Fairness and the Compromise
of John Stuart Mill

Vic H. Blundell

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, September-October 1981]

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[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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."[4]

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.[5]

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."[6] 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."[7]

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 species."

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."[8]

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 crocodile."[10]

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?"[11]

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 Press, London.
2. A Perplexed Philosopher, Henry George, Land & Liberty Press.
3. Principles of Political Economy, full edition, London: George Routledge.
4. Ibid, p.156.
5. Ibid, p.162.
6. Itid.p.163.
7. Ibid,p.165.
8. Ibid.
9. Progress and Poverty. Robert Scbalkenback Foundation, 15th edition, p.362.
10. Ibid, p.362.
11. Ibid,p.363.