Henry George's Campaign for Justice
[An address delivered at the commemoration of the new
Henry George League headquarters, Melbourne. Reprinted from Progress,
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.