The Philosophy of the Single Tax Movement
by William Lloyd Garrison
Address at Chickering Hall, New York, January 6, 1895
published (No. 49) by
the Sterling Publishing Co., 1895
In Mr. George W. Smalley’s London letter to the New York Tribune of September 23, 1894, concerning Herbert Spencer and Henry George, there are some suggestive sentences. They reflect contemporary estimate of the latter, indicating the narrow complacency of those who are persuaded that their charmed circle is the world. Admiral Maxse, who is vouched for by Mr. Smalley as “both thinker and landowner” is quoted as saying of the author of Progress and Poverty: “I came to the conclusion that he was merely a paper theorist without any practical knowledge of land tenure.”
The correspondent himself ventures the confident opinion of Henry George that he is “the discredited bravo of an impossible cause.” And he asks: “If in any company of intelligent Americans you mention Mr. George’s name, how is it received?” He acknowledges that “Mr George has still dupes in England,” but asserts that his charlatanism has been stripped bare so often that his notoriety, once considerable both in the United States and here has declined, and his authority, or such authority as he once had, has fallen to near zero.” Then his self-appointed judge of reformers, long unused to their society, recalls the early day when he too felt the thrill of great ideas, and sat at the feet of Theodore Parker in Boston Music Hall. It is a far cry from his present conservative environment to those crucial times, when Boston society was as much closed to him and the anti-slavery reformer as, according to his implication, that of London is closed to Henry George.
No transition could have been greater than that from the companionship of Parker and Phillips and their associates to English fashionable society, whose trivial doings it is the business and duty of a correspondent to chronicle. That Mr. Smalley was with and not of the reformers; that his association was accidental and not prompted by the spirit that resigns reputation for righteousness’ sake, is clear from his absolute lack of sympathy for current English reformers. Not one counts him as an adherent, and if he is ever tempted to step aside from political and social topics to contemplate an unfashionable movement of its advocates, it is to censure or to sneer. This statement is not to reflect upon the character of the Tribune correspondent, but to indicate his unfitness for estimating the place that Henry George holds in the world’s esteem, or the progress of the cause he champions.
When Smalley was a reformer
I also remember Theodore Parker, at whose feet I was privileged to sit. “I too lived in Arcadia.” And I bear witness to the chivalrous courage with which Mr. Smalley, as one of a voluntary bodyguard, defended Wendell Phillips in the tumult of the John Brown mobs. I ask, therefore, this London critic of Henry George whether the contemptuous questions and unworthy flings which I have quoted from him are not the exact echoes of the Boston criticism in the fifties concerning the great preacher and the peerless orator of the anti-slavery movement? Let us apply them.
Admiral Maxse, “thinker and landowner” had many predecessors. He read Progress and Poverty and concluded that its author was ” merely a paper theorist, without any practical knowledge of land tenure.” For “land tenure” substitute “slaveholding,” and you have the thousand times repeated estimate of the abolition leasers by “thinkers and slaveholders.” One might naturally say by slaveholders who were not thinkers, and surely the quality of Admiral Maxse’s thinking may be questioned if his landownership cannot be.
Henry George is “the discredited bravo of an impossible cause. “Bravo” is a mild epithet compared with those applied to Parker and Phillips by men of higher literary and social pretensions than Mr. Smalley. As for a “impossible cause,” did anything ever seem more hopeless than “unconditional emancipation”? The epithets have turned to honorable distinctions and the “impossible” has been achieved, Let Mr. Smalley not be overconfident nor Mr. George despond.
“If in any company of intelligent Americans you mention Mr. George’s name, how is it received?” The answer to Mr. Smalley’s question is: “That depends upon the intelligence of the Americans.” Intelligence and unintelligence are often found in close contact in the same person. George Ticknor was the flower of Boston literary culture, Edward Everett of scholarship, William H. Prescott wore the historian’s wreath, and Rufus Choate ruled the Suffolk bar in1850. When these intelligent Americans heard the names of Parker and Phillips, how were the received? Exactly as such intelligence receives the name of Henry George to-day. That very year Theodore Parker described accurately how society viewed him. He said: “I am myself a clergyman in this city [Boston], not one of those, unfortunately, who are much respected, but, on the contrary, I have an ill name, and am one of the most odious men in the State; no man out of the political arena is so much hated in Massachusetts as myself.” Nevertheless, Mr. Smalley now quotes him to disparage another reformer, who will in due time be himself an accepted authority, doubtless to be misused in turn.
Henry George’s English Dupes.”
We are told that “Mr. George has still dupes in England.” Aye, more than Mr. Smalley kens. When their inevitable increase compels the attention of society the Tribune letters will give them a more courteous name. Its correspondent will easily remember when the followers of the abolitionists were “duped and misguided.” Singularly enough, they and their descendants now boast of that association. Henry George will not be less a name to conjure with hereafter because his “charlatanism” has been stripped bare so often that his notoriety, once considerable both in the United States and here, has declined, and his authority, or such authority as he once had, has fallen somewhere near zero. “The charlatanism” of Phillips and Garrison was stripped bare so often that use bred indifference. As for their notoriety,” they would have felt alarmed had social respectability ceased to deplore it. History has dropped both of these menacing words and has something to say of the men who used them. The mud thrown at reformers misses the mark and soils only the thrower’s hands. The leader of the single tax remains unstained.
Two or three years ago there came to Boston, in his tour around the world, the eminent Chief Justice of South Australia. It had been his privilege to entertain Mr. George in Adelaide, and, as he traveled through the States, he naturally expected to find the same recognition of the reformer’s greatness that was accorded him in Australasia. Foreign estimate of contemporaneous reputation is said to be equivalent to the judgment of posterity. But the proverb about the prophet in his own country had momentarily escaped the traveler’s mind. With the vivid recollection of a previous agitation I felt warranted in thus addressing the intelligent inquirer: Sir, in the society to which you are accredited expect nothing but coldness and deprecation when you mention Henry George and the single tax movement. A professor of Harvard College is waiting to take you to the university. Afterward you are to call upon the Governor, and you have already met the prominent people of the town. You are seeing persons who have attained power and place, but you are missing those who are shaping the destiny of the generation. The latter are unknown to your entertainers. Had you visited Boston in 1850 under similar conditions the abolitionists would not have crossed your path. You would have been made to feel their insignificance and to hear their dangerous schemes of emancipation denounced as “impossible.” It is clearer now who were the historical Bostonians of that date. If you will walk to the front of your hotel your gaze will fall upon the most dangerous of all the anti-slavery ‘fanatics,’ an effigy in bronze. He was a man polite society knew not and did not wish to know. Its children are responsible for the statue. A generation hence Harvard College will teach Henry George’s political economy as orthodox, and the children of your present entertainers will doubtless contribute funds to build his monument.
“Not an ear in court or market for the low foreboding cry
Of those crises, God’s stern winnowers, from whose feet earth’s chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.”
The purveyors for popular newspapers must fix their eyes upon surfaces with little consciousness of the deeper and controlling currents. The Liberator, throughout its existence, had a beggarly subscription list, and the Anti-Slavery Standard was a continuous expense to the society. Yet, the historian who wishes to discern and measure the forces which brought about the revolution of the century will look for their true interpretation in the files of the papers named. They will pass lightly over the superficial and popular prints whose sub-serviency to established wrongs brought profit and temporary fame.
What is this “society” of which Mr. Smalley speaks with such a show of inclusive right? It is a fragment, a vulgar fraction, of the people of England. Like all exclusive arrangements, so-called society comes to look upon itself as personifying the country. “I am the state,” said Louis XIV. Sweep away all kings and all that conventional aggregation of wealth, talent, position, and sub-serviency known as polite society; regardless of the loss, the life of nations continues with undisturbed and multitudinous force. The people remain. The French revolution is in point.
British Society and Political Opinions.
Mr. Smalley asserts that “society does not care a two-pence about the opinions of its members.” Granted, if they are held abstractly. But what if held with earnestness and purpose, as hostility to slavery was held by the abolitionists, and as unswerving opposition to land monopoly is cherished by the advocates of the single tax? It is absurd to say that society then takes no cognizance of opinions. It must in self-defense. These heresies threaten its very existence. The duke’s title to his domain is in peril. Herbert Spencer, even if he desired the company of ”Sir John and His Grace,” would find it impossible if he stuck loyally to his righteous ninth chapter of Social Statics.” Any philosopher who aims to make his doctrine practical and at the same time keep within the social pale must indeed be perplexed.
The real society of England, however, is one not having the stamp of fashion or the glamour of titles. It is not familiar to the Tribune correspondent. It is outside of “Mayfair.” In this, struggling reforms, new ideas, humane impulses find hospitable reception. No humility or suppression of belief is exacted as the price of entrance. Moral and religious considerations dominate.
The time has gone by when a correspondent’s sneer or a philosopher’s evasive shuffling can hurt the cause of the equal rights of men to the use of the earth. We have to thank our critics for their unwitting but efficient aid. It is the beneficent order of the universe that the oppressor must help to destroy himself. “The Refuge of Oppression,” in the Liberator, that weekly collection of extracts from pro-slavery pens and lips, was believed by the editor to outweigh in value his editorials. Heaven send us more Spencers and Smalleys to show how powerless talent and learning are to shield a wrong or even to make the worse appear the better reason!
Herbert Spencer and Daniel Webster.
The history of one reform is repeated in another. The lessons of experience avail little. Parallels abound. The later manifestations of English Herbert Spencer are a reminder of American Daniel Webster. Both in the disinterested enthusiasm of youth enunciated noble ideas. Each in declining years appealed to lower motives and ignoble standards. At Plymouth Rock, in 1820, Webster stirred the nation with his impassioned protest against slavery. Thirty years later he made the fugitive slave law possible, and begged his admirers to “conquer their prejudices” and remember that constitutional obligations were paramount to liberty. As Phillips put it: ”At first, with Algernon Sidney, he declared the best legacy he could leave his children was free speech and the example of using it; then of Preston S. Brooks and Legree he took lessons in smothering discussion and hunting slaves.”
Herbert Spencer, in his undistinguished and unbiased youth,, enunciated the truth that the earth belongs to all men. In his prosperous age, with reputation and social recognition, he pitifully apostatizes. Webster lacked not subservient indorsers in his day of shame. The pulpit, the bar, the university, the merchant princes, hastened “with alacrity” to commend his violation of the “higher law,” and to denounce the accusing abolitionists as fanatical and unfashionable. It was considered ridiculous for “such people to impugn the motives of the godlike Daniel.” It was a consolation, however, to know that they never had much consideration, but what little notoriety they once possessed was “waning and somewhere near zero.” And the result? What more impressive warning does history hold? Even the recent senatorial attempt to minimize the failure of Webster’s life by wordy eulogy and to commemorate his freshest statue only accentuated the man’s irrevocable fall.
Mr. Spencer can also summon supporters of scholarly distinction and social standing to shield his weakness. One would think that in the effort to ”conquer their prejudices” and sign the pronunciamento of November 12, the five American friends of Mr. Spencer must have experienced a wrench to their moral and intellectual natures when they put their signatures to the quibbling and evasive letter of defense. Henry George’s grave arraignment of the perplexed philosopher, fortified at every point with full and ample quotation, simply allowing the accused to testify against himself, is ignored by his apologists. The burden of the charge is left untouched. Misquotation and contemptuous personal allusion make up this labored and humiliating epistle.
What answer to the indictment that, having once affirmed in matchless terms the wrongfulness of land monopoly, Herbert Spencer now defends and justifies it? This: That Mr. George has dealt in “calumnies” and “fiction,” that he is prompted by “an insane and unscrupulous animosity.” It is a perfect illustration of the old saw, ”When you have no defense, abuse the plaintiff’s attorney.” Truly did Mr. George declare that such objections could not be “even replied to without some sense of personal degradation.”
No dust throwing, no cover of respected names to resuscitate a damaged reputation, can for a moment alter the judgment of mankind or hinder the imperial progress of the great movement, the responsibility for whose beginning and forward impulse largely attaches to Herbert Spencer. His wide historical reading should have revealed to him the fate of those who start the torrent of a radical reform and think to stem it by standing in its path.
The cause of the single tax is beyond the power of harm. No man, or men, however gifted, can for a moment check its increasing and widening momentum.
“We stride the river daily at its spring,
Nor in our childish thoughtlessness foresee
What myriad vassal streams shall tribute bring,
How like an equal it shall greet the sea.”
If with the publication of Progress and Poverty, by an unknown author, it was impossible to strangle the heresy in its cradle, how childish and impotent now to expect to crush it, when its ideas have permeated Christendom, and in the pantheon of the century, among its greatest benefactors, the position of the sneered-at “Prophet of San Francisco” is secure. “Who frees a nation,” says Whittier, “makes his statue’s place in Time’s Valhalla sure.” What of a reform which will free all nations?
Mine is no purpose of personal laudation. The modesty of our friend and leader has ever induced him to efface himself and place in his forefront the object of his life. But he personifies a cause and is inseparable from its consideration.
In like manner Mr. Spencer stands for that respectability always invoked to block the wheels of progress. The fact of his radical youth alone gives him present weight. Had he been always a conservative, no importance would have attached to his opinion in this discussion. But now the pleasing assumption is held that truth can be changed by the change of an individual opinion. In quoting the unanswerable reasoning of the ninth chapter of Social Statics, is one met by an attempt to refute its positions by counter reasoning? Never. The one reply is that the author has, in later years, repudiated that portion of the book and decreed its suppression from future editions. Newton might have repudiated the law of gravitation and suppressed his early avowal of its truth, but if he valued his neck he would have still been careful in descending a ladder. Arthur Hugh Clough’s lines might well be commended to the author of the ninth chapter:
“It fortifies my soul to know
That, though I perish, truth is so:
That, howsoe’er I stray and range,
Whate’er I do Thou dost not change,
I steadier step when I recall
That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.”
In this upheaval of natural forces which convulses society individual effort to suppress it is as idle as King Canute’s order to the waves. I yield to no one in appreciation of Herbert Spencer’s contribution to the century’s thought. Long after. his later failing shall be forgotten the ideas he launched and vainly endeavored to recall will still be sailing God’s main, argosies unharmed by storms.
Yet, in the heat of the moral conflict to restore to men the divine heritage which has been misappropriated, we cannot afford to omit such examples as that of the synthetic philosopher to point a moral and convey a warning. The statement of Wendell Phillips over forty years ago stands unimpaired to-day. He said:
Speech of Wendell Phillips.
Men blame us for the bitterness of our language and the personality of our attacks. It results from our position. The great mass of the people can never be made to stay and argue a long question. They must be made to feel it through the hides of their idols. When you have launched your spear into the rhinoceros hide of a Webster or a Benton, every Whig and Democrat feels it. It is on the principle that every reform must take for its text the mistakes of great men.
Our reform is no holiday excursion. It is a serious voyage. Its purpose is avowed and definite. It lacks the attractive vagueness that makes ordinary speculation on social problems amusing and the misty theorist an object of interest. Popularity is never imperiled by eccentric ideas so long as their application is relegated to the sweet by and by. It is your impatient, unreasonable, immediate reformers who are dangerous.
Socialism in the Parlor.
The advocates of socialism, however, are parlor favorites, for no one objects to fanciful dreams provided they are not expected to materialize within a century. Bellamy was wise to name the year 2000 for his dreary Boston. Socialism has another advantage. You cannot define it. Every defender has his pet idea of the theory. What one considers meat the next calls poison. Focus your understanding on the subject, venture an argument against it, and you are assured that you have mistaken the target. What you fired at was only your crude conception of it.
Whatever demerits the single tax may have, it never fails to present an immovable bull’s eye to its opponent’s aim. It will smash the bullet or acknowledge itself pierced. It is not a structure reared upon an imperfect collection of alleged facts. It is a vital principle. It guides and illumines, giving to facts their proper relation and significance, without which they are dark and misleading. I know of no more discouraging labor than the attempt to find a clew to the confusing labyrinth of current socialistic literature. It is bewildering and tangled. No wonder that it finds favor with so many professors. If Goff were to cross-examine them he would be puzzled to discover from their testimony what exact opinions they hold. So, although they dally learnedly with questions having the greatest explosive possibilities, no alarm is generated .
For example, there comes the learned Benjamin Kidd announcing the discovery of a new law, evolved from observations of varying human conditions, that, “the interests of the social organism and those of the individuals comprising it at any time are actually antagonistic; they never can be reconciled; they are inherently and essentially irreconcilable.”
“Oh, star-eyed Science, hast thou wandered there
To bring us back this message of despair?”
Throughout this “epoch-making book,” as an eminent Boston admirer pronounces it, there is no intimation that the social facts upon which the author builds his new law are unnatural and avoidable ones. He assumes that the degradation of poverty in the cities, and the cruel enmity and destructive antagonism of races are the decree of the universe, instead of being a result of the flagrant violation of universal laws.
It would be as true to affirm that the interest of the body is at war with the well-being of its members, and that they can never be reconciled. A philosophic pretension, an evidence of extensive reading, great fluency, plentiful quotations, and a dogmatic conclusion that socialism is the only remedy makes “Social Evolution” the fashionable book of the season. It divides attention with “Trilby.” But in the ranks of those who have an interest in vested wrongs and cruel systems it creates no ripple. Landlords and favored classes have no objections to such ideas. They threaten no present alteration of social arrangements, and “after us the deluge.”
Definiteness of the Single Tax.
Not so the gospel of Henry George and the propaganda of the single tax. They come as disturbers of an unholy peace, if forcible repression can be called peace. They discern a specific and sufficient cause for the social inharmony which finds expression in enforced poverty and rapacious greed. They demonstrate that land includes all natural opportunity, and is redundant as compared with man’s power to use it. That where it is available to all there is no problem of poverty; that when it is withdrawn from use by human claimants for private profit the evils of crowded cities and of workers idle for lack of a chance to employ themselves confront civilization. Nothing can be plainer. Look, eager searchers, for the root of social misery—it lies directly across your path. Justice can remove it.
The Church says: What do you mean? I do not see it. Poverty can never be removed. Does not the Scripture say, “the poor we have always with us,” and of course we always shall have? Come around to our sewing circle this evening, we are making garments for the unemployed. We are also raising funds for a soup kitchen, for does not the Good Book tell us that the greatest of virtues is charity? But for the poor how could the Christian feelings of the rich be reached? Moreover, it would be unsafe for us to touch this land question; it would disturb our wealthiest contributors.”
I would not be uncharitable toward ministers. I have had them come to me in depression of spirit and say: “I see and accept the truth of the single tax. I dare not preach it, for my bread and butter would be lost.” Remembering the hard experiences of antislavery ministers, whose fidelity to the slave excluded them from pulpit after pulpit, I have no heart to urge the sacrifice.
Trade says: “A fig for your great discovery! You would destroy the most attractive method of making a fortune. See, we bought this tract by the acre and sold it by the foot when men were obliged to use it, on our terms. It has made us rich. Should we not be fools to depreciate our own property by countenancing the single tax? Better give up your fine-spun theories and take a share in our new syndicate. It has bonded a hundred acres on the outskirts of the city. Business tends that way. Don’t be a fool, but avail yourself of this unusual chance on the ground floor.” We get no countenance from trade.
How Professors dodge the Issue.
Let us try the universities. Here are specialists employed to teach the students economic lore. They are versed in the history of the science. They can quote from authors, native and foreign, and in answer to the question, Is it not plain that land monopoly is the cause of the greatest social suffering?” will reply: “Have you read these authorities?” naming a list of German authors, “and are you familiar with the Austrian school?” Oh, professors, for humanity’s sake give us a plain answer. It is not necessary to be familiar with your authorities to see that there is productive land, and that in sight of it are starving people. Will you not help us pull down the fences that keep them apart? It will avail you nothing to cry property, property, property,” and to bid us remember the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal!” We tell you land is not property, but the source of all property; that it is essential to life, and that men and women hunger and die because it is withheld from them. Teach what is manifest to the humblest understanding, and help relieve the misery of the world.
In vain. The university has large investments in land, and salaries are measured by the income that it yields. Besides, economic chairs would be vacant in a week if single tax were taught. So the professors have little time to discuss the matter, because their expert opinion is asked by some committee which is waiting to find out the best methods of detecting unworthy applicants for charity, or concerning the municipal employment for idle laborers. The externals demand so much attention that really the question of their cause must wait. Hope from the university vanishes.
So it is with law, society, and with politics. “Go away, disturbers!” Then we cry aloud to the wage-earners, the people who are wronged and suffer. They are many and have votes. It is their welfare that we seek. Workers, will you help us? Alas! they, too, have the fatal blindness. They are busy with their labor organizations, planning how to diminish the number of competing fellow-workers, or forcing the employers to shorten the hours of labor.
Then we no longer deceive ourselves with hopes of capturing organizations. We ask nothing of powers or principalities, or institutions which have achieved popular support. We appeal directly to the reason and conscience of mankind. Our dependence is upon the efficacy of spoken and written words and the dissemination of thought, sure that
“One accent of the Holy Ghost.
The heedless world has never lost.”
Whether men will hear or whether they forbear, our mission is to declare the origin of poverty and to point out the cure. The time is ripe and everywhere the word has reached the seed is germinating.
Is it “the baseless fabric of a vision,” this faith that when the heritage of the earth shall be restored to the disinherited peace and plenty will abound? That with true individual freedom, of which we talk so much and know so little, the needs of checks and restrictions and paternal governments will no longer exist? For generations, mayhap for centuries, the self-evident truth of the equal right to the use of the earth has found lodgment in the human mind and not infrequently expression.
From the mouth of the rude savage, as well as from the pen of the great writer, comes the same betrayal of consciousness that the established monopoly of land is wrong. “What! sell land? Why not sell the air, the sea, and the sky?” said Red Jacket. “The Great Spirit has told me that land is not to be made property. The earth is our mother,” said Black Hawk. The great Pope Gregory affirmed that the earth is the common property of all men.” “There is no foundation in nature, or in natural law, why a set of words upon parchment should convey the dominion of land,” wrote Sir William Blackstone. Thomas Jefferson declared that ”the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.” “Abolish slavery to-morrow and the land monopoly would pave the way for its re-establishment,” was the striking prophecy of Gerrit Smith. ”Whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours, is at once vitiated,” said Emerson. ” No man made the land; it is the original inheritance of the whole species,” said John Stuart Mill. If more citations were needed I might appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober, from Herbert Spencer of Justice to Herbert Spencer of Social Statics, and to a multitude of other authorities who have felt constrained to utter a recognition of the primal truth which Henry George has raised to a practical and conquering issue in every civilized nation of the globe.
We mistake when we attribute reforms to leaders. Leaders are the products and agents of reforms. Luther would not have been Luther had not the time arrived and called for him. The abolition leader would not have conducted the great crusade had he been born a generation sooner. Such men are only summoned when, in Lowell’s words,
” … the plowshare of portentous times.
Strikes deep enough to reach them where they lie.”
—Like a volcano the abuses of the Church and of slavery seethed and grew molten beneath the surface of society. “It is nothing,” says the conservative. “The distant rumbling does not signify.” There is a light smoke from the crater—may it not presage an eruption? “Nonsense, we will cap the aperture with a decree of compromise.” But the avenging fire and lava duly vindicate the inevitable law and bury the lawbreakers.
Henry George’s Mission.
Henry George was, in the order of time, ready to concentrate and express the long hidden agony of a disinherited world. God endowed him with talent, fearlessness, eloquence, and the loyalty to truth. Yet all these would have failed to give him his deserved distinction had not the soil been ready to receive his message. The hour found its man.
How foolish, then, to think of arresting a universal convulsion by persecuting or deriding the prophets who discern its meaning and obey its commands! It is as reasonable to hold the mariner responsible for the tempest which he foresees and provides for. It is, therefore, the inexpressible comfort of every reformer to know that no mishap to individuals can for a moment retard his cause.
That society refuses to consider land monopoly a menace is an evidence that it dreads to face it. Such action is human. The habit that is destroying a drunkard is the last thing he wishes to confront. Men and nations are willing to try everything to evade suffering except striking at its cause. After denials, resistance, and prolonged agony, nature at last takes the unwilling culprit by the ear and leads him up to the dreaded alternative. The choice is self-destruction or the destruction of the evil.
The North said: ”This is not a war to abolish slavery. It is simply to save the Union,” and Northern colonels sent back fugitive slaves seeking refuge in the Union lines. Orators urging enlistments in the Northern cities refrained from alluding to the cause of the conflict. But defeat followed defeat, until it was seen that the nation’s life depended upon the extermination of the slave system. Then only did Abraham Lincoln, as ”a war necessity” and to save the Union, reluctantly issue the edict of emancipation. The duty performed, how quickly the tide of Union victories rewarded the courage which at last faced truth.
The parallel holds good with the evil of land usurpation. Avoid it, deny it, decry it, refuse to see it if you will, it does not budge. It stands firm as Gibraltar across the path of social progress, waiting patiently for the verdict. The decision may be delayed by subterfuges, side issues, and stubborn blindness, but it must be spoken. The longer the delay the more severe the penalty.
I have touched upon certain obstacles in the way of the single tax. Its signs of promise far outweigh them. A confident and distinguished critic of the movement ended a debate of the question with the declaration that he should decline to discuss it hereafter—it was a dead issue. To which our excellent friend, James E. Mills of California, responded: ”If you hold such an opinion, put your ear to the ground.” To one who follows Mr. Mills’ advice the tramp of single tax recruits will be as plain as was the sound of the distant bagpipes to the beleaguered ears of Lucknow. It is not heard in the marts of trade or amid the social hubbub. It used to be said that cotton stopped the ears of Northern merchants to the slaves’ cry. Ears clogged with earth are likewise deaf to the earth cry. Yet it arises in greater and greater volume. Listen and watch. The ranks of the single tax thicken and extend, but swifter yet the idea outruns the number of its army. Lips that denounce it unwittingly speak its message, so vitally is the common air charged with the invigorating principle.
Whether its noble purpose can be compassed, which seeks to avoid an impending conflict by appealing to the sense of common justice and self-interest, who can predict? It fain would save useless strife between capital and labor, exhausting to both, while the landowner appropriates unnoticed the prize in dispute. How can the twain be made to unite forces against the common enemy? He seems to wear the magic cloak which renders him invisible.
With the steady extension of the franchise and the growing power of the downtrodden, surely the outlook is ominous even to those who have not the temperament of alarmists. My own conviction is that the single tax is the only rod that can draw off the lightning from this cloud. To that end plain speech and patient teaching are essential. It is easier to flatter men than to declare unwelcome truth.
John Burns’ Remedy.
John Burns recently drew applause in Faneuil Hall by recommending, as the remedy for the social trouble, increased trade unionism and an assumption by municipalities of certain industrial functions. “Organized labor is the path to future success,” was his conclusion. Organize labor as you will, with land monopoly untouched, unorganized labor will always neutralize the union’s power and serve the employer. Give municipalities control of telegraph and gas and passenger transportation, and leave land still the prey of speculators, and the problem is untouched. The landlord will absorb every advantage these produce.
We have no device which will assure prosperity without touching the upas tree of misery. We concede that some who prosper by present evils will lose their advantage. We have not the secret of making omelets without breaking eggs. The transition from a wrong to a right system cannot be painless, even though it save untold future years of agony. Yet must we sit at the king’s gate and repeat our tiresome warning, taking no scheme, however brilliant, as a substitute for the one basic necessity, the emancipation—natural opportunity?
It is inevitable that vested interests will give us the opprobrious name of robbers, because we are seeking to restore their plunder to the true owners. The salvation of the flying culprit is to cry “Stop thief!” and pass for a pursuer. A brave old Yankee captain, Jonathan Walker, for concealing and bringing north fugitive slaves in his vessel, was branded on the palm of his hand with the letters “S. S.,” meaning slave stealer. But in the New England climate their signification was changed, and everywhere the captain bore the mark as one of honor, with the true interpretation, slave savior. So shall it be with the only social reformers whose conscientious regard for property cannot be understood where questionable titles to property are thick as leaves in Vallombrosa.”
Freedom the Touchstone.
Freedom is the touchstone with which to test all the social remedies flooding the market. Which one stands it like the single tax? Its advocates are not afraid to trust her. They would encircle her fair limbs with no restrictive fetters. Their reliance is upon all the people, who are wiser and safer than some of the people, however rich or learned. Humanity is another test. The single tax transcends’ all geographical bounds, and is at home in every nation of God’s earth. Naturally it is the handmaid of peace and brotherly love and has no use for forts, ironclads, and armies. Its weapon is the word, and it borrows Victor Hugo’s inspiring cry:
Come, philosophers! Teach, enlighten, illumine, think aloud, speak aloud, run joyfully into the sunshine, fraternize with the public places, announce the glad tidings, spread alphabets around, proclaim the right, sing the Marseillaise, sow enthusiasm, and pluck green branches from the oaks. Make a whirlwind of the idea. The crowd may be sublimated, so let us learn how to make use of that vast conflagration of virtues and principles which crackles and burns into a flame at certain hours. These feet, these naked arms, these rags, this ignorance, this abjectness, this darkness, may be employed for the conquest of the ideal. Look through the people and you will perceive the truth; the vile sand which you trample under foot when cast into the furnace and melted becomes splendid crystal, and by its aid Galileo and Newton discover planets.
We invite, therefore, men and women of heart and conscience and understanding into our unpopular ranks. We promise them no prizes and no honors that the multitude will recognize. Instead, we assure them of popular misunderstanding, of active opposition, of private censure. They will find no favor with the politicians, no social gain, no academic recognition. But they may “clothe the waste with dreams of grain,” and, forgetting their generation, which by a natural law resents disturbance of the things that be, look forward in imagination to the generation to come. Then, when life will be easier for the masses, when hovels and tenements will be exchanged for homes of comfort, when leisure shall lighten toil, when the earner shall own the fruits of his hand or brain, when wealth shall find no artificial barriers to its just distribution, when just laws shall preclude the idler from appropriating the worker’s store and poverty is less and virtue and intelligence more,—when, in short, the bounty of nature, upon which subsistence depends, is free to all, then will come the belated recognition of unselfish service, and to know that after hands shall “reap the harvest yellow” is recompense far beyond the mortal breath called fame.