Teaching Economics

Vic H. Blundell

[A paper delivered at the eighth International Conference on Land Value Taxation
and Free Trde, Odense, Denmark, 28 July to 4 August, 1952]

The case for collecting the rent of land for public purposes, for the freeing of trade and for the institution of equal rights, is. essentially a moral one. It is, therefore, not surprising that it can stand up to the test of economic argument as to its practicability. But fortunately most students are highly critical. They are not prepared merely to accept the argument that what is morally right must be economically sound. They will not accept Henry George1 s proposals until they have been satisfied of the validity of his economic arguments, and in view of the weight of orthodox economic teaching this is perhaps not unreasonable.

Often when involved in intricate economic discussion we long for the simplicities of the fundamental moral issues. Here we are perhaps more at home; we cannot be confused by professors, deflated by "experts", blinded by figures, nor intimidated by graphs and charts. But the economic case must be made; it is the "how" of our whole argument. Not to answer it is to stamp ourselves in the eyes of many as amiable but unpractical visionaries. What is the most effective way of presenting the economic arguments of George? The Henry George School in Great Britain has no easy answer to this question; it has no perfected technique and it is still learning. Nevertheless, the experience gained in the many classes conducted every year may be of some interest and help to those engaged in this work whether in the classroom, on the public platform or in other ways.

Reliance upon Progress & Poverty and the arguments contained therein is not sufficient. Written as it was three-quarters of a century ago it has not the same impact or effectiveness that it had in its own day. The book is dated, and this can be a handicap. But this handicap can be offset by the teacher. Henry George in Progress & Poverty and more particularly in The Science of Political Economy hits out at the then current economists and quotes them sometimes at great length. The effect of this devastating logic when taking his contemporaries to task is spoiled "by the fact that the student new to the subject believes that modern economists must have got well beyond the errors pointed out by George. He needs to be disillusioned. There is no greater weapon in the armoury of the instructor than a selection of books on modern economics. In them one can find sufficient evidence not only to show how old fallacies have persisted since George's day but how a fresh crop have sprung up. The presence of the books on the teacher's desk in itself dispels the idea that the School is living in the past; and as part of the class equipment they are second only to the blackboard and easel. Of particular value are they for showing the confusion of thought exemplified by loose and contradictory definitions.

In Economics for Everyman (Arthur Coe, 1948) we find this: "There are three kinds of capital or means of production. The first order of capital is labour; the second, land and minerals; and the third, machinery, tools and tackle."

In Everyday Economics (R.B. Martin, 1950) the student is told: "Demand is the first factor in the production of goods. ...Labour is the second factor and Capital is the third factor".

And in Teach Yourself Economics (S.E. Thomas, 1947) -- the contradiction cannot fail to be noticed: "If we examine the various agencies involved in the production of any product, we find that they can be divided into four groups, which the Economists call the Agents of Production or the factors of Production, viz. Land, Labour, Capital and Enterprise. ...The agent of production known as 'Labour' includes all manual and mental effort undertaken other than for pleasure".

Instances similar to those abound among current writings, and the disagreement which exists between one writer and another serves to strengthen the charges made by George against those who would lead the world in economic thought.

When teaching economics it is not sufficient merely to state our own definitions. We have got to show why we choose particular words to express our ideas. It is a mistake to assert that our definitions are "right" and all others "wrong". Our approach should be not so much that our terms are the right ones but that they are good ones because they are consistent and unambiguous. A student once made this statement to a tutor: "It's all very well for you to insist upon the use of your definitions - once you have got us to agree with them, you can prove anything". A teacher who insists that his terms are the right ones and all the others wrong leaves himself open to this charge, although unjustified. For this reason our method is to start with ideas and not words. Get students to agree to distinguish between "the ideas involved and the rest is easy. Thus instead of beginning with the terms and trying to "prove" what they mean, get agreement that the Universe, Man and his Products are separate ideas in the mind. That done, it remains only to give them names conforming where possible to current usage.

I I remember an uneasy half-hour in my early days of teaching, when I insisted that a singer's voice was not wealth. All I wanted to say was that a singer's voice was a different thing from a material object -- but I went the wrong way about it!

Sound advice for all who undertake the teaching of economics is the dictum of Dale Carnegie who said: "Never tell the other fellow he is wrong". It has to he remembered that you are asking more than the acceptance of what are to many new thoughts; you are asking also for the rejection of long-established ideas. Your prospective convert will not find it any easier to abandon previously accepted notions if his ego is so clumsily attacked. The growth of the seed you sow will depend not only upon how well you do the weeding but also upon the manner in which this is done.

You can lose the sympathy and goodwill of your audience if you are always so maddeningly and pretentiously right, if you statements leave no opening for testing the students completely new to the subject. Give an opportunity for justified opposition. It will make your case more convincing and students will enjoy themselves hitting back at you. This method used by some at Westminster, I to "prove" George wrong! Such a challenge is eagerly accepted; the placid students vie with the more argumentative ones to show the tutor the fallacy of his case. Familiar objections can be met by putting them p as Aunt Sallys. The class will knock them down. The experienced teach can use this with great effect. To quote one example dealing with the Wage Fund Theory. A manufacturer has £50,000. He spends £25,000 on timber etc. and leaves £25,000 in the bank. At the end of a month after paying out £1,000 in wages, his capital is now only £49,000 (represented by timber £25,000 and bank balance £24,000). Wages have therefore diminished capital. Tell the students that they cannot argue against figures and that George is wrong? The reaction is quick and the tutor must use any fool argument he can think of to maintain his point. It compels students to do their own thinking, and soon the realization that the timber has been worked up into something more valuable than mere timber, compels them to acknowledge that capital is not diminished by the payment of wages.

"Proving" Malthus right is a favourite pastime of confident tutors.

The student who loves to split hairs -- who insists that there are no natural laws in economics and no absolutes, that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line and that two plumb lines dropped from a height some distance apart are not parallel, can be a real worry. You've met him! He believes in nothing and insists that nothing can be proved about anything. He will even contradict himself by trying to prove that two and two do not make four -- if you let him. The tutor does not always wait for these points to be brought up. When he sees the danger signals he introduces them himself. Waste of time? Not at all. Not only does he forestall the "Smart Alecs" but he actually saves time in the long run. The tutor parodies the type of person he is up against. He "proves" that the table in front of him is not really there. He says: "take away its colour, its size, its shape, taste, sight and smell - (all abstractions) - and what have you left? Nothing!" He tells his students what happened to the man who stopped two bricklayers and told them they were not being strictly scientific because their plumb lines were not strictly parallel! A student's assertion that mind, matter and energy were really one and the same thing (Science of Political Economy) was countered by the tutor: "So are ice, water, and steam".

The experienced tutor knows the value of anecdotes and apt illustrations in class work. He knows that a pointed three-minute story is often worth a half-an-hour's theory. He knows the art and value of defending where possible the student who makes blundering remarks and earns the censure of the rest of the class. He helps to restore his confidence without concession to what is false.

We should not be content with condemning erroneous statements; we should try to find out the reasoning behind them. Take the statement that land has no value until labour is applied -- and therefore there is nothing to tax. Absurd as this may sound -- and absurd as it is -- nevertheless the point can be put very plausibly. Pointing to a vacant site and asking if the owner would be prepared to give you it for nothing does not dispose of the argument. It will be insisted that land as land has no value -- it is the labour which produces the value. The best thing to do is to agree! Then extend the argument to typewriters and point out that they too have no value until labour is applied; that a suit in the wardrobe has no value until worn. Show up this argument for what it is worth and then gently point out the difference between value in use and value in exchange. (See Henry George's Science of Political Economy for full exposition).

There is a saying among our tutors that the tutor who gets through all the questions on Book 10 of Progress and Poverty is falling down on his job! This is of course an overstatement but it acknowledges the great field covered by George in his last chapters of Progress & Poverty. Such philosophy, such depth of thought and breadth of vision cannot be disposed of in two hours. Our tutors know better than to get dogmatic on answers in this last session, and many points are left open for further development which the later courses provide.

The tutor-student relationship is essentially a personal one and arbitrary rules of conduct have no place in the classroom. Many there well may be who will find no use for some of the ideas contained in this Paper. But they will develop their own methods which may well prove of use to others.

Many of us who in the course of teaching have had to read Progress & Poverty again and again, have come to realise its incompleteness as a textbook on economics. Students are often conscious of this too and we must be prepared to conede the point; we can do so without surrendering an inch of ground on George's fundamental principles. We must be honest with our students no matter how great our anxiety to obtain and maintain their goodwill.

Very soon a special Student's Edition of Progress & Poverty being prepared by Mr .A. W. Madsen and his colleagues, will be published in London by the Land & Liberty Press. This abridged edition will have the chapters rearranged so that the economic argument can more quickly be developed. The abridgment will make the reading assignment much smaller without the loss of essential reading matter, and much which has a specific reference to America and to certain domestic matters of George's day, will be deleted.

The first and last nights of a Course are exciting and important occasions. The tutor must gain the confidence of the class at its first meeting. There are those who rely on quoting from testimonials to Henry George and his work paid by famous people. But most tutors doubt the value of such advertisement. Instead of that, they emphasise the necessity of completely independent judgment. They tell their students: "If you are the kind of people who can be persuaded to use a certain brand of toothpaste because Bing Crosby uses it, then you are not likely to gain the maximum benefit from the discussion class". One can, with a little practice, use a mixture of both methods.

At the end of the Basic Course students are left with no doubt as to the purpose of the School. It is not someone's hobby; it is not somewhere to come to on a dull evening; the School is not an end in itself. Students are told flatly that the School is the educational department of an organisation that is seeking to promote legislation along the lines laid down by Henry George. They have gained instruction from the School -- and perhaps some little entertainment and good fellowship, but that is not the end -- it is only the beginning. We know they will want to learn more before they finally commit themselves to unconditional acceptance of George's philosophy and practical proposals. Our advanced courses provide the opportunity. Students must not expect us to tie up the answers to the whole of the social problems of our day and have them presented on a plate. They must continue to think for themselves. There is no sitting back at the Henry George School; when the fundamentals are accepted the real activity starts. Many are the ways that are open. More tutors need to be trained, financial help is needed, lecturers are required for outside work, and clerical assistance for inside work.

Finally, they are told that we are not teaching just a new method of taxation; we are teaching a whole philosophy with ramifications which cover the whole of social life.

Until: they have understood the teaching of Henry George they will have learned the real meaning of that much abused word "Liberty".