Buried in my previous post I made a pretty shocking, for me at least, admission: after twenty or so years a fan of Henry George’s “single tax” – the collection for public use of the rent of land instead of private appropriation and taxing incomes and capital and so on – I have finally managed to read what is usually regarded as his “magnum opus” Progress and Poverty. Now, of course, I don’t know why I didn’t read it previously. Sometimes the Victorian language put me off, sometimes I just didn’t find big chunks of it relevant to my search for information about land tax, and I found I could get away with reading peoples’ comments about it, learning from those who obviously had read it.
But now I have. And I can see why it captured such popular attention when it was published – it is said it was the second biggest selling book in America in the late 19th century after only the Bible.
It is, in fact, a beautiful work, even if some of its material and the examples he sometimes labours a bit much seem dry at first. Most importantly, it doesn’t start with land tax at all. Not until well into the book does he start to talk about the solution to the problems he sets out in the first half. It treats in glowingly optimistic terms about how labour and capital can be made to supply abundance for ever growing populations – contrary to Malthusian ideas about a population cliff edge beyond which we cannot sustain more people. He writes about the relationship between labour and capital and about what actually constitutes “wealth”.
Given that he was writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, before the century in which most obviously labour and capital have been pitted against each other by opposing dominant political groupings (Labour and the Tories in Britain for instance) and when Marx’s ideas were only new, he saw and warned against this tendency to set up a false battle when in fact the problem for both labour and capital is the monopolisation of the land required for either of them to function properly.
He has so many of the answers to peoples’ common objections about collecting rent for community use instead of taxes that disincentivise labour, investment or trade, about whether people have a right to compensation for such a switch, what the precedents are for treating the earth as a common resource rather than one to be privatised and monopolised. And finally he presents a vision of how a society operating under such a system would grow and thrive, and the problems of “the poor” disappear as people have more times and energy for self-improvement and responsibility freed from the need to pay tribute to the owners of land for every penny they earn.
I would like (but then I’ve said similar in the past about other subjects and not followed through) to re-read it and share insights as I go along from the different parts of the book, because it really helps to explain much of what is wrong with our politics, democracy and economic system. But in case I don’t get round to doing that, I do encourage anyone interested in political-economy to read it for themselves.
If you are a fan of something like “The Spirit Level” you will find the causes of social problems associated with inequality explained in it. If you are a fan of the Universal Basic Income you will find both an explanation of why it would not be needed, but also a method by which it could be funded. And if you just want to understand why life sometimes feels so expensive and how that keeps so very many people in effective poverty, you will find it here, and realise, I hope, that all the tinkering governments have done over the past century to privilege one group over another will ultimately never work until we have created a right for all to share in the opportunities our common planet gives us, rather than allowing it to be privatised, sold and leased back to us by people with no right to it. If you want to understand the rise of populism, as a reaction to people feeling left behind, or just about managing, it is for you!
Available in lots of formats at the Online Library of Liberty and other places.