The Condition of Labor – Henry George
This earnest and eloquent Letter to the Pope is by far the most remarkable utterance which the Encyclical of 1890 has evoked. The Pope could not have found a fitter controversialist to oppose him, for Mr. George meets him on the same basis of metaphysical theology, and appeals to the same authority of Scripture and St. Thomas of Aquino. And the whole letter seems, in its manner, curiously to echo the Pope ‘ s own dignified ecclesiastical – Latin style. Mr. George feels that the Encyclical is directed more strongly against his own “single tax” panacea than against what is vaguely called Socialism, which in a moderate form it favors. The Pope expressly puts property in land on the same level with property of any other kind, and expressly maintains that private property in this wide sense is a “natural right” of man, prior to the formation of any State. Mr. George, like the Pope, believes in ” natural rights; “but he works out this vague and treacherous conception in his own way. “The right of property,” he says, “attaches to things produced by labor, but cannot attach to things created by God. Thus, if a man take a fish from the ocean he acquires a right of property in that fish, which exclusive right he may transfer by sale or gift. But he cannot obtain a similar right of property in the ocean, so that he may sell it, or give it, or forbid others to use it.” Does Mr. George mean that the fish was not created by God ? He can hardly expect his Holiness to believe that; nor are any of us likely to believe that it was ” produced ” by the fisherman in any sense in which a great deal of land has not been produced ” by human labor. The antithesis of God or ” Nature ” to everything that is done by human effort runs through all Mr. George ‘ s arguments. ” Socialism in all its phases, ” he says, ” looks on the evils of our civilization as springing from the inadequacy or inharmony of natural relations, which must be artificially organized or improved. In its idea there devolves on the State the necessity of intelligently organizing the industrial relations of men, the construction, as it were, of a great machine, whose complicated parts shall properly work together under the direction of human intelligence. This is the reason why socialism tends towards atheism. Failing to see the order and symmetry of natural law, it fails to recognize God.” Mr. George seems to think that the work of human intelligence goes on in spite of God, and is somehow outside “Nature.” This, though a very common way of thinking, is very questionable philosophy, and the Pope would hardly approve of it as theology. Mr. George undertakes a hard task when he tries to persuade the head of the Catholic Church that ” interest is natural and just, ” while land – owning is wrong. But he makes a very strong point when he shows that the Pope ‘ s argument, ” that what is bought with rightful property is rightful property, ” could be used to justify slave – owning as easily as to justify property in land.
The Condition of Labor.
Excerpt from the text:
Our postulates are all stated or implied in your Encyclical. They are the primary perceptions of human reason, the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith:
We hold: That—
This world is the creation of God.
The men brought into it for the brief period of their earthly lives are the equal creatures of his bounty, the equal subjects of his provident care.
By his constitution man is beset by physical wants, on the satisfaction of which depend not only the maintenance of his physical life but also the development of his intellectual and spiritual life.
God has made the satisfaction of these wants dependent on man’s own exertions, giving him the power and laying on him the injunction to labor— a power that of itself raises him far above the brute, since we may reverently say that it enables him to become as it were a helper in the creative work.
God has not put on man the task of making bricks without straw. With the need for labor and the power to labor he has also given to man the material for labor. This material is land— man physically being a land animal, who can live only on and from land, and can use other elements, such as air, sunshine and water, only by the use of land.
Being the equal creatures of the Creator, equally entitled under his providence to live their lives and satisfy their needs, men are equally entitled to the use of land, and any adjustment that denies this equal use of land is morally wrong.
As to the right of ownership, we hold: That –
Being created individuals, with individual wants and powers, men are individually entitled (subject of course to the moral obligations that arise from such relations as that of the family) to the use of their own powers and the enjoyment of the results.
There thus arises, anterior to human law, and deriving its validity from the law of God, a right of private ownership in things produced by labor— a right that the possessor may transfer, but of which to deprive him without his will is theft.
This right of property, originating in the right of the individual to himself, is the only full and complete right of property. It attaches to things produced by labor, but cannot attach to things created by God.
Thus, if a man take a fish from the ocean he acquires a right of property in that fish, which exclusive right he may transfer by sale or gift. But he cannot obtain a similar right of property in the ocean, so that he may sell it or give it or forbid others to use it.
Or, if he set up a windmill he acquires a right of property in the things such use of wind enables him to produce. But he cannot claim a right of property in the wind itself, so that he may sell it or forbid others to use it.
Or, if he cultivate grain he acquires a right of property in the grain his labor brings forth. But he cannot obtain a similar right of property in the sun which ripened it or the soil on which it grew. For these things are of the continuing gifts of God to all generations of men, which all may use, but none may claim as his alone.
To attach to things created by God the same right of private ownership that justly attaches to things produced by labor is to impair and deny the true rights of property. For a man who out of the proceeds of his labor is obliged to pay another man for the use of ocean or air or sunshine or soil, all of which are to men involved in the single term land, is in this deprived of his rightful property and thus robbed.
As to the use of land, we hold: That—
While the right of ownership that justly attaches to things produced by labor cannot attach to land, there may attach to land a right of possession. As your Holiness says, ” God has not granted the earth to mankind in general in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they please,” and regulations necessary for its best use may be fixed by human laws. But such regulations must conform to the moral law — must secure to all equal participation in the advantages of God’s general bounty. The principle is the same as where a human father leaves property equally to a number of children. Some of the things thus left may be incapable of common use or of specific division. Such things may properly be assigned to some of the children, but only under condition that the equality of benefit among them all be preserved.
In the rudest social state, while industry consists in hunting, fishing, and gathering the spontaneous fruits of the earth, private possession of land is not necessary. But as men begin to cultivate the ground and expend their labor in permanent works, private possession of the land on which labor is thus expended is needed to secure the right of property in the products of labor. For who would sow if not assured of the exclusive possession needed to enable him to reap? who would attach costly works to the soil without such exclusive possession of the soil as would enable him to secure the benefit?
This right of private possession in things created by God is however very different from the right of private ownership in things produced by labor. The one is limited, the other unlimited, save in cases when the dictate of self-preservation terminates all other rights. The purpose of the one, the exclusive possession of land, is merely to secure the other, the exclusive ownership of the products of labor; and it can never rightfully be carried so far as to impair or deny this. While anyone may hold exclusive possession of land so far as it does not interfere with the equal rights of others, he can rightfully hold it no further.
Thus Cain and Abel, were there only two men on earth, might by agreement divide the earth between them. Under this compact each might claim exclusive right to his share as against the other. But neither could rightfully continue such claim against the next man born. For since no one comes into the world without God’s permission, his presence attests his equal right to the use of God’s bounty. For them to refuse him any use of the earth which they had divided between them would therefore be for them to commit murder. And for them to refuse him any use of the earth, unless by laboring for them or by giving them part of the products of his labor he bought it of them, would be for them to commit theft.
God’s laws do not change. Though their applications may alter with altering conditions, the same principles of right and wrong that hold when men are few and industry is rude also hold amid teeming populations and complex industries. In our cities of millions and our states of scores of millions, in a civilization where the division of labor has gone so far that large numbers are hardly conscious that they are land-users, it still remains true that we are all land animals and can live only on land, and that land is God’s bounty to all, of which no one can be deprived without being murdered, and for which no one can be compelled to pay another without being robbed. But even in a state of society where the elaboration of industry and the increase of permanent improvements have made the need for private possession of land wide-spread, there is no difficulty in conforming individual possession with the equal right to land. For as soon as any piece of land will yield to the possessor a larger return than is had by similar labor on other land a value attaches to it which is shown when it is sold or rented. Thus, the value of the land itself, irrespective of the value of any improvements in or on it, always indicates the precise value of the benefit to which all are entitled in its use, as distinguished from the value which, as producer or successor of a producer, belongs to the possessor in individual right.
To combine the advantages of private possession with the justice of common ownership it is only necessary therefore to take for common uses what value attaches to land irrespective of any exertion of labor on it. The principle is the same as in the case referred to, where a human father leaves equally to his children things not susceptible of specific division or common use. In that case such things would be sold or rented and the value equally applied.
It is on this common-sense principle that we, who term ourselves single-tax men, would have the community act.
We do not propose to assert equal rights to land by keeping land common, letting anyone use any part of it at any time. We do not propose the task, impossible in the present state of society, of dividing land in equal shares; still less the yet more impossible task of keeping it so divided.
We propose — leaving land in the private possession of individuals, with full liberty on their part to give, sell or bequeath it— simply to levy on it for public uses a tax that shall equal the annual value of the land itself, irrespective of the use made of it or the improvements on it. And since this would provide amply for the need of public revenues, we would accompany this tax on land values with the repeal of all taxes now levied on the products and processes of industry— which taxes, since they take from the earnings of labor, we hold to be infringements of the right of property.
This we propose, not as a cunning device of human ingenuity, but as a conforming of human regulations to the will of God.
God cannot contradict himself nor impose on his creatures laws that clash.
If it be God’s command to men that they should not steal— that is to say, that they should respect the right of property which each one has in the fruits of his labor;
And if he be also the Father of all men, who in his common bounty has intended all to have equal opportunities for sharing;
Then, in any possible stage of civilization, however elaborate, there must be some way in which the exclusive right to the products of industry may be reconciled with the equal right to land.
If the Almighty be consistent with himself, it cannot be, as say those socialists referred to by you, that in order to secure the equal participation of men in the opportunities of life and labor we must ignore the right of private property. Nor yet can it be, as you yourself in the Encyclical seem to argue, that to secure the right of private property we must ignore the equality of right in the opportunities of life and labor. To say the one thing or the other is equally to deny the harmony of God’s laws.