Henry George's Campaign for Justice

Les Hemingway

[An address delivered at the commemoration of the new Henry George League headquarters, Melbourne. Reprinted from Progress, November, 1972]

As my text for an address to commemorate the birthday of Henry George, I would like to offer the following words from the 3rd Chapter of the Gospel according to St. John:

"And this is the judgment; because the light is come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil" (John 3:19).

In my opinion, these words of St. John describe very accurately the world's reaction to the economic teachings of Henry George.

Henry George -- as we know quite well -- reflected at length upon natural law and political economy -- or "economics" as it would be called today. As. a result of these reflections, Henry George threw a tremendous amount of light upon a subject which, for most people, is shrouded in an almost impenetrable fog. Nevertheless, despite all the time and effort Henry George expended in the service of mankind, and despite the lucidity with 'which he explained his findings, it is still regrettably true that the world, as a whole, has not put his teachings and discoveries into effect.

In other words, even though "the light is come into the world" - i.e. the light which reveals the way in which human communities may conduct their socio-economic affairs with justice and equity - men still - apparently - "love darkness rather than the light." That is to say, even though the light of truth has long since shed its glow upon the ills afflicting human socio-economic life, men still prefer to stumble in the darkness, rather than to apply the radical, yet simple and effective, remedy for those self-same ills.

Thirst for Justice

The message Henry George gave to the world almost 100 years ago, was addressed to men with courage and initiative. It was not a message that would be appreciated by weaklings, or by those who expect someone else to care for them from the cradle to the grave. This message, furthermore, was addressed to men who thirst for universal justice. It could not, therefore, be received kindly by those who think only of themselves, or by people who profit from the exploitation of their fellow man. Finally, the Georgist message - were it put into effect - would sweep away every entrenched privilege, so that each adult would have to battle for survival and advancement in open competition with his fellow men.

When we take these aspects of the Georgist message into consideration, we can soon see why "evil" is so common, and why so many people "hate the light and cometh not to the light, that their works may not be reproved."

St. John, after all, was not thinking only of actions and thoughts which are manifestly evil. He was thinking, also, of a vast multitude of somewhat less evil thoughts and actions which conglomerate and coalesce to bring an enormous amount of trouble upon the human race.

When these sombre considerations are applied to the Georgist message, then the following thoughts emerge:

First, the world may not contain a lot of people who deliberately promote injustice, but it does contain an immense number of individuals who consider their own comfort and convenience more often than they consider the real needs and aspirations of their fellow man. Secondly, a majority of the earth's inhabitants may not expect to be mollycoddled all the time, but there are probably very few people who are really willing and anxious to stand entirely on their own two feet, throughout the whole of their working lives. Finally, the number of people who enjoy blatant economic privileges may not be very great, but a lot of us enjoy some privileges - because we are members of a semi-closed professional body or union, or because our endeavours are subsidized - directly or indirectly - either by the government or by some institution or endeavour which depends for its existence upon one or another blatant economic privilege.

We may, therefore, reflect along these lines a little, before we deal too harshly with the non-Georgists among our fellow men.

The Question To Pope Leo

With these thoughts provided as a warning against excessive self-righteousness, we may now consider how the world responds to a few rays of the light included in the Georgist message. In doing this, we may usefully consider the following question, a question Henry George proposed to Pope Leo XIII in his open letter "On the Condition of Labour":

"Take the case of the rich man today who is honestly desirous of devoting his wealth to the improvement' of the condition of labour. What can he do?

"Bestow his wealth on those who need it? He may help some who deserve it, but will not improve general conditions. And against the good he may do will be the danger of doing harm.

"Build churches? Under the shadow of churches poverty festers and the vice that is born of it breeds!

"Build schools and colleges? Save as it may lead men to see the iniquity of private property in land, increased education can effect nothing for mere labourers, for as education is diffused the wages of education sink!

"Establish hospitals? Why, already it seems to labourers that there are too many seeking work, and to save and prolong life is to add to the pressure!

"Build model tenements? Unless he cheapens house accommodation he but drives further the class he would benefit, and as he cheapens house accommodation he brings more to seek employment, and cheapens wages!

"Institute laboratories, scientific schools, workshops for physical experiments? He but stimulates invention and discovery, the very forces that, acting on a society based on private property in land, are crushing labour as between the upper and the nether millstone!

"Promote emigration from places where wages are low to places where they are somewhat higher? If he does, even those whom he at first helps to emigrate will soon turn on him to demand that such emigration shall be stopped as reducing their wages!

"Give away what land he may have, or refuse to take rent for it, or let it at lower rents than the market price? He will simply make new land-owners or partial landowners; he may make some individuals the richer, but he will do nothing to improve the general condition of labour.

"Or, bethinking himself of those public spirited citizens of classic times who spent great sums in improving their native cities, shall he try to beautify the city of his birth or adoption? Let him widen and straighten narrow and crooked streets, let him build parks and erect fountains, let him open tramways and bring in railroads, or in any way make beautiful and attractive his chosen city, and what will be the result? Must it not be that those who appropriate God's bounty will take his also? Will it not be that the value of land will go up, and that the net result of his benefactions well be an increase of rents and a bounty to land-owners? Why, even the mere announcement that he is going to do such things will start speculation and send up the value of land by leaps and bounds.

"What, then, can the rich man do to improve the condition of labour?

"He can do nothing at all except to use his strength for the abolition of the great primary wrong that robs men of their birthright. The justice of God laughs at the attempts of men to substitute anything else for it." ( On the Condition of Labour, New Popular Edition, the Henry George Foundation of Great Britain, 1934. Pages 146-8).

By taking each part of this quotation in turn, we should be able to discover just how much attention the world pays to the light bestowed upon it by Henry George.

We may begin by considering a rich man who is honestly desirous of using his wealth to improve the condition of labour, and we may, with Henry George, ask: "What can he do?"

Should such a person bestow his wealth on those who need it? Is this a workable solution to the world's present-day problems of poverty, deprivation and underdevelopment?

Bestowing Wealth on Needy?

One does not need much experience to realise that this particular "non-solution" to socio-economic problems has all too many supporters in the modern world! The idea that the rich should bestow their wealth upon the poor has taken firm roots in the imagination of 20th century man, and, indeed, this erroneous notion is firmly enshrined in legislation in virtually every modern state.

Furthermore, the citizens of modern states are no longer satisfied with the private generosity of the rich towards the poor. These citizens apparently consider that the rich should be compelled to bestow their wealth upon the poor, and they do, in fact, achieve this compulsion per medium of what is euphemistically termed "the welfare state."

In the "welfare state" - and, let's face it, nearly every modern community is a welfare state to some extent - anyone who receives more than the most meagre income is taxed to provide benefits for those who are, supposedly, less fortunate. These "benefits" include such things as:

Pensions for the elderly and for invalids; child endowment and maternity allowances for those who choose to become parents; sickness and unemployment benefits for people who are ill or unemployed; free hospital and medical care for pensioners, and grants to reduce markedly the cost of illness for non-pensioners who are members of a hospital and medical benefit fund; "free" education for students who use the schools and universities provided by the state; and a whole host of other "benefits," including even grants for the provision of libraries, art galleries and sporting facilities.

It is, of course, true that welfare statism smooths the path through life for many a humble citizen, but is this the only side of the coin? Should society not remember, also, the warning provided by Henry George? "The rich man who bestows his wealth on those who need it may help some who deserve it, but against the good he may do will be the danger of doing harm."

Well, what is this harm Henry George warns us against?


To reveal the harm which Henry George was speaking about, we may consider, first, the effect of almsgiving upon the beneficiary. A man who has to stand on his own two feet - even in adversity - will put his best foot forward all the time. By so doing he will develop his own talents and abilities to the fullest possible extent, and he will also confer the maximum benefits of which he is capable upon the society in which he lives. On the other hand, if a man can turn for aid - either to the State or to a charitable rich man - whenever he falls upon hard times, then he has much less incentive to struggle for his own advancement, and both the individual and society may be much poorer as a result.

The second way in which harm can come about through almsgiving is when the almsgiving, by ameliorating conditions for the less fortunate members of society, actually discourages people from seeking the real cause of socio-economic ills. Thus, when almsgiving becomes a popular occupation, people soon come to believe that every almsgiving, or, as occurs more often in modern society, they think that every social illness can be cured, simply by an increase in government aid. In other words, almsgiving and the welfare state may function as "wallpapers," covering the cracks in the social structure while the white ants of injustice and economic privilege continue eating away - unchecked - at the very foundations of the edifice!

Of course, we should not decry almsgiving entirely, because, as the angel Raphael told Tobias:

"For alms deliyereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting" (Tobias 12:9).

Nevertheless, almsgiving is not an unmixed blessing, especially when it becomes the prerogative of the State.

A third defect associated with this type of almsgiving arises from the fact that the welfare state is very impersonal, and few people feel reticent about accepting aid from it. For this reason, there are few people nowadays who still put savings aside to provide for their retirement or against the possibility of sickness or other adversity. Instead of saving to protect themselves and their families from the risk of poverty in the future, most people now spend their money as they receive it, and assume that the state will support them in their old age and during any periods of incapacity. As a direct result of this spendthrift attitude, society as a whole lacks the savings which would represent its "capital." Yet no society can advance without capital, because capital is required for the manufacture of productive tools, roads, transport facilities and other labour-saving devices. Consequently, if an underdeveloped or poor country wishes to advance, it should be very wary about becoming a "welfare state." Any country which does not tread warily in this matter could easily produce a spendthrift attitude among its citizens, thereby destroying savings and condemning the country to permanent underdevelopment.

Marxist Formula

A fourth major disadvantage of the welfare state is the high taxation involved. The welfare state works, basically, upon the Marxist formula: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." The trouble with this formula is that the more able and industrious members of society usually feel - not unreasonably - that they are entitled to some reward for their extra industry. So if the community decides to tax people who demonstrate initiative and industry for the benefit of those who are less industrious or even indolent, then few people will bother to give of their best or labour to their maximum capacity. After all, who is going to slave his heart out to earn an extra income, if the bulk of that extra income is taken away from him as tax? Consequently, even though a society can redistribute income from the rich to the poor, it cannot, at the same time, ensure that the total income of society is at a maximum. Furthermore, the more effective the redistribution - i.e. the more the net income of the "poor" approaches the net income of the "rich" - then the lower will be the total amount available to, distribute.

The magic Marxist formula - "from each according to his ability, to each according to his' need" - overlooks the fact that the more able members of society will not labour to their maximum ability if the fruits of their industry are enjoyed by someone else. This is a fairly obvious facet of human nature upon which Marxists, Socialists and advocates of Welfare Statism ought to meditate.

Finally, it should be mentioned that when income and company taxes are high and progressive, then neither individuals nor companies have much opportunity to acquire capital. This adds to the difficulties of entrepreneurs and further decreases society's total output of goods and services.

These few considerations reveal, quite clearly, that Henry George was quite correct when' he described almsgiving as a "non-solution" to socio-economic problems, so that modern society is certainly not following the light of truth, when it makes the redistribution of wealth compulsory.

Building Churches?

The second "non-solution" to the problems of the working class, which Henry George mentioned in his open letter to Pope Leo XIII, was the suggestion that the rich should build churches as a means of, improving working conditions for the poor. Regarding this suggestion, Henry George remarked: "Build churches? Why, under the shadow of churches poverty festers and the vice that is born of it breeds."

I don't know how much poverty is festering under the shadow of churches here in Australia, but I do know that the building of churches will not ameliorate conditions for non-landowners unless the people who frequent those churches become aware of the surpassing importance of land.

There are, admittedly, some churchmen who, like Henry George's contemporary - Bishop Thomas Nulty of Meath - grasp the true cause - and the cure - of social problems, but it would seem that such enlightened churchmen are in the minority. One wonders whether this propensity for even religiously minded people to "love darkness rather than the light" arises from the fact that all too many church groups are the owners of valuable land. Furthermore, it is by no means uncommon for a church group to augment its income by renting "church" land to businessmen or to private citizens, and, of course, we all know of occasions when a church group has profited handsomely from an increase in the selling price of land.

Consequently, unless and until church groups rid themselves of this vested interest in landownership, then - as Henry George predicted - the building of churches will do nothing to solve the socio-economic problems of the world.


We may now pass on to a consideration of the third measure often proposed as a solution to the problems of the working class. This third measure is "education" - a "medication" prescribed on every side as the wonderful panacea for every social ill. To quote Malcolm Muggeridge upon this point:

"Education, it seems to me, has become a sort of mumbo-jumbo or cure-all for the ills of a godless and decomposing society.

"Be it juvenile delinquency, high-school pregnancies or drug addiction among Brownies, the solution offered, whether by derelict politicians, high-minded life peeresses or humble radio panelists, is always the same - more, education."

Needless to remark, Malcolm Muggeridge is not overstating his case. All too many people imagine fondly that every problem can be cured by "more education."

However, Henry George was somewhat wiser than the prophets of the modern age, and he was not deceived upon this point. He said: "Should the rich man build schools and colleges? Save as it may lead men to see the iniquity of private property in land, increased education can effect nothing for mere labourers, for as education is diffused the wages of education sink!"

And what do we find in practice? Does increased education lead men to see the iniquity of private property in land? Or is this particular light obscured or blotted out in the schools and universities which supposedly exist to aid men in their search for truth? Unfortunately, we must admit that today's students do not ordinarily receive an introduction to this particular truth. The writings of Henry George are ignored in almost every modern school and university, so that even students of "economics" are unacquainted with his work. The ramblings of numerous theorists and so-called "economists" are discussed at length, but the sober reflections of Henry George are quietly ignored.

For these reasons, increased education still does nothing to improve the social situation, and it will continue to fail miserably in this direction until all points of view - including those with which the lecturers and academicians disagree! - are presented to the student for discussion and debate.

Other Measures

We have no time tonight to deal at length with all the other measures which Henry George dismissed as inadequate solutions for the problems of the working man. How ever, we can briefly mention them, and the fourth measure Henry George described as ineffective was the provision of hospitals.

Nevertheless, modern society has gone on building bigger and better hospitals for the fortunate few in developed communities, while the vast majority of mankind still lack even the most basic medical care.

The fifth measure Henry George knocked on the head as valueless was the building of model tenements, yet the building of accommodation for low income families goes on apace. Moreover, instead of tackling the cost of building blocks at its source - in the unsatisfactory present-day systems of land tenure - housing commissions and similar bodies try to overcome the high cost of land by building block upon block of skyscraping flats - another proof (if proof were needed) that men prefer the darkness of economic ignorance to the light of truth shed upon this matter by Henry George.

Similar considerations apply to the building of laboratories, scientific schools and workshops for physical experiments. Such institutions have proliferated in the modern world, and - as Henry George predicted - they have stimulated invention and discovery to a remarkable extent. These inventions and discoveries, in turn, have precipitated certain fortunate communities into the technological age, with its instantaneous world-wide communications, computers and trips to the moon. But have these technological marvels done anything to close or eliminate the gap between the rich and poor? The answer to this question is obvious, and it lends weight to George's contention that invention and discovery, acting on a society based on private property in land, provide little if any benefit to the poorer people of the world.

The ninth and final point which Henry George made in his open letter On the Condition of Labour, concerned philanthropists who beautify their city or who improve it in other ways. Such largesse, as Henry George explained, increases the price of land, while the very announcement that such things are proposed can only start speculation and send up the value of land by leaps and bounds.

We have now reached the end of Henry George's shorter list of "non-solutions" to the economic problems of the world. We may recapitulate briefly by reminding ourselves that the condition of labour cannot be improved either by the redistribution of wealth, or by the building of churches, schools, colleges, hospitals, accommodation for low-income families, or scientific laboratories. Neither, for that matter, can the overall condition of labour be improved by emigration, by giving away land, by selling or renting land for less than the market price, by the building of railways and transport systems, or by the beautification and improvement of cities in any other way. What Can Be Done?

Having, therefore, examined and discarded all of these measures, we must, with Henry George, ask: "What, then, can the rich man do to improve the condition of labour?" Having asked this question we must surely give the same answer to it as did Henry George: "He can do nothing at all except to use his strength for the abolition of the great primary wrong that robs men of their birthright. The justice of God laughs at the attempts of men to substitute anything else for it".

We could conclude upon this note, but I feel that I should mention a few of the ways in which we must use our strength to rid the world of this great primary wrong. I suggest that, in seeking to achieve this eminently worthwhile end, we should look to our own laurels and see if we - ourselves - are doing full justice to the truths revealed by Henry George. Have we, for instance, brought his thinking up to date, or have we been content merely to repeat the truths which he revealed?

Can we, for instance, relate Henry George's teaching to each and every facet of the free enterprise or capitalistic economies of the present day? Can we describe in detail the effect a Georgist reform would have upon mortgages and interest rates, upon public and private companies, and upon shareholdings and dividends? Have we examined carefully the various ways and means by which wealth is distributed in the modern world, to see which of these ways and means accord with justice, and which would fall by the wayside in an economy managed in conformity with natural law? Have we meditated and reflected carefully upon finance, banking procedures and currency volume, and upon what influence - if any! - the government should have in these important facets of economic life?

Then, of course, there are numerous other fields of human endeavour in which a Georgist reform would have a profound and lasting effect. Farmers, conservationists, advocates of decentralization, opponents of the suburban sprawl, and even those who fight for justice for aborigines are entitled to know how Henry George's teaching would influence them; and we cannot expect to win these people as supporters to our cause, unless and until we explain, fully, the real and lasting benefits which economic' justice would bring to them.

In addition, we must consider the average taxpayer or home owner, the business or professional man, the importer or exporter of goods, and the people who provide transport and other services. All of these people would be affected by a Georgist reform, and it is our job to demonstrate to them that any apparent ill effects will be enormously outweighed by substantial and long-lasting benefits.

However, we will not be able to answer all the questions this multitude of people ask, unless we do our homework first. In other words, we must not rest content with the "homework" Henry George has done. We too, must study and reflect at length upon the manifold economic problems of today, if we are to follow the advice of the Apostle Peter and be:

"Ready always to satisfy everyone that asketh you a reason for the hope you all have" (1 Peter 3:15).

Only if we do this, will we be entitled to describe ourselves as true and worthy followers of Henry George.