The Philosophy of Henry George

Vic Blundell

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, January-February, 1979]

The philosophy of Henry George remains intact and is being confirmed as every year passes.

Many of the descriptive passages in the book match anything to be found in English literature, particularly the illustration of the unbounded savannah. Often in the midst of his exposition of a point Ge0rge slips into an eloquent style which, though perhaps not to everyone's taste, shows the power and breadth of his imagination and die great moral force that motivated him. On the faulty Malthusian analogy between man and all other animals:

"He braves the scorching heat of the desert and the icy blasts of the polar sea, but not for food; he watches all night but it is to trace the circling of the eternal stars. He adds toil to toil, to gratify a hunger' no animal, has felt, to assuage a thirst no beast can know."

"Out upon nature, in upon himself, back through the mists that shroud the past, forward into the darkness that overhangs the future, turns the restless desire that arises when the animal wants slumber in satisfaction. Beneath things, he seeks the law; he would know how the globe was forged and the stars were hung, and trace trace to their origins the springs of life …"[1]

On selfishness: "Short-sighted is the philosophy which counts on selfishness as the master motive of human action. ...Call it religion, patriotism, sympathy, the enthusiasm for humanity, or the. love of God - give it what name you will; there is yet a force which overcomes and drives out selfishness; a force which is the electricity of the moral universe; a force beside which all others are weak. …To be pitied is the man who has never seen and never felt it."[2]

On man's dependence upon land: "…the products of the sea cannot be taken, the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces of nature utilised, without the use of land and its products. On the land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again - children of the soil as truly as is the blade of grass or the flower of the field."[3]

George was not always hi eloquent mood. In exasperation at the faulty logic of John Stuart Mill (though he acknowledged his greatness and 'warm heart and noble mind') George resorts to a four-letter word. He quotes Mill as follows: "The land of Ireland, the land of every country, belongs to the people of that Country. The individuals called land owners have no right in morality and justice to anything but the rent, or compensation for its saleable value." To which George retorts: "In the name of the Prophet - figs!" If the land of any country belongs to the people of that country, what right in morality and justice, have land owners to the rent?"[4]

As well as a writer, philosopher, economist, lecturer and reformer, George was also a politician. He stood twice as a candidate for the Mayoralty of New York. On the second occasion (1897) during the latter days of his campaign he was introduced to an audience of working men as "the great friend of labour." However, unlike a typical politician he denied it and responded:

"I have never claimed to be a special friend of labour. Let us have done with this call for special privileges for labour. …I have never advocated nor asked for special rights or special sympathy for working men! What I stand for is the equal rights of all men!"[5]

Those who have read Progress and Poverty years ago should read it again. They will be reminded of its relevance to the world's problems since it was first published right through to the present today - and it will provide fresh inspiration to work for "the first great reform."

: To those who have never read this classic I can do no better than quote John Dewey, the famous American educator and professor of philosophy at Columbia University:

"It would require less than the fingers of the two hands to enumerate those who, from Plato down, rank with Henry George among the world's social philosophers. …No man, no graduate of a higher educational institution, has a right to regard himself as an educated man in social thought unless he has some firsthand acquaintance with the theoretical contribution of this great American thinker."


1. Progress and Poverty, 1971 edition.. Robert Schalkenbach, New York, pp. 135-6.
2. Ibid., p. 463.
3. Ibid., p. 296.
4. Ibid., p. 363.
5. Life of Henry George, Henry George Jr., p. 605, Robert Schalkenbach Foundation edition. New York