Will Modern Civilizations Suffer
the Same Fate as the Roman Empire?

Alexander Hamilton

[Excerpts from an address delivered at the Henry George Society of Victorai, British Columbia, 19 June, 1931. Reprinted from Land and Freedom, July-August, 1931]

I have recently returned from a visit to Eugene, Oregon. I addressed a meeting in the Congregational Church Forum there on the partial application of Henry George's principles in British Columbia. I also spoke in Portland and in Seattle, at the Commonwealth Club, the Lyel Club, and to the Municipal League.

Eugene, the capital of Lane County, Ore., is a fine city of 20,000 people, situated in the upper Willamette Valley. Many of the streets are paved, beautifully boulevarded and planted with shade trees. There has been no snow all winter and flowers have been blooming gayly. The chief industries of the neighborhood are farming, fruit growing and lumbering. Being a university city and having some liberal churches with forums, one can listen at any time to addresses on social, psychological, scientific, economic, religious and kindred subjects. Prices of commodities average much less than on the Canadian side of the line, so that Eugene may be quite truly called a city of cheap living and high thinking, and altogether a most desirable place in which to live.

The Oregonians have an advantage over us in the matter of keeping their politicians in order. They have a referendum law that works; we have one that is unworkable. Eight per cent of the voters may demand a referendum. Here we require 25 per cent. If their representatives attempt to raise their own salaries or give undue privileges to corporations or such like, the referendum can easily be invoked to head them off, while we have to take that sort of thing lying down. When direct legislation became law too many questions were "referred" for settlement at each election and cluttered up the ballot, but the measure is now considered well past the experimental stage.

I have referred to the fact that living is cheaper on the south side of the international boundary. Protectionists, of course, claim that this, like all other good things, is to be credited to the policy of high tariff. It will be news to some people to hear that free trade is the actual cause, but such is undoubtedly the case. It is true that Americans have a very high tariff wall against the outside world, but here is a world within itself. Forty-eight great commonwealths, many of them large and prosperous enough to be classed as nations, unlimited natural resources, variety of climate and products, 120,000,000 progressive, inventive and hustling people and unrestricted reciprocity absolute free trade across all boundary lines. Trade is free coming and free going.

The United States of America constitutes within herself the greatest experiment in free trade the world has ever seen. I do not say they would not benefit immensely by free trade with the outside world. Let them adopt even a "revenue" policy and overnight almost her flag would be seen on every sea and in every harbor on earth. What I do say is that while so great a nation may rub along in spite of a protective policy, the same policy practiced by such a country with only a twelfth of the population would be quite suicidal.

All trade is at bottom barter the exchange of commodities for commodities. Therefore, as Canada has unlimited commodities of a limited variety to sell, her only trade policy is to remove obstructions to the inflow of commodities. Added to other advantages this would lower the cost of commodities and lessen the endless outflowing tide of Canadians seeking enlarged opportunities and cheaper living conditions in the United States.

It may be asked : If the United States grew and became great under protection, why cannot Canada do likewise? The answer is that the United States was great before her tariff wall was built so high as it is today. Her tariff has only been high since Civil War times.

The greatest mistake made by both the United States and Canada was in alienating most of their land and natural resources to a few monopolists. Nothing would have been more disastrous. Even the benefits of free trade like all other benefits, must ultimately be absorbed by those who hold the key to nature's bounties the landlords. The words of Henry George in his lecture on "Moses" still fit as well as they did in the year 1884:

"Yet the great concern of Moses was with the duty that lay plainly before him : the effort to lay the foundations of a social state in which deep poverty and degrading want should be unknown where men released from the meaner struggles that waste human energy should have opportunity for intellectual and moral development.

"Here stands out the greatness of the man. What was the wisdom and stretch of forethought that in the desert sought to guard in advance against the dangers of a settled state, let the present speak.

"In the full blaze of the nineteenth century, when every child in our schools may know as common truths things of which the Egyptian sages never dreamed, when the earth has been mapped and the stars have been weighed, when steam and electricity have been pressed into service and science is wresting from nature secret after secret it is but natural to look back upon the wisdom of three thousand years ago as the man looks back upon the learning of the child.

"And yet, for all this wonderful increase of knowledge, for all this enormous gain of productive power, where is the country in the civilized world in which today there is not want and suffering where the masses are not condemned to toil that gives no leisure, and all classes are not pursued by a greed of gain that makes life an ignoble struggle to get and to keep. Three thousand years of advance, and still the moan goes up 'They have made our lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and brick, and in all manner of service'! Three thousand years of advance! and the piteous voices of little children are in the moan.

"We progress and we progress, we girdle continents with iron roads and knit cities together with the mesh of telegraph wires, each day brings some new invention, each year marks a fresh advance the power of production increased and the avenues of exchange cleared and broadened, yet the complaint of 'hard times' is louder and louder; everywhere men are harassed by care and haunted by the fear of want. With swift, steady strides and prodigious leaps the power of human hands to satisfy human wants advances and advances, is multiplied and multiplied. Yet the struggle for mere existence is more and more intense and human labor is becoming the cheapest of commodities Beside glutted warehouses human beings grow faint with hunger and shiver with cold; under the shadow of churches festers the vice that is born of want.

"Trace to their root the causes that are thus producing want in the midst of plenty, ignorance in the midst of intelligence, aristocracy in democracy, weakness in strength -- that are giving to our civilization a one-sided and unstable development, and you will find it something which this Hebrew statesman three thousand years ago perceived and guarded against. Moses saw that the real cause of enslavement of the masses of Egypt was, what has everywhere produced enslavement the possession by a class of the land upon which and from which the whole people must live. He saw that to permit in land the same unqualified ownership that by natural right attaches to things produced by labor would be inevitably to separate the people into the very rich and the very poor inevitably to enslave labor to make the few masters of the many, no matter what the political forms, to bring violence and degradation no matter what the religion.

"And with the foresight of the philosophic statesman who legislate not for the needs of a day, but for all the future, he sought, in way suited to his times and conditions, to guard against this error. Everywhere in the Mosaic institutions is the land treated as the gift of the Creator to His common creatures, which no one has the right to monopolize. Everywhere it is, not your estate or your property, not the land which you bought or the land which you conquered, but the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, the land which the Lord lendeth thee. And the practical legislation, by regulations to which he gave highest sanctions, he tried to guard against the wrong that converted ancient civilizations into despotisms the wrong that in after centuries ate out the heart of Rome, that produced the imbruting serfdom in Poland and the gaunt misery of Ireland."

In the forty-seven years since the above eloquent words were spoken larger fortunes than ever have been rolled up; ground rent (the community value) has enormously increased and is still pocketed by a few, and unemployment has become chronic. Conditions are becoming more intolerable and menacing. The cause being fundamentals no superficial remedy can avail. The axe must be laid the root of the tree.

It is startling to note the similarity between Rome, her decline and the world in its present plight. She always had her unemployment problem, the dole and miles of tables to feed the starving. It is plain that a system based on injustice cannot endure. We must avoid Rome's fatal error or take the consequences. Public values must be appropriated for public purposes, and privately produced values be sacredly left to the producer.

Civilizations have risen and fallen -- fallen, no doubt because of the uneven distribution of wealth and power, selfishness on the one hand and ignorance on the other. History tells us that "land monopoly ruined Rome," and it is clear and plain to those who are capable of ordinary observation that the same evil is rapidly ruining Anglo- Saxon civilization. Men in the mass, locked out from natural opportunities, invariably become as helpless chattel slaves.

Science tells us that for the next million years or more this globe may be doing duty in the same old orbit, human life and human comfort and wellbeing, as far as natural law is concerned, be as possible as ever.

The question is, Shall we go on treading in the foot- steps of Rome, assuredly to meet Rome's fate, or shall we be wise enough to abolish monopoly and privilege by discarding Rome's [quiritary] system of land tenure and secure for countless future generations the right to liberty, fair play and equal opportunity as envisioned by the nineteenth century "Prophet of San Francisco"?