Why You Should Read Progress and Poverty
Frank C. Genovese
[A paper presented under the Henry George Research
Program at Pace University, New York, 4 November 1982. Reprinted with
permission from the author]
I come here today with a piece of advocacy and appeal to your
intellect, your curiosity and your concern with the subject of
economics. Your motivation for studying the subject must be, at least
in part, that you feel it has to do with human well being. I come to
urge you to read one of the great books on the subject of Economics -
Progress and Poverty, written by Henry George in 1879.
It may be well to tell you first why you should be interested enough
in the history of economic thought to read the masters. Addressing
this point, Vincent Bladen said:
It is not an antiquarian interest that I want to promote,
for I believe that contemplation of the work of the great economists
of the past will increase ... understanding of current economic
writings and of the contemporary economic world. This last is the
most important, and I would add that I am concerned to increase
understanding in order to improve the quality of human life. My
concern goes beyond the positive science of economics to the art of
political economy, to problems of economic policy.
While it is important to increase everyone's understanding of
economic matters, it is particularly important for economists to be as
fully equipped as possible. Perception, imagination and reason are
qualities Professor Marshall felt were needed, and Boulding has
mentioned "insight" and "logic" as part of the
Bladen felt comfortable in the ability we, as teachers, have to teach
positive economics, that of mathematics and logic, but he feared such
teaching could inhibit the development of imagination, insight, and
I wonder if we do not dull the moral sense of the economic
technicians we are developing. Are we worldly philosophers or are we
engineers, and would it not be best if we were both?
Since the ideas of economists become reflected in legislation and
affect culture and living standards, is it not important that they be
not only sound but also just?
There is one aspect of the training of economists which is seldom
mentioned; it is one in which we can take inspiration from Henry
George. It is training in communication techniques. George was a
superb communicator; his writing was precise, uncomplicated, and at
the same time lyrical. And we must believe, from the enthusiastic
responses he elicited from audiences, that he was also an extremely
talented speaker. All too often in our field we put a positive premium
on bookishness and labyrinthine prose. We sometimes confuse public
presentations with intellectual prostitution. Remarkably, we associate
public presentation with "money grubbing", and this in a
primarily private enterprise society.
Let us not fall into this narrow-minded trap. Let us seek the very
best reasoned and researched economics, which takes cognizance of
human well being, and let us learn how to bring it to the bar, not
just of professional opinion, but to the more difficult bar of public
opinion. Let us not rest on the assumption that sound ideas will be
picked up and publicized by others with little effort on our part to
encourage them. Part of the ability to practice the art of economics
must rest upon our ability to communicate.
However, one must tread lightly on this point since there is much
opinion among economists that "...the ills and shortcomings of
our science are due to the scientific incompetence of very many
economists who never learned their own business and turn to politics
and philosophy because they are not up to the tasks of the scientist."
And Lionel Robbins in his Essay on the Nature and Significance of
Economic Science, expresses the general opinion that economics
is the happy hunting ground of those adverse to the rigors of thought.
Schumpeter was able to condone preachment when it was solidly based.
One feels sure he would endorse the statement of Arthur Burns that:
An economic theorist is justified on many occasions in
oversimplifying facts to clarify in his own mind what he believes to
be significant relationships. He is likewise justified in bringing
the results of his speculative inquiries before his colleagues,
whether to seek their critical appraisal before going further or to
stimulate them by his work. As long as the economist moves within
these boundaries, he may be excused even for not making a strenuous
effort to discover how seriously he has distorted the facts by his
simplifying assumptions. But when he attempts to give practical
advice, he loses his license to suppose anything he likes and to
consider merely the logical implications of untested assumptions. It
then becomes his duty to examine with scrupulous care the degree in
which his assumptions are factually valid. If he finds reason to
question the close correspondence between the assumptions and actual
conditions, he should either not undertake to give any practical
advice, or frankly and fully disclose the penumbra that surrounds
his analysis and the conclusions drawn from it. Better still, he
should rework his assumptions in the light of the facts and see
whether he is justified on this new basis in telling men in
positions of power how they should act. Economics is a very serious
subject when the economist assumes the role of counselor to
Schumpeter was very respectful of Henry George, who was called "the
Prophet of San Francisco" by his multitudes of admirers, a title
which had been derisively thrust upon him by the Duke of Argyll.
Schumpeter tended to distrust philosophers, but of George, the
Prophet, he said:
But we cannot afford to pass by the economist whose
individual success with the public was greater than that of all the
others on our list, Henry George. The points about him that are
relevant for a history of analysis are these: He was a self-taught
economist, but he was an economist. In the course of his life, he
acquired most of the knowledge and the ability to handle an economic
argument that he could have acquired by academic training as it then
was. In this he differed to his advantage from most men who
proffered panaceas...he was a very orthodox economist and extremely
conservative as to methods...up to and including Mill's treatise, he
was thoroughly at home in scientific economics; and he shared none
of the current misunderstandings or prejudices concerning it. Even
the panacea - nationalization not of land but of the rent of land by
a confiscatory tax - benefited by his competence as an economist,
for he was careful to frame his "remedy" in such a manner
as to cause the minimum injury to private enterprise economy.
Professional economists who focused attention on the single tax
proposal and condemned Henry George's teaching, root and branch,
were hardly just to him. The proposal itself...though vitiated by
association with the untenable theory that the phenomenon of poverty
is entirely due to the absorption of surpluses by the rent of land,
is not economically unsound, except in that it involves an
unwarranted optimism concerning the yield of such a tax. In any case
it should not be put down as nonsense. If Ricardo's vision of
economic evolution had been correct, it would even have been obvious
wisdom. And obvious wisdom is in fact what George said in Progress
and Poverty (ch. l, Book IX) about the economic effects to be
expected from a removal of fiscal burdens - if such a removal were
Schumpeter, like Bladen, gives us some reasons for studying the
history of economics, even though he was more concerned with the
development of methodology than was Bladen. He cited "pedagogical
advantages, new ideas, and insights into the ways of the human mind"
and some He added that there are reasons for believing that in
economics the case for a study of the history of analytic work is
stronger than it is for other fields.
He felt the study of only current economics would lack "direction
and meaning" since, "the state of a science at any given
time implies its past history and cannot be satisfactorily conveyed
without making this implicit history explicit."
He felt such study might give us new inspiration, and expressed this
A man's mind must be indeed sluggish if, standing back
from the work of his time and beholding the wide mountain ranges of
past thought, he does not experience a widening of his own horizon.
And furthermore, such study "teaches us much about the ways of
the human mind...It displays logic in the concete, logic in action,
logic wedded to vision and to purpose. Any field of human action
displays the human mind at work but in no other field do people take
so much trouble to report on their mental processes."
The development of economics is itself a unique historical process,
since the economists dealt with the problems of their times from the
perspective of their time and under the pressures of their times.
Schumpeter notes that, "the filation of ideas has met with more
inhibitions in our field than it has in almost all others."
And, while in subjects such as physics where study of the history of
the subject is less necessary
"...much more than in physics have results been lost
on the way or remained in abeyance for centuries. ...Stimulating
suggestions and useful if disconcerting lessons are much more likely
to come to the economist who studies the history of his science than
to the physicist who can, in general, rely on the fact that almost
nothing worth while has been lost of the work of his predecessors."
In short, we might say we study the mountains of past economic
thought "because thar's gold in them thar hills."
Now that I have convinced you that there is value in studying the
history of economic thought, may I direct your attention to a
particularly rewarding book which represents one of the peaks in the
mountain ranges that Schumpeter described. There is a wonderful view
from the top, and reading this will make your study of many dull tomes
on the subject worthwhile. This is a piece of inspirational
literature, and a well-reasoned one. Its vision, its purpose and its
lessons are still alive. It is a call to humanity for thought and
action. It is, unlike any economics book you have ever read. It will
enliven your study of economics and give it purpose. A brief passage
will illustrate the quality of the prose and the heady, enthusiastic
tone of the book::
Give labor free field and its full earnings; take for the
benefit of the whole community that fund which the growth of the
community creates, and want and fear of want are gone. The springs
of production would be set free, and the enormous increase of wealth
would give the poorest ample comfort. Men would no more worry about
finding employment than they worry about finding air to breathe;
they need have no more care about physical necessities than do the
lilies of the field. The progress of science, the march of
invention, the diffusion of knowledge, would bring their benefit to
With this abolition of want and the fear of want, the admiration of
riches would decay, and men would seek the respect and approbation
of their fellows in other modes than by the acquisition of wealth.
In this way there would be brought to the management of public
affairs, and the administration of common funds, the skill, the
attention, the fidelity, and integrity that can now be secured only
for private interest, and a railroad or gas works might be operated
on public account, not only more economically and efficiently than
as at present, under joint stock management, but as economically and
efficiently as would be possible under single ownership. The prize
of the Olympian games, that called forth the most strenuous
exertions of all Greece, was but a wreath of wild olive; for a bit
of ribbon men have over and over again performed services no money
could have bought. 
You can see George was a man with a vision of a better life. And he
felt he had the key to this better life if he could unlock the mind of
man and displace false ideas selfishly implanted by others with sound
ideas presented by economics. He deplored economic inequality and its
impact on every phase of life. And he deplored the loss to themselves
and to society of the undeveloped talents of the great majority of the
people, the poor.
He wanted a basically competitive order driven more by love or
sympathy than by self interest.13 This would include private ownership
of houses, capital, and other equipment and private possession of most
land and natural resources. But he wanted to tax away monopoly returns
to land and resource owners, to have public ownership of utilities,
since they were monopolies, and to abolish other monopolies, such as
He defined land to include "all natural materials, forces and
opportunities." By this definition, oil reserves under the
sea would have enriched the whole population, not just the lucky and
undeserving land owners. Perhaps more important to the purity, or lack
of it, of the political process, radio and television station licenses
would be rented to the operators by the government rather than being
awarded to them. On this broader interpretation of "land" we
have at least a partial answer to the criticism of many economists
(remarkably, including even Sclmmpeter) that the single tax would not
bring in enough revenue.
With this ordering of society, he felt poverty would no longer exist
side by side with great wealth and unused productive power.
I would second Professor Harriss' opinion that there is an enormous
amount left of great value in the teachings of Henry George. While
there are many exceptions, it is apparent that the chief factor
affecting the living standards and levels of attainment of most
members of one generation is the level of income of their parents.
This is even apparent in S.A.T. test scores, which were recently
published in the New York Times.
Perhaps I should become more technical and stress George's
achievements as an economic theorist.
He spread the seeds that blossomed into marginal productivity theory.
He shattered the easy, facile, and spurious mathematics of Malthus on
population and production increases and the wages fund doctrine, both
of which had impeded attempts to improve the conditions of the
And he strongly influenced many economists to seek ways to improve
the economic order, and the public to clamor for beneficial change,
and the politicians and government leaders to heed the clamor.
1.Vincent W. Bladen, From Adam
Smith to Maynard Keynes, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1974), p. xi.
2. Joseph A. Schumpeter, "The Crisis in Economics-Fifty Years
Ago", The Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. XX, No. 3
(September 1982), p. 1053.
3. Lionel Robbins, Essay on the Nature and Significance of
Economic Science, Second Ed., revised and extended, (London:
Macmillan and Company, 1935).
4. Arthur Burns, The_Frontiers of Economic Knowledge,
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), pp. 229-30.
5. The title of an article by the Duke of Argyll in the Nineteenth
Century, April, 1884, reprinted with George's reply in Complete
Works, III, "Property in Land, A Passage at Arms between the
Duke of Argyll and Henry George," at pp. 7-40, and 41-74, Fels
Fund Library Ed., (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page and Co.,
6. Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 864-65.
7. Ibid., p. 4.
9. Ibid., p. 5. 10. Ibid., p. 6.
12. Henry George, Progress and Poverty, (New York: Garden
City Publishing Company, Inc., 1926), pp. 459-60.
13. Ibid.., pp. 460-61.
14. Ibid.. 15. Ibid., p. 37.
16. Steven B. Cord, Henry George: Dreamer or Realist,
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965);
17. If you wish to follow through on the Ricardian rent theory on
which he relied, read pp. 1055-56 of Joseph A. Schumpeter, "The
Crisis in Economics", Journal of Economic Literature,
Vol. XX, No. 3, (September 1982); History of Economic Analysis,
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 458-59; and Vincent W.
Bladen, From Adam Smith to Maynard Keynes, (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 195-96.