As a slogan, “Three acres and a cow” has been around a lot longer than most people who think about it think . . . if, of course, they think about it. There’s even a bit of history that goes with it, and it could also apply today — properly understood.
|Liberalism ain't what it used to be.|
“Three acres and a cow” dates from the nineteenth century, a time when the Liberal Party in England actually tried to be liberal. By the time G.K. Chesterton made his semi-famous remark about believing in liberalism but not in liberals, of course, the party of Gladstone had pretty much become the party of Karl Marx and the Fabian socialists.
That takes nothing away from the achievements of the Liberal Party during their heyday, but it should alert people to the fact that words, terms, and even concepts have a tendency to change meaning, sometimes radically. This is especially the case when it is to someone’s advantage to make the switch, or people have never learned to use reason properly and insert contradictions into arguments as clinchers instead of recognizing them as errors.
So what has this got to do with “three acres and a cow,” a slogan used by today’s distributists and Chestertonians to support a “back to the land” argument?
Curiously, we discovered that “three acres and a cow” was an old Liberal Party slogan. It was intended as a protest against the sort of housing provided for workers in, e.g., the factory towns like Manchester where the cottages for workers had no land at all.
Formerly, workman’s cottages had always had enough land to grow some food and keep a cow or a pig or two. It was a supplement to wages, and helped keep wages up.
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
This is because it was possible — barely — to survive for a while without a job if you had a little land. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that in France in certain areas wages were higher than otherwise when workers owned a bit of land sufficient to eke out a bare subsistence.
A small landowner or leaseholder would put in a crop, and go look for work to bring in some cash money. If the wages offered were not sufficient, he had the power to refuse to work, and went home. If the employer really needed the labor, he had to increase the wage offer. If not, or he couldn’t afford it, he went without hiring more people.
Three acres and a cow were never intended to be the sole source of livelihood. The idea was that it was to be an adjunct to wage income, and a counter to the factory system in which all income derives from wages and none from ownership.
The alternative to small ownership was to organize labor unions or political parties in opposition to the Liberal Party, as happened in Ireland. In the nineteenth century that almost inevitably meant violence, participation in secret societies, or both. It also meant the Liberal Party lost elections to the Conservatives and Unionists, and lost members (and votes) to the socialists and the Labour Party.
|William Gladstone, Liberal Prime Minister|
Three acres and a cow was the ideal solution for the Liberal Party. People whose income came solely from ownership of land (“landlordism”) or technology (“capitalism”) tended to vote Conservative. People whose income came solely from wages tended to vote Labour or Socialist. People whose income came from both labor and ownership — i.e., a farm or small business, or a wage job, three acres of land, and a cow — tended to vote Liberal.
Is it realistic these days to agitate for three acres and a cow, whether as the sole source of income that it was never intended to be, or as a supplement to wages? No. Even assuming that people know how to grow their own food and which end of a cow to milk, it is labor intensive and time consuming, to say nothing of finding enough suitable land in urban or suburban areas . . . and the ability to silence or ignore neighbors’ complaints.
There is, however, a solution, even in a highly industrialized or commercial economy: the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). In a sense, the ESOP is the modern equivalent of three acres and a cow, as dividends — ownership income — supplement, but do not replace wages.
It is possible even to expand the ESOP concept so that it applies as well to non-employees, or those who work for government, in education, religion, i.e., areas that do not generally produce marketable goods and services (e.g., are government and education marketable goods or services?). Plus, something is going to have to be done to make it possible for people to be productive through ownership of capital instead of labor as technology continues to advance and displaces human labor.
That is where Capital Homesteading comes in. The idea is to replace wage income with ownership income as the primary, possibly even eventually the sole, source of income, thereby making wages supplemental to ownership.
“Three acres and a cow”? That’s fine as a slogan, but a pithier way of putting it in a modern advanced economy is “Own or Be Owned.”