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The Tax To End All Taxes
Where Is Henry George Now That We Need Him?
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
He had the answer—he believed it, and he persuaded millions of others to believe it, too. Even today there are those willing to maintain that if the American people had just listened to him, we would not now be afflicted by a multitude of taxes like barbs in the skin—including the annual stab of the 1040 form.
His name was Henry George, and he was perhaps the most original economic theorist this nation has produced. In his own day he was as well known as, say, Ralph Nader is today, but among the orthodox economic thinkers of modern times, he has long since been dismissed as a curious footnote to nineteenth-century history, one more crackpot among all the anarchists, Populists, and socialists spewed forth by the industrial revolution. He was far more than that; he had something to say still worth listening to, and he put it all down in a book called Progress and Poverty , published in 1879 as the pinnacle of what might be called an intellectual success story by Horatio Alger. As he himself once observed, “… if I have been enabled to emancipate myself from ideas which have fettered far abler men, it is, doubtless, due to the fact that my study of social problems was in a country like this, where they have been presented with peculiar directness, and perhaps also to the fact that I was led to think a good deal before I had a chance to do much reading.”
Henry George was horn in 1839 to a middle-class Philadelphia family. His father, a clerk in the customs house who had published religious hooks for some years, was a strict Low-Church Episcopalian. Young George was rebellious from the start. Just before he turned fourteen, he dropped out of school, where he later said he had only “wasted time,” and never went back. A passing interest in phrenology led him to analyze his character by the shape of his skull. (Fifty years after his death, his granddaughter, Agnes De Mille, the choreographer, wrote that elderly people who had known George would ask her to remove her hat so they could observe the formation of her head. ) Some of George’s self-observation through skull-bump analysis accurately forecast his adult life: “… generally takes sides on every contested question. … Is inclined … to push his projects with so much energy and zeal as to appear rash and nearly destitute of caution … has an insatiable desire to roam about and see the world. …”
At sixteen he shipped out as a foremast boy on the Hindoo , an East Indiaman carrying lumber around Cape Horn to Australia. The round trip, which took the Hindoo to Calcutta to pick up a cargo of rice and seeds, lasted fourteen months, and George came home with a net of fifteen dollars and a pet monkey. For the next couple of years he worked in Philadelphia as a printer’s apprentice, but the pay was low and the work unsteady. He had heard from a friend in Oregon of the high printers’ wages in the new lands of the West, and he was finding family discipline increasingly irksome. In 1858, when he was nineteen, George went to sea again, this time on a ship bound for California, with no intention of making the return journey. He jumped ship in San Francisco.
Henry George landed in California just ten years after the great Gold Rush had begun. It was an incredible new country whose wealth in rich farm land, it was already evident, exceeded even the value of its precious minerals. There should have been enough for everybody, and for a brief lime in the 1840’s and early 1850’s there had been; because good land was cheap, employers had to pay higher wages than in the now-old East to attract labor away from farming. But soon power and land and wealth were concentrated in a few hands, wages fell, and the gulf between those who had and those who had not opened up in faithful duplication of humanity’s experience elsewhere.
Land was the key to wealth—and poverty. Ry the end of the 1860’s, through massive federal and state grants, railroads, largescale farmers, and speculators had acquired much of the new state’s most valuable property: almost half the land available for agriculture was owned by one five-hundredth of the population. The owners held their land off the market, knowing its price could go nowhere but up, and new settlers, unable to buy land, had to work for lower wages. The drama was in the deposits of California gold and Nevada silver, but in the words of a contemporary account, “chiefly it was the holders of real estate that made the greatest fortunes.” The ups and downs were extraordinary, for history in the California of those days unreeled at the demented speed of an early silent movie: what took generations in the Kast, and centuries in the Old World, happened in California within the span of Henry George’s life. George Bernard Shaw later said about George that “Only an American could have seen in a single lifetime the growth of the whole tragedy of civilization from the primitive forest clearing.”