The History of Henry George
and the Henry George School
in Philadelphia

Barbara Spector

[Reprinted from The Philadelphia Welcomat, around 1980]

In the forward to an edition of Brave New World, author Aldous Huxley added this modification: "If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer [an] alternative ... the possibility of sanity .... Economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian."

Leo Tolstoy wrote: "People do not argue with the teaching of George, they simply do not know it. He who becomes acquainted with it cannot but agree."

Woodrow Wilson asserted: "The country needs a new and sincere thought in politics, coherently, distinctly, and boldly uttered by men who are sure of their ground. The power of men like Henry George seems to me to mean that."

Aldous Huxley, Leo Tolstoy and Woodrow Wilson. You'd have to be impressed with someone who received such heady praise from these three thinkers.

You'd have wonder about a man whose writings still inspire a dedicated (and growing) group of followers almost a hundred years after his death. You might have to wonder who he is.

Henry George was a journalist, born in Philadelphia, whose ancestral home is a little rowhouse on 10th Street. George was also an economic theorist who raised an age-old question - why is so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few people - and then came up with an answer.

George posited that the people who are disproportionately wealthy are those who hold land as private property. However, he added, their land is profitable not because they've worked to make it more valuable, but because the community has grown up around it. Therefore, goes George's conclusion, this unearned gain should not belong to the landowners, but to society as a whole.

It's an appealing idea, so appealing that, even in the age of Reaganomics, the theory has a hold over many who learn it. They call themselves Georgists, and, as part of an overall hope to change the tax system, they can be found talking, teaching and learning at the Henry George School of Social Science, located in the aforementioned ancestral home on 10th Street south of Pine as well as in five other U.S. cities and several foreign countries.

This is no ordinary adult education institute. Although it is chartered by the State University of New York, there are no tests, there is no tuition fee and all of the instructors are volunteers. George is apparently that inspiring. For example, the school's secretary, Lucia M. Cipolloni, has been at the Philadelphia extension of the school since 1937 and receives no salary for her services. "When you're a dedicated Georgist, it colors your whole life," she explains.

A few years after Cipolloni joined the Georgist movement, World. War II began to ravage humanity. "I saw pictures from the war - children with distended stomachs - and wanted to do something about it," she says. "To me, this was the answer. …it's hard for me to believe that something so self-evident to me isn't evident to others."

George's philosophy is explained most succinctly in his landmark book Progress and Poverty, published in 1879 and at one time more widely read than Karl Marx's Das Kapital. In his book, George observed that, although goods produced by labor eventually decreased in quantity and value, land, as a finite quantity, increased in worth over time.

This difference, according to Philadelphia extension school director George Collins, "made it possible for those who owned land to obtain large shares of wealth as payment for the use of the land," such as for rent.

Every Improvement on the land resulted in an increase in its value. This was compounded by land speculation, which artificially shortened the supply. The result was a decrease in capital, wages and interest, which, in turn, caused depressions (and, today, recessions).

The idea behind George's reform was that since land isn't produced by labor, morally, no one has a rightful claim to ownership. Collins explains, "land must be treated as common property, since no one can exist without drawing upon land for what they consume. Everyone has an equal right to the land."

The way George proposed to enact this reform was to institute "economic rent," the return for the use of the land. This would be collected in the form of a "land value tax." Those who wished to use the land would pay an annual rental value; the payment would go to a public treasury and would be distributed for social needs.

The beauty of this philosophy, says Collins, is that there would be "no need to vacate titles or do anything that would create social upheavals - people would pay taxes in the way that they're accustomed to."

This land value tax theory is also known as the "single tax" theory, since George proposed, rather optimistically, that under this system the community would collect enough revenue to end all income, wage and mercantile taxes.

The theory even has a practical example - in the town of Arden, Delaware, a community founded in 1900 and still operating under Georgist priniciples today. According to Arden resident Mike Curtis, the town "leases its land to homeowners in order to collect rent on the land instead of taxes on the buildings. Out of the rent they collect, they pay all real estate taxes levied by the school district and the county."

A whole Georgist community may seem like an oddity, but seven more conventional Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Scranton have implemented George's property tax ideas in modified form. In these cities, taxes on building improvements are reduced and taxes on land value are increased.

In Pittsburgh, George Collins explains, land is taxed at seven times the building tax rate; in most of the other six cities, the rate is somewhere around two to one. (The Georgist reform applies only to local property taxes and docs not affect federal and state revenues or other local taxes.)

It's amazing that Henry George's ideas are even being considered today, much less put into practice in Pennsylvania's state capital. A major factor contributing to the longevity of George's theories was the man's personal charisma and his appeal to his audience's sense of equality and justice.

Born to a poor Philadelphia family in 1839, George's formal schooling ended at age 14 when he had to go to work. He had a brief career as a seaman and as a teenager sailed to India, where he got his first glimpse of extreme poverty contrasted with extreme wealth.

He arrived in San Francisco in his twenties too late to join the gold rush and suffered through long periods of near-starvation as job after job fell through. Finally, he found employment as a typesetter with various California newspapers and made up for the education he missed by reading the work he was assigned. He also fine-tuned his writing skills and eventually became a reporter.

In 1871, George and two partners started their own short-lived paper, the San Francisco Evening Post. When folded in 1876, a Democratic governor appointed him to the position of State Inspector of Gas Meters, a job he held until 1879. This period of steady employment gave him the leisure time to write Progress and Poverty.

The manuscript didn't exactly make a splash when George first submitted it for publication. After a number of rejections, he finally got D. Appleton & Company to agree to issue it only if he agreed to pay for the platemaking out of his own pocket.

By the time the commercial edition appeared, however, the depression of 1873-78 had just ended. The book fit the mood of the people, and in the next 25 years Progress and Poverty became a bestseller. George became an international celebrity, speaking in Ireland (and, later, on a worldwide lecture tour). And he buttressed his persuasive economic reasoning with humanitarian and religious arguments.

George Collins speculates that George's ideas, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, still attrct followers because they deal with "universal concepts," whereas other economic theorists of the 19th century addressed only specific problems (such as robber barons) that "tended to fade away."

The expansion of railroads, a source of chagrin for George, is no longer a factor, but the basis for the problem still remains. "Land continues to be essential for whatever needs to be done," Collins says.

In 1886, George ran for mayor of New York as the Labor candidate. Although he lost to Democrat Abram S. Hewitt, he got significantly more votes than the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. George wrote several more books and ran for mayor a second time, but died in 1897 less than a week before the election.

By the 1930s, support for George's single tax idea had waned. Oscar Geiger, who had been active in the Georgist movement in the 1890s and had worked for George's mayoral campaign, became concerned about the "transitory nature of the support," according to Collins.

Geiger believed that the reason the movement had died down was the difficulty in explaining George's philosophy "in an easily understood, colloquial manner with some catch phrases people could easily grap onto." He concluded that the best way to keep the movement alive was to begin a tuition-free school. (Today's students pay only a registration fee.)

The Henry George School of Social Science founded as a privately funded, nonprofit institution in New York City in 1932 immediately grew as the advancing Depression plunged more people into poverty. The Philadelphia extension was founded in 1935 and in 1957 moved into Henry George's birthplace, which had been purchased by a group of benefactors including film director Cecil B. deMille. (De Mille's brother was married to Henry George's daughter.)

The Philadelphia extension has a sister school in Arden, Delaware, run by Mike Curtis, a former Philadelphia student and director of the Arden program for 15 years. His interest in Georgist philosophy is an inherited one; his grandfather campaigned for George in the 1886 New York mayoral race, and his grandmother "died while giving a speech."

Curtis himself, however, didn't know much about George until he bought a home in Arden. "I decided, gee, I really ought to study this. I was almost embarrassed that I didn't know a lot about it." After Curtis took a few courses in Philadelphia, he realized that "this whole idea went a lot further than this little village and was really a solution to the basic problems of the world."

Curtis offers his courses not only in Arden, but also at the Delaware State Prison, an undertaking that gives him pleasure." Many of inmates whom Curtis has taught are now qualified to teach the courses themselves.

All of the eight Philadelphia instructors have themselves taken courses at the school; among the current faculty are an investor an accountant, an attorney and a public school vice principal.

There are three terms: fall, winter and spring. (The fall term began September 21; the winter session is scheduled to open the third week in January.) Although the school itself does not grant degrees, Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University and Antioch have given credit for of the courses.

The school's economics course, "Principles of Political Economy," has three parts. In the first two, George's theories are the main focus; in the third part, these theories are compared with Marxism, socialism, supply-side economics and other systems. The school also offers courses in the stock market, philosophy and foreign policy.

According to Collins, the aim of the program is "to increase economic literacy." The school is seeking to make itself seen as a "center for economic understanding. Henry George is the focal point, but we want people to see economics in a broad sense." To that end, Collins has produced a nine-part video for teachers entitled "Understanding Economics," designed to introduce an economics course into the high school curriculum.

Jacob Himmelstein, a registered securities representative and instructor of political economy at the Philadelphia extension, is a former board member of the Henry George Foundation in New York and was a director of the New York school for nearly five years. "Some students are extremely conservative, even reactionary," he observes. "Other students might be on the far left. The Georgist philosophy doesn't involve a definite political leaning. We've got a lot of people who might be classified as libertarians."

Sister Cecilia Wilson, Youth Development Coordinator at the Haverford Community Center has "taken every course" offered at the school. "It's the greatest mind-expansion-liberation project you can get into," she says, "We're becoming a land-less people. It's dangerous. Once you understand, you can help make change happen."

Although Georgists would like to redesign the tax structure, most believe that the process of change must be, according to Collins, "evolutionary rather than revolutionary." The movement's primary objective is to educate people about the theories. Collins explains the philosophy by quoting Henry George: "The people alone must think, because the people alone can act. Only what the general populace thinks can become implemented. A benevolent dictator cannot implement this unless it is generally acknowledged that the land is a birthright of all mankind, or else these reforms will not survive."

"This gave my whole life direction," says school secretary Lucia Cipolloni. She first heard about Henry George from a high school teacher but didn't pay much attention until a family friend who taught at the New York school came to her house and started talking about his work. As a result of that conversation, Cipolloni signed up for a course 50 years ago and has been at the school ever since.

Not everyone shares the Georgists' burning desire to educate others about the movement, however. One insructor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania gives George just a brief mention in his graduate-level introductory economics course: "I take five minutes; nothing big. The land rent proposal is presented as a curiousity, nothing else."

George, he explains, "wasn't an economist, but he had an interesting idea. It's impractical, but it has a good theoretical basis." Another Penn economics professor said he didn't know enough about George to offer an opinion: "He's out of the mainstream."

But George Collins is "not surprised" that academicians are unfamiliar with Georgist philosophy. In his own day George found a bias against him in the academic establishment. "He was not an academician; he was a journalist. What he had to say was not thought to be of value," Collins explains. George was "a crusader promoting his reform. That was beyond the pale. Academicians didn't soil their hands with such activities."

George's ideas, Collins points out, "challenge a long-revered institution: private ownership of land. What people thought he was trying to do was considered un-American."

However, says Collins, the negative reaction to Georgist theory among the academic community isn't as bad as it used to be. "More economists make appreciative comments now than has been the case." Paul Samuelson, author of the introductory economics textbook that is the nemesis of many a college freshman, was willing to lend his support to Georgist theory, says Jacob Himmelstein, but "not to the exclusion of any other economic principle."

Regardless of what mainstream economists have to say about Henry George, the unfailing support of his followers is awe-inspiring. "Never have I met so many people who are so dedicated," says Lucia Cipolloni.

And their loyalty is perhaps best described by Sister Cecilia Wilson: "The masses have to take responsibility for their own liberation and education," she says, "and this is one of the good places to start."