The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter V


§2. I now pass to consider how this right of property should be acquired. In the first place, it is clear that in a modern society where the right of property---including the right of transfer by sale or gift---and regulations determining the succession to property after the owner's death, are fully establis:ied, the most important part of the material wealth owned at any time will have been obtained by transfer during life or inheritance. The conditions under which such transfer should be allowed, and regulations for bequest and intestate inheritance, will be considered separately here after: at present, therefore, I confine myself to the consideration of the legitimate origin of property in things not yet appropriated. We have seen that the moral right to the produce of one's labour constitutes, in the individualistic view, the principal justification and basis of legal rights of property. But simply to place this moral right under the sanction of law, by laying down a general legal rule securing to each individual the results of his labour, would be obviously inadequate: for a man does not create matter by his labour, but only modifies it: and the fact that he has spent his labour on material to which he had no right could at most give him a right to an equivalent for the additional utility that it has thereby acquired. It is necessary, therefore, in a system of law, to determine how the individual's rights stand in relation to matter before it is modified by labour.

Here, first, it is to be observed that a thing may require search, or pursuit, and perhaps the exercise of skill or strength in capture, in order that it may be obtained and used for human purposes; and that then the labour of seeking or hunting is really invested in the thing before it comes into a man's possession. On this ground, as was before said, the simple rule of appropriating the thing so found or captured to the individual finder or capturer is an unexceptionable application of the individualistic principle, provided that other men's opportunities of obtaining similar things are not thereby materially diminished. The thing with all its utilities is not an excessive reward for his labour, if any one else can get as much by similar labour. It is therefore reasonable that wild animals, that are not in any degree the product of human labour and care, should belong to those who have effected their capture: and that other things admitting of being moved and carried already been appropriated, or are found upon or in appropriated land---become the property of those who have first physically seized them. But in the case of most useful inanimate things human labour is primarily required not for search or capture, but to foster their growth on the surface of the soil, or to extract them from beneath the surface: thus, in order to obtain them it is necessary that the land should be appropriated, at least temporarily, to the exclusive use of the labourer: and the question is how this can be done without encroachment on the rights of other persons.

In a country as fully populated as the civilized countries of Europe are, appropriation has already gone so far that this question does not arise in any simple form: it is, therefore, most convenient to consider it in reference to land in a country newly colonised. How shall we decide how much land any individual in such a country is to be allowed to take possession of? The most obvious answer is, as Locke suggests, that each may appropriate as much as he can really occupy and effectively use. But, first, as I have elsewhere said, ``the use of land by any individual may vary almost indefinitely in extent, diminishing proportionally in intensity---e.g. it would be absurd to let any individual claim possession of the whole ground over which he could hunt, as against another who wished to use it for pasturage: but if so, ought the shepherd, again, to have possession as against a would-be cultivator, or a cultivator as against a would-be miner.'' Even if such difficulties as these could be overcome, a more fundamental objection would remain, viz. that the condition necessary to justify appropriation of any utilities on the individualistic principle---that other men's opportunities of obtaining similar utilities were not materially diminished---would soon become impossible to fulfil: newcomers would find no land as good as that which had been first appropriated. It must be admitted that private property in land involves a substantial encroachment on the opportunities of applying labour productively which---were it not for such appropriation---would be open to individuals now landless: on the other hand, appropriation, at least for a term of years, is manifestly required, on the principle of utilitarian Individualism, to stimulate and reward the most energetic and enlightened application of labour to land. It would seem, therefore, that the only practicable application of our principle is to allow the requisite appropriation but to secure adequate compensation for the encroachment involved in it. The precise extent to which appropriation should be allowed, and the manner in which the compensation is to be taken, are questions that have to be decided, I conceive, by a careful balance of expediencies. The simplest plan would be to sell the land freely to the highest bidder for what it would fetch, and invest the proceeds for the permanent benefit of the community. But it cannot be said that the individualistic principle requires the method of sale to be adopted rather than the method of lease: and as land tends to increase in value as a country becomes more densely populated, it seems probable that the prospective increase of value, accruing independently of the owner's energy and enterprise, will not be adequately represented in the sum received for the sale of the land so that the compensation thus directly secured to future generations, for the opportunities from which they are excluded, is not likely to be adequate. On the other hand, it is for the general good that the individual cultivator's energy and enterprise should be encouraged as much as possible, and complete ownership is the most simple and effective way of encouraging it. What scope is to be allowed to those opposing considerations cannot, I conceive, be determined without special experience: and in practically deciding the question we should have to take into account the moral and intellectual qualities likely to be possessed by the, government that, if the system of leases be adopted, will have the delicate task of artificially providing for the lessee that encouragement of industry and thrift which the system of private ownership gives him naturally.

So far we have been considering the arrangements expedient for a community dealing with newly-occupied land. But it would seem that our judgment on proposals for taking land back into the possession of the community in a district where it has, in the main, been completely appropriated ought reasonably to be determined by the same kind of considerations,---with the very important difference, that in the latter case we have to take into account the cost of compensating existing proprietors.

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