I thought this 110 year old article worth sharing. (See also, over at wealthandwant.com, the page on "ownership and possession.") Seems appropriate as we enter the celebration of the Declaration of Independence.
The Railroad trainman, Volume 19 - By Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen
December, 1902, page 918
Florence A. Burleigh
THE recent coal strike has brought the subject of property rights to the minds of many people who had never before thought of it seriously. In a general way, most people think that no one should appropriate to himself what does not belong to him, and that every one has a right to keep what does belong to him. The only question is, what constitutes rightful ownership? Possession certainly does not, neither does any one rightfully own anything simply because he bought it and paid for it in "hard-earned money."
It is a little amusing to hear people argue that such and such a person — often a "poor widow" — owns a piece of land, a horse or a building because it was paid for in "hard-earned money." Is it his or hers any more because the money was hard to earn than if it was easily earned or came down from heaven like manna? Paying for a thing, whether with "hard-earned" money or money that is easily earned, gives no valid title; there must be a little back of that which is transferred or there is no rightful ownership. A man might buy a horse and pay to the seller its full value in gold; but if the horse had been stolen, no matter how many times it had been sold since, it belonged to the man from whom it was stolen. A man can give no better title to anything than he possesses, and title is not made by buying or selling.
Hard and unjust as were the demands of the mine owners in the recent coal strike, they are perfectly legitimate, if it is once conceded that those men or corporations own the mines. A man may do what he likes with his own if he does not aggress on other people's rights. If these men really owned the mines they had a perfect right to sit back and say to the miners, "You shall not work for us unless you come to our terms; there is nothing to arbitrate." They have a right to close their mines for as long a time as they choose, to offer only starvation wages, to compel their employes to trade at "pluck-in" stores, or to exact any other terms they may choose to impose if the mines are really theirs.
Ownership includes absolute control by the owner of the thing owned. If a man owns a tool, a piece of furniture or a watch, he is at liberty to break or burn it, or give it away if he does not care to use it. He may refuse to lend it to any but men with black hair or may put it in a glass case in his parlor if he chooses; it is nobody's business but his own what he does with it, so long as he injures no one else. It may be that he would be foolish, selfish in his disposal of it, but that is his own affair; the article is his without question — his to do with as he pleases.
So it is with mines or any other land; if a man really owns them and can show a good title, he has a right to "dictate terms'' to any one else who wants to use them or whom he wants to work for him; no one can justly interfere. But is the title to coal mines or other natural resources as good as that to labor products? Can it be traced back to the Creator? If so, private property in land is right; if not, private property in land is wrong.
Ownership comes from production -- production being used in the large sense to include exchange. If a man makes a hat it is his; if he exchanges the hat for a coat or a pair of shoes, they are also his because that for which he exchanged them was his. But how is it with land? Can anyone show a title from the producer? Henry George says in "Progress and Poverty," Book VII, Chapter 1: "What constitutes the rightful basis of property? . . . Is it not, primarily, the right of a man to himself, to the use of his own powers, to the enjoyment of the fruits of his own exertions? . . . As a man belongs to himself, so his labor when put in concrete form, belongs to him. And for this reason that which a man makes or produces is bis own as against all the world — to enjoy or to destroy, to use, to exchange, or to give. No one else can rightfully claim it, and his exclusive right to it involves no wrong to anyone else. Thus, there is to everything produced by human exertion a clear and indisputable title to exclusive possession and enjoyment which is perfectly consistent with justice as it descends from the original producer in whom it is invested by natural law. . . . . There can be to the ownership of anything no rightful title which is not derived from the title of the producer and does not rest upon the natural right of the man to himself. There can be no other rightful title because, (first) there is no other natural right from which any other title can be derived, and (second) because the recog nition of any other title is inconsistent with and destructive of this.
" . . . If production give to the producer the right to exclusive possession and enjoyment, there can rightfully be no exclusive possession and enjoyment of anything not the production of labor and the recognition of private property in land is wrong. For the right to the produce of labor cannot be enjoyed without the right to the free use of the opportunities offered by nature, and to admit the right of private property in these is to deny the right of property in the produce of labor."
Herbert Spencer, in the unrevised edition of "Social Statics," Chapter 9, said: "Either men have the right to make the soil private property or they have not. . . . . If they have such a right, then is that right absolutely sacred, not on any pretense to be violated. . . . If they have such a right, then it would be proper for the sole proprietor of any kingdom — a Jersey or a Guernsey, for example — to impose just what regulations he might choose on its inhabitants — to tell them that they should not live on his property unless they professed a certain religion, spoke a particular language, paid him a specified reverence, adopted an authorized dress and conformed to all other conditions he might see fit to make. . . . There is no escape from these inferences. They are necessary corollaries to the theory that the earth can become individual property. And they can only be repudiated by denying that theory."
These quotations are given not because Mr. George or Mr. Spencer or anyone else is infallible, but because the conclusions are irrefutable if once the premises are granted and it is inconceivable that anyone who is at the same time thoughtful, intelligent and fair can deny the premises.
It may be that the statute law allows private property in land, but statute law never of itself made right. Statute law has always winked at or allowed much wrong and injustice, but notwithstanding that, piracy and chattel slavery were finally abolished. When the majority of people come to see the enormous and fundamental wrong in private ownership of land, they will change the laws and wonder how they could have been so blind before as to think that private ownership, in what was not and never could be made by man, was right.
When once the right of all men to the use of the earth is recognized and land is free for all to use as long as they pay to the community the value of that use, then labor will be really free and employers will find that they cannot get a man to work for them unless they treat him justly and fairly.
Imagine a man saying to his physician, "I will not employ you unless you will trade at my store, profess my religion and vote the ticket I tell you to!" The idea is preposterous; yet it is not essentially different from what we see about us everywhere. The sick man employs his physician in essentially the same way that he employs his coachman or his tailor, but the physician is a free agent and the coachman is not, yet both do him a service.
It is seldom that people see that anyone who works for them does them a service, yet that is the case. A rather amusing incident which illustrates this point happened not so long ago at an out of the way town where there are no very poor and no very rich people. A lady who was spending the summer in this place needed extra help and went to ask for it from a woman who had occasionally helped in an emergency, but who at this time did not, for reasons of her own, care to go out to cook even for a day. The burden of the would-be employer's sad song was not so much that she was inconvenienced by the woman's refusal, but that she (the lady) had so kindly and generously offered work and it was scorned. The truth probably was that the woman did not want the small amount of money she would have received as much as she wanted to stay at home and, fortunately, she was free to make her own choice which is not often the case. The reverse of this is so generally the rule that it is a pleasure to occasionally find workers who can afford to be independent. Sometime, when enough people see the injustice of our present social conditions, when we have real freedom and equality, men will not need to almost sell their souls in order to keep their bodies alive for employers will not ask anyone to do it, as they would know it would be useless. Competition will be free and both sides can make a fair bargain, not only between employers and employes, but between all business men.
Among the proper subjects for ownership the one which stands pre-eminent among the others is the man himself. A man's ownership of himself is one of the most sacred things in the world, for it includes his right to freedom of thought, speech and action and the just claim to the product of his labor. It means that every man will have a chance to make the most of himself without interference from anybody.
Let us, then, do what we can to bring about this condition that the world may be the better for our having lived in it, and the next generation may enjoy their right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.''