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Henry George: The Irish Land Question (1881)
Distress and Famine
BUT it will be asked: If the land system which prevails in Ireland is essentially the same as that which prevails elsewhere, how is it that it does not produce the same results elsewhere?
I answer that it does everywhere produce the same kind of results. As there is nothing essentially peculiar in the Irish land system, so is there nothing essentially peculiar in Irish distress. Between the distress in Ireland and the distress in other countries there may be differences in degree and differences in manifestation; but that is all.
The truth is, that as there is nothing peculiar in the Irish land system, so is there nothing peculiar in the distress which that land system causes. We hear a great deal of Irish emigration, of the millions of sons and daughters of Erin who have been compelled to leave their native soil. But have not the Scottish Highlands been all but depopulated? Do not the English emigrate in the same way, and for the same reasons? Do not the Germans and Italians and Scandinavians also emigrate? Is there not a constant emigration from the Eastern States of the Union to the Western–an emigration impelled by the same motives as that which sets across the Atlantic? Nor am I sure that this is not in some respects a more demoralizing emigration than the Irish, for I do not think there is any such monstrous disproportion of the sexes in Ireland as in Massachusetts. If French and Belgian peasants do not emigrate as do the Irish, is it not simply because they do not have such "long families"?
There has recently been deep and wide-spread distress in Ireland, and but for the contributions of charity many would have perished for want of food. But, to say nothing of such countries as India, China, Persia, and Syria, is it not true that within the last few years there have been similar spasms of distress in the most highly civilized countries – not merely in Russia and in Poland, but in Germany and England? Yes, even in the United States.
Have there not been, are there not constantly occurring, in all these countries, times when the poorest classes are reduced to the direst straits, and large numbers are saved from starvation only by charity?
When there is famine among savages it is because food enough is not to be had. But this was not the case in Ireland. In any part of Ireland, during the height of what was called the famine, there was food enough for whoever had means to pay for it. The trouble was not in the scarcity of food. There was, as a matter of fact, no real scarcity of food, and the proof of it is that food did not command scarcity prices. During all the so-called famine, food was constantly exported from Ireland to England, which would not have been the case had there been true famine in one country any more than in the other. During all the so-called famine a practically unlimited supply of American meat and grain could have been poured into Ireland, through the existing mechanism of exchange, so quickly that the relief would have been felt instantaneously. Our sending of supplies in a national war-ship was a piece of vulgar ostentation, fitly paralleled by their ostentatious distribution in British gunboats under the nominal superintendence of a royal prince. Had we been bent on relief, not display, we might have saved our government the expense of fitting up its antiquated warship, the British gunboats their coal, the Lord Mayor his dinner, and the Royal Prince his valuable time. A cable draft, turned in Dublin into postal orders, would have afforded the relief, not merely much more easily and cheaply, but in less time than it took our war-ship to get ready to receive her cargo; for the reason that so many of the Irish people were starving was, not that the food was not to be had, but that they had not the means to buy it. Had the Irish people had money or its equivalent, the bad seasons might have come and gone without stinting any one of a full meal. Their effect would merely have been to determine toward Ireland the flow of more abundant harvests.
I wish clearly to bring to view this point. The Irish famine was not a true famine arising from scarcity of food. It was what an English writer styled the Indian famine – a "financial famine," arising not from scarcity of food but from the poverty of the people. The effect of the short crops in producing distress was not so much in raising the price of food as in cutting off the accustomed incomes of the people. The masses of the Irish people get so little in ordinary times that they are barely able to live, and when anything occurs to interrupt their accustomed incomes they have nothing to fall back on.
Yet is this not true of large classes in all countries? And are not all countries subject to just such famines as this Irish famine? Good seasons and bad seasons are in the order of nature, just as the day of sunshine and the day of rain, the summer's warmth and the winter's snow. But agriculture is, on the whole, as certain as any other pursuit, for even those industries which may be carried en regardless of weather are subject to alternations as marked as those to which agriculture is liable. There are good seasons and bad seasons even in fishing and hunting, while the alternations are very marked in mining and in manufacturing. In fact, the more highly differentiated branches of industry which advancing civilization tends to develop, though less directly dependent upon rain and sunshine, heat and cold, seem increasingly subject to alternations more frequent and intense. Though in a country of more diversified industry the failure of a crop or two could not have such wide-spread effects as in Ireland, yet the countries of more complex industries are liable to a greater variety of disasters. A war on another continent produces famine in Lancashire; Parisian milliners decree a change of fashion, and Coventry operatives are saved from starvation only by public alms; a railroad combination decides to raise the price of coal, and Pennsylvania miners find their earnings diminished by half or totally cut off; a bank breaks in New York, and in all the large American cities soup-houses must be opened!
In this Irish famine which provoked the land agitation, there is nothing that is peculiar. Such famines on a smaller or a larger scale are constantly occurring. Nay, more! the fact is, that famine, just such famine as this Irish famine, constantly exists in the richest and most highly civilized lands. It persists even in "good times" 'when trade is "booming;" it spreads and rages whenever from any cause industrial depression comes. It is kept under, or at least kept from showing its worst phases, by poor-rates and almshouses, by private benevolence and by vast organized charities, but it still exists, gnawing in secret when it does not openly rage. In the very centers of civilization, where the machinery of production and exchange is at the highest point of efficiency, where bankvaults hold millions, and show-windows flash with more than a prince's ransom, where elevators and warehouses are gorged with grain, and markets are piled with all things succulent and toothsome, where the dinners of Lucullus are eaten every day, and, if it be but cool, the very greyhounds wear dainty blankets–in these centers in wealth and power and refinement, there are always hungry men and women and little children. Never the sun goes down but on human beings prowling like wolves far food, or huddling together like vermin for shelter and warmth. "Always with You" is the significant heading under which a New York paper, in these most prosperous times, publishes daily the tales of chronic famine; and in the greatest and richest city in the world–in that very London where the plenty of meat in the butchers' shops seemed to some savages the most wondrous of all its wonderful sights–in that very London, the mortuary reports have a standing column for deaths by starvation.
But no more in its chronic than in its spasmodic forms is famine to be measured by the deaths from starvation. Perfect, indeed, in all its parts must be the human machine if it can run till the last bit of available tissue be drawn to feed its fires. It is under the guise of disease to which physicians can give less shocking names, that famine–especially the chronic famine of civilization–kills. And the statistics of mortality, especially of infant mortality, show that in the richest communities famine is constantly at its work. Insufficient nourishment, inadequate warmth and clothing, and unwholesome surroundings, constantly, in the very centers of plenty, swell the death-rates. What is this but famine – just such famine as the Irish famine? It is not that the needed things are really scarce; but that those whose need is direst have not the means to get them, and, when not relieved by charity, want kills them in its various ways. When, in the hot midsummer, little children die like flies in the New York tenement wards, what is that but famine? And those barges crowded with such children that a noble and tender charity sends down New York Harbor to catch the fresh salt breath of the Antlantic – are they not fighting famine as truly as were our food-laden war-ship and the Royal Prince's gunboats? Alas! to find famine one has not to cross the sea.
There was bitter satire in the cartoon that one of our illustrated papers published when subscriptions to the Irish famine fund were being made – a cartoon that represented James Gordon Bennett sailing away for Ireland in a boat loaded down with provisions, while a sad-eyed, hungry-looking, tattered group gazed wistfully on them from the pier. The bite and the bitterness of it, the humiliating sting and satire of it, were in its truth.
This is "the home of freedom," and
"the asylum of the oppressed;"
our population is yet sparse, our public domain yet wide; we are the
greatest of food producers, yet even here there are beggars, tramps,
paupers, men torn by anxiety for the support of their families, women
who know not which way to turn, little children growing up in such
poverty and squalor that only a miracle can keep them pure. "Always
with you," even here. What is the week or the day of the week that
our papers do not tell of man or woman who, to escape the tortures of
want, has stepped out of life unbidden? What is this but famine? ...read the whole article
Henry George: Thy Kingdom Come (1889 speech, Glasgow)
We have just joined in the most solemn, the most sacred, the most catholic of all prayers: “Our Father which art in Heaven!” To all of us who have learned it in our infancy, it oft calls up the sweetest and most tender emotions. Sometimes with feeling, sometimes as a matter of course, how often have we repeated it? For centuries, daily, hourly, has that prayer gone up.
“Thy kingdom come!” Has it come? Let this Christian city of Glasgow answer — Glasgow, that was to “Flourish by the preaching of the word”.
“Thy kingdom come!” Day after day, Sunday after Sunday, week after week, century after century, has that prayer gone up; and today, in this so-called Christian city of Glasgow, 125,000 human beings — so your medical officer says — 125,000 children of God are living whole families in a single room.
“Thy kingdom come!” We have been
praying for it and
praying for it, yet it has not come. So long has it tarried that many
think it will never come. Here is the vital point in which what we
are accustomed to call the Christianity of the present day differs so
much from that Christianity which overran the ancient world —
that Christianity which, beneath a rotten old civilisation, planted
the seeds of a newer and a higher. ... Read the whole speech
William Ogilvie: An Essay on the Right of Property in Land (Scotland, 1782)
The indirect and remote influences of this monopoly are productive of many unnatural situations and many pernicious effects, which the skill of legislature is frequently employed in vain to redress. Were this monopoly anywhere removed, and the cultivation of the soil laid open upon reasonable terms, the lowest classes of men would not be destitute of wherewithal to maintain their decayed and infirm relations and neighbours. These charitable attentions, prompted by private affection, would be better discharged, than when they devolve on the public; and all that encouragement to idleness, that waste, and mismanagement, inseparable from poor rates, and other public institutions of this sort, would be spared. ... Read the entire essay
Henry George: The Great Debate: Single Tax vs Social Democracy (1889)
How is labour to get the land? How has labour got the land when it was much further off? Irish labourers have gone some 3,000 miles across the sea; and then in many cases 1,000 miles further west, by saving or by borrowing some member of the family has gone across, and their earnings have constituted an emigration fund for the rest of the family. That great emigration has been going on all these years, not by capital supplied by the Government, but by capital earned by the strong arm of labour. (Applause.) The whole development of the United States, the whole development of every new country, proves the fallacy of this assertion that labour cannot employ itself without capital, and proves the fallacy of the assertion, that the opening of land to labour would do nothing to improve wages. Go into a new country where land is free; go into a country where the price of land is not yet high, and there, you will find no such thing as an unemployed man; there you will find no such thing as a man begging for employment as though it were a boon. (Hear, hear.) ... Read the entire article
Henry George: The Wages of Labor
The very robbery that the masses of men thus suffer gives rise in advancing communities to a new robbery. For the value that with the increase of population and social advance attaches to land being suffered to go to individuals who have secured ownership of the land, it prompts to a forestalling of and speculation in land wherever there is any prospect of advancing population or of coming improvement, thus producing an artificial scarcity of the natural element of life and labor, and a strangulation of production that shows itself in recurring spasms of industrial depression as disastrous to the world as destructive wars.
Evil upon evil.
It is this that is driving men from the old countries to the new countries, only to bring there the same curses.
It is this that causes our material advance not merely to fail to improve the condition of the mere worker, but to make the condition of large classes positively worse.
It is this that, in our richest Christian countries, is giving us a large population whose lives are harder, more hopeless, more degraded than those of the veriest savages.
It is this that leads so many men to think that God is a bungler, and is constantly bringing people into the world for whom He has not made provision. ... read the whole article
Henry George: The Savannah (excerpt from Progress & Poverty, Book IV: Chapter 2: The Effect of Increase of Population upon the Distribution of Wealth; also found in Significant Paragraphs from Progress & Poverty, Chapter 3: Land Rent Grows as Community Develops)
"Scarcity of employment" is a comparatively new complaint in the United States. In our earlier times it was never heard of or thought of. There was "scarcity of employment " in Europe, but on this side of the Atlantic the trouble -- so it was deemed by a certain class -- was "scarcity of labor." It was because of this "scarcity of labor " that negroes were imported from Africa and indentured apprentices from the Old Country, that men who could not pay their passage sold their labor for a term of years to get here, and that that great stream of immigration from the Old World that has done so much to settle this continent set in. Now, why was there "scarcity of employment" on one side of the Atlantic and "scarcity of labor" on the other? What was the cause of this difference, of which all other social and political differences were but consequences? Adam Smith saw it, and in his "Wealth of Nations" states it, but it did not need an Adam Smith for that, as everyone who knew anything of the two countries knew it. It was, that in this country land was cheap and easy to get, while in Europe land was dear and hard to get. Land has been steadily growing dear in the United States, and as a consequence we hear no longer of "scarcity of labor." We hear now of "scarcity of employment."
In the first quarter of this century an educated and thoughtful Englishman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, visited this country. He saw its great resources, and noted the differences between the English-speaking society growing up here and that to which he had been used. Viewing everything from the standpoint of a class accustomed to look on the rest of mankind as created for their benefit, 'what he deemed the great social and economic disadvantage of the United States was "the scarcity of labor." It was to this he traced the rudeness of even what he styled the upper class, its want of those refinements, enjoyments, and delicacies of life common to the aristocracy of England. How could an English gentleman emigrate to a country where labor was so dear that he might actually have to black his own boots; so dear that even the capitalist might have to work, and no one could count on a constant supply ready to accept as a boon any opportunity to perform the most menial, degrading, and repulsive services? Mr. Wakefield was not a man to note facts without seeking their connection. He saw that this "scarcity of labor" came from the cheapness of land where the vast area of the public domain was open for settlement at nominal prices. A man of his class and time, without the slightest question that land was made to be owned by landlords, and laborers were made to furnish a supply of labor for the upper classes, he was yet a man of imagination. He saw the future before the English-speaking race in building up new nations in what were yet the waste spaces of the earth. But he wished those new nations to be socially, politically, and economically newer Englands; not to be settled as the United States had been, from the "lower classes" alone, but to contain from the first a proper proportion of the "upper classes" as well. He saw that "scarcity of employment" would in time succeed "scarcity of labor" even in countries like the United States by the growth of speculation in land; but he did not want to wait for that in the newer Britains which his imagination pictured. He proposed at once to produce such salutary "scarcity of employment " in new colonies as would give cheap and abundant labor, by a governmental refusal to sell public land, save at a price so high as to prevent the poorer from getting land, thus compelling them to offer their labor for hire.
This was the essential part of what was once well known as the Wakefield plan of colonization. It is founded on a correct theory. In any country, however new and vast, it would be possible to change "scarcity of labor" into "scarcity of employment" by increasing the price put on the use of land. If three families settled a virgin continent, one family could command the services of the others as laborers for hire just as fully as though they were its chattel slaves, if it was accorded the ownership of the land and could put its own price on its use. Wakefield proposed only that land should be held at what he called "a sufficient price" -- that is, a price high enough to keep wages in new colonies only a little higher than wages in the mother-country, and to produce not actual inability to get employment on the part of laborers, but only such difficulty as would keep them tractable, and ready to accept what from his standpoint were reasonable wages. Yet it is evident that it would only require a somewhat greater increase in the price of land to go beyond this point and to bring about in the midst of abundant natural opportunities for the employment of labor, the phenomena of laborers vainly seeking employment. Now, in the United States we have not attempted to create "scarcity of employment" by Wakefield's plan. But we have made haste by sale and gift to put the public domain in the hands of private owners, and thus allowed speculation to bring about more quickly and effectually than he could have anticipated, more than Wakefield aimed at. The public domain is now practically gone; land is rising to European prices, and we are at last face to face with social difficulties which in the youth of men of my time we were wont to associate with "the effete monarchies of the Old World." Today, as the last census reports show, the majority of American farmers are rack-rented tenants, or hold under mortgage, the first form of tenancy; and the great majority of our people are landless men, without right to employ their own labor and without stake in the land they still foolishly speak of as their country. This is the reason why the army of the unemployed has appeared among us, why by pauperism has already become chronic, and why in the tramp we have in more dangerous type the proletarian of ancient Rome. Read the entire article
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper