This article was last modified on February 2, 2010.

William Ogilvie: Equality in Land Reform, 1782

William Ogilvie of Pittensear, the “rebel professor” of Scotland, follows Locke in thinking land was given to man in common and that laws made it unequal. He proposes a “progressive Agrarian law”. He proposes a thorough re-division of land, though he does not see the long-term implications. Divisions will get increasingly smaller, particularly without population control. Also, who is to say all men need equal land? Once man abandoned agriculture, some people have better use of land than others. And what of the quality of different land? Ogilvie assumed 3-8 children per family, so clearly he was aware that overpopulation was a matter of time.

How many acres would each man receive in America today under equal division? The 2010 population is estimated at 308,599,000. The acres in America are 2,428,224,640. This amounts to x acres per person.

In England? The population in 2008 was estimated at 51,446,000. The acres in England are 32,221,440.

“An unlimited property in land ought not to be possessed by any citizen; a restricted property in land cannot be communicated to too great a number.” [Ogilvie: 24]

“Such was the revolution in 1688, at which time, surely, an article declarative of the natural right of property in land might have been inserted into the Bill of Rights, had the people at large been beforehand taught to understand that they were possessed of any such claim. Such also was the late convulsion in America, the favourable opportunities of which are not yet exhausted.” [Ogilvie: 67]

Ogilvie is only modifying older ideas… combining Locke with that pre-Platonic guy. Then adding a very thorough proposal of reform laws.

Henry George And Ongoing Influence

Land reformers are still today indebted to Ogilvie. His thought is considered to be “proto-Georgist”. Georgism, named after Henry George, states that “everything found in nature, most importantly land, belongs equally to all of humanity.” They also supported a single land tax, with the belief that a proper tax on land would reduce or eliminate the need for any other form of taxation. This may cause one to ask why a wealthy man with little land would have to pay less than a struggling farm with more land, but those topics are beyond the scope of Ogilvie.


The declared object of An Essay on the Right of Property in Land, according to its original title and introduction, is to show how “property in land might be rendered more beneficial to the lower ranks of mankind”[15]. Due to what MacDonald calls the ‘boycotting’ of Ogilvie and his masterwork by the establishment, “the lower ranks of mankind in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the British Colonies never heard that such a man lived, far less that he left them such a legacy”.[15]

In his preface to the 1891 edition of Ogilvie’s book, DC MacDonald elucidates Ogilvie’s core message:

When a child is born, we recognise that it has a natural right to its mother’s milk, and no one can deny that it has the same right to mother-earth. It is really its mother-earth, plus the dew and sunshine from heaven and a little labour, that supplies the milk and everything else required for its subsistence. The monster that would deprive a babe of its mother’s milk, or would monopolise the breasts of several mothers, to the exclusion of several children, is not more deserving of being destroyed than the monster who seizes absolute possession of more than his share of the common mother of mankind, to the exclusion of his fellow-creatures.[22]

In his Essay Ogilvie claims the birthright of every citizen to an equal share in the value of property in land, and outlines the practical policy means by which this would progressively be achieved. He asserts “land values as having three parts, the original, the improved, and the improvable values; the first and third of these [belong] to the community and only the second to the landholder”[17]. Fillebrown provides a considered critical analysis of Ogilvie’s proposal: “The crux of the land problem, according to Ogilvie’s analysis, lies in the reconciliation” of the conflict between “the claims to an equal share of land, involving right of occupancy, and the claim to more than an equal share, based on labour…. ‘Rude nations have adhered to the first of these maxims, neglecting the second. Nations advanced in industry and arts have adhered to the second, neglecting the first.'”[23]

To establish a just combination of these two maxims, at the original foundation of states, so as to render it a fundamental part of their frame and constitution, or to introduce it afterwards, with as little violence as may be, to the actual possessions and supposed rights and interests of various orders of men, ought to be the object of all agrarian laws ; and this object being once distinctly conceived, if wise and benevolent men will turn their attention towards it, no doubt need be entertained that very practicable methods of carrying it into execution will in time be discovered, by comparison of projects, or from the result of trials.[24]

Ogilvie set out a prototype of the economic policy known as land value taxation, or, as his modern editors style it, community ground rent.[25] However his analysis and proposal are incomplete, says Fillebrown:

“His enumeration of the moral benefits to accrue to mankind from a realisation of his fiscal ideal is a brilliant prognostication that no later and greater economic light has sufficed to dim. But Ogilvie’s failure to grasp the full significance of economic rent, especially urban rent, as a social product, and the stress laid by him on his proposed agrarian law, a plan devoted to a now admittedly impossible mechanical allotment of land; are responsible for his being relegated from the Authorities to the Appendix [ie. by Fillebrown from the body of his book to its appendix].[26]

MacDonald describes Ogilvie’s Essay as “a pastoral prose poem, through which we can realise this beautiful world, with its ample provision for satisfying man’s instinctive and rational faculties of enjoyment.” Ogilvie wrote his revolutionary masterwork between 1776 (the US declaration of independence) and 1781—eight years before the storming of the Bastille. He presented the work as a warning to the “friends of mankind”, he being “well aware that great changes suddenly accomplished are always pregnant with danger”.[27]

Despite his so-called ‘boycotting’, Ogilvie and his work does appear to have had contemporary influence. A copy of his Essay, marked “with the author’s compliments”, was found in the repositories of the modernising Frederick the Great; and Ogilvie was involved in the land tenure reforms carried out by Lord Cornwallis in lower Bengal in 1793.[15]

Ogilvie’s work was praised by Fillebrown as “a notable contribution to economic literature, a product of original and independent thinking”.[28] The ideas it contains were to be taken up and developed a hundred years later by the American social reformer Henry George and definitively presented in own masterpiece, the economics bestseller Progress and Poverty. Thus would Ogilvie’s Enlightenment insights be turned into a significant nineteenth century social and political movement, and become a philosophy that would in turn inspire and inform the modern land reform[29][30][31][32] and Green movements[33][34].

MacDonald delivers a closing paean on Ogilvie’s work:

His Essay on the Right of Property in Land, in every line of it, says: suffer little children to come unto me, and I shall teach them that God is no respecter of persons; that all the children of men are entitled indiscriminately to an equal share in the soil, in all wild animals, game, fish, and the whole products of nature, necessary for man’s subsistence or enjoyment; and that anything contrary to this doctrine is a gross and blasphemous slander on the Creator, as well as a most iniquitous fraud on the bulk of mankind.[22]


Ogilvie, William. Birthright in Land: An Essay on the Right of Property in Land. Sentry Press, 1970. (originally 1782)

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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