That Disturbing Devil

Ferdinand Mount

  • Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater
    Bloomsbury, 482 pp, £20.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 1 4088 1574 8

In this case, the elephant is the room. There can be few enormous subjects more often dodged than the space we occupy on the surface of the earth. Land ownership – its many modes, its distribution, its history – is the great ignored in politics today, gingerly taken up if at all and quickly put down again in favour of more fashionable topics: capitalism, urbanisation, democracy, industrialisation, the role of the state. The question ‘Who owns the land?’ has a musty aroma to it.

Andro Linklater tells us at the end of his ambitious odyssey that he was aware that his focus on land ownership ‘might seem old-fashioned to the point of eccentricity’. Certainly that is the reputation which has stuck to his best-known predecessor, Henry George. In his 1879 bestseller, Progress and Poverty, George set out the same thumping principle which inspires Linklater: ‘The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people.’

In his day, George had quite a following. Progress and Poverty sold more than three million copies and was translated into a dozen languages. George ran for mayor of New York and finished ahead of Teddy Roosevelt, though behind the Tammany Hall candidate. Henry George Foundations still exist in London, Melbourne and his native Philadelphia. Liberal Democrats in Britain continue to hanker after George’s single land tax to replace all other taxes, as do some American conservatives. All the same, George and Georgism remain outliers on the landscape of politics.

Yet George’s marginality gave him an unrivalled view of the emerging world. The second of ten children of a struggling publisher of religious texts, he left school at 14 and sailed before the mast to Melbourne and Calcutta, turned to typesetting when he came home, then lit out for the gold mines of British Columbia, before drifting into journalism and finishing up as managing editor of the San Francisco Times. In roaming the frontiers, he saw how land that was valueless yesterday could become worth many dollars an acre after it was cleared, surveyed, settled and, above all, owned.

Andro Linklater did not live quite the hand-to-mouth life of Henry George, but he too was an outlier. Raised in the Orkneys, the younger son of Eric Linklater, he had something of his father’s unpigeonholeable talent as a writer and the same indifference to the opinion of others. He lived with the headhunters of Sarawak, completed Eric’s history of the Black Watch, taught in a tough London school, lived on an almost uninhabited Hebridean island for five years, never to be tied down to a career, nor a search for recognition, let alone celebrity, though capable of charming the birds off the trees if there had been any trees in the desolate regions he preferred. It is typical of his ornery nature that he should have died of a heart attack the week before Owning the Earth was first published in New York, because he was on another Hebridean island and there was a fatal delay before he could get medical treatment.

Unlike George, Linklater sets out to provide a historical framework for his argument. He begins with the rude irruption of European adventurers into the New World. In the royal charter that Queen Elizabeth conferred on Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, she granted him full power over the soil of ‘those large and ample countreys [that] extended Northward from the cape of Florida … to dispose thereof, of every part thereof in fee simple or otherwise, according to the order of the laws of England’. That raffish, bisexual gallant, Raleigh’s half-brother, was to control the freehold of the Eastern Seaboard all the way up to Newfoundland, anywhere which was not already occupied by ‘any Christian prince or people’ (no look-in for Native Americans, of course).

This arrogation was all the more sweeping because back in England the pattern of land ownership was still very varied. John Darby’s huge estate map of Smallburgh, Norfolk, dated a year before Gilbert set sail and now in the British Library, shows a rich mixture of strip-fields, commons and orchards, as well as the large number of fields already enclosed by the landowner and dotted with sheep and cattle. But Gilbertia – as the new country might perhaps have been named if Sir Humphrey’s frigate, the Squirrel, had not gone down in a storm on the return journey – was to be freehold from the start, a huge terra nova of untrammelled individual ownership.

The early 1500s, according to Linklater, saw ‘the birth of a new mindset’, and a uniquely explosive one:

The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable near-eternal earth has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history. It has eliminated ancient civilisations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold.

The new ideology was fiercely resisted by the upholders of older pieties. In Utopia (1516), Sir Thomas More, though himself a considerable landowner, denounces the powerful magnates who ‘enclose all into pastures’ and demolish houses and entire villages to make sheep runs. ‘The rich men, not only by private fraud but also by common laws, do every day pluck and snatch away from the poor some part of their daily living.’ The 1553 revision of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer made it clear that rapacious landlords were not to expect the approval of the new Church of England either:

the earth is thine, O Lord, and all that is contained therein; we heartily pray thee to send thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings.

A century later, the Levellers ratcheted up the rhetoric. Gerrard Winstanley declared that the earth ‘was made to be a common livelihood to all’ and that ‘your buying and selling of Land, and the fruits of it, one to another, is the cursed thing.’ That ‘disturbing devil, called Particular Propriety’, stood in shameful contrast to the early Christians who had held all things in common (Acts 2.44).

Linklater himself used to believe passionately in Winstanley’s ideals and ‘lived for longer than was sensible on communes in the United States and Europe, farming unproductive, steeply sloping fields locked away in the mountains, unwanted by their original owner’. He experienced at first hand the downside of communal farming: the inequality of effort put in, the backbiting and the dissension, the disillusioning need for rigid discipline if the commune was not to fall apart.

By contrast, he spells out here the unmistakable benefits of enclosure by private individuals: the improvements to the grazing and the breeds, the need for fewer shepherds because the sheep could no longer stray, the higher yields and the higher profits. Farms grew bigger, and so did the population (the population of England doubled in the 16th century). English workers prided themselves on not being peasants and on enjoying mutton, bacon and cheese, while the paysans across the Channel had to rely on cereals, generally in the form of gruel. Thus was born the myth of English exceptionalism. When Gregory King made his famous first occupational census of England in 1688, he reckoned that out of 1.3 million families, no fewer than a quarter had as their head a tenant farmer, a freeholder or a landowning nobleman – all of them possessors of land rights.

Minerva’s owl was soon planing over the new landscape and trying to make sense of this ‘possessive individualism’, as C.B. Macpherson was to dub it three centuries later. In the argument between Macpherson and Milton Friedman, both sides recognised, as Marx had, its explosive power. They differed as to whether its social effects were malign or benign. In this argument, Linklater is always an impartial and insightful referee. In becoming disillusioned with the commune, he does not ricochet to the other extreme, like a New York Trot morphing into a Reagan Republican, but keeps a cool and exact, yet sympathetic gaze on the realities of land ownership.

The crucial insight of this book is that ownership depends not only on possession but on recognition. Private property cannot survive without the guarantee of government. Locke argued that ‘the great and chief end therefore, of Men uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.’ But Leviathan’s certificate comes at a price. Once under government, owners are locked into a system of justice, and are subject to what Madison called ‘the equalising tendency of the laws’, or, in Adam Smith’s formulation, ‘that equal and impartial administration of justice which renders the rights of the meanest subject respectable to the greatest’. Smith tells us bluntly that ‘the mean rapacity, the monopolising spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be the rulers of mankind, though it cannot perhaps be corrected, may very easily be prevented from disturbing the tranquillity of any body but themselves.’

It was above all when they were appropriating virgin land that the would-be squires needed the stamp of government. Sir Humphrey Gilbert clutched his charter from Good Queen Bess. In due course, the government of the United States became a brilliant machine for the generation of property rights.

Security of title was crucial. As Sir William Petty, that ingenious pioneer of statistics who himself acquired huge estates in Ireland, pointed out, ‘there can be no incouragement to industry, where there is no assurance of what shall be gotten by it.’ Jefferson was the Founding Father most hostile to private property, but it was the surveys carried out on the instructions of his Committee on the Western Lands which divided the whole country into that vast chequerboard we still see from the air, not to mention his Louisiana Purchase which added millions more acres to the United States. More ironic still, the surveys set in motion by the great opponent of the British Empire were copied all over British territory – in the square gridlands of Ontario, in the Torrens surveys which divided South Australia up into ‘parishes’. In these supposed terrae nullius, the original inhabitants had as much reason to fear the white man’s theodolite and chain as his guns and muskets.

The banker followed on the heels of the surveyor, for a secure title is the best security for a loan and the farmer needed cash for seeds and tools and livestock. The bank loan and the land registry together bound the landowner into a system of law and regulation which potentially opened the way to social justice.

For a brief historical moment, private ownership enjoyed a moral ascendancy and even came to feature among the rights of man. The First Continental Congress in 1774 declared that ‘the people of America … are entitled to life, liberty and property’. In Article 17 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the French National Assembly asserted that ‘Property is an inviolable and sacred right.’ But these formulations were no sooner enounced than erased, to be replaced by the more inclusive goals of ‘happiness’ and ‘fraternity’, not to mention ‘equality’. In The Origin of Inequality, Rousseau had already fingered the institution of private property as the beginning of inequality. The first claiming stakes driven into the ground had started the rot. Had the sans-culottes gone to the trouble of making a revolution only to reinforce the rights of their oppressors?

The same arguments troubled the making of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. The Americans did manage to squeeze in Article 17, ‘the right to own property alone as well as in association with others’, but there were strong objections from some signatories. Two years later, when it came to the European Convention on Human Rights, the best that the supporters of private property could manage was a non-binding protocol, which asserted the right to ‘the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions’, a rather tamer entitlement.

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While private property was beginning to produce the economic goods, it fell under an ideological blight. Proudhon’s thunderous pronouncement that ‘Property is theft’ hit the popular imagination in 1840, just as white men were sweeping the natives off their ancestral lands all over the globe. To many, this looked like a replay of the destruction of the old commons, and a demonstration that private ownership of land was not an accidental but an inherent evil, and that government was its co-conspirator.

There is a weird echo of Proudhon in the arguments of the Austrian school of economists a century later. Ludwig von Mises asserted that ‘all rights derive from violence, all ownership from appropriation or robbery’. The economy was a self-generating, self-correcting system which owed nothing to government or to conscious design, and at its best depended on the unfettered play of the energies and appetites of men. Hayek modified this alarming thesis, but he never accepted how much private ownership depended for its survival and its beneficial effects on the guarantees and corrections of government. For Hayek, social justice was always a mirage, and progressive taxation penalised the ‘independents’ who actually created the wealth and needed to be protected against the envious predations of their inferiors. In sharp contrast, Adam Smith believed that ‘it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.’ This gulf between Smith and his supposed heirs has seldom been properly confronted.

The communists, for their part, eagerly welcomed all evidence to show that common ownership had been the rule rather than the exception throughout history and throughout the world, and that private ownership was a recent intrusion. After delving into the records of Irish medieval law in the Manchester Public Library, Engels wrote excitedly to Marx that ‘the tracts show clearly that in Anno 1600 common ownership of land still existed in full force.’ In Russia, the serfs’ communal council, the mir, redistributed both land and grazing rights, specified which fields were to be left fallow and what crops were to be grown elsewhere. Might not the mir offer a blueprint for the communism of the future, enabling Russia to skip the stage of industrialisation that was otherwise mandatory in Marx’s scheme?

Linklater points out that the mir, or obshchina, was a by-product of tsarism, for it was the Romanovs who not only introduced serfdom but, in mitigation of that novel form of slavery, decreed that at least a quarter of each estate had to be set aside for the use of the serfs. Nor was there any straightforward linear progression: Ivan the Terrible had distributed land to his favourites (much to Stalin’s later approval); Peter the Great, by contrast, had abolished the private ownership of land; Catherine the Great had reintroduced it.

At this point Linklater gets a little entangled in his own outline. He began with a more or less familiar Whiggish, Marxish version, in which feudal practices continue as late as the 16th century, with communal rights well to the fore and the buying and selling of land a novel and controversial development. But now we are told that Marx’s evolutionary scheme does not fit the findings of modern research. There was no straight progression from community to selfishness but rather ‘an uneasy equilibrium that occurred in a variety of forms in different countries, sometimes lasting for centuries’. Under Irish Brehon law, for example, more energetic families did manage to accumulate landholdings and pass them on to their families. Marx himself found the same in German-Swiss cantons. The community would dictate periodic reallocations of land, but something akin to private ownership did emerge. In England, it is clear, the buying and selling of land had gone on for centuries. Magna Carta, after all, protects every baron and freeholder from being ‘disseised of his freehold’. The Statute of Merton (1235) guarantees the lord of the manor’s right to enclose common land. Alan Macfarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism confirms the view that private ownership and alienation of land had always been features of the English scene as far back as records go. Sir Keith Joseph’s delight on discovering Macfarlane was as great as Marx’s on receiving Engels’s report from Manchester.

The search to find legitimacy in the distant past does not, of course, offer cast-iron guidance for the future. And it is in the more recent past that the achievements of ‘land reform’ – as it came to be politely known – have been most startling, and most undervalued. The remarkable economic surge over the 19th century in the United States, Canada and Australia was blighted by the forcible expropriation and slaughter of the original owners of the land. But no less remarkable things happened as a result of land redistribution in other countries where there was no such moral shadow.

Britain’s record in Ireland over the centuries has been so wretched that few now remember the succession of Irish Land Acts which the Westminster Parliament passed in response to the agitation of the Land League in the later 19th century. As a result, 90 per cent of Irish land passed at knockdown prices from mostly Protestant landlords to mostly Catholic tenants – a mirror image of what had happened at terrible cost in the 1640s. Long before the Easter Rising, the British Parliament had effectively destroyed the Ascendancy and created a nation of small landowners.

In Denmark, Count Christian Reventlow (1748-1827) embarked on a comprehensive programme of land reform, so that by the 1820s two-thirds of all Danish farmers had become owner-occupiers. The rest of Scandinavia followed suit over the course of the century. Modern Scandinavia’s rare combination of egalitarian spirit and entrepreneurial energy has land redistribution as its originating cause. In Russia too, all through the years in which intellectuals were bemoaning the hopelessness of everything Slav, there was in fact a tremendous land revolution in progress. In 1861, the nobility had owned 80 per cent of European Russia. By 1912, two-thirds of the land belonged to newcomers like the nekulturny Lopakhin, who wants to cut down the cherry orchard to build holiday homes. Like Madame Ranevskaya, the Russian nobility were undone by their own improvidence.

On top of this, in Siberia there was a land rush of Californian proportions, aided by the government allotment of forty acres per family. One pioneer wrote home ecstatically: ‘Here you can plough as much land as you want, and as much hay as you want! Life is possible!’ If Stolypin had not been murdered and if Nicholas II had not been such a pigheaded idiot, without a world war Russia might have evolved into a sustainable democracy. At least it can be argued that by 1914 its most pressing problems were political, not economic.

Even in Britain, land ownership was transferred, almost unnoticed, on a very large scale – as in Russia, driven by the indebtedness of the landlords rather than by government initiative. To counter the virulent assault on the mid-Victorian concentration of land ownership, Lord Derby had in 1872 set up an official inquiry, a sort of new Domesday Book, in the hope that the results would refute the vulgar accusations. But when the Return of Owners of Land was published in 1873, Derby turned out to have scored a spectacular own goal.

The figures showed that a quarter of the land in England and Wales was owned by 710 individuals, 12 aristocrats owned four million acres between them, and nearly three-quarters of the British Isles was in the hands of a few thousand owners. But this was the blazing autumn of the plutocrats. Debt and Sir William Harcourt’s introduction of death duties in 1894 combined with repeated agricultural depressions and the Great War to cause a headlong dispersal of the great estates. Those country squires who had feared that the repeal of the Corn Laws would be the death of them were not wholly wrong. By 1924, Edward Wood, later Lord Halifax, told the House of Commons that ‘there was a silent revolution in progress … We are, unless I mistake it, witnessing in England the gradual disappearance of the old landed classes.’ As David Cannadine remarks in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, ‘five hundred years of patrician landownership had effectively been halted and reversed in seventy.’

True, if you draw up a list of the great property owners today, the same names appear at the top: Buccleuch and Devonshire (rural), Grosvenor and Cadogan (urban). But most of these great holdings, vast though they still are, are a fraction of their old size. A further revolution within a revolution has reduced the proportion of land farmed by tenants from 90 per cent in the 19th century to a mere 35 per cent today. Landowners who are too idle or too busy to farm their own land prefer to install a manager, often under a sharecropping arrangement.

But these bouleversements are trivial beside the spectacular land reforms in East Asia after 1945. Here Linklater introduces the nearest thing in his book to a hero. Wolf Ladejinsky was reared in a shtetl in Western Ukraine. Within living memory, his homeland had been transformed from a serf economy to a private-property squirearchy before the land was nationalised by the conquering Bolsheviks. When Ladejinsky fled to the United States in 1922, he took with him the conviction that ‘the foundations of the social structure must stand or fall in the countryside, and the peasant and his interests and aspirations must be placed at the centre of the piece.’

As a land economist seconded to General MacArthur’s military government in Japan, he drew up a programme in which no absentee landlord could own more than nine acres. By 1950, 90 per cent of Japanese farmland was owned by its cultivators. Ladejinsky then brought off the same trick in Taiwan and South Korea. Linklater argues that he came within touching distance of success in South Vietnam too, if only the US had not wearied of the war and he himself had not fallen out of favour in Washington (he was wrongly denounced as a Communist stooge). Everywhere Ladejinsky preached his simple message that ‘land ownership … is the real vehicle of security and opportunity upon which a more resourceful economy can be built.’ Everywhere he seemed to be proved right. Certainly his legacy was infinitely superior to that of Walt Rostow, who beguiled Washington with his five-stage programme for ‘The Take-Off into Self-Sustained Growth’, which, by contrast, claimed that industrialisation was the key. Rostow tied the United States to a series of unsavoury autocrats and littered the world with unprofitable steel mills.

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Where land reform failed, it tended to be because it was not carried through in good faith. In Iran, for example, where the shah’s original good intentions were eroded by cronyism and corruption. India (not really covered here) is another instructive case. The British ‘Modernisers’ (almost the first use of the term) of the 1830s and 1840s believed that if the government got rid of the idle landlords and dealt direct with the peasants, Indian farming would really take off. Unfortunately, the East India Company still needed vast quantities of rupees to support its great military apparatus, and the reforms created a bunch of aggrieved ex-landlords and a peasantry groaning under the British collectors, who tended to be more relentless than the old taluqdars and zamindars. Thousands of small farmers were driven into the hands of moneylenders and, under new British regulations, were eventually forced to sell up for not paying their taxes. A British official at the time lamented that ‘in the landed property of the country a very extensive and melancholy revolution has been effected’. Rather than warding off discontent, the land reform helped to precipitate the most terrifying mutiny in the history of the British Empire.

Which makes one wonder whether Henry George’s single land tax could ever have worked. In India, at any rate, a better answer seemed to lie in the new income tax devised by James Wilson, the founder of the Economist, when he came out to India after the Mutiny. In Britain, Labour governments have repeatedly tried to capture the development value of land for the public revenues: by the Development Charge in 1947, the Betterment Levy in 1967 and the Development Land Tax of 1976. All were seen to have failed and were later repealed, their most noticeable effect being to dissuade landowners from bringing land forward for development. An impartial single tax on all land, developed or not, would not have that defect, but it would still be a burden on enterprise and would hardly encourage the release of land to the people. Britain still lacks its Ladejinsky.

Or indeed its Deng Xiaoping, for the most spectacular land reform in history was to come in the most unlikely place – Communist China. Deng’s amazing feat is more often described as the introduction of a market economy, but its key feature was the chengbao system (1978), of thirty-year leases on specific parcels of land, the produce to be sold on the free market after having first supplied the state with fixed quotas of rice or wheat. Ancient precedent could be found for such a system, dating back to the Confucian era, but it was an undeniable affront to Lenin, who always believed that ‘small-scale production gives birth to capitalism and the bourgeoisie constantly, daily, hourly, with elemental force and in vast proportions.’ It also nonplussed those ideologues of the right who had always preached that only a democracy could give birth to a market economy. Lenin’s fears were confirmed when widespread protests from farmers at the confiscation of their land for industrial development led the authorities in 2007 to go one step further and bring in laws protecting private ownership, or wuquan.

Nor is there much reason to suppose that the work of land reform is yet done. Linklater does not mention Hernando de Soto and his 1986 bestseller, The Other Path, which proposed that the shanty-dwellers of his native Peru could be weaned away from the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path by being given proper legal rights over their patches and small businesses. De Soto’s thesis has been eagerly taken up across South America and Asia (China included). His critics argue variously that his reforms favour better-off squatters over the poorest, who would be more effectively protected by communal tenures, or that his reforms do not go far enough. Linklater, I think, would have concluded that de Soto was at least on to something. He would certainly have been eager to point out the lead role of the state in guaranteeing those squatters’ rights.

It is arguable that the state is still obstructing the welfare of the worst off in the West too. In Britain today, the rigidities of the planning system, still basically governed by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, continue to restrict the supply of land for housebuilding and for industrial and commercial development, and so to keep land prices at a prohibitively high level. The Nimby is the modern analogue of Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, only more successful.

In his final chapters, Linklater drifts away from his main theme to examine the causes of the 2008 financial crash. There is nothing much wrong with his analysis, but it distracts him from the interesting question whether land reform still has work to do in unexpected places. Might not marginal farmland be opened up to small-scale bidders, just as urban and coastal wastelands were released for bungalows, chalets and allotments after the Great War, the so-called Plotlands which were so loathed by the Bloomsberries and so loved by their owners?

If this beguiling and provoking book has a larger fault, though, it is in its historical perspective. Linklater constantly seeks to present private ownership as a mysterious irruption into a world which had known nothing but various forms of communal ownership. This ‘strange 16th-century way of owning the earth’ apparently had no precedent and no roots. Here and there, Linklater does concede that something like it can be found several centuries earlier. What he does not do is look back to classical antiquity.

In ancient Greece and Rome and across their empires, absolute land ownership seems to have been taken for granted. Its abuses certainly provoked tirades and alternatives. Horace protested against the nouveaus who defiled the Bay of Naples with vulgar villas. The early Christians stood out as remarkable precisely because they held all things in common. Both Plato’s vision of common ownership in the Republic and Aristotle’s passionate critique of it are presented in terms familiar to us. Aristotle was no friend to usury or indeed to moneymaking generally, but he argued strongly that common ownership led to slacking and squabbling and that private ownership was more productive, that it had always existed and was implanted in human nature. We need not accept any of Aristotle’s arguments, but we do have to recognise that even in the fourth century BC those arguments were up and running, as were the counter-arguments for collective ownership. The ‘uneasy equilibrium’ seems to be a longstanding part of the Western tradition. It can be detected as clearly in the clay tablets of old Mesopotamia as in the regulations of New York condos. We are unlikely to see the balance stop swinging in our own time.