Henry George: Champion of Individualism

Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

[An excerpt from the book, The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States, published in New York by The Macmillan Company, 1942]

Another exposition of individualism, qualified in this instance by a reform proposal, was put forward by Henry George. Unlike Sumner, George held no comfortable academic chair; unlike Woodrow Wilson, he had no training in university lore. His native talents were not whetted or dulled by adventures in the higher learning. He was brought up in the school of hard work beyond the campus, saw poverty at first hand, experienced its pangs directly. His incentive to thinking was the search for a solution of the problem which many before him had raised -- the contradiction between civilization and misery.

The solution of the problem which George proposed was given to the world in his Progress and Poverty, published in 1879, and, in a fuller setting in The Science of Political Economy, issued in 1898, after his death. His solution took for granted the principal assumptions and maxims upon which economic individualism rested - such as private property, private enterprise, freedom of contract, and competition -- but subject to one large qualification relative to ground-rent.

Like all individualists, George was hostile to socialism, and he was lukewarm if not unfriendly toward trade unions. He believed that wealth and capital, other than land, flowed from individual enterprise and labor; that competition was a necessary spur to economic activity on the part of capital and labor; that all which the individual created belonged to him, in fact would go to him, if the ground-rent paid to landlords was diverted to the uses of society and land thrown open to competitive enterprise. Ground-rent, he maintained, is a product of society in action, not of individual enterprise and labor by landlords. It is therefore, "unearned." If taken from landlords by taxation and dedicated to the support of government, other forms of property and business can be relieved, at least largely, of taxation. At the same time individual capitalists and laborers, by this reform in taxation, will be given free access to land and resources, production will be augmented, and poverty wilt be abolished. It was mainly in respect of this type of taxation that George's system of pure economics differed from classical individualism. It implied an intensification of the competitive struggle for existence.

Both the problem and the solution proposed in his Progress and Poverty, George placed, however, within the framework of civilization. "This association of poverty with progress," he declared, "is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social, and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philanthropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed." Land represents a value created by the whole community," by civilization, and the appreciation of the economic income by landlords deprives the community of its own wealth and accounts for the distressing poverty that obstructs advance in civilization.

In that section of his Progress and Poverty entitled "The Law of Human Progress,'' George emphasized the social nature of civilization. "Beyond perhaps the veriest rudiments it becomes possible for man to improve only as he lives with his fellows. All these improvements, therefore, we summarize in the term civilization. ...This is the great fact with which we are concerned: That the differences between the people of communities in different places and at different times, which we call differences of civilization, are not, ...as Herbert Spencer holds, differences in the units; but that they are differences resulting from the conditions under which these units are brought into the society." Among these varying conditions, George placed divergences in knowledge, beliefs, customs, language, tastes, institutions, and laws. Here he was seeking to demonstrate the strength and ramifications of the social principle, even though he made a gesture toward the fiction that there might have been a man who had brought himself into the world and made some improvements wholly apart from "his fellows."

What is the secret of progress -- advancement of civilization? That question George undertook to answer concisely: "Mind is the instrument by which man advances. …Mental power is the motor of progress. ...Association in equality is its force." While the words "mind" and "mental power," standing alone, could be taken as if they referred to something inhering in individual "units," considered in the context of George's whole volume they could only refer to instruments or forces limited by and working in or with the social accumulations at their command -- knowledge, beliefs, customs, language, tastes, institutions, laws, and material possessions. At no point in dealing with civilization did he lend countenance to the dogma of "the self-made man" which was in the creed of individualism.

High authority for his conclusion on the simple point of taxing land values, George drew from what he apprehended as the law of civilization and decay: "The truth to which we were led in the politico-economic branch of our inquiry is ... clearly apparent ... in the growth and decay of civilizations, and it accords with those deep-seated recognitions of relation and sequence that we denominate moral perceptions. Thus are given to our conclusions the greatest certitude and highest sanction. This truth involves both a menace and a promise. It shows that the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth, which are becoming more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on, are not incidents of progress, but tendencies which must bring progress to a halt; that they will not cure themselves, but, on the contrary, must, unless their cause is removed, grow greater and greater, until they sweep us back into barbarism by the road which every previous civilization has trod."

But, introducing the optimistic note, George went on to assert that if the proper remedy is applied, "the dangers that now threaten must disappear, the forces that now menace will turn to agencies of elevation. Think of the powers now wasted; of the infinite fields of knowledge yet to be explored; of the possibilities of which the wondrous inventions of this century have given us but a hint. With want destroyed; with greed changed to noble passions; with the fraternity that is born of equality taking the place of the jealousy and fear that now array men against each other; with mental power loosed by conditions that give to the humblest comfort and leisure; and who shall measure the heights to which our civilization may soar? …It is the culmination of Christianity -- the City of God on earth."

Of all the American economists since the early days of the Republic none, not even Henry C. Carey, treated as comprehensively the interfiliation of economy and civilization as George did in his Science of Political Economy. None dwelt more steadfastly and trenchantly on the contradiction between civilization and misery or sought a resolution of the dilemma with a more single-minded devotion. Adverse to the abstractness of classical economists, he did not assume that he could "isolate the economic factors" from the contexture of civilization and derive from them, so isolated in thought, a list of irrefragable axioms, as if they were so isolated in actuality. Instead, he thought of "economic factors" as aspects of civilization.

But he did more. He considered the nature of the modern mind which did the thinking about economics and he repulsed the notion that it was an unconditioned power, independent of the things about which it thought: "The observations and reflections of many succeeding men, garnered and systematized, enable us of the modern civilization to know, and with the eyes of the mind almost to see, things to which the senses untaught by reason are blind." Even the mind that thinks about economics or anything else is caught up with the sifting and accumulation of knowledge that enter into civilization.

Recognizing the fact that economic activities and institutions occur of necessity in civilization, George grasped the twin fact that economics has no meaning outside civilization; and in many pages he explored the idea of civilization -- its nature, its origin, and its development -- besides recurring repeatedly to civilization in special relations. At the outset he took note that "the word civilization was in common use" and complained that "it is used with vague and varying meanings, which refer to the qualities or results that we attribute to the thing, rather than to the thing itself, the existence or possibility of which we thus assume. Sometimes our expressed or implied test of civilization is in the methods of industry and control of natural forces. Sometimes it is in the extent and diffusion of knowledge. Sometimes in the kindliness of manners and justice and benignity of laws and institutions. Sometimes it may be suspected that we use the word as do the Chinese when they class as barbarians 'all humanity outside of the 'Central Flowery Kingdom.' And there is point in the satire which tells how men who had lost their way in the wilderness, exclaimed at length when they reached a prison: 'Thank God, we are at last in civilization.' "

Buckle had written two volumes on the history of civilization, "but does not venture to say what civilization is." Guizot had written on civilization, declared its existence and its importance, but had not defined the term. In this confusion, having decided that the idea was vital to his thinking about "the nature of political economy," George attempted a definition himself of the popular but apparently elusive term.

The problem thus posed George attacked directly by way of etymology: "The word civilization comes from the Latin civis, a citizen. Its original meaning is, the manner or condition in which men live together as citizens. Now the relations of the citizen to other citizens, which are in their conception peaceable and friendly, involving mutual obligations, mutual rights, and mutual services, spring from the relation of each citizen to the whole of which each is an integral part. That whole, from membership in which proceeds the relationship of citizens to each other, is the body politic, or political community, which we name the state."

But true to the natural-rights world-view of the eighteenth century, already expressed in the writings of Thomas Paine, George held that the relation "suggested in this word civilization" is "deeper, wider, arid closer than the relation of the citizen to the state, and prior to it. …Civilization is the antecedent and the state the subsequent. The appearance and development of the body politic ... is the mark of civilization already in existence. Not in itself civilization, it involves and presupposes civilization. …The character of the state, the nature of the laws and institutions which it enacts and enforces, indicate the character of the underlying civilization."

In George's theory, civilization not only underlies all states but it is wider than the mere jurisdictions of states and so cuts across those political boundaries: "Whether we consider them in their grand divisions or their minor divisions, the line between what we call civilizations is not the line of separation between bodies politic. The United States and Canada, or the United States and Great Britain, are separate bodies politic, yet their civilization is the same. The making of the Queen of Great Britain Empress of India does not substitute the English civilization for the Indian civilization in Bengal, nor the Indian civilization for the English civilization in Yorkshire or Kent. Change in allegiance involves changes in citizenship, but in itself involves no change in the civilization. Civilization is evidently a relation which underlies the relations of the body politic."

If George made a slip in logic or history when he defined civilization as the civic relationships of a body politic or political community and immediately declared civilization to be prior to and independent of bodies politic or political communities, there was certitude in his statement that civilization is essentially social in nature and man more than an individual: "He is also a social animal, formed and adapted to live and cooperate with his fellows. It is in this line of social development that the great increase of man's knowledge and powers takes place. …The rise of civilization is the growth of this cooperation and the increase of the body of knowledge thus obtained and garnered."

But having treated civilization in this broad sense, George suddenly narrowed it: "It is this body economic, or body industrial, which grows up in the cooperation of men to supply their wants and satisfy their desires, that is the real thing constituting what we call civilization. …The body politic or state is really an outgrowth of the body economic." Still, in this restricted sense, the feature of cooperation was an essential item in George's idea of civilization.

Even after he had declared the body economic or industrial to be the real thing constituting civilization, George recurred to his broader view. As if returning to Guizot's distinction between the exterior and the interior aspects of civilization, George wrote: "We measure civilization in various ways, for it has various aspects or sides; various lines along which the general advance implied in the word shows itself -- as in knowledge, in power, in wealth, in justice and kindliness. …The aspect of civilization most quickly apprehended in common thought is that of a keener sense of justice and a kindlier feeling between man and man. ...While an increased regard for the rights of others and an Increased sympathy with others is not all there is in civilization, it is an expression of its moral side. And as the moral relates to the spiritual, this aspect of civilization is the highest, and does indeed furnish the truest sign of general advance."

Despite his treatment of civilization at one place as if it were static -- the body politic, economic, or industrial in which cooperation occurs -- at other points in his discussion of the subject, George made it changeful, dynamic. Man, he contended, is not only a social and cooperative animal; he is "the only progressive animal. Here is the germ of civilization." But he did not think an elaboration of this theme necessary to his Science of Political Economy. "To consider the history of civilization, with its slow beginnings, its long periods of quiescence, its sudden flashes forward, its breaks and retrogressions, would carry me further than I can here attempt. Something of that the reader may find in the last grand division of Progress and Poverty, Book X entitled, 'The Law of Human Progress."" Thus, resembling the classical school of economists in general, George left out of his reckoning the question whether his Science of Political Economy might become invalidated by civilization conceived as progress. And, having explored and adopted the idea of civilization, he endorsed the chief features of economic individualism except unearned increment in land.

Even so, and despite his acceptance of individualism and competition, subject to this form of taxation, George antagonized the school of "pure individualism" by placing economic activities firmly in the contexture of civilization - by making economics a phase of civilization. In fact he drove a big wedge into the closed system of economic thought as individualism, whether supported or not by the prestige of an alliance with civilization. He precipitated a terrific debate over the capitalist system of economy. By declaring that the landlord's ground-rent was a product of civilization, in society, and that it should be expropriated for public purposes, he hurled into the forum of discussion the vexing issue as to whether other forms of wealth were not in significant respects the products of civilization and society, also properly subject to expropriation in the public interest.

In his political economy, George separated civilization from the jurisdiction of particular states, or bodies politic, and made it anterior to the state. But in practice he called upon each independent state to abolish poverty, to promote civilization by measures of taxation applicable only within its jurisdiction. While the "laws" of economics applied everywhere, civilization in the United States could be advanced by action taken within the American nation, he believed. So George and his disciples launched a nation-wide agitation to force upon American governments -- municipal, state, and federal -- the policy of seizing ground-rent by taxation.

' In other words, Henry George did more than file an academic dissent from an academic theory. He denied to one intrinsic element of the fully rounded theory relative to capitalist individualism the benefit of a high sanction -- civilization. He declared that one great source of private accumulation -- ground-rent totaling billions a year in the United States -- was a product of civilization in American society and belonged of right to the community. And he helped to restore the social principle to thought about economics from which it had been ousted by extremists of the individualist school, even though he himself espoused for practical purposes nearly all the fundamental principles of individualism.

Not only that. George assailed a main bastion of the capitalist system, not merely by writing a book, but by conducting a campaign of agitation that carried the issue of civilization and individualism into the popular forum where reformers of many kinds were debating all phases of American civilization. If to a few capitalists, notably Tom L. Johnson, George appeared to be an ally, to most of them he was subversive of everything that sustained their system. If to various schools of reform, George's attachment to leading principles of individualism was anathema, hit agitation brought grist to their mill. As a consequence, in proposing to qualify unadulterated capitalism, under the formula of civilization, Henry George tightened in many quarters the grip which the idea of civilization had on American minds at the same time that he gave a powerful impetus to the thrust of individualism against civilization.


In spirit the idea of individualism was optimistic whether in its straight and simple type or as qualified by the plan of the single-tax reform proposed by Henry George, and the disruptive force of its thrust into the idea of civilization was the greater on that account. This is not to say that all individualists were confident about the future of their system. They were not. Sumner, like an ancient Hebrew prophet, finding his precepts ignored by dissenters and scouted by reformers, declared that the years ahead would be full of wars" and revolutions. His own scheme of individualism, pure and true-blue, which he regarded as rigorously framed and founded on facts, would be disputed, Sumner admitted; indeed was being disputed, by Americans who knew not, or would not abide by, the true faith. As a rule, however, the lay and the academic elite assumed that individualism was good, would endure indefinitely, if not forever, and would march from victory to victory, without running into disastrous storms or Into an effective counter-reformation. Optimistic prophecy succeeded optimistic prophecy.