Chapter 19 — The Robber that Takes All that is Left

In itself, 
the abolition of protection is like the driving off of a robber. But it will not help a man to drive off one robber, if another, still stronger and more rapacious, is left to plunder him.

Labor may be likened to a man who as he carries home his earnings is waylaid by a series of robbers. One demands this much, and another that much, but last of all stands one who demands all that is left, save just enough to enable the victim to maintain life and come forth next day to work. So long as this last robber remains, what will it benefit such a man to drive off any or all of the other robbers?

Such is the situation of labor today throughout the civilized world. And the robber that takes all that is left, is private property in land. Improvement, no matter how great, and reform, no matter how beneficial in itself, cannot help that class who, deprived of all right to the use of the material elements, have only the power to labor — a power as useless in itself as a sail without wind, a pump without water, or a saddle without a horse.

I have likened labor to a man beset by a series of robbers, because there are in every country other things than private property in land which tend to diminish national prosperity and divert the wealth earned by labor into the hands of non-producers. This is the tendency of monopoly of the processes and machinery of production and exchange, the tendency of protective tariffs, of bad systems of currency and finance, of corrupt government, of public debts, of standing armies, and of wars and preparations for war. But these things, some of which are conspicuous in one country and some in another, cannot account for that impoverishment of labor which is to be seen everywhere. They are the lesser robbers, and to drive them off is only to leave more for the great robber to take.

If the all-sufficient cause of the impoverishment of labor were abolished, then reform in any of these directions would improve the condition of labor; but so long as that cause exists, no reform can effect any permanent improvement. Public debts might be abolished, standing armies disbanded, war and the thought of war forgotten, protective tariffs everywhere discarded, government administered with the greatest purity and economy, and all monopolies, save the monopoly of land, destroyed, without any permanent improvement in the condition of the laboring class. For the economic effect of all these reforms would simply be to diminish the waste or increase the production of wealth, and so long as competition for employment on the part of men who are powerless to employ themselves tends steadily to force wages to the minimum that gives the laborer but a bare living, this is all the ordinary laborer can get. So long as this tendency exists — and it must continue to exist so long as private property in land exists — improvement (even if possible) in the personal qualities of the laboring masses, such as improvement in skill, in intelligence, in temperance or in thrift, cannot improve their material condition. Improvement of this kind can only benefit the individual while it is confined to the individual, and thus gives him an advantage over the body of ordinary laborers whose wages form the regulative basis of all other wages. If such personal improvements become general the effect can only be to enable competition to force wages to a lower level. Where few can read and write, the ability to do so confers a special advantage and raises the individual who possesses it above the level of ordinary labor, enabling him to command the wages of special skill. But where all can read and write, the mere possession of this ability cannot save ordinary laborers from being forced to as low a position as though they could not read and write.

I do not say that reforms that increase the intelligence or improve the habits of the masses are — even in this view — useless. The diffusion of intelligence tends to make men discontented with a life of poverty in the midst of wealth, and the diminution of intemperance better fits them to revolt against such a lot. Public schools and temperance societies are thus pre-revolutionary agencies. But they can never abolish poverty so long as land continues to be treated as private property. Such reforms are in their own nature good and beneficial, but in a world like this, tenanted by beings like ourselves, and treated by them as the exclusive property of a part of their number, there must, under any conceivable conditions, be a class on the verge of starvation.

This necessity inheres in the nature of things; it arises from the relation between man and the external universe. Land is the superficies of the globe — that bottom of the ocean of air to which our physical structure confines us. It is our only possible standing place, our only possible workshop, the only reservoir from which we can draw material for the supply of our needs. Considering land in its narrow sense, as distinguished from water and air, it is still the element necessary to our use of the other elements. Without land man could not even avail himself of the light and heat of the sun or utilize the forces that pulse through matter.

Hence, let other conditions be what they may, the man who, if he lives and works at all, must live and work on land belonging to another, is necessarily a slave or a pauper.

For while population is sparse and unoccupied land is plenty, laborers are able to escape the necessity of buying the use of land, or can obtain it on nominal terms. Hence to obtain slaves — people who will work for you without your working for them in return — it is necessary to make property of their bodies or to resort to predial slavery or serfdom, which is an artificial anticipation of the power that comes to the landowner with denser population, and which consists in confining laborers to land on which it is desired to utilize their labor. But as population becomes denser and land more fully occupied, the competition of non-landowners for the use of land obviates the necessity of making property of their bodies or of confining them to an estate in order to obtain their labor without return. They themselves will beg the privilege of giving their labor in return for being permitted what must be yielded to the slave — a spot to live on and enough of the produce of their own labor to maintain life.

Land in itself has no value. Value arises only from human labor. It is not until the ownership of land becomes equivalent to the ownership of laborers that any value attaches to it. And where land has a speculative value it is because of the expectation that the growth of society will in the future make its ownership equivalent to the ownership of laborers.

It is true that all valuable things have the quality of enabling their owner to obtain labor or the produce of labor in return for them or for their use. But with things that are themselves the produce of labor, such transactions involve an exchange — the giving of an equivalent of labor — produce in return for labor, or its produce.

Land is not the produce of labor; it existed before man was, and, therefore, when the ownership of land can command labor or the products of labor, the transaction, though in form it may be an exchange, is in reality an appropriation. The power which the ownership of valuable land gives, is that of getting human service without giving human service, a power essentially the same as that power of appropriation which resides in the ownership of slaves.

Inventions and discoveries that increase the productive power of labor lessen the value of the things that require labor for their production, but increase the value of land, since they increase the amount that labor can be compelled to give for its use. And so, where land is fully appropriated as private property, no increase in the production of wealth, no economy in its use, can give the mere laborer more than the wages of the slave. If wealth rained down from heaven or welled up from the depths of the earth it could not enrich the laborer. It could merely increase the value of land.

Thus it is that railways cheapen transportation only to increase the value of land, not the value of labor, and that when their rates are reduced it is landowners, not laborers, who get the benefit. So it is with all improvements of whatever nature.

The primary factors of production are land and labor. Capital is their product, and the capitalist is but an intermediary between the landlord and the laborer. Hence working men who imagine that capital is the oppressor of labor are "barking up the wrong tree." In the first place, much that seems on the surface like oppression by capital is in reality the result of the helplessness to which labor is reduced by being denied all right to the use of land. "The destruction of the poor is their poverty." It is not in the power of capital to compel men who can obtain free access to nature to sell their labor for starvation wages. In the second place, whatever of the earnings of labor capitalistic monopolies may succeed in appropriating, they are merely lesser robbers, who take what, if they were abolished, landownership would take.

No matter whether the social organization be simple or complex, no matter whether the intermediaries between the owners of land and the owners of the mere power to labor be few or many, wherever the available land has been fully appropriated as the property of some of the people, there must exist a class, the laborers of ordinary ability and skill, who can never hope to get more than a bare living for the hardest toil, and who are constantly in danger of failure to get even that.