An Examination of [Henry] George's position
as a Systematic Economist


Robert Scott Moffat

[The full title of this book reads: Mr. Henry George: An Examination of Mr George's position as a Systematic Economist; and a Review of the Competitive and Socialistic Schools of Economy, published in 1885]

Mr. Henry Georqe has become so great an authority in this country on the most vital economic questions of the day, that it is somewhat surprising our leading economists should have deemed his theories, which involve such vast organic changes, worthy of so little notice.

An attitude of lofty indifference to criticism, and of contempt for rival theories, may become those who lay claim to scientific certitude; but besides that a practical science cannot afford to despise a popular opponent, the pretensions of our received economy to deal with the burning questions of the day, cannot, by its most devoted disciples, be ranked very high. In fact it assumes towards those questions a position purely negative, and depreciative of any attempt to remedy acknowledged evils. To the difficulties which surround us it has no economic key. It has pronounced its last word in freedom of competition.

For anything beyond, it ceases to be a practical science, and contents itself with the "thou shalt not" of a moral one.

Thus orthodox economy has condemned itself; for freedom of competition, as I have elsewhere said, is no more a solution of the economic questions of the day than liberty to marry (from the Malthusian point of view, which our economists accept), is of the problem of population.

The unsolved economic questions of the day will manifestly, until solved, remain the great economic questions of the future; and the place and time for their solution is here and now. The labour of our economists has been to establish in England a model economic State, and the natural destiny of England has, with or without their aid, been accomplishing their desire. Wherever peace is permanently established, and industry prevails over anarchy, the general industrial organization of England is sure to prevail. The "unrestricted competition," so dear to the hearts of bur economists, may not be adopted; but still competition will be the vitalizing principle of industrial organization throughout the civilized world.

Now it is in the competitive organization, in the purest form in which it has ever been exemplified, the purest possibly in which it will ever be seen, for perfect freedom of competition is an economic dream,, that the evils have arisen for which our economists, in their concern for their pet theory, forbid us to seek a remedy. The dismal prospect thus presents itself that with the spread of our industrial organization, these irremediable evils will everywhere be propagated.

Mr. George has thus shown sound judgment in bringing his economical theories to the test of English industrial organization. He stands thus between the past and the future, in the very centre of a great and silent revolution, which is going on independently of all teaching or authority. He sees rightly that America must become substantially an economic England. He dreads the prospect, and he comes to England to avert it. Mr. George professes to have found the solution of our unsolved problems, and he is accordingly prepared to prescribe the remedy for the evils involved in our industrial development. The nature of the situation thus gives Mr. George a prima fade claim on our attention.

If the nature of Mr. George's remedy should indispose any one to listen to him -- if, perchance, there are those who are not prepared to believe that the ills of society can be remedied by a change in the incidence of taxation -- I have another claim to urge on his behalf. Mr. George, as a system-maker, in which capacity I wish to invite attention to him, is the legitimate continuator and developer of Ricardo, the great system-maker of orthodox economy. Ricardo, unlike some of his successors, did not relegate the problem of population to a remote future. He perceived in our system the evils of which Mr. George complains; but as he attributed them to the law of population as their source, he, like our modern economists, who, for the most part, seem to consider them as purely accidental, regarded them as irremediable.

Mr. George and Ricardo, however, both trace these evils to the same proximate cause, the aggressive nature of rent; but the former is able to take a more hopeful view of the case, because he regards this not as a necessity, but as a defect of industrial organization. This correction apart, I hope to show that Mr. George, in his processes of reasoning and construction of dogma, is a legitimate follower of the English master of economical method.

It is an interesting but difficult inquiry where Mr. George acquired his economical ideas. It is possible, by comparison with previous speculations, to discover what amount of actual originality his scheme presents; but the question I refer to is, what amount of originality had it in Mr. George's mind?

As a combination Mr. George's book is, perhaps, as original a contribution as has ever been offered to any science. Yet his method, with a difference that will be duly noted, is Ricardo's, and there is hardly a particular doctrine in his book that has not been previously propounded by some one. Even his great remedy itself is the cardinal doctrine of Quesnay and the physiocratic school, and was propounded in this country before them by John Locke, and subsequently to them by Dr. Chalmers.

Throughout his system of doctrines, too, there is hardly one which has not its counterpart in some previous system. He might have borrowed from Malthus (for whom his contempt is profound) and from MacCulloch, as well as from Adam Smith, Ricardo, Chalmers, and J. S. Mill. Although my book, The Economy of Consumption, preceded his by a very brief interval, I have found in Mr. George's book doctrines, or developments of doctrine, special to it.

Has Mr. George diligently collected all these things, or has he re-discovered them for himself? I believe the latter to be in the main the true explanation, chiefly because of the special originality of Mr. George's setting of his apparent "cribs." The sublimity his transformations impart to the commonest doctrines remind one that the accusation of plagiarism was brought against Handel.