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Natural Law

Henry George: Ode to Liberty  (1877 speech)
WE HONOR LIBERTY in name and in form. We set up her statues and sound her praises. But we have not fully trusted her. And with our growth so grow her demands. She will have no half service! Liberty! it is a word to conjure with, not to vex the ear in empty boastings. For Liberty means Justice, and Justice is the natural law — the law of health and symmetry and strength, of fraternity and co-operation. ... read the whole speech

Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

That the value attaching to land with social growth is intended for social needs is shown by the final proof. God is indeed a jealous God in the sense that nothing but injury and disaster can attend the effort of men to do things other than in the way he has intended; in the sense that where the blessings he proffers to men are refused or misused they turn to evils that scourge us. And just as for the mother to withhold the provision that fills her breast with the birth of the child is to endanger physical health, so for society to refuse to take for social uses the provision intended for them is to breed social disease.

For refusal to take for public purposes the increasing values that attach to land with social growth is to necessitate the getting of public revenues by taxes that lessen production, distort distribution and corrupt society. It is to leave some to take what justly belongs to all; it is to forego the only means by which it is possible in an advanced civilization to combine the security of possession that is necessary to improvement with the equality of natural opportunity that is the most important of all natural rights. It is thus at the basis of all social life to set up an unjust inequality between man and man, compelling some to pay others for the privilege of living, for the chance of working, for the advantages of civilization, for the gifts of their God. But it is even more than this. 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 elements 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. 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 more people into his world than he has made provision for; or that there is no God, and that belief in him is a superstition which the facts of life and the advance of science are dispelling.

The darkness in light, the weakness in strength, the poverty amid wealth, the seething discontent foreboding civil strife, that characterize our civilization of today, are the natural, the inevitable results of our rejection of God’s beneficence, of our ignoring of his intent. Were we on the other hand to follow his clear, simple rule of right, leaving scrupulously to the individual all that individual labor produces, and taking for the community the value that attaches to land by the growth of the community itself, not merely could evil modes of raising public revenues be dispensed with, but all men would be placed on an equal level of opportunity with regard to the bounty of their Creator, on an equal level of opportunity to exert their labor and to enjoy its fruits. And then, without drastic or restrictive measures the forestalling of land would cease. For then the possession of land would mean only security for the permanence of its use, and there would be no object for any one to get land or to keep land except for use; nor would his possession of better land than others had confer any unjust advantage on him, or unjust deprivation on them, since the equivalent of the advantage would be taken by the state for the benefit of all.

The Right Reverend Dr. Thomas Nulty, Bishop of Meath, who sees all this as clearly as we do, in pointing out to the clergy and laity of his diocese* the design of Divine Providence that the rent of land should be taken for the community, says:

I think, therefore, that I may fairly infer, on the strength of authority as well as of reason, that the people are and always must be the real owners of the land of their country. This great social fact appears to me to be of incalculable importance, and it is fortunate, indeed, that on the strictest principles of justice it is not clouded even by a shadow of uncertainty or doubt. There is, moreover, a charm and a peculiar beauty in the clearness with which it reveals the wisdom and the benevolence of the designs of Providence in the admirable provision he has made for the wants and the necessities of that state of social existence of which he is author, and in which the very instincts of nature tell us we are to spend our lives. A vast public property, a great national fund, has been placed under the dominion and at the disposal of the nation to supply itself abundantly with resources necessary to liquidate the expenses of its government, the administration of its laws and the education of its youth, and to enable it to provide for the suitable sustentation and support of its criminal and pauper population. One of the most interesting peculiarities of this property is that its value is never stationary; it is constantly progressive and increasing in a direct ratio to the growth of the population, and the very causes thatincrease and multiply the demands made on it increase proportionately its ability to meet them.
* Letter addressed to the Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of Meath, Ireland, April 2, 1881.

There is, indeed, as Bishop Nulty says, a peculiar beauty in the clearness with which the wisdom and benevolence of Providence are revealed in this great social fact, the provision made for the common needs of society in what economists call the law of rent. Of all the evidence that natural religion gives, it is this that most clearly shows the existence of a beneficent God, and most conclusively silences the doubts that in our days lead so many to materialism.

For in this beautiful provision made by natural law for the social needs of civilization we see that God has intended civilization; that all our discoveries and inventions do not and cannot outrun his forethought, and that steam, electricity and labor-saving appliances only make the great moral laws clearer and more important. In the growth of this great fund, increasing with social advance — a fund that accrues from the growth of the community and belongs therefore to the community — we see not only that there is no need for the taxes that lessen wealth, that engender corruption, that promote inequality and teach men to deny the gospel; but that to take this fund for the purpose for which it was evidently intended would in the highest civilization secure to all the equal enjoyment of God’s bounty, the abundant opportunity to satisfy their wants, and would provide amply for every legitimate need of the state. We see that God in his dealings with men has not been a bungler or a niggard; that he has not brought too many men into the world; that he has not neglected abundantly to supply them; that he has not intended that bitter competition of the masses for a mere animal existence and that monstrous aggregation of wealth which characterize our civilization; but that these evils which lead so many to say there is no God, or yet more impiously to say that they are of God’s ordering, are due to our denial of his moral law. We see that the law of justice, the law of the Golden Rule, is not a mere counsel of perfection, but indeed the law of social life. We see that if we were only to observe it there would be work for all, leisure for all, abundance for all; and that civilization would tend to give to the poorest not only necessities, but all comforts and reasonable luxuries as well. We see that Christ was not a mere dreamer when he told men that if they would seek the kingdom of God and its right-doing they might no more worry about material things than do the lilies of the field about their raiment; but that he was only declaring what political economy in the light of modern discovery shows to be a sober truth.

Your Holiness, even to see this is deep and lasting joy. For it is to see for one’s self that there is a God who lives and reigns, and that he is a God of justice and love — Our Father who art in Heaven. It is to open a rift of sunlight through the clouds of our darker questionings, and to make the faith that trusts where it cannot see a living thing. ... read the whole letter

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

The Civilization that is Possible.
IN the effects upon the distribution of wealth, of making land private property, we may thus see an explanation of that paradox presented by modern progress. The perplexing phenomena of deepening want with increasing wealth, of labor rendered more dependent and helpless by the very introduction of labor-saving machinery, are the inevitable result of natural laws as fixed and certain as the law of gravitation. Private property in land is the primary cause of the monstrous inequalities which are developing in modern society. It is this, and not any miscalculation of Nature in bringing into the world more mouths than she can feed, that gives rise to that tendency of wages to a minimum – that "iron law of wages," as the Germans call it -- that, in spite of all advances in productive power, compels the laboring-classes to the least return on which they will consent to live. It is this that produces all those phenomena that are so often attributed to the conflict of labor and capital. It is this that condemns Irish peasants to rags and hunger, that produces the pauperism of England and the tramps of America. It is this that makes the almshouse and the penitentiary the marks of what we call high civilization; that in the midst of schools and churches degrades and brutalizes men, crushes the sweetness out of womanhood and the joy out of childhood. It is this that makes lives that might be a blessing a pain and a curse, and every year drives more and more to seek unbidden refuge in the gates of death. For, a permanent tendency to inequality once set up, all the forces of progress tend to greater and greater inequality.

All this is contrary to Nature. The poverty and misery, the vice and degradation, that spring from the unequal distribution of wealth, are not the results of natural law; they spring from our defiance of natural law. They are the fruits of our refusal to obey the supreme law of justice. It is because we rob the child of his birthright; because we make the bounty which the Creator intended for all the exclusive property of some, that these things come upon us, and, though advancing and advancing, we chase but the mirage. ... read the whole article

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

THE tax upon land values is the most just and equal of all taxes. It falls only upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive. It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community. It is the application of the common property to common uses. When all rent is taken by taxation for the needs of the community, then will the equality ordained by nature be attained. No citizen will have an advantage over any other citizen save as is given by his industry, skill, and intelligence; and each will obtain what he fairly earns. Then, but not till then, will labor get its full reward, and capital its natural return. — Progress & Poverty — Book VIII, Chapter 3, Application of the Remedy: The Proposition Tried by the Canons of Taxation

HERE is a provision made by natural law for the increasing needs of social growth; here is an adaptation of nature by virtue of which the natural progress of society is a progress toward equality not toward inequality; a centripetal force tending to unity growing out of and ever balancing a centrifugal force tending to diversity. Here is a fund belonging to society as a whole, from which without the degradation of alms, private or public, provision can be made for the weak, the helpless, the aged; from which provision can be made for the common wants of all as a matter of common right to each. — Social Problems — Chapter 19, The First Great Reform

NOT only do all economic considerations point to a tax on land values as the proper source of public revenues; but so do all British traditions. A land tax of four shillings in the pound of rental value is still nominally enforced in England, but being levied on a valuation made in the reign of William III, it amounts in reality to not much over a penny in the pound. With the abolition of indirect taxation this is the tax to which men would naturally turn. The resistance of landholders would bring up the question of title, and thus any movement which went so far as to propose the substitution of direct for indirect taxation must inevitably end in a demand for the restoration to the British people of their birthright. — Protection or Free Trade— Chapter 27: The Lion in the Way - econlib 

THE feudal system, which is not peculiar to Europe but seems to be the natural result of the conquest of a settled country by a race among whom equality and individuality are yet strong, clearly recognized, in theory at least, that the land belongs to society at large, not to the individual. Rude outcome of an age in which might stood for right as nearly as it ever can (for the idea of right is ineradicable from the human mind, and must in some shape show itself even in the association of pirates and robbers), the feudal system yet admitted in no one the uncontrolled and exclusive right to land. A fief was essentially a a trust, and to enjoyment was annexed obligation. The sovereign, theoretically the representative of the collective power and rights of the whole people, was in feudal view the only absolute owner of land. And though land was granted to individual possession, yet in its possession were involved duties, by which the enjoyer of its revenues was supposed to render back to the commonwealth an equivalent for the benefits which from the delegation of the common right he received. — Progress &Poverty — Book VII, Chapter 4, Justice of the Remedy: Private Property in Land Historically Considered

THE abolition of the military tenures in England by the Long Parliament, ratified after the accession of Charles II, though simply an appropriation of public revenues by the feudal landowners, who thus got rid of the consideration on which they held the common property of the nation, and saddled it on the people at large in the taxation of all consumers, has been long characterized, and is still held up in the law books, as a triumph of the spirit of freedom. Yet here is the source of the immense debt and heavy taxation of England. Had the form of these feudal dues been simply changed into one better adapted to the changed times, English wars need never have occasioned the incurring of debt to the amount of a single pound, and the labor and capital of England need not have been taxed a single farthing for the maintenance of a military establishment. All this would have come from rent, which the landholders since that time have appropriated to themselves — from the tax which land ownership levies on the earnings of labor and capital. The landholders of England got their land on terms which required them even in the sparse population of Norman days to put in the field, upon call, sixty thousand perfectly equipped horsemen, and on the further condition of various fines and incidents which amounted to a considerable part of the rent. It would probably be a low estimate to put the pecuniary value of these various services and dues at one-half the rental value of the land. Had the landholders been kept to this contract and no land been permitted to be inclosed except upon similar terms, the income accruing to the nation from English land would today be greater by many millions than the entire public revenues of the United Kingdom. England today might have enjoyed absolute free trade. There need not have been a customs duty, an excise, license or income tax, yet all the present expenditures could be met, and a large surplus remain to be devoted to any purpose which would conduce to the comfort or well-being of the whole people. — Progress &Poverty — Book VII, Chapter 4, Justice of the Remedy: Private Property in Land Historically Considered

... go to "Gems from George"

Dave Wetzel: Justice or Injustice: The Locational Benefit Levy

We all have our own personal interpretation of how “justice” can be achieved.

Often “justice” is interpreted in a very narrow legal sense and only in reference to the judicial system, which has been designed to protect the status quo. ...

Of course, all citizens (and subjects in the UK) -- need to know exactly what are the legal boundaries within which society operates.

But, supposing those original rules are unfair and unjust. Then the legal framework, being used to perpetuate an injustice -- does not make that injustice moral and proper even if within the rules of jurisprudence it is “legal.”

Obvious examples of this dislocation between immoral laws and natural justice is
  • South Africa's former policy of apartheid;
  • the USA's former segregated schools and buses;
  • discrimination based on race, religion, disability or sex;
  • slavery;
  • the oppression of women;
  • Victorian Britain's use of child labour and colonialism.
All these policies were “lawful” according to the legal framework of their day but that veneer of legality did not make these policies righteous and just.

Any society built on a basis of injustice will be burdened down with its own predisposition towards self-destruction. Even the most suppressed people will one-day, demand justice, rise up and overthrow their oppressors.

Human survival demands justice. Wherever slavery or dictatorship has been installed -- eventually, justice has triumphed and a more democratic and fairer system has replaced it. It is safe to predict that wherever slavery or dictatorship exists today -- it will be superseded by a fairer and more just system.

Similarly, let's consider our distribution of natural resources.

By definition, natural resources are not made by human effort. Our planet offers every inhabitant a bounty -- an amazing treasure chest of wealth that can supply our needs for food, shelter and every aspect for our survival.

Surely, “justice” demands that this natural wealth should be equally available to all and that nobody should starve, be homeless or suffer poverty simply because they are excluded from tapping in to this enormous wealth that nature has provided. ...

If our whole economy, with the private possession of land and other natural resources, is built upon an injustice -- then can any of us really be surprised that we continue to live on a planet where wars predominate, intolerance is common, crime is rife and where poverty and starvation is the norm for a huge percentage of earth's population.

Is this inherited system really the best we can do?

There must be a method for fairly utilising the earth's natural resources.

Referring to the rebuilding of Iraq in his recent speech to the American Congress, Tony Blair stated “We promised Iraq democratic Government. We will deliver it. We promised them the chance to use their oil wealth to build prosperity for all their citizens, not a corrupt elite. We will do so”.

Thus, Tony Blair recognises the difference between political justice in the form of a democratic Government and economic justice in the form of sharing natural resources.

We have not heard any dissenting voice from this promise to share Iraq's natural oil wealth for all the people of Iraq to enjoy the benefits. But if it is so obviously right and proper for the Iraqi people to share their natural wealth – why is it not the practice to do the same in all nations?

No landowner can create land values. If this were the case, then an entrepreurial landowner in the Scottish Highlands would be able to create more value than an indolent landowner in the City of London.

No, land values arise because of natural advantages (eg fertility for agricultural land or approximity to ports or harbours for commercial sites) or because of the efforts of the whole community -- past and present investment by both the public and private sectors, and the activities of individuals all give rise to land values. Why do we not advocate the sharing of these land values, which are as much a gift of nature and probably in most western economies are worth much more than Iraqi oil?

One solution would be to introduce a Location Benefit Levy, where each site is valued, based on its optimum permitted use and a levy is applied – a similar method to Britain's commercial rates on buildings but based soley on the land value and ignoring the condition of the building.

The outcome of this policy would be to give all citizens a share in the natural wealth of the nation. ...

It is an injustice that landowners can speculate on empty sites, denying their use for jobs or homes.

It is an injustice that a factory owner can sack all their workers, smash the roof of their building to let in the rain and be rewarded with elimination of their rates bill.

It is an injustice that the poorest residents pay the highest share of their incomes in Council Tax.

It is an injustice that people are denied their share of the earth's resources.

The Location Benefit Levy is a simple way to start addressing the world's last great injustice.   Read the whole article

Judge Samuel Seabury: An Address delivered upon the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henry George

WE are met to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henry George. We meet, therefore, in a spirit of joy and thanksgiving for the great life which he devoted to the service of humanity. To very few of the children of men is it given to act the part of a great teacher who makes an outstanding contribution toward revealing the basic principles to which human society must adhere if it is to walk in the way which leads to freedom. This Henry George did, and in so doing he expressed himself with a clarity of thought and diction which has rarely been surpassed. ...

The most serious threat to democracy which exists is that the democracies themselves have not as yet achieved social justice for their own people. If they would achieve it, they would have nothing to fear from the dictatorship states. In this country we have approximately eleven million unemployed and are now in the tenth year of an acute economic depression. We certainly cannot claim to have achieved social justice. True, we offer many advantages over what the despotisms offer, but in any country people will submit to regimentation and political and social despotism rather than go without food and shelter. In such circumstances, ignorant of the value of the liberty they surrender, they will sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Instead of addressing ourselves seriously to the task of establishing social justice — the most momentous task which has ever confronted this country in all its history — we have wasted our energies and resources in adopting shallow and superficial measures not in harmony with the realities of social life and which ignore its natural laws; erecting great bureaucracies which have attempted to regiment our people, while the mass of regulations which they have prescribed have served only to demoralize industry, prevent its recovery and obstruct the cooperation between labor, capital and consumer which the interests of all require. ... read the whole speech

Bill Batt: The Compatibility of Georgist Economics and Ecological Economics

As with all nineteenth century moral philosophers, Henry George subscribed to a belief in natural law. The natural order of things as he saw it required that land be held in usufruct and that rent from such should be returned to society. The theory was inspired by his deeply religious roots and grounded in his reading of the prominent thinkers that predated him. The natural order was also a moral order, and the failure to comply with the order of nature and society as he saw it was a perversion of justice. The fruits of the land belonged to everyone, just as the fruits of one’s own labor were uniquely one’s own. Since one owned one’s body, one was entitled to keep the product of one’s physical efforts. Society had no more right to confiscate the earnings of one’s sweat and brow than it ought to leave in the hands of rich landowners the rent that was everyone’s inherent birthright to be shared. There were just and unjust taxes, and the only just tax was that which grew out of rent, of the unearned increment that visited certain land sites as windfall gains because of the efforts and investments by the community. Income and excise taxes were unjust and confiscatory— even theft, as especially were tariffs. Taxing or collecting land rent alone was the means of ending poverty and restoring progress. Indeed many Georgists reject use of the word tax entirely, preferring instead to talk instead about rent collection. There is even a lapel button Georgists use that says “Abolish all taxes; collect ground rent instead.” ...

Ecological Economics: Moral Premises
If Georgist economics takes a moral stance primarily focused on justice, ecological economics makes a much wider sweep. From its standpoint the very survival of the world is at stake, so that matters of distributive justice, so central to Georgists, tend to get lost in debate. Many ecological economists and environmental economists would claim that theirs is not a moral stance at all; rather it is a simple empirical reality. One philosopher writing in the journal Environmental Ethics sets forth a view reflective of many:

I do wish to point out that this ‘holistic’ view of the Earth’s ecological systems [i.e., the natural world as an organism] does not itself constitute a moral norm. It is a factual aspect of biological reality, to be understood as a set of causal connections in ordinary empirical terms.98

Living within the laws of nature would seem to be axiomatic in the development of any ethical system, and it is a mark of degree that our ethics have so ignored such realities that a corrective is called for. Only in 1967 Professor Lynn White noted in a now famous article how much the Judeo-Christian tradition has been used to explain and justify practices of exploitation and domination of our natural environment.99 Mistaken or not, this view of man’s place in nature is generally accepted as conventional wisdom throughout western culture. The ecology movement constitutes a revolutionary and very unsettling outlook to this prevailing view, a radical shift in thinking from even mainstream environmentalism and conservation ethics half a century ago. In this view other species, both plants and animals, are as much entitled to life and well being as is homo sapiens. Theodore Roosevelt a century ago could never have subscribed to the views of contemporary environmental ethicists, as much of a conservationist as he was. The earliest clear manifestation of modern thinking at least in western thought appears to be Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a work only published in 1949!100 Ecological economists accept this so much as given— that human beings are of the earth and its bio-system rather than on the earth to dominate it— that further refinement of this basic orientation is almost beside the point. This was simply prudent care and planning to Leopold; he fully recognized our total dependence upon nature.... read the whole article


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Wealth and Want
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