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."