Wealth and Want
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The tramp was a well-known phenomenon in America, at least into the 1940s; my grandparents, who were farmers in Lancaster County, PA, apparently earned good ratings from the tramps, who would leave discreet coded chalk markings to tell those who followed where they would be met with kindness or hostility. My grandfather would let them sleep in his barn, after asking them for their matches, which he would return in the morning.

Charlie Chaplin gave us the character of "The Little Tramp." Today, perhaps our homeless brethren are the closest analogy today, people whose earning ability is insufficient to allow them to meet the costs of the necessities of life.

Is it something they are doing wrong, or is it a maladjustment of our society?

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

This is "the home of freedom," and "the asylum of the oppressed;" our population is yet sparse, our public domain yet wide; we are the greatest of food producers, yet even here there are beggars, tramps, paupers, men torn by anxiety for the support of their families, women who know not which way to turn, little children growing up in such poverty and squalor that only a miracle can keep them pure. "Always with you," even here. What is the week or the day of the week that our papers do not tell of man or woman who, to escape the tortures of want, has stepped out of life unbidden? What is this but famine? ...

But does not the same relation exist between English pauperism and English landlordism – between American tramps and the American land system? Essentially the same land system as that of Ireland exists elsewhere, and, wherever it exists, distress of essentially the same kind is to be seen. And elsewhere, just as certainly as in Ireland, is the connection between the two that of cause and effect. ...

But it is needless to compare sufferings and measure miseries. I merely wish to correct that impression which leads so many people to talk and write as though rent and land tenures related solely to agriculture and to agricultural communities. Nothing could be more erroneous. Land is necessary to all production, no matter what be the kind or form; land is the standing-place, the workshop, the storehouse of labor; it is to the human being the only means by which he can obtain access to the material universe or utilize its powers. Without land man cannot exist. To whom the ownership of land is given, to him is given the virtual ownership of the men who must live upon it. When this necessity is absolute, then does he necessarily become their absolute master. And just as this point is neared – that is to say, just as competition increases the demand for land – just in that degree does the power of taking a larger and larger share of the earnings of labor increase. It is this power that gives land its value; this is the power that enables the owner of valuable land to reap where he has not sown – to appropriate to himself wealth which he has had no share in producing. Rent is always the devourer of wages. The owner of city land takes, in the rents he receives for his land, the earnings of labor just as clearly as does the owner of farming land. And whether he be working in a garret ten stories above the street, or in a mining drift thousands of feet below the earth's surface, it is the competition for the use of land that ultimately determines what proportion of the produce of his labor the laborer will get for himself. This is the reason why modern progress does not tend to extirpate poverty; this is the reason why, with all the inventions and improvements and economies which so enormously increase productive power, wages everywhere tend to the minimum of a bare living. The cause that in Ireland produces poverty and distress – the ownership by some of the people of the land on which and from which the whole people must live – everywhere else produces the same results. It is this that produces the hideous squalor of London and Glasgow slums; it is this that makes want jostle luxury in the streets of rich New York, that forces little children to monotonous and stunting toil in Massachusetts mills, and that fills the highways of our newest States with tramps. ...

Our Napoleon of Wall Street, our rising Charlemagne of railroads, who came to this city with nothing but a new kind of mouse-trap in a mahogany box, but who now, though yet in the vigor of his prime, counts his wealth by hundreds of millions, if it can be counted at all, is interviewed by a reporter just as he is about to step aboard his palace-car for a grand combination expedition into the Southwest. He descants upon the services he is rendering in welding into one big machine a lot of smaller machines, in uniting into one vast railroad empire the separated railroad kingdoms. He likewise descants upon the great prosperity of the whole country. Everybody is prosperous and contented, he says: there is, of course, a good deal of misery in the big cities, but, then, there always is!

Yet not alone in the great cities. I ride on the Hudson River Railroad on a bitter cold day, and from one of the pretty towns with Dutch names gets in a constable with a prisoner, whom he is to take to the Albany penitentiary. In this case justice has been swift enough, for the crime, the taking of a shovel, has been committed only a few hours before. Such coat as the man has he keeps buttoned up, even in the hot car, for, the constable says, he has no underclothes at all. He stole the shovel to get to the penitentiary, where it is warm. The constable says they have lots of such cases, and that even in these good times these pretty country towns are infested with such tramps. With all our vast organizing, our developing of productive powers and cheapening of transportation, we are yet creating a class of utter pariahs. And they are to be found not merely in the great cities, but wherever the locomotive runs. ...

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. ...

Yet not alone in the great cities. I ride on the Hudson River Railroad on a bitter cold day, and from one of the pretty towns with Dutch names gets in a constable with a prisoner, whom he is to take to the Albany penitentiary. In this case justice has been swift enough, for the crime, the taking of a shovel, has been committed only a few hours before. Such coat as the man has he keeps buttoned up, even in the hot car, for, the constable says, he has no underclothes at all. He stole the shovel to get to the penitentiary, where it is warm. The constable says they have lots of such cases, and that even in these good times these pretty country towns are infested with such tramps. With all our vast organizing, our developing of productive powers and cheapening of transportation, we are yet creating a class of utter pariahs. And they are to be found not merely in the great cities, but wherever the locomotive runs.

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. ...

Not a republic of landlords and peasants; not a republic of millionaires and tramps; not a republic in which some are masters and some serve. But a republic of equal citizens, where competition becomes cooperation, and the interdependence of all gives true independence to each; where moral progress goes hand in hand with intellectual progress, and material progress elevates and enfranchises even the poorest and weakest and lowliest.  ... read the whole article

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

[11] The rise in the United States of monstrous fortunes, the aggregation of enormous wealth in the hands of corporations, necessarily implies the loss by the people of governmental control. Democratic forms may be maintained, but there can be as much tyranny and misgovernment under democratic forms as any other — in fact, they lend themselves most readily to tyranny and misgovernment. Forms count for little. The Romans expelled their kings, and continued to abhor the very name of king. But under the name of Cæsars and Imperators, that at first meant no more than our "Boss," they crouched before tyrants more absolute than kings. We have already, under the popular name of "bosses," developed political Cæsars in municipalities and states. If this development continues, in time there will come a national boss. We are young but we are growing. The day may arrive when the "Boss of America" will be to the modern world what Cæsar was to the Roman world. This, at least, is certain: Democratic government in more than name can exist only where wealth is distributed with something like equality — where the great mass of citizens are personally free and independent, neither fettered by their poverty nor made subject by their wealth. There is, after all, some sense in a property qualification. The man who is dependent on a master for his living is not a free man. To give the suffrage to slaves is only to give votes to their owners. That universal suffrage may add to, instead of decreasing, the political power of wealth we see when mill-owners and mine operators vote their hands. The freedom to earn, without fear or favor, a comfortable living, ought to go with the freedom to vote. Thus alone can a sound basis for republican institutions be secured. How can a man be said to have a country where he has no right to a square inch of soil; where he has nothing but his hands, and, urged by starvation, must bid against his fellows for the privilege of using them? When it comes to voting tramps, some principle has been carried to a ridiculous and dangerous extreme. I have known elections to be decided by the carting of paupers from the almshouse to the polls. But such decisions can scarcely be in the interest of good government. ... read the entire essay

Henry George: Thy Kingdom Come (1889 speech)

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?”

“Yes,” said the warden: “But there are a lot of tramp angels here now."

“How can that be?” asked Mr Thomas. “I thought everybody had plenty in heaven.”

“It used to be that way some time ago,” said the warden: “And if you wanted to get your harp polished or your wings combed, you had to do it yourself. But matters have changed since we adopted the same kind of property regulations in heaven as you have in civilised countries on earth, and we find it a great improvement, at least for the better class.”

Then the warden told the newcomer that he had better decide where he was going to board.

“I don’t want to board anywhere,” said Thomas: “I would much rather go over to that beautiful green knoll and lie down.”

“I would not advise you to do so,” said the warden: “The angel who owns that knoll does not like to encourage trespassing. Some centuries ago, as I told you, we introduced the system of private property into the soil of heaven. So we divided the land up. It is all private property now.”

“I hope I was considered in that division?” said Thomas.

“No,” said the warden: “You were not; but if you go to work, and are saving, you can easily earn enough in a couple of centuries to buy yourself a nice piece. You get a pair of wings free as you come in, and you will have no difficulty in hypothecating them for a few days board until you find work. But I should advise you to be quick about it, as our population is constantly increasing, and there is a great surplus of labour. Tramp angels are, in fact, becoming quite a nuisance.”

“What shall I go to work at?” asked Thomas.

“Our principal industries are the making of harps and crowns and the growing of flowers,” responded the warden: “But there any many opportunities for employment in personal service.”

“I love flowers,” said Thomas. “I will go to work growing them, There is a beautiful piece of land over there that nobody seems to be using. I will go to work on that.”

“You can’t do that,” said the warden. “That property belongs to one of our most far-sighted angels who has got very rich by the advance of land values, and who is holding that piece for a rise. You will have to buy it or rent it before you can work on it, and you can’t do that yet.”

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?  ... Read the whole speech

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)

That much of our poverty is involuntary may be proved, if proof be necessary, by the magnitude of charitable work that aims to help only the "deserving poor"; and as to undeserving cases — the cases of voluntary poverty — who can say but that they, if not due to birth and training in the environs of degraded poverty, 35 are the despairing culminations of long-continued struggles for respectable ndependence? 36 How can we know that they are not essentially like the rest — involuntary and deserving? It is a profound distinction that a clever writer of fiction 37 makes when he speaks of "the hopeful and the hopeless poor." There is, indeed, little difference between voluntary and involuntary poverty, between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor, except that the "deserving" still have hope, while from the "undeserving" all hope, if they ever knew any, has gone.

35. The leader of one of the labor strikes of the early eighties, a hard-working, respectable, and self-respecting man, told me that the deprivations which he himself suffered as a workingman were as nothing compared with the fear for the future of his children that he felt whenever he thought of the repulsive surroundings, physical and moral, in which, owing to his poverty, he was compelled to bring them up.

Professor Francis Wayland, Dean of the Yale law school, wrote in the Charities Review for March, 1893: "Under our eyes and within our reach, children are being reared from infancy amid surroundings containing every conceivable element of degradation, depravity and vice. Why, then, should we be surprised that we are surrounded by a horde of juvenile delinquents, that the police reports in our cities teem with the exploits of precocious little villains, that reform schools are crowded with hopelessly abandoned young offenders? How could it be otherwise? What else could be expected from such antecedents, from such ever-present examples of flagrant vice? Short of a miracle, how could any child escape the moral contagion of such an environment? How could he retain a single vestige of virtue, a single honest impulse, a single shred of respect for the rights of others, after passing through such an ordeal of iniquity? What is there left on which to build up a better character?

In the Arena of July, 1893, Helen Campbell says, "It would seem at times as if the workshop meant only a form of preparation for the hospital, the workhouse and the prison, since the workers therein become inoculated with trade diseases, mutilated by trade appliances, and corrupted by trade associates till no healthy fiber, mental, moral or physical, remains."

Such testimony is abundant. But no further citation is necessary to arouse the conscience of the merciful and the just, and any amount of proof would not affect those self-satisfied mortals whom Kipling describes when he says that "there are men who, when their own front doors are closed, will swear that the whole world's warm."

36. Some years ago a gentleman, now well and favorably known in New York public life, told me of a ragged tramp whom he had brought, more to gratify a whim perhaps than in any spirit of philanthropy, from a neighboring camp of tramps to his house for breakfast. After breakfast the host asked his guest, in the course of conversation, why he lived the life of a tramp. This in substance was the tramp's reply:

"I am a mechanic and used to be a good one, though not so exceptionally good as to be safe from the competition of the great class of average workers. I had a family — a wife and two children. In the hard times of the seventies I lost my job. For a while we lived upon our little savings; but sickness came and our savings were used up. My wife and children died. Everything was gone but self-respect. Then I traveled, looking for work which could not be had at home. I traveled afoot; I could afford no other way. For days I hunted for work, begging food and sleeping in barns or under trees; but no work could I get. Once or twice I was arrested as a vagrant. Then I fell in with a party of tramps and with them drifted into the city. Winter came on. I still had a desire to regain my old place as a self-respecting man, but work was scarce and nothing that I could do could I find to do, except some little job now and then which was given to me as pennies are given to beggars. I slept mostly in station houses. Part of the time I was undergoing sentence for vagrancy. In the spring I tramped again. But now I did not hunt for work. My self-respect was gone so completely that I had no ambition to regain it. I was a loafer and a jail-bird. I had no family to support, and I had found that, barring the question of self-respect, I was about as well off as were average workmen. After years of tramping this opinion is unchanged. I am always sure of enough to eat and a place to sleep in — not very good often, but good enough. I should not be sure of that if I were a workingman. I might lose my job and go hungry rather than beg. I might be unable to pay my rent and so be turned upon the street. I might marry again and have a family which would be condemned to the hard life of the average workingman's family. And as for society, why, I have society. Tramps are good fellows — sociable fellows, bright fellows many of them. Life as a tramp is not half bad when you compare it with the workingman's life, leaving out the question of self-respect, of course. You must leave that out. No man can be a tramp for good until he loses that. But a period of hard times makes many a chap lose it. And as I have lost it I would rather be a tramp than a workingman. I have tried both. By the way, Mr. ——, this is a very good cigar — this brand of yours. I seldom smoke much better cigars."

The facts in detail of this man's story may have been false; they probably were. But so were the facts in detail of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." There is, however, a distinction between fact and truth, and no matter how false the man's facts may have been, his story, like Bunyan's, was essentially true. Much of the poverty that upon the surface seems to be voluntary and undeserving comes from a growing feeling among those who work hardest that, as Cowper describes it, they are

"Letting down buckets into empty wells,
And growing old with drawing nothing up."

At Victoria, B.C., in the spring of 1894, I witnessed a canoe race in which there were two contestants and but one prize. Long before the winner had reached the goal his adversary, who found himself far behind, turned his canoe toward the shore and dropped out of the race. Was it because he was too lazy to paddle? Not at all. It was because he realized the hopelessness of the effort.

... read the book


Joseph Fels:   True Christianity and My Own Religious Beliefs
Do you question the relationship between taxation and righteousness? Let us see. If government is a natural growth, then surely God's natural law provides food and sustenance for government as that food is needed; for where in Nature do we find a creature coming into the world without timely provision of natural food for it? It is in our system of taxation that we find the most emphatic denial of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, because, first, in order to meet our common needs, we take from individuals what does not belong to us in common; second, we permit individuals to take for themselves what does belong to us in common; thus, third, under the pretext of taxation for public purposes, we have established a system that permits some men to tax other men for private profit.

Does not that violate the natural, the divine law? Does it not surely beget wolfish greed on the one hand, and gaunt poverty on the other? Does it not surely breed millionaires on one end of the social scale and tramps on the other end? Has it not brought into civilization a hell, of which the savage can have no conception? Could any better system be devised for convincing men that God is the father of a few and the stepfather of the many? Is not that destructive of the sentiment of brotherhood? With such a condition, how is it possible for men in masses to obey the new commandment, "that ye love one another"? What could more surely thrust men apart? What could more surely divide them into warring classes? ... read the whole letter

Henry George: Progress & Poverty: Introductory: The Problem

It is to the newer countries — that is, to the countries where material progress is yet in its earlier stages — that laborers emigrate in search of higher wages, and capital flows in search of higher interest. It is in the older countries — that is to say, the countries where material progress has reached later stages — that widespread destitution is found in the midst of the greatest abundance. Go into one of the new communities where Anglo-Saxon vigor is just beginning the race of progress;

  • where the machinery of production and exchange is yet rude and inefficient;
  • where the increment of wealth is not yet great enough to enable any class to live in ease and luxury;
  • where the best house is but a cabin of logs or a cloth and paper shanty, and the richest man is forced to daily work

and though you will find an absence of wealth and all its concomitants, you will find no beggars. There is no luxury, but there is no destitution. No one makes an easy living, nor a very good living; but every one can make a living, and no one able and willing to work is oppressed by the fear of want.

But just as such a community realizes the conditions which all civilized communities are striving for, and advances in the scale of material progress — just as closer settlement and a more intimate connection with the rest of the world, and greater utilization of labor-saving machinery, make possible greater economies in production and exchange, and wealth in consequence increases, not merely in the aggregate, but in proportion to population — so does poverty take a darker aspect. Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at. The "tramp" comes with the locomotive, and alms houses and prisons areas surely the marks of "material progress" as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses, and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and controlled by uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied. ... read the entire chapter

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 14 Liberty, and Equality of Opportunity (in the unabridged P&P: Part X: The Law of Human Progress — Chapter 5: The Central Truth)

The truth to which we were led in the politico-economic branch of our inquiry is as clearly apparent in the rise and fall of nations and the growth and decay of civilizations, and it accords with those deep-seated recognitions of relation and sequence that we denominate moral perceptions. Thus are given to our conclusions the greatest certitude and highest sanction.

This truth involves both a menace and a promise. It shows that the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth, which are becoming more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on, are not incidents of progress, but tendencies which must bring progress to a halt; that they will not cure themselves, but, on the contrary, must, unless their cause is removed, grow greater and greater, until they sweep us back into barbarism by the road every previous civilization has trod. But it also shows that these evils are not imposed by natural laws; that they spring solely from social maladjustments which ignore natural laws, and that in removing their cause we shall be giving an enormous impetus to progress.

The poverty which in the midst of abundance pinches and embrutes men, and all the manifold evils which flow from it, spring from a denial of justice. In permitting the monopolization of the opportunities which nature freely offers to all, we have ignored the fundamental law of justice — for, so far as we can see, when we view things upon a large scale, justice seems to be the supreme law of the universe. But by sweeping away this injustice and asserting the rights of all men to natural opportunities, we shall conform ourselves to the law —

  • we shall remove the great cause of unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth and power;
  • we shall abolish poverty;
  • tame the ruthless passions of greed;
  • dry up the springs of vice and misery;
  • light in dark places the lamp of knowledge;
  • give new vigor to invention and a fresh impulse to discovery;
  • substitute political strength for political weakness; and
  • make tyranny and anarchy impossible.

The reform I have proposed accords with all that is politically, socially, or morally desirable. It has the qualities of a true reform, for it will make all other reforms easier. What is it but the carrying out in letter and spirit of the truth enunciated in the Declaration of Independence — the "self-evident" truth that is the heart and soul of the Declaration —"That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!"

These rights are denied when the equal right to land — on which and by which men alone can live — is denied. Equality of political rights will not compensate for the denial of the equal right to the bounty of nature. Political liberty, when the equal right to land is denied, becomes, as population increases and invention goes on, merely the liberty to compete for employment at starvation wages. This is the truth that we have ignored. And so

  • there come beggars in our streets and tramps on our roads; and
  • poverty enslaves men who we boast are political sovereigns; and
  • want breeds ignorance that our schools cannot enlighten; and
  • citizens vote as their masters dictate; and
  • the demagogue usurps the part of the statesman; and
  • gold weighs in the scales of justice; and
  • in high places sit those who do not pay to civic virtue even the compliment of hypocrisy; and
  • the pillars of the republic that we thought so strong already bend under an increasing strain. ...

The fiat has gone forth! With steam and electricity, and the new powers born of progress, forces have entered the world that will either compel us to a higher plane or overwhelm us, as nation after nation, as civilization after civilization, have been overwhelmed before. It is the delusion which precedes destruction that sees in the popular unrest with which the civilized world is feverishly pulsing only the passing effect of ephemeral causes. Between democratic ideas and the aristocratic adjustments of society there is an irreconcilable conflict. Here in the United States, as there in Europe, it may be seen arising.

  • We cannot go on permitting men to vote and forcing them to tramp.
  • We cannot go on educating boys and girls in our public schools and then refusing them the right to earn an honest living.
  • We cannot go on prating of the inalienable rights of man and then denying the inalienable right to the bounty of the Creator. ... read the whole chapter



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