Progress and Poverty
Epigraph to preliminary pages:
Make for thyself a definition or description of the thing
which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind
of a thing it is, in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete
entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the
things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will
be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind
as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which
is presented to thee in life, and always to look at things so
as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and
what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything
has with reference to the whole, and what with reference to man,
who is a citizen of the highest city, of which all other cities
are like families; what each thing is, and of what it is composed,
and how long it is the nature of this thing to endure.
-- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Progress and Poverty Table
Preface to the Centenary Edition -- 1979
YEARS AGO a young unknown printer in San Francisco wrote a book
he called PROGRESS AND POVERTY. He wrote after his daily working
hours, in the only leisure open to him for writing. He had no real
training in political economy. Indeed he had stopped schooling
in the seventh grade in his native Philadelphia, and shipped before
the mast as a cabin boy, making a complete voyage around the world.
Three years later, he was halfway through a second voyage as able
seaman when he left the ship in San Francisco and went to work
as a journeyman printer. After that he took whatever honest job
came to hand. All he knew of economics were the basic rules of
Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other economists, and the new philosophies
of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, much of which he gleaned
from reading in public libraries and from his own painstakingly
amassed library. Marx was yet to be translated into English.
endowed for his job. He was curious and he was alertly attentive to all that
went on around him. He had that rarest of all attributes in the scholar and
historian that gift without which all education is useless. He had mother wit.
He read what he needed to read, and he understood what he read. What is more,
he saw what was before his eyes, exactly, with the clear vision of an artist
and the appraisal of a scientist. And he was fortunate. He lived and worked
in a rapidly developing society in which his environment changed daily. George
had the unique opportunity of studying the formation of a civilization—the
change of an encampment into a thriving metropolis. He saw a city of tents
and mud change into a fine town of paved streets and decent housing, with tramways
and buses. And as he saw the beginning of wealth, he noted the first appearance
of pauperism. He saw the coming of the first beggars the West had ever known
in its entire history. He saw degradation forming as he saw the advent of leisure
and affluence. It was his personal characteristic that he felt compelled to
discover why they arose concurrently.
of his inquiry, PROGRESS AND POVERTY, is written simply, but so beautifully
that it has been compared to the very greatest works of the English language.
Indeed, there are pages that cannot be bettered for eloquence, for sparkling
imagery, and for sound—that lovely poetic sound of the English language
beautifully spoken. He always had this superb gift. His sea-log at fourteen
compares with the style of Joseph Conrad.
he was totally unknown, no one would print his book. And so he and his friends,
also printers, set the type themselves and ran off an author's edition which
eventually found its way into the hands of a New York publisher, D. Appleton & Co.
An English edition soon followed which aroused enormous Interest. Alfred Russel
Wallace, the English scientist and writer, pronounced it "the most remarkable
and important book of the present century." It was not long before George
was known internationally.
lifetime, he became the third most famous man in the United States, only surpassed
in public acclaim by Thomas Edison and Mark Twain. George was translated into
almost every language that knew print, and some of the greatest, most influential
thinkers of his time paid tribute. Leo Tolstoy's appreciation stressed the
logic of George's exposition: "The chief weapon against the teaching of
Henry George was that which is always used against irrefutable and self-evident
truths. This method, which is still being applied in relation to George, was
that of hushing up .... People do not argue with the teaching of George, they
simply do not know it." John Dewey fervently stressed the originality
of George's system of ideas, stating that, "Henry George is one of a small
number of definitely original social philosophers that the world has produced." In
another appreciation Dewey said that "It would require less than the fingers
of the two hands to enumerate those who, from Plato down, rank with Henry George
among the world's social philosophers." And Bernard Shaw, in a letter
to my mother, Anna George, years later wrote, "Your father found me a
literary dilettante and militant rationalist in religion, and a barren rascal
at that. By turning my mind to economics he made a man of me ......
he was reviled as well as idolized. The men who believed in what he advocated
called themselves disciples, and they were in fact nothing less: working to
the death, proclaiming, advocating, haranguing, and proselytizing the idea,
and even, when lacking inspired leadership, becoming fanatically foolish so
that the movement which touched greatness began to founder. It was not implemented
by blood, as was communism, and so was not forced on people's attention. Shortly
after George's death, it dropped out of the political field. Once a badge of
honor, the title, "Single Taxer," came into general disuse. Except
in Alberta (the richest and most prosperous province of Canada) and in Australia
and New Zealand, his plan of social action has been neglected while those of
Marx, Keynes, Galbraith and Friedman have won great attention, and Marx's has
been given partial implementation, for a time, at least, in large areas of
that has been tried satisfies. We, the people, the whole people, are locked
in a death grapple and nothing our leaders offer, or are willing to offer,
mitigates our troubles. George said, "The people must think because the
people alone can act."
reached the deplorable circumstance where in large measure a very powerful
few are in possession of the earth's resources, the land and its riches and
all the franchises and other privileges that yield a return. These monopolistic
positions are kept by a handful of men who are maintained virtually without
taxation; they are immune to the demands made on others. The very poor, who
have nothing, are the object of compulsory charity. And the rest—the
workers, the middle-class, the backbone of the country—are made to support
the lot by their labor. They are made to pay for the men in possession who
are, in effect, their rulers, and for the paupers who are denied the opportunity
and dignity of earning their own living. Forcing one group to pay for all amounts
We are taxed
at every point of our lives, on everything we earn, on everything we save,
on much that we inherit, on much that we buy at every stage of the manufacture
and on the final purchase. The taxes are punishing, crippling, demoralizing.
Also they are, to a great extent, unnecessary.
It was rage
at unjust and proliferating taxation that drove the people of California to
revolt. In June, 1978, they voted overwhelmingly to adopt Proposition 13, an
amendment to the state constitution which would greatly diminish all taxes
on real property—on land, houses, gardens, farms, buildings. This was
neither a thoughtful nor a searching reform since the improvements and the
site and all natural resources were lumped together, and income and sales tax
rates were not separated. Under the so-called reform, the great landholdings
remained intact and therefore the great profiteering untouched.
believed that there was too much wastage in government, too much public welfare,
and that they could do very well with a great deal less of both. The results
so far have not been what was intended. State funds will undoubtedly be commandeered
to bail out local treasuries and probably the state funding of schools, universities,
libraries, symphony orchestras, museums and archives will be drastically reduced
while the bureaucracy and welfare remain relatively untouched. But there has
been an amount of serious thinking and if this change does not work the miracles
that people hope (and it won't) at least it will cause them to study the problems
thoughtfully. The electorate is, at long last, beginning to ask questions.
In this sense, the adventure has been of value.
system, in which state and federal taxes are interlocked, is deeply intrenched
and hard to correct. Moreover, it survives because it is based on bewilderment;
it is maintained in a manner so bizarre and intricate that it is impossible
for the ordinary citizen to know what he owes his government except with highly
paid help. Contrary to basic American law which presupposes innocence until
guilt is proven, the government now takes for granted that every American citizen
is lying and cheating at every turn and he must pay an advocate to persuade
the duly elected authority that he is neither a liar nor cheat. It comes to
this: we support a large section of our government (the Internal Revenue Service)
to prove that we are breaking our own laws. And we support a large profession
(tax lawyers) to protect us from our own employees. College courses are given
to explain the tax forms which would otherwise be quite unintelligible.
is galling and destructive, but it is still, in a measure, superficial. The
great sinister fact, the one that we must live with, is that we are yielding
up sovereignty. The nation is no longer comprised of the thirteen original
states, nor of the thirty-seven younger sister states, but of the real powers:
the cartels, the corporations. Owning the bulk of
our productive resources, they are the issue of that concentration
of ownership that George saw evolving, and warned against.
are not American any more. Transcending nations, they serve not their country's
interests, but their own. They manipulate our tax policies to help themselves.
They determine our statecraft. They are autonomous. They do not need to coin
money or raise armies. They use ours.
And in opposition
rise up the great labor unions. It is war. In the meantime, the bureaucracy,
both federal and local, supported by the deadly opposing factions, legislate
themselves mounting power never originally intended for our government and
exert a ubiquitous influence which can be, and often is, corrupt.
I do not
wish to be misunderstood as falling into the trap of the socialists and communists
who condemn all privately owned business, all factories, all machinery and
organizations for producing wealth. There is nothing wrong with private corporations
owning the means of producing wealth, with, as the socialists would say, Capitalism.
All Georgists believe in private enterprise, and in its virtues and incentives
to produce at maximum efficiency. It is the insidious linking together of special
privilege, the unjust outright private ownership of natural or public resources,
monopolies, franchises, that produce unfair domination and autocracy. The means
of producing wealth differ at the root, some is thieved from the people and
some is honestly earned. George differentiated; Marx did not. The consequences
of our failure to discern lie at the heart of our trouble.
civilization is ours. We have achieved it out of the hopeful agrarian society
that flourished in the eighteenth century, out of a new government we had every
right to believe was founded on reasonableness, wisdom and justice. We were
not compelled to come to this. We knew neither king nor conqueror. We chose
this of our own free will, in our own free democracy, with all the means to
legislate intelligently readily at hand. We chose this because we insisted
on following the worn-out European grooves, because it suited a few people
to have us do so. They counted on our mental indolence and we freely and obediently
conformed. We chose not to think.
alas, was predicated for its effectiveness in expansion on free land. Now there
is no more free land, and the flaw in the great plan grows evident. We have
reached the boundaries and we turn back on ourselves and devour.
was a lucid voice, direct and bold, that pointed out basic truths, that cut
through the confusion which developed like rot. Each age has known such diseases
and each age has gone down for lack of understanding. It is not valid to say
that our times are more complex than ages past and therefore the solution must
be more complex. The problems are, on the whole, the same. The fact that we
now have electricity and computers does not in any way controvert the fact
that we can succumb to the injustices that toppled Rome.
such a calamity, to eliminate involuntary poverty and unemployment, and to
enable each individual to attain his maximum potential, George wrote this extraordinary
treatise a hundred years ago. His ideas stand: he who makes should have; he
who saves should enjoy; what the community produces belongs to the community
for communal uses; and God's earth, all of it, is the right of the people who
inhabit the earth. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "The earth belongs
in usufruct to the living."
simple and this is unanswerable. The ramifications may not be simple but they
do not alter the fundamental logic.
has been a time in our history when we have needed so sorely to hear good sense,
to learn to define terms exactly, to draw reasonable conclusions. We needs
perish. As George said, "The truth that I have tried to make
clear will not find easy acceptance. If that could be, it would
have been accepted long ago. If that could be, it would never have
We are on
the brink. It is possible to have another Dark Ages. But in George there is
a voice of hope.
Agnes George de Mille
New York, January, 1979
Agnes George de Mille is the granddaughter
of Henry George. She is famous in her own right as a choreographer
and the founder of the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theater, and
she is a recipient of the Handel Medallion, New York's highest
award for achievement in the arts. She is the author of thirteen