The Singular Henry George: Insights and Influence

by David S. D’Amato
An overview of the life, work, and influence of Henry George, who famously argued that the only justifiable tax was a property tax on land.

With his mother a schoolteacher and his father a publisher, perhaps it is no surprise that Henry George lived an intellectually curious and literary life, one spent immersed in the written word and including employment as a typesetter and a journalist. Still, George’s life was not that of a cloistered man of letters. As Professor Jerry K. Frye wrote of George in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “By 1855 he had sailed to Australia and back, noting his experiences with poverty and hardship in a sea journal.” Such rich and harrowing experiences on the high seas were an ineradicable influence on the young George, his newspaper articles suffused with the “use of sea metaphor and imagery.” George’s faith, inherited from an episcopal father, seems also to have impacted his thinking, his work bestrewn with guesses as to the intentions of “the Creator of the universe.” Important to his general attack on socialism as a system antipathetic to the freedom of the individual was his view that it was fundamentally atheistic in character. Without the presupposition of divinely granted individual rights, George argued, socialism could not proceed on scientific footing, falling into “the learned German ability of studying details without any leading principle.” As his system of political economy germinated in his mind and his promising career as a newspaperman advanced, the young George parlayed his editorial successes into several speaking engagements, earning a reputation as “one of the best political speakers on the [west] coast.” This relationship between the word as it is spoken and as it is written remained a central consideration throughout George’s life. He honed both skills to become both one of the nineteenth centuries master communicators of popular ideas and one of its greatest intellectual figures. As Albert Jay Nock wrote of George’s dexterity and exactitude of language, “George never wrote a sentence that needed a second reading to tell not only what it meant, but the only thing it could possibly mean, or be made to mean.”

A committed advocate of free trade and a narrowly tailored, limited government, George was a genuine and principled libertarian, energetically opposing government interventions in the economy such as, for example, subsidized railroads. Yet given today’s political vernacular, George’s distinctive thought may seem to present a kind of paradox. To the extent that most Americans now wrongly associate support for free enterprise and limited government with the defense of big business, George’s economic populism, his backing of labor and hostility toward powerful monopolies may seem an odd fit with his essentially libertarian philosophy. In George’s time, though, the symbiotic interdependence connecting governmental and commercial power was rather more clearly understood. George did not harbor the delusion, so widespread today, that the state would or even could act as a restraint upon the power of business monopolies. He regarded the state as a thief and source of thievery, a dangerous concentration of aggressive power ill-suited to any but the narrowest category of tasks. George even acknowledged “the abolition of government” as an ideal which society ought to approach, contrasting socialism as “more destitute of any central and guiding principle than any philosophy I know of.” Thus standing in opposition to both capitalism and state-directed socialism, Henry George’s sweeping system of political and economic reform resists neat categorization within today’s ideological and definitional taxonomies. George radically championed the individual and her rights while calling for the abolition of private property in land, crafting a governmental system through which he claimed “to unite the truth perceived by the school of Smith and Ricardo to the truth perceived by the school of Proudhon and Lasalle.” Through his masterwork Progress and Poverty, George undertook “to show that laissez faire (in its full true meaning) opens the way to a realization of the noble dreams of socialism.” We may therefore regard George as a unique kind of limited government socialist, his system submitting a minarchist state funded by only one tax (on the land) and otherwise offering the individual full freedom to experiment and trade.

George shared the idea that true laissez faire would accomplish the goals of socialism with individualist anarchist contemporaries such as Benjamin Tucker. For all their similarities, however, George drew a special ire from Tucker, who criticized George as belonging to “that class who speak in the name of liberty, but do not know the meaning of the word.” Tucker went so far as to call George “one of the most dangerous men among all of those now posing as public teachers.” The two sparred in the pages of Tucker’s anarchist journal Liberty, debating subjects as diverse as the land question and intellectual property. It may be that what is often called “the narcissism of small differences” can help explain the rancor with which Tucker spoke of George, given the family resemblance their ideas so evidently share. His focus forever on principle and consistency, Tucker regarded George’s system as muddled and contradictory, decrying the “immense and complicated network of governmental machinery,” yet stopping short of full anarchism. We would be remiss not to note here that the sudden popularity of George’s work and ideas likely also piqued Tucker, for whom libertarian propagandizing was an all-consuming life’s work. Due to his popularity and reach, George’s work lured comments and criticisms from several of the giants of his day, other radicals and system-builders with their own programs of reform to peddle.

Karl Marx weighed in, predictably denying that George’s work represented a true challenge to monopoly capitalism, and preferring to see it as yet another expression of “bourgeois political economy,” merely “an attempt to save the capitalist regime.” Marx regarded Progress and Poverty as little more than a series of recycled nostrums. Discussing the book in an 1881 letter to the Scottish journalist and labor crusader John Swinton, Marx wrote that “the older disciples of Ricardo — the radical ones — fancied already that by the public appropriation of the rent of land everything would be righted.” Notwithstanding Marx’s offhanded dismissal of the radical left-wing economic significance of George’s ideas, historian Peter d’A. Jones describes how a chance meeting with George at his first speech in England turned George Bernard Shaw into a socialist. Jones goes on to observe that Shaw, though a socialist, imbibed even the free market implications of George’s work, arguing that the laissez faire economists’ “‘most cherished institutions and doctrines succumbed one by one’ to their own economic analysis.” Jones’s thesis, asserting the impact of George on British (as opposed to continental) socialism, only stands to reason. After all, George’s thought is part of a tradition we might think of as the free market left, or perhaps left-wing individualism, a tradition that includes early British socialists such as Thomas Hodgskin. Like George and Tucker, Hodgskin did not inculpate free markets for existing economic problems, injustices, or inequalities; indeed, his socialism and defenses of labor were based on the argument that the relationships and structures of existing capitalism were nothing like the laissez faire markets described by the political economists. Given the residua of British Enlightenment thought and the influence of native socialists such as Hodgskin, George’s popularity on the island was probably a matter of course.

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski tidily encapsulates George’s fundamental objection to private property in land: “why should the fact that individuals own their bodies and their labor give them permanent, bequeathable property rights in external resources that their labor did not create?” (emphasis added) In The Irish Land Question, George asserted that if each individual has an equal right to live, then he must also necessarily have a right of equal access to the use and benefit of the land, without which the right to live is practically abeyant. No political or economic problem could be systematically or scientifically addressed, George insisted, without first confronting the land question. “If chattel slavery be unjust,” George argued, “then is private property in land unjust,” resulting in “the enslavement of laborers.” For George, “the ownership of the land on which and from which a man must live is virtually the ownership of the man himself.” George’s “True Remedy,” then, was to make the land common property, not by bringing all land under the ownership of the state, but rather by circulating the benefits of property ownership — namely, rent streams attending the land. George proposed that the government confiscate these rents through a land value tax that could then be put to use for the benefit of whole community, redistributed for utilities, roads, police protection, and the like. To George, it was quite clear that taxing land was unlike other forms of taxation, which he generally opposed as a discouragement and disincentive to productive endeavors. Distinguishing it from those objects he considered to be the proper subjects of private property, George noted that land is “not the product of labor.” George contended that the “real and natural distinction is between things which are the produce of labor and things which are the gratuitous offerings of nature.” No one, therefore, could justly claim a right to either the land itself or to unearned income from the land in the form of rent. Rents on unimproved land would accordingly be taken back by the state, resolving what George saw as the fundamental problem of private property in land. Further, a land value tax, George argued, would destroy the incentive for landholders to hold large swaths of property out of use, promoting the most active, productive employments of the land. Other mid and late nineteenth century libertarian radicals such as Joshua King Ingalls and Benjamin Tucker also worried about the monopolization of the land, yet forswore political and governmental solutions like the single tax, instead advocating, in Tucker’s words, “the Anarchistic view that occupancy and use should condition and limit landholding.” Tucker analogized George’s single tax solution to a credit and banking scheme in which the state would solve the interest and profit problems by simply taxing these incomes away. The simpler, straighter path, Tucker protested, was to remove privilege, to allow each and every individual the prerogatives then enjoyed only by the capitalist. Although they parted ways in their answers to the land problem, both George and Tucker essentially strived to return the land to the people, to break the grip of land monopoly on commerce and thus to shift bargaining power back to dispossessed labor.

As its title suggests, George’s Protection or Free Trade compares the relative merits of two opposite positions on the exchange of goods between nations, offering a powerful argument in favor of economic freedom. While an outspoken foe of big business monopolism, George never fell into the mistake of treating that economic system — which he regarded as extant in the United States — as equivalent to one of free trade and open competition. He opposed all attempts to coercively stop or impede trade, policies he treated as contrary to moral law and insulting to labor. Given a fair opportunity, that is, a genuine free market, labor could compete full well, requiring no special law or protection. Even the word “protection,” argued George, was belittling to labor, a suggestion that workers needed special legislative coddling when in fact it was capital that most benefitted from special privilege. George also pointed out the knowledge problem inherent in protectionist policies, the incredible assumption that lawmakers — indeed anyone — could possess the “minute knowledge of all trade and industry” necessary to craft a law that would even roughly align with protectionists’ stated goals. Further compounding the delusion of such policies was the belief that they would be carried out and implemented disinterestedly, without favoritism or partiality to “selfish interests.” George thus anticipated and applied public choice theory, maintaining that as a practical matter protectionist policies were simply new opportunities for “the retained advocates of selfish interests … to get the largest possible protection for themselves without regard for other interests or for the general good.” In treating free trade and free markets as leading to an “improvement of the condition of the masses,” rather than accepting the fallacy that competition from abroad naturally harms domestic labor, George provides an important example to today’s public proponents of libertarianism. To cultivate a movement that does not just hope to appeal to a narrow sliver of society, today’s libertarians must demonstrate, as George did, that a free market economy is not synonymous with global monopolism and low living standards for working people.

The legacy of Henry George and the single tax movement he birthed continued their influence into the twentieth century. Several important libertarian and decentralist figures were drawn to the comprehensive and holistic explanations and answers George’s work offered. In “The Single Taxer,” libertarian essayist Frank Chodorov recounts his introduction to the thought of Henry George, a formative and inspirational experience which led him to work for the Single Tax Party in New York, soapboxing and “handing out tracts on street corners.” Chodorov went on to become the director of the Henry George School of Social Science, which remains in existence today, a school without admission requirements, instructing those interested in George’s ideas. Despite the clear influence of George on his life and political philosophy, Chodorov nevertheless calls George’s answer that “of a man blinded by his own panacea.” To Chodorov, George’s system of political economy depends on “an abiding faith in the essential goodness of man,” assuming that under a healthier, more prosperous and productive economy, “political offices would go begging.” Chodorov doubted both that the politically ambitious would abandon the pursuit of power so readily, and that public-spirited men of means would make far better statesmen than others. Even the public policy initiatives of the genuinely wise and attentive to the “public good” would most assuredly end up limiting the freedom of the people “to pursue happiness in their own way.” For Chodorov, even a single tax on land was one tax too many, presented ultimately as an opportunity for politicians to abuse their power and harm freedom. That even those most influenced by George felt free to submit such critical assessments of his ideas is a testament to his work and the kind of adherent it attracted. The decentralist trailblazer Ralph Borsodi, too, joined the Single Tax Party as a young man, drawn to ideas that at once challenged both established capitalism and the hierarchical Marxism and socialism of the Old Left. The completeness of George’s program must have appealed to Borsodi’s discerning economist’s mind, and he became editor of The Single Taxer and lectured frequently at the Henry George School.

It is interesting to observe that in spite of the popularity of Progress and Poverty and the political movement that grew up around it, by the middle of the twentieth century George enthusiasts such as Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock were already lamenting George’s downtrend. In his extensive essay on Henry George, published in 1939, Nock described George as “preeminently the Forgotten Man of Anglo-American civilization,” wondering, “why is Henry George so little known or understood in his own country?” Perhaps George’s ideas were too uniquely a product of their time, of the social, economic and political moment in which he lived and wrote. The individualist anarchism of Tucker and the group orbiting Liberty evanesced in a similar way until its revival (at least in its political character) in the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard. As “libertarian populism” is increasingly recognized as a serious and significant phenomenon in American political life, perhaps the time has come for a Henry George resurgence. George’s staunch emphasis on the dangers of monopoly, particularly in land, provides a useful counterpoint to shallow criticisms of libertarianism from today’s mainstream left, which tend to treat it as an apologia for well-connected corporate interests rather than a varied and comprehensive philosophy with multiple strains. Even as we offer critical evaluations of his ideas, accepting some and discarding others, libertarians ought to treat George as an important piece of our heritage, exploring the application of his work to today’s issues.