Fairness and the Compromise
of John Stuart Mill
Vic H. Blundell
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
There are countless examples throughout history where the forces of
logical thought and clearly perceived moral principles have suffered
at the hands of political expediency or entrenched interests.
Herbert Spencer's views on the injustice of private property in
land at first so clearly and logically stated, as to leave no doubt
whatsoever as to his meaning, were many years later retracted - with
less logic and clarity.
It is arguable that this retraction was the result of self-deception
rather than self-interest. John Stuart Mill, however, a logician of
some renown. presented his logical contradiction in one volume. In
the battle of logic and principle versus appeasement of the
land-owning interest (based on a misguided idea of "fairness").
logic and principle lost the battle.
Let us first take some examples of Mill's views on private property
in land. After defining the rights of property in the products of man
as being ownership vested in the producer, Mill makes the exception
that the passage of time might preclude such rights being established
because of lack of historical evidence of original ownership. This,
however, cannot apply, he says, to the requirement not to disturb "acts
of injustice of old date. unjust systems or institutions, since a bad
law or usage is not one bad act, in the remote past. but a perpetual
repetition of bad acts, as long as the law or usage lasts."
This principle applies perfectly to the question of the injustice of
the private ownership of land. As Herbert Spencer. Henry George.
Thomas Paine and others have emphasized, the passage of time cannot
turn a wrong into a right. and thus the continuing robbery of land
rights of successive generations is a violation of natural justice.
Here, Mill is explicit on property rights in land:
The essential principle of property being to assure to
all persons what they have produced by their labour and accumulated
by their abstinence, this principle cannot apply to what is not the
produce of labour, the raw material of the earth. If the land
derived its productive power wholly from nature, and not at all from
industry, or if there were any means of discriminating what is
derived from each source, it not only would not be necessary, but it
would be the height of injustice, to let the gift of nature be
engrossed by a few.
Mill adds that while the cultivator must be permitted to reap his
crop for the time being and the land occupied for just one season, the
State might then "be the universal landlord and the cultivators
tenants under it." Mill again makes his point:
When the sacredness of property is talked of, it should
always be remembered that this sacredness does not belong in the
same degree to landed property. No man made the land. It is the
original inheritance of the whole species... It is some hardship to
be born into the world and to find all nature's gifts previously
engrossed, and no place left for the newcomer."
Similar observations by Dove, George and others led them to the
conclusion that. in order to establish equal rights without infringing
upon the liberty of the individual. it was necessary to cornmunalise
the rent of land. Mill, however. arrived at a different conclusion.
Out of concern for the land-owner. he proposed to tax only the
increase in value which accrued between the date of the first
necessary valuation and subsequent valuations. This became known as
the "increment tax."
Clearly the proposal of a mere increment tax on land values does not
square with his statement that "it would be the height of
injustice to let the gift of nature be engrossed by a few," and "no
man made the land. It is the original inheritance of the whole
Mill, in defending land owners rights to all existing values. makes
this curious statement: "The principle of property gives them
(the land owners) no right to the land. but only a right to
compensation for whatever portion of their interest in land it may be
the policy of the state to deprive them of . . . or an annual income
equal to what they derived from it."
Henry George in Progress & Poverty, commenting on Mill's
proposal for an increment tax. Says:
To say nothing of the practical difficulties which such
cumbrous plans involve, in the extension of the functions of
government which they would require and the corruption they would
beget. their inherent and essential defect lies in the impossibility
of bridging over by any compromise the radical difference between
wrong and right. Just in proportion as the interests of the land
holders are conserved, just in that proportion must general
interests and general rights be disregarded. and if land holders are
to lose nothing of their special privileges. the people at large can
gain nothing. To buy up individual property rights would merely be
to give the land holders in another form a claim to the same kind
and amount that their possession of land now gives them; it would be
to raise for them by taxation the same proportion of the earnings of
labour and capital that they are now enabled to appropriate in rent.
Their unjust advantage would be preserved and the unjust
disadvantage of the non-landholders would be continued.
George adds that while Mill's proposal would not add to the injustice
of the present distribution of wealth. it would not remedy it but he
has no time for expediency and compromise in matters of justice: "Justice
in men's mouths is cringingly humble when she first begins a protest
against a time-honoured wrong. and we of the English-speaking nations
still wear the collar of the Saxon thrall, and have been educated to
look upon the 'vested rights' of land owners with all the
superstitious reverence that ancient Egyptians looked upon the
George spells it out thus:
"If the land of any country belong to the people of
that country. what right. in morality and justice, have the
individuals called land owners to the rent?"
To implement John Stuart Mill's increment tax on land values instead
of instituting justice is to pull out the top of a bad tooth and leave
the root to fester and poison the system.
1. Social Statics, 1850,
Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York, and Land & Liberty
2. A Perplexed Philosopher, Henry George, Land & Liberty
3. Principles of Political Economy, full edition, London:
4. Ibid, p.156.
5. Ibid, p.162.
9. Progress and Poverty. Robert Scbalkenback Foundation, 15th
10. Ibid, p.362.