The Land Question
George Bernard Shaw
[From the book, Everybody's Political What's
What? - 1944, pp.15-16]
When a landless man agrees to take a plot from a landlord at so much
a year, he does so voluntarily on his own initiative, content if he
can make the sort of living he is accustomed to out of it, and
thinking it as natural to pay for his land as for his umbrella. He
does not understand the land question, and often looks forward to
becoming a land proprietor himself; for there is always land enough in
the market for people with money enough to buy it. Even if the
purchaser has not money enough he can still purchase land and borrow
the price on mortgage.
The difference between buying an umbrella from its maker and leasing
land from someone who found it readymade was no secret among the
political economists. Revolting peasants could only sing "When
Adam delved and Eve span Where was then the gentle man?" But the
educated French Physiocrats went into the matter scientifically.
French reformers before the Revolution, notably the father of
Mirabeau, were proposing the abolition of taxes on commodities, and
the substitution of a single tax on land as a means of nationalizing
rent. This proposal was laughed out of countenance by Voltaire, who
pointed out who pointed out that it would leave the rent of capital
untouched, and that whilst the landlord would starve the banker would
be richer than ever. The proposal was, however, revived a century
later with extraordinary eloquence by the American Henry George, whose
volume entitled Progress and Poverty had a wide circulation,
and incidentally drew my attention to the subject. But by that time
the land question had developed into a capital question of such
magnitude that Voltaire's criticism was stronger than ever; for it was
evident that if the State confiscated rent without being prepared to
employ it instantly as capital in industry, production would cease and
the country be starved. Consequently a movement had begun, called
Socialism, advocating the organization, of industry by the State for
the benefit of the whole people. When this alternative to Capitalism
appeared, the official economists became much less candid on the
subject of rent.
Meanwhile, a Frenchman had written an essay entitled "What is
Property? It is Theft." Easygoing people said "How silly!"
Serious people said "How wicked! How dishonest!" But the
Frenchman (named Proudhon) was neither silly nor dishonest. He had
analysed the situation, and discovered that the landlord and
capitalist, in as much as they consume without producing, .inflict
precisely the same injury on the community as a thief does. That great
and intensely respectable Englishman John Ruskin put the same point
when he reminded us that there are only three possible ways of making
a living: (1) working, (2) begging, (3) stealing.
Are our landlords therefore thieves? William Morris, the greatest of
our English Communists, replied bluntly "Yes: damned thieves.
They live by robbing the poor." But De Quincey, the greatest Tory
wit, called the landlords country gentlemen, adding "Who more
worthy?" Marx called them bourgeoisie, which is now out of date,
as the poorer bourgeoisie has been proletarianized by big business,
and the richer absorbed by the plutocracy. Cairnes, a leading English
economist, described them as "drones in the hive."