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Jul 30, 2013

Herbert Spencer, Henry George, and the Land Question, Part 5

Smith discusses some criticisms by Auberon Herbert and Thomas Hodgskin of Spencer’s position on land.

Two of the best criticisms of Herbert Spencer’s defense of land nationalization were written by two of his admirers: Auberon Herbert, who became one of the executors of Spencer’s estate; and Thomas Hodgskin, who was Spencer’s boss, in effect, while they worked together on The Economist during the time that Spencer wrote most of Social Statics.

Auberon Herbert, writing in 1890, argued that “if John Smith cannot morally own land, then ten million John Smiths cannot morally own land. The land nationalizer has not yet discovered that a government or state can only possess the same moral rights of possessing and enjoying as the individuals who create it.” (Robert Flint expressed the same objection five years later: “it is difficult to see how collective property in land can be right if individual property in land be necessarily wrong.”)

Moreover, according to Herbert, if land belongs to an entire nation, then “it is the whole nation (minus nobody) who must decide upon the use of it.” It was usually said by land nationalizers that a majority should decide these matters, but Herbert argued that it is mere fiction to claim that a majority can speak for an entire nation. “It may be practically useful (or mischievous) on occasion to treat the majority as the nation, but in philosophical questions a majority cannot possibly be counted for more than what it is—a part of the nation.”

Suppose a nation consists of 100,000 people. If each of these persons has equal rights to the land in question, then all land must remain free and open to everyone—“which,” as Herbert pointed out, “will be rather inconvenient as regards cultivation, building, &c.”—unless everyone, without exception, agrees to some other arrangement. Suppose all 100,000 citizens unanimously agree to modify their rights in some fashion; this new arrangement could not stand unless each new voter in the nation (e.g., children as they become of age) gives his or her consent as well. Even one dissenter in a new generation would nullify all previous agreements.

Although Herbert did not mention Spencer by name in the foregoing remarks, he probably had Spencer in mind. I say this because of one of Spencer’s arguments in Chapter IX of Social Statics, where he considered the possibility that the earth could “become the exclusive possession of individuals by some process of equitable distribution.”

“Why,” it may be asked, “should not men agree to a fair subdivision? If all are co-heirs, why may not the estate be equally apportioned, and each be afterwards perfect master of his own share?”

Spencer rejected this possibility by taking future generations into account.

[L]et us inquire who are to be the allottees. Shall adult males, and all who have reached twenty-one on a specified day, be the fortunate individuals? If so, what is to be done with those who come of age on the morrow? Is it proposed that each man, woman, and child, shall have a section? If so, what becomes of all who are to be born next year? And what will be the fate of those whose fathers sell their estates and squander the proceeds? These portionless ones must constitute a class already described as having no right to a resting-place on earth—as living by the sufferance of their fellow men—as being practically serfs. And the existence of such a class is wholly at variance with the law of equal freedom.

Until therefore, we can produce a valid commission authorizing us to make this distribution—until it can be proved that God has given one charter of privileges to one generation, and another to the next—until we can demonstrate that men born after a certain date are doomed to slavery, we must consider that no such allotment is permissible.

Thus, according to Spencer, even a society, acting in its collective capacity, cannot legitimately bestow private rights in land, because to do so would deprive future generations of their birthright. Auberon Herbert extended this line of reasoning and asked how the present generation can possibly bind future generations in any arrangement regarding land.

Suppose, as Spencer advocated for his ideal society, a government rents land to individuals for a specified period of time. Morally speaking, this presupposes a number of things. First, we must view the government as an authorized agent for “society”—a position to which Spencer vehemently objected in other contexts. Second, we must suppose a majority is somehow authorized to act on behalf of “society” as a whole, which would include the minority of dissenters—again, a position that Spencer repudiated in other situations. Lastly, as Spencer himself conceded, a majority of the living cannot make agreements that would bind future generations—so why, we may ask (as Auberon Herbert did), would future generations have any obligation to respect contracts made with current landholders, who lease land from the present representatives of society?

Auberon Herbert understood—as did Spencer, if only implicitly—that unanimity will never be achieved. Herbert therefore argued that land nationalization reduces, in practice, to the claim that a majority, acting through a government, will determine the disposition of land. Although this might provide a practical solution, “it will require some courage to assert, as a Divine law, or as a natural right, that a certain unstated proportion of the 100,000 (say 50,000 + 1, or 75.000?) have full rights over the land, and the remainder have none, except such as the larger portion concede to them.”

In truth, whoever claims that the land belongs to the majority has, before he arrives at this stage, to crack an impossible nut, and show either that the part is the same as the whole, or that the land, of natural right, belongs to A., B., and C., but not, of natural right, to D. Whoever claims the land for the majority must first establish that which is impossible to establish, that the majority has some rights besides those of force.

Herbert presented another difficulty in the argument for land nationalization. Why do land nationalizers assume that the people of a given nation have an exclusive right to use the land in that nation, a right that precludes its use by the peoples of other nations? If all land truly belongs to mankind in common, then why wouldn’t (say) a Russian have a rightful voice in determining how land in England shall be used? Quoting Herbert:

Assume this right of the people to the land, and the question has to be answered, what people to what land? Is there any reason to suppose that imaginary geographical boundaries will limit the right so set up? Why are those who live in unfavorable districts and who are densely crowded in their own areas to leave the more attractive spots of the earth to other peoples? The right of the majority is simply and absolutely—let this be clearly seen by those who have not yet seen it—the right of the strongest, and when once that law is established, there will be, for example, a Russian and a Chinese land question as against other nations, as well as a question between different parts of the same nation.

The preceding objections had been made decades earlier by the radical individualist Thomas Hodgskin in his review of Social Statics, published in The Economist (8 February 1851). At the time Social Statics was published (Dec. 1850), both Hodgskin and Spencer were working for James Wilson, founder and publisher of The Economist – Hodgskin as senior editor and Spencer as sub-editor. Spencer’s job allowed him sufficient time to work on his book, and he sometimes visited Hodgskin’s London flat to borrow books and discuss ideas.

It is safe to say that Hodgskin, who was Spencer’s senior by thirty-two years, understood the young Spencer’s ideas better than any other reviewer, and he agreed with most of them. Spencer’s position on land was the only difference that Hodgskin regarded as important enough to discuss in his review of Social Statics: “For a book embracing so many subjects, there are very few conclusions or remarks to which we are disposed to object. We must, however, say that the author’s chapter on the ‘Right to the Use of the Earth’ is by no means satisfactory.”

Like Auberon Herbert and other libertarian critics of Spencer, Hodgskin insisted that all rights are ultimately the rights of individuals, and that a society can possess no rights in addition to the rights of the individuals who constitute that society. Thus, if “societies have no other rights than the aggregates of the rights of individuals, and if no individual, Englishman or Frenchman, have a right to a single foot of the soil of England or France, the English and French nations can have no such rights.”

As Auberon Herbert would later argue, Hodgskin maintained that if the right to use the earth is a right shared by all mankind, then there is no good reason to suppose that only Englishmen have a right to use English soil, that only Frenchmen have a right to use French soil, and so forth. To claim for Englishmen the exclusive right to use English land is to defend an unjust “monopoly” of the sort to which Spencer objected in the case of private ownership. Spencer, in his effort to avoid making land a monopoly of individuals, makes it a monopoly of nations instead; and if no single Englishmen has any legitimate title to English land, then the English nation as a whole, which consists of nothing more than individuals, can claim any such right as a community.

As a strict Lockean in matters of rights and landownership, Hodgskin, who devoted a chapter to land in The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832), had even more fundamental objections to Spencer’s position. I shall consider those objections, as well as Hodgskin’s defense of private property in land, in my next essay.

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