Henry George:
Prophet of the Good Society

Morgan Harris

[An analysis of the "Georgist Movement" and proposals on achieving success in gaining public support for Henry George's ideals, undated, but written in the early 1980s]


The Wall Street Journal carried a letter by Vermont Royster, stating "Henry George has long since been forgotten. "That's how he sees it. You may remember something about Henry George; I may remember something about Henry George,; but who else does?

Where Were me TV Cameras?

At the 1977 National Conference of Georgists the attendance was less than 150 -- out of a population of more than 220 million. So what if there were 15 more at home for each one at the Convention? That's about one per hundred thousand. Imagine a football stadium that holds a hundred thousand people, and one Georgist among them.

Where were the TV cameras from NEC and ABC? Where were the reporters from the N. Y. Times, the Washington Post? Where were the writers from U. S. News? Time? Newsweek? Why weren't they there?

Because a national convention of the Henry George movement isn't worth writing up. Nobody cares what Georgists are doing or saying. Henry George has, indeed, long since been forgotten.

Viewing this as a public relations problem, one asks, how was Henry George able to turn on tens of thousands of people, and his followers have turned off tens of thousands?

You have inherited one of the greatest ideas in the world. You have the answer to the world's problems of hunger, unemployment, inflation, slums, poverty. You have the answer; the right answer. You can prove it You can win the debate with any one who challenges it. And what good does ft do?

Being Right Is Not Enough

Here lie the remains of William Jay
Who died maintaining his right of way,
He was right, dead right, as he sped along
But he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

That's the story of the Henry George movement: just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

How Come?

When a national commentator calls Georgists "a bunch of single-tax nuts," the usual response is to criticize and condemn him, to believe he Is a land speculator, an exploiter. Else how come he refuses to see such obvious truth?

But these men are telling It like they see it: a movement that has long since been forgotten; an insignificant backwater sect mat is not newsworthy enough to send a reporter to cover their National Convention; a bunch of single-tax nuts. That's the picture Georgists project.


A ship's captain picked up a couple of sailors on shore leave and let them ride with him on the captain's gig bad: to the ship. He had bent an elbow too many times, and the combination of the alcohol and the pitching of the gig caused him to throw up -- all over his uniform. Once having heaved, he felt better, so when they got to the ship he said to the first mate, "Look how these two sailors threw up on my uniform. Get me to bed and put these men in the brig for two days. "

Next morning he met the mate on deck. "What did you do with those two sailors?"

"I put them in the brig for five days."

"Five days? I said two days."

"Yes, sir, but it was worse man you thought. They not only threw up on your uniform; they also shit in your pants."

Why the Public Rejects the Henry George Program

No one else is responsible. If the ideas of Henry George are not being accepted there are no sailors we can accuse and have them thrown in the brig. It's our own lack of an intelligent public relations program. It's because we fail to follow the motto of Marshall Field's Department Store: "Give the lady what she wants."

Would You Like to Buy a Gas Guzzler?

One of my friends has a Lincoln Continental for sale, an elegant car, with air conditioning, AM/FM radio and cassette deck, steel radial tires, everything you could desire in a car. I asked, "Why are you selling it?"

"Because it's a gas guzzler."

Does he mention that in the ad? Certainly not. What he puts in the ad are the attractive features of the car.

The Henry George proposal has many attractive features. Everybody responds favorably to the idea of getting rid of income taxes, and to the proposal to get rid of sales taxes, and getting rid of taxes on business and labor. Everybody would like to get rid of taxes on telephone calls, and car tires, and theatre tickets. Every tax we talk about eliminating will produce a favorable response from our listeners.

So what do the Henry George people talk about? They pick out the one thing that turns people off, and they feature that: let's tax land.

If they were trying to s ell a Lincoln Continental, the headline they would write would say: For Sale / Gas Guzzler.

Focus the Telescope on What People Want

The economic order can be pictured as a balance scale. One side is weighted down by taxes which bear on labor and the products of technology. The other side is weighted with taxes which bear on land. The scale is badly tilted by too many taxes bearing on labor.

What Georgists want to do is to take weights from the labor side of the scale, and put them in the pan on the other side where they will bear on land and thus bring the scale into balance.

But do they let people see them taking weights off one side of the scale -- taking taxes off people and production? No. They have a telescope focused on the land side of the scale, and they call people's attention to the process of adding taxes to land.

People don't want taxes added, but that's all Georgists let them see.


There is a story of a funeral at which the director asked, "Would anyone like to come up and say a few words about the deceased?"

No one responded. After a couple of minutes a man in the back row started forward, saying, "If no one wants to say a few words about the deceased, I'd like to say a few words about the single tax."

This joke has been laid on me Henry George movement because this is the picture Georgists have projected of themselves -- a bunch of "tax nuts" who are pushing taxes down people's throats with no consideration for the lady or what she wants.

Threatening to impose some new tax turns people off. They say, "We've got too many taxes already. What we want is to get rid of some of these damn taxes." That's exactly what Henry George proposed: to get rid of taxes. He offered people what they want. And they rallied to support his program.

It's too bad Henry George's followers are not as good at public relations as he was. If they were, they would never use the phrase, "Land Value Taxation. " George never used that phrase.

He used the term "single tax" and people knew he was saying, "Let's have no other tax. " That's giving me lady what she wants. Get rid of taxes. Eliminate taxes, on everything -- except land.

Land Value Taxation Does Not Lower Taxes

Georgists seem to forget that "land value taxation" is nothing but taxing land according to its (assessed) value, which is how land is taxed now. Putting more taxes on the land does not reduce taxes.

What does reduce taxes? Removing taxes from improvements, and from the products of industry and labor.

If Georgists want public support for their program of taxation, they must stop talking about "putting taxes on" and begin talking about "taking taxes off. " They should talk about

  • "Taking taxes off" improvements,
  • "Taking taxes off" labor,
  • "Taking taxes off' people,
  • "Taking taxes off" income,
  • "Taking taxes off'wages,
  • "Taking taxes off' business and industry.

People would listen to them. They would support such a program.

Operation UnTax

When there was discussion of changing the name of LEAF, its president, William Filante suggested: Operation Un-Tax, which would make the acronym OUT. This was a great idea because it put the emphasis where people would respond: taking taxes off.


Steven Cord, editor of Incentive Taxation, sends out a form letter asking people to renew their subscriptions. The salutation is, "Dear Fellow Land Taxer."

Nobody likes a taxer. The tax gatherer has been a hated character in every society.

And where do Georgists get the silly notion that if they put the word 'land" in front of the word "taxer" people will love them? How can any intelligent person imagine that people are going to respond favorably to anyone who represents himself as a taxer -- of whatever ilk -- "land" taxer, "land value" taxer, "income" taxer, "sales" taxer, "IRS" taxer, or just plain holdup man?

As long as people see Georgists as taxers, they will fight them. To win, Georgists must create a public image of themselves as un-taxers; as people who are working to do away with taxes that interfere with production and prosperity and the good life.


The specialist is not a narrow man; he is a broad man sharpened to a fine point. Henry George was a broad man sharpened to a fine point. As an economist his point was taxation of land. But this was not his end. This was his means.

Because his followers got mixed up as to ends and means, they have been trying to sell people me means. They start in talking to them about taxation, and lose their audience before they even get started.

Single-Taxers vs. Georgists

Harry Pollard distinguishes between "single-taxers" and "Georgists. " The Georgisists understand that The Good Society is a comprehensive philosophy of justice and freedom which restrains government from interfering with the productivity and cooperation that is natural to human beings.

An effective public relations program for the Henry George movement would offer people The Good Society. It would emphasise the goals of justice and freedom and peace, as Henry George did. People will respond as they responded to him.

It would go on to point out mat the way to get The Good Sociejy is by removing taxes. All taxes. Yes, all.


Puzzling about the failure of Georgists, Perry Prentice said, "The easiest thing in the world to sell should be tax reduction."

He's nearly right. But not quite. The easiest thing in the world to sell would be the elimination of all taxes.

What Is the Income From Land?

The sub-head to David Hapgood's brilliant article on Henry George is: The Tax to End All Taxes. But this is a contradiction in-terms. You still have left me tax that ended all of the others.

What's wrong here? What's wrong is that we are not calling things by their right name.

What is the income from land? Rent. Right! Let's call it by its right name.

When We've Said That ...

In Henry George literature we find the basic prescription for economic reform is: government should collect the rent of land as taxes.

Why "as taxes?"

There is no reason. We have permitted the establishment to impose its terminology on me Henry George movement. The word "taxes" is our hang up.

Wouldn't that sentence be better, clearer, and more accurate if it read: government should collect me rent of land? Period.

When we've said that we've said it all.


In the basic course in economics as taught by me Henry George Schools much time is spent showing how rent arises and why it continually increases as population increases and technology advances. We show mat the natural source of government revenue is rent.

Then we have to do a corkscrew twist to convert this rent into "taxes," so that we can say: land rent is the proper source of taxes.

Why thiis? Why don't we speak out, straightforward: There should be no taxes. Government should use rent as its income. Let the government support itself by collecting the rent of TV channels and radio channels and mines and oil wells and forest land and other land and natural resources.

Some may say this is me same thing. But it is not the same thing at all. When a holdup man takes money away from his victim, he gives nothing in exchange. It is a one-way transaction. It is not an economic exchange. Taxes are a one-way transaction.

There are some two-way transactions with government. Economic transactions. But the money involved in an economic transaction is not a tax. For instance, if you register a document with me County Recorder, you enter into an economic transaction. You pay a fee in exchange for a service. It is not a tax.

This Will Make the Difference Between Success and Failure

Likewise, to pay rent for the use of land is an economic transaction. Rent is not taxes. And taxes are not rent.

"Tax" is defined in Webster's Unabridge Dictionary as "a compulsory payment for the support of a government."

"Rent" on the other hand, is "payment for the use of land ... or other property." Rent is a voluntary payment, given in exchange for the use of something of value.

The difference between a compulsory payment and a voluntary payment is the difference between slavery and freedom.

The difference between the accurate use of these terms and the sloppy use, is me difference between success and failure for Georgists.


How simple. How clear. How accurate. And how saleable!

The Henry George movement has been twisting me rent of land around and calling it "Land Value Taxation," with the result that people reject the program. If we call rent by its right name, people will buy the program.

Natural Resources are the Natural Source of Public Revenue

The federal government owns and controls all the radio and TV channels in the United States. For their licenses, the operators pay only a nominal fee. Suppose the government were to lease these out, in open, competitive bidding. This would be an economic transaction, which would create a tremendous income to the public treasury. This income would obviously be rent.

The rights to mine the seabed in those areas of the oceans controlled by the United States could also be leased out in open, public bidding. More public revenue in the form of rent.

Similarly, all other natural resources and all land in the nation could be a source of public revenue through government collection of the rent. Taxes could be abolished.


The objection may be made that many people already own their land. Is there any logical justification for the government charging them rent for land they already own? There is indeed.

The ownership of land is contingent on the owner paying to the government each year a sum of money in exchange for the use of the land. The government has never relinquished its underlying claim to that land. If the user (owner) of that land fails to make his payment to the government he will be evicted; he forfeits me land to the government. Thousands of pieces of land revert to the government this way every year.

The so-called "owner" is actually only a tenant, and the money he pays to the government for the right to use the land is actually rent for the land. Calling it a tax is simply a bad habit that needs to be corrected. It deceives people into false beliefs about the so-called ownership of land, and the rights of those who "own" it.

Since the government always has collected rent (while mistakenly calling it a tax) from the "owners" o-f land, there can be no question about the legal and moral right of government to charge owners rent for me land they "own. " This is a standard, universal procedure, sanctified not only by tradition, but also by ethics which require mat no one should get something for nothing at the expense of his fellowmen.


To summarize me five steps:

  • Stop threatening people by trying to impose on them a new tax they don't understand and consequently they fear.
  • Change the public image of Georgists from people who are taxers, to people who are working to do away with taxes -- all taxes.
  • Focus attention on the goal: The Good Society. Talk about justice and freedom and peace, as Henry George did.
  • Call things by the right name. Taxes are not rent, and rent is not taxes.
  • Make clear that land rent is the proper source of government revenue. There should be no taxes.

With this program, Georgists will no longer be trying merely to (a) reduce taxes, or (b) shift taxes, or (c) impose a new, unknown tax.

Instead, Georgists will be offering to eliminate taxes.

What a beautiful program to invite people to support! And how they will respond!

This approach is simply a dear and accurate presentation of what we are proposing, freed from the gobbledygook which has entangled it in the past like flypaper.

The effort to twist land rent around and call it taxes has been fatal. People have been against the program because they did not understand it. The reason they did not understand it is that it has been misrepresented -- not by its enemies, but by its friends.

If Georgists will adopt this simplified and accurate presentation -- calling a spade, a spade, and calling rent, rent -- they win be surprised at the enthusiasm with which people will accept what they are offering.

Instead of a couple of hundred delegates to the Convention on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Progress & Poverty, they could have a couple of thousand. The news media would wake up and say, "Look! What's happening?"

This is possibly the greatest opportunity to win that Georgists will ever be offered. Do they have the chutzpah to take advantage of it? If they do, their program can become the blue print for the new world -- The Good Society.