulates, he must further subdivide his researches. These divisions and subdivisions gradually acquire the full dignity of separate sciences distinguished by names familiar to all. The distinctions between them are, however, purely arbitrary, for all are concerned in the same great task. Discoveries in one department will throw a great light on difficulties in another and will provide a useful check on theories advanced in related studies. Now, it would be unthinkable if men pursuing truth in chemistry were to reach conclusions at variance with those made by physicists upon the same phenomenon. If this should happen, then clearly one or the other or even both must be wrong.

The question which is about to be considered is a moral question and presents itself at this stage of the enquiry in this way: What right has a man to the wealth he receives? The conclusions to be reached upon such an investigation must, if they are correct, harmonize in every respect with those in the study of the natural forces governing the distribution of wealth. If they do not, then one or other must be wrong. The discussion of this new matter will not merely carry this study forward in an important respect but will at the same time put the conclusions reached in the previous chapters to a very severe test.

It is often said that economics has nothing to do with morals. That is an excuse for bad economics. Economics is the study of the forces governing the relations between men in society, and in such a study morality plays a very high part. It is not sufficient to ask, How does it work? It must be enquired further, How should it work?

Every right implies a corresponding duty. Thus, if one has a right to a house, all others have a duty to respect that right. Without the duty, no right could exist. Indeed, men's rights are best secured by enforcing their duties; for example, to say that each has a right to come and go on the king's highway would be idle indeed were not everyone under duty not to interfere with its use by others. The enforcement of the duty effectively ensures the right.

Property is a right - a right to a thing. Property is an idea; that is all. If two litigants come before a judge each claiming that a table is his, the question the judge has to decide is a question of property: Whose property is the table? Now clearly the table itself is not property and the dispute is not about the table, for all will concede that it is made of wood and stands upon its legs. The question in dispute is, Who has a right to the table? So far as the court is concerned it will be of no consequence whether the object of the right is a table, a motor-car, or a pet elephant. It is not concerned with the thing claimed but with the claim itself. Property is not a tangible thing which can be weighed and measured. Men have come to speak of land and buildings as property, but to say that a house is private property is simply to say that someone has a right to it. In answering the question what right has a man to the wealth he receives, therefore, the question at issue is one of property.

Clearly, the most fundamental right a man can have is the right to live. By "live" is not meant holding body and soul together, but the opportunity to develop oneself and one's talents to the full. This right is equal in all. The consequence is that everyone has a duty to respect this fundamental right in others and whoever offends against this right acts in breach of his duty.

Observation of the forces which tend towards human progress show that this is so. The qualities which mark out an advanced from a primitive state of society do not rest on the superior dexterity or skill of the advanced race, nor again in their greater powers of reasoning, but in the knowledge which has been accumulated over the generations and the degree to which that knowledge has been applied in practice.

During the Anglo-American War against the Japanese in the Pacific, one American General, more enterprising than some of his superiors, conceived the idea of using the natives of the islands which abound in the Pacific for combating the Japanese jungle warfare which had proved so dangerous. He found some difficulty in gaining approval of his plans, but finally it was agreed that the men whom he had trained should be given the opportunity of a trial under war conditions. It was arranged that a certain American garrison should be attacked by these native forces on a certain night and that all casualties should be marked with a chalk cross. Sentries were doubled and extra precautions were taken by the defending forces, but the night passed without their being disturbed. By the light of day, however, it was discovered that every one of them bore a chalk cross. This astonishing feat is a most remarkable example of the dexterity and skill of primitive peoples.

Again, it requires no more power of reasoning to find some new scientific fact today than it required long years ago to determine the elementary principle on which all these discoveries rest.

What makes modern inventions possible, however, is the knowledge which has been accumulated by long years of patient study. It is this knowledge and the application of it in practice which marks out the people which has progressed, from the people which is still rough and crude.

This knowledge, however, is found first by observation and the use of the senses. Next it depends upon reasoning from observation so as to reach a conclusion. Finally upon the testing of conclusions by their application in practice. Moreover, if it is to be of lasting value this knowledge must be re-learnt by each succeeding generation who must, in their turn, acquire that dexterity and skill necessary to its application in practice.

Now these powers to observe, to think, to conclude and finally to do are to be found only in the individual. They can in no sense belong to a community. A community is progressive only in so far as the individuals who form it are progressive, and it is regressive in so far as the members of it are decadent. The gifts which are necessary to human progress are given to individuals only.

These gifts, or talents as they are called, are not merely given only to individuals, but may be developed only by the individual possessing them. This is true from the earliest childhood. The task of the parent and of the teacher is essentially to secure for the young human being those conditions and opportunities which will enable the child to expand his talents to the full and which will give him easy access to the knowledge accumulated by the preceding generations. This is the most which can be done, for only the child can develop his native skill and he can only develop it by exercising it. Nature has not, however, left his developments to mere chance. It implants in every healthy child a powerful instinct which drives him to do and to know. The resources of energy which enables the child to exercise his growing muscles and test his prowess are a perpetual wonder, and every parent has been tormented by the recurring question. "Why?"

As the child grows towards maturity, however, the instinctive drive to do and know fades, study becomes tedious and work tiresome. In the place of mere instinct a new force is growing. Thought and work gradually become a means to an end; means to the fulfilment of desires which the young mind begins to formulate for itself.

In the man, as anyone can see, objectives chosen by himself will call forth energy even more surprising than that which surges in the young. To obtain his end he will undergo hardships, tolerate tedium and overcome disappointments which would otherwise baffle him. It is just such energy which will develop his talents; just such experiences gained in the pursuit of chosen objectives which will develop his character and increase his knowledge beyond ordinary bounds. With him whose objectives are chosen by another, however, the result is altogether different. He may work hard, attend to his business during the hours set for the performance of it and, on occasions, he may work overtime but their will not be the same zest and there will be nothing like the same endeavour. The energy necessary to his full development will not be generated. The full use of the gifts which have been granted to man are one of the essentials of real progress and the man who does not exercise and expand them does not understand what living means. A right to live is precisely the right in every individual, equally with everyone else, to select his own objectives in life and to pursue them in his own way, provided always that in so doing he does not hamper others in the exercise of their equal rights.

Now clearly, if an equal right to live means anything at all, it means that every man has an equal right to those things freely supplied by nature without which he cannot live - to the natural resources of the universe. To deny a man this is to deny him his right to live at all, for without access to land man must perish. From this it further follows that everyone has a duty to respect this right. The man who claims, "This land is mine", acts in breach of this duty. Private property in land is against the moral law.

However, bounteous as land is, it will not feed, clothe or shelter a man for a day unless he works. This being so, it is wrong that any able-bodied man should live upon the work of another. Put into a positive form, every man has an absolute individual right to the full product of his labour, subject only to the claims of those unable to work.

Thus the second principle which emerges so swiftly from the fundamental right to live is the principle that a man shall live by his own labour and not by the labour of others. So long as men obtain wealth without working for it, then others are working, at least in part, for no return. All wealth must be produced by someone.

Once the right to the full product of his own labour has been acquired, a man may do with it as he pleases. He may sell or bequeath it, and pass a good title to anyone he chooses. In the first instance, however, the right must have been created by a man's work. This is the root of the title, and every dealing in the commodity subsequent to its first creation must have been freely made and not secured by fraud, stealth or duress.

It is interesting to observe that the first conclusions reached, that no man may say, "This land is mine", is further reinforced by the second conclusion, for no man can say, "I made the land". It is a hard fact of history that private property in land rests upon conquests and other duress.

It is idle, however, to say that a man has a right to the full product of his labour, unless he is assured of equal access to land with every other man. Here appears a contradiction which has caused much of the idle dispute between conservative and socialist. If a man is to be secure in the products of his labour, he must occupy a piece of land, whether it be room for his house and garden, room for his office or factory bench, or room for his crops. Every man in his work takes up space which he must of necessity use to the exclusion of others. To say, therefore, that every man has an equal right of access to land is as much as to say that a man has a right of exclusive possession of a piece of land. This at first sight seems to contradict the proposition that private property in land is immoral.

As usual, however, the contradiction disappears upon closer observation. It is commonly to be seen that one man owns the land whereas another uses it. The benefit which accrues to the owner as such is, firstly to receive the rent and secondly to recover possession of the land at the end of the tenancy in good condition. The tenant who pays the full rent of his holding to another and maintains the land in good condition is admitting the full ownership to be vested in the other, and yet is enjoying full access to the land. Clearly, therefore, if every landholder were to yield the full rent of his land to a common fund divisible equally amongst all men, and if, further, he maintained the land in good condition, then he would be admitting the full ownership to be vested equally in all.

The enforcement of these duties against every landowner, to pay the full rent to a communal fund and to maintain the land in good condition, would not merely secure the equal rights of all to the land, but would further secure to each man an equal right of access to the land. This can best be illustrated by returning to the diagram which was used in an earlier chapter. Suppose that three men, "A", "B" and "C", come to settle upon an island, each taking in turn the best land available, and suppose that working with equal skill and ability the product of their work is represented by 10, 9 and 8 thus:-


The only advantage that "A" would obtain from the ownership of his holding would be the amount by which the product of his labour would exceed the amount he could obtain on the plot occupied by "C", in this case, 2. Likewise, the only benefit that would accrue to "B" would be 1. If each "A" and "B" had to pay this 2 and 1 into a common fund they would gain no benefit from occupying their land rather than "C's". If this fund were then equally distributed between "A", "B" and "C", each of them would secure an absolutely equal amount, which clearly should be the case as we assumed in the beginning that they worked with equal skill. This new position would be represented by taking the rent off sites "A" and "B" and dividing it equally between "A", "B" and "C", thus:-


The same would apply when "D" came upon the land, provided he was free to take any part of the land that was not already in use. His advent, as has been seen, would increase the productivity of labour throughout. This would increase the rent on the sites occupied by "A", "B" and "C", and would also increase the amount of wealth which could be obtained on the best free land. "D" would lose nothing by working on land which was less productive than that occupied by the others, and if the same process were continued and the rent divided, real equality would result. This new position could be represented in two diagrams, the first showing the productivity on the four sites now occupied and the second showing the result when the rent was divided between all members of the community, thus:-



It is interesting to observe the effect which would result from the application of these principles to the existing state of affairs. The present condition of land ownership has already been represented by a diagram showing the inflated rents obtained on land in use as the result of the enclosure of land. If the principles set out in this chapter were applied to this condition, then every landholder would be obliged to pay to a common fund the rent which could be obtained from his land, whether it was used or not. By occupying the land, the landholder is keeping other men out, and he cannot morally do so unless he makes good to his fellows the rent of the land, and further maintains the land in good condition. The amount which each landholder would be called upon to pay would be represented by the figures in the diagram below which show the rent, actual or potential, of each holding, thus:-

(See Fig.15 of Chap. VI)

It must be clear from this that no man would hold land idle, for such an operation would only involve him in very heavy loss. This would result in all the land which was idle being laid open for use. There would inevitably be a migration towards the land which best suited the use for which it was required, and the speculative value would be taken out of rent. At the same time, the operation of the duties set out in this chapter would force into use land which was needed for use, and unemployment would dissolve. The result must be that wages will rise and continue to rise until they take all that labourers could obtain on the best land open to use. Thus the position would be restored to its natural condition as follows, thus:-


The next principle that emerges, then, is that every man has the right of access to any vacant land, provided always that he pays the rent to a common fund and maintains the land in good condition.

There used to be an argument between socialists and conservatives which followed this line. The socialist would say that the individual by his own labour produced nothing. As an example he would take a man at a moving belt in a factory whose sole occupation was to tighten some screws on objects which passed him in rotation. What does he produce? they would demand. The motor-cars that come off at the other end are clearly produced by the combined efforts of all. Society, they would claim, is like a grand moving belt, and all that is produced is communally produced. To this the conservative would answer, supposing your man stood with his hands behind his back and let the objects pass him unattended, whatever came off the other end would not be a motor-car. Clearly, he says, the individual produces everything.

Neither statement is true. The truth lies somewhere between the two. If the product of every man's individual effort were to be added together the resulting sum would not be equal to the whole production of the community. Something is due to the work of generations past which have accumulated the knowledge necessary for modern production. Each new invention takes only a tiny step forward from the one which preceded it and had the prior invention not been discovered, the second would have been improbable if not impossible. In the same way, some of the production is due not to the individual effort but to the co-operation of all men working in society.

For example, suppose that a tobacconist sells high-grade cigars, pipes and tobaccos in the main street in Chester and suppose that his turnover is represented by £100. It must be clear that if that same tobacconist transferred his business to Bond Street in the west end of London, his turnover would be many times greater. The greater results of his industry in the west end would be the necessary result of the situation of the business, for in Bond Street he would feel the benefit of the co-operation of millions of people, whereas in Chester he would work in a much smaller community. This is a remarkable fact which further illustrates the wonderful ingenuity of Nature. The benefit of co-operative enterprise finds its expression in the rent of land. The great difference the tobacconist will notice between his Bond Street premises and his premises in Chester will be the difference in rent. It should not be understood from this that the grossly inflated rents of modern times represent the communal effort. These rents are inflated at the expense of wages. It is the natural economic rent represented by Figure 23 which is the true communal production.

This is borne out by observation of the facts. In those countries where industrial and commercial progress has been maintained for many generations the rents of land are far higher than in those countries where industrial progress has been very slow. Thus the rents in England are far greater than the rents in China although China enjoys natural resources at least as great if not greater than those to be found in England. Again, in any country, rents are greatest where population is densest and where the benefit of co-operative enterprise is most to be enjoyed. The land of the City of London rises in price to six million pounds per acre. London is a market. The value of its land owes its origin not merely to the enterprise of the men who have carried Britain's trade to the four corners of the earth, nor merely of the work of the people of this island, but also to the work of men of all colours, races and creeds the world over, the product of whose work is traded in the City of London.

Rent, therefore, is created communally and should be returned to the community. As wages are the foundation of private property, rent is the foundation of public property.

What, then is the community? Clearly an aggregation of individuals. Each man and woman has a separate individual existence. A community has no separate existence. To say, therefore, that the community should receive the rent is but to say that every individual has an equal right to rent as a member of the community. There is an important difference, however, between the right to wages and the right to rent. The right to wages comes to a man because of his own labour. His right to rent comes to a man because he is a member of the community. Old men, sick men, widows and orphans are members of the community and, as such, have an equal right to the rent. Here is nature's provision for those who, for any reason, are unable to work for themselves.

Before a man may claim his rights as a member of the community, however, he must first fulfil his duties as a member of the community. First amongst these must stand his duty to maintain himself and the dependants he has taken upon himself, his wife and children. This duty, of course, can only apply to those who are able to work.

Moreover, each member of the community has a duty to contribute equally to the cost of maintaining the community. There is no ethical principle for taxation according to means. Each person owes an absolute duty to the community and should contribute an exactly equal amount. If the rent is taken to pay for communal expenses, subject to the claims of those who are unable to maintain themselves, the Government is taking an exactly similar sum from each person. As has been seen, every man has an equal right to rent. If the public authority takes the rent to discharge public expenses it is taking an equal amount from every member of the community.

Thus it may be seen that every man has rights and duties, firstly as an individual in his own right and, secondly, as a member of the community. All these rights and all these duties rest on the simple principle that every man has an equal right to live.

As an individual a man has a personal right of access to land; a right to say that a particular piece of land is his exclusive possession. Immediately, however, he puts himself under an obligation to all others for he must not so exercise this right as to limit the rights of others. He must therefore, if he is to be secure in his own right, perform his duties which are simply these - to pay the full rental of his holding to the public exchequer and to maintain his land in good condition. Provided he conforms to these primary duties he has a right to the full product of his industry upon the land and may do with it as he pleases. Again his right is bounded by his obligations to his fellow beings, not so to use his land as to interfere with the free use of the surrounding land by his neighbours, of which more hereafter.

This is the basis of private property, this is the foundation of individual rights.

In his other capacity as a member of the community every man has rights and duties. He has a right equal with every other man to share in the rent which the communal effort produces. This comes to him as a member of the community and may only be claimed by him if he duly performs his duties to the community. First amongst these is his obligation to maintain himself and his dependants so that none of them may become a burden upon their fellows. Human infirmity, however, puts it beyond the power of some to fulfil this obligation. Clearly those who, for any cause whatever, are incapacitated wholly or partially from maintaining themselves or their wives and children are to that extent relieved from this obligation. In the rent which is their due proportion of the whole they have the succour which nature has supplied to meet their needs and it should be apportioned to them as a right in accordance with the general level of wages earned by the working members of the community.

But to him who could well earn his own living, if he so wished, no such relief is due. If he will not work, let him starve; sheer necessity will drive him to fulfil his natural obligation; no penal code will be necessary, no penalties or prohibitions. But there must be scope and opportunity for him to employ himself to the best of his ability. As has been seen, this will be secured when his and everyone's duties are properly enforced.

It will be rare indeed that the extreme sanction of dire necessity will be required to impel a man to the proper recognition of his obligation to his fellow men. Man is naturally anxious, indeed glad, to make his way in life. He is an unnatural creature who will not gladly expend his energy to promote the welfare of his children. Justice is stern to those who challenge her, but where justice reigns, who will not gladly admit her sway?

Note: The diagrams in this chapter have been amended slightly from the originals for the sake of clarity.

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