A Boomerang

From Henry George versus Henry George


However, Mr. George has builded better than he knew. His mystery is an open secret; and it lies right where he has unwittingly placed it. He has been hunting his spectacles in every nook and corner all the while they were striding his own nose. The root of the evil—of all the ills that attend on poverty, is not in landownership, nor in the niggardliness of Nature, nor in any institution. It is in the nature of man—in the ignorance, selfishness, shiftlessness and unscrupulousness of man; that is to say, the ignorance that suffers one man to think he can pursue his own well-being regardless of the well-being of others; the selfishness that tempts him to seek his own well-being regardless of others; the unscrupulousness that permits him to seek it regardless of the rights of others; the ignorance, selfishness and unscrupulousness, that make the struggle for existence a battle for life between man and man, and the weaker the prey of the stronger. Until the rule of action, based upon this misconception of human relationships, be abolished—if not from the world, at least from the minds and methods of those charged with the duty and power of compelling obedience to the law of love and justice, rather than the law of strife and hate; there can be no hope of deliverance from the social evils that oppress and curse suffering humanity. To the regeneration of man, not to the confiscation of rent, or abolition of property in land, should Mr. George address his endeavor. If he think himself as competent to “re-cast” the human constitution as to re-cast the principal part of the science of Political Economy, the field is open to him and his duty clear.

Let us see in what way Mr. George has builded better than he knew.

On pages 475 to 486 inclusive, Mr. George paints a frightful picture of the corruption of American democracy—and a still more frightful one of its vicious tendencies. If a tithe of what he writes be true, and we fear there is little reason to doubt it, it makes his scheme for abolishing poverty one of the wildest folly and madness.

“In a corrupt democracy the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are weighted and unscrupulousness commands success. The best gravitate to the bottom, the worst float to the top, and the vile will only be ousted by the viler.”

“A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people, and when a people become corrupt there is no resurrection. The life is gone; only the carcass remains; and it is left but for the ploughshares of fate to bury it out of sight.”

“A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people.”

If Mr. George had applied to this last sentence a little of that finer faculty of discrimination on which he plumed himself when he “went for” the “confusions” and “ambiguities” of the “great thinkers” he might have seen that a “democratic government” is a government of the people by the people for the benefit of the officeholders; and that again he has put the cart before the horse in making the government “finally” corrupt the people, since a corrupt democratic government is impossible till the people make it so. A demagogue would not like to say that out loud, but Mr. George comes pretty near to locating the rottenness at the core when he says

— “that it is harder to arouse the people to the necessity of reforms and more difficult to carry them out.”

And still nearer in these words:

“There is no mistaking it—the very foundations of Society are being sapped before our eyes.” (P. 481.)

And finally thus hits the nail on the head:

“It is not from top to bottom that societies die; [rot;] it is from bottom to top.” (P. 487.)

On page 482 he informs us that any one who has money enough and wants to kill another, can go into any great business center and “gratify his desire and then surrender himself to justice [he means, to the sheriff] with the chances as a hundred to one that he will” get off with a paltry matter of fine and imprisonment

“And so if a man steal enough to get off with a fortune, he will be greeted by his acquaintance as a viking might have been greeted after a successful cruise. Even though he robbed those who trusted him; even though he robbed the widow and the fatherless, he had only to get enough, and he may safely flaunt his wealth in the eyes of day.” (P. 482.)

All of which we most devoutly believe—nay, know to be true. But does that point to a corrupt democratic government? Even Mr. George, by “the sundry contemplation” of this universal depravity, is constrained to say that “the people themselves are becoming corrupt.”

Becoming, indeed! Is there anything but the saving grace of saltpetre for such a people? “Fit to govern! No, not to live.” Death and a little dirt, for charity!—and the hope of resurrection.

A corrupt people can appeal only to its own corruption. If it is “harder to arouse the people” it is because the people are too corrupt to care. The alternative of a tragic end for such a people, is a sharp turn. To avert the impending calamity, we are not only ready to abolish property in land, and confiscate rent, but to abolish all property, confiscate every dollar of wealth in the land and re-distribute it as alms, or dues, to every man, woman and child an equal share. But would that avail? Is that the way? Who shall confiscate? Who hold the wealth? Who distribute? Who maintain the equality of the distribution? Where are the just men made perfect that shall do these things? Can a government of brigands—”a banditti”—be charged with the sacred duty? Can a people so corrupt that it cannot be “aroused to reform,” be intrusted with it? In a country where it is next to impossible to get an honest man elected or appointed to office—where honest men are neither wanted, nor want to be—where the people have jobs that honest men will not do—and where appointing powers have schemes which only unscrupulous friends can aid—where are we to look for means to effect a just and equal distribution of wealth or maintain it when made? These are questions to be asked—and answered before Mr. George s plan can ever be thought of, not to say tried. The conditions precedent to a just apportionment of wealth, are a wrong-hating and a justice-loving people. First this, and then all the rest comes of itself. To this, there is but one way. What that is, Mr. George himself tells us in his book on page 473:

“Political economy and social science cannot teach any lessons that are not embraced in the simple truths that were taught to poor fishermen and Jewish peasants by One who, eighteen hundred years ago, was crucified—the simple truths which, beneath the warping of selfishness and the distortions of superstition, seem to underlie every religion that has ever striven to formulate the spiritual yearnings of man.”

When a people embrace the religion that embraces these simple truths, and live by it, that people is safe. There is no other lesson to be learned before that—nor much need of any after that.—”Supply and demand,” “Law of competition,” “Law of least exertion,” “Pressure of population,” wilt and wither before such a Political Economy as that. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”[1]

On page 489 Mr. George dwells upon the “evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth,” and of the “manifold evils” which spring from a denial of justice; and repeatedly, throughout his book, gives us vivid pictures, and in our judgment in nothing overwrought, of the appalling injustice which prevails everywhere—in high and low places in all communities. Then on page 490 we are told that “when we view things on a large scale, justice seems to be the supreme law of the Universe” And further down on the same page stand these words:

“And so there come beggars in our streets and tramps on our roads, and poverty enslaves men whom we boast as political sovereigns; and want breeds ignorance that our schools cannot enlighten; and citizens vote as their masters dictate; and the demagogue usurps the part of the statesman; and gold weighs in the scales of justice; and in high places sit those who do not pay to civic virtue even the compliment of hypocrisy; and the pillars of the republic that were thought so strong already bend under an increasing strain.”

And on pages 486-487:

“In every civilized country pauperism, crime, insanity and suicides are increasing. In every civilized country the diseases are increasing which come from overstrained nerves, from insufficient nourishment, from squalid lodgings, from unwholesome and monotonous occupations, from premature labor of children, from the tasks and crimes which poverty imposes upon women.”

And thus the “supreme law of the universe”, the highest in authority and power, is set aside, overruled, annulled, by the petty might of man and private ownership of land.

So far as we have been able to trace the course of history, this “supreme law of the universe” has been made from the beginning to take a back seat.—The first man born of woman was a lawless ruffian who beat out the brains of his mild-mannered and pious-hearted’s brother. And this long before there was any monopoly in the ownership of land. And if Mr. George had been permitted to sit in the clouds and watch the career of the centuries, on as “large a scale” as the globe itself, he would have seen the Supreme Law of Justice everywhere driven to the wall, and violence, rapine and bloody-handed murder running headlong and rampant over the face of the earth. The larger the scale the more unjust it looks to human view. To the All-seeing Eye it may be different. If justice be the final issue of it all, it is all right. All is well that ends well. All things work together for good—when they work to that end. The end cannot be right unless the beginning be right—both or either being proof that it was right all the way along.

A few words on this question of laws, may present in a clearer light Mr. George’s extreme superficiality upon a subject which he treats with such an air, not to say affectation, of profundity.

In the minds of many people there is with the word law a “suggestion” a half-conscious, mental postulation of a force, a law-making power, competent to ordain and enforce the law. This conception of a “superadded entity,” of a something “ab extra,” which so spontaneously associates itself with the phrase “a Law of Nature” is, perhaps, the true one for every law. There is no fault of uniformity in the law of gravitation. You cannot break the law of gravitation. You may illustrate it by dropping an apple, or yourself, from the brink of a precipice, but you cannot violate or suspend it.

A State, or municipal, law, is, more properly speaking, (on either the “mechanical” or “dynamic” theory of the universe,) a rule of action laid down by the supreme power, in the given community, for the regulation of human conduct. And even here it is, strictly speaking, law only so long as it is enforced with exactitude and certainty. Otherwise it is a “dead letter.” It may still stand formulated on the statute book; but, whether impracticable per se or by fault of public sentiment, it is the shroud only, and not the soul or body of a living law.

When we say that events occur ” r< in compliance with a law of Nature,’ we only ‘mean that such is universally the fact; and so in other cases.” Nevertheless, there is, in most minds, “this suggestion,” as Mr. Lewes states it, of a something, back of the law, capable of causing this invariable, or “universal” compliance.

In the light of this view of the term, what becomes of Mr. George’s “Supreme Law of the Universe”? Ought not the supreme law of the universe to be as much a universal fact as the law of gravitation? Can Mr. George point to any page of a history where the law of justice is recorded as the universal fact? Does he even attempt to do it? No; he cries to the “crags and peaks,” with all his voice, that injustice is the universal fact. Puny man has repealed this “supreme law of the universe”; “everywhere” wrong and outrage rule the world; “everywhere” there is an increasing strain to “prevent being thrown down and trodden under foot”; (p. 486;) everywhere “pauperism, crime, insanity and suicides are increasing”; everywhere “manifold evils” “spring from a denial of justice”; (p. 489;) “everywhere” are “all considerations of justice, mercy and religion trampled under foot”; (p. 418;) the whole burthen, refrain—nay, the final cause, of Mr. George’s book, is the “universal fact” of wrong and crime and injustice. The whole world is an “ulcerous ant-hill!” (P. 474.) It is to reinstate the abolished law—to right the measureless wrongs, that Mr. George would scour the earth and turn the world upside down.

And yet, still consistent to his inconsistency, he tells us that he is—making all this fuss for nothing; that “Justice will not be denied”; that she cannot even “be put off”; (p. 494;) all the crimes and miseries of the world “spring from the denial of justice” that “will not be denied.”

If Mr. George should seek to turn the edge of this criticism by repudiating the notion of the uniformity or inviolability of the Laws of Nature; of a “superadded entity,” an “all-compelling” potency like that asserted for his social law of gravitation, the “law of least exertion,” which, he tells us, “is as inseparable from the human mind as attraction is from matter”; his only alternative is the theory that the Laws of Nature are but the “relation of coexistence and succession”; or, according to Whately, it “is the observance that constitutes the law.” Which only makes it so much the worse for Mr. George. For, where is the evidence of the uniform “compliance”—of the universal “observance” that constitutes the law of justice the u supreme law of the universe ‘ ‘? All that lies between the covers of Mr. George s book points to the non-observance of his law. And—what would be pitiful if it were not so ridiculous—Mr. George himself deliberately degrades this law from its high place at the head of the universe to make it play second fiddle to his theory of progress. The first essential to progress is “association”; the second is “justice.”—And justice is the same thing as “equality.” (P. 457.) And so equality by “going a progress” through Mr. George’s logic, turns out to be the supreme law of the universe.

On page 495 Mr. George asks:

“Can it be that the gift of the Creator may be thus misappropriated with impunity? Is it a light thing that labor should be robbed of its earnings while greed rolls in wealth—that the many should want while the few are surfeited?”

We answer, No—”everlastingly, No!” But that is precisely what your boasted “Liberty” enables men to do. It is precisely that which enables the national “Saul” as well as the individual Saul to tower “amid his brethren—taller and fairer”—richer and fatter. (P. 491.)

“Turn to history, and on every page may be read the lesson that such wrong never goes unpunished; that the Nemesis that follows injustice never falters nor sleeps!”

There may be justice in punishment, but punishment is not justice. Nemesis may be an avenger of wrong, but she is not a vindicator of the right. She may bring retribution, but not restitution. The pains of the guilty are no indemnity for the wrongs of the innocent. If every wrong done in the world instantly received the full penalty of the crime, it would not undo the wrong nor set the innocent victim right. The punishment that does not undo the wrong and indemnify the wronged, but poorly subserves the ends of Justice.

“But if, while there is yet time, we turn to Justice and obey her, if we trust Liberty and follow her, the dangers that now threaten must disappear, the forces that now menace will turn to agencies of elevation.” (P. 496.)

Mr. George never seems to be weary of extolling and eulogizing Liberty. (Pp. 491-493.) But we say again—and the more we read Mr. George’s book the more are we persuaded of its truth—liberty has but little to do with it. You may preach the gospel of Justice from every house-top in the land—in the world—it will not persuade men to do right so long as they have liberty to do otherwise. The mass of mankind are ruled neither by the love of Justice nor the voice of Reason. The nation that spends annually more money for tobacco and rum; hundreds of millions of dollars more annually to enervate, emasculate, demoralize and debase than to educate and elevate its people, is contaminated to the very center of its heart and soul. It has neither justice, reason nor common sense. And, on the vital question of knowing how to live, it is “as ignorant as dirt.”

What has such a people to do with liberty? It is law that is wanted, and power to execute it. The power of the State must be lodged in the hands of men resolved and able to compel obedience to law. It is (again we say it) not more liberty, but more obedience and justice that is wanted. There must first be wise and just men to make just laws; then just and able men to execute them. “Restraint” and “compulsion”—not “liberty”—are the words for mankind. Man may have the power but not the liberty to do wrong; he is free only to do right; which he should not only always be free to do, but never free to leave undone. The only true freedom is absolute subjection to law. The wise and just man asks nor needs any other law. The function of the State, the use, the end of Government, is to “haud the wretch in order”; to protect those who are a law unto themselves “from the ignorance and selfishness of man in refusing to conform to natural laws.” (P. 502.)

“Unless its foundations be laid in justice the social structure cannot stand.” (P. 493.)

These are the words that are worth more, by far, than all the rest of Mr. George’s book. It is neither Land nor Liberty, nor both, but Justice that will set the world to rights. When the ends of public and private life are shaped by that Divinity, then will there be peace on earth and good will among men. And not till then. Till then, nations will continue to rise up in blood and go down in shame.

“That stability of friendship which we have previously discussed, can be secured only among such men as are primarily affiliated by good will; who control those passions to which others are enslaved, and who delight in kindness and justice; who undertake all things one for another, and never demand from another anything except that which is honorable and right; and who shall not only respect and love, but revere one another.”[2]

All the conditions of the heavenly bodies are determined by the law of gravitation. And, according to Mr. George, all the conditions of social life are determined by the “law of least exertion.” What the one law is to the physical world the other is to the social world. The inference is, that you can change the order of neither without abolishing the fundamental law, or, at least, by so modifying it that it will no longer be the same law.

If this “all-compelling” principle of selfishness in the human soul cannot be educated to see that the way of truth, love and justice is the way of a “least exertion,” then there is no hope for man in the abolition of land-tenures or anything else short of the regeneration or reorganization of human nature, or of a power to compel men to do what they cannot be made to see it is their interest and duty to do. If there be no way to make men honest, nor to make them act like honest men—start them as many times, and on whatever terms of equality you please—you will be forced to see them run the same courses to come to the same issues at last. Men are not born equal. They do not have an equal start nor an equal chance. Whatever their measure of liberty before the law, they are in bondage to their own passions and weaknesses; they have not equal “power” “to avail themselves of the opportunities and means of life”; they do not, and cannot, “stand on equal terms, with reference to the bounty of Nature.” Esau was taller than Jacob, and Jacob was sharper than Esau, and Saul towered above his brethren. And each had full “liberty” to use his special gift on the raw material of Nature, and to make, take and hold, as his own, “the good things of this world,” according to his “different powers and desires,” and to receive “unimpaired the full reward” of his superior “industry, skill, knowledge or prudence,” with no man to molest or make afraid. These are the words of the same writer who tells us that “the law of progress is association in equality.”

Not till the law of Justice take the place of the law of least exertion, can man be restrained from using his superior gifts for his own behoof. The stronger will say to his weaker brother: “Go thou and do this!”—and to himself: “Soul, take thine ease!” This is the logic of the social law of gravitation as set up by Mr. George.


A summary of Mr. George’s industry stands about thus: Nearly all the ills the body politic is heir to spring from poverty; poverty and all its “manifold evils” “spring from a denial of justice.” They are “from no other cause than that labor is denied access to land,” and many times we are told that poverty results from the unequal distribution of wealth, and that the remedy, as a matter of course, must be an equal distribution; if not that, what?[3] The laborer, the creator of wealth, is robbed of the fruit of his labor by the landlord; there is no conflict between labor and capital; wages are not derived from capital—are in no wise dependent upon capital—but are the direct product of labor; the real conflict is between labor and rent; rent is the offspring of private ownership in land; private ownership in land is a robbery and a fraud, essentially the curse of the world; almost if not quite the sole cause of all the evils which afflict the family of man; the landlord, by commanding the produce of the soil, has mastership of the world, the power of life and death over the men who cultivate his ground; the relation which subsists between the landlord and the laborer is worse than that which obtains between the slaveholder and his slave; whatever labor produces beyond a bare living wage,—whatever machinery produces,—whatever the combined energies of labor and capital produce, is swallowed up by rent; whatever tends to increase productive power—increase of population, improvements in machinery, frugality, morals, education, good government, the complete efflorescence and full fruit of all the virtues, redound to the benefit of the landowner and recoil as a curse upon the laborer and the capitalist;—these all combine to despoil labor and capital of their dues; to swell the returns of rent; the “Law of Rent” is such as to make it inevitable that all material and all moral, and all intellectual, all social progress, should tend to deepen and widen the gulf between the rich and the poor, making the rich richer and the poor poorer—setting more and more in glaring contrast the blessings of Wealth and the miseries of Progress, the mother of Poverty.

The remedy for this is “included in the motto of those Russian patriots sometimes called ‘Nihilists’—’Land and Liberty!'”—abolition of all private ownership in land “without compensation,” and its restoration as the common property of human race.

Liberty is the synonym of Equality; equality is equal distribution of wealth—equal distribution of wealth is abolition of poverty—the banishment of want and the fear of want—in a word, perpetual Elysium in exchange for the present universal shambles. (Pp. 408-410.)

Mr. George makes the assumed delinquencies of all precedent political economists his opportunity; he ostentatiously rejects many of their definitions, and then substantially adopts them; he denies the current doctrine of the relation of capital to labor; professes to have refuted the theory of Malthus, to have alone discovered the true cause of the evils of poverty—to have found it in the “law of rent” and to have suggested the only remedy. The emancipation from “feudal bonds” was followed by “the enslavement of the working classes,” and the “iron yoke” of rent is the cause of all those evils which political economists have made the “mistake” of attributing to “the pressure of natural laws, and workmen for the oppressions of Capital.” (P. 341.)

Mr. George certainly promised much in the way of breaking through the crust of old errors and letting light into counsels darkened by the words of such illustrious writers as Smith, Mill, Ricardo, and other “great thinkers”; but it does not appear that he has redeemed his promises. He has not overthrown any principles or generally-accepted doctrine; he has not exposed any “fallacies,” set up any new facts, or presented any old ones in a new light,—has not solved any “problem,” cleared up any mystery, nor suggested any original truths, unless we have to except his fruitless attempt to force the definition of the word “wages.” His first and chief endeavor has been to furnish arguments to sustain his theory that that portion of the produce of labor which writers have hitherto agreed to call “capital” ought to be called “wages,” and something else called “capital”; and so give countenance to the proposition that wages are not drawn from capital, but from the products of labor, when it is apparent that capital itself is mainly the product of labor, and becomes wages when it is used for the payment or maintenance of labor. But to admit that capital can be used in this way is fatal to Mr. George’s fundamental proposition, that roots, nuts, oysters and wild berries are wages, and that, therefore, all the product of a man’s labor belongs to himself—the demonstration of which, by his own declaration, is indispensable to his Quixotic scheme of abolishing poverty by confiscating rent, and to his not over-modest attempt to re-cast the science of Political Economy.

[1] If there be need of evidence that this is not a sentimental impracticability, see the case cited on page 235. note, of this Review.

[2] “In talibus ea, quam jamdudum tractamus, stabilitas amicitiae confirmari potest, quum homines benevolentia conjuncti primum cupiditatibus iis, quibus ceteri serviunt, imperabunt, deinde aequitate justitiaque gaudebunt, omniaque alter pro altero suscipiet, neque quidquam umquam nisi honestum et rectum alter ab altero postulabit, neque solum colent inter se ac diligent, sed etiam verebuntur. ”

[3] But by equal distribution Mr. George does not mean equal distribution, t. e., equal amounts of wealth to each individual, but different individuals are to have according to their “different powers and different desires.” The wealth is to be distributed in accordance with the degree “of industry, skill, knowledge and prudence of each.” That is, what each contributes to the common stock, the common stock will distribute back to him. (P. 407.) For example: Equality of distribution of $100,000 among one hundred men, does not mean $1,000 for each man, but distribution according to their different powers and desires. So that, if one of the one hundred men have as much power and desire as the other ninety-nine, he gets $99,000, and the other $1,000 is distributed among the other ninety-nine men, equal to $10.10 each, as against $99,000 for one. And, if one of the ninety-nine men should chance to have as much power and desire as the remaining ninety-eight, he would take 98/99 of the $10.10, or nearly all, leaving but ten cents and two mills for distribution among ninety-eight men, or a small fraction over one mill for each—which illustrates the principle of the “equal distribution of wealth,” according to Mr. George’s interpretation of the phrase “equality of distribution.”

The End