"Thou Shalt Not Steal"

Henry George

[Edited and abridged, from an address delivered in New York City, 8 May, 1887]

We are told that you cannot abolish poverty because there is not wealth enough to go around. We are told that if all the wealth of the United States were divided up, there would only be some eight hundred dollars apiece. But we do not propose to abolish poverty by dividing up what wealth there is. We propose to create more wealth. We propose to abolish poverty by setting at work that vast army of men only too anxious to create wealth, but who are now deprived of the opportunity to toil.

Then, again, we are informed that poverty cannot be abolished, because poverty always has existed. Well, if poverty always has existed, all the more need for our moving for its abolition. It has existed long enough. We ought to be tired of it; let us get rid of it. But I deny that poverty always has existed. Never before in the history of the world was there such an abundance of wealth, such power of producing wealth. So marked is this that the very people who tell us that poverty cannot be abolished, attribute it, in almost the next breath, to overproduction. They virtually tell us it is because mankind produces so much wealth that so many are poor; that it is because there is so much of the things which satisfy human desire already produced, that men cannot find work, and that women must stint and strain! Poverty attributed to over-production; poverty in the midst of wealth; poverty in the midst of enlightenment; poverty when a thousand labor-saving inventions (that never existed in the world before) have been called to the aid of man!

We are told that charity would help the poor. Every thinking woman and every thinking man, however, can see that it is utterly impossible to eradicate poverty by charity, and that everyone who will trace to its root the cause of the disease will see that what is needed is not charity but justice -- the conforming of human institutions to the eternal laws of right. Those who attack our concepts have set up for themselves a god who rather likes poverty, since it affords the rich a chance to show their goodness and benevolence.

The laws of this universe are the laws of God, the social laws as well as the physical laws, and He, the Creator of all, has given us room for all, work for all, plenty for all. If today people are in places so crowded that it seems as though there were too many people in the world; if today thousands of men who would gladly be at work do not find the opportunity to go to work; if today the competition crowds wages down to starvation rates; if today, amidst abounding wealth, there are in the centers of our civilization human beings who are worse off than savages in any normal times, it is not because the Creator has been niggardly; it is simply because of our own injustice.

Those of us who seek justice propose no new thing. We propose to abolish poverty by the remedy of doing to others as we would have others do to us, by giving to all their just rights. We propose to disturb no just right of property. We are defenders and upholders of the sacred right of property that right of property which justly attaches to everything that is produced by labor; that right which gives to everyone a just claim to what he has produced so long as he does not injure any one else.

"Thou shalt not steal." How is this great commandment interpreted today, even by the men who pretend to preach the Gospel? Well, according to them, it means: "Do not steal a few dollars-that maybe dangerous, hut ifyno steal millions and get away with it, you become one of our first citizens."

There are other forms of stealing. Here is a caravan going along over the desert. Here are a gang of robbers. They say, "Look! There is a rich caravan; let us go and rob it." But one of the robbers says, "Oh, no; that is dangerous. Let us, instead, go to where there is a spring-the only spring at which this caravan can get water in this desert. Let us put a wall around it and call it ours; and when they come up, we won't let them have any water until they have given us alt the goods they have."

And is it not theft of the same kind when certain individuals go ahead in advance of the population and get land they have no use whatever for, and then, as people come unto the world and population increases, will not let this increasing population use the land until they pay an exorbitant price? That is the sort of theft on which our first families are founded.

Does not every child that is born add to the value of land? Ought not the child, therefore, get some portion of the benefit? And is not the child wronged when certain favored individuals are allowed to appropriate it?

The way to secure equal rights to land is not by cutting land up into equal pieces, but by taking for public use the values attaching to land. We (the community) need not disturb anybody in possession; we need not interfere with anybody's building or anybody's improvement. All we have to do is to abolish taxes on all improvements, on all forms of wealth. All we have to do is to levy the tax only on the value of land, exclusive of the improvements, so that the person who is holding a piece of vacant land will have to pay the same for it as though there were a building upon it.

We can leave land titles just as they are. The owners of the land may call themselves its owners; all we want is to tax the value of the land.

We have a long fight and a hard fight before us. Possibly, probably, for many of us, we may never see it come to success. But what of that? It is a privilege to be engaged in such a struggle. This we may know, that it is but a part of that great, world-wide long-continued struggle in which the just and the good of every age have been engaged.