To Reconstruct the Land System

“OUR NATIONAL FOOD SUPPLY.” By James Lumsden. London ; Fisher Unwin. 1s. Net.

This is the wail of a Land Nationaliser. As such it would hardly be expected to be based upon any very solid foundation of economic science. Indeed, the author hints as much, albeit somewhat cautiously, in his “Prefatory Note,” where he says that he has endeavoured to state the causes of the persistent rise in the price of food, and to show that these causes are not of a temporary nature, “in the compass of a volume not too big to repel those whose taste does not incline to economics.”

Such mental shirkers are not likely to become wearied of economics by a perusal of the present volume, and since they are incapable of doing their own thinking, and therefore incapable of ever becoming efficient forces for working-class emancipation, why, it matters little what effect the book has on them.

But the gentle reader of the SOCIALIST STANDARD is not of that type, and the present review is not written for “those whose taste does not incline to economics.”

Mr. Lumsden’s trouble, professedly, at all events, is that “our growing dependence upon foreign countries for food is an evil of the greatest magnitude, fraught with danger even in time of peace.” He tells us (p. 31) that “it tends to produce, among many other results—

“Persistent increase in the price of food.
“Persistent deterioration in the quality of food.
“Diminishing variety in the kinds of food.
“Increasing dependence for the means of living upon export manufacturing industries.
“Lowering of the wages paid to labour.
“Lowering of the profits upon manufacturing.”

The author, having given this catalogue of evil tendencies arising out of “our growing dependence upon foreign countries for food,” seems to have an inkling that what is so glibly uttered for “those whose taste does not incline to economics,” may be challenged by other people. And he prophesies that these will appeal to history, and “to the fact that at the present hour the common people of many countries are clamouring for the free admission of foreign food in order to bring down the cost of living.” It may be so, but it should have struck our author that the most natural thing for a critic to do is to turn to Mr. Lumsden’s own pages, to see how far they support his theories.

Against his first statement, regarding the rise in the price of food, may be quoted from p. 10 the assertion that “food prices are at present rising all over the world. . . . The staples of life are advancing more rapidly in Germany, which for fifty years has pursued a State policy of fostering home agriculture, than in England, which during the same period has calmly allowed its domestic agriculture to decline. The cost of food has advanced as much in countries which export vast quantites of grain and meat as in countries which have become, like England, mainly dependent upon imported supplies.”

So as far as our author’s first point goes, it is a case of felo de se.

As regards deterioration in quality and diminution in variety of food, Mr. Lumsden makes a very weak attempt to establish the first, and no attempt at all to support the second of these assertions. On the other hand, he points out on p. 12 that “the Russian peasant may be starving while the fine wheat produced by his labour goes into the oven of the London baker. The Normandy peasant denies milk to his own offspring in order to convert all his cream into butter for the English market. The Canadian farmer eats canned beef from Chicago, while he ships hundreds of prairie cattle across the Atlantic to Liverpool.”

In the face of this the argument that “if the logical outcome of entire dependence upon foreign countries for food were pressed to its extreme development, the dependent country would only get the refuse which other countries had no use for,” needs a deal of elaboration ere it will convince even “those whose taste does not incline to economics.”

Of the other assertions in the catalogue our author says scarce a word. He leaves them to those who have paid their shilling, with the cheery nonchalance that leads him to remark, concerning another point: “I do not intend to combat the popular delusions in flat contradiction to this.”

But as for the “lowering of profits upon manufacturing,” Mr. Lumsden writes on p. 50 : “During the past five years . . . food has risen in price 10 per cent., wages have remained practically stationary.” If, then, the workers have had to bear the cost of the increased cost of food which the writer of the above ascribes to “our growing dependence upon foreign countries,” surely it is presuming too much upon our simplicity to tell us that the “profits upon manufacturing” suffer.

As might be expected of one who holds economics in such fine contempt, Mr. Lumsden contradicts himself in very lively fashion. For instance, on p. 32 he says : “The vice of Protection is that it encourages farmers to look for bigger profits by getting bigger prices. This has been shown in the most convincing way in Prussia. Free Trade, as was abundantly demonstrated in England and Scotland, teaches farmers to seek larger profits from increased yield”—which assertion is flatly contradicted in more than one place where the author laments the comparative backwardness of British agriculture, particularly on p. 94, where we are told “one has only to visit France and Germany to see what crops could be raised from enormous quantities of land now wholly abandoned in this country,” and the already quoted comparison (p. 10) of the state of agriculture in Protectionist Germany and Free Trade England, “which . . . has calmly allowed its domestic agriculture to decline.”

When our author does condescend to dabble in economics he gets in an awful tangle. Take the following example from page 45 :—

“Suppose, for illustration, any article of food produced in Austria. . . This unit of produce can be sold in England for 15s., and it can also be sold in Austria, the country of its origin, for 15s. The English importer must sell it in England for 15s. He cannot get more ; his public cannot afford to pay more. Clearly that article will not come to England. The article sold in England must be one for which the cost of transport is included in the price of 15s. If the cost of transport is 5s., then the English merchant can only sell in England for 15s. an article which can be bought in Austria for 10s. So that the English consumer pays 15s. for a middling or inferior sort for which the people in the land of production only pay 10s.”

Any tyro could have told Mr. Lumsden that merchants do not usually buy at retail prices in one land in order to sell retail in another, and that the difference between the wholesale price of his Austrian unit in Austria, and its retail price in England, might, after all, permit the article to “come to England.”

But quite apnrt from this, and because the idea expressed in the above quotation is one of Mr. Lumsden’s pet economic fallacies, the basic principle of the matter may be pointed out.

The idea that imports are regulated by what consumers can “afford to pay” is ridiculous. Whatever influence the power to purchase may have on demand and supply, it is not that which determines whether the goods shall be imported or produced at home. On the contrary, however much the citizens of a country can “afford to pay,” goods will not be imported if the labour involved in their production at the place where they become available to the consumer, exceeds that required to produce identical commodities of_native origin in the same place.

This is the broad law, subject to slight interference, as from fluctuations of price and unequal cost of labour power. Hence to say that we have “to accept the inferior descriptions of any article of food the moment the inhabitants in the country of its production can pay as good prices as the people of England can pay” is sheer nonsense. We stop receiving any particular grade or quality of commodities from abroad when the same grade and quality can be placed on the market by home producers at a smaller cost in labour time.

“Food cannot become cheaper,” says Mr. Lumsden (p. 46) “when it has to be brought from further and further away.” Yet he said on page 32 that Protection encourages farmers to seek higher prices. This can only be because it shuts out the food which, despite the fact that it has come from the furthermost ends of the earth, is cheaper. As a matter of fact, the grain which came to us from America only ousted British wheat because it was cheaper. It was cheaper because it was produced with such a small expenditure of labour power. The vast plains, from which crops were snatched almost without effort, are now becoming exhausted. They are demanding that future crops shall be won from them with toil. Hence prices rise, and that particular wheat cannot so well afford to travel.

Of course, Mr. Lumsden shares the view common to Land Nationalisers, that landlordism, at least as far as British agriculture is concerned, is the enemy. But he is entirely wrong when he ascribes the backwardness of British agriculture to the system of land tenure.

The degree of development of British agriculture is (within certain limits) determined by the conditions prevailing in other sources of supply. While great stretches of fertile land exist where crops can be raised with so little expenditure of labour-power that, even with the added burden of freightage, it is more economically presented to the English consumer than home grown stuff of equal quality, British agriculture will languish in common with other countries similarly situated. But as these fertile tracts become exhausted of their virgin fruitfulness, as it becomes necessary to resort to deep cultivation, manuring, and other expedients which the farmer in the old countries is compelled to use, then we may expect agriculture to advance in England, whatever the system of land tenure. It is, even from the point of view of encouraging British agriculture, idle to clamour for Land Nationalisation, for the cost of production is not to be decreased by that means. The system of land tenure may decide who shall exploit the land, but to what degree is a matter beyond its province. Under the present system, whenever the landowners as a class think they can make more profit out of the soil than they can rent, they will very quickly replace their tenants with bailiffs, and push British agriculture to a higher point of development than peasant proprietors, with their limited means, are likely to do.

A. E. J.

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