Radical Literary Intelligentsia
and Hard-headed Propertied Conservatives:
A Study in Similarities
Harry Gunnison Brown
[An address delivered at the Henry George Congress.
Land and Freedom,
It is very discreditable for an "intellectual" to be found
adhering to ideas which other "intellectuals" have come to
regard as out of date. Or, at any rate, such appears to be the view of
those who are currently rated as intellectuals!
The "Single Tax" is reputed to be out of date. Hence,
mention of it arouses no tremor of real interest in the mind of the
typical present-day intellectual; and his only reaction is likely to
be a hasty disavowal of support for it. The idea of taxing at a high
rate community-produced land values, considered as a truly significant
step in the establishment of an ideal economic order, seems to be
completely ignored by most "liberal" and "progressive"
magazines and newspapers. The subject is avoided as if it were a
dangerous microbe. It appears to be the one subject that proprietors
and editors of these journals think it not worth while to discuss and
about which they won't editorialize.
And yet, to the casual onlooker who will think over the matter
without prejudice, it cannot but seem peculiar that intellectuals
especially those who consider themselves to be "liberal" or "progressive"
or "radical" should have such a complex. For, after all, the
salient fact is that, with property rights as they are now, the many
must pay to a comparatively few, billions of dollars a year merely for
permission to work and to live on the earth.
Since there are barren mountain tops, remote and forbidding islands,
the trackless wastes of deserts, and other relatively undesirable
places where men may attempt to live and to work without paying others
for permission to do so, the last statement needs some qualification.
The statement should rather be that a majority of us must pay to the
rest of us, billions of dollars a year for permission to work and to
live on the earth, in those locations which geological forces and
community development have made comparatively livable.
On the face of it, the proposition that the payments made for such
permission and certainly for the enjoyment of community-produced
advantages should go to the community, seems altogether reasonable. On
the face of it, allowing some men to charge others for such permission
seems like allowing some to charge others for permission to sail boats
on the ocean, swim in the lakes and rivers, breathe the air or enjoy
the sunshine. Through what legerdemain of rationalization do our "intellectuals"
manage to persuade themselves that here is no problem of special
import to the common welfare?
Possibly the explanation lies in the fact that many modern
intellectuals, so-called, are pretty thoroughly permeated though they
do not always realize it with the ideology of Marxian socialism.
Therefore, they find all the ills of our economic life in "capitalism,"
in the "exploitation" of the masses by their "capitalist"
employers, in "the profit system." That there is anything
peculiar in the income from land as contrasted with the income from
capital, or that the rent of land is a matter of significant concern
in a society "suffering from the ills of capitalism" and of "the
profit motive," does not seriously occur to them.
The Marxian viewpoint is that the chief robbers of labor are the
owners of capital and that the chief exploitive income is the income
of capital. The owners of land may intercept a little of what would
otherwise go to capital and so would in any case be taken away from
the workers but this is not a matter of great significance to the
radical permeated by the Marxian philosophy. And the literary
intelligentsia who, on the basis of a little desultory reading in the
literature of socialism and near-socialism, plus some training in
belles lettres, plus a modicum of journalistic experience, essay to
instruct supposedly less initiated intellectuals in the complexities
of our economic order, through the "high-brow" magazines as
a medium, are apt to be equally vague or equally non-committal
regarding any distinction between land and capital.
Does it not seem a bit incongruous to find socialists, "parlor
pinks," "liberals" (post-war style) and hidebound
conservatives, all in agreement in not admitting or, anyhow, in not
stressing any important distinction between sites and natural
resources on the one hand and constructed capital on the other hand.
The reader, nevertheless, habituated to drinking of the current
stream of thought, is likely enough to lift a skeptical eyebrow and
inquire: "Well, is there any socially significant distinction
between land and capital or between the income from the one and that
from the other?"
Such a question is, of course, fair enough. It must receive a fair
and sufficient answer.
Let us begin an answer by analyzing the nature of capital and the
income from capital. In doing this we shall seem to be taking the side
of the conservatives. For we shall find ourselves forced to the
conclusion that interest on capital can be defended by precisely the
same argument commonly used to justify the wages of labor, viz.,
contribution to the productive process. So perhaps socialists and
parlor pinks and (new style) liberals will refuse to read further!
Two facts are fundamental in the problem. The first is that capital
is useful, that we can produce more if we construct capital to aid us
than if we do not. The second is that capital can come into existence
only through saving. How can a fisherman increase his catch? Perhaps
by building himself a boat that enables him to go where the fish are
most plentiful. But to build the boat he must save, i.e., he must
produce, for a time, more than he consumes. The boat is, of course, an
excess of his production over his consumption. If he consumes each day
all that he produces that day, the boat will never materialize. The
larger daily catch after the boat becomes available must be regarded
as partly a repayment of the labor of building the boat and partly
interest, the extra return made possible by the new capital over what
all the owner's labor, past and present, could produce without it.
Wherein can his enjoyment of this interest, this extra return made
possible by his own saving, be objected to? Whom is it supposed that
he is robbing?
How can a farmer increase his crop? He may work to fertilize his land
or he may irrigate it or he may plant and bring to maturity an
orchard. With the fertilized land he can produce more each year than
if the land were not fertilized, and still more, perhaps, if it is
irrigated. With the planted orchard he can make his labor of future
years more productive in the getting of fruit. But in each case he has
to save, i.e., produce for a time more than he consumes. His extra
production is not of wheat, corn or fruit but is greater fertility or
moisture in the soil, or growing fruit trees. These things are
produced in addition to what the farmer consumes. He produces them in
additional working hours beyond the time necessary to produce his own
current means of livelihood. Or, possibly, he first produces an excess
of wheat, corn, etc., and then lives upon this excess while making the
improvements in or on his farm.
When, thereafter, the farmer enjoys the larger crops made possible by
the fertilization of his land or by its irrigation or by the planting
of the fruit trees, all of the excess above what the labor spent in
improving the farm could have brought him if applied directly to
current crop production, is a return on capital, an interest return,
an extra income made possible by his saving. Let those socialists and
those pinkish literary intelligentsia who contend that the income
received by the owners of capital as such, is a robbery of the masses,
explain for us what masses or what individuals the farmer of our
illustration is robbing? In what sense does it take something away
from others, for the farmer to save and thereby to make possible a
larger production on his farm in future years? What person is made
poorer by the fact that the farmer's soil is now richer or more
effectively watered than before? In just what way does it injure the
masses of working people or "deprive" any worker of "the
full product of his labor," when the farmer's orchard begins to
bear fruit and the farmer receives, thereby, gradual repayment for his
temporarily wageless labor of planting, plus an excess which may
properly be called interest or income on capital, the reward of his
saving and a consequence of the fact that, by saving and thus
accumulating capital, we can usually produce more wealth than if we
did not save?
The principle involved here is precisely the same when, as is
commonly the case, the person who saves does not himself construct the
capital but provides the means, from his saving, for someone else to
do it. Thus, suppose the farmer of our illustration, whom we shall now
call Noren, does not himself fertilize his farm or install the
irrigation system or plant the trees, in his extra time (beyond that
necessary to provide for the immediate needs of himself and his
family), but instead uses that extra time to produce an excess of
wheat, potatoes, car- rots, peas, etc., beyond his own needs. This
excess he gives to another, whom we shall call Fenton, in order that
the latter may be free to improve Noren's farm. Fenton, we may
suppose, needs the potatoes, peas, etc. He wishes to perhaps needs to
consume currently all that he can produce. If someone does not provide
him with the potatoes, peas, etc., he must spend his own time
producing them. He can afford to work the requisite number of days
fertilizing Noren's farm or making an irrigation system for it or
planting trees on it, only if he has something to live on while doing
so. If Noren gives him for his work all the potatoes, carrots, peas,
etc., that Fenton could produce for himself in the time he spends
improving Noren's farm, how is Fenton in any way injured? How is he
prevented from enjoying "the full product of his labor?" It
is Noren's saving that makes possible the improvement of the farm.
Fenton has lost nothing whatever. If Noren now enjoys the larger
product from his farm which is the result of the improvement made
possible by his own saving, in what way is he robbing Fenton? Fenton
is at least as well off as he would have been had Noren not saved. And
Fenton is certainly not prevented from saving on his own account, if
he desires to do so and can live on less than his current production.
But, in the case we have been considering, it is Noren's saving that
is responsible for the increased productiveness of Noren's farm.
Let us change the illustration somewhat, so as to make it both more
complicated and more realistic. Noren, the farmer, does not directly
give Fenton the wheat, potatoes, carrots and peas, but sells these
crops for money (or bank checks) and pays the money (or checks on his
bank) to Fenton who uses it to buy deeded food and (perhaps) other
goods. Noren, we may say, adds to society's available stock of
consumable goods, receives money (in effect, tickets) entitling him to
use up those goods or their equivalent, and passes this money, or a
part of it (what he saves), to Fenton who buys therewith the
consumable goods he needs and wants. Thus, Fenton does not have to
spend his own time producing goods for immediate consumption but has
his time made free through Noren's saving for producing capital.
And now let us illustrate the dependence of capital construction on
saving, by a case still more complicated and one which pictures
contemporary investment in corporate industry. A large number of
Norens (so to speak), including farmers, bakers, tailors, coal miners,
et al., save, and invest in the stock of a paper manufacturing company
which is about to construct a paper mill. The company hires a large
number of Fentons to make the materials for the mill and do the
constructing. The Norens produce more cereals, bread, potatoes,
clothing, coal, etc., than they are themselves consuming. That is to
say, they save. The money they receive for this excess (i. e., the
money they do not spend to satisfy their own current needs and
desires) is paid for (invested in) stock of the paper company. The
paper company pays it to the Fentons, who are enabled to buy therewith
the excess of consumable goods produced by the Norens. Thus, the
Fentons have their time set free for the construction of the mill,
even though their circumstances are such that they need, or insist on
having, in the form of consumable goods and services, all that they
currently earn, even though, that is, they themselves save nothing.
The saving of the Norens, in short, makes possible a construction of
capital by the Fentons. The Fentons are certainly no worse off than if
they spent their entire time producing goods for immediate
consumption. They are paid, in money exchangeable for the excess
consumable goods produced by others, all that their own labor could
produce of such goods. The capital they construct could not come into
existence without the saving of the Norens. It is the saving of the
latter, their production of more than they consume, that makes the
construction of the capital possible. If, now, this capital is truly
productive, if it does really add to the output of industry an excess
over what the labor and all the rest of the capital of the community
could have produced without it, and if this excess goes, as return on
their investment, to the Norens, who made the excess production
possible, in what way have the Fentons been robbed?
It is, of course, open to "liberal" and "parlor
pinkish" critics of property income in the existing economic
order, to object that those who save are, in some cases, recipients of
income that they never earned and that it is out of such unearned
income that they have been able to make their accumulations. Monopoly,
unfair competition, use of fiduciary positions for personal profit,
etc., may be common means to affluence. None the less, those who so
contend ought to take pains to separate these various means of
exploitation, at least in thought, and show how each one conduces to
give individuals and classes unearned income. Certainly they ought not
to lump all such means of privileged income together as "surplus
value," or as inevitably involved in "the profit system."
Nor may they with propriety use discussion of such purely unearned and
illicit incomes as a means of making plausible any objection they may
feel to a kind of income, interest on capital, which is, in itself,
entirely reasonable and justifiable, in the sense that it is merely a
quid pro quo for a productive contribution.
And now how about the income from land ownership, which, to
conservatives, socialists, parlor pinks and (new style) "liberals,"
is not essentially different from the income on capital? Land rent,
purely as such as distinguished from what is paid for the use of
buildings, orchards, introduced fertility and other improvements on or
in land is surely not paid. for saving. In other words, land rent is
not paid for an added output of industry produced by capital which in
turn has been made possible by individual saving. Instead, as we have
already noted, it is a payment which non -owners of land (in many
countries, the great majority) must pay to landowners for permission
to work and to live on those parts of the earth which geological
forces and community development have made relatively productive and
What is there so unreasonable about the contention that individuals
should not be allowed to gain a livelihood by charging other
individuals for permission to work and to live on the earth and to
enjoy community-produced advantages? What is there so unreasonable
about the proposal that whatever is paid by the user, for permission
to use those locations which have been made desirable by community
development (and, of course, by past geological forces) should be paid
to the community? What is there so unreasonable about the view that
this (in the main) community-produced annual rental value of land
ought to be the first source, even though not necessarily the only
source, of community revenue?
Then what is the explanation for the utter lack of interest of "liberals,"
during recent years, in this reform and for the apparent fear of some
of them lest they be suspected of any sympathy with it? Can it be that
in the intellectual realm inhabited by our near-socialists, "liberals,"
et al., including the literary intelligentsia, there are more or less
obligatory changing styles of thought and changing economic
philosophies? And do the literary intelligentsia subconsciously feel
that they would be as discredited to ignore such styles as a lady of
fashion might be, in her circle, if she began regularly to garb
herself in the dress and millinery of the nineties or the early
nineteen hundreds? And is advocacy of the public appropriation of the
community-produced rent of land thus discreditable for the literary
intelligentsia merely because it is out of style, while advocacy of "production
for use and not for profit" is highly creditable because, in
their particular circle, it is now in style?
Or is the subject of capital and its dependence on saving together
with the idea of the serviceableness of capital and, therefore, of
saving, in our economic order too difficult for the ready
comprehension of minds trained more to [unclear] and general literary
cleverness and effectiveness than to economic analysis! And is the
distinction between income on capital, received for an added
productiveness of industry resulting from individual saving and
investment, and income on land, received by individuals for
community-produced advantages and for permitting others to work and to
live on the earth, is this distinction too subtle for the "intellectuals"
among our social radicals to understand!
Or may it possibly be the case that advocacy of so specific a reform
as the public appropriation of land values gets more easily
discredited among people of supposed importance, and butters fewer
literary parsnips, because it arouses a more definite hatred and a
more definite desire to get it looked at askance than do vague general
complaints about "the profit motive" and "the evils of
capitalism?" A particular reform is contemplated, definitely
taking away the privileged income of a particular class, and it is to
be expected that many members of that class will endeavor to
discredit, as much as they can, both it and those who support it.
As with literary intelligentsia of radical persuasion, so with the
political "leaders" of radical groups. Will not indeed, does
not the candidate for president or governor, of a radical party, feel
it usually unwise to stress such a specific reform, even though he
believes in it? For, after all, he wants the greatest possible number
of supporters, the greatest possible number of votes, and the way to
win such supporters, as in the case of candidates of the major and
less radical parties, is to talk in generalities and commit himself to
nothing specific which may offend any appreciable number of potential
followers. If, among the moderately poor who look for an economic
millennium and who might give him a feeling of success by multiplying
the total vote for him, are a considerable number who have been lured
into the purchase of vacant lots in the hope of an increase in their
value, and who, believing in some vaguely conceived reorganization of
society which will benefit themselves by guaranteeing them "the
full product of their labor," nevertheless do not desire,
meanwhile, any public appropriation of community-produced values, if
such citizens are a part of his hoped-for following, he is not likely
to be too specific in urging this reform.
Then, too, most of the supporters of such a candidate are probably
more interested in hazy promises of a new and better world than they
are in the making of a clear distinction between income from capital
and income from land. And those who own no property of any kind, or
almost none, are perhaps easier to arouse to a general, though vague,
opposition to private enjoyment of income from any type of property
than to an attempt to distinguish, each from each, income from sites
and natural resources, income from capital, income from monopolistic
control of an industry or industries, and income from business
chicanery. It is mentally easier and, for some, may be more satisfying
emotionally, to join a radical group which is striving for "the
abolition of the profit system" or for a "share-the-wealth"
scheme than to attempt to discover, by careful investigation and
analysis, what are the different specific evils from which our society
suffers and how each specific evil can be prevented without,
necessarily, revamping the entire economic system.
It would be manifestly unreasonable to claim that, once the annual
rental value of land, or the major part of it is appropriated by the
public, no further reforms will be necessary to make the price system
("capitalism") work most smoothly and fairly for the general
good. But it is none the less a fact that this particular reform is
one of the most important along the line of making "capitalism"
or the price system what its conservative defenders claim it is, viz.,
a system which rewards industry and thrift and enterprise and gives
most to those who are most deserving, presumably to those who serve
the public best. It leaves in the economic order its essential element
of freedom, freedom as to what work to do, freedom to save and invest
in capital construction or not to do so, freedom on the part of each
individual and group of individuals to use his or their capital in
whatever line of industry seems most profitable. And this reform would
add a new freedom, viz., freedom to live and to work on the earth
without being hindered or prevented by persons who, not desiring to
use their land (or much of it) themselves, hold it out of use
speculatively in the hope of making money from a community-produced
increase of value.
How can it be consistent with the ideals of an economic philosophy
which would base incomes on service, which would reward industry,
enterprise, thrift and inventive genius, to support such an
incongruous element in the economic system as that which enables a
part of us to collect from the rest of us merely for permission to
work and to live on the earth in those locations having
And now let us raise a question as to those industrial magnates who
have recently been so much publicized in the matter of their
insistence on preservation of constitutional rights, the maintenance
of freedom in our economic system and the continuance of an economic
order based on individual initiative and thrift. If such industrial
magnates do not support if, perchance, they oppose a system of
taxation which would make our economic order more nearly conform to
their professed principles, which would bring it about that the
rewards of industry, henceforth, would be distributed more
consistently with the contributions, by each person, of effort,
thrift, and productive enterprise, which would no longer, through
heavy taxation of capital, deprive those who save, and so accumulate
capital, of the returns which this capital yields, if they do not
support such a system of taxation, what must reasonable men say about
them? Will not the simplest and most obvious conclusion be that such
magnates are not really interested in a free society, any more than
are the radicals who seek "the dictatorship of the proletariat";
that they are not really interested, any more than are socialists and
communists, in the giving of its full reward to voluntary individual
thrift and enterprise, or in the development of the fullest
practicable degree of individualism; but that they, along with their
sympathizers among journalists and politicians, are using the slogans
and rhetorical flourishes descriptive of such an ideal, as a smoke
screen to conceal their real purpose, viz., the maintenance of special
privileges which are altogether inconsistent with the ideal they
profess to support?
Have we here a case where "extremes meet," since radical "leaders,"
including the literary intelligentsia of radical leanings, and
conservative business men and journalists, alike, support the
principle of letting some live as parasites on others, the one group
desiring that those who do not save shall enjoy the fruits of the
saving of others, and the other group desiring that certain
individuals, as owners of the earth and of community-produced location
values, shall continue to collect from others for permission to live
and to work on the relatively livable parts of the earth's surface?
If, perhaps, the first group should finally so sway the masses as to
win its goal, might this not be due in part to a general confusion of
thought, regarding the distinction between earned and unearned
incomes, contributed to no less by the second group than by the first?
Radical, dreaming, literary intelligentsia and hardheaded industrial
magnates! Each group supposedly scorning the other! Is their thinking
fundamentally alike, after all?