The Great Enigma of our Times

Henry George


The association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times. The utilization of steam and electricity, the introduction of improved processes and labour-saving machinery, the greater subdivision and grander scale of production, the wonderful facility of exchanges, have multiplied enormously the effectiveness of labour.

It was natural to expect, and it was expected, that labour saving inventions would lighten the toil and improve the condition of the labourer; that the enormous increase in the power of producing wealth would make real poverty a thing of the past.

Could a Franklin or a Priestley have seen in a vision of the future, the steamship taking the place of the sailing vessel, the railway train of the wagon, the reaping machine of the scythe, the threshing machine of the flail; could he have heard the throb of the engines that in obedience to human will, and for the satisfaction of human desire, exert a power greater than that of all the men and all the beasts of burden of the earth combined; could he have seen the forest tree transformed into finished lumber -- into doors, sashes, blinds, boxes or barrels, with hardly the touch of a human hand; the great workshops where boots and shoes are turned out from improved facilities of exchange and communication -- sheep killed in Australia eaten fresh in England, and the order given by the London banker in the afternoon executed in San Francisco in the morning of the same day; could he have conceived of the hundred thousand improvements which these only suggest, what would he have inferred as to the social condition of mankind?

It would not have seemed like an inference. Further than the vision went it would have seemed as though he saw, and his heart would have leaped and his nerves would have thrilled, as one who from a height beholds just ahead of the thirst-stricken caravan the living gleam of rustling woods and the glint of laughing waters. Plainly, in the sight of the imagination, he would have beheld those new forces elevating society from its very foundations, lifting the very poorest above the possibility of want, exempting the very lowest from anxiety for the material needs of life. He would have seen those slaves of the lamp of knowledge taking on themselves the traditional curse, those muscles of iron and sinews of steel making the poorest labourer's life a holiday, in which every high quality and noble impulse could have scope to grow.

And out of those bounteous material conditions he would have seen arising, as necessary sequences, moral conditions realizing the golden age of which mankind has always dreamed. Youth no longer stunted and starved; age no longer harried by avarice; the man with the muck-rake drinking in the glory of the stars! Foul things fled; discord turned to harmony! For how could there be greed when all had enough? How could there be the vice, the crime, the ignorance, the brutality, that spring from poverty and the fear of poverty, exist where poverty had vanished? Who should crouch where all were freemen? Who oppress where all were peers?

More or less, vague or clear, these have been the hopes, these the dreams born of the improvements which give this wonderful era its pre-eminence. They have sunk so deeply into the popular mind as radically to change the currents of thought, to recast creeds and displace the most fundamental conceptions.

It is true that disappointment has followed disappointment. Discovery upon discovery and invention after invention have neither lessened the toil of those who most need respite nor brought plenty to the poor. But there have been so many things to which it seemed this failure could be attributed that up to our time the new faith has hardly weakened. We have better appreciated the difficulties to be overcome, but not the less trusted that the tendency of the times was to overcome them.

Now, however, we are coming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; of labour condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; of pecuniary distress among business men; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes. There is distress where large standing armies are maintained, but there is also distress where the standing armies are nominal; there is distress where protective tariffs are applied, but there is also distress where trade is nearly free; there is distress where autocratic government yet prevails, but there is also distress where political power is wholly in the hands of the people; in countries where paper is money, and in countries where gold and silver are the only currency. Evidently, beneath all such things as these, from local circumstances but are in some way or another engendered by progress itself.

This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship, and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle that the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, which not to answer is to be destroyed. So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent.