A Tribute to Henry George

Over a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry George’s (1839 – 1897) insight into the relation between chronic mass poverty on one hand and concentrated ownership of land on the other brought about the populist movement (which subsequently morphed into the “Progressive Movement”) in the United States and the Liberal movement in Britain. His clear-eyed analysis had a profound and continuous impact on the meaning of political economy until the breakout of the First World War. His thoughts and ideas, embodied in his all-time bestseller Progress and Poverty, influenced world leaders and icons like David Lloyd George and George Bernard Shaw of England, Leo Tolstoy and Alexandr Kerensky of Russia, Billy Hughes of Australia, Rolland O’Regan of New Zealand, and even Sun Yat-sen of China.

I’ve recently stumbled upon a 2006 abridged edition of Progress and Poverty by Bob Drake on the internet, which is a lot easier to read than the original edition. This is the link: http://www.henrygeorge.org/pcontents.htm.

There are some passages in the abridged edition that I particularly like and they are appended below for sharing:-

From Fifth Part, Chapter 23:

“Advancing civilization tends to increase the power of human labor to satisfy human desires. We should be able to eliminate poverty. But workers cannot reap those benefits because they are intercepted. Land is necessary to labor. When it has been reduced to private ownership, the increased productivity of labor only increases rent. Thus, all the advantages of progress go to those who own land. Wages do not increase – wages cannot increase. The more labor produces, the more it must pay for the opportunity to make anything at all.

Mere laborers, therefore, have no more interest in progress than Cuban slaves have in higher sugar prices. Higher prices may spur their masters to drive them harder. Likewise, a free laborer may be worse off with greater productivity. Steadily rising rents generate speculation. The effects of future improvements are discounted by even higher rents. This tends to drive wages down to the point of slavery, at which the worker can barely live. The worker is robbed of all the benefits of increased productive power.”

From Seventh Part, Chapter 26:

“Since labor cannot produce wealth without using land, denying equal right to use land is, necessarily, denying the right of labor to its own product. If one person controls the land on which others must labor, that person can appropriate the product of their labor as the price of permission to labor. This violates the fundamental law of nature: that a person’s enjoyment of the fruits of nature requires that person’s exertion.

The unjust distribution of wealth stemming from this fundamental wrong is separating modern society into the very rich and the very poor. The continuous increase of rent is the price labor is forced to pay for the use of land. It strips the many of wealth they justly earn, and heaps it in the hands of a few who do nothing to earn it. The few receive without producing, while others produce without receiving. One is unjustly enriched – the others are robbed.

Why should those who suffer from this injustice hesitate for one moment to sweep it away? Why should landholders be permitted to reap what they have not sown?”

From Eighth Part, Chapter 33:

“Taxes on land actually tend to increase production – by destroying speculative rent, which impedes production when valuable land is withheld from use. Industrial depressions originate in speculative land values. They then propagate themselves over the whole civilized world, paralyzing industry.

Taking rent for public use through taxation would prevent all this. If land were taxed near its rental value, no one could afford to hold unused land. This land would be made available to those who would use it. Consequently, labor and capital could produce much more with the same exertion."

From Tenth Part, Chapter 41:

“Slavery was universal in the classical world. This is undoubtedly why mental activity there polished literature and refined art, but never hit on any of the great discoveries and inventions of modern civilization. Robbing workers of the fruits of their labor stifles the spirit of invention. It discourages the use of improvements, even when made. No slaveholding people were ever an inventive people. Their upper classes may become luxurious and polished, but never inventive.”