Wealth and Want
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Henry George's Progress & Poverty, the #2 bestseller of the 1880s, played a signficant role in inspiring the populist movement. To quote Samuel Francis, writing in American Renaissance a few years ago,

Historian Eric Goldman in his standard account of Progressive Era political thought, Rendezvous with Destiny (pp. 78-79), explains how the thought of Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty, the “most rounded and powerful note in a growing chorus,” helped popularize the idea that “an environment that had been made by human beings and could be changed by human beings” “determined all men, institutions, and ideas,” and that “legislating a better environment, particularly a better economic environment, could bring about a better world, and bring it about before unconscionable centuries.”

Goldman himself paid tribute to Progress and Poverty with these words:

For some years prior to 1952 I was working on a history of American reform and over and over again my research ran into this fact: an enormous number of men and women, strikingly different people, men and women who were to lead 20th century America in a dozen fields of humane activity, wrote or told someone that their whole thinking had been redirected by reading "Progress and Poverty" in their formative years. In this respect no other book came anywhere near comparable influence, and I would like to add this word of tribute to a volume which magically catalyzed the best yearnings of our fathers and grandfathers.

One might reasonably wonder why relatively few colleges today expose their students to such an experience! Let this website make up for your neglected education! Shall we wait unconscionable centuries for someone else to create the society that Americans have been yearning for?


Mason Gaffney: Economics in Support of Environmentalism

Gifford Pinchot was a great leader of the Conservation Movement. He defined his central term, conservation, as "The greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time." Caviling theorists sometimes pick at that famous phrase, since you cannot maximize three things at the same time, but that is unfair, since he was not being technical. He was making a speech, and obviously what he meant was that those three elements should all be considered, and none was to be slighted.

Notice especially the middle clause, for the greatest number. Conservation was not just for landowners, or any other elite. Conservation was part of the Progressive Movement, which had sprung from the Populist Movement. Social equity was at its core. Here is some more of Pinchot's speech (to the 1st National Conservation Congress, 1909):

... the third principle of conservation. It is this: the natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many and not merely for the profit of a few. ... public action for public benefit has ... a much larger part to play than was the case ... before certain constitutional arrangements ... had given so tremendously strong a position to vested rights and property in general. ... by reason of the 14th Amendment to The Constitution, property rights in the U.S. occupy a stronger position than in any other country in the civilized world. ... it becomes then a matter of multiplied importance, ... when property rights once granted are so strongly entrenched, that they shall be granted only under such conditions as that the people shall get their fair share of the benefit which comes from the development of the country which belongs to us all. The time to do that is now.

You modern habitat-savers, your foes score points against you by calling you "elitists." Sure enough, you do appear a bit above, and therefore outside the mainstream, especially when you talk down to people from the eminence of "Science." Pinchot saw that brick coming and dodged it before it was even thrown. He teamed up with the populists; he spoke as a man for the people, even if not quite of them. Can you say the same? Is there a place in your plans, and your hearts, for Joe Sixpack?

Here is a list that the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) has published from its recent public opinion survey of public issues. Preserving habitat and endangered species are not even among the top 17 priorities listed by citizens. Neither are private property rights. Their top three concerns are crime, education, and jobs. Politicians have preempted the crime issue, but no one is doing a thing this year for education and jobs. Take a leaf from the successful Gifford Pinchot: team up with some populists. Move into the vacuum left behind the gale of anti-crime oratory. No one is serving the constituency for education and jobs.

Other populist issues high on the SCAG list are homelessness, affordable housing, job training, and child care. read the whole article

Alanna Hartzok: In the History of Thought: Henry George's "Single Tax"

    One day, while riding horseback in the Oakland hills, merchant seaman and journalist Henry George had a startling epiphany. He realized that speculation and private profiteering in the gifts of nature were the root causes of the unjust distribution of wealth. The insights presented in Progress and Poverty, George's masterwork, launched him to fame. His policy approach was known at that time as the "single tax" - meaning that taxation should be shifted off of labor and onto the socially created surplus value of land and other natural resources. His message reached as far as the great Russian Leo Tolstoy, who was so taken with the idea that he frequently referred to George and "Georgism" in his novel Resurrection.

    During the last 20 years of the 19th century George built an impressive populist movement bent on solving the problem of the wealth gap, and he died in 1897 while campaigning to be New York's mayor. The "Georgists" were determined to free labor and all productive effort from the burden of taxation. Land and natural resources were gifts of nature to be fairly shared by all. The role of government would be to secure democratic rights to the earth for all people via the collection of resource rents, the surplus value accruing to natural wealth, which would be distributed in social goods, services or by direct citizen dividends.

    But just as this solution to the rich/poor gap was gaining momentum, the Georgist movement was stopped in its tracks. Wealthy individuals poured their money into leading schools of economics to encourage the writing of treatises against George and the movements he had spawned. The ethical perspective that land is a common heritage and the policy approach of land value taxation were subsequently eliminated from the field of economics. The newly dominant theory focused on only two primary factors -- labor and capital -- with capital having the upper hand as "employing labor." "Labor," of course, is quite capable of self-employment given access to land. This is what the elites and the plutocrats feared most - that labor would gain full power to directly produce capital given conditions of equal rights to the resources of the earth....    Read the whole article


Mason Gaffney: Henry George 100 Years Later: The Great Reconciler  

Henry George (1839-1897) is best known today for Progress and Poverty (1879). Eloquent, timely and challenging, this book soon became and remains the all-time best-seller on economic theory and policy.

In 1879, George electrified the world by identifying one underlying cause for two great economic plagues:

  • chronic poverty arising from insufficient demand for labor, and
  • cycles of boom and bust.

These twin plagues arose from concentrated ownership of land, compounded by land speculation. Large landowners and speculators (often one and the same) held the best land idle or underused, forcing labor onto marginal land and driving down wages. Collapse of speculative land price bubbles caused periodic slumps.

(By "land" George meant exclusive rights to use natural resources in a specified territory. It included mining, water, fishing, and timber rights, road and rail rights-of way, and some patents. George emphasized the high value and productivity of urban land, which facilitated communication and trade. Today, we would add to "land" such items as taxi medallions, telecommunications licenses and pollution "rights".)

George followed his analysis with a plausible, practicable remedy: eliminate all taxes except for a tax on land values. The "single tax," as it later became known, would invigorate the economy by breaking up large idle holdings, making land available to those who would use it. And it would suck the air out of speculative bubbles, damping the boom and bust cycle.

  • Taxing land is very progressive because land ownership is highly concentrated among the most wealthy, far more concentrated than income.
  • Taxing land is fair, because the community rather than the individual landowner creates land values.
  • Taxing land is economically efficient, because the owner cannot avoid a land tax ("shift" it) by choosing less-taxed options. ...
George toured the world as an immensely popular political activist, orator and folk hero. He died suddenly in 1897, while running a second time for Mayor of New York City. A hundred thousand mourners marched at his funeral.

In the US, "Georgism" melded into the populist movement, and later into the Progressive Movement. At the national level, the Progressive Movement dominated both major political parties for 17 years, 1902-19. At the local level, its influence continued through the early 1920s. Local property taxation was modified along Georgist lines: land assessments were raised relative to improvements and rates were increased substantially. California water districts financed by land taxes catapulted California to the top-producing farm state in the Union, using land that had been desert or range. California generated farm jobs and homes, while other states destroyed them by allowing well-connected speculators and "robber barons" to grab large tracts of land. A Georgist, Congressman Warren Worth Bailey of Pennsylvania, drafted the first Federal personal income tax law on Georgist lines: falling mainly on very high incomes from property. ...

Neo-classical economists give us only a hard choice: we may have equity, or efficiency, but not both. By contrast, George's program reconciles equity and efficiency. Think of it! George takes two polar philosophies, collectivism and individualism, and composes them into one solution. He cuts the Gordian knot. Like Keynes after him, George inspires us by saying, "Forget the bitter tradeoffs; we can have it all!"    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