Thomas Paine and the Land Question

Ella M. Murray

[Reprinted from Twentieth Century Magazine, September, 1910]

The life of the individual is measured in years, the life of the race in epochs, and though compared with the epoch the year is insignificant, and compared with the race the individual is a negligible quantity, yet it is by the insignificant year and through that negligible quantity the individual, that the epoch is forever marked and the forward impulse of the race finds expression. In a certain sense, it is immaterial when a man like Thomas Paine was born, for he belongs to no year and no age, but rather to all years and all ages. But the year in which such a man gives expression to a magnificent truth, unperceived by his predecessors and contemporaries alike, yet a truth which must have existed as a possible thing ever since there was conscious life - that year marks an epoch in the life of a race and is worthy the widest recognition. These are the years that we celebrate, however unconscious of the fact we may be.

One such year is especially noteworthy, that of 1795-96, when Paine wrote and published his little pamphlet, Agrarian Justice. Although less widely known than some of his other works, this little pamphlet, in breadth of conception, clearness of enunciation, fearlessness of demonstration and importance to the race, is unsurpassed by anything he or his predecessors or his contemporaries have given to the world. Indeed, I know of but one writer and seer since his time who has done so great a service to the world or has made clearer the principles Paine so early grasped.

So perverted are we even at this day that the average person confounds law and justice. When we speak of "justice" we have in mind something that man has done and incorporated into a law, but Paine made no such mistake. He clearly states that he is not considering "Agrarian Law," in his treatise, but "Agrarian Justice," and that the one is by no means the same as the other. While laws may express some phases of justice, they are more frequently enacted to establish permanently some privilege acquired by force or treachery, and they apply usually to ephemeral or changeable conditions or interests. Justice, on the other hand, is the unchanging, underlying, general principle, applicable alike to all ages, all races and all conditions, and it was the enunciation of such a general principle that Paine had in mind when he wrote Agrarian Justice.

Paine divides property into two kinds - "natural, which comes from the creator, such as earth, air, water -- and artificial, or acquired property, the invention of men. Equality in the latter is impossible; equality in the former is necessary. Every individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property or its equivalent. …The condition of persons born after civilization should not be worse than that of those born before. …It is a position not to be controverted, that the earth in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. ...It is the value of improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a ground rent (I know no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds."

Had Paine written no more than this little group of sentences which I have selected from Agrarian Justice and combined into a short paragraph, he would have established an undying claim to be counted one of the foremost philosophers and benefactors of the race.

A pioneer in any cause making for righteousness must put aside self. He must not only hold aloft the principles for which he pleads, but he must at the same time walk on his own heart with every forward step he takes. Truth accepts no half service. She claims all that a man hath. It may be said of Paine that he gave all.

When it would have been easy to advance his own material interests, Paine devoted his time and talents to studying the interests of all men, to the exclusion of the personal. The world had just been awakened from its long night of darkness and sleep by the two great revolutions of this country and France. In both a leading part had been played by Thomas Paine, and innumerable opportunities for self-aggrandizement must have opened before him. But, fortunately, for the world, he was a flame burning clear and high, and nothing quenched his light. High above the excesses and outrages of the reaction from the French Revolution shines his Rights of Man, and later, when he saw that that nation, despite its unequaled opportunity, had made no provision for coming generations in its treatment of the land question, he fearlessly promulgated his theory of Agrarian Justice. And though it was reserved for a later prophet to devise the best means for securing that justice to the masses, still there could be no clearer recognition of the rights of the people than that which came to Paine.

In the Rights of Man he had said: "Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generation which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations that are to follow. …Every generation is and must be competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living and not the dead that are to be accommodated."

It is not then to be wondered at that the mind which could grasp and enunciate such deep, underlying principles of justice could not contemplate the land system with any satisfaction. He saw that each succeeding generation must be still further shorn of its right than its predecessor, if these conditions continued. And though he saw no way to upset or destroy those conditions, yet he declared that we could no longer go on depriving the unborn of their birthright. If every individual born into the world might not have his legitimate share in the common property of all, then an equivalent must be offered. It is somewhat strange to note how much the proposals of the British Budget resembled his plan in some details. Both proposed taking only a small portion of the "unearned increment" for the benefit of those who create it, and both believed in old age pensions. Paine's idea was to create a fund out of this unearned increment from which pensions should be paid to those past the working age, and premiums to those beginning life at the age of twenty-one. He specifically states that this premium is to be considered an equivalent for the rights denied them through the private ownership of land. The trouble with Paine was, that although he saw that it was the community that created values, he had not separated the site value from improvement value.

He believed that even "the value of personal property is the effect of society," and while this is in a large measure true, it is not true in the same sense that the site value of land is "the effect of society." It is not the cultivation of the soil that gives it a taxable value for communal purposes, as Paine was inclined to believe. Cultivation value may be the result of one man's labor, or, if you please, the labor of several men, who have had returns for that labor; but the site value is the result of the combined labor and necessities of the whole community, and upon that combination the community has received no returns.

There is, too, this further distinction: that society has been paid in full for all the value of the personal property that it creates. It was created either for consumption or exchange, and the creators, or those whom they permitted to rob them, got full value for all their efforts.

This is not so of land. Moreover, personal property and its value disappears every few years, while land value goes on increasing.

The Budget proposals included old age pensions and the diversion of a tiny portion of that unearned increment into the public treasury to bear public expenses. The great value of these proposals is that it is the first time that any nation, as a nation, has recognized the principle of the common rights of all in the earth's surface.

Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill had clear vision of the truth as far as Paine had seen it, but it remained for our age to produce the man who saw still farther. To Henry George came not only the clear knowledge of the inalienable rights of the people - not some of the people, whether the people of yesterday, today or tomorrow, but of all the peoples of all the tomorrows---to the earth upon which their very existence depends, but as with divine insight and understanding he saw that not merely a portion of the value the people created should be returned to them, but all of it; for nothing short of all could constitute an equivalent for their birthright. He would not distribute this to individuals in the form of pensions, because it does not belong to individuals, but to the aggregation of individuals. He would turn it into the public treasury to bear the expense of the public and thus leave to the individual the full result of his own labor for his own use.

If Paine, to whom the great principles of justice were so dear, could have had this proposition presented to him, we might have had from his trenchant pen an article that would have eclipsed anything even he has left on record. We may imagine what it would mean to him, for his was a mind never satisfied with less than all that he could perceive of truth and justice.

Since the world began, prophets, pioneers and sages have won from man the martyr's robe and the cruel crown of thorns, but the truth lives on. Over their bodies, lighted by the flames they kindled, the race has gone forward. Progress has been slow when gauged by the year or the individual, but measured by the race and by epochs, it has been steady and even rapid. It is but little more than a hundred years since Paine became the pioneer in "the land for the people"; it is less than one generation since the "prophet of San Francisco" published his great book "Progress and Poverty." Both were reviled, scorned and at last killed by the world that was not yet ready for the truth; but in that short time that same world has become permeated with their ideas; the faith in "agrarian justice" is growing; the demand for the application of the Single Tax principle is rapidly increasing, and it almost looks as if in our own generation we shall prove the truth of the saying that what is "today the dream of the philosopher, is tomorrow the creed of the persecuted minority, and soon becomes the accepted faith of the nation."

I look back over the years that have slipped by in the world's history, and I see the long procession of the peoples and races who have passed on. For the most part they are mere shadows -- a sort of indistinguishable mass -- but there are luminous points which throw a light over the whole cavalcade. These are the prophets and martyrs of truth, their unquenchable light shining on and on, past our dark places, and even into the future. I follow this gleam, straining my eyes adown the long vista of the years to come. Down that dark, untrodden path the light must be carried; the prophets and martyrs of the coming races are even now in the making -- shall any of us be among them?

What does it profit us to celebrate the anniversaries of the great, if we learn nothing from their lives? It may not be required of us personally to give our lives for the truth, but it is demanded that we give our lives to the truth as we see it. Do you ask by whom it is demanded? Then I answer, by the generations that are to follow; those who shall mount by the steps we cut, who shall warm themselves by the fires we build and avoid the abyss of darkness by the light we shed. Shall we go on making of the masses of the people "Michael Horans," to be ground to powder in the subways of civilization built upon privilege and injustice? Or shall we rather by our united effort secure for all a firm footing upon the earth, which is our common heritage, and establish for all time justice for all people? When we have destroyed that "most insolent of all tyrannies"-- governance from the grave -- and have learned that it is not the dead but the living that we are to accommodate, then, and only then, may we justly claim the right to call ourselves followers of these two great pioneers and prophets whose names all future generations will link -- Thomas Paine and Henry George.