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Human Nature

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Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

We hold: That—

This world is the creation of God.

The men brought into it for the brief period of their earthly lives are the equal creatures of his bounty, the equal subjects of his provident care.

By his constitution man is beset by physical wants, on the satisfaction of which depend not only the maintenance of his physical life but also the development of his intellectual and spiritual life.

God has made the satisfaction of these wants dependent on man’s own exertions, giving him the power and laying on him the injunction to labor — a power that of itself raises him far above the brute, since we may reverently say that it enables him to become as it were a helper in the creative work.

God has not put on man the task of making bricks without straw. With the need for labor and the power to labor he has also given to man the material for labor. This material is land — man physically being a land animal, who can live only on and from land, and can use other elements, such as air, sunshine and water, only by the use of land.

Being the equal creatures of the Creator, equally entitled under his providence to live their lives and satisfy their needs, men are equally entitled to the use of land, and any adjustment that denies this equal use of land is morally wrong. ...

With both anarchists and socialists, we, who for want of a better term have come to call ourselves single-tax men, fundamentally differ. We regard them as erring in opposite directions — the one in ignoring the social nature of man, the other in ignoring his individual nature. While we see that man is primarily an individual, and that nothing but evil has come or can come from the interference by the state with things that belong to individual action, we also see that he is a social being, or, as Aristotle called him, a political animal, and that the state is requisite to social advance, having an indispensable place in the natural order. Looking on the bodily organism as the analogue of the social organism, and on the proper functions of the state as akin to those that in the human organism are discharged by the conscious intelligence, while the play of individual impulse and interest performs functions akin to those discharged in the bodily organism by the unconscious instincts and involuntary motions, the anarchists seem to us like men who would try to get along without heads and the socialists like men who would try to rule the wonderfully complex and delicate internal relations of their frames by conscious will. ... read the whole letter

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 13 Effect of Remedy Upon Social Ideals (in the unabridged P&P: Part IX: Effects of the Remedy — 4. Of the changes that would be wrought in social organization and social life)

To remove want and the fear of want, to give to all classes leisure, and comfort, and independence, the decencies and refinements of life, the opportunities of mental and moral development, would be like turning water into a desert. The sterile waste would clothe itself with verdure, and the barren places where life seemed banned would ere long be dappled with the shade of trees and musical with the song of birds. Talents now hidden, virtues unsuspected, would come forth to make human life richer, fuller, happier, nobler. For

  • in these round men who are stuck into three-cornered holes, and three-cornered men who are jammed into round holes;
  • in these men who are wasting their energies in the scramble to be rich;
  • in these who in factories are turned into machines, or are chained by necessity to bench or plow;
  • in these children who are growing up in squalor, and vice, and ignorance, are powers of the highest order, talents the most splendid.

They need but the opportunity to bring them forth.

Consider the possibilities of a state of society that gave that opportunity to all. Let imagination fill out the picture; its colors grow too bright for words to paint.

  • Consider the moral elevation, the intellectual activity, the social life.
  • Consider how by a thousand actions and interactions the members of every community are linked together, and how in the present condition of things even the fortunate few who stand upon the apex of the social pyramid must suffer, though they know it not, from the want, ignorance, and degradation that are underneath.
  • Consider these things and then say whether the change I propose would not be for the benefit of every one — even the greatest landholder? ... read the whole chapter

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

IMAGINE an island girt with ocean; imagine a little world swimming in space. Put on it, in imagination, human beings. Let them divide the land, share and share alike, as individual property. At first, while population is sparse and industrial processes rude and primitive, this will work well enough.

Turn away the eyes of the mind for a moment, let time pass, and look again. Some families will have died out, some have greatly multiplied; on the whole, population will have largely increased, and even supposing there have been no important inventions or improvements in the productive arts, the increase in population, by causing the division of labor, will have made industry more complex. During this time some of these people will have been careless, generous, improvident; some will have been thrifty and grasping. Some of them will have devoted much of their powers to thinking of how they themselves and the things they see around them came to be, to inquiries and speculations as to what there is in the universe beyond their little island or their little world, to making poems, painting pictures, or writing books; to noting the differences in rocks and trees and shrubs and grasses; to classifying beasts and birds and fishes and insects – to the doing, in short, of all the many things which add so largely to the sum of human knowledge and human happiness, without much or any gain of wealth to the doer. Others again will have devoted all their energies to the extending of their possessions. What, then, shall we see, land having been all this time treated as private property? Clearly, we shall see that the primitive equality has given way to inequality. Some will have very much more than one of the original shares into which the land was divided; very many will have no land at all. Suppose that, in all things save this, our little island or our little world is Utopia – that there are no wars or robberies; that the government is absolutely pure and taxes nominal; suppose, if you want to, any sort of a currency; imagine, if you can imagine such a world or island, that interest is utterly abolished; yet inequality in the ownership of land will have produced poverty and virtual slavery.

For the people we have supposed are human beings – that is to say, in their physical natures at least, they are animals who can live only on land and by the aid of the products of land. They may make machines which will enable them to float on the sea, or perhaps to fly in the air, but to build and equip these machines they must have land and the products of land, and must constantly come back to land. Therefore those who own the land must be the masters of the rest. Thus, if one man has come to own all the land, he is their absolute master even to life or death. If they can live on the land only on his terms, then they can live only on his terms, for without land they cannot live. They are his absolute slaves, and so long as his ownership is acknowledged, if they want to live, they must do in everything as he wills.

If, however, the concentration of landownership has not gone so far as to make one or a very few men the owners of all the land – if there are still so many landowners that there is competition between them as well as between those who have only their labor – then the terms on which these non-landholders can live will seem more like free contract. But it will not be free contract. Land can yield no wealth without the application of labor; labor can produce no wealth without land. These are the two equally necessary factors of production. Yet, to say that they are equally necessary factors of production is not to say that, in the making of contracts as to how the results of production are divided, the possessors of these two meet on equal terms. For the nature of these two factors is very different. Land is a natural element; the human being must have his stomach filled every few hours. Land can exist without labor, but labor cannot exist without land. If I own a piece of land, I can let it lie idle for a year or for years, and it will eat nothing. But the laborer must eat every day, and his family must eat. And so, in the making of terms between them, the landowner has an immense advantage over the laborer. It is on the side of the laborer that the intense pressure of competition comes, for in his case it is competition urged by hunger. And, further than this: As population increases, as the competition for the use of land becomes more and more intense, so are the owners of land enabled to get for the use of their land a larger and larger part of the wealth which labor exerted upon it produces. That is to say, the value of land steadily rises. Now, this steady rise in the value of land brings about a confident expectation of future increase of value, which produces among landowners all the effects of a combination to hold for higher prices. Thus there is a constant tendency to force mere laborers to take less and less or to give more and more (put it which way you please, it amounts to the same thing) of the products of their work for the opportunity to work. And thus, in the very nature of things, we should see on our little island or our little world that, after a time had passed, some of the people would be able to take and enjoy a superabundance of all the fruits of labor without doing any labor at all, while others would be forced to work the livelong day for a pitiful living.

But let us introduce another element into the supposition. Let us suppose great discoveries and inventions – such as the steam-engine, the power-loom, the Bessemer process, the reaping-machine, and the thousand and one labor-saving devices that are such a marked feature of our era. What would be the result?

Manifestly, the effect of all such discoveries and inventions is to increase the power of labor in producing wealth – to enable the same amount of wealth to be produced by less labor, or a greater amount with the same labor. But none of them lessen, or can lessen the necessity for land. Until we can discover some way of making something out of nothing – and that is so far beyond our powers as to be absolutely unthinkable – there is no possible discovery or invention which can lessen the dependence of labor upon land. And, this being the case, the effect of these labor-saving devices, land being the private property of some, would simply be to increase the proportion of the wealth produced that landowners could demand for the use of their land. The ultimate effect of these discoveries and inventions would be not to benefit the laborer, but to make him more dependent.

And, since we are imagining conditions, imagine laborsaving inventions to go to the farthest imaginable point, that is to say, to perfection. What then? Why then, the necessity for labor being done away with, all the wealth that the land could produce would go entire to the landowners. None of it whatever could be claimed by any one else. For the laborers there would be no use at all. If they continued to exist, it would be merely as paupers on the bounty of the landowners! ... read the whole article

Henry George: Justice the Object -- Taxation the Means (1890)
This greed for wealth that leads men to turn their backs upon everything that is just and true, and to trample upon their fellows lest they be trampled upon; to search and to strive, and to strain every faculty of their natures to accumulate what they cannot take away, will be gone, and in that day the higher qualities of man shall have their opportunity and claim their reward.

We cannot change human nature; we are not so foolish as to dream that human nature can be changed. What we mean to do is to give the good in human nature its opportunity to develop.

Try our remedy by any test — the test of justice; the test of expediency. Try it by any dictum of political economy; by any maxim of good morals; by any maxim of good government. It will stand every test. What I ask you to do is not to take what I or any other man may say, but to think for yourselves!   Read the entire article

Henry George: The Single Tax: What It Is and Why We Urge It (1890)
...  These are the fundamental reasons for which we urge the Single Tax, believing it to be the greatest and most fundamental of all reforms. We do not think it will change human nature. That, man can never do; but it will bring about conditions in which human nature can develop what is best, instead of, as now in so many cases, what is worst.
  • It will permit such an enormous production as we can now hardly conceive.
  • It will secure an equitable distribution.
  • It will solve the labor problem and dispel the darkening clouds which are now gathering over the horizon of our civilization.
  • It will make undeserved poverty an unknown thing.
  • It will check the soul-destroying greed of gain.
  • It will enable men to be at least as honest, as true, as considerate, and as high-minded as they would like to be.
  • It will remove temptation to lying, false, swearing, bribery, and law breaking.
  • It will open to all, even the poorest, the comforts and refinements and opportunities of an advancing civilization.
It will thus, so we reverently believe, clear the way for the coming of that kingdom of right and justice, and consequently of abundance and peace and happiness, for which the Master told His disciples to pray and work. It is not that it is a promising invention or cunning device that we look for the Single Tax to do all this; but it is because it involves a conforming of the most important and fundamental adjustments of society to the supreme law of justice, because it involves the basing of the most important of our laws on the principle that we should do to others as we would be done by.

The readers of this article, I may fairly presume, believe, as I believe, that there is a world for us beyond this. The limit of space has prevented me from putting before them more than some hints for thought. Let me in conclusion present two more:

1. What would be the result in heaven itself if those who get there first instituted private property in the surface of heaven, and parceled it out in absolute ownership among themselves, as we parcel out the surface of the earth?

2. Since we cannot conceive of a heaven in which the equal rights of God's children to their Father's bounty is denied, as we now deny them on this earth, what is the duty enjoined on Christians by the daily prayer: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven?"...  read the whole article

Bill Batt: Fallacies of the Slippery Slope Argument

There is a difference, too, between explaining things historically and attributing unilinear causality to social events. As it happens, if our views of human nature and of social institutions are colored by pessimism and if we believe that we human beings are by nature self serving and rapacious, we are likely to have one view of matters. If, on the other hand, our view of human beings, both collectively and individually, is more optimistic and altruistic, our conclusions will reflect this too.

This has been borne out in several studies of personality and politics over the years. People with a dim view of human nature are more likely to see conspiracies and negative consequences to what is often perceived as social engineering. And people more trusting of others and of institutional authority are less likely to be concerned about the negative consequences of policy proposals. In recent years, those wearing the popular appellation of “conservative” — at least in the American sense of the term — are more distrustful of others, of government, and of institutions generally. There is a further corollary to this as well: that people who believe that human nature is inherently selfish will tend to believe that their own selfish behavior is only natural, and they will attribute the same low motives to others that they use to justify their own behavior.

This further reinforces their own view that they are completely justified in acting in the way that they do. Realizing that this is the mentality that drives such people, those who take a more benign view of human nature and of political institutions are then compelled to find the motives of their opposites suspect and threatening.17 So such escalating distrust becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I would like to illustrate the dynamics ofthis thinking through one widely used psychological scale, used in countless studies over the course of some 40 years. It is known as the “Faith in People Scale,” originally developed in 1956 by Rosenberg.18 One point is awarded for each scaled response. A score of five identifies you as having a very low level of trust in others. I will read the five paired statements to you, since they are very short:
1. Some people say that most people can be trusted. Others say you can’t be too careful in your dealings with people. How do you feel about it?
• Most people can be trusted. • You can’t be too careful.
2. Would you say that most people are more inclined to help others, or more inclined to look out for themselves?
• To help others. • To look out for themselves.
3. If you don’t watch yourself, people will take advantage of you.
Agree     Disagree
4. No one is going to care much what happens to you, when you get right down to it.
Agree     Disagree
5. Human nature is fundamentally cooperative.
Agree     Disagree

So that’s what it may come down to, not to a matter of validity of the slippery slope argument as measured in logical terms, but rather by the extent to which social decisions are made by people who can be trusted and relied upon to act in altruistic ways. If people expect the worst, the worst may happen. If people look on the positive side, that trust may engender further such feelings and be self-reinforcing.“What goes around comes around,” as they say, applied to both conservatives with a dim view of human nature and society as well as to progressives with their more hopeful view.

There is a further dimension to all this which offers a fascinating area for study. The faith-in-people scale along with many other research instruments has been used in many societies and at various times. But time has been too short in this country for us to be able to say very much about what has happened over the past 250 years with respect to public sentiments. The general view is that people have become more cynical and pessimistic; what this portends for America’s future, and particularly the future of our political health, is well worth pondering.

We used to be a nation of optimists, at least as other nations saw us. That may have been our greatest asset. If we lose this optimism, we may be the worse for it as a nation. And to this extent, our declining view of ourselves and our motives may be the ultimate slippery slope.  ... read the whole article
Weld Carter: An Introduction to Henry George

What is the law of human progress? 

George saw ours alone among the civilizations of the world as still progressing; all others had either petrified or had vanished. And in our civilization he had already detected alarming evidences of corruption and decay. So he sought out the forces that create civilization and the forces that destroy it.

He found the incentives to progress to be the desires inherent in human nature, and the motor of progress to be what he called mental power. But the mental power that is available for progress is only what remains after nonprogressive demands have been met. These demands George listed as maintenance and conflict.

In his isolated state, primitive man's powers are required simply to maintain existence; only as he begins to associate in communities and to enjoy the resultant economies is mental power set free for higher uses. Hence, association is the first essential of progress:

And as the wasteful expenditure of mental power in conflict becomes greater or less as the moral law which accords to each an equality of rights is ignored or is recognized, equality (or justice) is the second essential of progress.

Thus association in equality is the law of progress. Association frees mental power for expenditure in improvement, and equality, or justice, or freedom -- for the terms here signify the same thing, the recognition of the moral law -- prevents the dissipation of this power in fruitless struggles.

He concluded this phase of his analysis of civilization in these words: "The law of human progress, what is it but the moral law? Just as social adjustments promote justice, just as they acknowledge the equality of right between man and man, just as they insure to each the perfect liberty which is bounded only by the equal liberty of every other, must civilization advance. Just as they fail in this, must advancing civilization come to a halt and recede..." 

However, as the primary relation of man is to the earth, so must the primary social adjustment concern the relation of man to the earth. Only that social adjustment which affords all mankind equal access to nature and which insures labor its full earnings will promote justice, acknowledge equality of right between man and man, and insure perfect liberty to each.

This, according to George, was what the single tax would do. It was why he saw the single tax as not merely a fiscal reform but as the basic reform without which no other reform could, in the long run, avail. This is why he said, "What is inexplicable, if we lose sight of man's absolute and constant dependence upon land, is clear when we recognize it." ... read the whole article

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper