Georgism, Geocracy and Physiocracy

James L. Busey

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, March-April 1993]

In Groundswell for November-December [1992], Mr. Stanley Nancy makes the point that we don't help our cause by "calling ourselves Georgists, as if we were the cultists of a guru." In terms of our impact on public opinion, he is right.

. He also objects to calling ourselves geocrats, and protests that "This comes across as if the earth should rule, instead of pay the taxes." He prefers the term "physiocrats," whose dictionary definition already has a Georgist sound to it.

The term geocracy does not mean "the earth should rule" any more than, physiocracy means that nature should rule -- or plutocracy that plutocrats should rule.

The Greek meaning of the prefix geo was "earth"; that of physio, (physis or phusis) was "nature." the suffix -cracy, comes from the Greek kratos, which among other things related to power, or rule. Whether we say that "the earth rules" or "nature rules" (not should rule), or that either is powerful, comes to about the same thing - namely, that they are very influential in our lives. This is not significantly different from what we Georgists, geocrats or physiocrats are saying.

That is why "physiocracy" (Fr., physiocratie) was applied to the philosophy of its founder, Francois Quesnay (1694-l 774) and of Robert Turgot (1727-1781, treasurer to Louis XVI), and why they and their followers were called physiocrats.

Insofar as we are concerned, a problem with physiocracy is that its followers taught that agriculture, not just land in general, was the source of all wealth. Therefore, they contended, all taxation should be derived from land used for crops and livestock, which gets us some distance from Henry George's proposals.

However, this physiocratie hangup about agriculture must be seen in light of its pre-industrial time frame; and of the anxiety of the physiocrats to counter the prevalent mercantilist view of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that all wealth is to be derived from precious metals. Also, the anti-merchantilist slant of the physiocrats led them to advocate unrestricted freedom of trade, which is very Georgist in spirit.

In its day, physiocracy played an influential role in French, Spanish and Latin American thought; and much Georgist advocacy in Latin America today may be said to be derived as much from the early proposals of the physiocrats as from the later philosophy of Henry George. In Barcelona, the current Georgist leader Joseph Soler i Corrales, as well as the late Emilio Lemos Ortega of Sevilla, have referred to themselves as fisio-cratas georgistas - Georgist physiocrats.

In his letter, Mr. Nancy makes the cogent point that our dictionaries already provide us with a definition of physiocracy. According to my Webster, it was the "French economic theory that land and its products are the only true source of wealth and hence the only logical basis of revenue and that freedom of opportunity and trade and security of person and property are essential to prosperity." My Petit Larousse dictionary-encyclopedia (not so petit, with 1800 pages), tells me that Quesnay contended that "the land is the primary source of all wealth."

Physiocracy has a long and honorable history. If all its contentions did not correspond precisely to our own, we can argue that no philosophy can be exactly the same in 1993 as it was two centuries ago. On freedom of unrestricted commerce and trade, physiocracy and Georgism do not differ at all.

If we are to have any public impact in the next thousand years, we have to come up with an attractive, non-personal name that will appeal to the general public out there, not just to our own admiration for Henry George. Thus far, insofar as Georgists are concerned, the term geocrocy has not exactly caught on like wildfire. Therefore, it may be time to try physiocracy, which has been around all the time.