"Thou Shalt Not Steal"
[Edited and abridged, from an address delivered in
New York City, 8 May, 1887]
We are told that you cannot abolish poverty because there is not
wealth enough to go around. We are told that if all the wealth of the
United States were divided up, there would only be some eight hundred
dollars apiece. But we do not propose to abolish poverty by dividing
up what wealth there is. We propose to create more wealth. We propose
to abolish poverty by setting at work that vast army of men only too
anxious to create wealth, but who are now deprived of the opportunity
Then, again, we are informed that poverty cannot be abolished,
because poverty always has existed. Well, if poverty always has
existed, all the more need for our moving for its abolition. It has
existed long enough. We ought to be tired of it; let us get rid of it.
But I deny that poverty always has existed. Never before in the
history of the world was there such an abundance of wealth, such power
of producing wealth. So marked is this that the very people who tell
us that poverty cannot be abolished, attribute it, in almost the next
breath, to overproduction. They virtually tell us it is because
mankind produces so much wealth that so many are poor; that it is
because there is so much of the things which satisfy human desire
already produced, that men cannot find work, and that women must stint
and strain! Poverty attributed to over-production; poverty in the
midst of wealth; poverty in the midst of enlightenment; poverty when a
thousand labor-saving inventions (that never existed in the world
before) have been called to the aid of man!
We are told that charity would help the poor. Every thinking woman
and every thinking man, however, can see that it is utterly impossible
to eradicate poverty by charity, and that everyone who will trace to
its root the cause of the disease will see that what is needed is not
charity but justice -- the conforming of human institutions to the
eternal laws of right. Those who attack our concepts have set up for
themselves a god who rather likes poverty, since it affords the rich a
chance to show their goodness and benevolence.
The laws of this universe are the laws of God, the social laws as
well as the physical laws, and He, the Creator of all, has given us
room for all, work for all, plenty for all. If today people are in
places so crowded that it seems as though there were too many people
in the world; if today thousands of men who would gladly be at work do
not find the opportunity to go to work; if today the competition
crowds wages down to starvation rates; if today, amidst abounding
wealth, there are in the centers of our civilization human beings who
are worse off than savages in any normal times, it is not because the
Creator has been niggardly; it is simply because of our own injustice.
Those of us who seek justice propose no new thing. We propose to
abolish poverty by the remedy of doing to others as we would have
others do to us, by giving to all their just rights. We propose to
disturb no just right of property. We are defenders and upholders of
the sacred right of property that right of property which justly
attaches to everything that is produced by labor; that right which
gives to everyone a just claim to what he has produced so long as he
does not injure any one else.
"Thou shalt not steal." How is this great commandment
interpreted today, even by the men who pretend to preach the Gospel?
Well, according to them, it means: "Do not steal a few
dollars-that maybe dangerous, hut ifyno steal millions and get away
with it, you become one of our first citizens."
There are other forms of stealing. Here is a caravan going along over
the desert. Here are a gang of robbers. They say, "Look! There is
a rich caravan; let us go and rob it." But one of the robbers
says, "Oh, no; that is dangerous. Let us, instead, go to where
there is a spring-the only spring at which this caravan can get water
in this desert. Let us put a wall around it and call it ours; and when
they come up, we won't let them have any water until they have given
us alt the goods they have."
And is it not theft of the same kind when certain individuals go
ahead in advance of the population and get land they have no use
whatever for, and then, as people come unto the world and population
increases, will not let this increasing population use the land until
they pay an exorbitant price? That is the sort of theft on which our
first families are founded.
Does not every child that is born add to the value of land? Ought not
the child, therefore, get some portion of the benefit? And is not the
child wronged when certain favored individuals are allowed to
The way to secure equal rights to land is not by cutting land up into
equal pieces, but by taking for public use the values attaching to
land. We (the community) need not disturb anybody in possession; we
need not interfere with anybody's building or anybody's improvement.
All we have to do is to abolish taxes on all improvements, on all
forms of wealth. All we have to do is to levy the tax only on the
value of land, exclusive of the improvements, so that the person who
is holding a piece of vacant land will have to pay the same for it as
though there were a building upon it.
We can leave land titles just as they are. The owners of the land may
call themselves its owners; all we want is to tax the value of the
We have a long fight and a hard fight before us. Possibly, probably,
for many of us, we may never see it come to success. But what of that?
It is a privilege to be engaged in such a struggle. This we may know,
that it is but a part of that great, world-wide long-continued
struggle in which the just and the good of every age have been