Theories Of Land Godwin – Proudhon

Theories of Land Reform: Godwin, Proudhon and the Socialists

Although Rousseau died before the French Revolution had begun, many of the theories concerning property which he set forth in his work Sur I'Origine de I'Inegalite Parmi les Hommes, published in 1755, were elaborated by the anarchists and social­ists of the century and a half which followed.

Among the first of these was William Godwin (1756-1836) in England. God­win was the son of an austere and conservative dissenting min­ister. Although trained for the ministry he found his beliefs shaken by the writings of the French philosophers. He found that he possessed a gift for writing and consequently followed that as a career. In his An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, published in 1793, he analyzed the problem of private property and presented a thesis which has earned him the classification as an anarchist. In his opinion, property not only distorted judgments and values but was intimately tied up with the system of coercion and pun­ishment which marked the modern state. He clearly saw that private property in land prevented the access of some persons to sources of food, clothing, and shelter to which all had a right, since the good things of the world were a common stock. The rights of private property, he says, are of three types: first, those granted to an individual because they are more useful to this person than to any other; second, those representing objects which have resulted from the person's own labor; and third, those created by law and passed on through inheritance. The second and the third are obviously in conflict with the first, which was the most natural and fundamental right of the three. Con­sequently, the second and third types of property should be abol­ished and a state of equality should be introduced where natural rights would be secure against usurpation.

As later events indicated, it was the second of Godwin's type's of property which received the greatest support both from theo­retical economists and social reformers; human labor became the source of value as well as the justification of private property. However, there was one who took up Godwin's viewpoint. This was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865).

Proudhon was the brilliant son of working-class parents. His education was good but achieved at great parental sacrifice. In later years he ob­tained a higher education while earning his living as a printer. The winning of several prizes for essays on contemporary sub­jects fostered his literary career, but marked him as one of radical and revolutionary opinions. There is no indication in Proudhon's writings that he was at all dependent upon Godwin, but spiritu­ally at least he is closely identified not only with Godwin's analy­sis of property but with Godwin's plans for social reform. He believed that every man had a right to the materials necessary to produce his means of existence, but since population never remained constant, continuous redistribution of property would be necessary. Hence it could never become a private possession. Furthermore, property must be used in conformity with general utility, but this also undermined the very foundation of private property, which was the unrestricted right to its disposal. He be­lieved that for the reasons cited society itself could be the only property holder. This was such an obvious principle of social life in his mind that the debates on the question sickened him.
The popular economic arguments that private property could be justified because of the labor expended to produce it, seemed to Proudhon disproved by the social conditions existing at that time. Men labored on lands and in factories but received no title to the goods they produced. Value in land was not finally created by the single act of clearing and improving; its value was re-cre­ated and increased each year by the careful attention of the tenant. Yet the tenant received no property right in the land. Even if labor were rewarded with the totality of what it produced, injustice would still continue. Here Proudhon used the Ricardian theories of wages and value to prove his point. Wages are the cost of maintaining and reproducing labor; since talents are natural endowments and not created by man himself, and since society supplies the materials and training for the skilled work­man, why should one man receive more than another as a result of his labor? Absolute equality was the only just principle to apply. Since labor was responsible for value, anything taken by the owners of property was theft.

The most objectionable feature of property to Proudhon was not the simple fact of ownership, but that ownership gave the proprietor a right to any increase in value which the property might acquire. Since owners were few and laborers many, the drain of interest, land- and house-rent, and profit was enormous, and was responsible—in Proudhon's opinion—for economic crises.

The most numerous critics of private property were the So­cialists. For the most part their criticism rested upon two assump­tions. First, that all value was created by labor; and, second, that the labor necessary to produce a thing was the only justification for private property. Adam Smith and Ricardo had already ac­cepted the first of these tenets but never bothered to explain the justification for rent, interest, and profit. It remained for the Anarchists and Socialists to point out the ethical implications of this theory.

John Gray gave a clear statement of this point of view in his A Lecture on Human Happiness (1825). He said that labor is the foundation of all property. But land cannot be created, and those who claim rights to property through conquest, or merely taking possession, or inheritance are not citing adequate evidence to hold title to property. That perhaps ownership might arise from clearing and draining land Gray readily admitted, but con­fined ownership to as much land as the amount of labor in ob­taining it might justify. He claimed that if the possession of land itself was unjust the charges made for its use by another were also unjust. Consequently owners accepted the result of another's labor and gave no equivalent in return for it.

J. F. Bray followed much the same line of reasoning in his Labour's Wrongs and Labour's Remedy, except that perhaps he was more absolute in his denial of the right of anyone to own private property in land, since this would interfere with the right of another to use the land for productive purposes.
The theories of Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) who was himself a possessor of great wealth (gained, it is believed, through speculation) were not nearly so absolute as the early English Socialists. His main criticism was not directly of private property itself but of the system of inheritance which made it impossible for members of new generations to begin life with equality of opportunity. Although his followers wanted the com­plete destruction of private property in the instruments of pro­duction, Saint-Simon himself believed there was some justification not only for private property but also for paying the owners of capital a return. Rewards, however, were not to be apportioned in society on the basis of ownership but rather on the basis of ability and social contribution.

The socialist analysis and criticism of the institution of private property was most completely propounded in the comprehensive works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As long as production was a matter of an individual's labor with his own tools upon raw materials which he owned, no dissatisfaction arose when the individual owner appropriated the product. In modern civilization, however, where tools were concentrated in large fac­tories, the owner continued to appropriate the product, paying the laborer a wage equivalent to mere subsistence. This, accord­ing to Marx and Engels, was unjust, for it was the appropriation of values created by the labor of others. In planning to do away with private property they contended that nine-tenths of the people no longer owned property anyway. The essential means of production would not be destroyed; in fact, they would be employed for social interests rather than for individual interests. Only the power to derive earnings from ownership would be eliminated.

It is difficult to discuss the question of land and private prop­erty without running into philosophical literature. One might dwell at length with profit upon the writings of Bentham, Kant, Hegel, and Fichte, who defended private property as an expres­sion of individuality, as the rightful return for one's labor, as the natural result of inequalities, and as the spur necessary to secure production. Only in a mild manner did these writers re­strict the use of property so as to conform with the best interests of the state, and on the whole private property was accepted as a good and inevitable aspect of fife. Our interest, however, is with the economists rather than the philosophers. One fact that stands out clearly is that only those economists with a philosophi­cal or reformist turn of mind pay much attention to the function of private property. The more objective of the economists, shall we say, accepted the fact of private property and endeavored to describe its effect upon distribution of income, and to state the general principles which governed the relation of property to economic activity. To this point we will turn in a moment, but first a word about the economists who tried to see the relation of property to the total operation of society.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) followed closely the teach­ings of Aristotle in believing that private ownership of the fruits of labor was an incentive, and that mankind as a whole would enjoy greater happiness if this law of nature were followed. How­ever, land should not be owned unless it were used for productive purposes.

We have already mentioned the philosopher Jeremy Ben­tham (1748-1832). His formula of "the greatest good for the greatest number" did much to serve as a justification for the in­stitution of private property. Bentham agreed that ideally greater happiness would result if a measure of equality existed in the distribution of property, but this he claimed could not be. Equal­ity could not last. Furthermore, if people could not keep all that their labor produced they would not work. He did advocate the regulation of inheritances to prevent too great an accumulation in the hands of a few.

The discussion of private property which one finds in the work: of John Stuart Mill shows clearly its dependence upon the theories of Bentham. Mill argued that production followed cer­tain fundamental laws that were as unchanging as laws of the physical world. This was not true of the distribution of wealth. Mankind established its own principles in this matter, and they could be changed "if mankind so chose." He showed that while the present results of the system of private property were intoler­able, a better organization of the laws of property might be worked out which would still retain the institution of private property which he believed to be, on the whole, desirable.

He condemned that aspect of private property which guaranteed to some persons the fruits of labor and denied it to others. He de­fended payments made to the organizers of business activity, for he believed the provision of machinery and raw materials was accomplished only by labor and abstinence and that these had a reasonable claim upon the final product. On the question of in­heritance he had strong views. Within the limits of reason and practice, inheritance should be curtailed; but he cautioned all to understand that, while those who did not inherit suffered a dis­advantage, it was not nearly as great as the disadvantage which would have been felt had no saving and inheritance been pos­sible. Only by saving is capital acquired and only with capital does man's labor improve its productivity. With land rent more than with any other aspect of the property relationship, Mill took the greatest exception. The most uneconomic feature of it was its tendency to increase as population increased without any effort on the part of the owner. To remedy this fault he advo­cated taxation of the surplus.

Because of the nature in which rights in land were originally acquired—violence, fraud, force, and superior cunning—and be­cause of the far reaching implication of the power land owners held over non-land owners, Herbert Spencer (i820-1903) be­lieved private property in land to be socially undesirable, al­though later he modified his position considerably. He argued for the right of the community to dispossess owners and put land to use whenever that seemed a desirable procedure. The only restriction was that just compensation should be paid. As for private property in movable wealth, Spencer chose to accept the probability of its permanent existence; but property in land he felt would eventually prove an impossible basis of social organi­zation.