Henry George and Natural Law

Frank Chodorov

[Originally published in analysis. Reprinted from Fragments, July-September 1967]

Thirty some years ago students of Henry George foresaw the coming of the New Deal, or something like it. The foresight stemmed from his chapter entitled "How Modern Civilization may Decline." In this he reasoned that the tendency of the wage level, regardless of productive increases, toward the point of mere subsistence, would open the way for State interference in economic affairs. Frustration and ignorance would demand it, and the politician, bent on his own purposes, would come forth with fantastic promises. Since politics is incapable of raising wages, but can only impose interventions which lower the productive level from which wages come, the result must be deterioration. New and more impossible promises would supplant the discredited ones. To carry them out, the politician would ask for additional powers, including, of course, new tax levies. Political liberty would be put on the counter and offered at the bargain price of a mess of pottage. 'The eventual outcome would be a dictatorship -- he called it, in 1879, an "imperatorship" -- completely dominating all things economic, as well as political and social.

Henry George maintained that this consequence is not an historic imperative. It is no more necessary for society to go through the wringer of collectivism than it is necessary for a man to step off a roof and break his neck. In the latter case, the man takes the consequence of defying an immutable physical law; and when society, said George, defies immutable laws in the field of economics, it will likewise come to a bad end. Like the classicists before him, George was a firm advocate of natural law in economics.

It is not germane to this story to go into the economic theories of Henry George. What I had to encompass, and what I think is the basic economic issue of the present, is the doctrine of natural law. Briefly, this is the doctrine: nature has its own ways of applying means to ends, which are made known to us by critical observation; we observe in nature the constant recurrence of certain sequences, and because of that constancy we ascribe to the sequences a cause-and-effect relationship in words or symbols, which we call natural law.