Wealth and Want
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Law of Development

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)
We have here abolished all hereditary privileges and legal distinctions of class. Monarchy, aristocracy, prelacy, we have swept them all away. We have carried mere political democracy to its ultimate. Every child born in the United States may aspire to be President. Every man, even though he be a tramp or a pauper, has a vote, and one man's vote counts for as much as any other man's vote. Before the law all citizens are absolutely equal. In the name of the people all laws run. They are the source of all power, the fountain of all honor. In their name and by their will all government is carried on; the highest officials are but their servants. Primogeniture and entail we have abolished wherever they existed. We have and have had free trade in land. We started with something infinitely better than any scheme of peasant proprietorship which it is possible to carry into effect in Great Britain. We have had for our public domain the best part of an immense continent. We have had the preemption law and the homestead law. It has been our boast that here every one who wished it could have a farm. We have had full liberty of speech and of the press. We have not merely common schools, but high schools and universities, open to all who may choose to attend. Yet here the same social difficulties apparent on the other side of the Atlantic are beginning to appear. It is already clear that our democracy is a vain pretense, our make-believe of equality a sham and a fraud.

Already are the sovereign people becoming but a roi fainéant, like the Merovingian kings of France, like the Mikados of Japan. The shadow of power is theirs; but the substance of power is being grasped and wielded by the bandit chiefs of the stock exchange, the robber leaders who organize politics into machines. In any matter in which they are interested, the little finger of the great corporations is thicker than the loins of the people. Is it sovereign States or is it railroad corporations that are really represented in the elective Senate which we have substituted for an hereditary House of Lords? Where is the count or marquis or duke in Europe who wields such power as is wielded by such simple citizens as our Stanfords, Goulds, and Vanderbilts? What does legal equality amount to, when the fortunes of some citizens can be estimated only in hundreds of millions, and other citizens have nothing? What does the suffrage amount to when, under threat of discharge from employment, citizens can be forced to vote as their employers dictate? when votes can be bought on election day for a few dollars apiece? If there are citizens so dependent that they must vote as their employers wish, so poor that a few dollars on election day seem to them more than any higher consideration, then giving them votes simply adds to the political power of wealth, and universal suffrage becomes the surest basis for the establishment of tyranny. "Tyranny!" There is a lesson in the very word. What are our American bosses but the exact antitypes of the Greek tyrants, from whom the word comes? They who gave the word tyrant its meaning did not claim to rule by right divine. They were simply the Grand Sachems of Greek Tammanys, the organizers of Hellenic "stalwart machines."

Even if universal history did not teach the lesson, it is in the United States already becoming very evident that political equality can continue to exist only upon a basis of social equality; that where the disparity in the distribution of wealth increases, political democracy only makes easier the concentration of power, and must inevitably lead to tyranny and anarchy. And it is already evident that there is nothing in political democracy, nothing in popular education, nothing in any of our American institutions, to prevent the most enormous disparity in the distribution of wealth. Nowhere in the world are such great fortunes growing up as in the United States. Considering that the average income of the working masses of our people is only a few hundred dollars a year, a fortune of a million dollars is a monstrous thing — a more monstrous and dangerous thing under a democratic government than anywhere else. Yet fortunes of ten and twelve million dollars are with us ceasing to be noticeable. We already have citizens whose wealth can be estimated only in hundreds of millions, and before the end of the century, if present tendencies continue, we are likely to have fortunes estimated in thousands of millions – such monstrous fortunes as the world has never seen since the growth of similar fortunes ate out the heart of Rome. And the necessary correlative of the growth of such fortunes is the impoverishment and loss of independence on the part of the masses. These great aggregations of wealth are like great trees, which strike deep roots and spread wide branches, and which, by sucking up the moisture from the soil and intercepting the sunshine, stunt and kill the vegetation around them. When a capital of a million dollars comes into competition with capitals of thousands of dollars, the smaller capitalists must be driven out of the business or destroyed. With great capital nothing can compete save great capital. Hence, every aggregation of wealth increases the tendency to the aggregation of wealth, and decreases the possibility of the employee ever becoming more than an employee, compelling him to compete with his fellows as to who will work cheapest for the great capitalist–a competition that can have but one result, that of forcing wages to the minimum at which the supply of labor can be kept up. Where we are is not so important as in what direction we are going, and in the United States all tendencies are clearly in this direction. A while ago, and any journeyman shoemaker could set up in business for himself with the savings of a few months. But now the operative shoemaker could not in a lifetime save enough from his wages to go into business for himself. And, now that great capital has entered agriculture, it must be with the same results. The large farmer, who can buy the latest machinery at the lowest cash prices and use it to the best advantage, who can run a straight furrow for miles, who can make special rates with railroad companies, take advantage of the market, and sell in large lots for the least commission, must drive out the small farmer of the early American type just as the shoe factory has driven out the journeyman shoemaker. And this is going on today.

There is nothing unnatural in this. On the contrary, it is in the highest degree natural. Social development is in accordance with certain immutable laws. And the law of development, whether it be the development of a solar system, of the tiniest organism, or of a human society, is the law of integration. It is in obedience to this law – a law evidently as all – compelling as the law of gravitation – that these new agencies, which so powerfully stimulate social growth, tend to the specialization and interdependence of industry. It is in obedience to this law that the factory is superseding the independent mechanic, the large farm is swallowing up the little one, the big store shutting up the small one, that corporations are arising that dwarf the State, and that population tends more and more to concentrate in cities. Men must work together in larger and in more closely related groups. Production must be on a greater scale. The only question is, whether the relation in which men are thus drawn together and compelled to act together shall be the natural relation of interdependence in equality, or the unnatural relation of dependence upon a master.
  • If the one, then may civilization advance in what is evidently the natural order, each step leading to a higher step.
  • If the other, then what Nature has intended as a blessing becomes a curse, and a condition of inequality is produced which will inevitably destroy civilization. Every new invention but hastens the catastrophe.
Now, all this we may deduce from natural laws as fixed and certain as the law of gravitation. And all this we may see going on today. This is the reason why modern progress, great as it has been, fails to relieve poverty; this is the secret of the increasing discontent which pervades every civilized country. Under present conditions, with land treated as private property, material progress is developing two diverse tendencies, two opposing currents.
  • On the one side, the tendency of increasing population and of all improvement in the arts of production is to build up enormous fortunes, to wipe out the intermediate classes, and to crowd down the masses to a level of lower wages and greater dependence.
  • On the other hand, by bringing men closer together, by stimulating thought, by creating new wants, by arousing new ambitions, the tendency of modern progress is to make the masses discontented with their condition, to feel bitterly its injustice. The result can be predicted just as certainly as the result can be predicted when two trains are rushing toward each other on the same track.
This thing is absolutely certain: Private property in land blocks the way of advancing civilization.  The two cannot long coexist. Either private property in land must be abolished, or, as has happened again and again in the history of mankind, civilization must again turn back in anarchy and bloodshed. Let the remaining years of the nineteenth century bear me witness. Even now, I believe, the inevitable struggle has begun. It is not conservatism which would ignore such a tremendous fact. It is the blindness that invites destruction. He that is truly conservative let him look the facts in the face; let him speak frankly and dispassionately. This is the duty of the hour. For, when a great social question presses for settlement, it is only for a little while that the voice of Reason can be heard. The masses of men hardly think at any time. It is difficult even in sober moments to get them to reason calmly. But when passion is roused, then they are like a herd of stampeded bulls. I do not fear that present social adjustments can continue. That is impossible. What I fear is that the dams may hold till the flood rises to fury. What I fear is that dogged resistance on the one side may kindle a passionate sense of wrong on the other. What I fear are the demagogues and the accidents.... 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