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Is population a problem?

In Progress & Poverty, Henry George takes a careful look at the ideas of Malthus regarding population, and concludes that his ideas are not grounded in reality. Today, we tend to cite Malthus as if his ideas are gospel. If you are one whose impression is that Malthus had it right, or roughly so, please look closely at what George lays out in P&P. (This portion does not appear in the shortest abridgement — Significant Paragraphs — and it is worth the detour!)

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

The Civilization that is Possible.
IN the effects upon the distribution of wealth, of making land private property, we may thus see an explanation of that paradox presented by modern progress. The perplexing phenomena of deepening want with increasing wealth, of labor rendered more dependent and helpless by the very introduction of labor-saving machinery, are the inevitable result of natural laws as fixed and certain as the law of gravitation. Private property in land is the primary cause of the monstrous inequalities which are developing in modern society. It is this, and not any miscalculation of Nature in bringing into the world more mouths than she can feed, that gives rise to that tendency of wages to a minimum – that "iron law of wages," as the Germans call it -- that, in spite of all advances in productive power, compels the laboring-classes to the least return on which they will consent to live. It is this that produces all those phenomena that are so often attributed to the conflict of labor and capital. It is this that condemns Irish peasants to rags and hunger, that produces the pauperism of England and the tramps of America. It is this that makes the almshouse and the penitentiary the marks of what we call high civilization; that in the midst of schools and churches degrades and brutalizes men, crushes the sweetness out of womanhood and the joy out of childhood. It is this that makes lives that might be a blessing a pain and a curse, and every year drives more and more to seek unbidden refuge in the gates of death. For, a permanent tendency to inequality once set up, all the forces of progress tend to greater and greater inequality. ... read the whole article

Henry George: The Wages of Labor
Is it not clear that here is a natural law – that is to say, a tendency willed by the Creator? Can it mean anything else than that He Who ordained the State, with its needs, has, in the values which attach to land, provided the means to meet those needs?

That it does mean this and nothing else is confirmed if we look deeper still, and inquire not merely as to the intent, but as to the purpose of the intent. If we do so we may see in this natural law, by which land values increase with the growth of society, not only such a perfectly adapted provision for the needs of society as gratifies our intellectual perceptions, by showing us the wisdom of the Creator, but a purpose with regard to the individual that gratifies our moral perceptions by opening to us a glimpse of His beneficence. ...

It is even more than this. The very robbery that the masses of men thus suffer gives rise in advancing communities to a new robbery. For the value that with the increase of population and social advance attaches to land being suffered to go to individuals who have secured ownership of the land, it prompts to a forestalling of and speculation in land wherever there is any prospect of advancing population or of coming improvement, thus producing an artificial scarcity of the natural element of life and labor, and a strangulation of production that shows itself in recurring spasms of industrial depression as disastrous to the world as destructive wars.

Evil upon evil.

It is this that is driving men from the old countries to the new countries, only to bring there the same curses.

It is this that causes our material advance not merely to fail to improve the condition of the mere worker, but to make the condition of large classes positively worse.

It is this that, in our richest Christian countries, is giving us a large population whose lives are harder, more hopeless, more degraded than those of the veriest savages.

It is this that leads so many men to think that God is a bungler, and is constantly bringing people into the world for whom He has not made provision. ...

The Right Reverend Dr. Thomas Nulty, Bishop of Meath, Ireland, who sees all this very clearly, has made striking testimony to the design of Divine Providence that the rent of land should be taken for the community. In a pastoral letter addressed to the clergy and laity of his diocese, April 2, 1881, he says :
    “This great social fact is of incalculable importance; and, on the strictest principles of justice, it is not clouded even by a shadow of uncertainty or doubt. There is, moreover, a charm and a peculiar beauty in the clearness with which it reveals the wisdom and the benevolence of the designs of Providence in the admirable provision He has made for the wants and the necessities of that state of social existence in which the very instincts of nature tell us we are to spend our lives. A vast public property, a great national fund, has been placed under the dominion and at the disposal of the nation to supply itself abundantly with resources necessary to liquidate the expenses of its government and the administration of its laws.
    “One of the most interesting peculiarities of this property is that its value is constantly progressive and increasing in a direct ratio to the growth of the population, and the very causes that increase and multiply the demands made on it increase proportionately its ability to meet them.”

He says further:
    “Any settlement of the land of a country that would exclude the humblest man in that country from his share of the common inheritance would be not only an injustice and a wrong to that man, but, moreover, would be an impious resistance to the benevolent intentions of his Creator.”

There is, indeed, as Bishop Nulty says, a peculiar beauty in the clearness with which the wisdom and benevolence of Providence are revealed in the provision made for the common needs of society in what economists call the law of rent. Of all the evidence that natural religion gives, it is this that most clearly shows the existence of a beneficent God!

In this beautiful provision for social needs we see that God has intended civilisation; that all our discoveries and inventions do not, and cannot, outrun His forethought; and that steam, electricity, and labor-saving appliances only make the great moral laws clearer and more important.

In the growth of this great fund, increasing with social advance – a fund that accrues from the growth of the community, and belongs, therefore; to the community – we see, not only that there is no need for the taxes that lessen wealth; that engender corruption, and promote inequality, but, that to take this fund for the purpose for which it was intended would secure to all the equal enjoyment of God’s bounty – the abundant opportunity to satisfy their wants and provide amply for every legitimate need of the State.

We see that God in His dealings with men has not been a bungler or a niggard; that He has not brought too many men into the world, that He has not neglected abundantly to supply them; that He has not intended that bitter competition of the masses for a mere animal existence and that monstrous aggregation of wealth which characterise our civilisation; but, that these evils, which lead so many to say there is no God, or yet more impiously to say that they are of God’s ordering, are due to our denial of His moral law. ...

To persist in a wrong, to refuse to undo it, is always to become involved in other wrongs!

Those who defend private property in land, and thereby deny the first and most important of all human rights, the equal right to the material substratum of life, are compelled to one of two courses. Either they must, as do those whose gospel is “Devil take the hindmost,” deny the equal right to life, and, by some theory like that to which Malthus has given his name, assert that Nature brings into the world more men than there is provision for; or, they must, as do the Socialists, assert as rights what in themselves are wrongs. ...  read the whole article

Henry George: Political Dangers (Chapter 2 of Social Problems, 1883)

[01] THE American Republic is today unquestionably foremost of the nations — the van leader of modern civilization. Of all the great peoples of the European family, her people are the most homogeneous, the most active and most assimilative. Their average standard of intelligence and comfort is higher; they have most fully adopted modern industrial improvements, and are quickest to utilize discovery and invention; their political institutions are most in accordance with modern ideas, their position exempts them from dangers and difficulties besetting the European nations, and a vast area of unoccupied land gives them room to grow.

[02] At the rate of increase so far maintained, the English-speaking people of America will, by the close of the century, number nearly one hundred million — a population as large as owned the sway of Rome in her palmiest days. By the middle of the next century — a time which children now born will live to see — they will, at the same rate, number more than the present population of Europe; and by its close nearly equal the population which, at the beginning of this century, the whole earth was believed to contain.

[03] But the increase of power is more rapid than the increase of population, and goes on in accelerating progression. Discovery and invention stimulate discovery and invention; and it is only when we consider that the industrial progress of the last fifty years bids fair to pale before the achievements of the next that we can vaguely imagine the future that seems opening before the American people. The center of wealth, of art, of luxury and learning, must pass to this side of the Atlantic even before the center of population. It seems as if this continent had been reserved — shrouded for ages from the rest of the world — as the field upon which European civilization might freely bloom. And for the very reason that our growth is so rapid and our progress so swift; for the very reason that all the tendencies of modern civilization assert themselves here more quickly and strongly than anywhere else, the problems which modern civilization must meet, will here first fully present themselves, and will most imperiously demand to be thought out or fought out. ... read the entire essay

Kris Feder: Progress and Poverty Today

As this book was written, the Industrial Revolution was transforming America and Europe at a breathless pace. In just a century, an economy that worked on wind, water, and muscular effort had become supercharged by steam, coal, and electricity. Canals, railroads, steamships and the telegraph were linking regional economies into a national and global network of exchange. The United States had stretched from coast to coast; the western frontier was evaporating.

American journalist and editor Henry George marveled at the stunning advance of technology, yet was alarmed by ominous trends. Why had not this unprecedented increase in productivity banished want and starvation from civilized countries, and lifted the working classes from poverty to prosperity? Instead, George saw that the division of labor, the widening of markets, and rapid urbanization had increased the dependence of the working poor upon forces beyond their control. The working poor were always, of course, the most vulnerable in depressions, and last to recover from them. Unemployment and pauperism had appeared in America, and indeed, were more prevalent in the developed East than in the aspiring West. It was "as though a great wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down." This, the "great enigma of our times," was the problem George set out to solve in Progress and Poverty. ...

In a competitive economy, the earnings of the factors of production measure their separate contributions to the value of the product. Payments for the use of labor are called wages; payments for land are called rent; the income of capital is interest. In George's terms, the distress of the working classes had to do with a persistently low level of real wages. "Why," he asked, "in spite of increase in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a bare living?"

The book proceeds systematically. First, George explores the prevailing scholarly and popular explanations, which relied principally on the famous population theory of Malthus, in combination with the "wage fund" theory of British political economy. Together these theories implied that the aggregate income of labor depends upon the amount of capital devoted to the payment of wages. An increase in wages required an increase in the amount of capital per worker. However, any rise in living standards above mere subsistence motivated workers to marry younger and bear more children, until population growth caused capital per worker - and, therefore, wages - to recede again.

Moreover, population growth diminished agricultural productivity by forcing recourse to inferior soils. Technological advance and capital accumulation might afford a period of relative prosperity - but ultimately, increasing applications of labor to a fixed amount of land could raise output only at a diminishing rate. In short, immutable laws of nature - the population principle and the law of diminishing returns to land - were widely believed to explain the persistence of poverty.

To George, the Malthusian analysis was abhorrent: It asserted that no institutional reform could fundamentally alter the pattern of income distribution, and that charitable support for the needy only compounded the problem - by lowering death rates and raising birth rates. Fortunately, he found this theory of wages to be theoretically flawed on several grounds. He also found it to be incompatible with empirical facts, based on historical case studies from Ireland, China, India, the United States and elsewhere. Today, most development economists agree with George that famine and mass poverty have more to do with faulty human institutions than with the limitations of nature. ...

Most economists deem it their business to evaluate the efficiency of policy choices, but, claiming no special knowledge of ethics, they leave it to philosophers and the political process to evaluate questions of justice. Can it be true that society's arrangements to provide for common needs must always confront a divisive choice between equity and efficiency - between what is fair and what is feasible?

Henry George not only denied it; he asserted the reverse: Full recognition of economic rights and responsibilities would reveal the goals of equity and efficiency to be mutually reinforcing. Neither social justice nor a well-functioning free market system can long be enjoyed without the other. "The laws of the universe are harmonious," George proclaimed. His analysis showed that the root cause of widening inequality lies not in the laws of nature, but in social maladjustments which ignore them. Moreover, the breach of justice which underlies the problem of poverty is not merely incidental to economic development; it impedes development, leading to wider and wider inequality. ...Read the whole article

The Most Rev. Dr Thomas Nulty, Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath (Ireland): Back to the Land (1881) 
Political economists can see no possible way in which English operatives can permanently improve their condition, except they have recourse to that revolting and unnatural expedient of voluntarily restraining and limiting their numbers. "This, then," says Mr. Cairnes -- the limitation of his numbers -- "is the circumstance on which, in the last resort, any improvement at all of a permanent kind in the labourer's condition turns."

If the self-commissioned apostles who preach this new doctrine only warned the people against the consequences of reckless and improvident marriages, I would join and go with them heartily. But when they advise them (as they seem to me to do) to increase and multiply according to the requirements of trade, and in such proportions as they may be wanted, for the benefit of their betters; when they advise them to increase and multiply only when trade is prosperous, prices are high and commerce flourishes, I am heartily opposed to them.

These teachings appear to me not only unchristian, but revolting and unnatural; and their wickedness is only surpassed by the astounding ignorance of human nature which they reveal in men who ought to be better informed.  Read the whole letter

Henry George: Justice the Object -- Taxation the Means (1890)

Why, look at it here today, in this new country, where there are as yet only 65 millions of us scattered over a territory that in the present stage of the arts is sufficient to support in comfort a thousand millions; yet we are actually thinking and talking as if there were too many people in the country. We want more wealth. Why don't we get it? Is any factor of production short? What are the factors of production? Labour, capital, and land; but to put them in the order of their importance: land, labour, capital. We want more wealth; what is the difficulty? Is it in labour; is there not enough labour? No. From all parts of the United States we hear of what seems like a surplus of labour. We have actually got to thinking that the man who gives another employment is giving him a boon. Is there any scarcity of capital? Why, so abundant is capital today that United States bonds, bought at the current rate, will only yield a fraction over 2% per annum. So abundant is capital that there can be no doubt that a government loan could be floated today at 2% and little doubt but that it would soon command a premium. So abundant is capital that all over the country it is pressing for remunerative employment.

If the limitation is not in labour and not in capital, it must be in land. But there is no scarcity of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, for there you will find unused or only half-used land. Aye, even where population is densest. Have you not land enough in San Francisco? Go to that great city of New York, where people are crowded together so closely, the great majority of them, that physical health and moral health are in many cases alike impossible. Where, in spite of the fact that the rich men of the whole country gravitate there, only four per cent of the families live in separate houses of their own, and sixty-five per cent of the families are crowded two or more to the single floor — crowded together layer on layer, in many places, like sardines in a box. Yet, why are there not more houses there? Not because there is not enough capital to build more houses, and yet not because there is not land enough on which to build more houses.

Today one half of the area of New York City is unbuilt upon — is absolutely unused. When there is such a pressure, why don't people go to these vacant lots and build there? Because though unused, the land is owned; because, speculating upon the future growth of the city, the owners of those vacant lots demand thousands of dollars before they will permit anyone to put a house upon them. What you see in New York, you may see everywhere. Come into the coalfields of Pennsylvania; there you will frequently find thousands and thousands of miners unable to work, either locked out by their employers, or striking as a last resource against their pitiful wages being cut down a little more. Read the entire article

Weld Carter: A Clarion Call to Sanity, to Honesty, to Justice  (1982)

Let us begin this study of the likely causes of our troubles by asking two questions:

  • Are we over-populated?
  • Are the earth's resources inadequate for this population?
Our stage, of course, for making this study will be this world of ours, for it is upon this world that the drama of human living is played out, with all its joys and all its sorrows, with all its great achievements and all its failures, with all its nobilities and all its wickedness.

Regardless of its size relative to other planets, with its circumference of about twenty-five thousand miles, to any mere mortal who must walk to the station and back each day, it is huge. Roughly ninety-six million miles separate the sun from the earth on the latter's eliptical journey around the sun. At this distance, the earth makes its annual journey in its elliptical curve and it spins on its own canted axis. Because of this cant, the sun's rays are distributed far more evenly, thus minimizing their damage and maximizing their benefits.

Consider the complementarity of nature in the case of the two forms of life we call vegetable and animal, in their respective uses of the two gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide, the waste product of each serving as the life-giving force of the other. Any increase in the one will encourage a like response in the other.

Marvel at the manner in which nature, with no help from man or beast, delivers pure water to the highest lands, increasing it as to their elevation, thus affording us a free ride downstream and free power as we desire it. Look with awe at the variety and quantity of minerals with which this world is blessed, and finally at the fecundity nature has bestowed so lavishly throughout both animal and vegetable life: Take note of the number of corn kernels from a single stalk that can be grown next year from a single kernel of this year's crop; then think of the vastly greater yields from a single cherry pit or the seeds of a single apple, or grape or watermelon; or, turning to the animal world, consider the hen who averages almost an egg a day and the spawning fish as examples of the prolificacy that is evident throughout the whole of the animal world, including mankind.

If this marvelous earth is as rich in resources as portrayed in the foregoing paragraph, then the problem must be one of distribution:

  • how is the land distributed among the earth's inhabitants, and
  • how are its products in turn distributed?
Land is universally treated as either public property or private property. Wars are fought over land. Nowhere is it treated as common property.

George has described this world as a "well-provisioned ship" and when one considers the increasingly huge daily withdrawals of such provisions as coal and petroleum as have occurred say over the past one hundred years, one must but agree with this writer. But this is only a static view. Consider the suggestion of some ten years ago that it would require the conversion of less than 20% the of the current annual growth of wood into alcohol to fuel all the motors then being fueled by the then-conventional means. The dynamic picture of the future is indeed awesome, and there is every indication that that characteristic has the potential of endless expansion. So how is it that on so richly endowed a Garden of Eden as this world of ours we have only been able to make of it a hell on earth for vast numbers of people?

The answers are simple: we have permitted, nay we have even more than that, encouraged, the gross misallocation of resources and a viciously wicked distribution of wealth, and we choose to be governed by those whom we, in our ignorance, have elected. As the principal focus of this paper is on inflation, let us give this process its full name which is fiat money inflation and let us define this as the process by which a government continues the issuance of irredeemable paper money until the quantity so issued finally renders it worthless.  ... read the whole essay

Mason Gaffney: Cannan's Law
Everything above points to there being a low ceiling on Georgist taxation applied locally. Henry George recognized that the power elite of landowner/employers use Malthus' doctrine to oppose raising wages -- it would just spawn an invasion of new brats into the work force, they said, bringing wage rates back down to bare subsistence. To make his points, George had to refute Malthus. George's view mostly prevailed, with exceptions, until fairly recent times. Neo-classical economists even hijacked it, with a reverse spin, to trivialize land values. Whatever we may think of Malthus today, there is no doubt that the fear of population increments from outside the taxing polity now plays the role that George ascribed to Malthusianism, and plays it with devastating effect.... read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: Economics in Support of Environmentalism
Leapfrogging, floating value, and compensation

The environmental damage from those attitudes might not be so bad were it not for leapfrogging, urban disintegration, and floating value. Leapfrogging is when developers jump over the next eligible lands for urban expansion, and build farther out, here and there. This has been a problem in expanding economies ever since cities emerged from within their ancient walls and stockades, but in our times and our country it has gone to unprecedented extremes, with subsidized superhighways and universal auto ownership and truck shipping.

Alfred Gobar, savvy real estate consultant from Placentia, has recorded the amount of land actually used by city and suburban dwellers for all purposes. From this, he calculates that the entire U.S. population could live in the state of Missouri (68,965 square miles). That would be at a density of 3625 people per square mile, or 5.67 per acre. That is 7683 square feet per person. On a football gridiron, this is the area from the goal to the 16-yard line.

He is not being stingy with land, at 3625 persons per square mile. The population density of Washington, D.C., is 10,000 per square mile, with a 10-story height limit, with vast areas in parks, wide baroque avenues and vistas, several campuses, and public buildings and grounds. This is also the density of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, a well-preserved upper-income residential suburb of Milwaukee, with generous beaches and parks, tree-lined streets, detached dwellings, retailing, and a little industry. San Francisco, renowned for its liveability, has 15,000 per square mile. More than half the land is in non-residential uses: vast parks, golf courses, huge military/naval bases, water surface, industry, a huge regional CBD, etc., so the actual residential density is over 30,000 per square mile.

On Manhattan's upper East Side they pile up at over 100,000 per square mile. They do not crowd like this out of desperation, either. You may think of rats in cages, but some of the world's wealthiest people pay more than we could dream about to live that way. They'll pay over a million dollars for less than a little patch of ground: all they get is a stratum of space about 12 feet high on the umpteenth floor over a little patch of ground they share with many others. They could afford to live anywhere: they choose Manhattan, they actually like it there!

Take 10,000 per square mile as a reference figure, because it is easy to calculate with, and because it works in practice, as noted. You may observe and experience it. At that density, 250 million Americans would require 25,000 square miles, the land in a circle with radius of 89 miles, no more. That gives a notion of how little land is actually demanded for full urban use. It is 9.4% as big as Texas, 4.2% as big as Alaska, and 7/10 of 1% of the area of the United States.... read the whole article

Mason Gaffney: George's Economics of Abundance: Replacing dismal choices with practical resolutions and synergies

Adding people and capital w/o diluting resource base

Georgist policy lets a region, nation, or the world add population and/or capital without diluting its resource base. It is as though rescuers pulled drowning people into a lifeboat, and their presence made the boat expand instead of sink! Call it "The Accommodating Lifeboat Theorem." It sounds like the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, but it is a different kind of miracle: synergy. It comes from the power of enlarging the market, as described by George in his chapter on the effects of increased population, and Adam Smith in his aphorism, "the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market." An indication of it is that bigger cities around the world have more land value per head than small ones, as documented by William Alonso.

We must temper this claim. Bigger cities are often located on better land, so size isn't all that accounts for Alonso's finding. However, more than sheer size, and more than good natural location, is the internal circulation of a city. Georgist policies are essential to financing good circulation, containing sprawl, and inducing private land development complementary to the circulatory system. ... 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