Conference of Inquiry

[Conference Report. Reprinted from the Henry George News, Fall 1974]

"The '74 School Conference was a gratifying experience and I think we can expect new directions to emerge from the work we have done here in Goleta," Henry George School president Arnold A. Weinstein commented on leaving Southern California Sunday, July 14, to return to New York.

Titled a "Conference of Inquiry" and hosted by the Henry George Schools of California in Los Angeles, working sessions began Wednesday morning, July 10, and were held morning, afternoon and evening - with the exception of a Thursday afternoon sightseeing trip in Santa Barbara - through to Sunday morning.

Goleta is a small town north of Santa Barbara where the mountains shelter the area in the East and the Pacific Ocean on the West provides natural air conditioning. The result is an idyllic atmosphere for conference activities.

The Conference format, while new to the School, has long been used by organizations serving the business community. Each session was given a topic which, although not rigorously explored, served as a guide post for discussions. After brief presentations by those who had submitted papers, the assemblage was broken up into groups where discussion was led by the speakers and other assigned to the task. Each group was given two or three questions to consider. After something less than an hour of such give-and-take, a "reporter" for each group offered a summary of his confrerees deliberations.

This conference technique has several advantages. For one thing, and perhaps the most important, the participants were enthusiastic about being able to join in discussion, as contrasted with the usual situation in which they must sit and be talked at. For another thing it allows for the airing of widely diverse opinions with out acrimonious arguments - people in small groups are more inclined to be courteous.

As used at Goleta, however, the format had some disadvantages. For one, the papers that were presented never became the subjects of discussion. For another, with the signal exception of the Saturday afternoon session devoted to a demonstration of the high school program the School is developing in public systems (see story elsewhere in this issue) none of the sessions appeared to have done any more than interest or entertain those present - perhaps an accomplishment in itself. Tom Sanders, a retired industrialist, was the author of nine papers in the Libertarian mode, bordering on the anarchistic. Mr. Sanders never quite crosses the line, however, so that his position seems to be in the shadow of Jefferson's famous dictum: "That government is best which governs least."

For example, he offers the definition of a political system as a "group of people who accept political action as a means for the protection and enhancement of their own individual lives ... a contractual relationship in which the political system performs various services for the individual who, in turn, pays an agreed upon fee." Such a view obviously leans heavily on the Jeffersonian "consent of the governed" and Locke's "contract" to say nothing of George's "cooperation in equality."

Perhaps the most interesting point Mr. Sanders develops relies on another source, Jeremy Bentham's doctrine that humans will seek pleasure and avoid pain, an approach that has recently been glorified by professor B.F. Skinner in his explanation of the role of "reinforcement" in human behavior. Mr. Sanders uses this view to point up the disadvantages inherent in enlarged governmental activity. In essence he complains that because government has police power, it can act without regard to a profit-and-loss statement; that even if its activities are rejected by the marketplace, they can continue for some time. It is only in the long run, Mr. Sanders implies (and he doesn't attempt a timetable) that the marketplace will reject these economic activities and ultimately destroy the government that engages in them.

"An analysis of the contractual nature of the contemporary political system," Mr. Sanders states, "demonstrates it is an involuntary system which [because it is not reinforcing] the market will ultimately reject." He asks us to "try to imagine what institutions the market will raise to replace the political functions for which there is a real economically viable alternative." This climacteric could be something like a standoff between Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and George Orwell's "1984." It will be remembered that Rand was more sanguine in that she denigrated the efficiency of the collectivists in contrast with Orwell's grimly competent Big Brother.

But at long last Mr. Sanders gets to the point: ". . . the key issue is property ... what is the nature of property, how does it come into existence, how is it 'owned' or employed, what is the contractual nature of its exchange?"

Critical of the American business community, he blames businessmen for support of the "political presence in the Market with massive economic [he probably means financial] support of politicians favorable to specific interests." Using Mr. Sanders' own criterion that profitable exercises will be repeated, one can only reflect that the businessmen have found collaboration with the politician profitable.

Quarreling with Mr. Sanders' pedestrian application of the "second law of thermodynamics" (that heat will always travel from the warmer material to the colder) would be profitless. His assertion that there is no shortage of energy, but the shortage is in usable forms of energy for our industrial plant, would seem well taken. Also he perceptively calls attention to the global … device for financing growth of the political mechanism. He is at once led to join the prophets of doom, characterizing man as "master of technology and immature in his philosophical understanding, brutal and aggressive in his dealings with other men," and if his prospects are viewed in present context, "man's future does not look promising." Yet, Mr. Sanders sees hope: "the market is showing signs of rejecting the involuntary political idea and reshaping our socio-industrial complex around the voluntary contract."

Attacking the problem of pollution, Mr. Sanders sees recycling of materials as the ultimate answer. He acknowledges that the cost of recycling relative to that of processing new materials is a deterrent, but he is confident that this relationship will be reversed in time by the development of cheaper nuclear energy.

After summarily dismissing all our education systems with the thought that "we are badly battered by this word [education] in the hands of politicians," Mr. Sanders winds up his prolixity with a vision. He visualizes major economic realignments on a global basis, fed by rising "disillusionment" with political systems, encompassing exponential technological growth, and fueled by soon-to-be-realized "commercially practical fusion energy." Finally, he says, "I believe it is man's destiny to explore and colonize the solar systems, to mine deuterium on Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter as fuel for the 21st and 22nd century terrestrial power plants."

Morgan Harris, a former economics professor who now teaches writing, presented … using the United States experience as a model, he advanced the oft-repeated suggestion to have the United Nations General Assembly elected by popular vote (presumably in the manner of our House of Representatives) instead of appointed by the member governments. "The reason we have war," Mr. Harris assures us, "is that good persons do not understand peace."

On the other side of the same plane, Robert LeFevre, former president of Ramparts College, offered a series of notes on crime and criminals. He suggested stronger reliance on private means of protection and less dependence on government's delivering retribution as a deterrent on the perpetrators of crimes after the fact. He makes the interesting, if obvious assertion that "every new law creates new violators; thus as government grows, the number of persons breaking the law increases." And, he concludes, "it is becoming clear that if we hope to have some measure of safety and protection in our lives, we are going to have to turn to the market to provide it... the record that government has run up in this and virtually all other areas is so dismal that private protection remains a reasonable avenue of procedure when government avenues fail." Mr. LeFevre's positions seem quite reasonable until one realizes he is adamant in his desire to abolish all government.

In some 750 words William B. Truehart, now teaching at San Diego State College, treats "Human Evolution" and sums up with the admonition that man's environment be changed by abolishing special privileges and coercive government so that he may enjoy real freedom and allow the better side of his nature to develop - "but time is fast running out!"

Writer John Parish laudibly starts out to present George's analysis of distribution … somewhere between his "T" accounts and his apotheosis of the late President Herbert Hoover and Bernard Baruch he gets lost in mysticism, whereas he might better have paid some attention to the roles of debt monetization and land value speculation in cyclical behavior.

Proctor Thomson, professor of economics and administration at Claremont Men's College, submitted a pamphlet, "Progress, Pollution and the Dollar," subtitled Far as the Human Eye Can't See. Written in his invariably engaging style, the tract raises some interesting points. "Under modern conditions, unfortunately, the optimum amount of pollution is not zero inasmuch as clean air or pure water are scarce commodities that exact a handsome price in terms of the other useful things that must be sacrificed to create them. The fulcrum of the issue, therefore, lies in correctly balancing off the demands for pollution control against the demands for everything else. How is this to be achieved?

"The right way to strike the right balance between costs and returns is to establish a price that the polluters must pay if they produce a unit of pollution but can escape if they control it. .."

Citing the evils of corruption and ineffectiveness that accompany direct controls, professor Thomson says if private "control machinery costs less than the pollution price, prevention obviously represents the best use of the company's and the community's resources, and the firms have a clear incentive to undertake it. At the point where control costs exceed the pollution price, pollution obviously represents the best use of the company's and the community's resources."

British barrister and historian Roy Douglas_warned that the so-called_lessons of history … cause the recital of past events will probably be selective, depending on the bias of the reporters, to say nothing of the assessment of the past made to conform to the analyst's predilections.

American historian Steven Cord, a professor at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, commented on the development of new towns using the principle of land value taxation to provide local services. He recommends the purchase of land by a state agency for a new town (possibly using eminent domain) and the renting of individual sites to private developers at the full market rent. The rent would first be used to repay state indebtedness and the additional rent collected could be used to reduce or take the place of taxes that would otherwise have to be imposed on the population of the new town.


The Saturday afternoon session of this year's conference had the excitement often generated by competition as close to 100 people divided into ten teams to work their way, like high school students, through mini-courses.

As Harry Pollard, director of the host School in Los Angeles, explained in his paper: "Thirty years of teaching adults was inadequate for a confrontation with high school students - as we found when our Interstudent Program began in 1970." So at the Conference Mr. Pollard called on Janet Terry, teacher in the Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif., to assist in presenting the new techniques developed. Miss Terry was the first to use the mini-course in her classroom and had a large hand in its formulation.

The technique involves the use of written questions, the answers to which are designed to lead students, step-by-step, toward a conclusion. The series of questions are interspersed with test questions that give the teacher a gauge to student progress. Working in competing teams the students earn points on the accuracy of their answers as well as their alacrity in completing the material. The students are told, Mr. Pollard explains, "they can lie, cheat, steal from each other and spy on each other." The ineffectiveness of such devices is a lesson in practical morality.

The competition takes the first four days of a course, the fifth is given over to debate of prepared material. At present there are six mini-courses, each designed to progressively develop the philosophy of freedom. At the conclusion of each course, each team must drop one of its members. Those excluded then form a new team. Moreover, the winning team is disbanded and the remaining teams, starting with the poorest rated, choose one of from among the winners.

A room full of adults competing in teams was a fascinating sight. Unfortunately too little time was made available for the demonstration and the conferees were deprived of the experience of the fifth-day debate. Considering the length of the Conference, more time might have been better spent on further demonstration of the Interstudent Program. As it stands this technique has accomplished a good deal in having brought the School into the public and some private school systems. It has great potential although much development and refinement need be done.