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Henry George(1839 - 1897) is a progressive hero that has been largely forgotten by time.  In his heyday, he was one of the most famous living Americans in the World.  Surpassed by only Thomas Edison and Mark Twain.  His most famous book was translated into dozens of languages and sold 3 million copies in his lifetime.  He was invited to speak and lecture all over the country and world, and his writings appeared in newspapers across the nation.  At his funeral in 1897, 200,000 paid their respects by filing past his casket(as a comparison, when President McKinley was assassinated 4 years later, only about 100,000 people filed past his casket.  So how did a 19th century printer, living in San Francisco , with no more than a 7th grade education become so famous?  And why was he forgotten?

Henry George went on a quest to find out why there is poverty among so much progress and wealth.  The result of his quest was a book called Progress and Poverty.  He started writing in 125 years this month.  Except for some anachronisms, the book could be mistaken for being written in any decade between then and now.  If you read it today, you could easily think it was written last year .  All the problems he describes are still problems today.  All the excuses that he debunks as causes for these problems are still repeated today.  Here is the opening of Progress and Poverty.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY saw an enormous increase in the ability to produce wealth. Steam and electricity, mechanization, specialization, and new business methods greatly increased the power of labor.  Who could have foreseen the steamship, the railroad, the tractor? Or factories weaving cloth faster than hundreds of weavers? Who could have heard the throb of engines more powerful than all the beasts of burden combined? Or envisioned the immense effort saved by improvements in transportation, communication, and commerce?...

[snip]

...Yet we must now face facts we cannot mistake. All over the world, we hear complaints of industrial depression: labor condemned to involuntary idleness; capital going to waste; fear and hardship haunting workers. All this dull, deadening pain, this keen, maddening anguish, is summed up in the familiar phrase "hard times."

Does that not sound like it could've been written last year?  Change the century and replace the inventions with more recent inventions like robotics and computers, and this could be an Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times.

Henry George described the conditions of the poor as, in many ways, worse than ancient man.

Nevertheless, no one who faces the facts can avoid the conclusion that -- in the heart of our civilization -- there are large classes that even the sorriest savage would not want to trade places with. Given the choice of being born an Australian aborigine, an arctic Eskimo, or among the lowest classes in a highly civilized country such as Great Britain, one would make an infinitely better choice in selecting the lot of the savage.

Those condemned to want in the midst of wealth suffer all the hardships of savages, without the sense of personal freedom. If their horizon is wider, it is only to see the blessings they cannot enjoy. I challenge anyone to produce an authentic account of primitive life citing the degradation we find in official documents regarding the condition of the working poor in highly civilized countries.

Today, conservatives berate the poor for having cell phones and TVs.  They use it as evidence thatpoverty is not a problem in America.  Henry George had an insightful response that is still relevant to this day.
Yes, in certain ways, the poorest now enjoy what the richest could not a century ago. But this does not demonstrate an improvement -- not so long as the ability to obtain the necessities of life has not increased. A beggar in the city may enjoy many things that a backwoods farmer cannot. But the condition of the beggar is not better than that of an independent farmer. What we call progress does not improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. In fact, it tends to depress their condition even more.
Henry George was very progressive when it came to other cultures.  At the time, it was common to blame poverty on nature or racism.  For instance, the Irish were too dumb when they depended so heavily on potatoes, India and China were overpopulated.  These were popular myths for why these countries were or had so many poor.  Henry George demolished all of them.  All he had to do was point out how well off the elites were in each of these countries.

Another popular explanation of why the poor were poor, was based on good old fashioned classism.  That is, the poor are poor because they are lazy, criminally inclined, or just generally rude(sound familiar?).  Henry George had a great retort for these people too.

In society as presently constituted, people are greedy for wealth because the conditions of distribution are so unjust. Instead of each being sure of enough, many are condemned to poverty. This is what causes the rat race and the scramble for wealth. An equitable distribution of wealth would exempt everyone from this fear. It would destroy greed for wealth, as greed for food is destroyed in polite society.

On crowded steamers, manners often differed between cabin and steerage, illustrating this principle of human nature. Both had enough food. However, steerage had no regulations to insure efficient service, so meals became a scramble. In cabin, on the contrary, each was assigned a place, and there was no fear of not getting enough to eat. There was no scrambling and no waste. The difference was not in the character of the people, but simply in the arrangements. A cabin passenger transferred to steerage would participate in the greedy rush; a steerage passenger transferred to cabin would become respectful and polite.

In other words, the negative behavior attributed to the poor is not the reason they are poor.  Rather, the behavior is a result of being poor.  This argument, and all other arguments boiled down to a refutation of Social Darwinism.  The crude theory that the poor are poor because they suck, and the rich are rich because they are awesome.  Henry George expertly busted this mythology that the elite told themselves.

Finally, the reason I call Henry George the "First Progressive" isn't just because he argued against Social Darwinism.  The reason is because he was the first popular figure to do so, that didn't blame capitalism and turn to a marxist solution to solve the problem.  From his preface to the fourth edition to Progress and Poverty.

What I have done in this book is to unite the truth perceived by Smith and Ricardo with the truth perceived by Proudhon and Lassalle. I have shown that laissez faire—in its full, true meaning—opens the way for us to realize the noble dreams of socialism.
He blamed what he called the "Land Monopoly".  The details, and his solution, to the problem are too long for this already long post.  Just to give you an idea, he redefined the class fight from being capitalists VS. workers as Marx did, to Land(and other) Monopolists VS.  "real capitalists"workers.  His book is an easy read and is free on the web and as a pdf.  I think you'll enjoy it if you give it a chance.(my only recommendation is to skip chapter 5 in book III - it's a little convoluted)

As for why he has been largely forgotten, I can only speculate.  Maybe because he billed himself as an "economist" yet he expounded on classic political economy.  At the time of his writing, the world of economics was moving onto the "neoclassical" economics that we are more familiar with today.  Maybe the elite wanted us to forget about him.  Unlike figures like Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, they couldn't "rehabilitate" his legacy to make him appear as a conservative.  Perhaps it is as innocent as later economic figures like John Maynard Keynes over shadowing his legacy.

Whatever the reason for Henry George being forgotten, it certainly isn't because his work is no longer relevant, nor is it because his proposed solution was a bad idea(ever city, state, or province that has tried it has had enormous growth).    Here's to remembering a man that deserves to be remembered.

Cross Posted from Our Dime

Originally posted to MoneyLiberty on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 06:06 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Republished (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dustin Mineau, millwood

    ... to History for Kossacks.  I learned something from this one.  Thanks for posting.

    Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

    by Land of Enchantment on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 08:06:18 AM PDT

  •  sorry pal. . . Thomas Paine (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LNK, Dustin Mineau, catfood, millwood, Odysseus

    . . .the first progressive was Thomas Paine. Consider, he opposed slavery and would have granted the vote to all people including native Americans, he proposed that all citizens recieve 100 pounds sterling upon the age of 21 in return for their natural rights to land and he proposed all citizens aged 50 and over recieve 50 pounds sterling annually. . .a sort of "founding fathers social security".

    •  lol! I just go pwned! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      psyched

      I always thought of the political liberalism of Locke through our founding fathers to be distinct from the later economic liberalism of the "progressive" period and then New Deal liberalism.  That's why I ruled out figures from the revolution to be candidates for "first progressive".

      I have to admit you have a good point.  However, I don't want to get caught up in who was the true "first progressive".  I just wanted to reintroduce a figure that has been forgotten, but deserves to be remembered.  So sorry if I offended you or any other Thomas Paine fans.

      Our Dime: Understanding the Federal Budget

      by Dustin Mineau on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 10:16:38 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  K.I.S.S. version would help re Henry George (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dustin Mineau

    I studied his work some years ago.

    If one could just boil it down into the simplest version that even a cocktail-waitress type and/or blow-dried pretty boy news anchor could understand.................

  •  Progress and Poverty had a huge impact on me n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dustin Mineau, catfood
  •  Rich People Love Georgism - No Income Tax (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    millwood

    It's one of those ideas that seems to make some sense on paper, but would end up wildly regressive in practice.  The dairy farmer pays more taxes than the shopping mall?  But it will always have fans among the income tax haters.

    It has been tried in couple towns, which seem to have a cheerfully bohemian mixture of artists and wealth. So it seems to have worked on a small scale.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    I also wrote a diary about paleolibertarian Alfred Nock, whose career ended on a sour antisemitic note

    http://www.dailykos.com/...

    According to Wikipedia  Nock advocated the Georgist theory of eliminating all taxes except a land tax, a "single tax"  based on the "economic rent" of land. The idea of economic rent determining the value of property ("location, location, location") is familiar, but using this as the basis of all taxes is a wild-eyed bit of social engineering that has never been attempted. Nock was also an editor of "The Freeman," a Georgist publication, in the 1920's, and reprints can be found on line.

    However, Nock does seem to have been an early adopter of the Libertarian business model - hype a flat-tax substitute for the income tax, and get wealthy people as sponsors.

    Although he started as a liberal reformer, Nock did the big swing to reactionary libertarian. He reminds me of John Stossel, who started as a consumer protection reporter before jumping on the wingnut welfare retirement plan pushing anarchocapitalist libertarianism at Fox.

    Nock also hit on many familiar libertarian/Randian themes - the division of society into producers and parasites, the failure of statism, the illegitimacy of any government (including elected ones), an obsession with the gold standard, a hatred of public schools, a sense the society is is headed for inevitable collapse, longing for a barely conceived tribal utopia, nostalgia for the "stolen" past of cultural purity, and the rise of a natural elite class (whose qualities other people just can't appreciate).  

    There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby

    by bernardpliers on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 11:39:46 AM PDT

    •  Georgism vs. income tax (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Deward Hastings, catfood, millwood

      Modern georgists have moved to a broader definition of "land" to include all natural resources.

      Wealthy hate the georgist solution.  Because it takes away a lot of their "free" income.  A lot of stock, banking, etc are based on Real Estate and real estate speculation.  Wealthy elites want the "national sales tax" because it completely untaxes Real Estate and other economic rent - the exact opposite of Georgism.  While it might not be a complete answer to what ails our economy, it doesn't mean it can't be a small or large part of it.

      Georgism was used to breakup large lang grants in California.  And as you point out several cities have found success with only partial Georgist implementations to revitalize their inner ring.

      Henry George had a genuine concern for the poor and cared about poverty.  He did not dismiss them as "parasites" like the Ayn Rand culture.  To group them as the same because they both have some libertarian overlap is intellectually dishonest.

      Our Dime: Understanding the Federal Budget

      by Dustin Mineau on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 11:55:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'd go for practical. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dustin Mineau

        If I could snap my fingers and have Georgism implemented nationally, yeah, maybe land tax doesn't really raise enough money. Maybe we need a wealth or income tax to even out the big spikes in economic outcomes.

        But Georgism is a really good idea in its own right and should be tried on a larger scale. It's fine to mix Georgism and (let's say) democratic socialism--they're not too far apart really.

      •  Regrettably Most Alternative Taxes Become Scams (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        millwood

        Even if the principles are sound, someone will make a quick buck  by telling the wealthy Birchers that this how they can eliminate income tax, and all of a sudden they have a nice think tank or academic job where they can espouse the idea of protecting the wealthy from taxes.  Nice work if you can get it.  

        There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby

        by bernardpliers on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 01:04:02 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I agree with one aspect of the property tax/income (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dustin Mineau, catfood

        tax debate. Changes in land value are a matter of speculation and property improvement. If I remember correctly George was incensed at the speculative aspect of property value. "Money for nothing".

        Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. -Martin Luther

        by the fan man on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 02:39:52 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  You MUST have a mechanism that prevents (0+ / 0-)

        concentration of wealth.

        The bankers don't need real estate to manufacture wealth out of phony debt -- consider the multi-multi-trillions in unwound financial derivatives that are lurking out there this very minute.

        No, the answer does not lie with any sort of laissez-faire. It lies with a sensibly ordered set of economic institutions that, as their very first principle, treat with contempt the idea that Debt is the fundamental and most important of human relationships.

        To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

        by UntimelyRippd on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 10:46:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  One does not need to speculate as to (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    willyr, catfood

    why Henry George was "forgotten".  He wasn't just forgetten; he was systematically scrubbed out of the economics and history books over a 30-year period after his death.  Mason Gaffney has a wonderful book out called "The Corruption of Economics" in which he chronicles this effort fully citing original sources. The Rockefellers, Morgans, etc., spent large amounts of money to have George removed from economics books and academia in general.  

    Most people don't realize that at the end of the 19th century there were two big tax reforms on the table.  One was the income tax, and the other was the "land tax" or more accurately "the monopoly tax".  It is instructive that the wealthy eventually sided with the income tax because they understood that they could evade much of it and take the middle class as tax hostages in the process, thus creating a political sheld for their privileges.  Things have only changed by degree.

    When progressives are serious about offering a real alternative we will return to that fork in the road not taken a century ago.

    The Long War is not on Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran. It is on the American people.

    by Geonomist on Thu Aug 09, 2012 at 01:52:07 PM PDT

  •  And if you're in NYC (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dustin Mineau

    we have the Henry George Institute and the Henry George School. They often have some pretty interesting lectures and such.
    http://www.henrygeorge.org/...
    http://www.henrygeorgeschool.org/

  •  Yes, Henry George is relevent today (0+ / 0-)

    Thanks for this excellent presentation. While HG may not have been the first progressive -- Tom Paine proposed a land tax to fund grants to young adults to start businesses and to create a social security system -- HG was the first major progressive intellectual to understand the value of cities. He pointed out that cities were dense centers of creative interaction and productivity and that this socially created value was capitalized into the land values and privatized or expropriated by the land owners. One of the reasons HG is no longer treated as relevant today is a reason he himself predicted, which is that if land ownership becomes widespread throughout a society -- and the U.S. is 2/3 homeowners -- then people are not receptive to the idea of taxing away the socially created value of the land. Another reason is that those who follow in his footsteps, a couple of whom have commented above, are fixated on land value taxation. This is understandable, since HG himself became fixated on his "Single-Tax" solution, but I think what is truly valuable to us today is the understanding that we the people, as a public, as a society, create enormous value and that we are morally entitled to distribute that value in ways that we all will benefit from.  

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