Equality and Progress

From Henry George versus Henry George


On page 467 Mr. George tells us, that “equality (or justice)” the second essential of progress—”association being the first:”—that equality, justice, freedom and recognition of the moral law signify the same thing. He says also (p. 457) that “as conflict is provoked, or association develops inequality of condition and power, this tendency to progression is lessened, checked, and, finally, reversed.”

It may be true that justice, and obedience to (not “recognition of”) the moral law, are the same thing, but to our mind it is clear that the terms equality and freedom, instead of meaning the same thing, are utterly incompatible with each other. The moment men are free to use, untrammeled, their natural powers of mind and body, to “avail” themselves of their “industry, skill, frugality and intelligence,” (p. 274)—the “comfort of each” being “proportioned to his energy and intelligence”—that moment is “inequality of condition and power” set up, and must continue, whether “progression be lessened ” or promoted by it, just so long as men come into the world with unequal gifts and have the freedom to use them. The most powerful incentive to exertion is desire to excel, to assert and maintain superiority. After the demand for physical necessities is met, it is the sole stimulus to effort. Ambition in any sphere of action does not aim at equality, but at inequality—at excellence. Its whole purpose and endeavor is to “get the start of the majestic world, and bear the palm alone;” to get “ahead” and keep ahead. It is the glory of a man, not to catch up with, but to go beyond another; to run faster, jump farther, climb higher, dive deeper and come out dryer than another—no matter how little, so it be enough to put the other under or behind. All the merit, all the honor lies in the half inch that wins; all the disgrace, mortification and chagrin in the little lack that incurs defeat. The prize, the praise, the plaudits, “the pudding,” are all for the winner in the race of life; no matter how well the loser has done nor by how little he has lost. A “neck” is as good as a rod. To trot a mile in “2:40” was once a feat of the turf to startle the world into “Bravos!” and clapping of hands! Afterwards, the owner of the horse that could do it in 2:13 was an object of universal fame and envy till he was flung into disgrace and oblivion by another whose trotter could do it in 2:12¾. All is won and all is lost by half or even a quarter of a second. Each one plays the game to beat. To be in some respect the “better man,” is the ruling motive, from the “Dukes wrestler” to Julius Caesar, from Tom Hyer to Napoleon Bonaparte. Not to be equal, but superior—the first at the feast in the synagogue:—if not the first in Rome, then in “yonder village.” This is human nature. Confiscation of rent will not change this. No change of environs will change this. Coelum, non animum mutant, qui trans mare currant. Yet the equality which Mr. George’s scheme contemplates, requires all this. The human nature itself must be changed. Not only human, but all nature. Man must not only be born again, but his remotest ancestor be reconstructed—and the very constitution of the planet on which he lives, moves, and has his being. The equality of Mr. George’s theory is not equality in some one on many particular things, but equality in all things—a physical and a moral impossibility.

On page 457 we are informed that, “association in equality is the law of progress.”

Again we ask, how does Mr. George know that? Where is his proof or example? Where ever was the people that associated in equality? Mr. George’s dogmatism is becoming offensive. One begins to rebel with a feeling of resentment at the insolence which is so constantly taking him for an ignoramus or an idiot. Mr. George expects you to believe him when he tells you that “association is the first essential of progress”;—that “association in equality is the law of progress”; and also, when in the next breath he declares that, “association develops inequality,” which is fatal to progress.

“But just as conflict is provoked, of association develops inequality of condition and power, this tendency to progression is lessened, checked, and finally reversed.”

One meaning of which is, that there is no inequality of condition or power till conflict or association develops them. And being in the alternative, we see that either, without the other, may develop inequality. But “association in equality is the law of progress”; and “association develops inequality” which is the end of progress—and thus association in equality is both the law of progress and of stagnation and retrogression.

However incomprehensible this may seem to us, Mr. George, of course, has that penetrative vision into the heart of things which makes it all plain to him.—

The vine bears grapes:
The he-goat horns!
Wine is juicy, the vine is wood;
So, the wooden table yields wine.
Only a deeper glance into Nature!
Here is a miracle—only think so!
.        -Mephistopheles.

But, again, how can there be conflict in equality? How can there be conflict where the issue of it is foreseen to be a “drawn game”? If two pull or push against each other under “equal conditions,” with equal weight and force, which will first give way? “Answer me that, Master Brook!” Why, neither. Then there is no motion—neither progression nor retrogression, but only stagnation—death. … And thus the law of progress is the law of death—the only absolute equalizer.

Is it not safe to say, that there is not one fact in the history of the world, to give color to Mr. George’s “law of progress”? Or, when was there ever one step of progress made, but by some one who stood higher and saw farther, and strode away from his fellows and his environs? And how many have paid the forfeit of their lives, for breaking away from the established order, and trying to take with them a world that came lagging on behind to build monuments, some centuries afterwards, over their murdered bones!

Since inequality is inevitable, it does not imply injustice. Justice and inequality are as compatible in the relations of social life, as are, in the physical world, the river and the rivulet, the mountain and the molehill, great and small, strong and weak, more and less, rich and poor, and “the diversities of climate, soil, and configuration of the earths surface.” (P. 460.) “Progress” (p. 461) itself is nothing but a getting “ahead” of some person, or state, or thing; and all diversities and differences imply some kind of inequality or condition of advantage. The justice does not consist in being equal, but in not misusing advantages. Till men are all exactly alike, they cannot be equal in condition. Progress, improvement, success, are all goals challenging to competition in the race; and the most wonderful thing in the world would be to find any two “among all the countless millions, who have come and gone on this earth,” (p. 452,) running with exactly the same speed.

Equality in any of the contests of life, is always “a tie”—a zero of results. “Excelsior” is the motto of all aspiring souls. To this end the noblest virtues are made subservient, and are divinely commended to it. “Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” “They all run, but one receiveth the prize. So run that ye may obtain.”

This inevitable tendency—or, to use Mr. Georges deceptive phraseology, “This constant liability to inequality” is “by virtue of what is probably one of the deepest laws of human nature” (p. 462)—a fact which wholly negatives the proposition on page 465, in these words: “But the great cause of inequality is in the natural monopoly which is given by the possession of land.”

“But the tendency to inequality, checking real progress from the first, increased as the Roman civilization extended.” (p. 469.)

The tendency to inequality is the effect of preexisting inequality, and the triumph of it is the inevitable result of “liberty.” This we must reaffirm, in true termagant style, to get the last word at Mr. George’s repeated declaration that “Freedom is the synonym of equality.”

We ask the reader to recall to mind with what a parade of power and promise Mr. George entered the arena of this discussion; or rather, how, from his pride of place, he swooped down upon the “great thinkers” who had devoted their talents and lives to the cultivation of the science of Political Economy, as if cutting them into shreds were a mere matter of closing his talons on them; and how he mammocked them for their stupidities, absurdities, confusions and ambiguities; and how he pledged himself to be definite, precise, sharp, clear and conclusive—not so much as granting himself the use of a metaphor; and finally with what a magisterial self-complacency he plumes himself upon having re-cast the principal part of the science of Political Economy; recalling all these things, and also bearing in mind that Mr. George is writing a treatise on science, and that one of the most abstruse and difficult, by reason of its complex and ever-shifting elements; we ask the reader to peruse and critically consider the following passages taken from pages 462 and 463 of Mr. George’s book:

“Now, this process of integration, of the specialization of functions and powers, as it goes on in society, is, by virtue of what is probably one of the deepest laws of human nature, accompanied by a constant liability to inequality. I do not mean that inequality is the necessary result of social growth, but that it is the constant tendency of social growth, if unaccompanied by changes in social adjustments, which, in the new conditions which growth produces, will secure equality. I mean, so to speak, that the garment of laws, customs, and political institutions, which each society weaves for itself, is constantly tending to become too tight as the society developes. I mean, so to speak, that man, as he advances, threads a labyrinth, in which, if he keeps straight ahead, he will infallibly lose his way, and through which reason and justice can alone keep him continuously in an ascending path.

“For, while the integration which accompanies growth tends in itself to set free mental power to work improvement, there is, both with increase of numbers and with increase in complexity of the social organization, a counter-tendency set up to the production of a state of inequality, which wastes mental power, and, as it increases, brings improvement to a halt.

“To trace to its highest expression the law which thus operates to evolve with progress the force which stops progress, would be, it seems to me, to go far to the solution of a problem deeper than that of the genesis of the material universe—the problem of evil. Let me content myself with pointing out the manner in which, as society develops, there arise tendencies which check development”

The “compact form” of the problem which Mr. George “set out to investigate” was, “Why, in spite of increase in productive power, do wages tend to a minimum which will give but a “bare living?”

Its final issue is in the form of the question: How to account for inequality in progress? As if, according to the violent assumption all the way through these lines, there were no inequality until progress developed it; when the fact is, that inequality is the very condition and prerequisite of progress—that it is the very law and order of growth, development, alteration, decay and death—that all the phenomena of the “material universe,” even the “genesis” of it, are the results of the play of unequal forces. Nevertheless we see how Mr. George palavers over his problem in its new shape; how, after a succession of hems and haws and “so to speaks,” and futile attempts to tell us what he does, and what he does not, mean, and after warning us, that we shall “infallibly lose” our way if we go “straight ahead in a labyrinth,” he virtually “gives it up,” or modestly forbears the attempt “to trace to its highest expression the law which thus [?] operates to evolve with progress the force which stops progress,” and contents himself with pointing out certain “tendencies,” etc.

It may seem a pity that Mr. George should have to stop short right here—right on the brink of the solution of a problem, the solution of which would go far to solve the problem of the genesis of evil. What might he not have done for us, if he had only gone on to trace that law to its highest expression! The cause of “inequality in progress”—poverty in abundance—decrease of wages with increase of productive power—this was what we wanted to know, and we have pulled on through the brambles with Mr. George all this long way, to be told at last, that we shall unmistakably mistake our way if we go straight ahead in a labyrinth. We had learned before, that Mr. George’s labyrinth had an “ascending path,” for we have always found the “threading” of it “an uphill business”; and we have seen how he can go on and turn back, “wire in and wire out,” but are still in the dark as to how one is to go straight ahead in a labyrinth.

We do not wish to be understood as blaming Mr. George for fetching us up so suddenly; we do not see how he could well help himself. It was clearly the best thing he could do under the circumstances. He sees now, if not from the first, that his problem is too much for him; that he has bitten off more than he can chew—and to go quietly and, under a cloud of misty phrases, drop it into a mess of “tendencies” on the ground that it was about as tough as the problem of evil, is creditable to his shrewdness.

And the satisfaction and relief of knowing that his presumption can stop at anything, is some compensation for our disappointment in other respects. Those of his admirers who feel grieved that he did not “trace it up,” can comfort themselves with the reflection, that the problem is still there, and that Mr. George “is young yet.”

[1] Grapes the wine-stem bears, Horns the he-goat wears! The grapes are juicy, the vines are wood, The wooden table gives wine as good! Into the depths of nature peer,—Only believe, there’s a miracle here!

(Bayard Taylor’s translation. P. 132)

Continued: A boomerang