Placing George on the Political Spectrum

Over time, social mores and acceptable political views shift; as a result, historical individuals may find themselves seen in an entirely different light than they were in their own time. This is sometimes a matter of interpretation, or a question of perspective. However, at other times, the assessment of historical figures seems based on a far flimsier foundation – a few historical connections of their followers, or a comparison to the extremes in their own generation. In a recent interview with Ben Norton of GrayZone, economist Michael Hudson seems to do precisely this to Henry George, claiming that although he supports Land Value Taxation:

I loathe Henry George, because he essentially was an anti-socialist and a right-winger of the late-19th century, and he spent his life fighting against socialism. He wanted to basically get rid of government. And his followers, essentially, George spent his time going, and George’s followers, for 20 years before World War One, going around the country debating with socialists over, is the future of the economy going to be socialist, or is it going to be the Ayn Rand-type economy that Henry George wondered.”

Hudson’s claim is puzzling,  and it is unfortunate that it comes from a prominent economist, respected by many Georgists, and whose work has argued persuasively for land value taxation. A more thorough investigation into George’s actual views gives a much fuller picture. While it’s always difficult to map today’s political map onto figures long dead, to the extent that this can be done for George, he stands out as a figure firmly on the side of abolishing poverty and a persistent foe of Social Darwinism.  He was repeatedly accused of socialism in his own lifetime, and his followers have been ever since. Moreover, many of his early proponents, like Leo Tolstoy and Helen Keller, have since become symbols of the left internationally. George’s own views, eloquently expressed at the time, were far from ‘basically get[ting] rid of government”, and he was himself deeply opposed to the strain of individualism that is now best represented by Ayn Rand. Indeed, though he inspired a fair number of conservative figures, at least rhetorically, his greatest practical impact has been on revolutionaries the world over, and his arguments, though difficult to categorize, have surely inspired the left as often as the right. 

Hudson accurately described George’s pedigree as descending from Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill – both classical liberals who abhorred rent seeking because it was inefficient and prevented the operation of markets, as well as for its social impacts.  However, where George breaks with Mill it is fundamentally to the left, not the right.  Mill held, infamously, that it was an immutable law of nature,  “not the injustice of society, is the cause of the penalty attached to overpopulation.” With this, Mill and many like him explained famines and poverty from Ireland to India in ways that managed to shift blame away from the depredations of the British Empire and onto the victims themselves.  George disagrees – he directly quotes Mill in contradiction and claims that “in every case the vice and misery are shown to spring either from unsocial ignorance and rapacity, or from bad government, unjust laws or destructive warfare” – not overpopulation.

George also rejected the argument that genetics were the cause of poverty (though the science of genetics was poorly understood in his day). Progress and Poverty contains an early argument against what would come to be known as eugenics, disapproving entirely of the argument that humans made biological ‘progress’ over time and that the success of different ethnic groups was due to their relative fitness over others. These two assertions, which occupy a major portion of Progress and Poverty, at first glance seem like a distraction from the book’s main focus on land. However, they are actually fundamental to George’s way of thinking, and present a critical break with much of the classical liberalism before him and the liberalism of his contemporaries like Herbert Spencer. By removing the easy Malthusian and Social Darwinian excuses for poverty, these arguments gave urgency to the cause of reform.

This urgency, in his own time, saw George accused of socialism or communitarianism and associated with the forces that ostensibly constrained the rise of proper capitalist accumulation. For example, when Henry Dawes, whose Dawes Severalty Act divided indigenous landholding in the US into individual parcels and created the modern land crisis in many indigenous communities, was arguing for doing the same to Oklahoma indigenous nations, he charged (somewhat inaccurately) that their system of land tenure was “…Henry George’s system and under that there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates they will not make much more progress.”

It is fascinating to see how George, once used as a stand-in for insufficient selfishness, is now held up by Mr. Hudson as a symbol of an Ayn Rand-type economy. Far from denouncing Socialism as a result of these claims, George himself was sympathetic to many socialist aims. In Protection or Free Trade he endorses the provision of basic social services to all, arguing that “Citizenship in a civilized community ought of itself to be insurance against” the worst outcomes of capitalism, adding that 

“This is denounced as “the rankest socialism” by those whose notion of the fitness of things is, that the descendants of royal favorites and blue-blooded thieves should be kept in luxurious idleness all their lives long…If this is socialism, then, indeed, is it true that free trade leads to socialism”

In much the same way, though modern Georgists fall across nearly the entirety of the political spectrum, I imagine there is not a one who, having proposed basic Georgist tenets of land value capture, anti-monopolism, and the eradication of poverty, has not been called a socialist or communist by people who hold that the ability to extract land rent is the highest form of individualism. 

The argument that George wanted to create an Ayn Rand style, capitalist paradise free of government also appears increasingly untenable as one reads Protection or Free Trade or reviews George’s own political positions in his runs for governor of New York. His career started in opposition to the railroad interests that ran much of California politics after the Civil War, and his opposition to privatized railroads never ended. In Protection or Free Trade George argues that there are some industries, like rail and telegraph lines, that are naturally better suited to government control than individual ownership, and that “the natural tendency of advancing civilization is to make social conditions relatively more important, and more and more to enlarge the domain of social action. This has not been sufficiently regarded, and at the present time, evil unquestionably results from leaving to individual action functions that by reason of the growth of society and the development of the arts have passed into the domain of social action”. This admonition encouraged the trend in many cities toward the development of municipally owned transportation, power generation, and other ‘natural monopolies’ under progressive mayors, some of whom (like Cleveland’s Tom L Johnson, whom socialist Lincoln Steffens described as the best mayor in the country) were explicitly Georgist in orientation. If, as Hudson argues, socialists were debating Georgists throughout the country, even as Georgists and other progressives were battling against Gilded Age excesses, it seems the two sides must have been intentionally ignoring their many shared common goals, especially relative to the status quo.

In judging George by his followers, Hudson is similarly engaging in a great deal of cherry picking. The attempt to link George’s thought to Ayn Rand – in light of the former’s conviction that the sphere of life best controlled by society as a whole was growing with technology – is almost risible. It is likely based on the fact that George was deeply admired by libertarian Albert Jay Nock, though one wonders what Nock thought about George’s disparaging of ‘individualists’ who ignored the truth that man is a social being. It is also true that Milton Friedman and William F Buckley both endorsed land value taxation, the former as the ‘least bad tax’ and one that could thus best fund a negative income tax. But Buckley himself admitted that he rarely spoke of Georgism because the broader conservative community would not accept it.

Curiously missing from Hudson’s brief history of Georgism are the Georgists who actually made a difference. Sun Yat Sen, who overthrew the Qing Dynasty and established the Chinese Republic, adopted Georgist views on land. Sun’s views on both land and population (he was an anti-Malthusian) were influenced by George, though of course the early Republic was unable to execute much in the way of a centralized economic policy. Joshua Nkomo, a reformer in Zimbabwe (at the time Rhodesia) who founded ZAPU – a primary political party opposed to Ian Smith and the white minority government – similarly spoke admiringly of Henry George, arguing that “Land value is always a socially created value, never the result of action by the owner of the land. Henry George says that this is a value that must be taken by society; otherwise those who comprise the social whole are deprived of what is rightfully theirs.”

Of course, both Sun and Nkomo went beyond typical western Georgists and indeed George himself in their revolutionary demands and plans for radical reform – and both of their legacies were largely drowned out by the Marxist leaders who came after them (Mao Zedong and Robert Mugabe).  But they represent George’s ideas at least as strongly as Buckley or Friedman – indeed, likely more so, as it’s difficult to imagine right-wing Georgists accepting George’s view that the social sphere of activity was growing as the individual one shrank, or that the very existence of poverty was a condemnation of society. And while their revolutionary actions and rhetoric may conflict with the common view of Georgists today, as technocrats primarily tinkering with the tax code, one need only read George’s descriptions of British rule in Ireland or India to see his sympathy with those oppressed by landlordism that rises at times to revolutionary fervor. George, after all, expresses shock at the fact that the Irish “only occasionally murdered a landlord!”

Closer to home, perhaps the greatest American example of George’s views in the 20th century comes from Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech “Where Do We Go From Here”?  In it, King lays out many of the structural economic problems that hold back Black American prosperity. He approvingly quotes Progress and Poverty while discussing the need for universal incomes to combat poverty and arguing that ensuring an income is more effective at solving housing and education than the reverse. King goes on, however, to list the questions his listeners must ask themselves: “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” At their base, these are Georgist questions. King’s own discussion of capitalism and communism in the same work could have been pulled directly from Protection or Free Trade: “Capitalism fails to realize that life is social. Communism fails to realize that life is personal” is a neat and updated encapsulation of George’s same discussion:

In socialism as distinguished from individualism there is an unquestionable truth-and that a truth to which (especially by those most identified with free-trade principles) too little attention has been paid. Man is primarily an individual-a separate entity, differing from his fellows in desires and powers, and requiring for the exercise of those powers and the gratification of those desires individual play and freedom. But he is also a social being, having desires that harmonize with those of his fellows, and powers that can be brought out only in concerted action.

Dr King was many things and has been claimed by many parties, but a Randian right winger is not among them. Where Do We Go From Here?, more than any of the Libertarian works of the 20th century, reflects George’s own views on capitalism and socialism – whether they are drawn from George or, more likely, originate with Dr King’s own experience.

Henry George’s legacy is complex. His ideas, he would be the first to admit, were largely drawn from other sources and independently arrived at by many people. As a result, his mantle would be taken up by not a few libertarians and conservatives, drawn to his incisive description of economic relations between labor, land, and capital. But to the classical liberalism which he drew so heavily for his ideas on rent and wages, George added important considerations, particularly a firm anti-Malthusianism, a rejection of Social Darwinism, and overriding respect for labor as the source of all wealth. Far from a crusading anti-socialist, George expressed an admiration for socialists in their organization of worker power and their cosmopolitanism. It is to be hoped that George’s critics on the left will take a second look both at his works and legacy; though on several points they may differ, they will find more commonality with the ideas than many seem to assume.

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