R. H. Tawney

On Property




This is Chapter V of The Acquisitive Society. In this Chapter bearing the title “Property and creative work”, Tawney distinguishes between functional and functionless property, the former originating from direct productive activity and the latter from the work of others and so, according to Tawney, from usurpation.

The considerations about property expressed by the author are worth of examination and reflection, even if we do not accept each and every of his positions.



The application of the principle that society should be organized upon the basis of functions, is not recondite, but simple and direct. It offers in the first place, a standard for discriminating between those types of private property which are legitimate and those which are not. During the last century and a half, political thought has oscillated between two conceptions of property, both of which, in their different ways, are extravagant.

On the one hand, the practical foundation of social organization has been the doctrine that the particular forms of private property which exist at any moment are a thing sacred and inviolable, that anything may properly become the object of property rights, and that, when it does, the title to it is absolute and unconditioned. The modern industrial system took shape in an age when this theory of property was triumphant. The American Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man both treated property as one of the fundamental rights which Governments exist to protect. The English Revolution of 1688, undogmatic and reticent though it was, had in effect done the same. The great individualists from Locke to Turgot, Adam Smith and Bentham all repeated, in different language, a similar conception. Though what gave the Revolution its  diabolical character in the eyes of the English upper classes was its treatment of property, the dogma of the sanctity of private property was maintained as tenaciously by French Jacobins as by English Tories; and the theory that property is an absolute, which is held by many modern Conservatives, is identical, if only they knew it, with that not only of the men of 1789, but of the Convention itself.

On the other hand, the attack has been almost as undiscriminating as the defence. “Private property” has been the central position against which the social movement of the last hundred years has directed its forces. The criticism of it has ranged from an imaginative communism in the most elementary and personal of necessaries, to prosaic and partially realized proposals to transfer certain kinds of property from private to public ownership, or to limit their exploitation by restrictions imposed by the State. But, however varying in emphasis and in method, the general note of what may conveniently be called the Socialist criticism of property is what the word Socialism itself implies. Its essence is the statement that the economic evils of society are primarily due to the unregulated operation, under modern conditions of industrial organization, of the institution of private property.

The divergence of opinion is natural, since in most discussions of property the opposing theorists have usually been discussing different things. Property is the most ambiguous of categories. It covers a multitude of rights which have nothing in common except that they are exercised by persons and enforced by the State. Apart from these formal characteristics, they vary indefinitely in economic character, in social effect, and in moral justification. They may be conditional like the grant of patent rights, or absolute like the ownership of ground rents, terminable like copyright, or permanent like a freehold, as comprehensive as sovereignty or as restricted as an easement, as intimate and personal as the ownership of clothes and books, or as remote and intangible as shares in a gold mine or rubber plantation.

It is idle, therefore, to present a case for or against private property without specifying the particular forms of property to which reference is made, and the journalist who says that “private property is the foundation of civilization” agrees with Proudhon, who said it was theft, in this respect at least that, without further definition, the words of both are meaningless. Arguments which support or demolish certain kinds of property may have no application to others; considerations which are conclusive in one stage of economic organization may be almost irrelevant in the next. The course of wisdom is neither to attack private property in general nor to defend it in general; for things are not similar in quality, merely because they are identical in name. It is to discriminate between the various concrete embodiments of what, in itself, is, after all, little more than an abstraction.


The traditional doctrine

The origin and development of different kinds of proprietary rights is not material to this discussion. Whatever may have been the historical process by which they have been established and recognized, the rationale of private property traditional in England is that which sees in it the security that each man will reap where he has sown. Locke argued that a man necessarily and legitimately becomes the owner of “whatever he removes out of the state that nature hath provided,” and that “ he makes it his property” because ha “hath mixed his labour with it.” Paley derived property from the fact that “it is the intention of God that the produce of the earth be applied to the use of man, and this intention cannot be fulfilled without establishing property.” Adam Smith, who wrote the dangerous sentence, “Civil Government, so far as it is instituted for the protection of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor,” sometimes spoke of property as the result of usurpation. “Landlords, like other men, love to reap where they have never sowed” – but in general ascribed it to the need of offering protection to productive effort.

“If I despair of enjoying the fruits of labour,” said Bentham, repeating what were in all essentials the arguments of Locke, “I shall only live from day to day; I shall not undertake labours which will only benefit my enemies.” This theory passed into America, and became the foundation of the sanctity ascribed to property in The Federalist and implied in a long line of judicial decisions on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Property, it is argued, is a moral right, and not merely a legal right, because it insures that the producer will not be deprived by violence of the result of his efforts.

The period from which that doctrine was inherited differed from our own in three obvious, but significant, respects. Property in land and in the simple capital used in most industries was widely distributed. Before the rise of capitalist agriculture and capitalist industry, the ownership, or at any rate the secure and effective occupation, of land and tools by those who used them, was a condition precedent to effective work in the field or in the workshop. The forces which threatened property were the fiscal policy of Governments and in some countries, for example France, the decaying relics of feudalism. The interference both of the one and of the other involved the sacrifice of those who carried on useful labour to those who did not. To resist them was to protect not only property but industry, which was indissolubly connected with it. Too often, indeed, resistance was ineffective. Accustomed to the misery of the rural proprietor in France, Voltaire remarked with astonishment that in England the peasant may be rich, and “does not fear to increase the number of his beasts or to cover his roof with tiles.” And the English Parliamentarians and the French philosophers who made the inviolability of property rights the centre of their political theory, when they defended those who owned, were incidentally, if sometimes unintentionally, defending those who laboured. They were protecting the yeoman or the master craftsman or the merchant from seeing the fruits of his toil squandered by the hangers-on at St. James or the courtly parasites of Versailles.

In such circumstances the doctrine which found the justification of private property in the fact that it enabled the industrious man to reap where he had sown, was not a paradox, but, as far as the mass of the population was concerned, almost a truism. Property was defended as the most sacred of rights. But it was defended as a right which was not only widely exercised, but which was indispensable to the performance of the active function of providing food and clothing. For it consisted predominantly of one of two types, land or tools which were used by the owner for the purpose of production, and personal possessions which were the necessities or amenities of civilized existence. The former had its rationale in the fact that the land of the peasant or the tools of the craftsman were the condition of his rendering the economic services which society required; the latter because furniture and clothes are indispensable to a life of decency and comfort.

The proprietary rights — and, of course, they were numerous — which had their source, not in work, but in predatory force, were protected from criticism by the wide distribution of some kind of property among the mass of the population, and in England, at least, the cruder of them were gradually whittled down. When property in land and what simple capital existed were generally diffused among all classes of society; when, in most parts of England, the typical workman was not a labourer but a peasant or small master, who could point to the strips which he had ploughed or the cloth which he had woven; when the greater part of the wealth passing at death consisted of land, household furniture and a stock in trade which was hardly distinguishable from it, the moral justification of the title to property was self-evident. It was obviously, what theorists said that it was, and plain men knew it to be, the labour spent in producing, acquiring and administering it.

Such property was not a burden upon society, but a condition of its health and efficiency, and indeed, of its continued existence. To protect it was to maintain the organization through which public necessities were supplied. If, as in Tudor England, the peasant was evicted from his holding to make room for sheep, or crushed, as in eighteenth century France, by arbitrary taxation and seigneurial dues, land went out of cultivation and the whole community was short of food. If the tools of the carpenter or smith were seized, ploughs were not repaired or horses shod. Hence, before the rise of a commercial civilization, it was the mark of statesmanship, alike in the England of the Tudors and in the France of Henry IV, to cherish the small property-owner even to the point of offending the great. Popular sentiment idealized the yeoman — “the Joseph of the country who keeps the poor from starving” — not merely because he owned property, but because he worked on it. It denounced that “bringing of the livings of many into the hands of one,” which capitalist societies regard with equanimity as an inevitable, and, apparently, a laudable result of economic development; cursed the usurer who took advantage of his neighbour's necessities to live without labour; and was shocked by the callous indifference to public welfare shown by those who “not having before their eyes either God or the profit and advantage of the realm, have enclosed with hedges and dykes towns and hamlets.” And it was sufficiently powerful to compel Governments to intervene to prevent the laying of field to field, and the engrossing of looms — to set limits, in short, to the scale to which property might grow.

When Bacon, who commended Henry VII for protecting the tenant right of the small farmer, and pleaded in the House of Commons for more drastic land legislation, wrote "Wealth is like muck. It is not good but if it be spread," he was expressing in an epigram what was the commonplace of every writer on politics from Fortescue at the end of the fifteenth century to Harrington in the middle of the seventeenth. The modern Conservative, who is inclined to take au pied de la lettre the vigorous argument in which Lord Hugh Cecil denounces the doctrine that the maintenance of proprietary rights ought to be contingent upon the use to which they are put, may be reminded that Lord Hugh's own theory is of a kind to make his ancestors turn in their graves. Of the two members of the family who achieved distinction before the nineteenth century, the elder advised the Crown to prevent landlords evicting tenants, and actually proposed to fix a pecuniary maximum to the property which different classes might possess, while the younger attacked enclosing in Parliament, and carried legislation compelling landlords to build cottages, to let them with small holdings, and to ploughs up pasture.

William and Robert Cecil were sagacious and responsible men, and their view that the protection of property should be accompanied by the enforcement of obligations upon its owners was shared by most of their contemporaries. The idea that the institution of private property involves the right of the owner to use it, or refrain from using it, in such a way as he may please, and that its principal significance is to supply him with an income, irrespective of any duties which he may discharge, would not have been understood by most public men of that age, and, if understood, would have been repudiated with indignation by the more reputable among them. They found the meaning of property in the public purposes to which it contributed, whether they were the production of food, as among the peasantry, or the management of public affairs, as among the gentry, and hesitated neither to maintain those kinds of property which met these obligations nor to repress those uses of it which appeared likely to conflict with them.

Property was to be an aid to creative work, not an alternative to it. The patentee was secured protection for a new invention, in order to secure him the fruits of his own brain, but the monopolist who grew fat on the industry of others was to be put down. The law of the village bound the peasant to use his land, not as he himself might find most profitable, but to grow the corn the village needed. The law of the State forbade the landlord to “depopulate” villages, or to convert arable to pasture. Long after political changes had made direct interference impracticable, even the higher ranks of English landowners continued to discharge, however capriciously and tyrannically, duties which were vaguely felt to be the contribution which they made to the public service in virtue of their estates. When as in France, the obligations of ownership were repudiated almost as completely as they have been by the owner of to-day, Nemesis came in an onslaught upon the position of a noblesse which had retained its rights and abdicated its functions. Property reposed, in short, not merely upon convenience, or the appetite for gain, but on a moral principle. It was protected not only for the sake of those who owned, but for the sake of those who worked and of those for whom their work provided. It was protected, because, without security for property, wealth could not be produced or the business of society carried on.


The divorce of ownership and work

Whatever the future may contain, the past has shown no more excellent social order than that in which the mass of the people were the masters of the holdings which they ploughed and of the tools with which they worked, and could boast, with the English freeholder, that “it is a quietness to a man's mind to live upon his own and to know his heir certain.” With this conception of property and its practical expression in social institutions those who urge that society should be organized on the basis of function have no quarrel. It is in agreement with their own doctrine, since it justifies property by reference to the services which it enables its owner to perform. All that they need ask is that it should be carried to its logical conclusion.

For the argument has evidently more than one edge. If it justifies certain types of property, it condemns others; and in the conditions of modern industrial civilization, what it justifies is less than what it condemns. The truth is, indeed, that this theory of property and the institutions in which it is embodied have survived into an age in which the whole structure of society is radically different from that in which it was formulated, and which made it a valid argument, if not for all, at least for the most common and characteristic kinds of property. It is not merely that the ownership of any substantial share in the national wealth is concentrated to-day in the hands of a few hundred thousand families, and that at the end of an age which began with an affirmation of the rights of property, proprietary rights are, in fact, far from being widely distributed. Nor is it merely that what makes property insecure to-day is not the arbitrary taxation of unconstitutional monarchies or the privileges of an idle noblesse, but the insatiable expansion and aggregation of property itself, which menaces with absorption all property less than the greatest, the small master, the little shopkeeper, the country bank, and has turned the mass of mankind into a proletariat working under the agents and for the profit of those who own.

The characteristic fact, which differentiates most modern property from that of the pre-industrial age, and which turns against it the very reasoning by which formerly it was supported, is that in modern economic conditions ownership is not active, but passive, that to most of those who own property to-day it is not a means of work but an instrument for the acquisition of gain or the exercise of power, and that there is no guarantee that gain bears any relation to service, or power to responsibility. For property which can be regarded as a condition of the performance of function, like the tools of the craftsman, or the holding of the peasant, or the personal possessions which contribute to a life of health and efficiency, forms an insignificant proportion, as far as its value is concerned, of the property rights existing at present. In modern industrial societies the great mass of property consists, as the annual review of wealth passing at death reveals, neither of personal acquisitions such as household furniture, nor of the owner's stock-in-trade, but of rights of various kinds, such as royalties, ground-rents, and, above all, of course shares in industrial undertakings which yield an income irrespective of any personal service rendered by their owners. Ownership and use are normally divorced. The greater part of modern property has been attenuated to a pecuniary lien or bond on the product of industry which carries with it a right to payment, but which is normally valued precisely because it relieves the owner from any obligation to perform a positive or constructive function.

Such property may be called Passive Property, or Property for Acquisition, for Exploitation, or for Power, to distinguish it from the property which is actively used by its owner for the conduct of his profession or the upkeep of his household. To the lawyer the first is, of course, as fully property as the second. It is questionable, however, whether economists shall call it "Property" at all, and not rather, as Mr. Hobson has suggested, “Improperty,” since it is not identical with the rights which secure the owner the produce of his toil, but is opposite of them. A classification of proprietary rights based upon this difference would be instructive. If they were arranged according to the closeness with which they approximate to one or other of these two extremes, it would be found that they were spread along a line stretching from property which is obviously the payment for, and condition of, personal services, to property which is merely a right to payment from the services rendered by others, in fact a private tax. The rough order which would emerge, if all details and qualification were omitted, might be something as follows:

1. Property in payments made for personal services.

2. Property in personal possessions necessary to health and comfort.

3. Property in land and tools used by their owners.

4. Property in copyright and patent rights owned by authors and inventors.

5. Property in pure interest, including much agricultural rent.

6. Property in profits of luck and good fortune “quasi-rents.”

7. Property in monopoly profits.

8. Property in urban ground rents.

9. Property in mineral royalties.

The first four kinds of property clearly accompany, and in some sense condition, the performance of work. The last four clearly do not. Pure interest has some affinities with both. It is obvious that an undertaking or a society which saves itself need not pay other persons to save for it; it is equally obvious that, if it is to save itself and thus avoid the creation of a class of rentiers, it must not use for current consumption the whole of the wealth annually produced. Pure interest, therefore, represents a necessary economic cost, the equivalent of which must be born, whatever the legal arrangements under which property is held, and is thus unlike the property represented by profits (other than the equivalent of salaries and payment for necessary risk), urban ground-rents and royalties on coal and other minerals. It relieves the recipient from personal services, and thus resembles them.

“Without the former,” said Sieyès, writing on the third estate and the privileged orders, “nothing can go on; without the latter everything would go on infinitely better.” “Not the least crucial of the questions before any society is, to which of these two large categories the lion’s share (measured in money value) of the proprietary rights and interests procreated by it at any given moment belongs.” If they fall in the first class, creative work will be encouraged and idleness will be depressed; if they fall in the second, the result will be the reverse. The facts vary widely from age to age and from country to country. Nor have they ever been fully revealed; for the lords of the jungle do not hunt by daylight. It is probable, at least, that in the England of 1550 to 1750, a larger proportion of the existing property consisted of land and tools used by their owners than either in contemporary France, where feudal dues absorbed a considerable proportion of the peasants' income, or than in the England of 1800 to 1850, where the new capitalist manufacturers made hundreds per cent., while manual workers were goaded by starvation into ineffectual revolt. It is probable that in the nineteenth century, thanks to the Revolution, France and England changed places, and that in this respect not only Ireland but the British Dominions resemble the former rather than the latter. The transformation can be studied best of all in the United States, in parts of which the population of peasant proprietors and small masters of the early nineteenth century was replaced in three generations by the nightmare that haunted Jefferson (see Notes on Virginia) - a propertyless proletariat and a capitalist plutocracy. The abolition of the economic privileges of agrarian feudalism, which, under the name of Equality, was the driving force of the French Revolution, and which has taken place, in one form or another, in all countries touched by its influence, has been largely counter-balanced since 1800 by the growth of the inequalities springing from Industrialism.

Of these vital developments in the facts of property, the conventional theory of property appears hardly to have begun to take cognizance. So far as England and America are concerned the current philosophy of the subject seems to have been crystallized somewhere about the latter part of the eighteenth century, and the orator who expounds the sanctity of property would normally express himself more accurately if less eloquently, by substituting for his peroration the words, “ I desire that the social organization of my country shall as far as possible be based upon legal principles which were formulated in England in the seventeenth century, and which were commonly thought to be specially suitable to the economic conditions existing in the reign of George III.” Nor is his attitude particularly culpable. The institution of property has undergone in the last few generations a transformation of bewildering rapidity, and the failure of thought to keep pace with it need cause no surprise.

It is rarely realized indeed, how extremely modern are those typical forms of property in which the practical world of to-day is principally interested. The most salient example is the share. Of all types of property it is the commonest and most convenient. It is a title to property stripped of almost all the encumbrances by which property used often to be accompanied. It yields an income and can be disposed of at will. It makes its owner heir to the wealth of countries to which he has never travelled and a partner in enterprises of which he hardly knows the name. To thousands of men to-day shares and property are almost convertible terms, The share is a product of the joint-stock company, and in England the joint-stock company began its career in the sixteenth century. But it took nearly 300 years for the share to develop the characteristic attributes which lend it its peculiar attractiveness to-day. Its disentanglement from the crude contribution, sometimes in money, sometimes in goods, to a common undertaking, in which it originated, took place with extraordinary slowness, and it was only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that the process was completed.

The “joint-stock” of the East India Company - to take an example from the greatest, though not the earliest, of all corporate enterprises - had for the greater part of a century no financial continuity. It was subscribed afresh for every voyage, or series of voyages, and repaid after it. It was not until 1657 that the practice of dividing capital as well as profits was abandoned; it was not until after the Restoration that the shares became transferable. The “Bubble” Act of 1719 tried to put down joint-stock finance – “shares in stocks transferable or assignable” - altogether, except in companies possessing royal or parliamentary authorization. Well into the nineteenth century the law continued to look with suspicion on the transferable share, as a new and dubious form of property. Lord Ellenborough in 1808 denounced the whole system of raising capital by means of numerous small subscriptions, and warned the parties in a case which came before him to “forbear to carry into operation . . . this mischievous project founded on joint-stock and transferable shares.” Chief Justice Best, in 1828, objected to the practice of assigning shares unless the company were a corporation, or a joint-stock undertaking created by Act of Parliament. “The assignee,” he argued, can join in no action for a cause of action that accrued before the assignment. Such rights of action must still remain in the assignor, who, notwithstanding he has retired from the company, will still remain liable for every debt contracted by the company before he ceases to be a member. Indeed, the members of a corporation cannot assign their interest and force their assignees into the corporation without the authority of an Act of Parliament.  . . . It concerns the public that bodies, composed of a great number of persons, with large disposable capitals, should not be formed without the authority of the Crown, and subject to such regulations as the King, in his wisdom, may deem necessary for the public security.” Even in 1837 it could be held that a joint-stock company, with shares assignable at the will of the holder, was illegal. Even in 1859, four years after the first general Limited Liability Act, it was not certain that a broker who dealt in the shares of an unincorporated company was acting lawfully.

The existence of this body of opinion at a time so near to our own is significant. What it means is that, down to less than two generations ago, the type of property which is to-day most popular and most universal was still regarded with suspicion as a dubious innovation, to be tolerated only in the special case of companies incorporated by Royal Charter or by Act of Parliament. The assumption of the law and of the business world was that, in the normal undertaking, ownership and management were vested in the hands of the same person. Corporate finance, based on the existence of a large body of shareholders, which is now the rule, was then the exception. The contrast offered by that attitude with the facts of industrial organization as they exist to-day is an indication of the revolution in the nature of property in capital which has taken place since the establishment of Limited Liability in 1855, and the Companies Act of 1862. In modern industrial communities the general effect of recent economic development has been to swell proprietary rights which entitle the owners to payment without work, and to diminish those which can properly be described as functional. The expansion of the former, and the process by which the simpler forms of property have been merged in them, are movements the significance of which it is hardly possible to over-estimate. There is still, of course, a considerable body of property which is of the older type. But, though working landlords, and capitalists who manage their own businesses, continue to be in the aggregate a numerous body, the organization for which they stand is not that which is most representative of the modern economic world.

The general tendency for the ownership and administration of property to be separated, the general refinement of property into a claim on goods produced by an unknown worker, is as unmistakable as the growth of capitalist industry and urban civilization themselves. Villages are turned into towns, and property in land changes from the holding worked by a farmer or the estate administered by a landlord into “rents,” which are advertised and bought and sold like any other investment. Mines are opened, and the rights of the landlord are converted into a tribute for every ton of coal which is brought to the surface. As joint-stock companies take the place of the individual enterprise which was typical of the earlier years of the factory system, organization passes from the employer who both owns and manages his business, into the hands of salaried officials, and again the mass of property-owners is swollen by the multiplication of rentiers who put their wealth at the disposal of industry, but who have no other connection with it.

The census of manufacturers for 1914 gives a picture of the change in the United States. It shows that 80.2 per cent. of the wage-earners were employed by corporations, that 91.4 per cent. of the mineral products of the country were produced under corporate direction, that in banking less than 1 per cent. of the total resources was represented by private banks, and that the percentage of value added by manufacture in establishments owned by corporations increased from 63.3 per cent. in 1899 to 81.9 per cent. in 1914. For Great Britain no equally comprehensive statistics are available. We do not know even approximately what proportion the wage-earners employed and the output produced by the 73,341 Companies, with a nominal capital of £3.083,086,049, which were on the register of the Board of Trade in 1919, formed of the total workers and wealth production of the country; nor, when the legal form is that of a limited company, is it clear to what extent ownership is, in fact, divorced from management. It is certain, however, that as far as all the great staple industries, except agriculture and building are concerned, that separation has been carried almost as far in Great Britain as in America, and that every year it is proceeding further.

The revolutionary effects of the legislation which begins with the Companies Act of 1844 and the Act establishing Limited Liability in 1855 have only begun, in fact, fully to reveal themselves within the last twenty years. Its consequence has been to make the organization of English industry in 1921 as different from that of the days of Bright and Cobden as that of the latter was from industry in the year 1800. They have caused the whole philosophy of individualism, which was based on the “individual initiative” of “the employer,” to be as remote from the realities of the modern economic world as their noble internationalism is from its frenzied international politics.

Banking, in which, as the Treasury Committee on Bank Amalgamations reported in 1918, “the number of private banks has fallen from 37 to 6 since 1891, and the number of English joint-stock banks from 106 to 34 during the same period,” and which is, in effect, the monopoly of an even smaller number of firms than those figures would suggest, railways, with their 300 directors, half a million shareholders, and over 600,000 employees, and insurance, are given over altogether to corporate enterprise. The 1,452 mine-owners of the country, apart from a few small firms producing an insignificant proportion of the total output, are limited companies; the capital of £135,000,000 invested in collieries in 1914 is the “property,” and the 1,110,834 mine-workers the employees, of 37,316 (or, if industries allied with coal-mining be included, 94,723) shareholders. In manufacturing industry a firm like Vickers Ltd., with 60,000 shareholders, is still, no doubt, the exception. But in all the more important industries, the categories of “employer and employed” are by now almost as archaic as those of master and servant. The division of the industrial world into absentee shareholders, directors, salaried managers, under-managers and technicians, and hired wage-earners, is to-day in shipbuilding, engineering, textiles, the manufacture of clothing, of boots and shoes, and of fifty other necessaries, not the exception, but the rule.

Every acceleration in the movement towards combination, which has made such gigantic strides in the last six years, necessarily accentuates still further the separation between property rights and constructive work, which is the essence of this type of organization. The change is taking place in our day most conspicuously, perhaps, through the displacement in retail trade of the small shopkeeper by the multiple store, and the substitution in manufacturing industry of combines and amalgamations for separate businesses conducted by competing employers. And, of course, it is not only by economic development that such claims are created. “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” It is probable that war, which in barbarous ages used to be blamed as destructive of property, has recently created more titles to property than almost all other causes put together. As between countries, the industry of the vanquished is subject to a mortgage in favour of the victors, which, if it is to be discharged in goods, may yield an agreeable tribute, but will be a doubtful blessing to those who live by labour. Within each country, the annual output of wealth will be subject, except in the case of repudiation or a capital levy, to a first charge in the shape of interest, amounting in “Great Britain” to some £300,000,000, to be paid to investors in war loans. In the absence of countervailing measures, such as subsidies and special taxation, the effect must be to produce a considerable redistribution of wealth, to the prejudice of those who are dependent mainly on personal work, and to the advantage of those whose main source of income is the ownership of property.

Infinitely diverse as are these proprietary rights, they have the common characteristic of being so entirely separated from the actual objects over which they are exercised, so rarified and generalized, as to be analogous almost to a form of currency rather than to the property which is so closely united to its owner as to seem a part of his personality. Their isolation from the rough environment of economic life, where the material objects of which they are the symbol are shaped and handled, is their charm. It is also their danger. The hold which a class has upon the future depends on the function which it performs. What nature demands is work: few working aristocracies, however tyrannical, have fallen; few functionless aristocracies have survived. In society, as in the world of organic life, atrophy is but one stage removed from death. In proportion as the landowner becomes a mere rentier and industry is conducted, not by the rude energy of the competing employers who dominated its infancy, but by the salaried servants of shareholders, the argument for private property which reposes on the impossibility of finding any organization to supersede them loses its application, for they are already superseded.

Whatever may be the justification of these types of property, it cannot be that which was given for the property of the peasant or the craftsman. It cannot be that they are necessary in order to secure to each man the fruits of his own labour. For if a legal right which gives £50,000 a year to a mineral owner in the North of England and to a ground landlord in London “secures the fruits of labour” at all, the fruits are the proprietor's and the labour that of some one else. Property has no more insidious enemies than those well-meaning anarchists who, by defending all forms of it as equally valid, involve the institution in the discredit attaching to its extravagances. In reality, whatever conclusion may be drawn from the fact, the greater part of modern property belongs to the category of property which is held, not for use or enjoyment, but for acquisition or power. Sometimes, like mineral rights and urban ground-rents, it is merely a form of private taxation which the law allows certain persons to levy on the industry of others; sometimes, like property in capital, it consists of rights to payment for instruments which the capitalist cannot himself use but puts at the disposal of those who can. In either case, it has as its essential feature that it confers upon its owners income unaccompanied by personal service.

In this respect the ownership of land and the ownership of capital are normally similar, though from other points of view their differences are important. To the economist rent and interest are distinguished by the fact that the latter, though it is often accompanied by surplus elements which are merged with it in dividends, is the price of an instrument of production which would not be forthcoming for industry if the price were not paid, while the former is a differential surplus which does not affect the supply. To the business community and the solicitor land and capital are equally investments, between which, since they possess the common characteristic of yielding income without labour, it is inequitable to discriminate. Though their significance as economic categories may be different, their effect as social institutions is the same. It is to separate property from creative activity, and to divide society into two classes, of which one has its primary interest in passive ownership, while the other is mainly dependent upon active work.

Hence the real analogy to many kinds of modern property is not the simple property of the small land-owner or the craftsman, still less the household goods and dear domestic amenities, which is what the word suggests to the guileless minds of clerks and shopkeepers, and which stampede them into displaying the ferocity of terrified sheep when the cry is raised that “Property” is threatened. It is the feudal dues which robbed the French peasant of part of his produce till the Revolution abolished them. How do royalties differ from quintaines and lods et ventes? They are similar in their origin and similar in being a tax levied on each increment of wealth which labour produces. How do urban ground-rents differ from the payments which were made to English sinecurists before the Reform Bill of 1832? They are equally tribute paid by those who work to those who do not. If the monopoly profits of the owner of banalités, whose tenant must grind corn at his mill and make wine at his press, were an intolerable oppression, what is the sanctity attaching to the monopoly profits of the capitalists, who, as the Report of the Government Committee on trusts tells us, “in soap, tobacco, wallpaper, salt, cement and in the textile trades ... are in a position to control output and prices” or, in other words, can compel the consumer to buy from them, at the figure they fix, on pain of not buying at all?

All these rights — royalties, ground-rents, monopoly profits — are “Property.” The criticism most fatal to them is not that of Socialists. It is contained in the arguments by which property is usually defended. For if the meaning of the institution is to encourage industry by securing that the worker shall receive the produce of his toil, then precisely in proportion as it is important to preserve the property which a man has in the results of his own efforts, is it important to abolish that which he has in the results of the efforts of some one else. The considerations which justify ownership as a function are those which condemn it as a tax. Property is not theft, but a good deal of theft becomes property. The owner of royalties who, when asked why he should be paid £50,000 a year from minerals which he has neither discovered nor developed nor worked but only owned, replies “But it's Property!” may feel all the awe which his language suggests. But in reality he is behaving like the snake which sinks into its background by pretending that it is the dead branch of a tree, or the lunatic who tried to catch rabbits by sitting behind a hedge and making a noise like a turnip. He is practising protective — and sometimes aggressive — mimicry. His sentiments about property are those of the simple toiler who fears that what he has sown another may reap. His claim is to be allowed to continue to reap what another has sown.

It is sometimes suggested that the less attractive characteristics of our industrial civilization, its combination of luxury and squalor, its class divisions and class warfare, are accidental maladjustments which are not rooted in the centre of its being, but are excrescences which economic progress itself may in time be expected to correct. That agreeable optimism will not survive an examination of the operation of the institution of private property in land and capital in industrialized communities. In countries where land is widely distributed, in France or in Ireland, its effect may be to produce a general diffusion of wealth among a rural middle class who at once work and own. In countries where the development of industrial organization has separated the ownership of property and the performance of work, the normal effect of private property is to transfer to functionless owners the surplus arising from the more fertile sites, the better machinery, the more elaborate organization.

No clearer exemplifications of this “law of rent” has been given than the figures supplied to the Coal Industry Commission of 1919 by Sir Arthur Lowes Dickenson, which showed that in a given quarter the costs per ton of producing coal varied from 12s. 6d. to 48s. 0d. per ton, and the profits from nil to 16s. 6d. The distribution in dividends to shareholders of the surplus accruing from the working of richer and more accessible seams, from special opportunities and access to markets, from superior machinery, management and organization, involves the establishment of Privilege as a national institution, as much as the most arbitrary exactions of a feudal seigneur. It is the foundation of an inequality which is not accidental or temporary, but necessary and permanent. And on this inequality is erected the whole apparatus of class institutions, which make not only the income, but the housing, education, health and manners, indeed the very physical appearance of different classes of Englishmen almost as different from each other as though the minority were alien settlers established amid the rude civilization of a race of impoverished aborigines.


Property and security

So the justification of private property traditional in England, which saw in it the security that each man would enjoy the fruits of his own labour, though largely applicable to the age in which it was formulated, has undergone the fate of most political theories. It has been refuted not by the doctrines of rival philosophers, but by the prosaic course of economic development. As far as the mass of mankind are concerned, the need which private property other than personal possessions does still often satisfy, though imperfectly and precariously, is the need for security. To the small investors, who are the majority of property-owners, though owning only an insignificant fraction of the property in existence, its meaning is simple. It is not wealth or power, or even leisure from work. It is safety. They work hard. They save a little money for old age, or for sickness, or for their children. They invest it, and the interest stands between them and all that they dread most. Their savings are of convenience to industry, the income from them is convenient to themselves. “Why,” they ask, “should we not reap in old age the advantage of energy and thrift in youth?” And this hunger for security is so imperious that those who suffer most from the abuses of property, as well as those who, if they could profit by them, would be least inclined to do so, will tolerate and even defend them, for fear lest the knife which trims dead matter should cut into the quick. They have seen too many men drown to be critical of dry land, though it be an inhospitable rock. They are haunted by the nightmare of the future, and, if a burglar broke it, would welcome a burglar.

This need for security is fundamental, and almost the gravest indictment of our civilization is that the mass of mankind are without it. Property is one way of organizing it. It is quite comprehensible therefore, that the instrument should be confused with the end, and that any proposal to modify it should create dismay. In the past, human beings, roads, bridges and ferries, civil, judicial and clerical offices, and commissions in the army have all been private property. Whenever it was proposed to abolish the rights exercised over them, it was protested that their removal would involve the destruction of an institution in which thrifty men had invested their savings, and on which they depended for protection amid the chances of life and for comfort in old age.

In fact, however, property is not the only method of assuring the future, nor, when it is the way selected, is security dependent upon the maintenance of all the rights which are at present normally involved in ownership. In so far as its psychological foundation is the necessity for securing an income which is stable and certain, which is forthcoming when its recipient cannot work, and which can be used to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, what is really demanded is not the command over the fluctuating proceeds of some particular undertaking, which accompanies the ownership of capital, but the security which is offered by an annuity. Property is the instrument, security is the object, and when some alternative way is forthcoming of providing the latter, it does not appear in practice that any loss of confidence, or freedom or independence is caused by the absence of the former.

Hence not only the manual workers, who since the rise of capitalism, have rarely in England been able to accumulate property sufficient to act as a guarantee of income when their period of active earning is past, but also the middle and professional classes, increasingly seek security to-day, not in investment, but in insurance against sickness and death, in the purchase of annuities, or in what is in effect the same thing, the accumulation of part of their salary towards a pension which is paid when their salary ceases. The professional man may buy shares in the hope of making a profit on the transaction. But when what he desires to buy is security, the form which his investment takes is usually one kind or another of insurance. The teacher, or nurse, or government servant looks forward to a pension. Women, who fifty years ago would have been regarded as dependent almost as completely as if femininity were an incurable disease with which they had been born, and whose fathers, unless rich men, would have been tormented with anxiety for fear lest they should not save sufficient to provide for them, now receive an education, support themselves in professions, and save in the same way.

The amount spent to-day on insurance alone is the more remarkable in view of the comparatively recent period, hardly more than two centuries, within which this type of provision has developed. The total annual expenditure in the United Kingdom on premium is already over £50,000,000, the amount insured some £1.200,000,000, and the aggregate policies in force over 38,000,000. It is true that a large number of these policies lapse, and that, while the amount insured, almost entirely by the well-to-do classes) in the “ordinary” branch of insurance is some £870,000,000, the working classes, with only £363,000,000 to their credit in the “industrial” branch, are miserably under-insured. Even today, it is still the case that almost all wage-earners outside government employment, and many in it, as well as large numbers of professional men, have nothing to fall back upon in sickness or old age. But that does not alter the fact that, when it is made, this type of provision meets the need for security, which, apart, of course, from personal possessions and household furniture, is the principal meaning of property to by far the largest element in the population, and that it meets it more completely and certainly than property itself.

Nor, indeed, even when property is the instrument used to provide for the future, is such provision dependent upon the maintenance in its entirety of the whole body of rights which accompany ownership to-day. Property is not simple but complex. That of a man who has invested his savings as an ordinary shareholder comprises at least three rights, the right to interest, the right to profits, the right to control. In so far as what is desired is the guarantee for the maintenance of a stable income, not the acquisition of additional wealth without labour — in so far as his motive is not gain but security — the need is met by interest on capital. It has no necessary connection either with the right to residuary profits or the right to control the management of the undertaking from which the profits are derived, both of which are vested to-day in the shareholder. If all that were desired were to use property as an instrument for purchasing security, the obvious course — from the point of view of the investor desiring to insure his future the safest course — would be to assimilate his position as far as possible to that of a debenture holder or mortgagee, who obtains the stable income which is his motive for investment, but who neither incurs the risks nor receives the profits of the speculator.

The elaborate apparatus of proprietary rights which distributes dividends of thirty per cent to the shareholders in Coats, and several thousands a year to the owner of mineral royalties and ground-rents, and then allows them to transmit the bulk of gains which they have not earned to descendants who in their turn will thus be relieved from the necessity of earning, is property run mad. To insist that it must be maintained for the sake of the widow and the orphan, the vast majority of whom have neither and would gladly part with them all for a safe annuity if they had, is, to say the least of it, extravagantly mal-à-propos. It is like pitching a man into the water because he expresses a wish for a bath, or presenting a tiger cub to a householder who is plagued with mice, on the ground that tigers and cats both belong to the genus felis. The tiger hunts for itself not for its masters, and when game is scarce will hunt them. The classes who own little or no property may reverence it because it is security. But the classes who own much prize it for quite different reasons, and laugh in their sleeve at the innocence which supposes that anything as vulgar as the savings of the petite bourgeoisie have, except at elections, any interest for them. They prize it because it is the order which quarters them on the community and which provides for the maintenance of a leisure class at the public expense.


The tyranny of functionless property

“Possession,” writes Meredith in The Egoist, “without obligation to the object possessed, approaches felicity.” Functionless property appears natural to those who believe that society should be organized for the acquisition of private wealth, and attacks upon it perverse or malicious, because the question which they ask of any institution is, “What does it yield?” And such property yields much to those who own it. Those, however, who hold that social unity and effective work are possible only if society is organized and wealth distributed on the basis of function, will ask of an institution, not, “What dividends does it pay?” but “What service does it perform?” To them the fact that much property yields income irrespective of any service which is performed or obligation which is recognized by its owners will appear not a quality but a vice. They will see in the social confusion which it produces, payments disproportionate to service here, and payments without any service at all there, and dissatisfaction everywhere, a convincing confirmation of their argument that to build on a foundation of rights and of rights alone is to build on a quicksand.

From this portentous exaggeration into an absolute of what once was, and still might be, a sane and social institution, most other social evils follow. Its fruits are the power of those who do not work over those who do, the alternate subservience and rebelliousness of those who work towards those who do not, the starving of science and thought and creative effort for fear that expenditure upon them should impinge on the comfort of the sluggard and the fainéant, and the arrangement of society in most of its subsidiary activities to suit the convenience not of those who work usefully but of those who spend gaily; so that the most hideous, desolate and parsimonious places in the country are those in which the greatest wealth is produced, the Clyde valley, or the cotton towns of Lancashire, or the mining villages of Scotland and Wales, and the gayest and most luxurious those in which it is consumed. From the point of view of social health and economic efficiency, society should obtain its material equipment at the cheapest price possible, and, after providing for depreciation and expansion, should distribute the whole product to its working members and their dependents. What happens at present, however, is that its workers are hired at the cheapest price which the market (as modified by organization) allows, and that the surplus, somewhat diminished by taxation, is distributed to the owners of property.

Profits may vary in a given year from a loss to 100 per cent. But wages are fixed at a level which will enable the marginal firm to continue producing one year with another; and the surplus, even when due partly to efficient management, goes neither to managers nor manual workers, but to shareholders. The meaning of the process becomes startlingly apparent when, as recently in Lancashire, large blocks of capital change hands at a period of abnormal activity. The existing shareholders receive the equivalent of the capitalized expectation of future profits. The workers, as workers, do not participate in the immense increment in value; and when, in the future, they demand an advance in wages, they will be met by the answer that profits, which before the transaction would have been reckoned large, yield shareholders after it only a low rate of interest on their investment.

The truth is that whereas in earlier ages the protection of property was normally the protection of work, the relationship between them has come in the course of the economic development of the last two centuries to be very nearly reversed. The two elements which compose civilization are active effort and passive property, the labour of human things and the tools which human beings use. Of these two elements those who supply the first maintain and improve it, those who own the second normally dictate its character, its development and its administration. Hence, though politically free, the mass of mankind live in effect under rules imposed to protect the interests of the small section among them whose primary concern is ownership. From this subordination of creative activity to passive property, the worker who depends upon his brains, the organizer, inventor, teacher or doctor suffers almost as much embarrassment as the craftsman. The real economic cleavage is not, as is often said, between employers and employed, but between all who do constructive work, from scientist to labourer, on the one hand, and all whose main interest is the preservation of existing proprietary rights upon the other, irrespective of whether they contribute to constructive work or not.

If, therefore, under the modern conditions which have concentrated any substantial share of property in the hands of a small minority of the population, the world is to be governed for the advantages of those who own, it is only incidentally and by accident that the results will be agreeable to those who work. In practice there is a constant collision between them. Turned into another channel, half the wealth distributed in dividends to functionless shareholders, could secure every child a good education up to 18, could re-endow English Universities, and (since more efficient production is important) could equip English industries for more efficient production. Half the ingenuity now applied to the protection of property could have made most industrial diseases as rare as smallpox, and most English cities into places of health and even of beauty. What stands in the way is the doctrine that the rights of property are absolute, irrespective of any social function which its owners may perform. So the laws which are most stringently enforced are still the laws which protect property, though the protection of property is no longer likely to be equivalent to the protection of work, and the interests which govern industry and predominate in public affairs are proprietary interests.

A mill-owner may impose conditions which degrade a generation of operatives; but his brother magistrates will let him off with a caution or a nominal fine to do the same to the next. For he is an owner of property. A landowner may draw rents from slums in which young children die at the rate of 200 per 1000; but he will be none the less welcome in polite society. For property has no obligations and therefore can do no wrong. Urban land may be held from the market on the outskirts of cities in which human beings are living three to a room, and rural land may be used for sport when villagers are leaving it to overcrowd them still more. No public authority intervenes, for both are property.

Nor are these practical evils the gravest consequences which flow from the hypertrophy of property in an industrial society. Property is in its nature a kind of limited sovereignty. Its essence is a power secured by the State to some individual or group as against all others, to dispose of the objects over which the proprietary rights are exercised. When those objects are simple and easily obtained, the property is normally harmless or beneficial. When they are such that, while they can be acquired only by the few, the mass of mankind cannot live unless it has free access to them, their proprietors, in prescribing their use, may become the irresponsible governors of thousand of other human being.

Hence, when pushed to extremes, applied to purposes for which it was not designed, and in an environment to which it is not adapted, property in things swells into something which is, in effect, sovereignty over persons. “This main objection to a large corporation,” writes Mr. Justice Brandeis, of the Supreme Court of the U.S.A., “is that it makes possible – and in many cases inevitable – the exercise of industrial absolutism.” In England such absolutism is felt mainly in the hours of work, above all in the power to deprive the wage-earners of his livelihood by dismissing him from his employment. In America there are cities where the company owns not only the works, but halls and meeting-places, streets and pavements, where the town council and police are its nominee, and the pulpit and press its mouthpieces, where no meeting can be held to which it objects and no citizen can dwell of whom it disapproves. Such property confers a private franchise, or jurisdiction analogous to that which in some periods has been associated with the ownership of land. The men who endure it may possess as citizens the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But they live, in effect, at the will of a lord.

To those who believe that institutions which repudiate all moral significance must sooner or later collapse, a society which confuses the protection of property with the preservation of its functionless perversions will appear as precarious as that which has left the memorials of its tasteless frivolity and more tasteless ostentation in the gardens of Versailles.

Do men love peace? They will see the greatest enemy of social unity in rights which involve no obligation to co-operate for the service of society. Do they value equality? Property rights which dispense their owners from the common human necessity of labour make inequality an institution permeating every corner of society, from the distribution of material wealth to the training of intellect itself. Do they desire greater industrial efficiency? There is no more fatal obstacle to efficiency than the revelation that idleness has the same privileges as industry, and that for every additional blow with the pick or hammer an additional profit will be distributed among shareholders who wield neither.

Indeed, functionless property is the greatest enemy of legitimate property itself. It is the parasite which kills the organism that produced it. Bad money drives out good, and, as the history of the last two hundred years shows, when property for acquisition or power and property for service or for use jostle each other freely in the market, without restrictions such as some legal systems have imposed on alienation and inheritance, the latter tends normally to be absorbed by the former, because it has less resisting power. Thus functionless property grows, and as it grows it undermines the creative energy which produced the institution of property and which in earlier ages property protected. It cannot unite men, for what unites them is the bond of service to a common purpose, and that bond it repudiates, since its very essence is the maintenance of rights irrespective of service. It cannot create; it can only spend, so that the number of scientists, inventors, artists or men of letters who have sprung in the course of the last century from hereditary riches can be numbered on one hand. It values neither culture nor beauty, but only the power which belongs to wealth and the ostentation which is the symbol of it.

So those who dread these qualities, energy and thought and the creative spirit — and they are many — will not discriminate, as we have tried to discriminate, between different types and kinds of property, in order that they may preserve those which are legitimate and abolish those which are not. They will endeavour to preserve all private property, even in its most degenerate forms. And those who value those things will try to promote them by relieving property of its perversions, and thus enabling it to return to its true nature.

They will not desire to establish any visionary communism, for they will realize that the free disposal of a sufficiency of personal possessions is the condition of a healthy and self-respecting life, and will seek to distribute more widely the property rights which make them to-day the privilege of a minority. But they will refuse to submit to the naïve philosophy which would treat all proprietary rights as equal in sanctity merely because they are identical in name. They will distinguish sharply between property which is used by its owner for the conduct of his profession or the upkeep of his household, and property which is merely a claim on wealth produced by another's labour. They will insist that property is moral and healthy only when it is used as a condition, not of idleness but of activity, and when it involves the discharge of definite personal obligations. They will endeavour, in short, to base it upon the principle of function.


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