|There was a time when Henry George was such a household name that using it was a good way to sell cigars. This wall mural from Richfield, Utah was painted sometime between 1900 and 1910. The Henry George cigar was not a fundraiser for the single tax movement; it was just a popular brand. |
FROM GOOD GOVERNMENT, Sydney, OCTOBER 1991
Who wrote the most popular book on economics ever written? Which American's funeral rivalled that of Abraham Lincoln's? Did you know that Progress and Poverty sold over two million copies prior to 1914? Did you know that over 50,000 people lined up to pass by the body of Henry George during the seven hours it lay in state, and that more than 100,000 lined the streets along the path of his funeral procession? The funeral procession was compared in size and spontaneous reverence to that of Abraham Lincoln.
Henry George was born September 2, 1839, in Philadelphia and died in New York on October 29, 1897. He lived most of his life in San Francisco as a typesetter, journalist, editor and managing editor. At fourteen he left school and went to sea; at twenty-two, unemployed and faced with going back to sea for good and losing the girl he loved, he proposed marriage. Although penniless he was accepted with the solemn words, "If you are willing to undertake the responsibilities of marriage, I will marry you". The couple eloped and he married in borrowed clothes. Although he tried all kinds of jobs they remained poor. George was forced to beg $5 for food for his starving wife and second baby.
In 1865 his fortunes changed when he began to write and find publishers. Already suspicious of the effects of progress on the poor, he was "appalled and torrnented" by the extremes of wealth and poverty he saw in New York, America' leading city. Back in California he formed the opinion that poverty was caused by the monopoly of natural opportunities, in other words the monopoly of land. But this view was immeasurably refined by a giant insight when, riding well out of Oakland one day in 1869, he strayed onto the path of the projected Sacramento - Oakland railroad. For something to say he asked a passerby how much land was selling for. He was told it was selling for more than $1000 an acre. As he told it some twenty four years later, it was then that he realised what becarne of progress. Rent took it! Progress increased the value of land but not wages. Still thinking in terms of California he wrote a pamphlet in 1871 advocating a single tax on land values to give to producers their full wages, to Governrnent its natural revenue, and to the people their right to land.
He next turned his theory to an explanation of the depression gripping the United States after 1873. It was this essay which, expanded into a study of civilization, and making use of the Ricardian concept of economic rent, showed how production was divided between rent and wages, how progress, whatever its form, increased the relative proportion of rent to a minimum, produced trade depressions, and suggested false ideas about the nature of economics and the capacity of the earth to provide for its inhabitants.
With the help of a friend in the printing business who provided the plates, he printed an author's edition of 500 copies. These plates, given to the publishers Appletons of New York, were the basis of a regular edition in 1880, and Henry George moved to New York in the same year.
The story of one of George's closest associates , Louis Post, illustrates the often accidental paths by which people come to the ideas of this book. Post, a New York journalist, took a cursory look at (The Irish) Land Question published by George in 1881, and dashed off an editorial "demolishing" its main idea. Land monopoly might be bad, he wrote, but land tax would simply be passed onto tenants.
The quality of the book had nonetheless impressed upon him a lingering doubt, so he sent off the editorial to George asking for a comment. Progress and Poverty came back. He read the book in its entirety, interrupted only by some few hours of sleep. He was convinced even though he could not remember having seen the answer to his question.
Later on, in conversation with a friend, he praised George's land tax - and was immediately confronted with his own question. "Landowners will raise rents, and so recover your land-value tax from their tenants." The doubt came back; but he pressed forward. Taking a new tax on the production of sugar as an example, he asked what would happen to its price. His friend replied that the tax would increase the price of sugar, just as a land tax would the price of land.
This time he was confused; but he went on. He suggested, and his friend agreed, that this tax on sugar must increase its cost of production and, where the sugar could not be sold at the increased price, decrease its supply. He then found himself asking his friend whether "a heavy land tax" would decrease the supply of land or whether it would actually make it more plentiful. His friend was puzzled, and Post found himself suggesting that this tax had not added to the cost of producing land, but that it had added to the cost of holding it out of use. He later found much the same answer tucked away in Progress and Poverty.
With Post's support the book was serialised in a New York daily and, in 1883,
George was commissioned to write a series of articles on current problems, later
collectively printed as Social Problems. In 1885 he wrote the third of his most
popular books, Protection or Free Trade? - a work which, while persuasively
arguing for free trade, shows why workers legitimately doubt that it raises
wages. (Unfortunately, George had to write it twice after a cleaning lady had
thrown out his original manuscript in the rubbish!)
In Australia the rich took to free trade, but it did not excite workers, who were protectionists. On the other hand, land tax won him the support of workers but alienated the rich. Nonetheless, press reports recorded his powers as an orator. While noting his slow, almost hesitant start, The Brisbane Courier and Sydney Echo for example showed amazement at his effortless power to form polished sentences, and to hold an audience of all shades of opinion upon the subject of economics for two hours without using any notes. (The hesitant start can be explained by his nervousness, and his habit of speaking extemporarily.)
Back in America he helped form Land and Labor Clubs and continued to edit a journal The Standard (until 1892). He also continued to write. Without being named his main ideas were attacked in several places by the Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum [May 1891] whose centenary is being celebrated this year . His response was an open letter to Pope Leo XIII, The Condition of Labour, perhaps the most readable and straight-forward outline of his views.
At the height of his popularity, in 1886, he was nominated by labour organisations and liberals for Mayor of New York. Tammany Hall advised all respectable citizens to "save society" from the violent revolution George planned if he were elected. As it happened George came second, behind the Democrat candidate but ahead of the Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Without his own scrutineers it was said that on election day many of George's votes had sailed down the Hudson!
It was during this campaign that his most energetic supporter, Father McGlynn, was warned by his superiors not to make public speeches in favour of George's ideas. When he persisted he was excommunicated. Dr McGlynn was reinstated in 1892, possibly showing that The Condition of Labour had some effect.
In 1890, soon after the gruelling three months tour of Australia, George was struck down by aphasia. One result was that he retired to his project to write a primer on economics. Uncompleted at his death in 1897 The Science of Political Economy is far from a primer. Instead it carried forward his thinking, especially about land value, which he now more thoroughly identified as an antisocial power to deny access to land.
His physical weakness continued. Against the advice of his doctor and friends in early October, 1897, he once again accepted the nomination of organised labour to stand for Mayor of New York. Four or five public speeches each day, often to immense crowds of working people, scattered his last physical resources. The opening words of his last speech, made on October 28 on the eve of the election (See p. 8), were only begun after he had wandered silently and uncertainly for some time about the stage. He died the next day.
or the ASSOCIATION FOR GOOD GOVERNMENT,
PO Box 443, Enfield, NSW, 2136, Australia.
Telephone (02) 9744 8815 (02) 9746 5154 Fax (02) 9744 3804
The Association's magazine, Good Government, has been published since 1905,
and incorporates The Standard.
The Secretary's name is Mr Richard Giles
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