Auberon Herbert on Georgism and the single-tax

In the August 1898 issue of The Free Life, Auberon Herbert offers the best and most complete refutation of Georgism and the single-tax that I have ever read. He is utterly brilliant. Due to the length of his argument and, so, the length of transcription time, I am presenting the article in two parts. In each part, Herbert is responding to a letter received from a single-taxer friend. Because the friend's points are repeated verbatim by Herbert within his refutation of them, I do not present the original letter but, instead, dive right into the incomparable words of Herbert himself. This is a transcription from the microfilm. If it is useful to you, a donation would be appreciated.

Auberon Herbert on Georgism and the single-tax

I will take the points in order as my friend raises them.

We both agree that property is sacred because it is the product of faculties. But land is not the product of faculties, says the writer. Now let us distinguish. We must look at land under two different sets of circumstances. (1) Land already owned and become marketable; (2) Land as it first came under ownership, as it first fell under occupancy.
Take first of all land already owned. Now given a state of free trade and the open market (which unfortunately as far a I know exists nowhere as yet in a perfect form), I think we may rightly look on land as representing the product of faculties, since everybody who has made (say ) $100 or $1,000 by his labour, and who desires land, goes into the open market and buys what he can at that price, exchanging what he has won by his faculties for the land. Thus as soon as the open market is once established, land becomes "the product of faculties" to all who go into the market and buy it. It becomes to the buyer the product of his faculties, just as much as the house built for him, or the coat made for him. By "the product of faculties," we do not mean that the owner of whatever it may be had made the thing with his own hands--that would be a piece of pedantic literalness of which I am sure my friend would not be guilty--but that he has obtained it in the open market, where products of faculties are exchanged against each other. I think this reasoning is conclusive as regards land already owned, and that is subject to the operations of the open market. No thorough free-trader, no believer in the open market, as the meeting-place and exchange-point of all human energies, can consistently desire land to be distributed on any other system. The open market is the only true and impartial distribution of property--the only distributor that does not employ favor and force.

But I confess quite frankly that this reasoning does not meet the difficulties of first occupation, or first ownership. As far as I see at present, there are difficulties about first ownership; but these difficulties exist equally for all of us to whatever school we belong. They are just as great for the Governmentalist and nationaliser, as for the Voluntaryist; and for the simple reason that in every such case new rights over property are created by an artificial act, and not by the action of the open market. Take two cases. The individual AB finds an unoccupied island, and occupies it; the Government of Great Britain finds an unoccupied island and occupies it. There is nothing to choose between the two cases. Whatever weakness and defect that is in the one case, exist also in the other case. If AB has no moral right to occupy the island, neither can the Government of Great Britain have any such right, seeing that is only derives its rights, such as they are, from the pre-existing rights of the individuals (all the various AB's) whom it represents. By no possibility can any Government have larger rights than any individual who takes part in creating that Government, for if it has, then the created thing would be greater than those who created it, and the body, to which power is delegated, would be greater than those who delegated the power to it--which is absurd. Again if the act of AB involved force (I don't say it does or it doesn't), so also the act of the Government involved force; and therefore was equally defective.

There are other difficulties in this matter, that my friend has to face. If it were a true dogma that the earth belongs to everybody, then you must impartially give it to everybody. There can be no sufficient reason why one nation should fare better than another nation. It must all be divided out equally. My friend cannot cut short and limit his dogma just at the most convenient point. If the earth belongs to everybody, because it is a product of nature, then to everybody it must go, and not in accidental lumps to special nations, whose occupancy in the first instance, is just like that of the individual, and has not been created as a matter of right, but as a matter of accident--generally indeed of force. If my friend's dogma deserves acceptance, he must have the courage of his convictions and carve out the whole world equally amongst all tis inhabitants. I can only wish him joy in his task.

My friend thinks but little of a title created by first occupancy. Where a certain thing belongs as yet to nobody, I am not prepared to throw aside occupancy as affording some kind of title, even if of an inferior kind. Suppose that a diamond lies on the beach. Should we not agree that the first finder (first occupier of it) had a better title to it, than the next man who came half-an-hour later? Res nullius has long been held to be the property of the first finder. It would be interesting to hear the question discussed, and to hear what could be said for it and against it.

Now as regards another point. I agree with my friend that you cannot enlarge your rights by mixing what is your own with what is not your own. I think he states that truth quite exactly. But if in order to turn a natural object into a useful object it is necessary to mix human labour with it, then it is reasonable to believe (I won't now put the case more strongly) that the object in question must be capable of being owned by the owner of the labour; otherwise you would create this curious position that a man must give his labour, whilst the profit of the labour--at least, that is to say, a part of it--would go to somebody else; and this somebody else would simply be a man like himself, with no practical concern in the matter in question. To suppose, as my friend does, that the labour belongs of right to the labourer, that it is necessary in order to produce an utility (e.g. land capable of bearing crops) to mix this labour with the natural object (land), and then to suppose that the mixture (of land and labour) cannot under any rightful system or in accordance with any moral law belong to the owner of the labour is surely to achieve a most discordant and contradictory result. We own our labour, but we cannot own the most important dead material with which it is mixed--surely that is placing a very superfluous disqualification upon the human race. Unless we are condemned by some perverse fate to employ our energies under perpetual system of contradiction, it is impossible to argue that a man's labour is his own, but that the natural object in which it is mixed can never be his own.

And notice here--for it throws much light on the matter--the action of the Socialist. He consciously or unconsciously feels the contradiction of my friend's position, and gets over it by taking from the individual his right to possess his own faculties. The thorough-going socialists of to-day have a truer logic than my friend. They declare not only for the nationalising of property and products, but also for the nationalising of faculties. They see that the two things are inseparable,--that the law of the one must decide he law of the other. They feel that the position of my friend--the most important material substance assigned to "everybody" whilst human faculties are assigned to the individual--is an impossible position, involving us forever in inextricable contradiction and confusion.


R.W.[the friend]--"1. The rights of all in respect of all the gifts of nature are initially equal. Hence no dealing with the soil on the part of any person can be initially justifiable if it places any other person, who may wish hereafter to deal with it, at a disadvantage. By 'initially' is here meant 'in default of any arrangement for redressing the balance of advantage.'"

Auberon Herbert: "The rights of all in respect of all the gifts of nature are initially equal." I think this means either nothing, or everything that the Socialist asks for. Initially we are all equal in the sense that every man, who can get there, may go to the Klondike, or may search for and occupy uninhabited islands, or look for the diamond on the shore. 'Initially' where property is not yet appropriated or owned we are all equal in our rights; but when property is already owned, then equal rights to all gifts of nature no longer exist, unless you accept the Socialist doctrine that property cannot by some mysterious and as yet unexplained law belong to the individual but only to the mass of individuals--a sheer contradiction in thought, since what John Smith cannot do, a thousand John Smiths cannot do. My friend seems to halt between the two opinions. It must be one or either. Either the individual can own the gifts of nature, or he cannot. If he can, then we have only to discover the system under which all individuals can most rightly--without force and without fraud--own these gifts (which is, as we contend, the system of universal free trade); or the individual cannot own the gifts of nature, and then we ought to be Socialists.

I am sure my friend wishes to be consistent. He must remember that everything is in part a gift of nature. If his proposition is true about gifts of nature, why should one gift of nature belong to everybody. and another gift belong to the individual? The soil belongs to everybody, says my friend, because it is the gift of nature. But so also the apple tree at the bottom of my garden is in part (the largest part) a gift of nature. "Oh, but you have mixed your labour with it" he may reply. True. But then, as he has just shewn us very clearly mixing what is your own with what is not, you cannot enlarge your rights. The apple tree then clearly cannot be wholly mine--being in part a gift of nature; and if I wholly appropriate it without allowing any passers-by to pluck two-thirds of its fruits, I am nothing but a robber stealing from the public. So it is with every single thing you can name. If we cannot rightly appropriate gifts of nature, my friend is a robber as regard the coat he wears, the the loaf he eats. At every moment of his life he is defrauding the public. And here I should ask all readers to consider the awful, indescribable complications arising out of my friend's dogma. Every article grown in every part of the world ought to be divided in parts between the grower and the rest of the world.

"Oh!" probably exclaims my friend, "we put a tax upon the land and that makes it all right; that is to cover everybody's share in the gifts of nature." Yes but unfortunately it doesn't. It breaks down, as all these artificial arrangements break down, that are employed to give practical effect to an untrue dogma. You tax land at say $1 an acre. One man grows an oak tree or a furze bush on it; and another man gets a present (in part) from nature of $200 worth of strawberries. But you don't propose to tax--you know very well you dare not do it--in proportion to nature's gifts. You dare not really tax a man for the better use he makes of land, and for nature's share in all that she gives him. If you did, you would stop production and make a revolution. What then is the moral worth of a theory that you cannot honestly and straightforwardly carry out?


R.W.--"2. Though perfect realisation of the principle of equality may be unattainable, there must be some practicable arrangement more nearly conformable to it than any other, and it is the duty of every one who proposes to meddle with the soil to discover that best arrangement if he can, to recommend it to his fellowmen and to do his best to arrive at a common understanding with them on the subject."

Auberon Herbert: That will hardly do. My friend lays down a principle, which he sees it is impossible to apply--a principle, which cannot be put into any practical form that does not violate the principle itself-- and then he calmly suggest that we should all go fishing for some arrangement that will have some sort of relationship to the principle. No. If a principle is discovered to be practically impossible, the true moral is to reconsider your principle. There are no real chasms existing between what is morally true and what is possible in practice.


R.W.--"3. In determining the arrangement which ought to be made, the guiding maxim should be, not the identity of user but equality of benefit, and the greatest total benefit consistent with equality."

Auberon Herbert: Dogma begets dogma. My friend will find that dogmas are a most prolific race. On what grounds does he justify his new dogma? If a thing really belongs to everybody, the use of it is everybody's right, not some suppositious advantage, which is put in its place. If nature's gifts belong in part (labour etc. deducted) to everybody, then everybody ought to be free to pluck say two thirds of the apples on my tree; but my friend is afraid of the natural and direct consequences that result from his first dogma, so he is trying to find a way of escape by placing a second dogma by the side of his first dogma. His first dogma results in such hopelessly unpractical consequences that he is obliged to invent a new dogma--which amounts to this, that instead of giving 'everybody' what they have a right to claim, we are to give them something, which is quite different, and which they may or may not want to have. My friend does not dare to give 'everybody' two thirds of my apples but he will give them instead a new policeman, or a new inspector, or a bath-house, or a library--in short anything but the one thing which he declares they have a right to possess.


R.W.--"4. The most essential feature in all such arrangements must be the concession to certain individuals (or voluntary associations of individuals) of the right of 'mixing their labour' with certain portions of the earth's substance in their own way and for their own exclusive benefit, in consideration of a payment (in money, commodities, or services) equivalent to the sacrifice entailed by the appropriation on the rest of mankind."

Auberon Herbert--I hope my friend will pause a little to consider the awful complications which are rapidly growing round him. Nobody has a right to mix his labour with the earth's substance, but out of these 'no-bodies' some persons are to be found to confer the right of doing this particular thing upon other persons. How out of the total of persons without rights "to mix their labour," etc., you can discover some persons competent to permit others to do so is a problem that I commend to my friend's attention.


R.W.--"5. No such transaction and consequently no decent approximation to justice is possible unless there exists some person or body which can be trusted to receive the payments above-mentioned; and to apply them to the general benefit of at least that portion of the human race whose interests are appreciably affected by the enclosure in question. In other words, there can be no useful discussion of the land problem without postulating the existence of a civilised State."
Auberon Herbert--The original rights are slowly fading away in a dimmer and dimmer distance. Instead of my apples on the tree, to which the public were entitled, we had first of all in their place a money payment; and now we have a government elected by a majority who are to decide what I am to pay, and what is to be done with the payment. By this departure from the original terms of the right, as stated by the writer, a new and very startling consequence has arisen: the right of everyone to nature's gifts now means that an elected body may take from me whatever they choose to declare is an equivalent of nature's gift, and apply it to any purpose that they think right--however much I may be opposed to such a purpose; so that all the evils of the force-government of some by others, and the employment of a man's property against his wishes are now slowly emerging out of my friend's first proposition.

It is in vain for him to plead that no more should be exacted by his officials from the man who profits by nature's gifts than a fair equivalent for such gifts. In the first place the equivalent defies calculations. Who is to decide whether it is to be prairie value or market value? Whether a land tax is to be permanent or be liable to increase? Who is to disentangle the share of nature and of human labour and skill? In the second place he has created for his purposes an official body with power to tax and to spend the taxes so imposed; but what reason has he to suppose that an official body--necessarily armed in this matter with absolute power--elected under the false system of a majority possessed of all rights and a minority possessed of no rights--will give a just and true interpretation to his dogma of 'nature's gifts the property of everybody'? Is there not an instructive light thrown upon the truth of his dogma by the fact that in order to arrive at a practical application of it he is obliged to perpetuate a large part of the very evils from which we are trying to escape--the absolute power of the majority--the power to take what amount they like and to spend it for such purposes as they like. If compulsory taxation is wrong in itself, how can you concede a land-tax, to be levied by the majority on the minority, without at the same time conceding all the evils and oppressions of compulsory taxation? My friend agrees with me in condemning compulsory taxation; and lo! and behold in his head-long pursuit after his theory of nature's gifts he finds himself once more fatally entangled in the evil system.


R.W.--"6. Where the territory of the State in question is already overcrowded in proportion to its natural resources, the claims of the rest of man kind may for practical purposes be left out of the account. In other cases the measure of justice attained will still be seriously imperfect, unless the State shows itself so far sensible of its international obligations as to admit on fair terms immigrants from less favoured countries."

Auberon Herbert--"The gifts of nature belong to everybody"--only they cannot practically be allowed to have them. This far-reaching and revolutionary proposition is not to apply unless the politicians of a country choose to allow immigrants of other nations to enter and obtain some small benefit from the principle. How far the politicians of any wealthy country are likely to share with others the prize which my friend proposes to place in their hands, I must leave him to consider.


R.W.--"7. The payments from occupiers of land cannot justly take the form of a lump sum paid once for all for perpetual occupation for two reasons; first, before future generations will not benefit by such payments, thought their interests may be more seriously affect by the appropriation than the generation which receives the money; and, secondly, because the community is morally entitled not only to the original ground value, but to any subsequent increase due to other causes then the labour of the occupier, such an increase of population, or improvements made at the public expense, and affecting the general character of the district. The second reason suggests a rent subject to periodical revision."

Auberon Herbert--The occupier will hardly be a happy man, for he is to be indefinitely taxes in increasing quantities at unknown rates, as the politicians may decide. He will never be a free man; he will never know to what extent he owns his faculties, or what liabilities others may impose upon him. My friend has contrived to accumulate round his gifts-of-nature-system all the worst evils that are to be found in our present systems of taxation--uncertainty, a state of dependence upon the will of others, and perpetual strife between those who impose the burden and those who bear the burden. The chief conditions which are necessary for the real progress of a nation are certainty, stability as regards the circumstances of life, and the sure and definite return to a man for his labour, no arbitrary power placed in the hands of some men over other men especially where their interests are opposed, and no creation of an artificial relation, in which relation one large section of the nation is forced into continual conflict with another section--conditions which would all be impossible when the cultivator and owner were made subject to the will and pleasure of the non-cultivator and non-owner.

The community is entitled to all values arising from land, says the writer, that are not due to labour. But the writer knows as well as I do that it would surpass the skill of men to disentangle these intermixed values. It could only be done by guess work of a very coarse kind. If the principle were just in itself, it would still be used as a mask for taking from others. No man could disentangle what was due to skill, good judgment, and wise outlay, and what was due to the indirect action of others. All taking of so-called unearned increment would be a farce--and a very mean farce. It would only be the pleas of the stronger, just as good or bad as the pleas of the stronger usually are when he consults his own interest and takes by force. But the principle is not true in itself. If a principle is true, it must be capable of universal application, and this principle is not capable of universal application.

In the first place my friend has no intention as I suppose to make good the losses that occur as well as the gains. A site falls in value owing to the movement of population--will the believers in unearned increment compensate the owner? But now take the far more important consideration. A plot of land rises in value because a town springs up near it; and therefore this increase of value is to be appropriated by the public. But the same thing happens to all human services. The writer of books, plays, songs, the painters of pictures, the doctor, the dentist, the lawyer, the architect, the maker of instruments, the maker and purveyor of all articles of use, and all articles of comfort, the stone mason, the bricklayer, the carpenter, and fifty other classes of workers, all find their skill and their knowledge of greater value to them because masses of people having certain wants are congregated in certain spots. In the case of every worker there is an unearned increment. He not only profits by the skill, the invention, the enterprise and labour of others, but simply by their presence, in a certain spot. He may give as much as he receives, or much less or much more. None of us can tell. It is an incalculable problem. But if the principle were true that we ought to be charged for unearned increment--for all increase of value in our own faculties or in any form of property, that is not due to our own efferts, then my friends officials ought to set to work and assess every living man and woman with the utmost diligence that they possess. Every man who bought a picture during the life of an artist, and finds that its value is doubled since the artist's death; every farmer who bought his manures and feeding stuff at a cheap market rate and since buying it has seen prices rise; every buyer of cotton, of wool, of timber, of iron, who can sell to-day for a higher price than the price which he paid--all these persons ought to be placed under my friend's official harrow. On what ground should they be excused? You cannot solemnly lay down a great principle, ask the nation to accept it, and then explain that, owing to practical difficulties, you only intend to apply it to 1/10 of the persons to whom it ought to apply. That is mere trifling; and this justice--even if it were justice with which you started--would become injustice when simply applied to one class and not to other classes.

There would be also another matter to disentangle. It is all very well to say that "the community" adds value to the labour of the labourer. So far as it does, it is the action of certain individuals in the community, and of these in very varying degrees. The shrewd employer, the enterprising capitalist, the industrious workman add a far greater value than Tom, Dick, and Harry, whose contributions to value may be pretty nearly neglected. My friend will have to disentangle these values if he intends to carry out his principle justly. He is bound to give each his due and not to lump contributors and non-contributors together. That would be taking from some what belongs to them and giving it to those to whom it does not belong--which is not justice, but political expedience. The truth is my friend has started on a road--labeled justice--where he cannot be just.

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