Political Philosophy

and Views on Henry George and the Single Taxers

Clarence Darrow

[Excerpted from Darrow's autobiography, The Story Of My Life, first published in 1932. This excerpt comes from a 1996 republication by Da Capo Press.]

Soon after the blow in connection with the West Side meeting a "Free Trade Convention" was staged in Chicago. The closing session was held in Central Music Hall, at that time the most popular auditorium in the city; Henry George was to be the big drawing-card. Mr. George was then in the zenith of his power. I was invited to appear on the same programme. The great auditorium was packed, to my satisfaction. I looked out upon the audience with renewed hope. Every Single Taxer in Chicago seemed to be present, and a great throng besides. Mr. George was the first speaker, which looked ominous to me. I was afraid of either the first or last place; either one seemed fraught with peril. No one knew the tariff question better than Henry George. More than this, he was a strong idealist, and had the audience in his grasp from the first moment to the last. Every one but me was carried away with his able address. I was disappointed. I was sorry that it was so good. I twitched nervously in my chair until he had finished and the applause began to die away. I felt that after his wonderful address I would not be able to hold the audience. I realized that the crowd had come to hear him, and that but a few among them had ever heard of me.

When the applause subsided people began getting up and going away. The show was over. I said to the chairman, "For goodness sake get busy before every one leaves the house!" Quickly he introduced me, and my friends paused and did their best to give me a good reception. I had discovered enough about public speaking to sense that unless a speaker can interest his audience at once, his effort will be a failure. This was particularly true when following a speaker like Henry George, so I began with the most striking phrases that I could conjure from my harried, worried brain. The audience hesitated and began to sit down. They seemed willing to give me a chance. I had at least one advantage; nothing was expected of me; if I could get their attention it would be easier than if too much was expected. Not one in twenty of the audience know much about me. As a matter of fact, I had taken great pains to prepare my speech. The subject was one that had deeply interested me for many years, one that I really understood. In a short time I had the attention of the entire audience, to my surprise. Then came the full self-confidence which only a speaker can understand; that confidence that is felt as one visits by the fireside, when he can say what he pleases and as he pleases; when the speaker can, in fact, visit with the audience as with an old-time friend. I have no desire to elaborate on my talk, but I know that I had the people with me, and that I could sway those listeners as I wished.

But the crowning triumph had come as I warmed to my subject and waxed earnest in what I had to say, and became aware that the newspaper men down in front were listening, and were plying their pencils, recording my words, or seeming to record them, as fast as they shot past. When I finally finished, the audience was indeed generous and encouraging with its applause and appreciation. Henry George warmly grasped my hand. My friends and others came around me, and it was some time before I could leave the stage. …

I went to my office earlier than usual the next morning. No customers were there. Soon some of my Single Tax friends and Socialist companions began coming in to congratulate me on my speech. This was pleasing but not profitable. Single Taxers and Socialists never come for business; they come to use your telephone and tell you how the world should be organized so that every one could have his own telephone. But of course I enjoyed their visit and appreciated their good will, and began to feel more hopeful. [pp. 46-48]

During these early years in Chicago I was very much interested in what passes under the name of "radicalism" and at one time was a pronounced disciple of Henry George. But as I read and pondered about the history of man, as I learned more about the motives that move individuals and communities, I became doubtful of his philosophy. I never believed that land should be reduced to private ownership, and I never felt that any important social readjustment could come while any one could claim the unconditional right to any part of the earth and "the fullness thereof." The error I found in the philosophy of Henry George was its cocksureness, its simplicity, and the small value that it placed upon the selfish motives of men. I grew weary of its everlasting talk of "natural rights." The doctrine was a hang-over from the seventeenth century in France, when the philosophers had given up the idea of God, but still thought that there must be some immovable basis for man's conduct and ideas. In this dilemma they evolved the theory of natural rights. If "natural rights" means anything it means that the individual rights are to be determined by the conduct of Nature. But Nature knows nothing about rights in the sense of human conception. Nothing is so cruel, so wanton, so unfeeling as Nature; she moves with the weight of a glacier carrying everything before her. In the eyes of Nature, neither man nor any of the other animals mean anything whatever. The rock-ribbed mountains, the tempestuous sea, the scorching desert, the myriad weeds and insects and wild beasts that infest the earth, and the noblest man, are all one. Each and all are helpless against the cruelty and immutability of the resistless processes of Nature.

Socialism seemed to me much more logical and profound; Socialism at least recognized that if man was to make a better world it must be through the mutual effort of human units; that it must be by some sort of co-operation that would include all the units of the state. Still, while I was in sympathy with its purposes, I could never find myself agreeing with its methods. I had too little faith in men to want to place myself entirely in the hands of the mass. And I never could convince myself that any theory of Socialism so far elaborated was consistent with individual liberty. To me liberty meant only power to do what one wished to do. Free will had nothing to do with the wanting. Man did not create the wishes; he simply struggled to carry them out. I never could imagine life being worth while without the opportunity to carry out individual desires. I always have had sympathy for the Socialist view of life, and still have sympathy with it, but could never find myself working for the party.

Anarchism, as taught by Kropotkin, Recluse and Tolstoy, impressed me more, but it impressed me only as the vision of heaven held by the elect, a far-off dream that had no relation to life. So, without having nay specific radical faith, I always was friendly toward its ideals and aims, and could feel and see the injustice of the present system, and generally found myself in conflict with it.

This is still my attitude on social and political questions. I believed in keeping society flexible and mobile, and embracing what seemed like opportunity to bring about a fairer distribution of this world's goods. Living in the North, and holding these views, I have always been driven to the support of the Democratic party, with few illusions as to what it meant.

Neither government nor political economy is an exact science. They concern the arrangement of human units. If it were possible to demonstrate what sort of an arrangement would be best for the individuals of the state, it would be of no avail. Humans cannot be controlled like inanimate objects, or even like the lower animals. Each human unit is in some regard an independent entity with his own ideas, his hopes and fears, loves and hates. These attitudes are constantly changing from day to day, and year to year. They are played upon by shrewd men, by influential newspapers, by all sorts of schemes and devices which make human government only trial and success, and trial and failure. Human organizations are simply collections of individuals always in motion and always seeking for easier and more harmonious adjustment, and never static.

I could see but one way toward any general betterment of social organization, and that was by teaching sympathy and tolerance. This in itself is so hopeless a task that every one despairs of any result worth the effort. Sympathy or its lack is so entirely due to the character of the physical organism that teaching is of little help. Sympathy is the child of imagination, and possibly this can be cultivated if the effort is begun in childhood. Imagination gives one power to put oneself in another's place. It does more; it compels him to rejoice and suffer with the joys and sorrows of those about him. Like almost everything else, it brings both pain and pleasure, and whether it adds to the happiness of the individual or increases his misery, cannot be told; of course it does both, but I know no way of finding out the next result.

In politics, political economy, and human institutions, men make the great mistake of thinking that any special adjustment of individual units is perfect or sacred. Probably no organization or any part of one is wholly good or bad. Even if at some time it seemed to conduce to man's highest good it would not follow that it would have the same effect at all times or places. I could never be convinced that any institution was wholly good or wholly evil. This feeling has prevented me from obeying orders or being a bitter partisan on any question. Instinctively I lean toward the integrity of the individual unit, and am impatient with any interference with personal freedom. However, I know that society can not exist without recognizing the necessity of some control of the individual. If men could be taught to understand that the object sought should be to produce happiness, satisfaction, and general well-being for all, I believe the conditions of life could be made much easier and human beings made happier than they now are. This is a changing world, and still it must maintain a certain amount of consistency and stability or the individual units would separate, and chaos would make any co-operation impossible.

Naturally my connection with the city administration broadened my acquaintance and called me often to the discussion of social problems in all sorts of clubs and organizations. Every large city has many different cliques, societies and groups, and these are constantly on the lookout for new attractions to keep alive the interests of their members. Generally this becomes a burden to those who are more or less widely known; which is one reason why so few of the addresses are worth while. The speaker who talks at all sorts of meetings is apt to form hasty opinions, grow careless about what he says, and place too great an estimate upon his ideas and those picked up from others and passed along without proper consideration. One thing, however, is almost certain: clubs and societies are always looking for some one new, and just as surely they readily cast the old one out. This process gives the student a chance to test all opinions and explore fresh fields of thought. No writer or speaker should ever be satisfied that his view of things is sound. Only by constant trials and tests can one arrive at the truth, and there is no certainty that even these efforts will determine it. [pp.52-56]