Review of the Book

Henry George and the Single Tax Movement
by Arthur Nichols Young, Ph.D.

Unsigned Article

[Reprinted from The Fortnightly Review, 15 January, 1917]

Arthur Nichols Young, Ph. D., in a recently published volume on The Single Tax Movement in the United States (Princeton University Press), undertakes to "give a complete account of the Single Tax movement in the United States, together with a discussion of the tactics of the Single-taxers, their programme, the present status of the movement, and its influence upon economic thought and upon fiscal and social reform."

The volume fulfils its purpose. Its chief value lies in the bringing together of a great number of detached facts, relating in part to the position taken by Henry George and by his followers in the movement, upon various phases of economic and political controversy, in part to the success or failure of specific efforts to introduce the Single Tax, or some modification of it, in various Slates of the Union or subdivisions of them. To any one in search of authentic information concerning either the political history of the Single Tax movement or the mental attitude of its leading advocates in this country, the work will be serviceable. One gets the impression that by far the greater part of the work effectively done in the political held in the direction of the Single Tax thus far has been done not in the shape of an avowed promotion of the Single Tax doctrine or policy, but in such form as to gain as much support as possible for some measure which the true-blue Single-taxers desire as an entering- wedge, but which persons opposed or indifferent to their doctrine would advocate on wholly different grounds.

From the almost total absence of names of weight, the fact that the few names of this kind that do appear belong to the early stages of the movement, and from the further circumstance that even of these few some adopted a modified position later on, a critic in the N. Y. Nation (No. 2688) justly concludes that Henry George's Progress and Poverty, impressive as in many ways it is, not only in point of eloquence and moving quality, but also in point of lucidity, has made no serious conquest of competent minds. "This absence in the book," says our critic, "not only agrees with common knowledge, but cannot by any possibility be ascribed to indifference or bias on the part of the author. He lays ample stress on the inspiring influence of 'Progress and Poverty' upon those who have been awakened by it to a passionate zeal for human improvement, and he ascribes to it a large share of credit for the progress of administrative tax- reform. If he does not record any substantial conquest of competent opinion for its essential doctrine, it is simply because no such thing has taken place. And the reason is not far to seek.

The distinctive feature of Henry George's teaching was the rightfulness -- nay, the duty -- of confiscation of land values. The idea of the unearned increment was not his, and the absorption of that increment by the community had been strongly advocated by John Stuart Mill - with the vital limitation, however, that this should apply only to future increment. This limitation Henry George rejected, not only with emphasis but with contempt; confiscation was of the essence of his creed. This was his contribution to economic ethics; and while some of his writing upon economic theory was of extraordinary force, he added nothing that is true and proclaimed much that is manifestly false.

The hold of his famous book rested upon two things -- the doctrine of the ethical wrong of land ownership in the abstract, and the idea that its abolition would be a panacea for poverty. The latter has so utterly failed to make headway that it is now almost forgotten; the former is put out of court, among the vast majority of sober-minded persons, by consideration of the monstrous wrongfulness and inequity of confiscation."