Henry George

Robert Heilbroner

[Reprinted from The Worldly Philosophers, 1953]

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 alone.

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.