Save the World?

Fred Harrison

[3 February, 2009]

The Global Crisis

The fate of the 21st century will be sealed by the decisions made by governments over the next two or three years. At the risk of appearing to sensationalise, I must state that, in my humble view, the fate of Western civilisation hangs in the balance. For reasons that would have to be thoroughly documented before I "go public" with that prognosis, I do firmly believe that the vitality of European culture itself is unlikely to survive, without the reforms proposed by Georgists. Because, in economic terms, it will not be "business-as-usual" when the global economy comes out of the deep trench that is now being dug for it.

The Georgist paradigm is the sole instrument for rescuing the economies of Europe and North America. If this assessment is correct, we can begin to perceive why policies currently being discussed at inter-governmental level will fail. In the past, before the awakening of Asia, this did not much matter. People died needlessly, and capital was wasted, but - thanks to the colonial project - the West continued to reign supreme. That is not going to happen again, because this time round nearly all the cards are in the hands of eastern governments and entrepreneurs.

So the burden of responsibility on the Georgist movement is onerous. If we don't throw everything into our cause, and immediately, the window of opportunity will pass us by and history will not forgive us.

The historical analogy is with the first decade of the last century. Strenuous efforts were made by the Georgist movement. They failed, but not for the want of trying. Georgists discharged themselves honourably, and could not be held morally responsible for the outcome - two bloody world wars and a Cold War, in which deaths were counted in the tens of millions. In this century, if we fail, the deaths will be counted in the hundreds of millions.

Refining our Campaign

We now know which strategies do not work. We have had 80 years worth of failures, trying new approaches to influence those with the power to alter the tax regime. That history of failure was not wasted, if we learn and apply the lessons.

Action today needs to be applied intensively, and must be proportionate to the challenges. Certain facts need to be recognised.

  • The total inability of the "system" to understand what we are saying.

This is a problem of comprehension. Unless we override this barrier to communication, the imperative reforms will not even be discussed, let alone put to the test of the ballot box.

  • The total unwillingness to implement fiscal reform.

The rent-seeking motive is so deeply ingrained into the capitalist economy, that we cannot expect the guardians of that system to concede defeat without fierce opposition.

This assessment appears depressing, daunting, suggesting we are on to a loser. But even if our cause really was futile, our moral sensibilities would not allow us to give up. Therefore, we must press on by reshaping our strategies. For me, this means that we have to communicate two issues to the maximum number of people possible.

  • Dramatising the significance of our insights in relation to the issues that do animate others (e.g., the huge lobbies fighting poverty and who wish to protect the environment).
  • Highlighting the consequences that flow from the failure to adopt the remedies that would correct the structural flaws in the economy.

My overall assessment is this. We first need to develop the Georgist paradigm at the philosophical level, and then find new ways of publicising it. What this means is easier to identify by what is excluded, than by identifying the new approaches. Thus, it is pointless to continue

  • justifying LVT at the level of practical implementation.

There is an abundance of empirical and historical evidence available for any government interested in implementing fiscal reform, so there is no need to expend time and money on "proving" the practicalities of LVT.

  • negotiating the application of LVT with government or its agencies.

The latter are constrained by the conventional fiscal paradigm. Exercises aimed at persuading governments to adopt even anaemic versions of our reform have resulted in zero progress.[1]

On Being Hard-headed

Georgists need to reassess action in terms of two criteria. First, the relevance to the problems and the barriers that obstruct change. Secondly, the effectiveness of proposed actions.

There are two levels at which we can approach these considerations.

  • As individuals. Given that we believe in freedom of action, it is not for me (or anyone else) to say anything further on how individuals should go about their private business.
  • As decision-making members of Georgist institutions. In this case, we have responsibilities for the allocation of resources which oblige us to be innovative in our decision-making.

As individuals, we may wish to continue as usual (perhaps because we cannot mobilise ourselves to change our approach). But as members of Georgist institutions, we have the responsibility to try harder; and, at the very least, not commit resources to strategies which, in principle, cannot succeed.

What does all this mean?

Over the last few years - following my assessment of the outcome of the Russian campaign -- I have occasionally shared my thoughts with Georgists about the need for new strategies. This time, my appeal for a renewal of action - based on a critical appraisal of past failures -- is offered in the context of the ominous implications of failure for humanity itself.

I may be completely wrong. Current trends may end without the catastrophe which I currently fear. But I am not willing to take the risk of being wrong. I believe that we should all be mobilising our resources in unprecedented ways.

If you agree, you must decide how you activate your concerns: with whom you discuss them and what actions to take at the national or international levels.

Combining our efforts is more effective than operating alone, but new action of any kind is better than carrying on in those good old ways that keep failing. With this note, I am not trying to dump my personal responsibilities on to others. I continue to struggle to find new ways to operate. But I am acutely conscious of the limits to the effectiveness of any one person. If you have ideas for new initiatives, please share them with whomsoever you think may be able to make the difference.


  1. The 2-rate tax is not, here, recognised as a Georgist reform. Nor has it proved a politically shrewd transitional vehicle for moving a fiscal jurisdiction on to something resembling a tax shift with which Henry George himself would have been willing to associated himself.