Henry George wrote the most influential American economic treatise
of the 19th century. Entitled Progress and Poverty,
and published in 1879, it was translated into 25 languages, outsold
Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and inspired H.G. Wells and George
Bernard Shaw to become Socialists.
Henry George was convinced that all of the society's ills were
rooted in rising land values, which prevented the poor from acquiring
property, reduced farmers to tenancy, and discouraged investment.
He believed that society was responsible for increases in land
value and that it was unfair for landlords alone to profit from
this increase. He claimed that a tax on land would penalize those
who leave land idle, and would therefore encourage investment
and eliminate poverty and unemployment. As he put it:
What I propose, therefore, is the simple yet sovereign remedy,
which will raise wages, increase the earnings of capital, extirpate
pauperism, abolish poverty, give remunerative employment to whoever
wishes it, afford free scope to human powers, lesson crime, elevate
morals, and taste, and intelligence, purify government and carry
civilization to yet nobler height.
At the age of 14, George left his home in Philadelphia and
migrated to San Francisco, where he became a successful journalist.
Dismayed by the "shocking contrast between monstrous wealth
and debasing want," he wanted to understand the explanation
for "advancing poverty with advancing wealth." He believed
that the problem was that wealth was accumulated by landlords
rather than those who actually produced wealth. Rather than investing
in productive enterprise, the wealthy speculated in land. This
was the theme of Progress and Poverty.
After his book brought him international fame, he moved to
New York in 1880 and ran for mayor as an independent in 1886.
He lost, because he was unable to convince the working class that
his scheme would benefit them, but he did finish ahead of Theodore
Roosevelt, the Republican candidate. He ran again for mayor in
1897, but died before the election. He was 58 years old.
Although George's single tax on land was simplistic, his goal
was not nonsensical. He wanted to use tax policy to narrow the
gap between rich and poor and to encourage productive investment.
He was also among the first advocates of urban planning and rational
land use policies.
In 1894, 28 people from Iowa moved to Alabama, and established
a community founded on George's ideas. The community's land was
held by the community, who paid only a single tax to cover public
services. Today, the community still exists, leasing land to 1,300
farmers, business owners, and homeowners, and remains as a reminder
of Henry George's utopian ideas.
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