The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 10

Means of Abolishing Cottier Tenancy

§1. When the first edition of this work was written and published, the question, what is to be done with a cottier population, was to the English Government the most urgent of practical questions. The majority of a population of eight millions, having long grovelled in helpless inertness and abject poverty under the cottier system, reduced by its operation to mere food of the cheapest description, and to an incapacity of either doing or willing anything for the improvement of their lot, had at last, by the failure of that lowest quality of food, been plunged into a state in which the alternative seemed to be either death, or to be permanently supported by other people, or a radical change in the economical arrangements under which it had hitherto been their misfortune to live. Such an emergency had compelled attention to the subject from the legislature and from the nation, but it could hardly be said with much result; for, the evil having originated in a system of land tenancy which withdrew from the people every motive to industry or thrift except the fear of starvation, the remedy provided by Parliament was to take away even that, by conferring on them a legal claim to eleemosynary support: while, towards correcting the cause of the mischief, nothing was done, beyond vain complaints, though at the price to the national treasury of ten millions sterling for the delay.

“It is needless,” (I observed) “to expend any argument in proving that the very foundation of the economical evils of Ireland is the cottier system; that while peasant rents fixed by competition are the practice of the country, to expect industry, useful activity, any restraint on population but death, or any the smallest diminution of poverty, is to look for figs on thistles and grapes on thorns. If our practical statesmen are not ripe for the recognition of this fact; or if while they acknowledge it in theory, they have not a sufficient feeling of its reality, to be capable of founding upon it any course of conduct; there is still another, and a purely physical consideration, from which they will find it impossible to escape. If the one crop on which the people have hitherto supported themselves continues to be precarious, either some new and great impulse must be given to agricultural skill and industry, or the soil of Ireland can no longer feed anything like its present population. The whole produce of the western half of the island, leaving nothing for rent, will not now keep permanently in existence the whole of its people: and they will necessarily remain an annual charge on the taxation of the empire, until they are reduced either by emigration or by starvation to a number corresponding with the low state of their industry, or unless the means are found of making that industry much more productive.”

Since these words were written, events unforeseen by any one have saved the English rulers of Ireland from the embarrassments which would have been the just penalty of their indifference and want of foresight. Ireland, under cottier agriculture, could no longer supply food to its population: Parliament, by way of remedy, applied a stimulus to population, but none at all to production; the help, however, which had not been provided for the people of Ireland by political wisdom, came from an unexpected source. Self-supporting emigration — the Wakefield system, brought into effect on the voluntary principle and on a gigantic scale (the expenses of those who followed being paid from the earnings of those who went before) has, for the present, reduced the population down to the number for which the existing agricultural system can find employment and support. The census of 1851, compared with that of 1841, showed in round numbers a diminution of population of a million and a half. The subsequent census (of 1861) shows a further diminution of about half a million. The Irish having thus found the way to that flourishing continent which for generations will be capable of supporting in undiminished comfort the increase of the population of the whole world; the peasantry of Ireland having learnt to fix their eyes on a terrestrial paradise beyond the ocean, as a sure refuge both from the oppression of the Saxon and from the tyranny of nature; there can be little doubt that however much the employment for agricultural labour may hereafter be diminished by the general introduction throughout Ireland of English farming-or even if, like the county of Sutherland, all Ireland should be turned into a grazing farm — the superseded people would migrate to America with the same rapidity, and as free of cost to the nation, as the million of Irish who went thither during the three years previous to 1851. Those who think that the land of a country exists for the sake of a few thousand landowners, and that as long as rents are paid, society and government have fulfilled their function, may see in this consummation a happy end to Irish difficulties.

But this is not a time, nor is the human mind now in a condition, in which such insolent pretensions can be maintained. The land of Ireland, the land of every country, belongs to the people of that country. The individuals called landowners have no right, in morality and justice, to anything but the rent, or compensation for its saleable value. With regard to the land itself, the paramount consideration is, by what mode of appropriation and of cultivation it can be made most useful to the collective body of its inhabitants. To the owners of the rent it may be very convenient that the bulk of the inhabitants, despairing of justice in the country where they and their ancestors have lived and suffered, should seek on another continent that property in land which is denied to them at home. But the legislature of the empire ought to regard with other eyes the forced expatriation of millions of people. When the inhabitants of a country quit the country en masse because its Government will not make it a place fit for them to live in, the Government is judged and condemned. There is no necessity for depriving the landlords of one farthing of the pecuniary value of their legal rights; but justice requires that the actual cultivators should be enabled to become in Ireland what they will become in America-proprietors of the soil which they cultivate.

Good policy requires it no less. Those who, knowing neither Ireland nor any foreign country, take as their sole standard of social and economical excellence English practice, propose as the single remedy for Irish wretchedness, the transformation of the cottiers into hired labourers. But this is rather a scheme for the improvement of Irish agriculture, than of the condition of the Irish people. The status of a day-labourer has no charm for infusing forethought, frugality, or self-restraint, into a people devoid of them. If the Irish peasant could be universally changed into receivers of wages, the old habits and mental characteristics of the people remaining, we should merely see four or five millions of people living as day-labourers in the same wretched manner in which as cottiers they lived before; equally passive in the absence of every comfort, equally reckless in multiplication, and even, perhaps, equally listless at their work; since they could not be dismissed in a body, and if they could, dismissal would now be simply remanding them to the poor-rate. Far other would be the effect of making them peasant proprietors. A people who in industry and providence have everything to learn — who are confessedly among the most backward of European populations in the industrial virtues — require for their regeneration the most powerful incitements by which those virtues can be stimulated: and there is no stimulus as yet comparable to property in land. A permanent interest in the soil to those who till it, is almost a guarantee for the most unwearied laboriousness: against over-population, thought not infallible, it is the best preservative yet known, and where it failed, any other plan would probably fail much more egregiously; the evil would be beyond the reach of merely economic remedies.

The case of Ireland is similar in its requirements to that of India. In India, though great errors have from time to time been committed, no one ever proposed, under the name of agricultural improvement, to eject the ryots or peasant farmers from their possession; the improvement that has been looked for, has been through making their tenure more secure to them, and the sole difference of opinion is between those who contend for perpetuity, and those who think that long leases will suffice. The same question exists as to Ireland: and it would be idle to deny that long leases, under such landlords as are sometimes to be found do effect wonders, even in Ireland. But then they must be leases at a low rent. Long leases are in no way to be relied on for getting rid of cottierism. During the existence of cottier tenancy, leases have always been long; twenty-one years and three lives concurrent, was a usual term. But the rent being fixed by competition, at a higher amount than could be paid, so that the tenant neither had, nor could by any exertion acquire, a beneficial interest in the land, the advantage of a lease was nearly nominal. In India, the government, where it has not imprudently made over its proprietary rights to the zemindars, is able to prevent this evil, because, being itself the landlord, it can fix the rent according to its own judgment; but under individual landlords, while rents are fixed by competition, and the competitors are a peasantry struggling for subsistence, nominal rents are inevitable, unless the population is so thin, that the competition itself is only nominal. The majority of landlords will grasp at immediate money and immediate power; and so long as they find cottiers eager to offer them everything, it is useless to rely on them for tempering the vicious practice by a considerate self-denial.

A perpetuity is a stronger stimulus to improvement than a long lease: not only because the longest lease, before coming to an end, passes through all the varieties of short leases down to no lease at all; but for more fundamental reasons. It is very shallow, even in pure economics, to take no account of the influence of imagination: there is a virtue in “for ever” beyond the longest term of years; even if the term is long enough to include children, and all whom a person individually cares for, yet until he has reached that high degree of mental cultivation at which the public good (which also includes perpetuity) acquires a paramount ascendancy over his feelings and desires, he will not exert himself with the same ardour to increase the value of an estate, his interest in which diminishes in value every year. Besides, while perpetual tenure is the general rule of landed property, as it is in all the counties of Europe, a tenure for a limited period, however long, is sure to be regarded as a something of inferior consideration and dignity, and inspires less of ardour to obtain it, and of attachment to it when obtained. But where a country is under cottier tenure, the question of perpetuity is quite secondary to the more important point, a limitation of the rent. Rent paid by a capitalist who farms for profit, and not for bread, may safely be abandoned to competition; rent paid by labourers cannot, unless the labourers were in a state of civilization and improvement which labourers have nowhere yet reached, and cannot easily reach under such a tenure. Peasant rents ought never to be arbitrary, never at the discretion of the landlord: either by custom or law, it is imperatively necessary that they should be fixed; and where no mutually advantageous custom, such as the metayer system of Tuscany, has established itself, reason and experience recommend that they should be fixed by authority: thus changing the rent into a quit-rent, and the farmer into a peasant proprietor.

For carrying this change into effect on a sufficiently large scale to accomplish the complete abolition of cottier tenancy, the mode which most obviously suggests itself is the direct one of doing the thing outright by Act of Parliament; making the whole land of Ireland the property of the tenants, subject to the rents now really paid (not the nominal rent), as a fixed rent charge. This, under the name of “fixity of tenure,” was one of the demands of the Repeal Association during the most successful period of their agitation; and was better expressed by Mr. Conner, its earliest, most enthusiastic, and most indefatigable apostle,1 by the words, “a valuation and a perpetuity.” In such a measure there would not have been any injustice, provided the landlords were compensated for the present value of the chances of increase which they were prospectively required to forego. The rupture of existing social relations would hardly have been more violent than that effected by the ministers Stein and Hardenberg when, by a series of edicts, in the early part of the present century, they revolutionized the state of landed property in the Prussian monarchy, and left their names to posterity among the greatest benefactors of their country. To enlightened foreigners writing on Ireland, Von Raumer and Gustave de Beaumont, a remedy of this sort seemed so exactly and obviously what the disease required, that they had some difficulty in comprehending how it was that the thing was not yet done.

This, however, would have been, in the first place, a complete expropriation of the higher classes of Ireland: which, if there is any truth in the principles we have laid down, would be perfectly warrantable, but only if it were the sole means of effecting a great public good. In the second place, that there should be none but peasant proprietors, is in itself far from desirable. Large farms, cultivated by large capital, and owned by persons of the best education which the country can give, persons qualified by instruction to appreciate scientific discoveries, and able to bear the delay and risk of costly experiments, are an important part of a good agricultural system. Many such landlords there are even in Ireland; and it would be a public misfortune to drive them from their posts. A lar ge proportion also of the present holdings are probably still too small to try the proprietary system under the greatest advantages; nor are the tenants always the persons one would desire to select as the first occupants of peasant-properties. There are numbers of them on whom it would have a more beneficial effect to give them the hope of acquiring a landed property by industry and frugality, than the property itself in immediate possession.

There are, however, much milder measures, not open to similar objections, and which, if pushed to the utmost extent of which they are susceptible, would realize in no inconsiderable degree the object sought. One of them would be, to enact that whoever reclaims waste land becomes the owner of it, at a fixed quit-rent equal to a moderate interest on its mere value as waste. It would of course be a necessary part of this measure, to make compulsory on landlords the surrender of waste lands (not of an ornamental character) whenever required for reclamation. Another expedient, and one in which individuals could co-operate, would be to buy as much as possible of the land offered for sale, and sell it again in small portions as peasant-properties. A Society for this purpose was at one time projected (though the attempt to establish it proved unsuccessful) on the principles, so far as applicable, of the Freehold Land Societies which have been so successfully established in England, not primarily for agricultural, but for electoral purposes.

This is a mode in which private capital may be employed in renovating the social and agricultural economy of ireland, not only without sacrifice but with considerable profit to its owners. The remarkable success of the Waste Land improvement Society, which proceeded on a plan far less advantageous to the tenant, is an instance of what an Irish peasantry can be stimulated to do, by a sufficient assurance that what they do will be for their own advantage. it is not even indispensable to adopt perpetuity as the rule; long leases at moderate rents, like those of the Waste Land Society, would suffice, if a prospect were held out to the farmers of being allowed to purchase their farms with the capital which they might acquire, as the Society’s tenants were so rapidly acquiring under the influence of its beneficent system.2 When the lands were sold, the funds of the association would be liberated, and it might recommence operations in some other quarter.

§2. Thus far I had written in 1856. Since that time the great crisis of Irish industry has made further progress, and it is necessary to consider how its present state affects the opinions, on prospects or on practical measures, expressed in the previous part of this chapter.

The principal change in the situation consists in the great diminution, holding out a hope of the entire extinction, of cottier tenure. The enormous decrease in the number of small holdings, and increase in those of a medium size, attested by the statistical returns, sufficiently proves the general fact, and all testimonies show that the tendency still continues.3 It is probable that the repeal of the corn laws, necessitating a change in the exports of Ireland from the products of tillage to those of pasturage, would of itself have sufficed to bring about this revolution in tenure. A grazing farm can only be managed by a capitalist farmer, or by the landlord. But a change involving so great a displacement of the population, has been immensely facilitated and made more rapid by the vast emigration, as well as by that greatest boon ever conferred on Ireland by any Government, the Encumbered Estates Act; the best provisions of which have since, through the Landed Estates Court, been permanently incorporated into the social system of the country. The greatest part of the soil of Ireland, there is reason to believe, is now farmed either by the landlords, or by small capitalist farmers. That these farmers are improving in circumstances, and accumulating capital, there is considerable evidence, in particular the great increase of deposits in the banks of which they are the principal customers. So far as that class is concerned, the chief thing still wanted is security of tenure, or assurance of compensation for improvements. The means of supplying these wants are now engaging the attention of the most competent minds; Judge Longfield’s address, in the autumn of 1864, and the sensation created by it, are an era in the subject, and a point has now been reached when we may confidently expect that within a very few years something effectual will be done.

But what, meanwhile, is the condition of the displaced cottiers, so far as they have not emigrated; and of the whole class who subsist by agricultural labour, without the occupation of any land? As yet, their state is one of great poverty, with but slight prospect of improvement. Many wages, indeed, have risen much above the wretched level of a generation ago: but the cost of subsistence has also risen so much above the old potato standard, that the real improvement is not equal to the nominal; and according to the best information to which I have access, there is little appearance of an improved standard of living among the class. The population, in fact, reduced though it be, is still far beyond what the country can support as a mere grazing district of England. It may not, perhaps, be strictly true that, if the present number of inhabitants are to be maintained at home, it can only be either on the old vicious system of cottierism, or as small proprietors growing their own food. The lands which will remain under tillage would, no doubt, if sufficient security for outlay were given, admit of a more extensive employment of labourers by the small capitalist farmers; and this, in the opinion of some competent judges, might enable the country to support the present number of its population in actual existence. But no one will pretend that this resource is sufficient to maintain them in any condition in which it is fit that the great body of the peasantry of a country should exist. Accordingly the emigration, which for a time had fallen off, has, under the additional stimulus of bad seasons, revived in all its strength. It is calculated that within the year 1864 not less than 100,000 emigrants left the Irish shores. As far as regards the emigrants themselves and their posterity, or the general interests of the human race, it would be folly to regret this result. The children of the immigrant Irish receive the education of Americans, and enter, more rapidly and completely than would have been possible in the country of their descent, into the benefits of a higher state of civilization. In twenty or thirty years they are not mentally distinguishable from other Americans. The loss, and the disgrace, are England’s: and it is the English people and government whom it chiefly concerns to ask themselves, how far it will be to their honour and advantage to retain the mere soil of Ireland, but to lose its inhabitants. With the present feelings of the Irish people, and the direction which their hope of improving their condition seems to be permanently taking, England, it is probable, has only the choice between the depopulation of Ireland, and the conversion of a part of the labouring population into peasant proprietors. The truly insular ignorance of her public men respecting a form of agricultural economy which predominates in nearly every other civilized country, makes it only too probable that she will choose the worse side of the alternative. Yet there are germs of a tendency to the formation of peasant proprietors on Irish soil, which require only the aid of a friendly legislator to foster them; as is shown in the following extract from a private communication by my eminent and valued friend, Professor Cairnes:

“On the sale, some eight or ten years ago, of the Thomond, Portarlington, and Kingston estates, in the Encumbered Estates Court, it was observed that a considerable number of occupying tenants purchased the fee of their farms. I have not been able to obtain any information as to what followed that proceeding-whether the purchasers continued to farm their small properties, or under the mania of landlordism tried to escape from their former mode of life. But there are other facts which have a hearing on this question. In those parts of the country where tenant-right prevails, the prices given for the goodwill of a farm are enormous. The following figures, taken from the schedule of an estate in the neighbourhood of Newry, now passing through the Landed Estates Court, will give an idea, but a very inadequate one, of the prices which this mere customary right generally fetches.

“Statement showing the prices at which the tenant-right of certain farms near Newry was sold:—

Lot   Acres     Rent        Purchase-money

                        of tenant-right
 1      23      £74             £ 33
 2      24       77              240
 3      13       39              110
 4      14       34               85
 5      10       33              172
 6       5       13               75
 7       8       26              130
 8      11       33              130
 9       2        5                5

    __      ___             ____

   110     £334             £980

“The prices here represent on the whole about three years’ purchase of the rental: but this, as I have said, gives but an inadequate idea of that which is frequently, indeed of that which is ordinarily, paid. The right, being purely customary, will vary in value with the confidence generally reposed in the good faith of the landlord. In the present instance, circumstances have come to light in the course of the proceedings connected with the sale of the estate, which give reason to believe that the confidence in this case was not high; consequently, the rates above given may be taken as considerably under those which ordinarily prevail. Cases, as I am informed on the highest authority, have in other parts of the country come to light, also in the Landed Estates Court, in which the price given for the tenant-right was equal to that of the whole fee of the land. It is a remarkable fact that people should be found to give, say twenty or twenty-five years’ purchase, for land which is still subject to a good round rent. Why, it will be asked, do they not purchase land out and out for the same, or a slightly larger, sum? The answer to this question, I believe is to he found in the state of our land laws. The cost of transferring land in small portions is, relatively to the purchase money, very considerable, even in the Landed Estates Court; while the goodwill of a farm may be transferred without any cost at all. The cheapest conveyance that could be drawn in that Court, where the utmost economy, consistent with the present mode of remunerating legal services, is strictly enforced, would, irrespective of stamp duties, cost 10l. — a very sensible addition to the purchase of a small peasant estate: a conveyance to transfer a thousand acres might not cost more, and would probably not cost much more. But in truth, the mere cost of conveyance represents but the least part of the obstacles which exist to obtaining land in small portions. A far more serious impediment is the complicated state of the ownership of land, which renders it frequently impracticable to subdivide a property into such portions as would bring the land within the reach of small bidders. The remedy for this state of things, however, lies in measures of a more radical sort than I fear it is at all probable that any House of Commons we are soon likely to see would even with patience consider. A registry of titles may succeed in reducing this complex condition of ownership to its simplest expression; but where real complication exists, the difficulty is not to be got rid of by mere simplicity of form; and a registry of titles-while the powers of disposition at present enjoyed by landowners remain undiminished, while every settlor and testator has an almost unbounded licence to multiply interests in land, as pride, the passion for dictation, or mere whim may suggest — will, in my opinion, fail to reach the root of the evil. The effect of these circumstances is to place an immense premium upon large dealings in land-indeed in most cases practically to preclude all other than large dealing; and while this is the state of the law, the experiment of peasant proprietorship, it is plain, cannot be fairly tried. The facts, however, which I have state, show, I think, conclusively, that there is no obstacle in the disposition of the people to the introduction of this system.”

I have concluded a discussion, which has occupied a space almost disproportioned to the dimensions of this work; and I here close the examination of those simpler forms of social economy in which the produce of the land either belongs undividedly to one class, or is shared only between two classes. We now proceed to the hypothesis of a threefold division of the produce, among labourers, landlords, and capitalists; and in order to connect the coming discussions as closely as possible with those which have now for some time occupied us, I shall commence with the subject of Wages.

1 Author of numerous pamphlets, entitled “True Political Economy of Ireland”, “Letter to the Earl of Devon”, “Two Letters on the Rackrent Oppression of Ireland”, and others. Mr Connor has been an agitator on the subject since 1832.

2 Though this society, during the years succeeding the famine, was forced to wind up its affairs, the memory of what it accomplished ought to be preserved. The following is an extract in the Proceedings of Lord Devon’s Commission from the report made to the society in 1845, by their intelligent manager, Colonel Robinson:—

“Two hundred and forty-five tenants, many of whom were a few years since in a state bordering on pauperism, the occupiers of small holdings of from ten to twenty plantation acres each, have, by their own free labour, with the society’s aid, improved their farms to the value of 4396 l.; 605 l. having been added during the last year, being at the rate of 17 l. 18s. per tenant for the whole term, and 2 l. 9s. for the past year; the benefit of which improvements each tenant will enjoy during the unexpired term of a thirty-one years’ lease.

“These 245 tenants and their families have, by spade industry, reclaimed and brought into cultivation 1032 plantation acres of land, previously unproductive mountain waste, upon which they grew, last year, crops valued by competent practical persons at 3896 l., being in the proportion of 15 l. 18s. each tenant; and their live stock, consisting of cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, now actually upon the estates, is valued, according to the present prices of the neighbouring markets, at 4162 l., of which 1304 l. has been added since February 1844, being at the rate of 16 l. 19s. for thw whole period and 5 l. 6s. for the last year; during which time their stock has thus increased in value a sum equal to their present annual rent; and by the statistical tables and returns referred to in previous reports, it is proved that the tenants, in general improve their little farms, and increase their cultivation and crops, in nearly direct proportion to the number of available working persons of both sexes, of which their families consist.”

There cannot be a stronger testimony to the superior amount of gross, and even of net produce, raised by small farming under any tolerable system of landed tenure; and it is worthy of attention that the industry and zeal were greatest among the smaller holders; Colonel Robinson noticing, as exceptions to the remarkable and rapid progress of improvement, some tenants who were “occupants of larger farms than twenty acres, a class too often deficient in the enduring industry indispensable for the successful prosecution of mountain improvements.”

3 There is, however, a partial counter-current, of which I have not seen any public notice. “A class of men,not very numerous, but sufficiently so to do much mischief, have, through the Landed Estates Court, got into possession of land in Ireland, who, of all classes, are least likely to recognise the duties of a landlord’s position. These are small traders in towns, who by dint of sheer parsimony, frequently combined with money-lending at usurious rates, have succeeded, in the course of a long life, in scraping together as much money as will enable them to buy fifty or a hundred acres of land. These people never think of turning farmers, but, proud of their position as landlords, proceed to turn it to the utmost account. An instance of this kind came under my notice lately. The tenants on the property were, at the time of the purchase, some twelve years ago, in a tolerably comfortable state. Within that period their rent has been raised three several times; and it is now, as I am informed by the priest of the district, nearly double its amount at the commencement of the present proprietor’s reign. The result is that the people, who were formerly in tolerable comfort, are now reduced to poverty: two of them have left the property and squatted near an adjacent turf bog, where they exist trusting for support to occasional jobs. If this man is not shot, he will injure himself through the deterioration of his property, but meantime he has been getting eight or ten percent on his purchase money. This is by no means a rare case. The scandal which such occurrences cause, casts its reflection on transactions of a wholly different and perfectly legitimate cause, casts its reflection on transactions of a wholly different and perfectly legitimate kind, where the removal of the tenants is simply an act of mercy for all parties.

“The anxiety of landlords to get rid of cottiers is also to some extent neutralized by the anxiety of middlemen to get them. About one-fourth of the whole land of Ireland is held under long leases; the rent received, when the lease is of long standing, being generally greatly under the real value of the land. It rarely happens that the land thus held is cultivated by the owner of the lease: instead of this, he sublets it at a rack rent to small men, and lives on the excess of the rent which he receives over that which he pays. Some of these leases are always running out; and as they draw towards their close, the middleman has no other interest in the land than, at any cost of permanent deteriorations, to get the utmost out of it during the unexpired period of the term. For this purpose the small cottier tenants precisely answer his turn. Middlemen in this position are as anxious to obtain cottiers as tenants, as the landlordsare to be rid of them; and the result is a transfer of this sort of tenant from one class of estates to the other. The movement is of limited dimensions, but it does exist, and so far as it exists, neutralizes the general tendency. Perhaps it may be thought that this system will reproduce itself; that the same motives which led to the existence of middlemen will perpetuate the class; but there is no danger of this. Landowners are now perfectly alive to the ruinous consequences of this system, however conveniet for a time; and a clause against sub-letting is now becoming a matter of course in every lease.” — (Private Communication from Professor Cairnes.)

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