Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us


Social Progress

As civilization progresses, the economic benefits tend to be concentrated in a single class: those who own our best land, whether through corporate shares, family trusts, university endowments, pension funds, REITs, or other forms of ownership -- most quite concentrated in the top percentiles of the wealth distribution. But there is an alternative, a simple way to use a just tax to collect those benefits for the commons.

Henry George: The Increasing Importance of Social Questions (Chapter 1 of Social Problems, 1883)

[03] Between the development of society and the development of species there is a close analogy. In the lowest forms of animal life there is little difference of parts; both wants and powers are few and simple; movement seems automatic; and instincts are scarcely distinguishable from those of the vegetable. So homogeneous are some of these living things, that if cut in pieces, each piece still lives. But as life rises into higher manifestations, simplicity gives way to complexity, the parts develop into organs having separate functions and reciprocal relations, new wants and powers arise, and a greater and greater degree of intelligence is needed to secure food and avoid danger. Did fish, bird or beast possess no higher intelligence than the polyp, nature could bring them forth only to die.

[04] This law — that the increasing complexity and delicacy of organization which give higher capacity and increased power are accompanied by increased wants and dangers, and require, therefore, increased intelligence — runs through nature. In the ascending scale of life at last comes man, the most highly and delicately organized of animals. Yet not only do his higher powers require for their use a higher intelligence than exists in other animals, but without higher intelligence he could not live. His skin is too thin; his nails too brittle; he is too poorly adapted for running, climbing, swimming or burrowing. Were he not gifted with intelligence greater than that of any beast, he would perish from cold, starve from inability to get food, or be exterminated by animals better equipped for the struggle in which brute instinct suffices.

[05] In man, however, the intelligence which increases all through nature's rising scale passes at one bound into an intelligence so superior, that the difference seems of kind rather than degree. In him, that narrow and seemingly unconscious intelligence that we call instinct becomes conscious reason, and the godlike power of adaptation and invention makes feeble man nature's king.

[06] But with man the ascending line stops. Animal life assumes no higher form; nor can we affirm that, in all his generations, man, as an animal, has a whit improved. But progression in another line begins. Where the development of species ends, social development commences, and that advance of society that we call civilization so increases human powers, that between savage and civilized man there is a gulf so vast as to suggest the gulf between the highly organized animal and the oyster glued to the rocks. And with every advance upon this line new vistas open. When we try to think what knowledge and power progressive civilization may give to the men of the future, imagination fails.

[07] In this progression which begins with man, as in that which leads up to him, the same law holds. Each advance makes a demand for higher and higher intelligence. With the beginnings of society arises the need for social intelligence — for that consensus of individual intelligence which forms a public opinion, a public conscience, a public will, and is manifested in law, institutions and administration. As society develops, a higher and higher degree of this social intelligence is required, for the relation of individuals to each other becomes more intimate and important, and the increasing complexity of the social organization brings liability to new dangers.

[08] In the rude beginning, each family produces its own food, makes its own clothes, builds its own house, and, when it moves, furnishes its own transportation. Compare with this independence the intricate interdependence of the denizens of a modern city. They may supply themselves with greater certainty, and in much greater variety and abundance, than the savage; but it is by the cooperation of thousands. Even the water they drink, and the artificial light they use, are brought to them by elaborate machinery, requiring the constant labor and watchfulness of many men. They may travel at a speed incredible to the savage; but in doing so resign life and limb to the care of others. A broken rail, a drunken engineer, a careless switchman, may hurl them to eternity. And the power of applying labor to the satisfaction of desire passes, in the same way, beyond the direct control of the individual. The laborer becomes but part of a great machine, which may at any time be paralyzed by causes beyond his power, or even his foresight. Thus does the well-being of each become more and more dependent upon the well-being of all — the individual more and more subordinate to society.

[12] Nor should we forget that in civilized man still lurks the savage. The men who, in past times, oppressed or revolted, who fought to the death in petty quarrels and drunk fury with blood, who burned cities and rent empires, were men essentially such as those we daily meet. Social progress has accumulated knowledge, softened manners, refined tastes and extended sympathies, but man is yet capable of as blind a rage as when, clothed in skins, he fought wild beasts with a flint. And present tendencies, in some respects at least, threaten to kindle passions that have so often before flamed in destructive fury.

[13] There is in all the past nothing to compare with the rapid changes now going on in the civilized world. It seems as though in the European race, and in the nineteenth century, man was just beginning to live — just grasping his tools and becoming conscious of his powers. The snail's pace of crawling ages has suddenly become the headlong rush of the locomotive, speeding faster and faster. This rapid progress is primarily in industrial methods and material powers. But industrial changes imply social changes and necessitate political changes. Progressive societies outgrow institutions as children outgrow clothes. Social progress always requires greater intelligence in the management of public affairs; but this the more as progress is rapid and change quicker.

[14] And that the rapid changes now going on are bringing up problems that demand most earnest attention may be seen on every hand. Symptoms of danger, premonitions of violence, are appearing all over the civilized world. Creeds are dying, beliefs are changing; the old forces of conservatism are melting away. Political institutions are failing, as clearly in democratic America as in monarchical Europe. There is growing unrest and bitterness among the masses, whatever be the form of government, a blind groping for escape from conditions becoming intolerable. To attribute all this to the teachings of demagogues is like attributing the fever to the quickened pulse. It is the new wine beginning to ferment in old bottles. To put into a sailing-ship the powerful engines of a first-class ocean steamer would be to tear her to pieces with their play. So the new powers rapidly changing all the relations of society must shatter social and political organizations not adapted to meet their strain.

[15] To adjust our institutions to growing needs and changing conditions is the task which devolves upon us. Prudence, patriotism, human sympathy, and religious sentiment, alike call upon us to undertake it. There is danger in reckless change; but greater danger in blind conservatism. The problems beginning to confront us are grave — so grave that there is fear they may not be solved in time to prevent great catastrophes. But their gravity comes from indisposition to recognize frankly and grapple boldly with them.

[16] These dangers, which menace not one country alone, but modern civilization itself, do but show that a higher civilization is struggling to be born — that the needs and the aspirations of men have outgrown conditions and institutions that before sufficed.

[17] A civilization which tends to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a fortunate few, and to make of others mere human machines, must inevitably evolve anarchy and bring destruction. But a civilization is possible in which the poorest could have all the comforts and conveniences now enjoyed by the rich; in which prisons and almshouses would be needless, and charitable societies unthought of. Such a civilization waits only for the social intelligence that will adapt means to ends. Powers that might give plenty to all are already in our hands. Though there is poverty and want, there is, yet, seeming embarrassment from the very excess of wealth-producing forces. "Give us but a market," say manufacturers, "and we will supply goods without end!" "Give us but work!" cry idle men.

[18] The evils that begin to appear spring from the fact that the application of intelligence to social affairs has not kept pace with the application of intelligence to individual needs and material ends. Natural science strides forward, but political science lags. With all our progress in the arts which produce wealth, we have made no progress in securing its equitable distribution. Knowledge has vastly increased; industry and commerce have been revolutionized; but whether free trade or protection is best for a nation we are not yet agreed. We have brought machinery to a pitch of perfection that, fifty years ago, could not have been imagined; but, in the presence of political corruption, we seem as helpless as idiots. The East River bridge is a crowning triumph of mechanical skill; but to get it built a leading citizen of Brooklyn had to carry to New York sixty thousand dollars in a carpet bag to bribe New York aldermen. The human soul that thought out the great bridge is prisoned in a crazed and broken body that lies bedfast, and could watch it grow only by peering through a telescope. Nevertheless, the weight of the immense mass is estimated and adjusted for every inch. But the skill of the engineer could not prevent condemned wire being smuggled into the cable.

[19] The progress of civilization requires that more and more intelligence be devoted to social affairs, and this not the intelligence of the few, but that of the many. We cannot safely leave politics to politicians, or political economy to college professors. The people themselves must think, because the people alone can act.

[20] In a "journal of civilization" a professed teacher declares the saving word for society to be that each shall mind his own business. This is the gospel of selfishness, soothing as soft flutes to those who, having fared well themselves, think everybody should be satisfied. But the salvation of society, the hope for the free, full development of humanity, is in the gospel of brotherhood — the gospel of Christ. Social progress makes the well-being of all more and more the business of each; it binds all closer and closer together in bonds from which none can escape. He who observes the law and the proprieties, and cares for his family, yet takes no interest in the general weal, and gives no thought to those who are trodden under foot, save now and then to bestow aims, is not a true Christian. Nor is he a good citizen. The duty of the citizen is more and harder than this.

[21] The intelligence required for the solving of social problems is not a thing of the mere intellect. It must be animated with the religious sentiment and warm with sympathy for human suffering. It must stretch out beyond self-interest, whether it be the self-interest of the few or of the many. It must seek justice. For at the bottom of every social problem we will find a social wrong. .. read the entire essay

Henry George: Moses, Apostle of Freedom  (1878 speech)

In the full blaze of the nineteenth century, when every child in our schools may know as common truths things of which the Egyptian sages never dreamed; when the earth has been mapped and the stars have been weighed; when steam and electricity have been pressed into our service, and science is wresting from nature secret after secret – it is but natural to look back upon the wisdom of three thousand years ago as an adult looks back upon the learning of a child.

And yet, for all this wonderful increase of knowledge, for all this enormous gain of productive power, where is the country in the civilised world in which today there is not want and suffering – where the masses are not condemned to toil that gives no leisure, and all classes are not pursued by a greed of gain that makes life an ignoble struggle to get and to keep? Three thousands years of advances, and still the moan goes up: "They have made our lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service!" Three thousand years of advances! and the piteous voices of little children are in the moan. ...

Over ocean wastes far wider than the Syrian desert we have sought our promised land – no narrow strip between the mountains and the sea, but a wide and virgin continent. Here, in greater freedom, with vaster knowledge and fuller experience, we are building up a nation that leads the van of modern progress. And yet while we prate of the rights of humanity there are already many among us thousands who find it difficult to assert the first of natural rights – the right to earn an honest living; thousands who from time to time must accept of degrading charity or starve.

We boast of equality before the law; yet notoriously justice is deaf to the call of those who have no gold and blind to the sin of those who have.

We pride ourselves upon our common schools; yet after our boys and girls are educated we vainly ask: "What shall we do with them?" And about our colleges children are growing up in vice and crime, because from their homes poverty has driven all refining influences. We pin our faith to universal suffrage; yet with all power in the hands of the people, the control of public affairs is passing into the hands of a class of professional politicians, and our governments are, in many cases, becoming but a means for robbery of the people.

We have prohibited hereditary distinctions, we have forbidden titles of nobility; yet there is growing up an aristocracy of wealth as powerful and merciless as any that ever held sway.  ... read the whole speech

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

b. Normal Effect of Social Progress upon Wages and Rent

In the foregoing charts the effect of social growth is ignored, it being assumed that the given expenditure of labor force does not become more productive.93 Let us now try to illustrate that effect, upon the supposition that social growth increases the productive power of the given expenditure of labor force as applied to the first closed space, to 100; as applied to the second, to 50; as applied to the third, to 10; as applied to the fourth, to 3, and as applied to the open space, to 1. 94 If there were no increased demand for land the chart would then be like this: [chart]

93. "The effect of increasing population upon the distribution of wealth is to increase rent .. . in two ways: First, By lowering the margin of cultivation. Second, By bringing out in land special capabilities otherwise latent, and by attaching special capabilities to particular lands.

"I am disposed to think that the latter mode, to which little attention has been given by political economists, is really the more important." — Progress and Poverty, book iv, ch. iii.

"When we have inquired what it is that marks off land from those material things which we regard as products of the land, we shall find that the fundamental attribute of land is its extension. The right to use a piece of land gives command over a certain space — a certain part of the earth's surface. The area of the earth is fixed; the geometric relations in which any particular part of it stands to other parts are fixed. Man has no control over them; they are wholly unaffected by demand; they have no cost of production; there is no supply price at which they can be produced.

"The use of a certain area of the earth's surface is a primary condition of anything that man can do; it gives him room for his own actions, with the enjoyment of the heat and the light, the air and the rain which nature assigns to that area; and it determines his distance from, and in great measure his relations to, other things and other persons. We shall find that it is this property of land, which, though as yet insufficient prominence has been given to it, is the ultimate cause of the distinction which all writers are compelled to make between land and other things." — Marshall's Prin., book iv, ch. ii, sec. i.

94. Of course social growth does not go on in this regular way; the charts are merely illustrative. They are intended to illustrate the universal fact that as any land becomes a center of trade or other social relationship its value rises.

Though Rent is now increased, so are Wages. Both benefit by social growth. But if we consider the fact that increase in the productive power of labor increases demand for land we shall see that the tendency of Wages (as a proportion of product if not as an absolute quantity) is downward, while that of Rent is upward. 95 And this conclusion is confirmed by observation. 96

95. "Perhaps it may be well to remind the reader, before closing this chapter, of what has been before stated — that I am using the word wages not in the sense of a quantity, but in the sense of a proportion. When I say that wages fall as rent rises, I do not mean that the quantity of wealth obtained by laborers as wages is necessarily less, but that the proportion which it bears to the whole produce is necessarily less. The proportion may diminish while the quantity remains the same or increases." — Progress and Poverty, book iii, ch. vi.

96. The condition illustrated in the last chart would be the result of social growth if all land but that which was in full use were common land. The discovery of mines, the development of cities and towns, and the construction of railroads, the irrigation of and places, improvements in government, all the infinite conveniences and laborsaving devices that civilization generates, would tend to abolish poverty by increasing the compensation of labor, and making it impossible for any man to be in involuntary idleness, or underpaid, so long as mankind was in want. If demand for land increased, Wages would tend to fall as the demand brought lower grades of land into use; but they would at the same time tend to rise as social growth added new capabilities to the lower grades. And it is altogether probable that, while progress would lower Wages as a proportion of total product, it would increase them as an absolute quantity. ...

Q32. Is not ownership of land necessary to induce its improvement? Does not history show that private ownership is a step in advance of common ownership?
A. No. Private use was doubtless a step in advance of common use. And because private use seems to us to have been brought about under the institution of private ownership, private ownership appears to the superficial to have been the real advance. But a little observation and reflection will remove that impression. Private ownership of land is not necessary to its private use. And so far from inducing improvement, private ownership retards it. When a man owns land he may accumulate wealth by doing nothing with the land, simply allowing the community to increase its value while he pays a merely nominal tax, upon the plea that he gets no income from the property. But when the possessor has to pay the value of his land every year, as he would have to under the single tax, and as ground renters do now, he must improve his holding in order to profit by it. Private possession of land, without profit except from use, promotes improvement; private ownership, with profit regardless of use, retards improvement. Every city in the world, in its vacant lots, offers proof of the statement. It is the lots that are owned, and not those that are held upon ground-lease, that remain vacant. ... read the book

Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)

FIVE centuries ago the wealth-producing power of England, man for man, was small indeed compared with what it is now. Not merely were all the great inventions and discoveries which since the Introduction of steam have revolutionized mechanical industry then undreamed of, but even agriculture was far ruder and less productive. Artificial grasses had not been discovered. The potato, the carrot, the turnip, the beet, and many other plants and vegetables which the farmer now finds most prolific, had not been introduced. The advantages which ensue from rotation of crops were unknown. Agricultural implements consisted of the spade, the sickle, the flail, the rude plow and the harrow. Cattle had not been bred to more than one-half the size they average now, and sheep did not yield half the fleece. Roads, where there were roads, were extremely bad, wheel vehicles scarce and rude, and places a hundred miles from each other were, in difficulties of transportation, practically as far apart as London and Hong Kong, or San Francisco and New York, are now.

Yet patient students of those times tell us that the condition of the English laborer was not only relatively, but absolutely better in those rude times than it is in England today, after five centuries of advance in the productive arts. They tell us that the workingman did not work so hard as he does now, and lived better; that he was exempt from the harassing dread of being forced by loss of employment to want and beggary, or of leaving a family that must apply to charity to avoid I starvation. Pauperism as it prevails in the rich England of the nineteenth century was in the far poorer England of the fourteenth century absolutely unknown. Medicine was empirical and superstitious, sanitary regulations and precautions were all but unknown. There were frequently plague and occasionally famine, for, owing to the difficulties of transportation, the scarcity of one district could not "be relieved by the plenty of another. But men did not as they do now, starve in the midst of abundance; and what is perhaps the most significant fact of all is that not only were women and children not worked as they are today, but the eight-hour system, which even the working classes of the United States, with all the profusion of labor-saving machinery and appliances have not yet attained, was then the common system! — Protection or Free Trade — Chapter 22: The Real Weakness of Free Trade.

MENTAL power is the motor of progress, and men tend to advance in proportion to the mental power expended in progression — the mental power which is devoted to the extension of knowledge, the improvement of methods, and the betterment of social conditions. — Progress & Poverty — Book X, Chapter 3, The Law of Human Progress

To compare society to a boat. Her progress through the water will not depend upon the exertion of her crew, but upon the exertion devoted to propelling her. This will be lessened by any expenditure of force required for baling, or any expenditure of force in fighting among themselves or in pulling in different directions.

Now, as in a separated state the whole powers of man are required to maintain existence, and mental power is only set free for higher uses by the association of men in communities, which permits the division of labor and all the economies which come with the co-operation of increased numbers, association is the first essential of progress. Improvement becomes possible as men come together in peaceful association, and the wider and closer the association, the greater the possibilities of improvement. And as the wasteful expenditure of mental power in conflict becomes greater or less as the moral law which accords to each an equality of rights is ignored or is recognized, equality (or justice) is the second essential of progress.

Thus association in equality is the law of progress. Association frees mental power for expenditure in improvement, and equality (or justice, or freedom — for the terms here signify the same thing, the recognition of the moral law) prevents the dissipation of this power in fruitless struggles. — Progress & Poverty — Book X, Chapter 3, The Law of Human Progress

I BELIEVE that in a really Christian community, in a society that honored, not with the lips but with the act, the doctrines of Jesus, no one would have occasion to worry about physical needs any more than do the lilies of the field. There is enough and to spare. The trouble is that, in this mad struggle, we trample in the mire what has been provided in sufficiency for us all; trample it in the mire while we tear and rend each other. — The Crime of Poverty

WHOSE fault is it that social conditions are such that men have to make that terrible choice between what conscience tells them is right, and the necessity of earning a living? I hold that it is the fault of society; that it is the fault of us all. Pestilence is a curse. The man who would bring cholera to this country, or the man who, having the power to prevent its coming here, would make no effort to do so, would be guilty of a crime. Poverty is worse than cholera; poverty kills more people than pestilence, even in the best of times. Look at the death statistics of our cities; see where the deaths come quickest; see where it is that the little children die like flies — it is in the poorer quarters. And the man who looks with careless eyes upon the ravages of this pestilence; the man who does not set himself to stay and eradicate it, he, I say, is guilty of a crime. — The Crime of Poverty

SOCIAL progress makes the well-being of all more and more the business of each; it binds all closer and closer together in bonds from which none can escape. He who observes the law and the proprieties, and cares for his family, yet takes no interest in the general weal, and gives no thought to those who are trodden underfoot, save now and then to bestow alms, is not a true Christian. Nor is he a good citizen. — Social Problems — Chapter 1, the Increasing Importance of Social Questions

WE cannot safely leave politics to politicians, or political economy to college professors. The people themselves must think, because the people alone can act. — Social Problems — Chapter 1, the Increasing Importance of Social Questions

I AM convinced that we make a great mistake in depriving one sex of voice in public matters, and that we could in no way so increase the attention, the intelligence and the devotion which may be brought to the solution of social problems as by enfranchising our women. Even if in a ruder state of society the intelligence of one sex suffices for the management of common interests, the vastly more intricate, more delicate and more important questions which the progress of civilization makes of public moment, require the intelligence of women as of men, and that we never can obtain until we interest them in public affairs. And I have come to believe that very much of the inattention, the flippancy, the want of conscience, which we see manifested in regard to public matters of the greatest moment, arises from the fact that we debar our women from taking their proper part in these matters. Nothing will fully interest men unless it also interests women. There are those who say that women are less intelligent than men; but who will say that they are less influential? — Social Problems — Chapter 22: Conclusion

... go to "Gems from George"



To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper