Henry George's Political Economy

To be a teacher is one thing; to be a reformer is to be more and less. To possess but a single idea is often intolerable weakness; to be possessed of but a single idea is often intolerant strength. To propound an economic theory is an affair of intellect; to propagate an economic gospel is a matter of heart and soul and strength and mind. To those who are at all familiar with the writings of Henry George, the key to his influence is not far to seek. He was a reformer ; heart and soul and mind and strength, he was possessed of one idea; he was the eloquent apostle of an economic gospel, — the “ new philosophy of the natural order, best known as the Single Tax.” Here are his weakness and strength, his narrowness and breadth, his power for good and power for harm. In earlier and later writings, controversial or explanatory, the same merits and the same defects appear.

Obviously, a single set of criteria may not be applied to gospel and to science. For while the scientist is everlastingly seeking the truth, the apostle is proclaiming the everlasting truth. The one is calm, cool, and dispassionate ; the other, enthusiastic, ardent, and intolerant.

Henry George’s apostolic fervor, no less than the supplementary relation of this posthumous volume1 to his earlier work, is sufficiently indicated by an extract from the preface, supposed to have been written in 1894, fifteen years after the first appearance of Progress and Poverty : “ On the night on which I finished the first chapter of Progress and Poverty I felt that the talent entrusted to me had been accounted for, — felt more fully satisfied, more deeply grateful, than if all the kingdoms of the earth had been laid at my feet; and though the years have justified, not diminished, my faith, there is still left for me something to do.” This “ something ” was no less than the attempted reconstruction of political economy, — begun in 1891, and presented to the public in its incomplete condition, “ exactly as it was left by the author ” at his sudden death in October, 1897.

Like all his later writings, this book is primarily a restatement of “ the new philosophy of the natural order, best known as the Single Tax.” Incidentally, however, it gives a cosmic introduction to this philosophy; demonstrates the eminently respectable ancestry of the singletax doctrines ; insists that they embody all that is good in the economic thought of the past; and asserts vehemently that in departing from these principles as imperfectly enunciated by the physiocrats and Adam Smith, the science of political economy during the present century has first been betrayed into a mass of hopeless confusions, and then been entirely abandoned by its professed teachers in favor of an incoherent pseudo-science called “ economics,” — the subservient tool of tremendous pecuniary, special, anti-social, class interests which have everywhere captured the educational machinery of thinking and teaching in higher institutions of learning. More in contempt than in sorrow, he admits that he once hoped for better things, and thought the constructive work to which he now addresses himself would be undertaken by at least some of the professed teachers of political economy. “Had these teachers frankly admitted the changes called for by Progress and Poverty,” he condescendingly suggests that “some of the structure on which they built might have been retained.”But that was not in human nature. “ What,” he childishly exclaims, “ were their training and laborious study worth if it could thus be ignored, and if one who had never seen the inside of a college except when he had attempted to teach professors the fundamentals of their science, whose education was of the mere common school branches, whose alma mater had been the forecastle and the printing-office, should be admitted to prove the inconsistency of what they had been teaching as science ? It was not to be thought of. And so while a few of these professional economists, driven to say something about Progress and Poverty, resorted to misrepresentation, the majority preferred to rely upon their official positions, in which they were secure by the interests of the dominant class, and to treat as beneath contempt a book circulating by thousands in the three great English-speaking countries, and translated into all the important modern languages.”

The temper revealed by such passages is obviously a painful contrast to the devout magnanimity to which attention has already been called, and seems at first sight inconsistent with it. To the unsympathetic reader there would seem to be something almost pathological in the persistent recurrence of such naïve autobiographic self-appreciation, on the one hand, and such constant imputation of stultification, subserviency, and unworthy motives to the learned, rich, and dominant classes who have failed to receive Mr. George’s gospel. In a smaller personality than his, such self-complacent vehemence and vilification would be construed as evidence of personal pique, chagrin, and conceit. In the main, however, the apostolic fervor, the self-appreciation, and the unsparing denunciation may all be traced to essentially the same source. He is proclaiming a gospel. His personality is sunk in his cause. He is filled with what he himself compares to an “ ecstatic vision ” of the only true social and economic order. He believes that his lips have been touched by a live coal from off the altar of eternal justice. He sees one thing, sees it intensely, — has it so impressed upon his mind that he sees it everywhere and always, to the exclusion of everything else ; and he cannot understand how any but the perversely blind can fail to see as he does.

It is characteristic of his religious fervor that all this weight of disagreement and of “contemptuous silence” never for a moment shakes his faith in himself or his mission. The common people have heard him gladly; and the opposition of the scribes, pharisees, and dominant classes is no new experience in the propagation of truth. Christ, he explains to us, also “ always expressed sympathy with the poor and repugnance of the rich” and mighty, because poverty then, like poverty to-day, was caused by unjust wealth and power. “ And so it is utterly impossible, in this or in any conceivable world, to abolish unjust poverty without at the same time abolishing unjust possessions.” Unhappily, this type of teaching increases social distrust, and raises between social classes barriers of suspicion that are not easily removed.

It is needless to say that the historical and critical aspects of this latest work are least valuable and least accurate. Mr. George often exercises the propagandist privilege of refuting the alleged teachings of a group of economists in the lump, sometimes simply demolishing his own misapprehensions, or setting up a man of straw, and securing a triumph which may win the applause of the groundlings, but cannot fail to make the judicious grieve.

The constructive exposition has much of the customary charm of the author’s genial, vigorous, imaginative style. The chapters are very short, definite, and correspondingly numerous. Endless assistance is furnished the reader in the form of preliminary tables of contents; the style is pitched at the level of the average man, and enlivened with scraps of history, biography, reminiscence, and humor.

There is little in terminology and arrangement to suggest any radical departure. It is in the new definition of accepted and fundamental terms that the changes are wrought which lead the reader by way of the new and restricted meanings assigned to political economy, wealth, and value to the inevitable conclusion of the single tax and its corollaries.

It is to be regretted that the exigencies of active propaganda and economic controversy have so embittered the legacy which a powerful and dramatic personality has left to the thought of his time.

  1. The Science of Political Economy. By HENRY GEORGE. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co. 1898.