Preface to the Book

The Economics of Henry George:
History's Rehabilitation of America's
Greatest Early Economist

Phillip J. Bryson

[Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2012]

A copy of Henry George's Progress and Poverty was in the library of my parents. It was part of a set of classical books acquired by my mother, who loved to read. It was a remnant from a time when many people read Henry George, although the public of his day was not generally more interested in books on economics than they are today. I didn't actually read the book for another forty or fifty years, for my interest in and introduction to economics did not happen to be based on George's masterpiece. Still, I ultimately came back to him when an opportunity arose to devote some time to his book.

As an academic, I could not write about George's writings simply to praise them. Any work of economics endowed with inherent worth must be reviewed, analyzed, understood, and appreciated first. Then, if praiseworthy, it should be praised. Since my training and professional trajectory were established long before I came to George, I cannot properly be described as a Georgist, a term and a type that is discussed in the book. Yet I do not hesitate to say that my admiration of the man and of his economics is great indeed. But I wrote the book for another reason. I would like to provide interested readers a single source that addresses the man, the analysis, the nature and impact of his work and its role not only in the era between the Civil and the Great Wars, but also today at the beginning of the 21st century.

By searching on line, one can find numerous brief descriptions of Henry George's life and the reasons for his fame in the late 1800s and early 1900s. To find a more detailed and historically valuable biography of him, one must turn to the work of his son, Henry George, Jr. That book is long and detailed, so that important information about George's life, essential to gain an appreciation of his economic analysis and policy views, is not readily obtained. This book provides a review of the methodology by which George thought economic analysis should be produced. It also reviews more general aspects of his life and work, and how they were informed by his Weltanschauung and formal economic analysis. This is done with the hope that it will assist the reader in coming to understand George himself, his thought and his policy proposals.

An attempt is then made to explicate the analysis that led to the publication of George's most famous work, Progress and Poverty. George presents to the world in this work his theory of economic distribution, which fits neatly into the rubrics of classical economics. As George presented his theory to the world, classical theory was already doing its best to slip quietly into the dustbins of history. Alfred Marshall, several other famous European economists, John Bates Clark and other American economists were developing or in the process of presenting theories that would move the world from the classical to the neo-classical era of economics. Nevertheless, the world at large was unconcerned about the history of economic analysis and George's theory, presented in a rich and competent English, spread rapidly in several other languages among the literate classes of the economically developed countries.

Professional economists were sometimes jealous of George's success and they were sometimes concerned that he did not clothe his thoughts in more modern economic methodologies. In any case, they seemed uniformly opposed, sometimes vehemently so, to George's explanation of the simultaneous phenomena in contemporary societies of progress and poverty. The book therefore addresses the key elements of George's analysis and how they fit into the economics of his time, as well as in the eras before and after.

A very important part of George's analysis, that dealing with the timelessly relevant and controversial issue of free trade vs. protection, remains of special significance today. Since free trade seems often to be of interest only to professional economists, the public discussion having largely been given over in the last few years in the United States as a sacrificial lamb to the domain of populist politics, it is of great worth to review George's clear and persuasive arguments for free trade from the perspective of our time. This book undertakes that review.

It will likewise prove to be of great interest to examine George's treatment of the economic resource of land, the national land policies of his time, and the significance of his work for the issues of land, urban economics and urban development in our own time. It is in this area that George's influence is apparently the most direct and durable. His legacy in this area is significant not only in academic terms, but in terms of the policies that are guiding efforts made to rationalize these national concerns both in the United States and in numerous other countries around the world.

The timeliness of George's analysis in the area of land and land policy brings us quite naturally to the final topic of the book. It is implicitly a tribute to George to review the influence that he has had on the profession of economics as a whole. Our discussion will conclude, therefore, with a review of the influence Henry George has had on economic analysis and policy developments in our time.

I am deeply grateful to the Marriott School of Brigham Young University for its support of this research. The School's Dean, Gary Cornia, has demonstrated interest in and support for the project from its inception several years ago. Cornia had not yet become Dean at that time, but he encouraged me to pursue my interest in Henry George and connected me with the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy in Boston, which provided financial support to get the study launched. The Institute certainly cannot be blamed for any inadequacies in this work, for its support did not extend beyond the inauguration of the project, and after a slow start reflecting my involvement in several other projects, this one remained a back-burner effort for several years. I appreciate both Dean Cornia and the Lincoln Institute for having gotten me started on this research. I also owe gratitude for the cooperative and collegial helpfulness of Mark A. Sullivan at the Schalkenbach Foundation for permission to reprint the Andelson article which appears as the appendix to Chapter 6.

Finally, I am grateful to my parents, especially my mother, for having shown me at a tender age the joy of reading good books. I express gratitude for my own life's companion, Pat, for teaching the same thing to our children and grandchildren while supporting me in the production of a few scholarly books. I accept without rancor the large likelihood that those have contributed somewhat less joy to readers.