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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
George’s defeat foreshadowed his consistent failure to translate mass support into either political victory or change in the tax system. A year later the nascent Georgist political movement fell apart, with the socialist faction proclaiming that “the burning social question is not a land tax, but the abolition of all private property in instruments of production.” The split was inevitable. Both shared a commitment to the ideal of equity, but George the individualist and believer in Adam Smith’s free market could never agree with Karl Marx, another contemporary prophet, that state ownership was the way to get from here to there. Certainly the two had little use for each other. Marx dismissed George as “the capitalists’ last ditch,” while conceding, rather surprisingly, that “he is otherwise a writer of talent (but to have talent is a Yankee characteristic). …” George considered Marx “a most superficial thinker, entangled in an inexact and vicious terminology” and “the prince of muddleheads.”
George remained active for the eleven years of life left to him after the 1886 election. His lecture tours took him as far as Australia, which, then and now, practices a diluted form of his land-value tax. (The full “confiscation of rent” exists nowhere.) On the way to Australia he stopped off in California, where local observers commented wonderingly on the world renown achieved by their own “little Harry George.” His writing was prolific. From 1887 to 1892 he edited the Standard . a weekly platform for his opinions. Having become enbroilcd in dispute with the Catholic Church over its disciplining of Edward McGIy nn, a priest who supported him for mayor, George wrote, in 1891, An Open Letter to the Pope , a reply to the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum , in which he took Pope Leo XIII to task for his support of property rights in land. Whenever George could find a free-trade candidate, he campaigned for him.
George’s life and personality do not seem to have been transformed by his sudden rise from obscurity to fame. Since he never held on to money, his family’s life-style remained modest, though not impoverished as in the earlier years. Although single-mindedly devoted to his beliefs, George was free of the hatred that disfigures so many true believers; he showed no vindictiveness toward his opponents, and he did not go around preaching “hang the landowners.” Always physically active, he learned to ride a bicycle at fifty-two, and thereafter would drag his family and friends out biking in Central Park.
In 1897 George was persuaded to run again for mayor of New York. On October 29—in the middle of the campaign—he died suddenly of apoplexy. He was fifty-eight. His massive funeral called forth tributes from friend and foe: as with most radicals, Henry George became praiseworthy once he was safely buried.
The single-tax movement survived George as a significant political force for about twenty years. In the first two decades of this century, single-taxers fought—and lost—referendum battles in several states and cities. The issue was fought four times in Oregon alone, the single-taxcrs being financed by Joseph FeIs, a soap manufacturer who gave a total of $173,000 to “put the single tax into effect somewhere in the United States within five years.”
The massive influence of Henry George and Progress and Poverty in awakening interest in social reform was diverted toward targets other than his land tax, for, as George himself noted, most people had other, more pressing goals. George was fated to he a kind of John the Baptist for other prophets preaching different and often contrary messages. Many of the Americans George had inspired backslid into the Progressive and Populist movements, and the goal of removing unearned profit from landholding was lost. The Georgist movement faded away to the margins of history, where it remains today—a sect apart rather than a serious force, dedicated more to preserving his memory than to implementing his beliefs.