The Dissing of Henry George

By Polly Cleveland


My father, born in 1910, told me that when he was young every educated person read Progress and Poverty.

Henry George (1839–1897) was a journalist, self-educated economist and philosopher, and eventually prominent politician. In 1879 he published Progress and Poverty, which soon became a worldwide bestseller. George argued, in very brief, that the cause of growing inequality with growing wealth was unequal ownership of land (including all natural resources). His “remedy” was to shift all taxes onto land. George did not invent his analysis or remedy. Rather, he simply lifted ideas from the classical economists including Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. But unlike them, George passionately and successfully promoted the land value tax remedy—later known as “the single tax.”

George’s followers played a major role in the early 20th Century Progressive movement. Starting even before George’s death in 1897, in the midst of his second campaign for mayor of New York City, mayors and governors around the US began implementing land taxation. They did this mostly by raising the land component of the ordinary property tax while lowering the building component. In downtown Cleveland, a bronze statue of Tom L. Johnson, Mayor from 1901 to 1909, depicts him holding a copy of Progress and Poverty. California irrigation districts were financed by plain land taxes. Under Governor Al Smith, New York City buildings were exempt from tax from 1920 to 1932. Following the 1913 amendment to the Constitution to allow a national income tax, the tax itself was designed in 1916 by a Georgist Congressman, Warren Worth Bailey, to fall strictly on the very wealthy.

The robber barons were not amused. Holders of vast undeveloped lands, they resented the bull’s-eye painted on their backs. As Mason Gaffney has documented in “Neoclassical Economics As a Stratagem against Henry George”, John D. Rockefeller, Ezra Cornell and others funded departments of economics to refute George. Gaffney quotes Simon Patten, “Nothing pleases a…single taxer better than….to use the well-known economic theories…[therefore] economic doctrine must be recast.” (1908). John Bates Clark (1847-1938) at Columbia University, led the recasting effort. Clark claimed that inequality was justified, because “the share of wealth that falls to any producing agent tends, under natural law, to equal the amount that he creates. A man’s pay tends to equal the value of the product or fraction of a product that can be specifically imputed to him.” (1898). Here began a tradition, alive to this day, of treating George and his supporters as crackpots.

On the right, there were economists like Willford I. King (1880-1962), the founder of national income statistics, and a fanatic for U.S. racial purity. In a 1924 Journal of Political Economy article entitled “The Single-Tax Complex Analyzed”, King writes: “the single taxers are not merely advocates of an economic policy but … they are a religious cult and that their intense devotion to their creed has little connection with logic or reasoning.”

On the left, Marxists whistled the same tune, for a different reason: George after all had proposed to save capitalism by tax reform, making revolution impossible. Thus we find Robert Heilbroner devoting eight snarky pages of The Worldly Philosophers to George. He deems George “messianic” and “naïve” and calls his analysis “superficial and faulty”. (1986)

In the middle, there are serious economic historians like Mark Blaug. In Economic Theory in Retrospect (1996) he presents a jumble of mutually contradictory assertions in a two-page treatment, concluding with a snide run of alternative facts:

Be that as it may, Progress and Poverty, a wonderful example of old-style classical economics, was thirty years out of date the day it was published and the idea of confiscating the income of a leading social class was deeply shocking to a generation bred on Victorian pieties. In consequence, the concept of site value taxation was never seriously discussed, and to this day the only examples of it are to be found among local governments in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

After he was invited to lecture in Australia, where George is still popular, Blaug published a kinder view of George in an obscure European journal. When I interviewed him in 2002 at his home in Leiden, he commented that “George is threatening to the powers that be,” making it “extremely tempting to put him down.” Also, “Economists don’t want to waste time looking at threatening ideas!” And finally, “There’s an aura of quackiness about George. It is a reputation that is extremely difficult to reverse.” (See my book chapter on Blaug, and my response to the commonest criticisms of George.)

But why the quackiness? Why not attack George the way opponents attacked Marx, as an alien threat? A colleague suggests it’s the hyper enthusiasm of George’s followers. I doubt it. Every intellectual leader has his or her groupies. Look at the followers of Ayn Rand! Rather, George was as American as apple pie. He appealed to the American sense of justice, he supported a reformed and fair capitalism, his remedy was easy to understand and apply, and he was immensely popular. You can’t dismiss a leader like that as an alien threat. But you can liken him to another familiar American figure: the snake oil salesman.

The latest attack on George happens right here in the January/February 2017 issue of Dollars & Sense. In a review of James Galbraith’s new book, Inequality, Steven Pressman condescendingly puts down the author’s case for land value taxation. Bob Heilbroner must be smiling up there.