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Where Is Henry George Now That We Need Him?
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
In 1871 George put his “perception” into a forty-eight-page pamphlet, Our Land and Land Policy, State and National , which sold a thousand copies locally and added to his modest reputation in California. Shortly thereafter he had his first unhappy brush with the academic world, a harbinger of the low esteem in which each would hold the other in later years. The new University of California at Berkeley had decided to set up a chair in political economy, and George was asked to deliver a lecture with the thought that, despite his lack of proper credentials, he might be chosen for it.
With his usual willingness to do battle against both odds and his own self-interest, George uncorked a lecture that guaranteed he would not get the job. After castigating the professors for having “given to a simple and attractive science an air of repellent abstruscness and uncertainty,” he went on to tell the students: “You do not even need textbooks nor teachers, if you will but think for yourselves. … Here you may obtain the tools; but they will be useful only to him who can use them. A monkey with a microscope, a mule packing a library, are (it emblems of the men—and unfortunately they are plenty—who pass through the whole educational machinery, and come out but learned fools. …” Within the family, George disapproved of homework for his children, and years later, when his eldest son had to choose between a Harvard scholarship and a newspaper job, his father advised the latter, on the grounds that Harvard would leave “much that will have to be unlearned.”
George now devoted most of two years to writing Progress and Poverty , the book that was to make him a world figure. These were the “Terrible Seventies,” a time of hank failures and bankruptcies; the family lived hand to mouth on his occasional earnings from fees as a gas-meter inspector and from a few lecture engagements. (Most of his lectures were on land or free trade or polities, hut one, which he often repeated in later years, was on Moses.) George went deeply into debt, and at one point he had to pawn his watch, but he was determined to complete the book. Later he recalled that “when I had finished the last page, in the dead of night, when I was entirely alone, I Hung myself on my knees and wept like a child.” George sent the manuscript to New York in early 1879 and got two rejections: D. Appleton & Co. found it “very aggressive” and to Harper’s it was “revolutionary.” George decided to publish it first himself; a friendly printer in San Francisco offered to make the plates, and George himself set some of the type.
Progress and Poverty is long and rambling, but often soaring in its eloquence. George’s style is more biblical than economical; this was before economics had to be written in numbers rather than words. Along the way, George offers his critique of classical economic doctrine, delves into world history, and concludes—eccentrically, by current standards of economic writing—with a theological chapter on “the problem of individual life.” The subject of the book is summarized in the subtitle: “An inquiry into the cause of industrial depressions and of increase of want with increase of wealth … the remedy.”
The “cause” lies with the landowner. Man is entitled only to the fruits of his own labor, but the holder of land, unlike the worker and the capitalist, makes no contribution to wealth: he simply charges others for the use of what was made by nature and which he happens to possess, usually by theft or conquest. Land has value only when it is scarce. When land is abundant, as in early America and early California, no one has to pay for it, there are no landlords, and each person is rewarded according to his effort and his ability. The value of land rises, not through any contribution by its owner, but because more people need more space; because the growth of a community enhances the value of strategically located property; and because of speculation.