The Social Ills Identified by
Henry George Remain After Fifty Years

Charles O'Connor Hennessy

[Extracts from the opening address at the International Conference to Promote Land Value Taxation and Free Trade, held at Edinburgh, Scotland, 29 July thru 4 August, 1929]

IT was fifty years ago that Henry George first revealed the insidious forces and tendencies that seemed to him to threaten the progress of any civilization which aims at the elevation and happiness of the human family. At the very heart of the way of the life of the organized peoples of the world he found ominous signs of the canker of decay. He demonstrated the cause and proposed the cure for what was and is the matter with the world. He vividly delineated the enigma of the persistence of poverty amid increased and increasing wealth. Where civilization was manifesting itself in vast accumulations in the hands of individuals, in great institutions devoted to learning or to religion, in stores of the book knowledge of the ages, in the progress of the arts and sciences, in the inventions and discoveries designed to magnify the effectiveness of labor, to improve communication and facilitate co-operation between peoples, to lighten toil and brighten human lives there, where these things were most in evidence, he pointed to the anomaly of millions of people in every country struggling for a living, or steeped in degrading poverty. To the widespread social and economic dislocation which he revealed, it was not difficult to trace the unspeakable slums of great cities, the warfare of classes, the prevalence of vice, crime and preventable disease, as well as most of the ills, material and spiritual even unto the curse of War from which the world has suffered and is suffering.

We are here from many countries to bear witness that a half-century after the first appearance of Henry George's fearful diagnosis of a vast social disease, the symptoms still persist. The cure remains to be applied. The social anatomist who today would strike below the surface of the body of human society as it exists in all civilized countries, must find there a conflict of forces that may well be taken to foreshadow disintegration and disaster to the social fabric. As in 1879, when this book was written, we can discern widespread social unrest in the world. Industrial depression and unemployment are common to many countries, and even in the nominally "prosperous" United States great numbers live in poverty, or close to its border line, and remedies for unemployment are now being sought in still more restrictive immigration laws, and in prohibitive tariff taxes.

Henry George predicted that the enormous increase in the power to produce wealth which had marked his century, due to invention and discovery and the improvement of communications, would continue to go on with accelerating ratio. This has come true to an enormous extent in all so-called civilized countries most especially n the United States of America. But without the establishment of economic freedom in the processes of producing wealth and justice in its distribution, he predicted that increased wealth must benefit the few rather than the many. It would have, broadly speaking, no tendency to extirpate poverty and the social evils which poverty engenders, no influence in elevating society as a whole or in lightening the burdens of those compelled to toil for a living. Again his prophesy has been realized. For increasing wealth, and the condition that is referred to as national prosperity, far from assuring contentment and abundance for all, has tended only to widen the gulf between the very rich and the very poor, and to make more intense the struggle for existence that engages the lives of millions of human beings, even in richest America.

If I would appear to single out my own country, the country of Henry George, as today's most terrible example of perverted social progress, it is not because I would have you believe that the average American citizen is less intelligent, less moral, or less humane than the citizen of any other country. No informed or observant person, in my opinion, could sustain such a contention. Nor would I wish it to be inferred that American statesmanship is today more blind or more backward than the statesmanship of other countries.

But if I am to attempt (by way of vindicating the wisdom and the prescience of Henry George) to delineate the effects of material progress and prosperity upon the condition and the tendencies of present day civilization everywhere, I must, of necessity, put the United States of America in the very foreground of the picture. For the United States is now, by far, the richest and most powerful of the nations. It seems to have reached a veritable high tide of material success, and to be realizing as a result, those effects which, in our opinion, must naturally and in all countries, flow from the maintainance of the fundamental injustice of the private monopoly of a country's natural resources, which injustice, as Henry George demonstrated by unanswerable argument and analysis, is the basic cause of poverty amid progress.

In the light of the history of the fifty years that have gone since "Progress and Poverty" first appeared, no comprehending reader of it may now doubt the extraordinary accuracy of the thought and vision of its author; that he was seer as well as prophet an unerring diagnostician of the social and economic ailments of the world and of their cure, an inspired preacher of the way of righteousness and salvation for the nations. Henry George's intellectual eminence is now coming to be recognized by discerning leaders of thought, even in his own land. New editions of his books are appearing, and in many American colleges and universities where, in the past, his teachings have been avoided, young men and women now are learning the lessons that he taught. The great truth that he sought to make plain is slowly but surely, we believe, making its way to the minds of men. We believe it to be a truth most potent for social welfare everywhere, a truth the recognition of which by mankind generally would regenerate and revivify human associations everywhere. This truth is that the social and economic dislocations which afflict the world arise because of that fundamental violation of natural law involved in the denial to human beings of their equal and inalienable rights to the use of the Earth. Out of this perversion of natural law and this denial of fundamental human rights sanctioned by the governments of the world, arises in every country the great issues comprehended in the Land Question and its portentous implications.

Because this is an international gathering, and because good men and women in every part of the world are now actively concerning themselves about questions of Peace and War, of Disarmament, of Conciliation and Arbitration, we would point out how vital to any permanent settlement of such questions is the solution of the economic problems to which we would first direct attention.

Here again, as at Copenhagen three years ago, this Conference will be moved to warn the friends of World Peace not to be deceived by appearances. Peace is not in sight, and War and all that it means in burdens to be borne in the present and in moral and material horrors and losses to be faced in the future, still remains with the world. True, there has been at Locarno a solemn gesture of worthy intention and good-will between the nations. But Locarno must always seem somewhat unrelated to reality so long as governments take no steps to remove the root causes of poverty in every country. From the perversion or interference with natural laws flow the social and political phenomena involved in industrial depression, unemployment, the welfare of classes at home, the struggle for international markets and privileges abroad; international fears and jealousies, and those selfish national policies which aim to advance the welfare of one people by rendering injury to another.

We would call upon statesmanship to look behind war, and the armaments and instruments of war, for the economic dislocations which pervert the normal course of the lives of human beings and of nations alike. We would ask statesmen to face frankly the question of the meanings of the signs of the times. Is the road that people call Civilization leading the human family upward toward life, happy and abundant for everybody, or downward to some hell for rich and poor alike?

Men may cry "Peace! Peace!" but there can be no lasting peace until the root causes of War are recognized and removed; until the peoples may be led to accept a new and simple philosophy of human relationships that of equal rights for all, freedom for all, justice for all. Political peace and economic war are irreconcilable. There can be no political peace at home or abroad unless it is founded upon co-operation in freedom and in mutual friendship and respect. There can be no security that will endure, until justice is established at home and abroad.

We would not disparage the efforts nor impeach the sincerity of those who labor for Disarmament or for Concilation. We feel that they are engaged in the most difficult if not impossible of labors, which, even if successful, would but serve as palliatives, rather than a cure.

We honor, also, those fine spirits of the League of Nations, who sincerely labor for Peace; especially the spokesmen in the League Assembly of those smaller nations, whose statesmen, we believe, can see more clearly and speak more bravely about the political realities of these times. Nor are we disposed to underestimate the good work that has been done in strengthening the machinery and broadening the jurisdiction of the World Court for the adjudication of disputes between nations. But these things at this time seem to us to be of small avail. The most helpful approach to a true and peaceful concert of nations in the interest of permanent World Peace must lie, as Professor Dewey recently pointed out, not in the field of political diplomacy, but along the road of economic freedom and justice that leads to a realization of the common interests of the peoples of the world.

A philosopher has given currency to the pregnant aphorism that "the power to tax is the power to destroy. "And we, being convinced that common and equal rights to the use of land are indispensable to freedom and effectiveness in the production of wealth and to justice in its distribution, aim to destroy land monopoly through the process of taxation. That is, we would resort for public revenues to taxes upon the values given to particular land sites by the competition for their use made necessary by the activities and the growth of community life. By the operation, as it were, of a beneficent natural law we find that the value of land tends constantly to rise as demand for its use is increased by the manifold activities of organized communities by the results of public expenditure, by all the amenities and conveniences of what is called civilized life. That is, land values, arising out of the association and co-operation of people, are essentially a community product. By every test then, of logic or of equity, the policy we advocate justifies itself. To quote Henry George, "We would simply take for the community what belongs to the community, and leave sacredly to the individual all that belongs to the individual."

And in the international field we aim to teach the world that the highest interests of the people of every land are identical with the interests of the people of every other land; that human interests are interwoven and interdependent, and that only under conditions of freedom, of mutual trust, and of friendly co-operation may men or nations attain to the highest destiny, material or spiritual, that God makes possible for them. In brief, it is our purpose as an organization, in the interest of peace, prosperity and human happiness, to extend the area of freedom in every land, not only because we are convinced that this is the way to uplift the material welfare of mankind, but also because it accords with justice and the moral law. Here in the language of our inspired teacher is the conclusion of the whole matter:

"That we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us; that we should respect the rights of others as scrupulously as we would have our own rights respected, is not a mere counsel of perfection to individuals, but it is the law to which we must conform social institutions and national policies if we would secure the blessings of abundance and peace."