Smith compares the positions of Hodgskin and Smith on the history of landownership, and their opposition to the political power of the landed aristocracy.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In my last essay, I noted Thomas Hodgskin’s agreement with John Locke’s homesteading principle, which specifies the conditions for the original acquisition of property in land: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.” In The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832), Hodgskin pointed out that this principle has been consistently violated by governments throughout history, mainly through conquest and colonization.

If Hodgskin relied heavily on John Locke’s moral theory of property in land, he also relied a great deal on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) for his understanding of the history of landed property in Europe. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Smith’s account, which was admired by Thomas Jefferson and his American contemporaries, as well as by many British and European liberals. A sketch of Smith’s discussion will therefore aid our understanding of the “land question” throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–especially as it was seen by those classical liberals who, unlike Herbert Spencer, defended private landownership.

In the Wealth of Nations (III.ii) Adam Smith traced the current system of landholding in Europe (and to a lesser extent in England) to incursions by “German and Scythian nations” into the Western Roman Empire, after which the chiefs and leaders of those nations “acquired or usurped to themselves the greater part of the lands of those countries.”

A great part of them was uncultivated; but no part of them, whether cultivated or uncultivated, was left without a proprietor. All of them were engrossed, and the greater part by a few great proprietors.

This unjust acquisition of massive areas of land, according to Smith, might have been only “a transitory evil” if not for the customary laws of primogeniture (which decreed that an entire landed estate be bequeathed to the eldest son) and entail (which prohibited estates from being broken into smaller parcels). Such laws evolved because “every great landlord was a sort of petty prince.” The tenants of a landlord were also his subjects. The landlord was a judge, legislator, and leader in war. Feudal tenants depended on their lord for protection, so to divide land was akin to dividing a state: “To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up in the incursions of its neighbors.” Thus over time the law of primogeniture came into existence “for the same reason that it has generally taken place in that of monarchies.” Similarly, entails, which “are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture,” arose “to hinder any part of the original estate from being carried out of the proposed line either by gift, or devise, or alienation; either by the folly, or by the misfortune of any of it successive owners.”

Although there was some rationale for primogeniture and entail after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, their continuance in some parts of Europe and Britain during Smith’s day was “completely absurd.” (As Smith noted, “Laws frequently continue in force long after the circumstances, which first gave occasion to them, and which could alone render them reasonable, are no more.”) Smith continued:

[Primogeniture and entail] are founded upon the most absurd of all suppositions, the supposition that every successive generation of men have not an equal right to the earth, and to all that it possesses; but that the property of the present generation should be restrained and regulated according to the fancy of those who died perhaps five hundred years ago. Entails, however, are still respected through the greater part of Europe, in those countries particularly in which noble birth is a necessary qualification for the enjoyment of either civil or military honours. Entails are thought necessary for maintaining this exclusive privilege of the nobility to the great offices and honours of their country; and that order having usurped one unjust advantage over the rest of their fellow‐​citizens, lest their poverty should render it ridiculous, it is thought reasonable that they should have another. The common law of England, indeed, is said to abhor perpetuities, and they are accordingly more restricted there than in any other European monarchy; though even England is not altogether without them. In Scotland more than one‐​fifth, perhaps more than one‐​third part of the whole lands of the country, are at present supposed to be under strict entail.

Great tracts of uncultivated land were, in this manner, not only engrossed by particular families, but the possibility of their being divided again was as much as possible precluded as before.

Thomas Hodgskin covered much of the same ground in his treatment of landholding, but it is in Smith’s statements that the “proprietors of land were anciently the legislators of every part of Europe” and that the “laws relating to land…were all calculated for [the] supposed…interest of the proprietor” that we find Hodgskin’s fundamental theme. He wrote:

[T]he landed aristocracy and the government are one–the latter being nothing more than the organized means of preserving the power and privileges of the former. After securing a revenue for the government,–the landed aristocracy sacrificing to this even a part of their private property, or rather taking a portion from rent, which they appropriate as taxes, transferring their cash from one hand to the other,–after securing a revenue to the state, the laws have been made with a view to guarantee the possessions and the wealth of the landowners.

Having laid this foundation, Hodgskin gave a radical, anarchistic twist to Smith’s historical sketch. Whereas Smith believed that recent legislation had mitigated some earlier injustices as enlightened legislators pursued the public good instead of their own narrow interests, Hodgskin believed that legislators invariably (or with rare exceptions) pursue their own interests, that their first preference is to preserve established political institutions, and that they abolish unjust laws only when the pressure of public opinion leaves them little choice. The “public good” is a mere pretext that should not be confounded with the “real objects” of the legislator.

The public good is not cognizable by human faculties; and he who pretends that his actions are guided by a view to that, is an impostor, who looks only to his own interest and ambition. To make that the pretended motive for action, is so obviously a mere pretext, as to need no further refutation.

Another common justification for legislation–whether in regard to land or any other issue–is that laws are necessary to preserve social order. This doctrinal pillar of Adam Smith and other classical liberals was rejected categorically by Hodgskin. In a manner reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s celebrated argument in Part 2 of Rights of Man, Hodgskin wrote:

Nor is the pretext that [the legislator] promotes social order better founded. Social order is the mutual dependence of all those who contribute to the subsistence and welfare of society. It includes the manner in which they assist and protect each other, and provide for their mutual wants by the interchange of their respective products. If by social order be meant the great scheme of social production, mutual dependence, and mutual service, which grows out of the division of labour, that scheme I will boldly assert the legislator frequently contravenes, but never promotes—that grows from the laws of man’s being, and precedes all the plans of the legislator, to regulate or preserve it. In fact, his attempts to keep in one state what is continually in progress are mischievous. We must then set aside as mere pretexts the assertions of the legislator, that he intends to preserve social order, and promote the public welfare; and we must deal with legislation as solely intended to preserve the power and privileges of the legislator.

The various abuses of landownership in Britain, Hodgskin argued, were owing to the “statutes and the decisions of common law, having the force of statutes,” that served the special interests of the landed aristocracy. So long as that class supported the government it was free to do whatever it liked with its land, including vast tracts of idle land that had never been worked.

[T]he landowner may leave his land uncultivated, or he may let it on what conditions he pleases, and the law is always ready to support him with its powerful aid. His right to possess the land, not to possess the produce of his own labour, is as admirably protected as can be effected by the law. Another must not even walk on it, and all the wild animals and fruit it bears are said by the law to be his. Nature makes it a condition of man having land, that he must occupy and cultivate it, or it will yield nothing. The instant he ceases his labour, she decks it with flowers, and stocks it with the birds and animals which she delights to clothe and feed; exacting no payment but their happiness. The mere landowner is not a labourer, and he never has been even fed but by violating the natural right of property. Patiently and perseveringly, however, has the law endeavoured to maintain his privileges, power, and wealth. To support the government the aristocracy has sometimes made laws trenching on its own privileges, but after enforcing submission to government, the next object of the law has been to preserve the dominion and power of the aristocracy over the land.

It is crucial that this passage and similar statements by other classical liberals, including Adam Smith, be read in their full and proper context. In claiming that the “mere landowner is not a laborer,” Hodgskin was referring specifically to the landed aristocracy, not to landowners who acquired their property by just means. Indeed, the Lockean homesteading principle bestows original titles only on land that “a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of”; and this requirement severely limits the amount of land any single person may claim. It also means that the legitimate landowner is not a mere landowner. He is also a laborer because, in the Lockean model, a person must “mix” his labor with a parcel of land in order to claim original ownership of it. Of course, the original owner may sell (or otherwise transfer) his land to another person, and the new landowner may accumulate more land than would be possible in the original stage of acquisition. But as Hodgskin and other advocates of free trade in land saw the matter, this competitive process will not result in vast areas of land being owned by one person. Competition in land, as with other economic goods, will tend to work against large monopolies. Moreover, few people would purchase land that they do not plan to use in some manner, any more than they would purchase any other kind of economic good for no purpose. Hodgskin agreed with Adam Smith’s claim, “It seldom happens…that a great proprietor is a great improver” of land–and both men looked to a free market in land, one based on the principles of justice without special government privileges, for a remedy.

In this view, to nationalize land in the name of “society”–which, in practice, means that a government would own all land in a country–would be to grant to government the same kind of power that generated so many injustices in the first place.