[Reprinted from The Worldly Philosophers,
The question is provocative, but it is not so easy to condemn the
institution of rent out of hand. For landlords are not the only
passive beneficiaries of the growth of society. The stockholder in an
expanding company, the workman whose productivity is enhanced by
technical progress, the consumer whose real income rises as the nation
prospers, all these are also beneficiaries of communal advancement.
The unearned gains which accrue to a well-situated landlord are
enjoyed in different forms by all of us. The problem is not just that
of rents, but of all unearned income, and while this may be a serious
problem, it cannot be adequately approached through land ownership
And then the problem is not so drastic as it was viewed by Henry
George. A vast body of rents goes to small landholders, farmers,
homeowners, modest citizens. And even in the monopolistic area of
rental incomes -- in the real-estate operations of a metropolis -- a
shifting and fluid market is in operation. Rents are not frozen in
archaic feudal patterns, but constantly pass from hand to hand as land
is bought and sold, appraised and reappraised. Suffice it to point out
that rental income in the united States has shrunk from 6% of the
national income in 1929 to only 3% in 1960.
But no matter whether the thesis held together logically or whether
its moral condemnation was fully justified. The book struck a
tremendously responsive chord. Progress and Poverty became a
best seller and overnight Henry George was catapulted into national
prominence. "I consider Progress & Poverty as *the* book of
this half-century," said the reviewer in the San Francisco
Argonaut, and the New York Tribune claimed that it had "no equal
since the publication of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith."
Even those publications, like the Examiner and Chronicle, which called
it "the most pernicious treatise on political economy that has
been published for many a day," only served to enhance its fame.
George went to England; he returned after a lecture tour an
international figure. He was drafted to run for mayor of New York and
in a three-cornered race he beat Theodore Roosevelt and only narrowly
lost to the Tammany candidate.
The single tax was a religion to him now. He organized Land and Labor
Clubs and lectured to enthusiastic audiences here and in Great
Britain. A friend asked him, "Does this not mean war? Can you,
unless dealing with craven conditions among men, hope to take land
away from its owners without war?" "I do not see," said
George, "that a musket need be fired. But if necessary, war be
it, then. There was never a holier cause. No, never a holier cause!"
"Here was the gentlest and kindest of men," comments his
friend, James Russell Taylor, "who would shrink from a gun fired
in anger, ready for universal war rather than that his gospel should
not be accepted. It was the courage...which makes one a majority."
Needless to say, the whole doctrine was anathema to the world of
respectable opinion. A Catholic priest who had associated himself with
George in his mayoralty fight was temporarily excommunicated; the Pope
himself addressed an encyclical to the land question and when George
sent him an elaborately printed and bound reply, it was ignored. "I
will not insult my readers by discussing a project so steeped in
infamy," wrote General Francis A. Walker, a leading professional
economist in the United States; but while officialdom looked at his
book with shock or with amused contempt, the man himself struck home
to his audience. P&P sold more copies than all the economic texts
previously published in the country; in England, his name became a
household word. Not only that, but the import of his ideas -albeit
usually in watered form- became part of the heritage of men like
Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, Louis Brandeis. Indeed there is a devoted
following of Henry George still active today.
In 1897, old, unwell but still indomitable, he permitted himself to
be drafted for a second mayoralty race, knowing fully well that the
strain of the campaign might be too much for his failing heart. It
was; he was called "marauder," "assailant of other
people's rights," "apostle of anarchy and destruction,"
and he did die, on the eve of the election. His funeral was attended
by thousands. He was a religious man; let us hope that his soul went
straight to heaven. As for his reputation -that went straight into the
underworld of economics and there he exists today; almost-Messiah,
semicrackpot, and disturbing questioner of the morality of our world.