Class, or Governing Class
Should a country that was founded on the assertion that all people are created
equal have a high concentration of wealth?
Henry George: Political Dangers (Chapter 2 of Social Problems, 1883)
 Liberty is natural. Primitive perceptions are of the equal rights of the citizen, and political organization always starts from this base. It is as social development goes on that we find power concentrating, in institutions based upon the equality of rights passing into institutions which make the many the slaves of the few. How this is we may see. In all institutions which involve the lodgment of governing power there is, with social growth, a tendency to the exaltation of their function and the centralization of their power, and in the stronger of these institutions a tendency to the absorption of the powers of the rest. Thus the tendency of social growth is to make government the business of a special class. And as numbers increase and the power and importance of each become less and less as compared with that of all, so, for this reason, does government tend to pass beyond the scrutiny and control of the masses. The leader of a handful of warriors, or head man of a little village, can command or govern only by common consent, and anyone aggrieved can readily appeal to his fellows. But when a tribe becomes a nation and the village expands to a populous country, the powers of the chieftain, without formal addition, become practically much greater. For with increase of numbers scrutiny of his acts becomes more difficult, it is harder and harder successfully to appeal from them, and the aggregate power which he directs becomes irresistible as against individuals. And gradually, as power thus concentrates, primitive ideas are lost, and the habit of thought grows up which regards the masses as born but for the service of their rulers.
 Thus the mere growth of society involves danger of the gradual conversion of government into something independent of and beyond the people, and the gradual seizure of its powers by a ruling class — though not necessarily a class marked off by personal titles and a hereditary status, for, as history shows, personal titles and hereditary status do not accompany the concentration of power, but follow it. The same methods which, in a little town where each knows his neighbor and matters of common interest are under the common eye, enable the citizens freely to govern themselves, may, in a great city, as we have in many cases seen, enable an organized ring of plunderers to gain and hold the government. So, too, as we see in Congress, and even in our State legislatures, the growth of the country and the greater number of interests make the proportion of the votes of a representative, of which his constituents know or care to know, less and less. And so, too, the executive and judicial departments tend constantly to pass beyond the scrutiny of the people.
 But to the changes produced by growth are, with us, added the changes brought about by improved industrial methods. The tendency of steam and of machinery is to the division of labor, to the concentration of wealth and power. Workmen are becoming massed by hundreds and thousands in the employ of single individuals and firms; small storekeepers and merchants are becoming the clerks and salesmen of great business houses; we have already corporations whose revenues and payrolls belittle those of the greatest States. And with this concentration grows the facility of combination among these great business interests. How readily the railroad companies, the coal operators, the steel producers, even the match manufacturers, combine, either to regulate prices or to use the powers of government! The tendency in all branches of industry is to the formation of rings against which the individual is helpless, and which exert their power upon government whenever their interests may thus be served.
 It is not merely positively, but negatively, that great aggregations of wealth, whether individual or corporate, tend to corrupt government and take it out of the control of the masses of the people. "Nothing is more timorous than a million dollars — except two million dollars." Great wealth always supports the party in power, no matter how corrupt it may be. It never exerts itself for reform, for it instinctively fears change. It never struggles against misgovernment. When threatened by the holders of political power it does not agitate, nor appeal to the people; it buys them off. It is in this way, no less than by its direct interference, that aggregated wealth corrupts government, and helps to make politics a trade. Our organized lobbies, both legislative and Congressional, rely as much upon the fears as upon the hopes of moneyed interests. When "business" is dull, their resource is to get up a bill which some moneyed interest will pay them to beat. So, too, these large moneyed interests will subscribe to political funds, on the principle of keeping on the right side of those in power, just as the railroad companies deadhead President Arthur when he goes to Florida to fish.
 The more corrupt a government the easier wealth can use it. Where legislation is to be bought, the rich make the laws; where justice is to be purchased, the rich have the ear of the courts. And if, for this reason, great wealth does not absolutely prefer corrupt government to pure government, it becomes none the less a corrupting influence. A community composed of very rich and very poor falls an easy prey to whoever can seize power. The very poor have not spirit and intelligence enough to resist; the very rich have too much at stake.
 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.
 The people, of course, continue to vote; but the people are losing their
power. Money and organization tell more and more in elections. In some sections
bribery has become chronic, and numbers of voters expect regularly to sell
their votes. In some sections large employers regularly bulldoze their hands
into voting as they wish. In municipal, State and Federal politics the power
of the "machine" is increasing. In many places it has become so strong
that the ordinary citizen has no more influence in the government under which
he lives than he would have in China. He is, in reality, not one of the governing
classes, but one of the governed. He occasionally, in disgust, votes for "the
other man," or "the other party;" but, generally, to find that
he has effected only a change of masters, or secured the same masters under
different names. And he is beginning to accept the situation, and to leave
politics to politicians, as something with which an honest, self-respecting
man cannot afford to meddle.
 We are steadily differentiating a governing class, or rather a class
of Pretorians, who make a business of gaining political power and then selling
it. The type of the rising party leader is not the orator or statesman of an
earlier day, but the shrewd manager, who knows how to handle the workers, how
to combine pecuniary interests, how to obtain money and to spend it, how to
gather to himself followers and to secure their allegiance. One party machine
is becoming complementary to the other party machine, the politicians, like
the railroad managers, having discovered that combination pays better than
competition. So rings are made impregnable and great pecuniary interests secure
their ends no matter how elections go. There are sovereign States so completely
in the hands of rings and corporations that it seems as if nothing short of
a revolutionary uprising of the people could dispossess them. Indeed, whether
the General Government has not already passed beyond popular control may be
doubted. Certain it is that possession of the General Government has for some
time past secured possession. And for one term, at least, the Presidential
chair has been occupied by a man not elected to it. This, of course, was largely
due to the crookedness of the man who was elected, and to the lack of principle
in his supporters. Nevertheless, it occurred. ...
read the entire essay
Henry George: Concentrations
of Wealth Harm America
(excerpt from Social Problems)
There is a suggestive fact that
must impress any one who
thinks over the history of past eras and preceding civilizations. The
great, wealthy and powerful nations have always lost their freedom;
it is only in small, poor and isolated communities that Liberty has
been maintained. So true is this that the poets have always sung that
Liberty loves the rocks and tile mountains; that she shrinks from
wealth and power and splendor, from the crowded city and the busy
The mere growth of society
involves danger of the gradual
conversion of government into something independent of and beyond the
people, and the gradual seizure of its powers by a ruling
class -- though not necessarily a class marked off by personal titles
and a hereditary status, for, as history shows, personal titles and
hereditary status do not accompany the concentration of power, but
follow it. The same methods which, in a little town where each knows
his neighbor and matters of common interest are under the common eye,
enable the citizens freely to govern themselves, may, in a great
city, as we have in many cases seen, enable an organized ring of
plunderers to gain and hold the government. So, too, as we see in
Congress, and even in our State legislatures, the growth of the
country and the greater number of interests make the proportion of
the votes of a representative, of which his constituents know or care
to know, less and less. And so, too, the executive and judicial
departments tend constantly to pass beyond the scrutiny of the
people. ... Read the entire article