The Man Who Wanted to Raise Hell
Charles Ryle Fay
[Repinted from Land & Liberty, special
In 1939 Prof. Fay, lecturer in economic
history at Cambridge, prepared an appreciation of Henry George, to
be broadcast on BBC Radio on 2nd September 1939. With the
international crisis which culminated in the declaration of war on
the following day, the talk was cancelled. The script was never
GEORGE, our dictionary tells us, is a proper name derived from the
Greek and meaning a labourer on the land; and as surname it has been
borne by two men of world distinction, one the great statesman who now
grows apples in the county of Surrey, and the other the great writer
and social reformer whose birth in America a hundred years ago we
The link between them is direct For although a Royal Commission on
the Housing of the Working Classes (1885) toyed with the idea of a
small tax on vacant land, nothing came of it, and it was left to Mr.
Lloyd George in his People's Budget of 1909 to impose land taxes
endued with the faith that God gave the land to the people.
Another Chancellor of the Exchequer, the socialist Philip Snowden,
himself more radical than the radicals, renewed the attack in the
Budget of 1931, only to fail in effect as his predecessor had done.
For his tax of a penny in the pound on the capital value of land
required for its operation the valuation of the land, and before this
was completed the economic crisis had brought a National Government
into power, and the National Government dropped it. It was a piece of
sharp practice in the eyes of Philip Viscount Snowden, by this time
promoted to an irony of loneliness in the House of Derated Acres and
Mounting City Sites.
And who will be in office 40 years from hence, namely in 1979? For
that year to the disciples of Henry George will be the year, seeing
that in 1879 their master published his famous Progress and
Poverty, a book of which more than two million copies were printed
between 1879 and 1905 -- two million in 26 years, which means that it
had become a Bible. When that centenary comes along, the then
Chancellor of the Exchequer, it may be, will be explaining why the
special tax on site values, by which all the municipalities of 1979,
perhaps, will raise a portion of their rates, cannot with propriety be
used for imperial purposes, and will recall as a curiosity the distant
days of this present year, when Mr. Speaker ruled that the London
Rating (Site Values) Bill could not be introduced except as a Public
Bill, because it made so fundamental an alteration in the law of
WHO, then, was this American? The son of a Philadelphia publisher, he
was drawn as a youth by the spirit of romance to the sea, and to
California around Cape Horn.
For this was the age of the Californian Gold Rush, when all the world
without his wife was heading for the Pacific coast Before the mast, in
his printing office, travelling the country for reporter's copy on
horseback or on bicycle, . as well as in his invariably unsuccessful
mining ventures, he was the same sensitive man: devoted to freedom,
sympathetic to suffering, intolerant of social injustice. He saw
miners sweating and starving, a score of failures for every success:
railroad barons battening on monopoly: building booms, in which land
values soared fantastically overnight (as they did in Florida in the
1920s) to the enrichment of the unscrupulous few: all this on the
sombre background of a continent prostrated by the civil war of
These manifold impressions crystallised, and the crystal was his book
Progress and Poverty. He was, however, not a man of one book,
for after Progress and Poverty came Social Problems
and Protection or Free Trade, to mention only two of his later
works. Social Problems, published in 1884 is a fascinating
little piece, and reveals his many-sidedness; for unlike Robert Owen
(if I may say so), and unlike some of his own disciples, he did not
freeze himself within the limits of a single thought With him free
trade, free enterprise and free access to land were parts of the
larger whole of freedom, and in this he resembled Adam Smith.
His fame established, he returned to the East, where at first he was
welcomed by the wealthy because they saw in his programme no challenge
to business enterprise, and he all but gained the mayoralty of New
York in 1894. But his strength was in writing and public speaking
rather than in politics. 'I do not' he said in reply to a leading
question, 'want the responsibility and work of the office of the Mayor
of New York, but I do want to raise hell.'
And his lecture tours at home and abroad were more congenial and
fruitful than the political campaigning into which he was again
impressed in 1897, when he was stricken by illness and died. I think
of him as an American Cobbett, deriving passion from the mute appeal
of the countryside, and rather lost in the tumult of the town, even
though it was to townsmen that he most appealed.
WHAT WAS his programme? In his own words, 'What I propose as the
simple yet sovereign remedy is to appropriate rent by taxation;' and
the rent he had in mind was not that part loosely so termed, which is
interest on improvements, but the pure economic rent arising from the
scarcity and situation of land, and augmented in value by the progress
Through emphasis on the efficacy of such a tax by itself he and his
school were dubbed 'single-taxers'. It is, however, bu tjust to
remember that in his day a Federal income tax, i.e. a tax levied by
the central government in Washington, was unconstitutional. The
alternative to a general tax (whether on land or income) was a mass of
commodity taxation of customs and excise, which was offensive to
liberty and oppressive on the poor.
When he was under fire in England, his critics quickly made the point
that a land tax, being necessarily domestic, would only by indirection
tax the great stream of wealth accruing from investments overseas and
furthermore that it was inept to tax the employment-giving
industrialist occupying a large area of land, a steel works for
example, more heavily than the no less wealthy merchant enjoying a
relatively tiny space and employing only a handful of clerks. Very
properly, therefore, his followers of today stress the impact of the
tax rather than its singleness, and rest their case on the capacity of
land, and in particular of urban land, to bear a special tax over and
above that which is imposed on other forms of wealth.
IN THE United States Henry George was something of a prophet without
honour in his own country; and the notice of him in die new American
Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, though penned by a
progressive democrat, closes on a chilly note: 'The practical results
are slight apart from scattered attempts to shift taxation from the
value of improvements to the value of land'.
In Great Britain, as I have said, the attempts to realise a part of
the programme miscarried. But in the Dominions, as well as in parts of
Europe, special land taxes have sometimes met with success.
Overseas, the Provinces of the Canadian West tried them and found
them on the whole abortive. But in New Zealand, with its more
persistent socialism, more success was won: and land taxation has
probably become a permanent element of the New Zealand tax system - of
the tax system; for New Zealand scholars insist that it is a tax, and
not as a panacea for all social ills and economic maladjustments, that
land taxation must be judged.
However, alike in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, land taxation is
no longer the inspiring formula that Henry George would have desired.
The place of panacea is occupied now by social credit, with Major
Douglas for theorist and for practitioner Premier Aberhart of Alberta.
In England Henry George left behind the seeds of a missionary
organisation; and for some time past the United Committee for the
Taxation of Land Values has promoted the cause in and out of
Parliament. Their writings are ardent, though necessarily when they
come down to the details of finance the going is hard. But it is not
intellectual difficult)' which embarrasses their spokesmen when they
are on the floor of the House. They are distracted rather by the chord
of social memory which strikes within them as they speak. They could
not have a better case than the monstrous cost of building a new road
way over the Thames, fourteen million odd, of which eleven million
would go to compensate the owners of the site. Nevertheless, the
eloquent mover of the Land Values (Rating) Bill of 1937 only got to
bis central point at the very end of his speech. For he, like others
before him, felt impelled to begin with the information 'and all
that', when man's green hospitals. the commons of England, were closed
against him by King Henry VIII of dubious memory.
THE YOUNG Philip Snowden, when a Revenue Collector in Aberdeen, was
struck by the furore which Henry George and his book created in
Scotland in the early 1880s.
'No book ever written on the social problem,' he says, 'made so many
converts' (Autobiography 1.49). Among others it gave to Keir
Hardic his first ideas on socialism. And (he intelligentsia of England
took Henry George no less seriously. The last work of Arnold Toynbee,
in whose memory Tonybee Hall in Whitechapel was founded, was two
lectures on Progress and Poverty in 1883. The youthful Fabian
Society advertised him. A.J. Balfour dissected him at an Industrial
Remuneration Conference. But the sharpest opponent of all was Alfred
Marshall of Cambridge, die doyen of English economists.
When Marshall was Principal of University College, Bristol, he
delivered three Public Lectures on Henry George's books. Invited by
Jowett to succeed Toynbee at Balliol in 1883, he was there for one
year, and in the course of it engaged Henry George in a personal
debate, in which the atmosphere was so electrical that ladies fainted.
Henry George junior, in the brilliant life of his father, reports it
at length. Suffice it here to say that during the debate Henry George
felt somewhat indignant; and with some reason, for was it not
Marshall's own master, Adam Smith, who wrote that landlords, like all
other men, love to reap where they never sowed? Indeed, just as Karl
Marx was in a sense the last of the Ricardians, so in a sense was Adam
Smith the first of the land reformers; and we might without infidelity
to history point to a continuous strand of reforming thought from Adam
Smith through Spence and Ogilvie and Paine to the warm evangelism of
the once dreaded Henry George. Tantaene animis caelestibtts irae?
(Can such anger dwell in heavenly minds?)