Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Influence of Henry George in England, by John A. Hobson


The social philosophy of the "West-End club contains a doctrine of "agitation" which easily explains the influence of such a man as Henry George. "Agitation" thus interpreted implies neither a genuine grievance in the agitated, nor an honest purpose in the agitator; for the one is substituted an irrational discontent, for the other a mere lust for popularity and power. The agitator thus conceived is an uninstructed "spouter," who plays upon a natural fund of envy and cupidity latent in the masses, stimulating an attack upon the established order of things. By such foolish and dishonest means, somehow or other, dangerous social forces are generated, threatening the material and moral prosperity of society. Quite unsupported by history or psychology, this doctrine is completely satisfactory to those who hold it. Yet it is evidently of such a nature as not to merit serious refutation. Deriving something from nothing, assigning an effect without anything that can be called a cause, it stands upon the same level of irrationality with that " rationalism" to which the religions of the world are nothing but recurrent bubbles of illusion created by a persistent human capacity for error.

Plain contradiction is the only appropriate refutation. It must, therefore, suffice to say that an agitation can only succeed if there is something to agitate, some real, deep-grounded passion or conviction to which an appeal can be made, the product of the pressure of some genuine need or aspiration. Henry George was indeed distinctively a great" agitator," but in order to understand the nature of his power, it is best to turn first to the matter agitated, and afterwards to the mode of his agitation. The specifically economic character of George's "mission" is its peculiar note. But we must recognise at the outset that the substance of George's land theory and policy was nothing new; he is not to be looked upon as a fanatic, who conjured out of his imagination, or his private experience, some brand-new doctrine which he sought to impose upon the popular mind. Those who would thus conceive him are forgetful or ignorant of the tenor of the peculiarly English science of Political Economy, which, from John Locke to J. S. Mill, may be regarded as continually engaged in undermining the ideas of justice and social utility attaching to private property in land. The anomalous position of the landowner received early emphasis in English theories of "Distribution." In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith never tires of pointing the contrast between labourers and capitalists, who receive their remuneration for services personally rendered, and landowners who do nothing for the rent they take. He also plainly indicates the power of the landowner to enhance his taxation of the rising national wealth. "Every improvement in the circumstances of the society tends, either directly or indirectly, to raise the real rent of land, to increase the real wealth of the landlord, his power of purchasing the labour, or the produce of the labour, of other people." It is significant that from the heterogeneous armoury of Ricardo, not only the social democrat, but the land nationaliser draws his most effective weapons. The more rigorous formulation of the law of rent obliged Ricardo to take a step in advance of Adam Smith, by assigning to landowners the economic power to take not merely an absolutely larger rent, but a constantly growing proportion of the national wealth at the expense of the industrial classes. "The economical progress of a society constituted of landlords, capitalists, and labourers tends to the progressive enrichment of the landlord class; while the cost of the labourers' subsistence tends on the whole to increase and profits to fall." It only remained for J. S. Mill to impart a fuller meaning to this theory by illustrating the power of the landowner to take in enhanced rent the results definitely due to the skill and energy of other persons, and to develop a curative policy of taxation of " unearned increment."

These allusions to the most prominent teachers of political economy will suffice to show that the trend of economic theory in this country has been to lay stress upon the opposition of interests between landowners and other industrial classes, and to impute to the former an increasing power to extort from the latter a growing proportion of the wealth produced by them.

It is true that most political economists, sometimes induced by a proper regard for the limits of science, sometimes by timidity, have abstained from the plain advocacy of a remedy, and have contented themselves with pointing out the theoretic powers of landowners to reap where they have not sown. But the margin between theory and practice is here peculiarly thin, and not only Mill, but other teachers of political economy, both in England and on the Continent, have stepped from the indicative mood of economic science into the imperative mood of politics in advocating social defence against the antisocial powers of the landowner.

George did not even originate the policy of the "Single-tax" on land most distinctively associated with his name. The small step from the physiocratic doctrine that all taxation was, in fact, borne by rent, to the position that all taxation ought to be so borne, was taken by more than one would-be reformer of this century.

The real importance of Henry George is derived from the fact that he was able to drive an abstract notion, that of economic rent, into the minds of a large number of "practical" men, and to generate therefrom a social movement. It must be understood that the minds into which George dropped his seed were, for the most part, "virgin soil"; the teaching of economists to whom allusion has been made had never reached the ear of most of them, or had passed unheeded. The populariser of a new idea requires for his task a certain capacity of dramatic exaggeration. This is needed to teach, it is still more needed if the direct object of the teacher is to incite to action.

In this work personality and opportunity alike favoured Henry George. Keenly intelligent, genial and sympathetic, his nature contained that flavour of obstinacy which borders on fascination, and which is rightly recognised as essential to the missionary. A passionate attachment to the cause of the poor, derived from the experiences of a varied life, was the true source of his power with tongue and pen. The habit of speaking and of writing in America is less restrained than ours, the academic influences are weaker, even in the intellectual world more dramatic modes of expression are practised. Henry George had all the popular gifts of the American orator and journalist, with something more. Sincerity rang out of every utterance. Sparing in book knowledge, he had hammered out his thoughts upon the forge of personal experience, and showed them hot from the hammer, rude and unfinished in form. For this very reason Progress and Poverty, a stumbling block to responsible politicians, to the economic professor foolishness, struck the common mind of the thinking people with convincing and dramatic force. The influence of this first book of serious economic import which ever reached the outer circle of the English reading public, is not to be slighted. It is a matter of deep significance that such a book should have reached a circulation of far upwards of a hundred thousand copies. Upon the pressure of the early popularity of his book, Henry George threw the weight of his present personality, and his great gifts as orator and debater secured his influence, and widely advertised his doctrines at a time particularly favourable to their reception. His dialectic may not have satisfied the trained critic in economic issues, but the persuasive and effective illustrations which it carried were well calculated to impress the average man. Nor is this designed as a depreciatory criticism. The refusal to qualify, the dramatic exaggeration, even the argumentum ad hominem are justifiable and indeed necessary instruments in such work of education. A single illustration brings home the nature of this power. When Henry George was present at a meeting of the Lords' Committee upon Sweating, a number of miserable workers from Cradley Heath were there for examination, George turned to a friend and said, "Why have you brought these people here? To find out why they are poor? "Why, here is the cause," pointing to the noble lords who constituted the committee, "and here is the effect," pointing to the witnesses.

But while a powerful, perhaps a fanatical, passion motived his career as agitator, it never dominated his speech or writing. He was essentially argumentative in method; though passionate rhetorical appeals are not infrequent, such passages were appendages to, and not substitutes for, reasoning. Henry George clearly understood that his business was to teach men to think who were not in the habit of thinking on such matters, and few writers upon economic subjects are so lucid, simple, and consecutive in their presentation of an argument. For this very reason, those who find his "economics" faulty and reject his conclusions, are able to lay their finger upon the precise points of error, which the critics of more involved and more metaphysical exponents of revolutionary doctrine, as, for example, Marx, are notoriously incapable of doing. Bright, pointed, and vigorous, he never failed to make his meaning understood, and he must rank extremely high as a teacher who first brought home to a large section of the public the need and the interest of economic study.

A certain dramatic opportuneness attending the advent of Progress and Poverty gave to Henry George the public ear. A voice from the Far West of America, a land of boundless promise, where, if anywhere, it might seem that freedom and material progress were secure possessions of honest labour, announced grinding poverty, the squalor of congested city life, unemployment, and utter helplessness. Though huge tracts of uncultivated land awaited the spade and plough, the willing and able hands which could work the soil were shut out of all access to the raw materials of wealth. California and the rich West had fallen into the hands of private owners, wealthy syndicates, or domineering railway companies, taken from the people, sold for an old song, or assigned as a gift to persons who had no intention of occupying or working the land, but who held it for profit. Hence in the newest portion of the bright New World, amidst a sparse population of civilised white men, perhaps better educated and more energetic than any other people in the world, endowed with political freedom and institutions of self-government, the same social maladies arose which the sanguine temperament of America had hitherto regarded as natural results of congestion, misgovernment, or incapacity in the effete old world. The picture which George presented, even if highly coloured, was substantially correct, though his analysis of causes was defective, and it dealt a severe shock to that doctrine of progress by the normal development of industrialism upon the existing basis of property which prophets of free trade had preached for two generations in this country. When Progress and Poverty appeared, the vast majority of those who seriously concerned themselves with "the condition of the people " in this country believed that the expansion of education and intelligence among the working classes, the growth of thrift and of other organised habits of self-help, improved administration of the Poor Law and of charitable energy, assisted by the higher wages which, it was held, must follow the rapid development of modern methods of production, were gradually reducing the sum of poverty and misery, and that the unfettered action of these forces sufficed for the gradual and safe solution of the darkest social problems.

Although the thinking members of the working classes had never thoroughly accepted this laisser-faire theory of the doctrinaire radical and the political free trader, they had unconsciously absorbed some of its complacency and its disbelief in the need of governmental action.

Henry George shook this complacency, and, what is more, he gave definiteness to the feeling of discontent by assigning an easily intelligible economic cause. It is not without significance that Progress and Poverty appeared in the year 1879, which marks the turn in the tide of agricultural prosperity in this country. The following years of gradually deepening depression brought rural land questions more and more to the front and that divorcement of the people from the soil, which formed the kernel of the social problem according to George, assumed increasing prominence. The phenomenally rapid growth of large industrial towns, with their close concentration of working population, the direct and obvious result of our free trade policy, had been quickly ripening the land question in the towns, and the rising standard of sanitation and of other civic needs was driving home to municipal reformers a sense of conflict between the public interest of the town and the private interests of the owners of town land.

The pressure of these forces had awakened a good deal of incoherent sentiment directed against landlordism. George welded this loose sentiment into a coherent positive conviction. So far as his appeal was directed to personal and obvious interests, England was even a more favourable field than the United States. For in America, notwithstanding the encroachment of large landownership and the growth of mortgages and tenancy, a very large proportion of citizens had a direct stake in the land. England, on the other hand, is vested in a smaller number of owners than any other country of equal population, and nowhere else have the vast majority of actual cultivators so slight a property or interest in the land they cultivate. Thus a peculiarly effective presentment of the iniquity of landlordism, dramatically concentrated in a small class, was possible in England. Moreover, George's ability enabled him to fully utilise that advantage which land grievances possess over most other economic issues, their susceptibility to powerful concrete local illustration. Many of our towns belong to a few noblemen or wealthy persons who are familiar personages, and whose actual economic power is visibly and constantly exercised. The nature of economic rent and the power of the landowner can thus be made clear to the meanest intelligence.

To some it has seemed strange that the highly exaggerated power which George assigned to landowners should have gained acceptance among any class of Englishmen.

By what is termed the " Crusoe method " of illustration, it was not difficult for George to show that a single landowner or a small body of landowners might, by a ruthless use of their economic might as controllers of the raw material of wealth and the conditions of physical subsistence, keep down in utter servitude the rest of the population, taking in rent the results of all improvements in the arts of industry, and leaving to the producers only so much of the produce as would keep them alive and in working efficiency.

Some have found it hard to understand that many in this country should accept a theory which posits the landowner as the "residual claimant" in the scheme of distribution, and assigns him the power to take every increase of wealth beyond the minimum requisite to sustain labour and capital. The most casual reflection upon the recent course of English industrial history would seem to make it evident that other classes have partaken, and more fully than the landowners, in the immense growth of industrial wealth during this century. If England were enclosed by a ring fence of prohibitive tariffs, if all the land were engaged in producing food and other raw materials of wealth, if the full powers to draw economic rents were rigidly enforced, George's contention would have some tolerably close relation to the truth. But the merest tyro in economic thinking must perceive that the power of competing landowners to tax the manufacturing and commercial classes falls far short of their power over the agricultural and mining classes, and that even in the latter case the constant expansion of the area of production of food and raw materials for our market clips the wings of English land-lordism.

Those who regard the nationalisation of the land of England as a cure for all the ills that states are heir to, ignore the leading feature of our modern commercial policy, its internationalism. Grant their major premiss, that common ownership and control of land will secure equality of economic opportunities for all citizens and cut away the natural supports of all industrial monopolies, can such a consummation be attained for us by nationalising the land of England? Is not the land of America, China, Egypt, Russia, and all other countries, which by trade intercourse supply us with food and materials of manufacture, as integral a part of England for economic purposes as the land of Kent or Devon? No ultimate solution of the land question or any other social problem is even theoretically possible upon a strictly national basis. Neither the theory which posits " land" as the residual claimant in distribution, nor the policy which assumes that political limits are coterminous with economic limits, can gain any wide and permanent acceptance among thoughtful people.

The adoption of George's theoretic position, so far as it has gained ground, must be imputed to a certain tendency among lovers of abstract reasoning to swallow premisses which will yield a compact and portable body of judgments conformable to certain preconceived opinions. Even such notable thinkers as Ricardo and J. S. Mill, we saw, stopped only a little short of George's conclusions when they closed their eyes to the facts of industrial life and abandoned themselves to an abstract analysis of rent.

Indeed, this fallacy of a residual claimant is not by any means confined to land nationalisers. The whole structure of economic science is honeycombed by the fallacy of a theory of distribution which assumes that of the three factors of production, land, labour, and capital, two of them may be considered to be fixed charges upon the product, while the third is in the position to take all the surplus that remains after the others are paid off. The Marxian Socialists practically place capital in this position. Other " orthodox" economists - General Walker, for example - give the place to labour. Henry George and his followers merely play the third remaining variation of the fallacy.

But George's true influence is not rightly measured by the small following of theorists who impute to landlords this supreme power of monopoly. Large numbers who would not press this extreme contention are disciples of Henry George because they regard unqualified private ownership of land to be the most obviously unjust and burdensome feature in our present social economy. The spirit of humanitarian and religious appeal which suffuses Progress and Poverty wrought powerfully upon a large section of what I may call typical English moralists. In my lectures upon Political Economy about the country, I have found in almost every centre a certain little knot of men of the lower-middle or upper-working class, men of grit and character, largely self-educated, keen citizens, mostly nonconformists in religion, to whom Land Nationalisation, taxation of unearned increment, or other radical reforms of land tenure, are doctrines resting upon a plain moral sanction. These free-trading Radical dissenters regard common ownership of and equal access to the land as a "natural right," essential to individual freedom. It is this attitude of mind which serves to explain why, when both theoretic students of society and the man in the street regard Land Nationalisation as a first and a large step in the direction of Socialism, organized Socialists regard the followers of Henry George with undisguised hostility and contempt.

In fact, Land Nationalisation stands upon two widely different and philosophically inconsistent bases. To those who take their stand upon the "natural rights " of the individual it is the coping-stone of a free-trade policy. Equal access to the resources of nature seems essential, if liberty to labour and to accumulate property is to be equally secured to all. To such thinkers "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof," constitutes at once sound morality and useful policy: that an absentee landowner should take away the value which God or man's labour has imparted to land appears a plain violation of honesty and a direct discouragement to industry. "To every one the right to work on land and to enjoy the full fruits of his labour," -this sums up the Individualist basis of Land Nationalisation. Such men sternly repudiate the notion of extending public ownership and control to capital, and of " nationalising " all the instruments of production. Land and labour they hold are the only original requisites of wealth-production: let each man own himself and have an equal use of nature with every other man. and all will be well. George himself stood out boldly in his repudiation of Socialism and entered a strong and ingenious defence of profit and interest. How comes it, then, that Georgism is so closely associated in the public mind with Socialism? It is not due to mere laxity of thought. For while George has many followers who stand by his ideal of full free trade, there are many more to whom Progress and Poverty has been a stepping-stone to a more or less formal Socialism. This is explained by the other basis of Land Nationalisation, the recognition not of the rights of the individual, but of the definitely social origin and character of land-values, the apprehension of the truth that they spring from and embody, not merely the energy of this or that tenant or labourer, but the common activities of an organised society, and the constantly growing material needs of an increasing population. This idea of rent as a definitely social product emerges with tolerable frequency in George's writings, but it does not form the main strand of his argument; his appeal is more usually to individual than to social rights. He, therefore, never fully confronted the question which takes this shape: "Are not all values, those which reside in forms of capital as well as in land, due to the operation of social forces, arising from the needs and activities of organised society, and not resoluble into the results of the action of the several units which form the society?"

The answer to such a question depends upon the conception we form of the relation of individuals to one another in society - i.e., of the organic character imputed to society. George never clearly faced this question. Among his followers many have accustomed themselves to draw their arguments, now from the Individualist now from the Socialist armoury, and to stand aloof from the wider issue. Others accept Land Nationalisation either as avowed Individualists or as Socialists. The rift is curiously visible in the policy of the two English societies which attack the land question as a whole. The Land Nationalisation Society, though rejecting the "no compensation" policy of George, visibly clings to the idea of individual rights, claiming for every citizen the option to occupy a definite piece of land with full effective proprietorship. The Land Restoration League, on the other hand, fastens its eyes definitely upon the social origin of rent and land-values, and seeks to secure this public property by process of taxation.

The influence of George is not, however, to be measured by the number or zeal of the advocates of a wholesale policy of nationalisation of the land. It is rather to be traced in the energy which, during the last fifteen years, has freely flowed into many channels of land reform.

Heroic remedies are little to the taste of Englishmen: a more discriminative logic rules their policy. The spirit of reform awakened by Henry George manifested itself, not in one, but in many movements directed to the redress of specific grievances and the attainment of specific aspirations in connection with the land. For practical purposes, therefore, there is not one land question, but many. Town and country, agriculture, mines, manufacture, transport, residential and industrial use, each discloses its own set of problems claiming study and solution. A vast reticulation of separate organisations has arisen to enforce existing laws and to secure further legislation curtailing the powers of landowners; societies for the preservation of existing public rights over footpaths and commons; for the protection of tenant rights and the attainment of freedom of cultivation and security of property in improvements; for the registration of titles to land and mortgages; for the abolition of tithes, the enfranchisement of leasehold land, abolition of entail, and the removal of all other barriers which separate land from other forms of property, and prevent its free transfer. Many of these movements are not in just line with the tenor of George's policy, but all of them have been vitalised by the spirit of his agitation. No one can fail to perceive in every legislative and administrative body in the country, from the House of Commons to the Board of Guardians and the Parish Council, an increased desire to confront, in a more liberal public spirit, the particular problems of land policy which lie within their purview. In various ways and at various paces these numerous land-issues are ripening in England. Size and the pressure of social needs are bringing a few of them rapidly to the front of the political platform. Though England will never attack the land question en bloc, certain large sections have visibly advanced during the last few years. The demand for effective national control of the railroads, our modern highways, is the most definite advance towards a policy of nationalisation, and probably commands a wider and more heterogeneous support than any other movement of radical reform. In the field of municipal politics, the taxation of ground rents and values has already won the complete formal adherence of one great political party, while the justice of taxation of "unearned increment" from public improvements may be considered to have gained an even wider theoretic recognition. Practical difficulties, however, in enforcing public claims by the instrument of taxation are generating a powerful support for a policy of municipal ownership, which receives material assistance from the successful experience of several of our most progressive municipalities. Corresponding to this growing tendency to recognise the utility of municipal ownership and control of town lands, is the tendency to seek some solution for the more urgent rural grievances, by placing more power to acquire the ownership or practical control of agricultural land in the hands of locally elected bodies.

While a clearer apprehension of the complexity of the land question has thus led practical reformers to resolve unity into multiplicity, it is not difficult to discern a cohesive and co-operative character underlying these several movements of land reform. Most of them are definitely, and in part consciously, aiming to secure that fuller public property in the resources of nature, that fuller social control over the uses of land for human industry and human enjoyment which found in Henry George their most powerful advocate.

No doubt it is easy to impute excessive influence to the mouthpiece of a rising popular sentiment. George, like other prophets, cooperated with the " spirit of the age." But after this just allowance has been made, Henry George may be considered to have exercised a more directly powerful formative and educative influence over English radicalism of the last fifteen years than any other man.

J. A. Hobson

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