|Wealth and Want|
|... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.|
|Home||Essential Documents||Themes||All Documents||Authors||Glossary||Links||Contact Us|
Poverty and God
Is God indeed a self-willed despot, whom we must coax to do the good He might?
HG — Thy Kingdom Come (1889 speech)
Though it may take the language of prayer, it is blasphemy that attributes to the inscrutable decrees of Providence the suffering and brutishness that come of poverty; that turns with folded hands to the All-Father and lays on Him the responsibility for the want and crime of our great cities. We degrade the Everlasting. We slander the Just One. A merciful man would have better ordered the world; a just man would crush with his foot such an ulcerous ant-hill! It is not the Almighty, but we who are responsible for the vice and misery that fester amid our civilization. The Creator showers upon us his gifts — more than enough for all. But like swine scrambling for food, we tread them in the mire — tread them in the mire, while we tear and rend each other!
In the very centers of our civilization today are want and suffering enough to make sick at heart whoever does not close his eyes and steel his nerves. Dare we turn to the Creator and ask Him to relieve it? Supposing the prayer were heard, and at the behest with which the universe sprang into being there should glow in the sun a greater power; new virtue fill the air; fresh vigor the soil; that for every blade of grass that now grows two should spring up, and the seed that now increases fifty-fold should increase a hundredfold! Would poverty be abated or want relieved? Manifestly no! Whatever benefit would accrue would be but temporary. The new powers streaming through the material universe could be utilized only through land. And land, being private property, the classes that now monopolize the bounty of the Creator would monopolize all the new bounty. Land owners would alone be benefited. Rents would increase, but wages would still tend to the starvation point!
This is not merely a deduction of political economy; it is a fact of experience. We know it because we have seen it. ...
It is this that turns the blessings of material progress into a curse. It is this that crowds human beings into noisome cellars and squalid tenement houses; that fills prisons and brothels; that goads men with want and consumes them with greed; that robs women of the grace and beauty of perfect womanhood; that takes from little children the joy and innocence of life’s morning.
Civilization so based cannot continue. The eternal laws of the universe forbid it. Ruins of dead empires testify, and the witness that is in every soul answers, that it cannot be. It is something grander than Benevolence, something more august than Charity — it is Justice herself that demands of us to right this wrong. Justice that will not be denied; that cannot be put off — Justice that with the scales carries the sword. Shall we ward the stroke with liturgies and prayers? Shall we avert the decrees of immutable law by raising churches when hungry infants moan and weary mothers weep?
Though it may take the language of prayer, it is blasphemy that attributes to the inscrutable decrees of Providence the suffering and brutishness that come of poverty; that turns with folded hands to the All-Father and lays on Him the responsibility for the want and crime of our great cities. We degrade the Everlasting. We slander the Just One. A merciful man would have better ordered the world; a just man would crush with his foot such an ulcerous ant-hill! It is not the Almighty, but we who are responsible for the vice and misery that fester amid our civilization. The Creator showers upon us his gifts — more than enough for all. But like swine scrambling for food, we tread them in the mire — tread them in the mire, while we tear and rend each other!... read the whole speech and Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 14 Liberty, and Equality of OpportunityHenry George: The Crime of Poverty (1885 speech)
...Whose fault is it that social conditions are such that men have to make that terrible choice between what conscience tells them is right, and the necessity of earning a living? I hold that it is the fault of society; that it is the fault of us all. Pestilence is a curse. The man who would bring cholera to this country, or the man who, having the power to prevent its coming here, would make no effort to do so, would be guilty of a crime. Poverty is worse than cholera; poverty kills more people than pestilence, even in the best of times. Look at the death statistics of our cities; see where the deaths come quickest; see where it is that the little children die like flies – it is in the poorer quarters. And the man who looks with careless eyes upon the ravages of this pestilence, the man who does not set himself to stay and eradicate it, he, I say, is guilty of a crime.
If poverty is appointed by the power which is above us all, then it is no crime; but if poverty is unnecessary, then it is a crime for which society is responsible and for which society must suffer. I hold, and I think no one who looks at the facts can fail to see, that poverty is utterly unnecessary. It is not by the decree of the Almighty, but it is because of our own injustice, our own selfishness, our own ignorance, that this scourge, worse than any pestilence, ravages our civilisation, bringing want and suffering and degradation, destroying souls as well as bodies. Look over the world, in this heyday of nineteenth century civilisation. In every civilised country under the sun you will find men and women whose condition is worse than that of the savage: men and women and little children with whom the veriest savage could not afford to exchange. Even in this new city of yours with virgin soil around you, you have had this winter to institute a relief society. Your roads have been filled with tramps, fifteen, I am told, at one time taking shelter in a round-house here. As here, so everywhere; and poverty is deepest where wealth most abounds.
What more unnatural than this? There is nothing in nature like this poverty which today curses us. We see rapine in nature; we see one species destroying another; but as a general thing animals do not feed on their own kind; and, wherever we see one kind enjoying plenty, all creatures of that kind share it. No man, I think, ever saw a herd of buffalo, of which a few were fat and the great majority lean. No man ever saw a flock of birds, of which two or three were swimming in grease and the others all skin and bone. Nor in savage life is there anything like the poverty that festers in our civilisation. ...
... Men are compelled to compete with each other for the wages of an employer, because they have been robbed of the natural opportunities of employing themselves; because they cannot find a piece of God's world on which to work without paying some other human creature for the privilege.
I do not mean to say that even after you had set right this fundamental injustice, there would not be many things to do; but this I do mean to say, that our treatment of land lies at the bottom of all social questions. This I do mean to say, that, do what you please, reform as you may, you never can get rid of wide-spread poverty so long as the element on which and from which all men must live is made the private property of some men. It is utterly impossible. Reform government — get taxes down to the minimum — build railroads; institute co-operative stores; divide profits, if you choose, between employers and employed -- and what will be the result? The result will be that the land will increase in value — that will be the result — that and nothing else. Experience shows this. Do not all improvements simply increase the value of land — the price that some must pay others for the privilege of living?
Consider the matter, I say it with all reverence, and I merely say it because I wish to impress a truth upon your minds — it is utterly impossible, so long as His laws are what they are, that God himself could relieve poverty — utterly impossible. Think of it and you will see. Men pray to the Almighty to relieve poverty. But poverty comes not from God's laws — it is blasphemy of the worst kind to say that; it comes from man's injustice to his fellows. Supposing the Almighty were to hear the prayer, how could He carry out the request so long as His laws are what they are?
Consider -- the Almighty gives us nothing of the things that constitute wealth; He merely gives us the raw material, which must be utilised by man to produce wealth. Does He not give us enough of that now? How could He relieve poverty even if He were to give us more? Supposing in answer to these prayers He were to increase the power of the sun; or the virtue of the soil? Supposing He were to make plants more prolific, or animals to produce after their kind more abundantly? Who would get the benefit of it? Take a country where land is completely monopolised, as it is in most of the civilised countries — who would get the benefit of it? Simply the landowners. And even if God in answer to prayer were to send down out of the heavens those things that men require, who would get the benefit? ... read the whole speechHenry George: Thy Kingdom Come (1889 speech)
We have just joined in the most solemn, the most sacred, the most catholic of all prayers: “Our Father which art in Heaven!” To all of us who have learned it in our infancy, it oft calls up the sweetest and most tender emotions. Sometimes with feeling, sometimes as a matter of course, how often have we repeated it? For centuries, daily, hourly, has that prayer gone up.
“Thy kingdom come!” Has it come? Let this Christian city of Glasgow answer — Glasgow, that was to “Flourish by the preaching of the word”.
“Thy kingdom come!” Day after day, Sunday after Sunday, week after week, century after century, has that prayer gone up; and today, in this so-called Christian city of Glasgow, 125,000 human beings — so your medical officer says — 125,000 children of God are living whole families in a single room.
“Thy kingdom come!” We have been praying for it and praying for it, yet it has not come. So long has it tarried that many think it will never come. Here is the vital point in which what we are accustomed to call the Christianity of the present day differs so much from that Christianity which overran the ancient world — that Christianity which, beneath a rotten old civilisation, planted the seeds of a newer and a higher.
We have become accustomed to think that God’s kingdom, is not intended for this world; that, virtually, this is the devil’s world, and that God’s kingdom is in some other sphere, to which He is to take good people when they die — as good Americans are said when they die to go to Paris. If that be so, what is the use of praying for the coming of the kingdom? Is God the loving Father of whom Christ told — is He a God of that kind; a God who looks on this world, sees its sufferings and its miseries, sees high faculties aborted, lives stunted, innocence turned to vice and crime, and heartstrings strained and broken, yet, having it in His power, will not bring that kingdom of peace, and love, and plenty and happiness? Is God indeed a self-willed despot, whom we must coax to do the good He might?
Think of it. The Almighty — and I say it with reverence — the Almighty could not bring that kingdom of Himself. For, what is the kingdom of God; the kingdom that Christ taught us to pray for? Is it not in the doing of God’s will, not by automata, not by animals who are compelled, but by intelligent beings clothed with free will, intelligent beings knowing good from evil? ...
“Thy kingdom come!” When Christ taught that prayer He did not mean that humans should idly phrase these words, but that for the coming of that kingdom humanity must work as well as pray!
Prayer! Consider what prayer is. How true is the old fable! The wagoner whose wagon was stuck in the rut knelt down and prayed to Jove to get it out. He might have prayed till the crack of doom, and the wagon would have stood there. This world — God’s world — is not a world in which the repeating of words will get wagons out of mire or poverty out of slums. We who would pray with effect must work! ...
“Our Father!” “Our Father!” Whose? Not my Father — that is not the prayer. “Our Father” — not the father of any sect, or any class, but the Father of all humanity. The All-Father, the equal Father, the loving Father. He it is we ask to bring the kingdom. Aye, we ask it with our lips! We call Him “Our Father,” the All, the Universal Father, when we kneel down to pray to Him.
But that He is the All-Father — that He is all people’s Father — we deny by our institutions. The All-Father who made the world, the All-Father who created us in His image, and put us upon the earth to draw subsistence from its bosom; to find in the earth all the materials that satisfy our wants, waiting only to be worked up by our labour! If He is the All-Father, then are not all human beings, all children of the Creator, equally entitled to the use of His bounty? And, yet, our laws say that this God’s earth is not here for the use of all His children, but only for the use of a privileged few! ...
Think of what Christianity teaches us; think of the life and death of Him who came to die for us! Think of His teachings, that we are all the equal children of an Almighty Father, who is no respecter of persons, and then think of this legalised injustice — this denial of the most important, most fundamental rights of the children of God, which so many of the very men who teach Christianity uphold; nay, which they blasphemously assert is the design and the intent of the Creator Himself.
Better to me, higher to me, is the atheist, who says there is no God, than the professed Christian who, prating of the goodness and the Fatherhood of God, tells us in words as some do, or tells us indirectly as others do, that millions and millions of human creatures — [at this point a child was heard crying] — don’t take the little thing out — that millions and millions of human beings, like that little baby, are being brought into the world daily by the creative fiat, and no place in this world provided for them.
Aye! Tells us that, by the laws of God, the poor are created in order that the rich may have the unctuous satisfaction of dealing out charity to them, and attributes to the laws of God the state of things which exists in this city of Glasgow, as in other great cities on both sides of the Atlantic, where little children are dying every day, dying by hundreds of thousands, because having come into this world — those children of God, with His fiat, by His decree — they find that there is not space on the earth sufficient for them to live; and are driven out of God’s world because they cannot get room enough, cannot get air enough, cannot get sustenance enough. ...
What God gives are the natural elements that are indispensable to labour. He gives them, not to one, not to some, not to one generation, but to all. They are His gifts, His bounty to the whole human race. And yet in all our civilised countries what do we see? That a few people have appropriated these bounties, claiming them as theirs alone, while the great majority have no legal right to apply their labour to the reservoirs of Nature and draw from the Creator’s bounty.
Thus it happens that all over the civilised world that class that is called peculiarly ‘the labouring class’ is the poor class, and that people who do no labour, who pride themselves on never having done honest labour, and on being descended from fathers and grandfathers who never did a stroke of honest labour in their lives, revel in a superabundance of the things that labour brings forth. ...
Mr Abner Thomas, of New York, a strict orthodox Presbyterian — and the son of Rev Dr Thomas, author of a commentary on the bible —wrote a little while ago an allegory. Dozing off in his chair, he dreamt that he was ferried over the River of Death, and, taking the straight and narrow way, came at last within sight of the Golden City. A fine-looking old gentleman angel opened the wicket, inquired his name, and let him in; warning him, at the same time, that it would be better if he chose his company in heaven, and did not associate with disreputable angels.
“What!” said the newcomer, in astonishment: “Is not this heaven?” ...
The story goes on to describe how the roads of heaven, the streets of the New Jerusalem, were filled with disconsolate tramp angels, who had pawned their wings, and were outcasts in Heaven itself.
You laugh, and it is ridiculous. But there is a moral in it that is worth serious thought. Is it not ridiculous to imagine the application to God’s heaven of the same rules of division that we apply to God’s earth, even while we pray that His will may be done on earth as it is done in Heaven?
Really, if we could imagine it, it is impossible to think of heaven treated as we treat this earth, without seeing that, no matter how salubrious were its air, no matter how bright the light that filled it, no matter how magnificent its vegetable growth, there would be poverty, and suffering, and a division of classes in heaven itself, if heaven were parcelled out as we have parceled out the earth. And, conversely, if people were to act towards each other as we must suppose the inhabitants of heaven to do, would not this earth be a very heaven?
“Thy kingdom come.” No one can think of the kingdom for which the prayer asks without feeling that it must be a kingdom of justice and equality — not necessarily of equality in condition, but of equality in opportunity. And no one can think of it without seeing that a very kingdom of God might be brought on this earth if people would but seek to do justice — if people would but acknowledge the essential principle of Christianity, that of doing to others as we would have others do to us, and of recognising that we are all here equally the children of the one Father, equally entitled to share His bounty, equally entitled to live our lives and develop our faculties, and to apply our labour to the raw material that He has provided.
Nothing is clearer than that if we are all children of the universal Father, we are all entitled to the use of His bounty. No one dare deny that proposition. But the people who set their faces against its carrying out say, virtually: “Oh, yes! that is true; but it is impracticable to carry it into effect!” Just think of what this means. This is God’s world, and yet such people say that it is a world in which God’s justice, God’s will, cannot be carried into effect. What a monstrous absurdity, what a monstrous blasphemy!
If the loving God does reign, if His laws are the laws not merely of the physical, but of the moral universe, there must be a way of carrying His will into effect, there must be a way of doing equal justice to all of His creatures. ...
Yet, while in looking through the laws of physical nature, we find intelligence we do not so clearly find beneficence. But in the great social fact that as population increases, and improvements are made, and men progress in civilisation, the one thing that rises everywhere in value is land, and in this we may see a proof of the beneficence of the Creator.
Why, consider what it means! It means that the social laws are adapted to progressive humanity! In a rude state of society where there is no need for common expenditure, there is no value attaching to land. The only value which attaches there is to things produced by labour. But as civilisation goes on, as a division of labour takes place, as people come into centres, so do the common wants increase, and so does the necessity for public revenue arise. And so in that value which attaches to land, not by reason of anything the individual does, but by reason of the growth of the community, is a provision intended — we may safely say intended — to meet that social want.
<> Just as society grows, so do the common needs grow, and so grows this value attaching to land — the provided fund from which they can be supplied. Here is a value that may be taken, without impairing the right of property, without taking anything from the producer, without lessening the natural rewards of industry and thrift. Nay, here is a value that must be taken if we would prevent the most monstrous of all monopolies. What does all this mean? It means that in the creative plan, the natural advance in civilisation is an advance to a greater and greater equality instead of to a more and more monstrous inequality. ... Read the whole speech
Henry George: Thou Shalt Not Steal (1887 speech)
But when we propose this, when we say that poverty exists because of the violation of God’s laws, we are taunted with pretending to know more than humans ought to know about the designs of Omnipotence. They have set up for themselves a god who rather likes poverty, since it affords the rich a chance to show their goodness and benevolence; and they point to the existence of poverty as a proof that God wills it. Our reply is that poverty exists not because of God’s will, but because of humanity’s disobedience. We say that we do know that it is God’s will that there should be no poverty on earth, and that we know it as we may know any other natural fact. ...
How do we know that the Almighty is against poverty? That it is not in accordance with His decree that poverty exists? We know it because we know this, that the Almighty has declared: "Thou shalt not steal." And we know for a truth that the poverty that exists today in the midst of abounding wealth is the result of a system that legalizes theft. ... read the whole article
Rev. A. C. Auchmuty: Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)
Henry George: Moses, Apostle of Freedom (1878 speech)
The life of Moses, like the institutions of Moses, is a protest against that blasphemous doctrine current now as it was three thousand years ago, preached oft times even from Christian pulpits – that the want and suffering of the masses of humankind flow from a mysterious dispensation of providence, which we may lament, but can neither quarrel with nor alter. Let those who hug that doctrine themselves, those to whom it seems that the squalor and brutishness with which the very centres of our civilisation abound are not their affair, turn to the example of that life. For to them who will look, yet burns the bush; and to them who will hear, again comes the voice: "The people suffer: who will lead them forth?" ... read the whole speech
Martin Luther King, Jr: Where Do We Go From Here? (1967)
Now our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth. ...
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here," that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this,
* you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?"
These are questions that must be asked. ...
So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction."
* Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure
of creeds and an anemia of deeds.
... Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: "Truth crushed to earth will rise again." Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: "Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, "We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome." ... read the book excerpt and whole speech
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper