Confusion of the Spacial Law

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book III, The Production of Wealth*

Chapter VI
Confusion of the Spacial Law With Agriculture

Showing The Genesis of This Confusion

What space is -- The place to which man is confined -- Extension a part of the concept "land" -- Perception is by contrast -- Man's first use of land is by the mode of "adapting" -- His second, and for a long time most important, use is by "growing" -- The third, on which civilization is now entering, is "exchanging" -- Political economy began in the second, and "growing" still attracts most attention -- The truth and error of the Physiocrats -- The successors of Smith, while avoiding the error of the Physiocrats, also ignored their truth; and with their acceptance of the Malthusian theory, and Ricardo's explanation of rent as relating to agricultural land, they fell into, and have continued the habit of treating land and rent as agricultural -- Difficulty of the single tax in the United States. 01

The laws of our physical being, to which I have already called attention (Book I, Chapter II), confine us within narrow limits to that part of the superficies of our sphere where the ocean of air enveloping it meets the solid surface. We may venture temporarily a little below the solid surface, in eaves and vaults and shafts and tunnels; and a little above it, on trees, or towers, or in balloons or aerial machines, if such be yet constructed; but with these temporary aerial extensions of our habitat, which of themselves require not only a preliminary but a recurring use of the solid surface of the earth, it is to that solid surface that our material existence and material production are confined. Physically we are air-breathing, light-requiring land animals, who for our existence and all our production require place on the dry surface of our globe. And the fundamental perception of the concept land -- whether in the wider use of the word as that term of political economy signifying all that external nature offers to the use of man, or in the narrower sense which the word usually bears in common speech, where it signifies the solid surface of the earth -- is that of extension; that of affording standing-place or room.


But a fundamental perception is not always a first perception. Weight is a fundamental perception of air. But we realize this only by the exertion of reason, and long generations of men have lived, feeling the weight of air on every part of their bodies during every second of their lives from birth to death, without ever realizing that air has weight. Perception is by contrast. What we always perceive neither attracts attention nor excites memory until brought into contrast with non -- perception.


Even in the now short Atlantic trip the passenger becomes so accustomed to the constant throb of the engines as not to notice it, but is aroused by the silence when it stops. The visitor in a nail-mill is so deafened that speech seems impossible; but the men working there are said to talk to each other without difficulty and to find conversation hard when they get again into the comparative silence of the street. In later years, I have at times "supped with Lucullus," without recalling what he gave me to eat, whereas I remember to this day the ham and eggs of my first breakfast on a canal-packet drawn by horses that actually trotted; how sweet hard-tack, munched in the middle watch while the sails slept in the trade-wind, has tasted; what a dish for a prince was sea-pie on the rare occasions when a pig had been killed or a porpoise harpooned; and how good was the plum-duff that came to the forecastle only on Sundays and great holidays. I remember as though it were an hour ago, that talking to myself rather than to him, I said to a Yorkshire sailor on my first voyage, "I wish I were home, to get a piece of pie." I recall his expression and tone, for they shamed me, as he quietly said, "Are you sure you would find a piece of pie there?" Thoughtless as the French princess who asked why the people who were crying for bread did not try cake, "Home" was associated in my mind with pie of some sort -- apple or peach or sweet potato or cranberry or mince -- to be had for the taking, and I did not for the moment realize that in many homes pie was as rare a luxury as plums in our sea-duff.


Thus, while the fundamental quality of land is that of furnishing to men place on which they may stand or move, or rest things on, this is not the quality first noticed. As settlers in a wooded country, where every foot of land must be cleared for use, come to regard trees as a nuisance to be got rid of, rather than as the source of value that in the progress of civilization they afterwards become, so in that rude stage of social development which we are accustomed to think of as the primary condition of mankind, where the mode of expending labor in production which most attracts attention is that we have called "adapting," land would be esteemed rich or poor according to its capacity of yielding to labor expended in this first mode, the fruits of the chase.


In the next higher stage of social development, in which that second mode of production, which we have called "growing," begins to assume most importance in social life, that quality of land which generally and strongly attracts attention is that which makes it useful in agriculture, and land would be esteemed rich or poor according to its capacity for yielding to labor expended in the breeding of animals and raising of crops.


But in the still higher stage of social development which what we now call the civilized world is entering, attention begins to be largely given to the third mode of production, which we have called "exchanging," and land comes to be considered rich or poor according to its capacity of yielding to labor expended in trading. This is already the case in our great cities, where enormous value attaches to land, not because of its capacity to provide wild animals to the hunter, nor yet because of its capacity to yield rich crops to the grower, but because of its proximity to centers of exchange.


That the development of our modern economy began in what was still mainly the second stage of social development, when the use of land was usually regarded from the agricultural point of view, is it seems to me, the explanation of an otherwise curious way of thinking about land that has pervaded economic literature since the time of the Physiocrats, and that still continues to pervade the scholastic political economy -- a way of thinking that leads economic writers to treat land as though it were merely a place or substance on which vegetables and grain may be grown and cattle bred.


The followers of Quesnay saw that there is in the aggregate production of wealth in civilization an unearned increment -- an element which cannot be attributed to the earnings of labor or capital -- and they gave to this increment of wealth, unearned so far as individuals are concerned, the name of product net or surplus product. They rightly traced this unearned or surplus product to land, seeing that it constituted to the owners of land an income or return which remained to them after all expenditure of labor and investment of capital in production had been paid for. But they fell into error in assuming that what was indeed in their time and place the most striking and prominent use of land in production, that of agriculture, was its only use. And finding in agriculture, which falls into that second mode of production I have denominated "growing," the use of a power of nature, the germinative principle, essentially different from the powers utilized in that first mode of production I have denominated "adapting," they, without looking further, jumped to the conclusion that the unearned increment of wealth or surplus net sprang from the utilization of this principle. Hence they deemed agriculture the only productive occupation, and insisted in spite of the absurdity of it that manufactures and commerce added nothing to the sum of wealth above what they took from it, and that the agriculturist or cultivator was the only real producer.


This weakness in the thinking of the Physiocrats and the erroneous terminology that it led them to use, finally discredited their true apprehensions and noble teachings, unpalatable as they necessarily were to the powerful interests who seemingly profit by social injustice, until the rise with the publication of Progress and Poverty of the new Physiocrats, the modern Single Taxers as they now call themselves and are being called.


But the economists who succeeded Adam Smith, while they avoided the error into which the Physiocrats had fallen, avoided as well the great truth of which this had been an erroneous apprehension, and greedily accepting the excuse which the Malthusian theory offered for putting upon the laws of God the responsibility for the misery and vice that flow from poverty, they fell into and have continued the habit of regarding land solely from the agricultural point of view, thus converting what is really the spacial law of all production into an alleged law of diminishing production in agriculture. Even Ricardo, who truly though very narrowly explained the law of rent, shows in all his arguments and illustrations an inability to free himself from thinking of land as relating only to agriculture, and of rent only as agricultural rent. And although in England the relative importance of agriculture has during all this century steadily and rapidly declined, the habit of thinking of land as a place or substance for agricultural operations is still kept up. Not merely is the law of diminishing production in agriculture still taught as a special law of nature in the latest works treated as authoritative in colleges and universities, but in speaking of land and of rent, most English writers will be found to have really in mind agricultural land or agricultural rent.


What is true of England is true of the United States except so far as the influence of the single tax has been felt. But the greatest difficulty which the single tax propaganda meets in the United States is the wide -- spread idea, sedulously fostered by those who should know better, that non -- agricultural workers have no interest in the land question and that concentrating taxes on land values means increasing the taxes of farmers. To fostering this fallacy all the efforts of the accredited organs of education are directed.

* No introduction or motto supplied for Book III in MS. H.G., Jr.