Henry George

by James Tuttle

Henry George

The following article was written by Kenneth Gregg and published at CLASSical Liberalism, September 4, 2005.

What is necessary for the use of land is not its private ownership, but the security of improvements. It is not necessary to say to a man, ‘this land is yours,’ in order to induce him to cultivate or improve it. It is only necessary to say to him, ‘whatever your labor, or capital produces on this land shall be yours.’ Give a man security that he may reap, and he will sow; assure him of the possession of the house he wants to build, and he will build it. These are the natural rewards of labor. It is for the sake of the reaping that men sow; it is for the sake of possessing houses that men build. The ownership of land has nothing to do with it. –Henry George

Henry George (9/2/1839-10/29/1897) was born in Philadelphia, the second of ten children of a poor, pious, evangelical Protestant family. His formal education was cut short at 14 and went to sea as a foremast boy on the Hindoo, bound for Melbourne and Calcutta eventually making a complete voyage around the world. Three years later, he was halfway through a second voyage as an able seaman when he left the ship in San Francisco and worked at various occupations (including gold mining) and eventually went to work as a journeyman printer and occasional typesetter before turning to newspaper writing in San Francisco including four years (1871-1875) as editor of his own San Francisco Daily Evening Post. George’s experience in a number of trades, his poverty while supporting a family, and the examples of financial difficulties that came to his attention as wage earner and newspaperman gave impetus to his reformist tendencies. He was curious and attentive to everything around him.

“Little Harry George” (he was small of stature and slight of build, according to his son) was fortunate in San Francisco; he lived and worked in a rapidly developing society. George had the unique opportunity of studying the change of an encampment into a thriving metropolis. He saw a city of tents and mud change into a town of paved streets and decent housing, with tramways and buses. As he saw the beginning of wealth, he noted the appearance of pauperism. He saw a degradation forming with the advent of leisure and affluence, and felt compelled to discover why they arose concurrently. As he would continue to do as he struggled to support his family in San Francisco following the Panic of 1873.

Dabbling in local politics, he shifted loyalties from Lincoln Republicanism to the Democrats, and became a trenchant critic of railroad and mining interests, corrupt politicians, land speculators, and labor contractors. He failed as a Democratic candidate for the state legislature, but landed a patronage job of state inspector of gas meters (which allowed him time to write longer expositions).

As Alanna Hartzok has pointed out, Henry George’s famous epiphany occurred:

One day, while riding horseback in the Oakland hills, merchant seaman and journalist Henry George had a startling epiphany. He realized that speculation and private profiteering in the gifts of nature were the root causes of the unjust distribution of wealth.

His son, Henry George, Jr., said,

…Henry George perceived that land speculation locked up vast territories against labor. Everywhere he perceived an effort to “corner” land; an effort to get it and to hold it, not for use, but for a “rise.” Everywhere he perceived that this caused all who wished to use it to compete with each other for it; and he foresaw that as population grew the keener that competition would become. Those who had a monopoly of the land would practically own those who had to use the land.

…in 1871 [he] sat down and in the course of four months wrote a little book under title of “Our Land and Land Policy [PDF].” In that small volume of forty-eight pages he advocated the destruction of land monopoly by shifting all taxes from labor and the products of labor and concentrating them in one tax on the value of land, regardless of improvements. A thousand copies of this small book were printed, but the author quickly perceived that really to command attention, the work would have to be done more thoroughly.

Over the next several years, George devoted his time to the completion of his major work. In 1879, finding no publisher, he self-published Progress and Poverty (500 copies), and issued the following year in New York and London by Appleton’s after George transported the printing plates to them. The plates were then taken by Appleton’s and the book soon became a sensation, translated into many languages and assured George’s fame, selling over 3 million copies.

At the heart of his critique of Gilded Age capitalism was the conviction that rent and private land-ownership violated the hallowed principles of Jeffersonian democracy and poverty was an affront to the moral values of Judeo-Christian culture. Progress and Poverty was “an inquiry into the cause of industrial depressions and of increase of want with increase of wealth.” In the fact that rent tends to increase not only with increase of population but with all improvements that increase productive power, George finds the cause of the tendency to the increase of land values and decrease of the proportion of the produce of wealth which goes to labor and capital, while in the speculative holding of land thus engendered he traces the tendency to force wages to a minimum and the primary cause of paroxysms of industrial depression.

The remedy for these he declares to be the appropriation of rent by the community, thus making land community owned and giving the user secure possession and leaving to the producer the full advantage of his exertion and investment. This notion of the single tax [PDF] (the term which the successful attorney and free-trade advocate, Thomas G. Shearman (who, along with C.B. Fillebrown, led the more hard-core, pro-free market position within the single tax movement–although later to falter), gave to George’s solution.

George moved his family to New York in 1880 due to the demands as writer and lecturer. In 1881 he published The Irish Land Question, and in 1883-4 he made another trip at the invitation of the Scottish land restoration league, producing on both tours a strong international interest in his ideas. In 1886 he was the candidate for the United Labor Party for mayor of New York, and received 68,110 votes against 90,552 for Abram S. Hewitt (Democrat), and 60,435 for Theodore Roosevelt (Republican). In 1887, George founded the “Standard,” a weekly newspaper (1887-92). He also published Social Problems (1884), and Protection or Free-Trade(1886), a radical examination of the tariff question, An Open Letter to the Pope (1891), a reply to Leo XIII’s encyclical The Condition of Labor; A Perplexed Philosopher (1892), a critique of Herbert Spencer and, finally, his The Science of Political Economy (1897), begun in 1891 but uncompleted at his death, when he was running for Mayor of New York one final time.

George’s legacy has been long and vibrant over the last century, leading to utopian communities, legislators, economists and political activists of all sorts. This is a mixed legacy which one can argue both positive and negative influences. But it cannot be ignored.

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  1. Libertarians remember Murray Rothbard’s refutations of Henry George, but libertarians do not tend to remember that Rothbard was (mostly – and with his own developments) repeating the refutation of Henry George by Frank Fetter (almost a century before). It is odd that this is not remembered – as Rothbard was honest enough to point out that he was (mostly) carrying on the argument of Frank Fetter.

    As for Henry George – he starts off with the economics of David Ricardo and James Mill (the father of John Stuart Mill), this is unfortunate because this economics was false (not just on LAND – but in other vital respects also such as the Labour Theory of Value, exposed as false by Samuel Bailey and others at the time). Henry George does not realise that the economics he is using is based upon errors – and develops and expands this economics (thus expanding the errors).

    As for the American influence of Henry George – it was more in the Populist wing of the Democratic party than in the Republican party (although the Republicans had their share of harmful people – “Teddy” Roosevelt, with his Germanic philosophy from Richard Ely, springs to mind).

    The Progressive Mayor of Cleveland (name – I can not remember his name) was a typical example of an American follower of Henry George, there is a stature of the Mayor in Cleveland holding a copy of “Progress and Poverty” in his hand. He was a terrible Mayor (although that was NOT the fault of Henry George) getting the City involved with owning X,Y,Z and spending lots of money, he was much praised by the sort of person who later praised the Soviet Union.

    As for land prices going up when large numbers of people move to an area – yes indeed they do.

    But it is not some evil conspiracy by the rich – and the state should not get involved to try and stop it.

    What the state could do is stop ARTIFICALLY increasing property prices – with its monetary expansion (via Central Banks) and, via its special schemes (such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the United States – and Mr Osbourne’s odd ideas in Britain).

    See Thomas Sowell “Housing: Boom and Bust”.

    And Thomas Woods “Meltdown”.

  2. Yes it really is sad that people who arrived in California (or elsewhere) late, paid higher prices to buy (or rent) land than those people who arrived early (when there were fewer people).

    Oh dear, how sad, never mind.

  3. Reaping what you didn’t sow is just part of the rough and tumble of life.

    Finders keepers, losers weepers.

    Why not rob and enslave each other? Seems fair enough. People should just stop bitching and get on with it.

  4. But it is not robbing and enslaving each other. When there were fewer people in (for example) California land was cheaper (both to buy and to rent) than it was later when there were far more people in (for example) California. Henry George thought that this was an outrage (and that the government should “do something” about it – by a special tax or whatever), but it is not an outrage, it is a natural process (not a violation of the non aggression principle).

    It is like me screaming about going bald as I have got older – and demanding that the government impose a special tax on people who have not gone bald.

  5. What exactly is wrong, morally or economically from co-proprietorship of this planet, which no human created? It is unnecessary, or desirable that anything else should be shared.

    Like children, some adults find the idea of sharing anything repugnant.

    As Land is the source of all our sustenance and material wealth, those who are excluded from accessing it, are the economic slaves of those who own land, and can charge rent to access it.

    Denying others their equal share of the wealth nature provides for free is robbery. Although I understand, many people, like children, find the finders keepers definition of moral ownership the only justification they need.

  6. Thank you very much benj – I do not think that even Thomas would call me a “liar” for pointing out that you are clearly opposed to large scale private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange (at least in relation to land).

    Allowing someone like you into a country would clearly be a clear and present danger to existing land owners (whose ownership you regard as not legitimate). You could (for example) only take the Oath of Allegiance dishonestly (or, at best, with some mental reservation – such as the view of Thomas that “always faithful” means for-as-long-as-I-am-in-paid-employed-by-them) and thus would fail the Justice Butler (1920s Supreme Court Judgement) test about swearing the Oath of Allegiance sincerely – or facing deportation (if you are an immigrant – you may not be).

    In a British context – free holding has been excepted as de facto private ownership since at least the Great Charta of 1215 (denying the King had the right to take land from one family and give it to another – this was accepted in charters as far back as 877 AD in France if not before). Your ownership that everything should be “shared” would seem to exclude you for loyalty to the Crown (which is not loyalty to just a person – but to a set of legal assumptions, that the King or Queen, as an individual, may themselves violate – and thus be guilty of a High Crime ).

    Land is not just “there” – it has to be fundamentally transformed and maintained (as any farmer or estate owner knows), and private employees and tenants are not “slaves” (that is the Rousseau mistake – claiming that private employment was slavery, and control by the collective was freedom).

    However, I again thank you for making your position clear.

    I would also point out that communal living (whether in a religious order, or in a secular commune) is open to you.

    You can become a monk (or join a secular commune) right now – if that is what you wish to do.

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