Henry George: The
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
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
direct straits, and large numbers are saved from starvation only by
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: The Condition of
Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)
Your use, in so many passages of your Encyclical, of the inclusive term “property” or “private” property,
of which in morals nothing can be either affirmed or denied, makes your meaning,
if we take isolated sentences, in many places ambiguous. But reading it as
a whole, there can be no doubt of your intention that private property in
land shall be understood when you speak merely of private property. With
this interpretation, I find that the reasons you urge for private property
in land are eight. Let us consider them in order of presentation. You urge:
1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (RN,
paragraph 5) ...
2. That private property in land proceeds from man’s gift of reason.
(RN, paragraphs 6-7.) ...
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (RN,
paragraph 8.) ...
4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (RN,
paragraphs 9-10.) ...
5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of
mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned
by Divine Law. (RN, paragraph 11.) ...
6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private property
in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (RN, paragraphs 14-17.) ...
7. That the private ownership of land stimulates industry, increases wealth,
and attaches men to the soil and to their country. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
8. That the right to possess private property in land is from nature, not
from man; that the state has no right to abolish it, and that to take the
value of landownership in taxation would be unjust and cruel to the private
owner. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private
property in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (14-17.)
With all that your Holiness has to say of the sacredness of the family relation
we are in full accord. But how the obligation of the father to the child
can justify private property in land we cannot see. You reason that private
property in land is necessary to the discharge of the duty of the father,
and is therefore requisite and just, because —
It is a most sacred law of nature that a father must provide food and all
necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, nature dictates
that a man’s children, who carry on, as it were, and continue his own
personality, should be provided by him with all that is needful to enable
them honorably to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties
of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except
by the ownership of profitable property, which he can transmit to his children
by inheritance. (14.)
Thanks to Him who has bound the generations of men together by a provision
that brings the tenderest love to greet our entrance into the world and soothes
our exit with filial piety, it is both the duty and the joy of the father
to care for the child till its powers mature, and afterwards in the natural
order it becomes the duty and privilege of the child to be the stay of the
parent. This is the natural reason for that relation of marriage, the groundwork
of the sweetest, tenderest and purest of human joys, which the Catholic Church
has guarded with such unremitting vigilance.
We do, for a few years, need the providence of our fathers after the flesh.
But how small, how transient, how narrow is this need, as compared with our
constant need for the providence of Him in whom we live, move and have our
being — Our Father who art in Heaven! It is to him, “the giver
of every good and perfect gift,” and not to our fathers after the flesh,
that Christ taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And
how true it is that it is through him that the generations of men exist!
Let the mean temperature of the earth rise or fall a few degrees, an amount
as nothing compared with differences produced in our laboratories, and mankind
would disappear as ice disappears under a tropical sun, would fall as the
leaves fall at the touch of frost. Or, let for two or three seasons the earth
refuse her increase, and how many of our millions would remain alive?
The duty of fathers to transmit to their children profitable property that
will enable them to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties
of this mortal life! What is not possible cannot be a duty. And how is it
possible for fathers to do that? Your Holiness has not considered how mankind
really lives from hand to mouth, getting each day its daily bread; how little
one generation does or can leave another. It is doubtful if the wealth
of the civilized world all told amounts to anything like as much as one year’s
labor, while it is certain that if labor were to stop and men had to rely
on existing accumulation, it would be only a few days ere in the richest
countries pestilence and famine would stalk.
The profitable property your Holiness refers to, is private property in
land. Now profitable land, as all economists will agree, is land superior
land that the ordinary man can get. It is land that will yield an income
to the owner as owner, and therefore that will permit the owner to appropriate
the products of labor without doing labor, its profitableness to the
individual involving the robbery of other individuals. It is therefore possible
for some fathers to leave their children profitable land. What therefore
your Holiness practically declares is, that it is the duty of all fathers
to struggle to leave their children what only the few peculiarly strong,
lucky or unscrupulous can leave; and that, a something that involves
the robbery of others — their deprivation of the material gifts of God.
This anti-Christian doctrine has been long in practice throughout the Christian
world. What are its results?
Are they not the very evils set forth in your Encyclical? Are they not,
so far from enabling men to keep themselves from want and misery in the uncertainties
of this mortal life, to condemn the great masses of men to want and misery
that the natural conditions of our mortal life do not entail; to want and
misery deeper and more wide-spread than exist among heathen savages? Under
the régime of private property in land and in the richest countries
not five per cent of fathers are able at their death to leave anything substantial
to their children, and probably a large majority do not leave enough to bury
them! Some few children are left by their fathers richer than it is good
for them to be, but the vast majority not only are left nothing by their
fathers, but by the system that makes land private property are deprived
of the bounty of their Heavenly Father; are compelled to sue others for permission
to live and to work, and to toil all their lives for a pittance that often
does not enable them to escape starvation and pauperism.
What your Holiness is actually, though of course inadvertently, urging,
is that earthly fathers should assume the functions of the Heavenly Father.
It is not the business of one generation to provide the succeeding generation “with
all that is needful to enable them honorably to keep themselves from want
and misery.” That is God’s business. We no more create our children
than we create our fathers. It is God who is the Creator of each succeeding
generation as fully as of the one that preceded it. And, to recall your own
words (7), “Nature [God], therefore, owes to man a storehouse that
shall never fail, the daily supply of his daily wants. And this he finds
only in the inexhaustible fertility of the earth.” What you are now
assuming is, that it is the duty of men to provide for the wants of their
children by appropriating this storehouse and depriving other men’s
children of the unfailing supply that God has provided for all.
The duty of the father to the child — the duty possible to all fathers!
Is it not so to conduct himself, so to nurture and teach it, that it shall
come to manhood with a sound body, well-developed mind, habits of virtue,
piety and industry, and in a state of society that shall give it and all
others free access to the bounty of God, the providence of the All-Father?
In doing this the father would be doing more to secure his children from
want and misery than is possible now to the richest of fathers — as
much more as the providence of God surpasses that of man. For the justice
of God laughs at the efforts of men to circumvent it, and the subtle law
that binds humanity together poisons the rich in the sufferings of the poor.
Even the few who are able in the general struggle to leave their children
wealth that they fondly think will keep them from want and misery in the
uncertainties of this mortal life — do they succeed? Does experience
show that it is a benefit to a child to place him above his fellows and enable
him to think God’s law of labor is not for him? Is not such wealth
oftener a curse than a blessing, and does not its expectation often destroy
filial love and bring dissensions and heartburnings into families? And how
far and how long are even the richest and strongest able to exempt their
children from the common lot? Nothing is more certain than that the blood
of the masters of the world flows today in lazzaroni and that the descendants
of kings and princes tenant slums and workhouses.
But in the state of society we strive for, where the monopoly and waste
of God’s bounty would be done away with and the fruits of labor would
go to the laborer, it would be within the ability of all to make more than
a comfortable living with reasonable labor. And for those who might be crippled
or incapacitated, or deprived of their natural protectors and breadwinners,
the most ample provision could be made out of that great and increasing fund
with which God in his law of rent has provided society — not as a matter
of niggardly and degrading alms, but as a matter of right, as the assurance
which in a Christian state society owes to all its members.
Thus it is that the duty of the father, the obligation to the child, instead
of giving any support to private property in land, utterly condemns it, urging
us by the most powerful considerations to abolish it in the simple and efficacious
way of the single tax.
This duty of the father, this obligation to children, is not confined to
those who have actually children of their own, but rests on all of us who
have come to the powers and responsibilities of manhood.
For did not Christ set a little child in the midst of the disciples, saying
to them that the angels of such little ones always behold the face of his
Father; saying to them that it were better for a man to hang a millstone
about his neck and plunge into the uttermost depths of the sea than to injure
such a little one?
And what today is the result of private property in land in the richest
of so-called Christian countries? Is it not that young people fear to marry;
that married people fear to have children; that children are driven out of
life from sheer want of proper nourishment and care, or compelled to toil
when they ought to be at school or at play; that great numbers of those who
attain maturity enter it with under-nourished bodies, overstrained nerves,
undeveloped minds — under conditions that foredoom them, not merely
to suffering, but to crime; that fit them in advance for the prison and the
If your Holiness will consider these things we are confident that instead
of defending private property in land you will condemn it with anathema!
... read the whole letter