Henry George and George Bernard Shaw

Jack Schwartzman

[Reprinted from the Georgist Journal. A summary of an address delivered to the 5th World Congress of Social Economics, University of York, England, 2 August, 1988]

This paper deals with the differing social philosophies of Henry George and George Bernard Shaw.

George became world-famous in 1879 after having written Progress and Poverty wherein he contended that poverty and other social ills are caused by the denial to most people of access to privately-owned superior land sites. George proposed as his "Remedy" a Single Tax on land values (in the form of rent collection by the community), which would compel the relinquishing of gigantic land holdings, and thus lead to unlimited production and equitable distribution of wealth. He also advocated the abolition of all other taxes.

In 1882, George toured Great Britain, presenting his theories to enthusiastic listeners, one of whom was the young Shaw. The latter, under the spell of George's eloquent oratory, became a Georgist, but soon, after reading Karl Marx's Das Kapital, he turned to Marxism. Eventually, Shaw discarded the ideas of both George and Marx, and termed himself a Fabian (evolutionary) Socialist. Still later, he converted once more, proudly "shouting" that he was a Communist. George, on the other hand, (even though some people have so designated him) was not a Socialist.

(It is necessary, at the start, to note that Shaw had never met George; it is not even certain whether George was ever aware of Shaw's existence.)

To understand the views of George and Shaw, it is important to present a topical analysis. The first topic discussed in this paper is poverty. Both writers emphatically declared that poverty was a scourge which had to be eliminated. George and Shaw, likewise, were much angered by the general public's complacent acceptance of poverty as the will of God, each of them calling such attribution "blasphemy."

From this point on, the Georgist and the Shavian doctrines are in sharp opposition to each other.

Concerning the cause of poverty, George found it (as mentioned above) in the denial of access to valuable land. His "Remedy" was designed to free monopolized land for production; and the abolition of all other taxes was to be another spur to economic growth. Capital, being a factor of production, would not be taxed.

Disputing George's proposal, Shaw declared that poverty is caused by the joint monopoly of land and capital, For his solution, therefore, he urged the collection, not only of rent, but of the return to capital (interest) as well. All income had to be confiscated by the State, and redistributed "according to need."

A further argument involved Ricardo's Law of Rent. Both Georgists and Socialists, even though their ideas were diametrically opposed to each other, claimed' "descent" from the same source, Ricardo's theory, which demonstrated that rent increases at the expense of both capital and labor. George found in Ricardo's law a ready-made formula (and justification for his own "Remedy.") All that was needed, he stated, was merely to funnel rent from private appropriation into a communal fund. No other levy was necessary or desired.

Shaw disagreed. To him, the collection of rent (even though it was "the economic keystone of Socialism") was only the first step toward total appropriation by the State. The main object of Socialism, he stressed, was the collection of all revenues and the imposition of an all-powerful (Socialist) State.

Another controversy involved the Physiocrats. George had designated them to be the predecessors of his own ideology, and honored them for the promulgation of the Single Tax. Shaw ridiculed both the Physiocrats and George, and lavishly praised Voltaire for allegedly "killing" the Single Tax proposal. (It appears to the writer of this paper, however, that Voltaire's story, strongly endorsed by Shaw, is arbitrarily contrived and completely frivolous. It has no merit in reality.)

A final, important theme is that of free enterprise versus Socialism/Communism. George championed Liberty, individual worth,, untrammeled' production and limited government. Toward the end of his life, he case a resolute vote against Socialism.

Contrariwise, Shaw extolled the Superman, dictatorship, Communism, and the totalitarian State. Toward the end of his life, he cast a contemptuous vote against democracy.

This, very briefly, is a review of the two conflicting philosophies. The dispute between them rages to this day.