Misleading Mill Meme Makes Muddled Minds

Going around the internet recently is a photo of a sign quoting John Stuart Mill “Landlords Get Rich In Their Sleep.”  The sign is apparently in a bank, suggesting that the bank thinks it would be a good idea for you to get a loan enabling you to own property, but the meme seems intended to criticize the idea that being a landlord is a good thing, by supplying the passage from Principles of Political Economy from which the quote is ostensibly drawn.   The meme creator has posted the following: “Landlords grow rich in their sleep without working, risking or economizing.  The increase in the value of the land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title.”  But that’s not quite what Mill says.  The meme cites Book V, chapter 2, section 5 as the source.  The first sentence in the meme is mostly accurate, but the second sentence is not in the text at all.

Mill is arguing in this section that it is not improper to tax landlords, because the value of land to which they have title accrues in value without them having to do anything.  “Suppose that there is a kind of income which constantly tends to increase, without any exertion or sacrifice on the part of the owners….  In such a case it would be no violation of the principles on which private property is grounded, if the state should appropriate this increase of wealth, or part of it, as it arises….  Now this is actually the case with rent.”  Mill is certainly not saying, as the meme implies, that landlords aren’t entitled to rents, only that it’s not unjust to tax them on rents.

But there’s a different level on which the meme is wrong-headed, and wrong to conscript Mill into its purpose.  The word “landlord” had a slightly different meaning in the 1840s than it does today.  Landlords used to be literal lords, who had title to lands on the basis of royal privilege.  While it might be fair to characterize them as not working or taking risks, it’s certainly false in today’s context.  While we continue to use the same word, landlords of today aren’t literal lords, just regular people who own properties from which they can derive rental income.  This very obviously does involve work and risk.  Mid-19th-century objections to aristocratic landlordism do not tell us anything about today’s rental market, nor do they undermine the reality of the work and risk a property owner of today must incur, and without which there’d be an even greater housing shortage.  Apartment buildings don’t grow on trees.