It is well known that these materials and agencies, as fast as they become available, are in the main appropriated by individuals, through the agency or consent of the government, and are then held as private property. Such is the case with the soil and the minerals beneath it. The owners of this property charge as much for the use of it as if it were their own creation, and not that of nature.
— PROF. SIMON NEWCOMB, The Labor Question, North American Review, July, 1870, p. 151.
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The unavoidable conclusion of our extended inquiry into the existing state of things is that no sudden and universal improvement in the condition of the laboring classes is possible. But it does not follow that there is nothing to be done by those who have the interests of the laborers at heart. If no sudden improvement is possible, a gradual one may be. If we compare the comforts enjoyed by every class of society now with those which were possessed a hundred years ago, we shall see an immense improvement. With the increase of the means of production, and the opening of new fields of industry, we may hope for continued progress in the same direction. But we must not disguise the fact that there is another cause which not only tends to retard this progress, but operates in the contrary direction. We refer to the necessary diminution in the supply of certain of the raw materials necessary to production.
If we trace back the steps in the production of any article of utility, we shall find ourselves ultimately dependent on certain natural agencies and materials for all our means of subsistence. Such are the heat and light of the sun, the soil which furnishes the growth of the vegetable world, the rocks and minerals hidden in the earth, the streams which flow over its surface. Deprived of these, the human race would cease to exist. Now, when we enter upon a close inquiry, we find that while certain of these agencies are unlimited in amount, and equally free to all, there are others of which the supply is limited, or of which all cannot equally avail themselves. The heat and light of the sun, for instance, belong to the first class. But there are only fifty millions of square miles of land on the surface of the globe, and the surface of productive soil is much smaller. In a densely populated community the amount of land within reach of any one individual is very small indeed. Again, navigable rivers run by the doors of very few. The total amount of water-power in any State of the Union is extremely small, while coal, iron, lead, and copper are found only in certain favored localities.
The inevitable consequence of this state of things is a continual diminution, as population increases, of the amount of these agencies which is at the command of each individual. If this were all, it would affect all classes nearly alike. But it is well known that these materials and agencies, as fast as they become available, are in the main appropriated by individuals, through the agency or consent of government, and are then held as private property. Such is the case with the soil and the minerals beneath it. The owners of this property charge as much for the use of it as if it were their own creation, and not that of nature. The price thus charged, termed "Rent" by the English economists, necessarily increases with the increase of population. In England, where nearly all the land is held by a small fraction of the population, rent is an important element in the cost of that portion of the food of the people which is raised in that country. Against this policy the laboring class has reasonable ground of complaint. The doctrine that the soil is of natural right the common property of the human race, and that each individual should be allowed to enjoy his share, is now tacitly admitted by many eminent economists of England and France. If this right could be enforced, the rent of all the land of any country England, for instance would be divided among the inhabitants, and the poorer classes would be made wealthier by the amount thus distributed. It must be borne in mind that the right here referred to is only that to the soil itself, in a state of nature, and not to the improvements which have been made by labor. Unfortunately, the soil and the improvements are practically inseparable. It has even been claimed by some that the soil never has any value apart from the improvements, a proposition which can be accepted as true, we conceive, only through a misunderstanding, of the question. That lands on which the owners have never bestowed a day's labor are every day sold at prices ranging from $1.25 per acre to $10 per foot ; that every portion of land brought into market is owned by some one to the exclusion of every one else; that the number of acres is limited by Nature herself ; and that the productiveness of land is not proportional to the labor expended on its improvement, are incontrovertible propositions.
In view of these facts, and of the importance of land to the future laborer, our laboring classes have just cause of complaint in the wasteful spirit with which Congress is always ready to "donate" the public lands to railroad corporations. Since the decadence of the whiskey ring, the railroad rings are perhaps the most powerful in Washington. Their relative success illustrates that peculiar feature of congressional political economy which encourages enterprises in proportion to their inability to pay. For many years past Congress has been besieged for authority to build a railroad from Washington to New York, no charge whatever being made for the service. The projectors have hitherto been successfully opposed, really on the ground that the usefulness of the road would be so great that the owners would make an inordinate profit. On the other hand, a company proposing to build a road in the new States can get a bonus of a thousand acres of the public lands for every mile or two of road built, by simply trying to show that otherwise their road will not pay for itself. In every such gift the government parts with what may be of the utmost importance to the laboring classes in future generations. While we cannot agree with the extreme views of those who would give every one a free homestead, and make it inalienable, we do hold that Congress should do everything in its power to prevent the aggregation of immense landed estates in the hands of individuals or of corporations.