Herbert Spencer, Henry George, and the Land Question, Part 6
Smith concludes his in‐depth examination of Spencer’s fundamental objection to the private ownership of land.
I explained Herbert Spencer’s fundamental objection to private landownership in Part 3 of this series, and I summarized it in the first paragraph of Part 4. This is the argument that private property in land is incompatible with Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom.
Spencer formulated his Law of Equal freedom in various ways, such as: “[E]very man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties, provided always he does not trench upon the similar liberty of any other.” And: “[E]ach man shall have the greatest freedom compatible with the like freedom of all others.” And: “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”
To recapitulate, here is the core of Spencer’s argument from Chapter IX of Social Statics:
Given a race of beings having like claims to pursue the objects of their desires–given a world adapted to the gratification of those desires–a world into which such beings are similarly born, and it unavoidably follows that they have equal rights to the use of this world. For if each of them “has freedom to do all that he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other,” then each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants, provided he allows all others the same liberty. And conversely, it is manifest that no one, or part of them, may use the earth in such a way as to prevent the rest from similarly using it; seeing that to do this is to assume greater freedom than the rest, and consequently to break the law [of equal freedom].
Spencer concluded this argument by positing a world in which all land is privately owned. If this were to happen, as it theoretically could in a consistent system of private landownership, then non‐owners would have no right to stand, much less to live, on any part of the earth, so they literally would be “trespassers” who could rightfully be evicted from the planet (or, perhaps, pushed into the sea). But to accept this possibility, however unlikely it may be, as just would entail denying to non‐landowners the basic right to life, since those with no right to stand and live on our planet cannot be said to have a right to sustain their lives by their own labor. Those who do not own land could live only by the “sufferance” of landowners, a condition that clearly violates the Law of Equal Freedom, according to Spencer.
Spencer was not the first to employ this argument. An earlier and very similar formulation may be found in a 1775 lecture on land reform (presented to the Newcastle Philosophical Society and subsequently printed as a pamphlet) by Thomas Spence, The Rights of Man. According to Spence, we have equal rights to land, as we have equal rights to life and liberty. To deny to some people this right “is in effect denying them a right to live.…For the right to deprive anything of the means of living, supposes a right to deprive it of life.”
Thomas Spence, like Herbert Spencer, also maintained that “the first landholders [were] usurpers and tyrants” who passed their ill‐gotten gains to later generations through inheritance and sales. However, the most interesting parallel between Spence and Spencer is the argument that non‐owners could rightfully be evicted from the planet if all land were privately owned. Private property in land, according to Spence, means that non‐owners may occupy private land only with the permission of owners.
[S]o of consequence were all the landholders to be of one mind, and determined to take their properties into their own hands, all the rest of mankind might go to heaven if they would, for there would be no place found for them here. Thus men may not live in any part of this world, not even where they are born, but as strangers, and by the permission of the pretender to the property thereof.…
This argument, according to which the right to land is an indispensable component of the right to life, became popular among both land nationalizers and advocates of a “single tax.” We find it, for example, in An Essay on the Right of Property in Land (1782), by William Ogilvie; and, much later, in The Irish Land Question (1881), by Henry George, who applied Herbert Spencer’s reasoning to the case of Ireland. In the latter tract–which A. J. Nock (in Henry George: An Essay, 1939) ranked with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Rights of Man–George asked the question: “Has or has not the child born in Ireland a right to live?” He continued:
There can only be but one answer, for no one would contend that it was right to drown Irish babies, or that any human law could make it right. Well, then, if every human being born in Ireland has a right to live in Ireland, these rights must be equal. If each one has a right to live, then no one can have any better right to live than any other one.…
Since, then, all the Irish people have the same equal right to life, it follows that they must all have the same equal right to the land of Ireland. If they are all in Ireland by the same permission of Nature, so that no one of them can justly set up a superior claim to life than any other one of them; so that all the rest of them could not justly say to any one of them, “You have not the same right to live as we have; therefore we will pitch you out of Ireland into the sea!” then they must all have the same equal rights to the elements which Nature has provided for the sustaining of life–to air, to water, and to land. For to deny the equal right to the elements necessary to the maintaining of life is to deny the equal right to life.
How did defenders of private landownership reply to this “equal rights” argument? A common response was to deny that property rights, including property rights in land, are absolute. This was the line taken by Robert Flint in Socialism (1895):
I deny that individual property in land is unjust, and, consequently, that justice demands the nationalization of land. It is necessary, however, to explain precisely what I mean by this denial.
I do not mean by it, then, that an individual may justly claim an absolute proprietorship in land, an unlimited right alike to use or abuse land. Nay, I wholly disbelieve that any man can possibly acquire a right to such absolute proprietorship in anything. All human rights of proprietorship are limited.…
This approach could easily deal with the equal rights argument by stipulating that governments should limit and regulate landownership so as to avoid the eviction scenario proposed by Spence and Spencer. Moreover, Flint’s position could justify vast tracts of “public” land (as we have in the United States today) that would accommodate individuals who don’t own any land.
This is a viable response for those libertarians who, while defending private property in land, deny that property rights are absolute. In this case, we would simply look to the government to solve the equal rights problem–a “solution” that will leave most hard‐core libertarians unsatisfied and, in all probability, greatly annoyed.
A plausible solution (or partial solution) to Spencer’s eviction scenario has been proposed by the libertarian philosopher Roderick Long. In Spencer, Hodgskin, and Land Rights, Long maintains that there are limits to how we may legitimately enforce our rights. For example, if you swallow my diamond ring, this doesn’t give me the right to cut you open to retrieve the ring. Likewise, if someone is squatting on my land, this doesn’t give me the right to doom the trespasser to death in the course of evicting him, as would occur in Spencer’s extreme scenario.
Long also discusses Thomas Hodgskin’s critique of Spencer’s position on land, which appeared in The Economist (Feb. 1851) shortly after the publication of Social Statics. (I discussed some aspects of Hodgskin’s review in Part 5.) Although Long believes that Hodgskin made “some good points in his discussion of land,” he also thinks that Hodgskin didn’t quite appreciate “the force of Spencer’s arguments.” I agree with Long, to a point, but I also believe it is easy to underestimate the force of Hodgskin’s basic objection. So let’s now turn to what Hodgskin had to say.
Hodgskin’s critique of Spencer in The Economist, which is quite brief, should be supplemented by reading his more detailed treatment of land, “On the Right of Property in Land,” in Chapter 4 of The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832). I shall consider the latter in the next installment of this series; the remainder of this essay will explain what Hodgskin said in his review of Social Statics.
That Hodgskin intended to address Spencer’s core argument is indicated by passages he quoted from Social Statics, including this one:
Suppose the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only.
Here is how Hodgskin responded to Spencer’s point:
The author obviously implies that the free use of the earth by each man is necessary to supply his wants, supposing apparently that no individual can live without using the earth to gain the means of subsistence. But fishermen obtain subsistence from the sea; and of what use is possession of the land to seamen, locomotive carriage drivers, and waggoners? The right of individuals is not each to use the land, according to the author’s own doctrines, but each to use his own faculties; and if in the progress of society great numbers of persons can subsist without using the land to satisfy their wants–if experience has taught us that a much greater number of human beings can subsist and have their wants satisfied by the land becoming property than otherwise–if it be also a fact that more faculties are called into play, such as those of the men engaged in all the trades not connected with the land, then it follows, on the author’s own principles, that the land should be appropriated, in order to promote the exercise of faculties and engender the greatest happiness.
It is important to understand what Hodgskin is doing here. He is arguing, in effect, that Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom is not a moral primary, as we see in Spencer’s attempt to justify it, and that if we examine Spencer’s justification we will find that it authorizes private landownership.
This is an interesting and insightful approach. Although Spencer called the Law of Equal Freedom the “first principle” for “a correct system of equity” and claimed that it is “in the nature of an axiomatic truth,” he did not represent it as self‐evident. On the contrary, Spencer attempted to justify it in “Derivation of a First Principle” (Chapter IV of Social Statics). And it is essential to understand Spencer’s derivation if we are to appreciate Thomas Hodgskin’s critique–for Hodgskin focused not on the Law of Equal Freedom per se but on the moral justification for this first principle of justice. Hodgskin circumvented Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom by going directly to its moral foundation.