The Foundation for Economic Education
and the Georgists
[Reprinted from the Henry George News,
In a large attractive budding, formerly a mansion, dwells the
Foundation for Economic Education, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
This organization -- FEE for short -- was formed in 1946 to promote
libertarian ideas -- a free market, restricted government and a
natural economic order. Its president is Leonard E. Read, formerly
head of the Western Division of the Chamber of Commerce.
FEE's major work is the distribution of literature which has
attained quite a circulation. Formerly pamphlets were frequently
issued, but now the chief publication is its monthly, The
Freeman (See "The Freeman and We," June HGN.)
Since its inception, FEE was noticed by followers of Henry George.
After all, George's single tax is a means for attaining a free
market, restricted government and a natural economic order. All that
was needed to complete FEE's mission, thought Georgists, was
knowledge of the Georgist philosophy. And so letters, pamphlets,
books -- and Georgists in person -- started coming.
The reception of FEE to all this was most cordial, and even
personal friendships were drummed up. But after many letters and
many visits, it became evident that the trouble wasn't FEE's
unawareness of the Georgist philosophy, but their unacceptance of it
-- that is, their rejection of the core of George's system, his
ideas on land tenure and land value taxation.
Georgists couldn't believe it. FEE articles on individual liberty
continued to appear, and each new article spurred the Georgists
afresh to make another try at the citadel in Irvington-on-Hudson.
On every subject to which FEE turned its libertarian eye, the
Georgists had something to say. Just as the Army, wherever it goes,
finds that the Marines have been there first so FEE found that the
Georgists were there first.
FEE turned its attention to the industrial revolution in England,
and endeavored to show that it had been maligned and that it really
improved the condition of the workingman. Georgists agreed that the
factories and machinery raised the standard of living -- but pointed
out that the damage had been done in the 18th century when the
common lands had been enclosed, thus creating a landless
FEB sought to raise the term "laissez faire" from the
disrepute into which it had fallen. Georgists could show that it was
their spiritual forebears, the Physiocrats, who invented the term
along with the impot unique -- the single tax.
FEE said that what made America great was freedom. Georgists said
the basis of this freedom was free land.
FBB cited the failure of socialism when tried by the Pilgrims and
quoted Governor Bradford's account of it. At first the colonists had
to share their produce with one another, and this resulted in low
production and eventually famine. So the leaders then "gave way
that they should set come every man for his own perticuler, and in
that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family
a parcel of land. ... This had a very good success." But the
dots leave out some interesting matter from Bradford's report: "...
to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of
their number for that end, only for present use (but made no
devission for inheritance)..." Which proves the Georgist moral
that you need only guarantee a man security in the fruits of his
labor -- the ownership of land has nothing to do with it.
FEE spoke of the right of a man to his earnings and the danger of
people getting something for nothing -- thinking of high taxes and
politicians. Georgists agreed -- and pointed out that this also
applies to high rents and landowners.
FEE spoke of the right to work and preached against the practice
of getting permission to work from labor unions and paying off union
bosses. Georgists agreed -- and extended the objection to land
monopoly and rent collectors.
FEE deplored the income tax. Let's abolish it, Georgists agreed,
we have a much more equitable tax to offer. What added Georgists,
would you have in place of the income tax? FEE didn't say, but for a
while they toyed with the idea of voluntary contributions to
government in lieu of taxes. The tax on land values, said Georgists,
is the nearest thing to voluntary payment that you could have.
In its distribution activities, FEE also found Georgists wherever
it turned, whether in industry, institutions or individuals. Not
only in this country, but abroad -- England, Australia, even India,
where the magazine The Indian Libertarian, which quotes FEE
material abundantly is pro-Georgist.
The reaction of FEE to Georgist ubiquity and pertinacity was to
parry it as charmingly as possible, to seek to minimize the
difference, and to appeal for cooperation in the common libertarian
cause. After all, said FEE, we have large areas of agreement -- the
free market, limited government even free trade -- why can't we work
together on these aims?
And Georgists did indeed continue their association with FEE. But
they could scarcely let the matter rest at that. It is as though FEE
and the Georgists were looking at an egg. FEE says the egg consists
of the yolk, the white and the shell, and all but the shell are
edible. We agree, say the Georgists -- but it also contains the
embryo of a chicken. Well now, says FEE, we both agree on the main
things, Why stress our minor disagreement? But if the embryo story
is true, it is the most important fact about the egg.
By and by, some of the FEE correspondents showed signs of wear. We
disagree and that's that, they would say. One FEE man, goaded beyond
endurance by his Georgist adversary, expostulated that yes, if there
were any way the air could be reduced to private ownership, he would
be for it. But then FEE would print something from Adam Smith or
Albert Jay Nock so very close to George that Georgists would be
tempted into a new assault.
Occasionally The Freeman would print a mild admonition to
the effect that some of its friends seemed to endorse the principles
of freedom but advocated this or that socialistic measure
inconsistent with freedom, and even wanted to urge it upon FEE.
Georgists were probably meant to be included in this admonition --
but far from regarding the single tax as a socialistic
inconsistency, Georgists see it as the most important single means
to the attainment of a free society.
In the early days of FEE, a recurrent theme in their literature
was that what a man produces is rightfully his own -- right up the
alley of Georgists who did not hesitate to point out that land is
not produced by man.
Later on, however, a frequent FEE criticism of Henry George was
that he erroneously accepted the "labor theory of value."
This criticism was apparently made without familiarity with George's
own theory of value as set forth in The Science of Political
Economy, and a revised criticism is of George's "labor
theory of property," which is perhaps more to the point. George
did justify ownership on the basis of labor, or production.
What then, is FEE's revised standard? They accept the "subjective
theory of value" which they seem to have learned from Ludwig
von Mises -- that is, a thing is worth whatever the buyer is willing
to pay. But what about the origin of the article for sale -- and
what about the ethics of owning it in the first place? If not from
production, or labor, from what?
Here FEE is less clear and has tried its hand at a few articles
indirectly justifying land ownership. A person goes to the frontier
and takes some land. Clearly he is not depriving anyone. His land
goes up in value, just as anything else might go up in value. It's
just the workings of the free market. To a Georgist the answer is
absurdly easy. See George's Progress and Poverty, Book VII,
Ch.I, especially the last three pages.
These FEE forays in print and by letter, as you can imagine,
failed to stem the Georgist tide. Finally, in order to be able to
send some standard reply to Georgist inquirers, FEE commissioned one
Murray N. Rothbard to write a paper on "The Single Tax:
Economic and Moral Implications." The paper appeared early this
year and was sent only to those who asked about the subject.
As for the contents of that paper, others have discussed it more
fully than I am inclined to. If you are curious, you may still get a
copy from FEE. It was discussed at our recent Henry George School
conference by Mitchell S. Lurio and was reported in the August HGN.
A definitive rebuttal appeared in the July Land & Liberty.
If FEE thought to quiet the Georgist breeze with this paper, they
instead whipped it into a very hurricane of laughter, tears and
expostulations -- and withal, logical rejoinders. It evidently did
not prove to be a labor-saving device, as they now had more
correspondence on their hands than ever before. FEE murmured at all
this Georgist vociferousncss. Was it not the Georgists themselves
who were responsible for giving the paper whatever distribution it
had? An inane comment, proving I don't know what.
The most recent development is that a certain Edmund A. Opitz of
the FEE staff has taken an interest in the proceedings and has put
his oar in. Mr. Opitz, a minister from Connecticut, is intelligently
familiar with Henry George and is a much more acceptable discussant
to Georgists than is Murray Rothbard. Mr. Opitz has now started a
little circulation of his own comments on the subject. His main
point seems to be that the single tax would put too much power into
the hands of the government by allowing it to allocate sites, and
there is also the danger of a rapacious land value tax from which
there would be no recourse. This discussion is now in full swing and
ought to be reported in a future issue of the HGN.
Meanwhile the yin and yang continue. FEE complains
that Georgists apply too much pressure and even question FEE's
motives. Georgists complain that just as the argument gets to the
point, FEE cuts it off.
Still, FEE stoutly avers that "some of our best friends are
Georgists." They would, to be sure prefer to have the Georgists
without their Georgism. But "love me, love my dog," they
To use another figure: FEE has elected to hold aloft the standard
of Liberty. Inevitably, the Georgists are attracted, as moths to the
light. The only way to get rid of the Georgists and by that I mean
the Georgist issue -- is to turn out the light.