Wealth and Want
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As a young father in San Francisco, Henry George found himself begging a stranger for a small amount of money to feed his family. The experience stayed with him, and he understood the desperation that attaches to not being able to provide for one's own and one's family's most simply-defined needs. He sought the cause for the poverty he saw around him, concentrated in America's cities, in light of the tremendous technological advances and increases in productivity that most observers would have thought more than sufficient to extirpate poverty.

In a country as wealthy as ours, why do some have so little?

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

IMAGINE an island girt with ocean; imagine a little world swimming in space. Put on it, in imagination, human beings. Let them divide the land, share and share alike, as individual property. At first, while population is sparse and industrial processes rude and primitive, this will work well enough.

Turn away the eyes of the mind for a moment, let time pass, and look again. Some families will have died out, some have greatly multiplied; on the whole, population will have largely increased, and even supposing there have been no important inventions or improvements in the productive arts, the increase in population, by causing the division of labor, will have made industry more complex. During this time some of these people will have been careless, generous, improvident; some will have been thrifty and grasping. Some of them will have devoted much of their powers to thinking of how they themselves and the things they see around them came to be, to inquiries and speculations as to what there is in the universe beyond their little island or their little world, to making poems, painting pictures, or writing books; to noting the differences in rocks and trees and shrubs and grasses; to classifying beasts and birds and fishes and insects – to the doing, in short, of all the many things which add so largely to the sum of human knowledge and human happiness, without much or any gain of wealth to the doer. Others again will have devoted all their energies to the extending of their possessions. What, then, shall we see, land having been all this time treated as private property? Clearly, we shall see that the primitive equality has given way to inequality. Some will have very much more than one of the original shares into which the land was divided; very many will have no land at all. Suppose that, in all things save this, our little island or our little world is Utopia – that there are no wars or robberies; that the government is absolutely pure and taxes nominal; suppose, if you want to, any sort of a currency; imagine, if you can imagine such a world or island, that interest is utterly abolished; yet inequality in the ownership of land will have produced poverty and virtual slavery.

For the people we have supposed are human beings – that is to say, in their physical natures at least, they are animals who can live only on land and by the aid of the products of land. They may make machines which will enable them to float on the sea, or perhaps to fly in the air, but to build and equip these machines they must have land and the products of land, and must constantly come back to land. Therefore those who own the land must be the masters of the rest. Thus, if one man has come to own all the land, he is their absolute master even to life or death. If they can live on the land only on his terms, then they can live only on his terms, for without land they cannot live. They are his absolute slaves, and so long as his ownership is acknowledged, if they want to live, they must do in everything as he wills.

If, however, the concentration of landownership has not gone so far as to make one or a very few men the owners of all the land – if there are still so many landowners that there is competition between them as well as between those who have only their labor – then the terms on which these non-landholders can live will seem more like free contract. But it will not be free contract. Land can yield no wealth without the application of labor; labor can produce no wealth without land. These are the two equally necessary factors of production. Yet, to say that they are equally necessary factors of production is not to say that, in the making of contracts as to how the results of production are divided, the possessors of these two meet on equal terms. For the nature of these two factors is very different. Land is a natural element; the human being must have his stomach filled every few hours. Land can exist without labor, but labor cannot exist without land. If I own a piece of land, I can let it lie idle for a year or for years, and it will eat nothing. But the laborer must eat every day, and his family must eat. And so, in the making of terms between them, the landowner has an immense advantage over the laborer. It is on the side of the laborer that the intense pressure of competition comes, for in his case it is competition urged by hunger. And, further than this: As population increases, as the competition for the use of land becomes more and more intense, so are the owners of land enabled to get for the use of their land a larger and larger part of the wealth which labor exerted upon it produces. That is to say, the value of land steadily rises. Now, this steady rise in the value of land brings about a confident expectation of future increase of value, which produces among landowners all the effects of a combination to hold for higher prices. Thus there is a constant tendency to force mere laborers to take less and less or to give more and more (put it which way you please, it amounts to the same thing) of the products of their work for the opportunity to work. And thus, in the very nature of things, we should see on our little island or our little world that, after a time had passed, some of the people would be able to take and enjoy a superabundance of all the fruits of labor without doing any labor at all, while others would be forced to work the livelong day for a pitiful living.

But let us introduce another element into the supposition. Let us suppose great discoveries and inventions – such as the steam-engine, the power-loom, the Bessemer process, the reaping-machine, and the thousand and one labor-saving devices that are such a marked feature of our era. What would be the result?

Manifestly, the effect of all such discoveries and inventions is to increase the power of labor in producing wealth – to enable the same amount of wealth to be produced by less labor, or a greater amount with the same labor. But none of them lessen, or can lessen the necessity for land. Until we can discover some way of making something out of nothing – and that is so far beyond our powers as to be absolutely unthinkable – there is no possible discovery or invention which can lessen the dependence of labor upon land. And, this being the case, the effect of these labor-saving devices, land being the private property of some, would simply be to increase the proportion of the wealth produced that landowners could demand for the use of their land. The ultimate effect of these discoveries and inventions would be not to benefit the laborer, but to make him more dependent.

And, since we are imagining conditions, imagine laborsaving inventions to go to the farthest imaginable point, that is to say, to perfection. What then? Why then, the necessity for labor being done away with, all the wealth that the land could produce would go entire to the landowners. None of it whatever could be claimed by any one else. For the laborers there would be no use at all. If they continued to exist, it would be merely as paupers on the bounty of the landowners! ... read the whole article

Henry George: Political Dangers (Chapter 2 of Social Problems, 1883)

[11] The rise in the United States of monstrous fortunes, the aggregation of enormous wealth in the hands of corporations, necessarily implies the loss by the people of governmental control. Democratic forms may be maintained, but there can be as much tyranny and misgovernment under democratic forms as any other — in fact, they lend themselves most readily to tyranny and misgovernment. Forms count for little. The Romans expelled their kings, and continued to abhor the very name of king. But under the name of Cæsars and Imperators, that at first meant no more than our "Boss," they crouched before tyrants more absolute than kings. We have already, under the popular name of "bosses," developed political Cæsars in municipalities and states. If this development continues, in time there will come a national boss. We are young but we are growing. The day may arrive when the "Boss of America" will be to the modern world what Cæsar was to the Roman world. This, at least, is certain: Democratic government in more than name can exist only where wealth is distributed with something like equality — where the great mass of citizens are personally free and independent, neither fettered by their poverty nor made subject by their wealth. There is, after all, some sense in a property qualification. The man who is dependent on a master for his living is not a free man. To give the suffrage to slaves is only to give votes to their owners. That universal suffrage may add to, instead of decreasing, the political power of wealth we see when mill-owners and mine operators vote their hands. The freedom to earn, without fear or favor, a comfortable living, ought to go with the freedom to vote. Thus alone can a sound basis for republican institutions be secured. How can a man be said to have a country where he has no right to a square inch of soil; where he has nothing but his hands, and, urged by starvation, must bid against his fellows for the privilege of using them? When it comes to voting tramps, some principle has been carried to a ridiculous and dangerous extreme. I have known elections to be decided by the carting of paupers from the almshouse to the polls. But such decisions can scarcely be in the interest of good government.

... read the entire essay

Henry George: In Liverpool: The Financial Reform Meeting at the Liverpool Rotunda (1889)

Why, in those old days slave ships used to set out from this town of Liverpool for the coast of Africa to buy slaves. They did not bring them to Liverpool; they took them over to America. Why? Because you people were so good, and the Englishmen who had got to the other side of the Atlantic, and had settled there, were so bad? Not at all. I will tell you why the Liverpool ships carried slaves to America and did not bring them back to England. Because in America population was sparse and land was plentiful. Therefore to rob a man of his labor — and that is what the slaveowner wanted the slave for — you had got to catch and hold the man. That is the reason the slaves went to America. The reason they did not come here, the reason they were not carried over to Ireland was that here population was relatively dense, land was relatively scarce and could easily be monopolized, and to get out of the laborer all that his labor could furnish, save only wages enough to keep him alive even the slaveowner had to give this — it was only necessary to own land.

What is the difference, economically speaking, between the slaves of South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi, and Georgia and the free peasantry of Ireland or the agricultural laborer of England? (Cheers) Go to one of those slave states in the slave days, and there you would find a planter, the owner of five hundred slaves, living in elegant luxury, without doing a stroke of work, having a fine mansion, horses, [and a] carriage — all the things that work produces, but doing none of it himself. The people who did the work were living in negro huts, on coarse food; they were clothed in coarse raiment. If they ran away, he had the privilege of chasing them back, tying them up and whipping them and making them work.

Come to this side of the Atlantic, in a place where you saw the same state of development. There you found also five hundred people living in little cabins, eating coarse food, clothed in coarse raiment, working hard, yet getting only enough of the things that work produces to keep them in good times, when bad times came having to appeal to the world for charity. But you found among those little cabins, too, the lordly mansion of the man who did no work. (Hear, hear, and groans)

You found the mansion; you did not often find the man. (Laughter and cheers) As a general rule he was off in London, or in Paris, enjoying himself on the fruits of their labor. (Hear, hear) He had no legal right to make them work for him. Oh! no. If they ran away he could not put bloodhounds on their track and bring them back and whip them; but he had, in hunger, in starvation, a ban dog40 more swift, more keen, more sure than the bloodhound of the south. (Cheers)

The slaveowner of the south — the owner of men — had to make those men work for him. He went to all that trouble. The landlord of Ireland did not have to make men work for him. He owned the land, and without land men cannot work; and so men would come to him — equal children of the Creator, equal citizens of Great Britain — would come to him, with their hats in their hands, and beg to be allowed to live on his land, to be allowed to work and to give to him all the produce of their work, except enough to merely keep them alive, and thank him for the privilege. . . . ... read the whole speech

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.) ...

1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (5.)

Clearly, purchase and sale cannot give, but can only transfer ownership. Property that in itself has no moral sanction does not obtain moral sanction by passing from seller to buyer.

If right reason does not make the slave the property of the slave-hunter it does not make him the property of the slave-buyer. Yet your reasoning as to private property in land would as well justify property in slaves. To show this it is only needful to change in your argument the word land to the word slave. It would then read:

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the very reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and to hold it as his own private possession.

If one man hires out to another his strength or his industry, he does this for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for food and living; he thereby expressly proposes to acquire a full and legal right, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of that remuneration as he pleases.

Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and invests his savings, for greater security, in a slave, the slave in such a case is only his wages in another form; and consequently, a working-man’s slave thus purchased should be as completely at his own disposal as the wages he receives for his labor.

Nor in turning your argument for private property in land into an argument for private property in men am I doing a new thing. In my own country, in my own time, this very argument, that purchase gave ownership, was the common defense of slavery. It was made by statesmen, by jurists, by clergymen, by bishops; it was accepted over the whole country by the great mass of the people. By it was justified the separation of wives from husbands, of children from parents, the compelling of labor, the appropriation of its fruits, the buying and selling of Christians by Christians. In language almost identical with yours it was asked, “Here is a poor man who has worked hard, lived sparingly, and invested his savings in a few slaves. Would you rob him of his earnings by liberating those slaves?” Or it was said: “Here is a poor widow; all her husband has been able to leave her is a few negroes, the earnings of his hard toil. Would you rob the widow and the orphan by freeing these negroes?” And because of this perversion of reason, this confounding of unjust property rights with just property rights, this acceptance of man’s law as though it were God’s law, there came on our nation a judgment of fire and blood.

The error of our people in thinking that what in itself was not rightfully property could become rightful property by purchase and sale is the same error into which your Holiness falls. It is not merely formally the same; it is essentially the same. Private property in land, no less than private property in slaves, is a violation of the true rights of property. They are different forms of the same robbery; twin devices by which the perverted ingenuity of man has sought to enable the strong and the cunning to escape God’s requirement of labor by forcing it on others.

What difference does it make whether I merely own the land on which another man must live or own the man himself? Am I not in the one case as much his master as in the other? Can I not compel him to work for me? Can I not take to myself as much of the fruits of his labor; as fully dictate his actions? Have I not over him the power of life and death?

For to deprive a man of land is as certainly to kill him as to deprive him of blood by opening his veins, or of air by tightening a halter around his neck.

The essence of slavery is in empowering one man to obtain the labor of another without recompense. Private property in land does this as fully as chattel slavery. The slave-owner must leave to the slave enough of his earnings to enable him to live. Are there not in so-called free countries great bodies of working-men who get no more? How much more of the fruits of their toil do the agricultural laborers of Italy and England get than did the slaves of our Southern States? Did not private property in land permit the landowner of Europe in ruder times to demand the jus primae noctis? Does not the same last outrage exist today in diffused form in the immorality born of monstrous wealth on the one hand and ghastly poverty on the other?

In what did the slavery of Russia consist but in giving to the master land on which the serf was forced to live? When an Ivan or a Catherine enriched their favorites with the labor of others they did not give men, they gave land. And when the appropriation of land has gone so far that no free land remains to which the landless man may turn, then without further violence the more insidious form of labor robbery involved in private property in land takes the place of chattel slavery, because more economical and convenient. For under it the slave does not have to be caught or held, or to be fed when not needed. He comes of himself, begging the privilege of serving, and when no longer wanted can be discharged. The lash is unnecessary; hunger is as efficacious. This is why the Norman conquerors of England and the English conquerors of Ireland did not divide up the people, but divided the land. This is why European slave-ships took their cargoes to the New World, not to Europe.

Slavery is not yet abolished. Though in all Christian countries its ruder form has now gone, it still exists in the heart of our civilization in more insidious form, and is increasing. There is work to be done for the glory of God and the liberty of man by other soldiers of the cross than those warrior monks whom, with the blessing of your Holiness, Cardinal Lavigerie is sending into the Sahara. Yet, your Encyclical employs in defense of one form of slavery the same fallacies that the apologists for chattel slavery used in defense of the other!

The Arabs are not wanting in acumen. Your Encyclical reaches far. What shall your warrior monks say, if when at the muzzle of their rifles they demand of some Arab slave-merchant his miserable caravan, he shall declare that he bought them with his savings, and producing a copy of your Encyclical, shall prove by your reasoning that his slaves are consequently “only his wages in another form,” and ask if they who bear your blessing and own your authority propose to “deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages and thus of all hope and possibility of increasing his stock and bettering his condition in life”? ...

Men who are sure of getting food when they shall need it eat only what appetite dictates. But with the sparse tribes who exist on the verge of the habitable globe life is either a famine or a feast. Enduring hunger for days, the fear of it prompts them to gorge like anacondas when successful in their quest of game. And so, what gives wealth its curse is what drives men to seek it, what makes it so envied and admired — the fear of want. As the unduly rich are the corollary of the unduly poor, so is the soul-destroying quality of riches but the reflex of the want that embrutes and degrades. The real evil lies in the injustice from which unnatural possession and unnatural deprivation both spring. ... read the whole letter

Rev. A. C. Auchmuty: Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)

"COME with me," said Richard Cobden, as John Bright turned heart-stricken from a new-made grave. "There are in England women and children dying with hunger — with hunger made by the laws. Come with me, and we will not rest until we repeal those laws."

In this spirit the free trade movement waxed and grew, arousing an enthusiasm that no mere fiscal reform could have aroused. And intrenched though it was by restricted suffrage and rotten boroughs and aristocratic privilege, protection was overthrown in Great Britain.

And — there is hunger in Great Britain still, and women and children yet die of it.

But this is not the failure of free trade. When protection had been abolished and a revenue tariff substituted for a protective tariff, free trade had only won an outpost. That women and children still die of hunger in Great Britain arises from the failure of the reformers to go on. Free trade has not yet been tried in Great Britain. Free trade in its fulness and entirety would indeed abolish hunger. — Protection or Free Trade — Chapter 26: True Free Trade - econlib -|- abridged 

... go to "Gems from George"

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)

Poverty is widespread and pitiable. This we know. Its general manifestations are so common that even good men look upon it as a providential provision for enabling the rich to drive camels through needles' eyes by exercising the modern virtue of organized giving.32 Its occasional manifestations in recurring periods of "hard times"33 are like epidemics of a virulent disease, which excite even the most contented to ask if they may not be the next victims. Its spasms of violence threaten society with anarchy on the one hand, and, through panic-stricken efforts at restraint, with loss of liberty on the other. And it persists and deepens despite the continuous increase of wealth producing power.34 ...

71. Farmers, millers, bakers, ranchers, butchers, fishermen, hunters, makers of food-producing implements, food merchants, railroad men, sailors, draymen, coal miners, metal miners, builders, bankers who by exchanging commercial paper facilitate trade. together with clerks, bookkeepers, foremen, journeymen, common laborers, seeking for them instead of their seeking for work. To specify the labor that would be profitably affected by this demand would involve the cataloguing of all workmen, all business men, and all professional men who either directly or indirectly are connected with food industries, and the naming of every grade of such labor, from the newest apprentice to the largest supervising employer.

Would not this be putting an end to "hard times"? For what is the most striking manifestation of "hard times"? Is it not "scarcity of work"? Is it not that there are more men seeking work than there are jobs to do? Certainly it is. And to say that, is not to limit "hard times" to hired men. The real trouble with the business man when he complains of "hard times" is that people do not employ him as much as he expects to be employed. Work is scarce with him, just as with those he employs, or as he would phrase it, "business is slack."

Let there be ten men and but nine jobs, and you have "hard times." The tenth man will be out of work. He may be a good union man who abhors a "scab" and will not take work away from his brother workman. So he hunts for a job which does not exist, until all his savings are gone. Still he will not be a "scab," and he suffers deprivation. But after a while hunger gets the better of him, and he takes one of the nine jobs away from another man by underbidding. He becomes a "scab." And who can blame him? any one would rather be a "scab" than a corpse. Then the man who has lost his place becomes a "scab" too, and turns out some one else by underbidding. And so it goes again and again until wages fall so low that they but just support life. Then the poorhouse or a charitable institution takes care of the tenth man, who thereafter serves the purpose of preventing arise in wages. Meanwhile, diminished purchasing power, due to low wages, bears down upon business generally.

But let there be ten jobs and but nine men. Conditions would instantly reverse, Instead of a man all the time seeking for a job, a job would be all the time seeking for a man; and wages would rise until they equaled the value of the work for which they were paid. And as wages rose purchasing power would rise, and business in general would flourish.

If demand freely directed production, there would always be ten jobs for nine men, and no longer only nine jobs for ten men. It could not be otherwise while any wants were unsatisfied.

... read the book



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper