I am attending a weekly class at the Henry George School of Social Science in political economy. The text book for this class is one of Henry George’s own tomes: Progress and Poverty (see above cover – there is also an abridged version).
A late 19th century writer, would-be politician, and political economist, Henry George espoused many ideas that we would consider “progressive” today although his ideas have been adopted by members of both the dominant parties in the US. He inspired the “Georgist” school of economic thought and has influenced people from the left: Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich, as well as from the right: William F. Buckley, Jr. and Rand Paul (son of Ron Paul).
The central question of Progress and Poverty is one that I have pondered for some time. Why does poverty persist despite progress? Why do some people go hungry when others’ plates are overflowing? Why does the gap between the haves and the have nots continue to increase? In Progress and Poverty George describes the conditions in the mid- to late-19th century. He writes,
It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down. (p. 9)
Sound familiar? We still struggle with the same issues that George was grappling with in the 1800s. He continues,
This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times…So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between House of Have and House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent. (p. 10)
These thoughts have been shared by other change agents of our times including Martin Luther King, Jr. who quoted George in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
Other praise for George and his theories came from such luminaries as Leo Tolstoy: “People do not argue with the teaching of George, they simply do not know it. And it is impossible to do otherwise with his teaching, for he who becomes acquainted with it cannot but agree.”
John Dewey: “No man, no graduate of higher educational institution, has a right to regard himself as an educated man in social thought unless he has some first-hand acquaintance with the theoretical contribution of this great American thinker.”
Albert Einstein: “Men like Henry George are rare, unfortunately. One cannot imagine a more beautiful combination of intellectual keenness, artistic form, and fervent love of justice.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: “I believe that Henry George was one of the really great thinkers produced by our country.”
So, if this man was so popular in his day and made such a contribution to social thought why had I never heard of Henry George before my class?
It baffles the mind but my best guess is that George hit upon truths concerning our society – about capitalism – about the current value system in place – that are too radical, too disturbing, too uncomfortable to the powers that be.
I’m not saying I swallow all of his theories whole – I haven’t even finished one of his books yet – but I understand his core beliefs. He’s essentially saying that the system is rigged against the little guy, the cards are stacked in favor of the rich getting richer. We all know this to be the truth but we don’t want to hear it because that would mean making some tough changes that would affect the most powerful among us.
We can’t have that happen, now, can we?
I suggest you read his books and decide for yourself.
Peace and Justice, Mari