Thursday, August 9, 2012

Henry George, The First Progressive

Henry George(1839 - 1897) is a progressive hero that has been largely forgotten by time.  In his heyday, he was one of the most famous living Americans in the World.  Surpassed by only Thomas Edison and Mark Twain.  His most famous book was translated into dozens of languages and sold 3 million copies in his lifetime.  He was invited to speak and lecture all over the country and world, and his writings appeared in newspapers across the nation.  At his funeral in 1897, 200,000 paid their respects by filing past his casket(as a comparison, when President McKinley was assassinated 4 years later, only about 100,000 people filed past his casket.  So how did a 19th century printer, living in San Francisco , with no more than a 7th grade education become so famous?  And why was he forgotten?

Henry George went on a quest to find out why there is poverty among so much progress and wealth.  The result of his quest was a book called Progress and Poverty.  He started writing in 125 years this month.  Except for some anachronisms, the book could be mistaken for being written in any decade between then and now.  If you read it today, you could easily think it was written last year .  All the problems he describes are still problems today.  All the excuses that he debunks as causes for these problems are still repeated today.  Here is the opening of Progress and Poverty.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY saw an enormous increase in the ability to produce wealth. Steam and electricity, mechanization, specialization, and new business methods greatly increased the power of labor.
Who could have foreseen the steamship, the railroad, the tractor? Or factories weaving cloth faster than hundreds of weavers? Who could have heard the throb of engines more powerful than all the beasts of burden combined? Or envisioned the immense effort saved by improvements in transportation, communication, and commerce?...
...Yet we must now face facts we cannot mistake. All over the world, we hear complaints of industrial depression: labor condemned to involuntary idleness; capital going to waste; fear and hardship haunting workers. All this dull, deadening pain, this keen, maddening anguish, is summed up in the familiar phrase "hard times."
Does that not sound like it could've been written last year?  Change the century and replace the inventions with more recent inventions like robotics and computers, and this could be an Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times.

Henry George described the conditions of the poor as, in many ways, worse than ancient man.

Nevertheless, no one who faces the facts can avoid the conclusion that -- in the heart of our civilization -- there are large classes that even the sorriest savage would not want to trade places with. Given the choice of being born an Australian aborigine, an arctic Eskimo, or among the lowest classes in a highly civilized country such as Great Britain, one would make an infinitely better choice in selecting the lot of the savage.
Those condemned to want in the midst of wealth suffer all the hardships of savages, without the sense of personal freedom. If their horizon is wider, it is only to see the blessings they cannot enjoy. I challenge anyone to produce an authentic account of primitive life citing the degradation we find in official documents regarding the condition of the working poor in highly civilized countries.
Today, conservatives berate the poor for having cell phones and TVs.  They use it as evidence that poverty is not a problem in America.  Henry George had an insightful response that is still relevant to this day.

Yes, in certain ways, the poorest now enjoy what the richest could not a century ago. But this does not demonstrate an improvement -- not so long as the ability to obtain the necessities of life has not increased. A beggar in the city may enjoy many things that a backwoods farmer cannot. But the condition of the beggar is not better than that of an independent farmer. What we call progress does not improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. In fact, it tends to depress their condition even more.
Henry George was very progressive when it came to other cultures.  At the time, it was common to blame poverty on nature or racism.  For instance, the Irish were too dumb when they depended so heavily on potatoes, India and China were overpopulated.  These were popular myths for why these countries were or had so many poor.  Henry George demolished all of them.  All he had to do was point out how well off the elites were in each of these countries.

Another popular explanation of why the poor were poor, was based on good old fashioned classism.  That is, the poor are poor because they are lazy, criminally inclined, or just generally rude(sound familiar?).  Henry George had a great retort for these people too.

In society as presently constituted, people are greedy for wealth because the conditions of distribution are so unjust. Instead of each being sure of enough, many are condemned to poverty. This is what causes the rat race and the scramble for wealth. An equitable distribution of wealth would exempt everyone from this fear. It would destroy greed for wealth, as greed for food is destroyed in polite society. 
On crowded steamers, manners often differed between cabin and steerage, illustrating this principle of human nature. Both had enough food. However, steerage had no regulations to insure efficient service, so meals became a scramble. In cabin, on the contrary, each was assigned a place, and there was no fear of not getting enough to eat. There was no scrambling and no waste. The difference was not in the character of the people, but simply in the arrangements. A cabin passenger transferred to steerage would participate in the greedy rush; a steerage passenger transferred to cabin would become respectful and polite.
In other words, the negative behavior attributed to the poor is not the reason they are poor.  Rather, the behavior is a result of being poor.  This argument, and all other arguments boiled down to a refutation of Social Darwinism.  The crude theory that the poor are poor because they suck, and the rich are rich because they are awesome.  Henry George expertly busted this mythology that the elite told themselves.

Finally, the reason I call Henry George the "First Progressive" isn't just because he argued against Social Darwinism.  The reason is because he was the first popular figure to do so, that didn't blame capitalism and turn to a marxist solution to solve the problem.  From his preface to the fourth edition to Progress and Poverty.

What I have done in this book is to unite the truth perceived by Smith and Ricardo with the truth perceived by Proudhon and Lassalle.  I have shown that laissez faire—in its full, true meaning—opens the way for us to realize the noble dreams of socialism.
He blamed what he called the "Land Monopoly".  The details, and his solution, to the problem are too long for this already long post.  Just to give you an idea, he redefined the class fight from being capitalists VS. workers as Marx did, to Land(and other) Monopolists VS.  "real capitalists"workers.  His book is an easy read and is free on the web and as a pdf.  I think you'll enjoy it if you give it a chance.(my only recommendation is to skip chapter 5 in book III - it's a little convoluted)

As for why he has been largely forgotten, I can only speculate.  Maybe because he billed himself as an "economist" yet he expounded on classic political economy.  At the time of his writing, the world of economics was moving onto the "neoclassical" economics that we are more familiar with today.  Maybe the elite wanted us to forget about him.  Unlike figures like Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, they couldn't "rehabilitate" his legacy to make him appear as a conservative.  Perhaps it is as innocent as later economic figures like John Maynard Keynes over shadowing his legacy.

Whatever the reason for Henry George being forgotten, it certainly isn't because his work is no longer relevant, nor is it because his proposed solution was a bad idea(ever city, state, or province that has tried it has had enormous growth).    Here's to remembering a man that deserves to be remembered.
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