The Foundation for Economic Education
and the Georgists

Robert Clancy

[Reprinted from the Henry George News, November, 1957]

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 proletariat.

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 say.

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.