The History of Henry George
and the Henry George School
[Reprinted from The Philadelphia Welcomat,
In the forward to an edition of Brave New World, author
Aldous Huxley added this modification: "If I were now to rewrite
the book, I would offer [an] alternative ... the possibility of sanity
.... Economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian."
Leo Tolstoy wrote: "People do not argue with the teaching of
George, they simply do not know it. He who becomes acquainted with it
cannot but agree."
Woodrow Wilson asserted: "The country needs a new and sincere
thought in politics, coherently, distinctly, and boldly uttered by men
who are sure of their ground. The power of men like Henry George seems
to me to mean that."
Aldous Huxley, Leo Tolstoy and Woodrow Wilson. You'd have to be
impressed with someone who received such heady praise from these three
You'd have wonder about a man whose writings still inspire a
dedicated (and growing) group of followers almost a hundred years
after his death. You might have to wonder who he is.
Henry George was a journalist, born in Philadelphia, whose ancestral
home is a little rowhouse on 10th Street. George was also an economic
theorist who raised an age-old question - why is so much wealth
concentrated in the hands of so few people - and then came up with an
George posited that the people who are disproportionately wealthy are
those who hold land as private property. However, he added, their land
is profitable not because they've worked to make it more valuable, but
because the community has grown up around it. Therefore, goes George's
conclusion, this unearned gain should not belong to the landowners,
but to society as a whole.
It's an appealing idea, so appealing that, even in the age of
Reaganomics, the theory has a hold over many who learn it. They call
themselves Georgists, and, as part of an overall hope to change the
tax system, they can be found talking, teaching and learning at the
Henry George School of Social Science, located in the aforementioned
ancestral home on 10th Street south of Pine as well as in five other
U.S. cities and several foreign countries.
This is no ordinary adult education institute. Although it is
chartered by the State University of New York, there are no tests,
there is no tuition fee and all of the instructors are volunteers.
George is apparently that inspiring. For example, the school's
secretary, Lucia M. Cipolloni, has been at the Philadelphia extension
of the school since 1937 and receives no salary for her services. "When
you're a dedicated Georgist, it colors your whole life," she
A few years after Cipolloni joined the Georgist movement, World. War
II began to ravage humanity. "I saw pictures from the war -
children with distended stomachs - and wanted to do something about
it," she says. "To me, this was the answer.
for me to believe that something so self-evident to me isn't evident
George's philosophy is explained most succinctly in his landmark book
Progress and Poverty, published in 1879 and at one time more
widely read than Karl Marx's Das Kapital. In his book, George
observed that, although goods produced by labor eventually decreased
in quantity and value, land, as a finite quantity, increased in worth
This difference, according to Philadelphia extension school director
George Collins, "made it possible for those who owned land to
obtain large shares of wealth as payment for the use of the land,"
such as for rent.
Every Improvement on the land resulted in an increase in its value.
This was compounded by land speculation, which artificially shortened
the supply. The result was a decrease in capital, wages and interest,
which, in turn, caused depressions (and, today, recessions).
The idea behind George's reform was that since land isn't produced by
labor, morally, no one has a rightful claim to ownership. Collins
explains, "land must be treated as common property, since no one
can exist without drawing upon land for what they consume. Everyone
has an equal right to the land."
The way George proposed to enact this reform was to institute "economic
rent," the return for the use of the land. This would be
collected in the form of a "land value tax." Those who
wished to use the land would pay an annual rental value; the payment
would go to a public treasury and would be distributed for social
The beauty of this philosophy, says Collins, is that there would be "no
need to vacate titles or do anything that would create social
upheavals - people would pay taxes in the way that they're accustomed
This land value tax theory is also known as the "single tax"
theory, since George proposed, rather optimistically, that under this
system the community would collect enough revenue to end all income,
wage and mercantile taxes.
The theory even has a practical example - in the town of Arden,
Delaware, a community founded in 1900 and still operating under
Georgist priniciples today. According to Arden resident Mike Curtis,
the town "leases its land to homeowners in order to collect rent
on the land instead of taxes on the buildings. Out of the rent they
collect, they pay all real estate taxes levied by the school district
and the county."
A whole Georgist community may seem like an oddity, but seven more
conventional Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and
Scranton have implemented George's property tax ideas in modified
form. In these cities, taxes on building improvements are reduced and
taxes on land value are increased.
In Pittsburgh, George Collins explains, land is taxed at seven times
the building tax rate; in most of the other six cities, the rate is
somewhere around two to one. (The Georgist reform applies only to
local property taxes and docs not affect federal and state revenues or
other local taxes.)
It's amazing that Henry George's ideas are even being considered
today, much less put into practice in Pennsylvania's state capital. A
major factor contributing to the longevity of George's theories was
the man's personal charisma and his appeal to his audience's sense of
equality and justice.
Born to a poor Philadelphia family in 1839, George's formal schooling
ended at age 14 when he had to go to work. He had a brief career as a
seaman and as a teenager sailed to India, where he got his first
glimpse of extreme poverty contrasted with extreme wealth.
He arrived in San Francisco in his twenties too late to join the gold
rush and suffered through long periods of near-starvation as job after
job fell through. Finally, he found employment as a typesetter with
various California newspapers and made up for the education he missed
by reading the work he was assigned. He also fine-tuned his writing
skills and eventually became a reporter.
In 1871, George and two partners started their own short-lived paper,
the San Francisco Evening Post. When folded in 1876, a
Democratic governor appointed him to the position of State Inspector
of Gas Meters, a job he held until 1879. This period of steady
employment gave him the leisure time to write Progress and Poverty.
The manuscript didn't exactly make a splash when George first
submitted it for publication. After a number of rejections, he finally
got D. Appleton & Company to agree to issue it only if he agreed
to pay for the platemaking out of his own pocket.
By the time the commercial edition appeared, however, the depression
of 1873-78 had just ended. The book fit the mood of the people, and in
the next 25 years Progress and Poverty became a bestseller.
George became an international celebrity, speaking in Ireland (and,
later, on a worldwide lecture tour). And he buttressed his persuasive
economic reasoning with humanitarian and religious arguments.
George Collins speculates that George's ideas, unlike those of many
of his contemporaries, still attrct followers because they deal with "universal
concepts," whereas other economic theorists of the 19th century
addressed only specific problems (such as robber barons) that "tended
to fade away."
The expansion of railroads, a source of chagrin for George, is no
longer a factor, but the basis for the problem still remains. "Land
continues to be essential for whatever needs to be done," Collins
In 1886, George ran for mayor of New York as the Labor candidate.
Although he lost to Democrat Abram S. Hewitt, he got significantly
more votes than the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. George
wrote several more books and ran for mayor a second time, but died in
1897 less than a week before the election.
By the 1930s, support for George's single tax idea had waned. Oscar
Geiger, who had been active in the Georgist movement in the 1890s and
had worked for George's mayoral campaign, became concerned about the "transitory
nature of the support," according to Collins.
Geiger believed that the reason the movement had died down was the
difficulty in explaining George's philosophy "in an easily
understood, colloquial manner with some catch phrases people could
easily grap onto." He concluded that the best way to keep the
movement alive was to begin a tuition-free school. (Today's students
pay only a registration fee.)
The Henry George School of Social Science founded as a privately
funded, nonprofit institution in New York City in 1932 immediately
grew as the advancing Depression plunged more people into poverty. The
Philadelphia extension was founded in 1935 and in 1957 moved into
Henry George's birthplace, which had been purchased by a group of
benefactors including film director Cecil B. deMille. (De Mille's
brother was married to Henry George's daughter.)
The Philadelphia extension has a sister school in Arden, Delaware,
run by Mike Curtis, a former Philadelphia student and director of the
Arden program for 15 years. His interest in Georgist philosophy is an
inherited one; his grandfather campaigned for George in the 1886 New
York mayoral race, and his grandmother "died while giving a
Curtis himself, however, didn't know much about George until he
bought a home in Arden. "I decided, gee, I really ought to study
this. I was almost embarrassed that I didn't know a lot about it."
After Curtis took a few courses in Philadelphia, he realized that "this
whole idea went a lot further than this little village and was really
a solution to the basic problems of the world."
Curtis offers his courses not only in Arden, but also at the Delaware
State Prison, an undertaking that gives him pleasure." Many of
inmates whom Curtis has taught are now qualified to teach the courses
All of the eight Philadelphia instructors have themselves taken
courses at the school; among the current faculty are an investor an
accountant, an attorney and a public school vice principal.
There are three terms: fall, winter and spring. (The fall term began
September 21; the winter session is scheduled to open the third week
in January.) Although the school itself does not grant degrees,
Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University and Antioch have
given credit for of the courses.
The school's economics course, "Principles of Political Economy,"
has three parts. In the first two, George's theories are the main
focus; in the third part, these theories are compared with Marxism,
socialism, supply-side economics and other systems. The school also
offers courses in the stock market, philosophy and foreign policy.
According to Collins, the aim of the program is "to increase
economic literacy." The school is seeking to make itself seen as
a "center for economic understanding. Henry George is the focal
point, but we want people to see economics in a broad sense." To
that end, Collins has produced a nine-part video for teachers entitled
"Understanding Economics," designed to introduce an
economics course into the high school curriculum.
Jacob Himmelstein, a registered securities representative and
instructor of political economy at the Philadelphia extension, is a
former board member of the Henry George Foundation in New York and was
a director of the New York school for nearly five years. "Some
students are extremely conservative, even reactionary," he
observes. "Other students might be on the far left. The Georgist
philosophy doesn't involve a definite political leaning. We've got a
lot of people who might be classified as libertarians."
Sister Cecilia Wilson, Youth Development Coordinator at the Haverford
Community Center has "taken every course" offered at the
school. "It's the greatest mind-expansion-liberation project you
can get into," she says, "We're becoming a land-less people.
It's dangerous. Once you understand, you can help make change happen."
Although Georgists would like to redesign the tax structure, most
believe that the process of change must be, according to Collins, "evolutionary
rather than revolutionary." The movement's primary objective is
to educate people about the theories. Collins explains the philosophy
by quoting Henry George: "The people alone must think, because
the people alone can act. Only what the general populace thinks can
become implemented. A benevolent dictator cannot implement this unless
it is generally acknowledged that the land is a birthright of all
mankind, or else these reforms will not survive."
"This gave my whole life direction," says school secretary
Lucia Cipolloni. She first heard about Henry George from a high school
teacher but didn't pay much attention until a family friend who taught
at the New York school came to her house and started talking about his
work. As a result of that conversation, Cipolloni signed up for a
course 50 years ago and has been at the school ever since.
Not everyone shares the Georgists' burning desire to educate others
about the movement, however. One insructor of economics at the
University of Pennsylvania gives George just a brief mention in his
graduate-level introductory economics course: "I take five
minutes; nothing big. The land rent proposal is presented as a
curiousity, nothing else."
George, he explains, "wasn't an economist, but he had an
interesting idea. It's impractical, but it has a good theoretical
basis." Another Penn economics professor said he didn't know
enough about George to offer an opinion: "He's out of the
But George Collins is "not surprised" that academicians are
unfamiliar with Georgist philosophy. In his own day George found a
bias against him in the academic establishment. "He was not an
academician; he was a journalist. What he had to say was not thought
to be of value," Collins explains. George was "a crusader
promoting his reform. That was beyond the pale. Academicians didn't
soil their hands with such activities."
George's ideas, Collins points out, "challenge a long-revered
institution: private ownership of land. What people thought he was
trying to do was considered un-American."
However, says Collins, the negative reaction to Georgist theory among
the academic community isn't as bad as it used to be. "More
economists make appreciative comments now than has been the case."
Paul Samuelson, author of the introductory economics textbook that is
the nemesis of many a college freshman, was willing to lend his
support to Georgist theory, says Jacob Himmelstein, but "not to
the exclusion of any other economic principle."
Regardless of what mainstream economists have to say about Henry
George, the unfailing support of his followers is awe-inspiring. "Never
have I met so many people who are so dedicated," says Lucia
And their loyalty is perhaps best described by Sister Cecilia Wilson:
"The masses have to take responsibility for their own liberation
and education," she says, "and this is one of the good
places to start."