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July 2013

Herbert Spencer, Henry George, and the Land Question, Part 2

Smith discusses the mutual misunderstandings of Spencer and George, and George’s effective criticism of Spencer’s weak defense of private property.

Herbert Spencer objected vehemently to the “libelous statements” by Henry George in A Perplexed Philosopher (1892). In a letter to an American correspondent (6 Jan. 1893), Spencer identified “two direct falsehoods.”

First, George alleged that Spencer’s recantation of some of his earlier opinions on the land question “places him definitely on the side of those who contend that the treatment of land as private property cannot equitably be interfered with, a position the reverse of that he once ably asserted [in Social Statics].” Spencer retorted: “I have said nothing of the kind.” He then followed with his standard explanation, which I shall discuss later in this series.

Second, according to George, Spencer had become “the director of an association formed for the purpose of defending private property in land.” Since George was not specific, Spencer supposed he was referring either to the Liberty and Property Defense League, of which he was “not a member”; or to the Ratepayers’ Defense League—an organization to which Spencer did belong but which was “not an association for defending landed property, but…to check the extravagant demands on ratepayers.”

As I discussed in Part 1, Spencer was offended by George’s allegation that he had sold out to the British ruling class and landed aristocracy. In his defensive letter, Spencer explained that he had lost money on every book published between 1850 and 1860, “the returns not sufficing to anything like repay printing expenses.” During the next ten years “the returns of my further books were so small as not to meet my necessary expenses.” Nearly ruined financially, he almost had to discontinue his writing career altogether. Later, when his books began to sell (especially in America) and he made money, Spencer continued to live “as economically as possible” and devoted every penny he could spare for the compilation and publication of the Descriptive Sociology—a doomed project that cost him between three and four thousand pounds. “This was not the course of a man who was to be tempted by ‘a handful of silver.’”

If George meant to say that Spencer changed his position from an “anxiety for honours,” then “no allegation more absolutely at variance with well-known facts could be made.” Spencer had declined dozens of academic honors; and if George meant to say that Spencer was seeking political favors, then “I could not have gone about to achieve them in more absurd ways.” Spencer, after all, had ridiculed the reasoning of two Prime Ministers (Gladstone and Salisbury). To speak disrespectfully of two men “who had in their hands the distribution of such honours” was scarcely the path to political patronage.

If Henry George was unfair when he accused Herbert Spencer of selling out, we should not suppose that Spencer was any more fair to George. Even before George published his lengthy critique in 1892, Spencer had repeatedly written of George’s ideas with contempt, referring to them as socialistic or communistic. In “The Sins of Legislators” (1884, reprinted in The Man Versus the State), Spencer wrote that Henry George and his followers believe that “the individual has no rights but what the community may equitably override.” To this charge George, in A Perplexed Philosopher, shot back: “in nothing I have ever written or spoken is there any justification for such a characterization.” He continued:

I am not even a land nationalizationist….I have never advocated the taking of land by the state or the holding of land by the state, further than needed for public use; still less the working of land by the state. From my first word on the subject I have advocated what has come to be widely known as “the single tax;” i.e., the raising of public revenues by taxation on the value of land irrespective of the improvements on it—taxation which, as fast as possible and as far as practicable, should be made to absorb economic rent and take the place of all other taxes.

While conceding that he would not limit the functions of government to the extent Spencer would—George favored the nationalization of railroads, telegraphs, and other monopolies that are supposedly inevitable—George argued that “within this line I have always opposed governmental interference.” He was an ardent advocate of free trade and “an opponent of all schemes that would limit the freedom of the individual.”

I have opposed every proposition to help the poor at the expense of the rich. I have always insisted that no man should be taxed because of his wealth, and that no matter how many millions a man might rightfully get, society should leave to him every penny of them.

Indeed, George maintained that he was “a clearer and more resolute upholder of the rights of property” than was Spencer—and here George had a point that rarely has gotten the attention it deserves.

I have not yet discussed Spencer’s reasons for opposing the private ownership of land; that task must await the next installment of this series. Although many modern libertarians are aware of (and puzzled by) Spencer’s opposition to the private ownership of land, fewer are aware of how his position on land vitiated his theory of private property in general. And even fewer are aware of George’s brilliant critique, in A Perplexed Philosopher, of Spencer’s weak and confused justification of private property.

In Chapter X (“The Right of Property”) of Social Statics, Spencer rejected John Locke’s justification of private property. Locke maintained that the earth and its products are originally “common to all men.” Then, beginning with the premise that “every man has a property in his own person,” Locke argued that when a person removes something from its common state by mixing his labor with it, that object becomes his private property, because having his labor “annexed to it…excludes the common right of other men.”

Spencer disagreed. If the earth and its products were originally the common property of all men, then “the point to be debated is whether [a man] had any right to gather, or mix his labor with that which, by the hypothesis, previously belonged to mankind at large.” Spencer continued:

It may be quite true that the labor a man expends in catching or gathering gives him a better right to the thing caught or gathered than any one other man; but the question at issue is whether by labor so expended he has made his right to the thing caught or gathered greater than the pre-existing rights of all other men put together. And unless he can prove that he has done this, his title to possession cannot be admitted as a matter of right, but can be conceded only on the ground of convenience.

The upshot of Spencer’s argument is that private property cannot be justified until after land has been nationalized. At that point, the government, acting on behalf of society, will lease land to individuals who agree “to pay in return a stated amount of the produce” they obtain from their tracts. Having thus obtained, for a specified time and purpose, exclusive use of a particular tract of land, a tenant may thereafter appropriate “to himself that portion of produce which remains after he has paid to mankind the promised rent.” Only in this way can private property obtain a “legitimate foundation,” because only in this way can an individual obtain the “consent of society” before he expends his labor on land that belongs to everyone.

I daresay that most libertarian readers will be flabbergasted by Spencer’s torturous justification of private property. And as much as we might wish that this was one of the issues about which he later changed his mind, such was not the case. Spencer’s views on private property never changed in this respect.

We might think that Spencer’s position was merely the logical implication of his belief that land is rightfully owned by mankind in common, and that private property in land cannot be justified. But Henry George, who also opposed the private ownership of land, did not agree. In “Mr. Spencer’s Confusion as to Rights” (Chapter IV of A Perplexed Philosopher), George took Spencer to school by pointing to a fundamental confusion in his argument. This chapter, which is by far the most valuable part of George’s book, will be appreciated even by those libertarians who disagree with both George and Spencer on land ownership.

“Locke was not in error,” proclaimed George.

The right of property in things produced by labor—and this is the only true right of property—springs directly from the right of the individual to himself, or as Locke expresses it, from his “property in his own person.”…Labor can, of course, produce nothing without land; but the right to the use of land is a primary individual right, not springing from society, or depending on the consent of society, either express or implied, but inhering in the individual, and resulting from his presence in the world. Men must have rights before they can have equal rights.

Spencer’s fundamental error, according to George, was his failure to understand the difference between equal rights to land and joint rights to land. To have equal rights to a thing means that each person “has a right to use all or any part of the thing that no other one of them is using.”

But where men have joint rights to a thing, as for instance, to a sum of money held to their joint credit, then the consent of all others is required for the use of the thing or of any part of it, by any one of them.

According to George, “the rights of men to the use of land are not joint rights; they are equal rights.” Suppose there were only one man on earth. That man would obviously have the right to use the entire earth or any part of it. Now suppose the earth becomes inhabited by more than one person. In that case the right of the original inhabitant would not be abrogated; it would only be limited by the equal rights of the other inhabitants. His right to use the land would still be a “direct, original right, which he holds of himself, and not by the gift or consent of others.” In other words, he would not require the consent of everyone else before acquiring the right to use land, so he would not require their consent before claiming private property rights in whatever he produced by his own labor. George concluded:

If we keep this idea of equal rights in mind—the idea, namely, that the rights are the first thing, and the equality merely their limitation—we shall have no difficulty. It is through forgetting this that Mr. Spencer has been led into confusion.

George noted that Spencer had argued for equal rights to land in Chapter IX (“The Right to the Use of the Earth”) of Social Statics, but he then shifted, imperceptively and illegitimately, to the notion of joint rights to land in Chapter X (“The Right of Property”). This was a momentous error, one that rendered Spencer unable to establish “a clear and indisputable right” of private property.

Chalk one up to Henry George.

This is part of a series