Your Rent

George Bernard Shaw

[Reprinted from The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism,
Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism
, Vol. 1, 1937, Chapter 32, pp. 128-132]

When we come from your rates and taxes to your rent, your grievance is far clearer, because when you pay your rent you have to hand your money directly to your exploiter to do what she or he likes with instead of to a public treasurer who gives you value for part of it in public service to yourself, and tells you nothing about the remainder which goes to septuagenarians, paupers, ground land- lords, profiteering contractors, and so forth, some of whom are poorer than you, which makes for equality of income and is therefore a move in the right direction, and others richer, which aggravates inequality and is therefore a move in the wrong direction.

Rent paying is simpler. If you rent a piece of land and work on it, it is quite clear that the landlord is living on your earnings; and you cannot prevent him, because the law gives him the power to turn you off the land unless you pay him for leave to use it. You are so used to this that it may never have struck you as extraordinary that any private person should have the power to treat the earth as if it belonged to him, though you would certainly think him mad if he claimed to own the air or the sunlight or the sea. Besides, you may be paying rent for a house; and it seems reasonable that the man who built the house should be paid for it. But you can easily find out how much of what you are paying is the value of the house. If you have insured the house against fire (very likely the landlord makes you do this), you know what it would cost to build the house, as that is the sum you have insured it for. If you have not insured it, ask a builder what it would cost to build a similar house. The interest you would have to pay every year if you borrowed that sum on the security of the house is the value of the house apart from the value of the land.

You will find that what you are paying exceeds this house value, unless you are in the landlord's employment or the house has become useless for its original purpose: for instance, a medieval castle. In big cities like London, it exceeds it so enormously that the value of the building is hardly worth mentioning in comparison. In out-of-the-way places the excess may be so small that it hardly goes beyond a reasonable profit on the speculation of building the house. But in the lump over the whole country it amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds a year; and this is the price, not of the houses, but of the landlords' permission to live on the native earth on which the houses have been built.

That any person should have the power to give or refuse an Englishwoman permission to live in England, or indeed-for this is what it comes to-to live at all, is so absurdly opposed to every possible conception of natural justice that any lawyer will tell you that there is no such thing as absolute private property in land, and that the King, in whom the land is vested, may take it all back from its present holders if he thinks fit. But as the landlords were for many centuries also both the lawmakers and the kingmakers, they took care that, king or no king, land should become in practice as much private property as anything else, except that it cannot be bought and sold without paying fees to lawyers and signing conveyances and other special legal documents. And this private power over land has been bought and sold so often that you never know whether your landlord will be a bold baron whose ancestors have lived as petty kings on their tenants since the days of William the Conqueror, or a poor widow who has invested all her hard- earned savings in a freehold.

Howbeit the fact remains that the case of landlord and tenant is one in which an idle and possibly infamous person can with the police at his back come quite openly to an industrious and respect- able woman, and say "Hand me over a quarter of your earnings or get off the earth". The landlord can even refuse to accept a rent, and order her off the earth unconditionally; and he sometimes does so; for you may remember that in Scotland whole populations of fishermen and husbandmen with their families have been driven from their country to the backwoods of America because their landlords wanted the land on which they lived for deer forests. In England people have been driven from the countryside in multitudes to make room for sheep, because the sheep brought more money to the landlord than the people. When the great London railway stations, with their many acres of sidings, were first made, the houses of great numbers of people were knocked down, and the inhabitants driven into the streets; with the result that the whole neighbourhood became so overcrowded that it was for many years a centre of disease infecting all London. These things are still happening, and may happen to you at any moment, in spite of a few laws which have been made to protect tenants in towns in times of great scarcity of houses such as that which followed the war, or in Ireland, where the Government bought the agricultural land and resold it to the farmers, which eased matters for a time, but in the long run can come to nothing but exchanging one set of landlords for another.

It is in large towns and their neighbourhood that the Intelligent Woman will find not only how much the landlord can make her give up to him, but, oddly enough, how devoutly he believes in equality of income for his tenants, if not for himself. In the middle of the town she will find rents very high. If she or her husband has work to do there it will occur to her that if she were to take a house in the suburbs, where rents are lower, and use the tram to come to and fro, she might save a little. But she will find that the landlord knows all about that, and that though the further she moves out into the country the lower the rents, yet the railway fare or tram fare will bring up the yearly cost to what she would have to pay if she lived close enough in to walk to her market or for her husband to walk to his work. Whatever advantage she may try to gain, the landlord will snatch its full money value from her sooner or later in rent, provided it is an advantage open to everyone. It ought to be plain even to a fairly stupid woman that if the land belongs to a few people they can make their own terms with the rest, who must have land to live and work on or else starve on the highway or be drowned in the sea. They can strip them of every- thing except what is barely enough to keep them alive to earn money for the landowner, and bring up families to do the same in the next generation. It is easy to see how this foolish state of things comes about. As long as there is plenty of land for everybody private property in land works very well. The landholders are not presenting anyone else from owning land like themselves; and they are quite justified in making the strongest laws to protect themselves against having their lands intruded on and their crops taken by rascals who want to reap where they have not sown. But this state of things never lasts long with a growing population, because at last all the land gets taken up, and there is none left for the later corners. Even long before this happens the best land is all taken up, and later comers find that they can do as well by paying rent for the use of the best land as by owning poorer land themselves, the amount of the rent being the difference between the yield of the poorer land and the better. At this point the owners of the best land can let their land; stop working, and live on the rent: that is, on the labour of others, or, as they call it, by owning. When big towns and great industries arise, the value of the land goes up to enormous heights: in London bits of land with frontages on the important streets sell at the rate of a million pounds an acre; and men of business will pay the huge rents that make the land worth such a figure, although there is land forty miles away to be had for next to nothing. The land that was first let gets sublet, and yet again and again sublet until there may be half a dozen leaseholders and sub-leaseholders drawing more rent from it than the original ground landlord; and the tenant who is in working occupation of it has to make the money for all of them. Within the last hundred and fifty years villages in Europe and pioneer encampments in the other continents have grown into towns and cities making money by hundreds of millions; yet most of the inhabitants whose work makes all this wealth are no better off, and many of them decidedly worse off, than the villagers or pioneer campers- out who occupied the place when it was not worth a pound an acre. Meanwhile the landlords have become fabulously rich, some of them taking every day, for doing nothing, more than many a woman for sixty years drudgery.

And all this could have been avoided if we had only had the sense and foresight to insist that the land should remain national property in fact as well as in legal theory, and that all rents should be paid into a common stock and used for public purposes. If that had been done there need have been no slums, no ugly mean streets and buildings, nor indeed any rates or taxes: everybody would benefit by the rent; everybody would have to contribute to it by work; and no idler would be able to live on the labour of others. The prosperity of our great towns would he a real prosperity, shared by everyone, and not what it is now, the enslavement and impoverishment of nine persons out of every ten in order that the tenth should be idle and rich and extravagant and useless. This evil is so glaring, so inexcusable by any sophistry that the cleverest landlord can devise, that, long before Socialism was heard of, a demand arose for the abolition of all taxation except the taxation of landowners; and we still have among us people called Single Taxers, who preach the same doctrine.