Born in Philadelphia in 1839, Henry George was raised in a lower middle class, devout Episcopalian home. An observant, curious, freethinker, George abandoned his religious education as soon as he was able, and ceased all formal education by age 14, choosing instead to traverse the globe as a formast boy on the ship Hindoo. In 1858, he left his seafaring ways behind, taking a job as a typesetter for the (then new) San Francisco Times.
His career in journalism flourished, and provided opportunities to share his opinions and observations with a public audience. Those ideas, informed by his reading of works by economists including Adam Smith and David Ricardo, as well as philosophers Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, were largely focused on the rapid development he was witnessing firsthand in the American West. While some individuals amassed the beginnings of great wealth, others floundered – a duality which fascinated and inspired George.
It was this contrast between the “House of Have and the House of Want” that inspired his most famous work, Progress and Poverty, which was published in 1879. In it, and other works, George argued that much of the wealth generated through technological advances is unjustly captured as rent by land owners and monopolists, rather than made available to better the lot of all workers and further fuel economic development. Restriction of access to natural resources and unjust taxes on labor, he argued, are the root causes of poverty. Unlike so many others, George rejected the idea that poverty was the unavoidable byproduct of increased economic sophistication, and promoted policies, including the implementation of land value tax, as a way to ensure that all people would reap the rewards of societal advancement.
George’s provocative, well-argued ideas, coupled with his magnetic public persona, fueled his rise to fame. Once as renowned as contemporaries Thomas Edison and Mark Twain, George entered the political sphere, making an ultimately unsuccessful bid to become Mayor of New York City.
Although Henry George is no longer a household name, his policy prescriptions have been implemented, to great effect, in localities all over the world, including Australia, Canada, and areas of the United States.
Today, Americans find ourselves inundated by accounts of the almost unimaginable luxury enjoyed by the 1%, juxtaposed against stories of otherwise average diabetics dying after rationing unaffordable insulin. We struggle to satisfy the demands of an overbearing and opaque tax system. We watch as our government and China impose economy-dampening tariffs tit for tat…
At RSF, we understand that Henry George’s teachings are as relevant today as they were in his lifetime, arguably even more so.
Remember: “There is danger in reckless change, but greater danger in blind conservatism.”