Donald Stabile on Henry George
and John Bates Clark

Mason Gaffney

[A comment in response to an article by Donald R. Stabile, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July, 1995, p.373. This comment appeared in the same issue]

We are in debt to Professor Stabile for reviewing so clearly Henry George's contribution to marginal productivity theory. As he concludes, "neoclassical economics might have achieved better insights . . . if Clark had followed George more closely." However, Clark never intended to follow George except as a U-Boat stalks a troopship, I have documented this elsewhere (1994, 47-59). If Clark followed Ricardo, as Rima (cited by Stabile) alleges, it was for the same end, namely to eliminate land and its distinctive rent from the lexicon of economics. Ricardo had to be sunk, too, and Clark did his best.

Clark should not get credit for originating the marginal productivity theory of distribution. Professor Stabile might have noted that said theory was developed by Henry George's sometime disciple, Philip Wicksteed (1894), well before Clark (1899). The title of Wicksteed's masterpiece, The Coordination of the Laws of Distribution, is obviously paraphrased from "The Correlation and Coordination of These Laws (of Distribution)" (George, 1879, Book III, Chapter VII, 218). Wicksteed was formalizing, in more elegant form, an insight from his friend George.

Wicksteed, unlike Clark, did that while retaining the identity of land as a distinctive factor of production. This could help explain why Clark failed to acknowledge Wicksteed. Clark may indeed have been "willing to adopt good ideas whatever their source," as Professor Stabile avers, but he was not always willing to give credit. Clark's main objective was to fuse and confuse land with capital, to undercut George's case for taxing land while exempting capital. To this end, it was necessary for him to "rediscover" the theory of marginal productivity in a new framework where land was merged with capital. If that involved cribbing, well, his powerful academic friends overlooked it. Wicksteed, after all, consorted not just with Henry George but with unseemly Fabians like G. B. Shaw and Graham Wallas.