Henry George, Reconsidered
Glenn E. Hoover
[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics
Vol. 4, No. 1 (October, 1944), pp. 45-52]
AN OCCASION for re-examining the place of Henry George in the history
of ideas offers several opportunities. We may properly seek to
distinguish what was true and lofty in his conceptions, and separate
what was eternal from what was only temporary or adventitious. We may
even graciously avow what today seems to be erroneous in his thinking,
and try in every way to profit both from his wisdom and from his
mistakes. Surely it is in this way that he would wish us to honor him.
A somewhat inquiring and even critical study of the work of George,
the economist, social philosopher and social critic of
nineteenth-century America, is especially appropriate in view of the
very modest achievements to which he and his followers lay claim.
Albert Jay Nock, who, with John Dewey, believes George to be "one
of the first half-dozen of the world's creative geniuses in social
philosophy," does not hesitate to say that George "is
pre-eminently the Forgotten Man of Anglo-American civilization; he is
almost wholly unknown, un-remembered, save as a minor figure, more or
less eccentric, in the public life of the last century."
Mr. Nock, in his essay on George, attempts to explain why the
reformer has had so little permanent influence on the world, but I am
sure that Mr. Nock had so little confidence in the finality of his
answers that he hoped others might continue the investigation. To
explain the decline in the reputation of George is easy for his
critics, but presents some difficulty for his followers. The critics
may say that the passage of time has merely exposed George as a
shallow utopia-monger or a glib charlatan, but his admirers can hardly
accept this explanation.
THE CASE OF GEORGE differs from those men of acknowledged greatness,
such as the monk Gregor Mendel or Walt Whitman, who were relatively
unknown while living, but whose statures increase with the decades.
George was an international figure and his name was a household word
throughout at least the English-speaking world before he had reached
his fiftieth year. During much of this time he was in fact better
known in the British Isles and in Australia than he was in his native
land. His writings too, enjoyed a popularity surpassing those of any
other writer in the field of economics, yet his fame, as distinct from
his real worth, declines with each passing year.
Mr. Nock is one of those who believe that George was essentially a
philosopher who made the tactical mistake of dissipating his energies
by participating in all the polemics and political controversies of
his time, instead of devoting his great gifts exclusively to study and
writing. By electing to engage in controversy with Herbert Spencer,
the Duke of Argyll and the Pope, and by twice permitting himself to be
nominated for Mayor of New York City, he achieved considerable fame,
but, after his death, it faded with surprising quickness.
The publicity which George invited and received did not, however,
spring from his vaingloriousness, but from his desire to remedy the
injustices of which he was so keenly aware. Nock believes that
George's greatness lay in the field of philosophy, but for some of us
it lay in the field of ethical sensitivity. And George, like all who
hunger and thirst after righteousness, was temperamentally incapable
of remaining aloof from the struggles of his day-cost what it may in
time, energy and ultimate reputation.
Perhaps, too, his reputation has suffered from certain weaknesses in
those who claimed to follow him. The ultimate renown of every man of
distinction is largely dependent on the qualities of those who are in
some sort his apostles. The good causes for which George labored
lacked the discipline of the Roman Church, so that any man might style
himself an apostle of George, and perhaps some did who reflected
little credit on their avowed master. Because of my limited
acquaintance with self-styled "Georgists," and because of
the obvious delicacy of the topic, I shall merely recall what Mr. Nock
has said of the state of the nation during the last decade of George's
life, and the unfortunate character of some of those who, after his
death, professed to be his followers. Nock describes the America of
George's later years as follows:
The decade 1887-97 was one of the most extraordinary
periods in all the history of America's fantastic civilization; even
the period 1929-39 can do but little more than match its bizarre
eccentricities. No one can describe that period; when the
philosophical historian engages himself with it fifty years hence,
he will think-and with reason-that he has come upon a nation of
Bedlamites. Every imbecile socio-politico-economic nostrum that
inspired idiocy could devise was trotted out and put on dress-
parade for the immediate salvation of mankind. Free silver; the
initiative, referendum and recall; farmer-labourism,
votes-for-women, popular election of senators, the Wisconsin Idea,
direct primaries, Coxey and his army, Carry Nation and her hatchet,
Coin Harvey and his primer-the list is without end.
This incredible irruption of frantic fatuity had serious permanent
effects upon the status of George and his doctrines. When it had spent
itself and subsided, he was left as merely one more nostrum-pedlar
among the many. Mr. Nock, after lampooning with such gusto the Gay
Nineties, alias the Age of Nonsense, pitches into those erratics whom
he holds responsible for giving the kiss of death to the Georgian
gospel, a gospel, be it remembered, to which Nock most heartily
subscribed. With the wrath and rhetoric which characterized his more
lively moods, Nock said:
Another damaging effect of circumstances was that a good
deal of society's "lunatic fringe" which the period had
released and made articulate, fastened on George's doctrine and
perverted it with various adulterations. They associated it with
other matters which interested them -- matters ranging all the way
from proportional representation to dietetics and promiscuous
love-making-and viewed this association as natural and logical. . .
. An idea, like an individual, is largely judged by the company it
keeps; and it was no recommendation of George's philosophy to hear
it advocated by a professing single-taxer who was also a Bahaite, an
interpreter of dreams and visions, a free-silverite, and who had
theories concerning a nut diet and the mystical number seven.
Mr. Nock may have been a bit severe with the more erratic followers
of George but their influence must have repelled many who might
otherwise have been attracted to his writings and his program. On the
other hand, George was peculiarly fortunate in influencing some of the
most thoughtful men of his time, such as George Bernard Shaw, Count
Tolstoy and Cardinal Manning, to mention only a few of his
distinguished foreign admirers. However, a single misguided advocate
of a cause can do more harm than a dozen sound advocates can repair.
It is very clear, of course, that George's reputation was never
enhanced by any support which he drew from academic circles. This was
the occasion of some bitterness on his part which he did not attempt
to conceal. It would be comforting to believe, as Louis Post reports,
that "the academicians held aloof because George's appealing
eloquence had spoiled his work for Harvard, and his irrefutable logic
had put it beyond the comprehension of Yale," but this
explanation is only partial.
It is undoubtedly true that George's more fervid passages are
sometimes in a style that is now considered a little inflated. He
wrote as he spoke, and when faced with an audience which always warmed
to the evident sincerity and sympathy of the man, he could employ
phrases which, in cold type, seem a little over-done. And yet, after
re-reading George rather extensively in recent weeks, I am convinced
that the clarity and forcefulness of his style have had few rivals in
any language with which I am familiar. Any defect in it could have
contributed but very little to the decline in his reputation.
HOWEVER, BEFORE ATTEMPTING to explain the decline in George's fame,
we should carefully examine the nature of it. That fame never rested
on a wide acceptance of his doctrines, nor even a wide understanding
of them. It was rather due to the fact that all who came within his
influence realized, as if by magic, that George was one of those rare
spirits whose selflessness, love of justice, hatred of tyranny, and
genuine sympathy for the oppressed, placed him so far above his
fellows as to mark him at once as a kind of secular saint.
Men of this type are the rarest of the human species, but strangely
enough, in spite of their rarity, when they appear they are
immediately recognized; and the people, as in biblical times, hear
them gladly. They are what the Hindus call "the great souled
ones," and no ceremony of canonization is required to set them
apart. They frequently attract an enthusiastic following, but the
enthusiasm cannot long survive the death of the leader whose personal
qualities inspired it. Little survives the labors of the saints but
their names, and even these are frequently forgotten. Such seems to be
the fate that has overtaken the fame of Henry George.
I hope that I have written nothing to discourage those who aspire to
sainthood, nor anything that would even seem to disparage the
character and achievements of Henry George. There is nothing of which
the world has greater need than the untiring, selfless devotion to the
cause of justice and human brotherhood which George manifested
throughout his life. If human society can be held together at all, a
passion for justice and a profound human sympathy are the stuff that
will do it, and these George had in unsurpassed measure.
I have gradually and somewhat reluctantly come to the belief that if
George's followers had stressed these traits of his character instead
of insisting that he had made some remarkable discoveries in the field
of economics, his light would not have been so quickly dimmed. He
could approach any question of right or wrong with a deep insight and
an inexorable logic, but he was not equipped by education, experience
or training to trace the development of our economic world, or to
master the refinements of economic theory.
For instance, his attack on what is loosely called the Malthusian
Theory fills about one-ninth of
Progress and Poverty. This attack is replete with acute
observation and some eloquent scorn that is deservedly directed at
those who would use the Malthusian Theory as an excuse for the
perpetuation of injustice. However, the Malthusian Theory, when
clearly stated and accurately understood, is still firmly buttressed
both by reason and experience and George's attempt to discredit it is
perhaps his most conspicuous intellectual failure.
To me, at least, his failure is explained by the fact that his genius
lay in the field of ethics, and the Malthusian Theory is a. compound
of biology and economics. It deals with man's capacity for increasing
his numbers, and the intensity of the drives, which, in the absence of
interference, will accomplish such increase. George did not deny that
experience has shown that human beings are capable of doubling their
numbers in less than twenty-five years, but he quaintly assumed that
the sexual urge, or what he calls "the tendency to reproduce,"
is positively correlated with poverty and toil rather than with
comfort and leisure. This assumption is so contrary to popular
tradition, that to avoid the charge of misrepresentation I should like
to quote from his Progress and Poverty:
The facts cited . . . simply show that where, owing to
the sparseness of population, as in new countries, or where, owing
to the unequal distribution of wealth, as among the poorer classes
in old countries, human life is occupied with the physical
necessities of existence, the tendency to reproduce is at a rate
which would, were it to go on unchecked, some time exceed
subsistence. But it is not a legitimate inference from this that the
tendency to reproduce would show itself in the same force where
population was sufficiently dense and wealth distributed with
sufficient evenness to lift a whole community above the necessity of
devoting their energies to a struggle for mere existence.
This note on the intensity of the biological urge is based on the
unscientific belief that with the prolongation of schooling and the
spread of enlightenment, there will come, in some automatic and
mysterious way, a decline in the birth-rate. The implication is that
by reading, for example, The Atlantic Monthly instead of the
funnies, there will ensue some diminution in the mutual attraction of
the sexes. I doubt if the spread of this notion would increase the
sale of The Atlantic Monthly, and I am sure there is not a
scintilla of evidence to support it. It is one of the errors which,
strangely enough, George shared with his distinguished antagonist,
Herbert Spencer. It is distinctly Nineteenth Century and is regarded
by modern scientificos as an intellectual curiosity. The admirers of
George who seek to perpetuate it are doing George and his program a
The unfortunate part of the whole anti-Malthus crusade was that the
refutation of Malthus was in no way essential to establishing the
equal right of every child to the earth on which it is born. That
right results from the child's entrance into the human family and is
not dependent on the existence of either progress, poverty, whatnot or
whatever. Professor Harry Gunnison Brown, a leading advocate of
George's plan for the socialization of economic rent, writes in his
latest book, as follows:
Population in general needs to be limited as well as
population in special groups in order that average prosperity and
happiness may be high. This may necessitate for low birth rate
countries restrictions on the too free immigration from countries
whose inhabitants multiply with little regard to economic
Dr. Brown sees nothing incompatible in recognizing the evils of
overpopulation and at the same time striving to socialize economic
rent. He sees no incompatibility because there is none to see.
THE CONTENTION is sometimes made that the failure, or at best the
very modest success, of the Georgist program is due to the fact that
its advocates have not somehow hooked it on to the tail of the union
labor kite, which now soars so high in the ideological breezes. We who
advocate the socialization of rent, of course, should welcome support
from every quarter, but to be of value in the long run it must, I
believe come from those who share the philosophy of freedom, for this
remains the essential core of George's doctrine. Those who have lifted
themselves up by exacting a monopoly price for labor are not likely
converts to the unselfish program of Henry George.
George, it will be remembered, was not only an advocate of the
socialization of rent, but was a thoroughgoing free-trader who
elaborated his views in a masterly book entitled "Protection or
Free Trade." The intellectual and ethical distance between George
and some of our most powerful union leaders is clearly revealed by an
article in The United Mine Workers Journal. There we find the
Stripped of the political patter and "come on"
stuff, Wallace's speech boils down to the same old pleas for
international free trade that the Wall Street bank circulars have
been printing every month for 25 years. It's the same old malarkey
that Richard Cobden and John Bright peddled to the British 100 years
ago. They fell for it and got low wages and the vilest slums in the
western world. . . . As for international free trade, the people who
cry for that really hope for a wage standard based on the lowest
common denominator of the world labor market-Hindu labor at 7, 10
and 14 cents per day, according to which locality it is hired.
It is interesting that the economic ignorance which the above
quotation reveals should be accompanied by the grammatical atrocities
of its final sentence. It is difficult to say which would offend
George the more.
The sad fact is that the organized labor movement in the United
States is led chiefly by economic illiterates, whose plight is the
more hopeless because so many of them are distinctly
anti-intellectual. Only a few harbor those generous and liberal
impulses which alone can ensure peace and justice, whether in the
realm of economics, or in the field of international relations. For we
suffer not alone from the darkness of our minds, but also from the
hardness of our hearts, and before the leaders of American labor can
do much for the establishment of any regime of which Henry George
would have approved, they must repent and be born again.
The selfish appeals which labor leaders make to those who benefit
from monopoly power are totally incompatible with the spirit and
philosophy of Henry George. Labor leaders who pride themselves on
being hard-boiled would merely scoff at the following advice from
to begin and maintain great popular movements it is the
moral sense rather than the intellect that must be appealed to,
sympathy rather than self-interest. For however it may be with any
individual, the sense of justice is, with the masses of men keener
and truer than intellectual perception, and unless a question can
assume the form of right and wrong it cannot provoke general
discussion and excite the many to action. And while material gain or
loss impresses us less vividly the greater the number of those we
share it with, the power of sympathy increases as it spreads from
man to man-becomes cumulative and contagious.
The belief that knowledge is enough has been, perhaps, the supreme
folly of our age. Our blind faith in education has largely supplanted
the equally blind faith which prevailed in the centuries of religious
dominance. Was it for lack of knowledge that Germany, twice in a
generation, broke the peace of the world? The literacy rates in
Germany and Japan are unexcelled, but where is there less worth the
reading, or less time in which to read it?
It was to the everlasting credit of George that he presented his
programs to the world with the ardor of a crusader. He urged their
adoption not by appealing to the envy and cupidity of men, nor
exclusively to their economic interests, but primarily to those
fundamental principles of right and justice without which no world
society, no nation, nor even any tribe can long survive. If the
world's leaders had persevered in George's high ethical approach to
the problems of our common humanity, we might have had not only peace
but prosperity in our time.
FOOTNOTES AND REFERENCES
- Nock, Henry George, An
Essay, New York, Morrow, 1939, p. 200.
- Ibid., p. 202.
- New York, Robert Schalkenbach
Foundation, 1944, Book II. chapter II, p. 103.
- Basic Principles of
Economics, Columbia, Mo., Lucas Bros., 1939, p. 416.
- Loc. cit., Aug. 1, 1943.
- Protection or Free Trade?
New York, Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1944, p. 317.