A Response to Charles Fracchia
on Henry George

William W. Beach

[This letter appeared in an unnamed periodical in 1979, in response to the essay "The Prophet Of San Francisco, written by Charles A. Fracchia]

NOTE REGARDING CHARLES A. FRACCHIA. He received his B.A. in history from the University of San Francisco, and did graduate work at the University of San Francisco Law School, the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.

He currently (2005) teaches at City College of San Francisco and at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of three books on the history of San Francisco and lectures extensively throughout the San Francisco Bay Area on various aspects of the city's history. Mr. Fracchia founded the San Francisco Historical Society in 1988 (which merged with the Museum of the City of San Francisco in 2002), and is the president of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. He is a Fellow of the California Historical Society and of the Gleeson Library Associates of the University of San Francisco.

Charles A. Fracchia's essay on Henry George (The Prophet Of San Francisco, 7/1/79) was a thoughtful and appropriate celebration of George in all respects except one: Fracchia perpetuated George's peculiar legacy as the intellectual titan of modern-day socialism, as an economic critic who more than any other of his time undermined popular acceptance of laissez-faire political economy. I do not deny that this truly is George's legacy, and Fracchia cannot be faulted for misstating popular history. On the other hand, George's legacy bears little if any relationship to what he wrote and preached.

The youthful capitalist never had an ally as vigorous, loyal, and unrelenting as Henry George. George's enemies were the monopolists, the eager recipients of government subsidies, the rapacious landlords, and the speculators whose wealth came from buying an asset and holding it while the labor of others, workers and capitalists alike, made it more valuable. The reforms George advocated were directed at these types of economic beings. He urged an end to tariffs in order to make economic life more competitive and strip away from the few the unfair advantages that protection conveyed. He sought to tax away the speculator's "unearned increment" on fixed assets and use these tax revenues to provide public services for the productive class of workers. George's reforms were aimed at freeing productive people from the heavy burdens imposed on them by the actions of government and the growth of land values. No more eloquent statement in support of youthful capitalism exists in land-nineteenth century economic literature than George's frequently neglected Protection or Free Trade (1886).

It is not surprising, then, to find George consistently critical of the planned, socially directed economy. George writes:

"It is a proposal to bring back mankind to the socialism of Peru, but without reliance on divine will or power. …It is more destitute of any central or guiding principle than any philosophy I know of. …It has not system of individual rights whereby it can define the extent to which the individual is entitled to liberty or to which the state may go in restraining it. And so long as no individual has any principle of guidance it is impossible that society itself should have any. How such a combination could be called a science, and how it should get a following, can be accounted only by the 'fatal facility of writing without thinking,' … and by the number of places which such a bureaucratic organization would provide" (The Science of Political Economy, p.158).

Enough said for George's alleged support of state planning.

In this year of the centennial of George's Progress and Poverty (1879), it is time that his true sympathies and convictions come forward. Whether or not one subscribes to everything George wrote (and I, for one, do not), intellectual honesty requires that he be given fair treatment. George has suffered long enough from a legacy that distorts his economic writing.