One more Chapter out of Progress and Poverty

http://www.henrygeorge.org/pchp43.htm

Chapter 43

The Central Truth

OUR ECONOMIC INQUIRY led us to a certain truth. The same truth explains the rise and fall of civilizations. Furthermore, it agrees with our deep-seated perceptions of relation and sequence, which we call moral perceptions.

The evils arising from the unequal and unjust distribution of wealth become more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on. They are not signs of progress, but tendencies that will bring progress to a halt. They will not cure themselves. Unless their cause is removed, they will expand until they sweep us back into barbarism — the path every previous civilization has taken.

But this truth also shows that these evils are not imposed by natural laws. They arise solely from social maladjustments that ignore natural laws. Poverty, with all the evils that flow from it, springs from a denial of justice. By allowing a few to monopolize opportunities nature freely offers to all, we have ignored the fundamental law of justice.

By sweeping away this injustice — and asserting the rights of all people to natural opportunities — we shall conform ourselves to this law. We shall remove the great cause of unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth and power. We shall abolish poverty; tame the ruthless passions of greed; and dry up the springs of vice and misery. We shall light the lamp of knowledge in dark places; give new vigor to invention and a fresh impulse to discovery; substitute political strength for political weakness; and make tyranny and anarchy impossible.

The reform I have proposed will make all other reforms easier. It agrees with all that is desirable — politically, socially, or morally. It is simply carrying out, in letter and spirit, the self-evident truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence: that all people are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

These rights are denied when the equal right to land is denied — for people can only live by using land. Equal political rights will not compensate for denying equal rights to the gifts of nature. Without equal rights to land, political liberty is merely the right to compete for employment at starvation wages.

We honor liberty in name and form. We set up statues and sound her praises. But we have not fully trusted her. And as we grow, her demands grow. She will have no half service. For liberty means justice, and justice is the natural law.

Some think liberty’s mission is accomplished when she has abolished hereditary privileges and given the vote. They think she has no further relation to the everyday affairs of life. They have not seen her real grandeur. To them, her poets seem dreamers, her martyrs but fools. Yet it is not for an abstraction that people have toiled and died. In every age, the witnesses of liberty have stood forth.

We speak as if liberty were one thing, and virtue, wealth, knowledge, invention, and independence were others. But liberty is the source, the mother, the necessary condition, of all these. She is to virtue what light is to color; to wealth what sunshine is to grain; to knowledge what eyes are to sight.

In the history of every nation we may read the same truth. It is the universal law, the lesson of the centuries. Our primary social organization is a denial of justice. Allowing one person to own the land — on which and from which others must live — makes them slaves. The degree, or proportion, of slavery increases as material progress goes on.

This subtle alchemy is extracting the fruits of their labor from the masses in every civilized country, in ways they do not realize. It institutes a harder and more hopeless slavery in place of the one that has been destroyed. It brings tyranny out of political freedom, and must soon transform democratic institutions into anarchy. This is what turns the blessings of material progress into a curse, what crowds human beings into squalid tenement houses, and fills the prisons and brothels. This is what plagues people with want and consumes them with greed.

Civilization so based cannot continue. The eternal laws of the universe forbid it. The ruins of dead empires so testify. Justice herself demands that we right this wrong.

It is blasphemy to attribute the suffering and brutality that comes from poverty to the inscrutable decrees of Providence. It is not the Almighty, but we who are responsible for the vice and misery that fester amid our civilization. The Creator showers us with gifts — more than enough for all. But like swine scrambling for food, we tread them in the mire while we tear each other apart.

Suppose at God’s command, for every blade of grass that now grows, two should spring up. And crops increase a hundred-fold. Would poverty be reduced? No — any benefit that would accrue would be temporary. The miraculous new powers could be utilized only through land. And while land is private property, the classes that currently monopolize the bounty of the Creator would monopolize all the new bounty.

Landowners alone would benefit. Rents would increase, but wages would still tend to the starvation point.

This is not merely a deduction of political economy — it is a fact of experience. We have seen it with our own eyes, in our own times.

The effect of invention and improvement on the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of nature.

What has been the result? Simply that landowners took all the gain. The wonderful discoveries and inventions of our century have neither increased wages nor lightened toil. The effect has simply been to make the few richer — and the many more helpless!

Can the gifts of the Creator be misappropriated with impunity? Can labor be robbed of its earnings, while greed rolls in wealth? Is it right that many should want, while a few are glutted? Turn to history! On every page we read that such wrongs never go unpunished. The nemesis that follows injustice never falters nor sleeps.

Look around today. Can this continue? The pillars of state tremble, and the foundations of society shudder from forces pent-up beneath. Great new powers, born of progress, have entered the world. They will compel us to a higher plane, or else they will overwhelm us.

The world is pulsing with unrest. There is an irreconcilable conflict between democratic ideas and the aristocratic organization of society. We cannot permit people to vote, then force them to beg. We cannot go on educating them, then refusing them the right to earn a living. We cannot go on chattering about inalienable human rights, then deny the inalienable right to the bounty of the Creator.

While there is still time, we may turn to justice. If we do, the dangers that threaten us will disappear. With want destroyed and greed transformed, equality will take the place of jealousy and fear. Think of the powers now wasted, the fields of knowledge yet to be explored, the possibilities that the wondrous inventions of this century only hint at. Who can presume the heights to which our civilization may soar?

Who Was Henry George?

http://www.henrygeorge.org/agnes.htm

 

What his granddaughter says about him in 1979 in an afterword to Progress and Poverty

Agnes George de Mille was the granddaughter of Henry George. Famous in her own right as a choreographer and the founder of the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theater, she received the Handel Medallion, New York’s highest award for achievement in the arts. She was the author of thirteen books.

An Afterword to Henry George’s Progress and Poverty by Agnes George deMille

 New York, January 1979

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO a young unknown printer in San Francisco wrote a book he called Progress and Poverty. He wrote after his daily working hours, in the only leisure open to him for writing. He had no real training in political economy. Indeed he had stopped schooling in the seventh grade in his native Philadelphia, and shipped before the mast as a cabin boy, making a complete voyage around the world. Three years later, he was halfway through a second voyage as able seaman when he left the ship in San Francisco and went to work as a journeyman printer. After that he took whatever honest job came to hand. All he knew of economics were the basic rules of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other economists, and the new philosophies of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, much of which he gleaned from reading in public libraries and from his own painstakingly amassed library. Marx was yet to be translated into English.

George was endowed for his job. He was curious and he was alertly attentive to all that went on around him. He had that rarest of all attributes in the scholar and historian that gift without which all education is useless. He had mother wit. He read what he needed to read, and he understood what he read. And he was fortunate; he lived and worked in a rapidly developing society. George had the unique opportunity of studying the formation of a civilization — the change of an encampment into a thriving metropolis. He saw a city of tents and mud change into a fine town of paved streets and decent housing, with tramways and buses. And as he saw the beginning of wealth, he noted the first appearance of pauperism. He saw degradation forming as he saw the advent of leisure and affluence, and he felt compelled to discover why they arose concurrently.

The result of his inquiry, Progress and Poverty, is written simply, but so beautifully that it has been compared to the very greatest works of the English language. But George was totally unknown, and so no one would print his book. He and his friends, also printers, set the type themselves and ran off an author’s edition which eventually found its way into the hands of a New York publisher, D. Appleton & Co. An English edition soon followed which aroused enormous interest. Alfred Russel Wallace, the English scientist and writer, pronounced it “the most remarkable and important book of the present century.” It was not long before George was known internationally.

During his lifetime, he became the third most famous man in the United States, only surpassed in public acclaim by Thomas Edison and Mark Twain. George was translated into almost every language that knew print, and some of the greatest, most influential thinkers of his time paid tribute. Leo Tolstoy’s appreciation stressed the logic of George’s exposition: “The chief weapon against the teaching of Henry George was that which is always used against irrefutable and self-evident truths. This method, which is still being applied in relation to George, was that of hushing up …. People do not argue with the teaching of George, they simply do not know it.” John Dewey fervently stressed the originality of George’s work, stating that, “Henry George is one of a small number of definitely original social philosophers that the world has produced,” and “It would require less than the fingers of the two hands to enumerate those who, from Plato down, rank with Henry George among the world’s social philosophers.” And Bernard Shaw, in a letter to my mother, Anna George, years later wrote, “Your father found me a literary dilettante and militant rationalist in religion, and a barren rascal at that. By turning my mind to economics he made a man of me….”

Inevitably he was reviled as well as idolized. The men who believed in what he advocated called themselves disciples, and they were in fact nothing less: working to the death, proclaiming, advocating, haranguing, and proselytizing the idea. But it was not implemented by blood, as was communism, and so was not forced on people’s attention. Shortly after George’s death, it dropped out of the political field. Once a badge of honor, the title, “Single Taxer,” came into general disuse. Except in Australia and New Zealand, Taiwan and Hong Kong and scattered cities around the world, his plan of social action has been neglected while those of Marx, Keynes, Galbraith and Friedman have won great attention, and Marx’s has been given partial implementation, for a time, at least, in large areas of the globe.

But nothing that has been tried satisfies. We, the people, are locked in a death grapple and nothing our leaders offer, or are willing to offer, mitigates our troubles. George said, “The people must think because the people alone can act.”

We have reached the deplorable circumstance where in large measure a very powerful few are in possession of the earth’s resources, the land and its riches and all the franchises and other privileges that yield a return. These positions are maintained virtually without taxation; they are immune to the demands made on others. The very poor, who have nothing, are the object of compulsory charity. And the rest — the workers, the middle-class, the backbone of the country — are made to support the lot by their labor.

We are taxed at every point of our lives, on everything we earn, on everything we save, on much that we inherit, on much that we buy at every stage of the manufacture and on the final purchase. The taxes are punishing, crippling, demoralizing. Also they are, to a great extent, unnecessary.

But our system, in which state and federal taxes are interlocked, is deeply entrenched and hard to correct. Moreover, it survives because it is based on bewilderment; it is maintained in a manner so bizarre and intricate that it is impossible for the ordinary citizen to know what he owes his government except with highly paid help. We support a large section of our government (the Internal Revenue Service) to prove that we are breaking our own laws. And we support a large profession (tax lawyers) to protect us from our own employees. College courses are given to explain the tax forms which would otherwise be quite unintelligible.

All this is galling and destructive, but it is still, in a measure, superficial. The great sinister fact, the one that we must live with, is that we are yielding up sovereignty. The nation is no longer comprised of the thirteen original states, nor of the thirty-seven younger sister states, but of the real powers: the cartels, the corporations. Owning the bulk of our productive resources, they are the issue of that concentration of ownership that George saw evolving, and warned against.

These multinationals are not American any more. Transcending nations, they serve not their country’s interests, but their own. They manipulate our tax policies to help themselves. They determine our statecraft. They are autonomous. They do not need to coin money or raise armies. They use ours.
And in opposition rise up the great labor unions. In the meantime, the bureaucracy, both federal and local, supported by the deadly opposing factions, legislate themselves mounting power never originally intended for our government and exert a ubiquitous influence which can be, and often is, corrupt.

I do not wish to be misunderstood as falling into the trap of the socialists and communists who condemn all privately owned business, all factories, all machinery and organizations for producing wealth. There is nothing wrong with private corporations owning the means of producing wealth. Georgists believe in private enterprise, and in its virtues and incentives to produce at maximum efficiency. It is the insidious linking together of special privilege, the unjust outright private ownership of natural or public resources, monopolies, franchises, that produce unfair domination and autocracy.

The means of producing wealth differ at the root: some is thieved from the people and some is honestly earned. George differentiated; Marx did not. The consequences of our failure to discern lie at the heart of our trouble.

This clown civilization is ours. We chose this of our own free will, in our own free democracy, with all the means to legislate intelligently readily at hand. We chose this because it suited a few people to have us do so. They counted on our mental indolence and we freely and obediently conformed. We chose not to think.
Henry George was a lucid voice, direct and bold, that pointed out basic truths, that cut through the confusion which developed like rot. Each age has known such diseases and each age has gone down for lack of understanding. It is not valid to say that our times are more complex than ages past and therefore the solution must be more complex. The problems are, on the whole, the same. The fact that we now have electricity and computers does not in any way controvert the fact that we can succumb to the injustices that toppled Rome.

To avert such a calamity, to eliminate involuntary poverty and unemployment, and to enable each individual to attain his maximum potential, George wrote his extraordinary treatise a hundred years ago. His ideas stand: he who makes should have; he who saves should enjoy; what the community produces belongs to the community for communal uses; and God’s earth, all of it, is the right of the people who inhabit the earth. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “The earth belongs in usufruct to the living.”
This is simple and this is unanswerable. The ramifications may not be simple but they do not alter the fundamental logic.

There never has been a time in our history when we have needed so sorely to hear good sense, to learn to define terms exactly, to draw reasonable conclusions. As George said, “The truth that I have tried to make clear will not find easy acceptance. If that could be, it would have been accepted long ago. If that could be, it would never have been obscured.”
We are on the brink. It is possible to have another Dark Ages. But in George there is a voice of hope.

HOW THE UNEQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH AND POWER MAY LEAD TO OUR DESTRUCTION

 I think what Henry George wrote in his book “Progress and Poverty” more than one hundred years ago still applies very much to our society today. What do you think, are changes in the distribution of wealth and power possible without major upheavals?

 The following is Chapter 42 of “Progress and Poverty” by Henry George, saying How Modern Civilization May Decline:

OUR CONCLUSIONS about the law of human progress agree completely with our previous conclusions about the laws of political economy. They also show that making land common property — by taxing its value — would give an enormous boost to civilization. Furthermore, unless we do so, we will regress.

Every previous civilization has been destroyed by the unequal distribution of wealth and power. I have traced this tendency to its cause — and provided a simple way to remove it. I will now show how, if this is not done, modern civilization will decline to barbarism, as all previous civilizations have.

History clearly shows these periods of decline, though they were not recognized at their start. When the first Emperor was changing Rome from brick to marble and extending the frontier, who would have said Rome was entering its decline? Yet such was the case.

Our civilization appears to be advancing faster than ever. Yet anyone who looks will see the same cause that doomed Rome is operating today — with increasing force. The more advanced the community, the greater the intensity. Wages and interest fall, while rents rise. The rich get richer, the poor grow helpless, the middle class is swept away.

It is worthwhile to explain the process, since many people cannot see how progress could turn into retreat. They think such a thing is impossible. Many scoff at any implication that we are not progressing in all respects. The conditions of social progress, we have found, are association and equality. The general tendency of modern development has indeed been toward political and legal equality. We have abolished slavery, revoked hereditary privileges, instituted representative government, and recognized religious freedom. High and low, weak and strong have more equal security in their person and property. There is freedom of movement and occupation, of speech and of the press.

The initial effect of political equality is a more equal distribution of wealth and power. While population is sparse, unequal distribution of wealth is due mainly to inequality of personal rights. The inequality resulting from private ownership of land shows itself only as material progress advances. Political equality does not, in itself, prevent inequality arising from private ownership of land. Furthermore, political equality — when coexisting with an increasing tendency toward unequal distribution of wealth — will ultimately beget either tyranny or anarchy.

A representative government may become a dictatorship without formally changing its constitution or abandoning popular elections. Forms are nothing when substance has gone. And the forms of popular government are those from which the substance of freedom may go most easily. For there despotism advances in the name of the people. Once that single source of power is secured, everything is secured. An aristocracy of wealth will never struggle while it can bribe a tyrant.

When the disparity of condition increases, democratic elections make it easy to seize the source of power. Many feel no connection with the conduct of government. Embittered by poverty, they are ready to sell their votes to the highest bidder or follow the most blatant demagogue. One class has become too rich to be stripped of its luxuries, no matter how public affairs are administered. Another class is so poor that promises of a few dollars will outweigh abstract considerations on election day. A few roll in wealth, while the many seethe with discontent at things they don’t know how to remedy.

Where there is anything close to equal distribution of wealth, the more democratic government is, the better it will be. Where there is gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, the opposite is true. The more democratic government is, the worse it will be. To give the vote to people who must beg or steal or starve, to whom the chance to work is a favor — this is to invoke destruction. To put political power in hands embittered and degraded by poverty is to wreak havoc.

Hereditary succession (or even selection by lot) may, by accident, occasionally place the wise and just in power. But in a corrupt democracy, the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are a handicap, while dishonesty brings success. The best sink to the bottom, the worst float to the top. The vile are ousted only by the viler.

National character gradually absorbs the qualities that win power. In the long panorama of history, we see over and over that this transforms free people into slaves. A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people. And when the people become corrupt, there is no resurrection. Life is gone, only the carcass remains. It is left but for the plowshares of fate to bury it out of sight.

Unequal distribution of wealth inevitably transforms popular government into despotism. This is not a thing of the far future. It has already begun in the United States, and is proceeding rapidly before our very eyes. Men of the highest ability and character avoid politics. The technique of handlers and hacks counts more than the reputations of statesmen. The power of money is increasing, while voting is done recklessly. Political differences are no longer differences of principle. Political parties are passing into the control of what might be considered oligarchies and dictatorships.

Modern growth is typified by the great city. Here we find the greatest wealth and the deepest poverty. And here popular government has most clearly broken down. In all the great American cities of today, a ruling class is defined as clearly as in the most aristocratic countries. Its members have whole wards in their pockets, select slates for nominating conventions, and distribute offices as they bargain together. “They toil not, neither do they spin,”* yet they wear the finest of raiment and spend money lavishly. They are men of power, whose favor the ambitious must court, and whose vengeance they must avoid.

Who are these men? The wise, the learned, the good? No. They are gamblers, fighters, or worse. Men who have made a trade of controlling votes, and buying and selling offices and legislation. Through these men, rich corporations and powerful financial interests pack the Senate and the courts with their lackeys. In many places today, a Washington, a Franklin, or a Jefferson could not even get into the state legislature. Their very character would be an insurmountable disqualification.

In theory we are intense democrats. Yet growing among us is a class who have all the power of the aristocracy — without any of their virtues. A few men control thousands of miles of railroad, millions of acres of land, and the livelihood of thousands. They name the governors as they name clerks, and choose senators as they choose attorneys. Their will with legislatures is as supreme as a French king’s.

The development of industry and commerce — acting in a social organization where land is privately owned — threatens to force every worker to seek a master. (Just as the collapse of the Roman Empire compelled every freeman to seek a feudal lord.) Industry takes on a form where one is master, while many serve. If a person steals enough, the punishment will only amount to losing part of the theft. And if a thief steals a fortune, colleagues will greet the embezzler like a Viking returning from pillage.

The most ominous political sign in the United States today is the growing complacency with corruption. Many believe there is no honest person in public office; or worse, that if there were one, he or she would be a fool not to seize the opportunities. The people themselves are becoming corrupted. Our democratic government is running the course it must inevitably follow under conditions producing unequal distribution of wealth.

Where this will lead is clear. Contempt for law develops, and reform becomes hopeless. Volcanic forces festering among the masses will explode when some accident gives them vent. Where will the new barbarians come from? Go through the squalid ghettos of great cities and you can already see them gathering.*

Hinting that our civilization may be in decline seems like wild pessimism. A fundamental belief in progress remains. But this will always be the case when advance gradually passes into retrogression. In social development, as in everything else, motion tends to continue in a straight line. Where there has been previous advance, it is extremely difficult to recognize decline — even after it has begun.

Civilizations do not decline along the same paths they came up. Government will not take us back from democracy to monarchy and to feudalism. It will take us to dictatorship or anarchy. Religion will not go back to the faiths of our forefathers, but into new forms of superstition.

The regression of civilization, after a period of advance, may be so gradual that it attracts no attention at the time. Indeed, many mistake such a decline for advancement. As the arts decline, the change may be accompanied by — or rather caused by — a change of taste. Artists who quickly adopted the new styles are regarded — in their day — as superior. As art and literature become more lifeless, foolish, and stilted — conforming to changing taste — the new fashion would regard its increasing weakness as increasing strength and beauty. Really good writers would not find readers; they would be regarded as dull. The prevailing taste becomes that of a less cultured class who regard what they like as the best of its kind.

Whether current trends in taste and opinion indicate regression is not the point. Many other things beyond dispute indicate our civilization has reached a critical point — unless a new start is made toward equality. Inequality is the necessary result of material progress wherever land is monopolized. Inequality cannot go much further without carrying us into a downward spiral so easy to start and so hard to stop.

Industrial depressions, which cause as much waste and suffering as war or famine, are like twinges and shocks preceding paralysis. The struggle to survive is increasing in intensity. We must strain every nerve to keep from being trodden underfoot in the scramble for wealth. This saps the energy to gain and maintain improvements. Diseases from related causes proliferate. In every civilized country, poverty, crime, insanity, and suicide are increasing.

When the tide turns, it does not happen all at once. When the sun passes noon, the heat of the day continues to increase. One can tell only by the way the shadows fall. But as sure as the tide must turn, as sure as the setting sun brings darkness, so sure is it that our civilization has begun to wane. Invention marches on, our cities expand. Yet civilization has begun to wane when, in proportion to population, we have more prisons, more welfare, more mental illness. Society does not die from top to bottom; it dies from bottom to top.

But the decline of civilization looms far more palpable than any statistics. There is a vague but general disappointment, an increased bitterness, a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution. If this were accompanied by some definite idea of how to obtain relief, it might be a hopeful sign. But it is not. Though we have been searching a long, long time, our power of connecting cause to effect seems not a whit improved.

A vast change in religious ideas is sweeping the world that may have a momentous effect, which only the future can tell. This is not a change in the form of religion — it is the negation and destruction of the ideas from which religion springs. Christianity is not simply shedding superstitions; it is dying at the root. And nothing arises to take its place.

The fundamental ideas of an intelligent creator and an afterlife are quickly weakening in the general mind. Whether or not this may be an advance in itself is not the point. The important part religion has played in history shows the significance of the change now going on. Unless human nature has suddenly changed its deepest characteristics, as shown by the universal history of the human race, the mightiest actions and reactions are thus being prepared.

Previously, such stages of thought have always marked periods of transition. To a lesser degree, a similar state preceded the French Revolution. But the closest parallel to the wreck of religious ideas now going on is when ancient civilization began to pass from splendor to decline.

What change may come, no mortal can tell. But that some great change must come, thoughtful people are beginning to feel. The civilized world is trembling on the verge of a great movement. Either it must be a leap upward, to advances yet undreamed of — or it will be a plunge downward, carrying us back toward barbarism.