Henry George and the Single Tax

Lyman Abbott

[Excerpts from Reminiscences, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1915]

One other reform remains to be mentioned - the Single Tax. When Henry George's "Progress and Poverty" appeared, the clear vision, simply philosophy, unflinching courage, and lucid English of the author appealed to me. Through a mutual friend I secured the presence of Mr. George at a private dinner, where we three discussed the industrial problem. The man attracted me quite as much as the book which he had written. I do not undertake here an exposition of his philosophy. It is enough to say that with his fundamental postulate, that the air, the sunlight, the rivers, navigable or unnavigable, the soil and its contents, naturally belong to the community; that all property rights in these natural products are purely artificial, created by the community, I heartily agree. But I do not and did not agree with him that when the community has created such artificial rights it has a right to abolish them without compensation. Nor do I agree with some of his followers who apparently think that the practical abolition of private ownership in land by levying a tax equivalent to a rental of all land properties would be a panacea for industrial evils. How I think the principles of Henry George should be and are being applied in working out a new social order will appear later. Here I may add that when he died, in the fall of 1897, I was glad to join with Dr. Gustav Gottheil, a Jewish rabbi, Dr. Edward McGlynn, a Roman Catholic priest, and John Sherman Crosby, a radical Socialist, in public tributes to Henry George's memory in what was one of the most notable memorial services ever held in America in honor of a purely private citizen.

How I found my way through these conflicting schemes of reform to my own conclusion - the one which I have been advocating for thirty years - I do not know. I suspect that the clue was suggested to me by the first of three visits which I made at different times to the coal mines of Pennsylvania. There was supposed to be a glut of coal in the market. The men were working only half time, of course on half wages; and whole wages were none too much for a comfortable livelihood. Of course there was discontent. I made the acquaintance of a Welsh preacher who was also a mine worker, and he invited me home to dinner. He was not angry, but puzzled. He and his comrades were thought intelligent enough to elect a Governor and legislators for the State, a President and Congress for the Nation, but they had no share in determining what should be their own hours of labor, or the wages they should receive. We never know, he said, when we go to work in the morning but that the boss may tell us when we come out of the mine at noon that there is no more work for us and we need not come back to-morrow. And I thought of Stephen Blackpool, in Dickens's "Hard Times," and what the labor problem meant to him: "Let 'em be. Let everything be. Let all sorts alone. 'T is a muddle, and that's aw."

I think it was after this that I offered my first suggestion respecting this muddle. It was in November, 1884. "The Outlook" at that time announced an enlargement in the following year, and took occasion to reaffirm its belief in democracy - "democracy in religion, in government, in education, in industry, against hierarchy in the church, oligarchy in government, aristocracy in letters, and plutocracy in society." Prior to that time I had advocated specific reforms - the regulation of tenement-houses by law; the creation of State and Federal Railway Commissions, and the regulation of the telegraph and the railways by the joint action of the State and Federal Governments; the control of all the great corporations by the Government; the development of industrial education in our public school systems; the protection of the public domain from foreign and domestic trespassers; but I had not clearly seen, at least I had not clearly stated, to what ultimate issue these specific reforms pointed.

The following year I gave to industrial liberty a more definite meaning. I expressed the hope that "the conflict between labor and capital will come to an end in an epoch in which the capitalists will be laborers and the laborers will be capitalists; in which neither employers nor government but industry itself will control its implements of industry, and will at once control and compensate its own toil." I criticised the labor leaders as not sufficiently radical. "Instead of seeking for an industrial organization which will make labor its own master and capital a commodity to be hired in the cheapest market, they are content to leave the present industrial organization unchanged, and seek only to wring by battle a little larger wage out of the employers, or to transfer mastership from individual capitalists to a political machine." And I argued the practicability, at least the possibility, of this industrial democracy: "A great factory in modern times, I said, requires on an average a thousand dollars capital for every workingman employed; if there are a thousand workmen there are needed a million dollars. ... If we can bring about a state of society in which every workingman can have a thousand dollars invested in his work, workingmen will be their own capitalists and their own masters, and the present industrial difficulty growing out of chronic and suppressed conflict between laborers and capitalists will be at an end." In such an organization the workers would own their tools and implements, would control the mill or factory, and would divide among themselves the profits and the losses of the enterprise."

While urging this as the ultimate goal of all industrial reform, I opposed as vigorously as I knew how some of the more dangerous of the panaceas described above - labor war, anarchism, state socialism - and advocated with equal earnestness specific industrial reforms: shorter hours, better wages, sanitary legislation, prohibition of child labor, restriction of woman's labor, and the like. On three reforms I laid special emphasis, partly because I believe they led surely but gradually and indirectly in the direction of industrial democracy. These reforms were postal savings, industrial education, and legal recognition of labor unions.


January, 1890, a dinner was tendered in New York to Mr. Henry George on the occasion of his departure for Australia, to which country he was going to conduct a campaign in favor of free trade and the single tax. From an address which I made at this dinner I make here some extracts, weaving them together, but retaining, in the main, the phraseology of the address, which states as comprehensively and briefly as perhaps anywhere they are stated the political principles which certainly for over thirty years I have maintained continuously, and, I think, in the main, consistently: -

We are believers in democracy. We believe in political democracy - that it is the right of the people to rule themselves, not because they are always competent to govern, but because they are more competent to govern themselves than any one else is to govern them, and because they will learn more quickly by their blunders than by the wisdom of any aristocracy set over them. We believe in educational democracy. Because we believe in the capacity of the people for education we believe it is the duty of the Republic to open the way for all her citizens to all the education that is necessary for a large and noble citizenship. We believe also in a democracy of wealth. We believe in a commonwealth that really means what that noble word means, a wealth that is common. The problem of political economy in the past has been how to accumulate wealth; the problem in the future is how to distribute wealth. Therefore we believe in suc direct, not indirect. We believe that capital and labor are partners, and that it is the right of labor to organize for their own protection and the enhancement of their wages. We believe that the people must control the corporations, not the corporations the people, and that the great highways of the Nation, its iron and steel muscles, and the electric wires of the Nation, its nerves, must be under the control, if not under the ownership, of the body politic. We do not believe that government is a necessary evil and the less we have of it the better. We have no wish to go back to a paternal government nor to go back of that to the barbarism of individualism. We look forward to a fraternal government in which the people shall have learned to do by their common will and their common industry the things that are for their common well-being. With me this belief is a religion. I hold that it is as infidel to deny the brotherhood of man as to deny the Fatherhood of God; and the first infidelity is far more common in this country than the second.

The reader will observe that in this address I speak, not of my belief, but of our belief. I thought it to be a true interpretation of a growing body of progressive democrats; and as the speech was continually punctuated with applause, and as at the end three hearty cheers were called for by one of the guests and were heartily given, my opinion was confirmed that, in stating my own beliefs, I was interpreting the beliefs of others. Whatever service I have rendered to either the Church or the State by my utterances has been due, not to the fact that they were original and idiosyncratic, but to the fact that they interpreted to others, in definite form, opinions which they already held, but generally uncrystallized and unformulated. These principles have prevented me from belonging to any party, and have made it difficult sometimes for perfectly honest-minded critics to classify me. I have believed in anti-saloon legislation but have not been a Prohibitionist, in social reform but have not been a Socialist, in individual liberty but have not been a Democrat, in a strong centralized government but have not been a Republican, in political progress and social justice but have not been a Progressive. One exception to this statement is necessary: during the Civil War I was a Republican and probably always voted a straight Republican ticket, but when the war closed I left the party because of its reconstruction policy, and from that time on have been politically an independent.[1]

I should like to write a political history of the United States since 1876, when I began writing it from week to week in the pages of "The Outlook." But I have not the leisure nor the temperament fitted for accurate historical research. All I can do here is to show how the principles defined in the Henry George dinner have been applied by me in the interpretation of some of the more important events during that period.

How my democratic sympathies led me to take a part in the movement for the emancipation of the slave, and afterwards in the work of reconstruction, I have told in previous chapters. I believed that the negro is a man, not a chattel, and that he has an undeveloped capacity for self-government. But it was undeveloped, and slavery had done nothing to develop and much to repress this capacity. It seemed to me axiomatic that he who could not govern himself had no right to a share in governing others, and that before he could govern himself or others he must have some measure of education. I therefore gave a hearty support to the Blair Bill, introduced by Senator Blair into Congress for the purpose of giving Federal appropriations to public schools in the South.

It does not come within the province of this article to go into detailed argument with figures in support of any particular scheme. My object is to give the general reader as clear and coherent an account as I can, in a limited space, of the method which modern thinkers have wrought out, by which the common people can secure joint benefit of the common wealth, without revolution. He who desires to study the philosophy of this plan more fully will find material for his study in Henry George's "Progress and Poverty." He who desires to estimate scientifically its economic effect will find material for his study in Thomas G. Shearman's "Natural Taxation." He will in the latter book find reasons given for the belief that a fair rental to the people as landlord for the value of wild land and its contents, and of public franchises created by and belonging to the people, would be adequate to pay all the expenses of government, municipal, State, and Federal.1 He will also find there given the reasons for believing that such a rental, instead of increasing the burdens of the agricultural class, would decrease them;2 and, finally, the reasons for believing that such a rental could be collected with almost absolute equity, since there would be no possibility of concealing the land or the franchise for which the rent would be paid, and not much difficulty in estimating their natural market value. This last, the moral argument for the Single Tax, will, to him who regards ethical considerations as more important than economic, appear of the first importance. It is thus stated in a recent letter by Mr. Charles Francis Adams:

"Thus all national and local taxes, if collected exclusively from ground rents, would absorb only 44\ per cent. of those rents, leaving to the owners of bare land a clear annual rent of $763,252,000, besides the absolutely untaxed income from all buildings and improvements upon their land." Natural Taxation, p. 147.

"Thus the farmers would save much more than one third of their present tax burdens by the concentration of taxes on ground rents alone." Natural Taxation, p. 196.

On this moral side, which to my mind is the most important side of all, there can, so far as I see, be but one way of looking at the thing. The Single Tax would be an enormous improvement over the existing system, or over any other system which I think could be devised. It would reduce taxation to a basis of absolute certainty and fairness, rendering evasion impossible. A complete stop would thus be put to the whole system of cheating, and consequent unjust transfer of a burden from those who have no conscience to those who have a conscience - from those who can escape the law to those who cannot escape the law - which is the unanswerable argument against the continuance of the present system - a system which puts a confessed, because quite undeniable, premium on perjury; and no system which puts a premium on perjury admits of justification. This argument alone, to my mind, would be conclusive in favor of the Single Tax. Any possible amount of wrong or injury it might incidentally inflict would to my mind be little more than dust in the balance compared with the advantage which would result, after the thing fairly adjusted itself, from the complete freedom it would bring about from all temptation to evasion and false swearing. From the moral point of view, consequently, there do not seem to be any two sides to the question; and the moral point of view is, in my judgment, the all-important point of view.

The question may be and has been asked, would not the carrying out of this plan amount to a confiscation of landed values? Henry George concedes that it would, and defends such confiscation on the ground that land is not a proper subject of ownership. He compares the loss to the landowner involved in the Single Tax with the loss to the slaveholder involved in emancipation. The cases do not seem to me parallel. Society has no right to organize a system involving ownership of man; society has a right to organize a system involving ownership in land. If the community thinks the private ownership and control of land is best for the community, it has a right to provide for such private ownership and control; but it has no right to provide for the private ownership and control of one man by another, against the protest of that other, though he be but a minority of one. Society having provided for the private ownership and control of land, and individuals having invested their earnings in that land on the faith of that provision of society, society has no right by revolutionary act to confiscate the property and destroy for the individual owner the economic values which it has itself created. If, therefore, it were proposed suddenly to abolish all taxes on imports, on incomes, on personal and real property, and levy them all on land and its contents and on franchises, the proposition would involve an industrial revolution which would be at once inexpedient and unjust. But no such sudden change is possible. If taxation is taken off from all other objects, and levied only on those things which are properly a common wealth, the change can be wrought out gradually, and there will be time for industry to adjust itself to the new conditions as they are created. There is very little reason to believe that the practical injustice to individuals which would grow out of the adoption of the Single Tax theory, in any way which would be possible in America, would be so great as the injury which has come to individuals through the use of steam and electricity, through the influence of machinery, through the organization of labor and of capital, and through the consequent necessary changes in industrial conditions and in values depending on those conditions.

This and all other changes in economic conditions are, however, in the last analysis, dependent upon changes to be wrought in personal character. Industrial democracy is dependent upon educational democracy. There is no possible way by which the people can obtain the benefits of the common wealth except as they are intelligent and thrifty. They must understand the forces of nature in order to get the fruit which nature is ready to drop into their lap. They must have, in other words, industrial intelligence, and they must have thrift, - that is, the moral capacity to spend less than they earn, and not before they have earned it. In a nomadic state man catches a fish or shoots a deer in the morning, cooks it and eats it at night. He lives literally from hand to mouth. In the agricultural period this is no longer possible. He plants corn in the spring, harvests it in the fall, and cannot plant again until the next spring. He therefore must wait for one year from the time of his planting until he is able to plant again, or from the time of his reaping until he is able to reap again. In this one year he will starve if he has not capital; that is, if he, or some one before him, has not laid by, out of previous industry, enough for food supply until the new harvest is ready. In the agricultural state the world may be said to pay its wages once a year; and as agriculture is the basis of all industry, speaking broadly, it may be said that no man has caught up with the world unless he has laid by as much as is equivalent to one year of his expenditures. If he has not done this, he is not living on his real income, but is borrowing from the future. But all investment beyond a year's income is properly investment for power, not for pleasure. The aphorism, Money is power, expresses a very substantial truth. It is power because it is hoarded or solidified industry, the industry of past years, hoarded as sunlight is hoarded in the coal, to be set free for future activities. Until these two simple capacities have been acquired - the capacity to understand and use nature, and the capacity to reservoir, in capital, industry for future necessity - no economic changes will or can permanently secure economic equality or any approximation to it. Thus the considerations presented in this paper lead to the subject of the next lecture, which will be the Educational Rights of Man.


1. The Rights of Man; a study in twentieth century problems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1901, pp. 140-143