Does Georgism Have a Theory of History?

by Lindy Davies

The time is always now for Georgists. It’s one of our most endearing quirks — or most annoying eccentricities, as the case may be. We tout a proposal for correcting fundamental economic wrongs — diseases that afflict any system in any time in which The Remedy has not been applied. Take a quick skim of the Georgist press in any period between the 1880s and today. You’ll see that this was the time, that today’s problems would propel society to finally wise up and look to real solutions.

It has been suggested that Georgism, to the extent that is has evolved — or seeks to evolve — beyond a quick-fix-it plan into a system of thought, lacks a theory of history and would do well to devise one. We might see a symptom of this in the persistence of Georgist educators (including, unabashedly, the Henry George Institute) in asking students to read the works of Henry George himself. We could be accused, I suppose, of hanging slavishly on Henry George’s every word. Could George’s writings really be that timeless? Did the man get every single thing right?

Which is not to say he didn’t get most of it, right on the money. The observation that land’s rental value rises as a community’s population, sophistication and interconnectedness — and therefore its need for public revenue — grows. The notion that a thing’s value can come from two sources, production or obligation. The insight that a communal feeling — the desire for approbation — trumps mere selfishness as a core motivation. The point that society progresses to the extent that it fosters equality and association, and declines to the extent that it thwarts those things. The challenge of the increasing importance of social questions as society becomes more interconnected. Those are a few of my favorites; I’m sure you can think of more.

Our world-changing comrades, the Marxists, have a very strong — one might almost say overbearing — theory of history that leads directly to their version of the Good Society. The logic of historical materialism invests Marxist rhetoric with great confidence, and gives Marxist academics plenty to write about. Drastically simplified, this theory holds that class struggle is inherent in capitalism and intensifies with every social and/or technological increase in worker productivity. Eventually this makes the lives of industrial workers, the proletariat, intolerable. They will then dare to seize control of the means of production and create a socialist state. Once the capitalist class has been divested of its means of controlling the masses, the state will wither away, leaving a stateless, classless society. This, from a Marxist point of view, is what will happen; the only argument is exactly where “now” is to be placed on the dialectical timeline.

Folks on the left, hearing about the Georgist remedy, ask, “So, do you believe that can happen without a revolution?” And I have to admit that not only am I not sure, but more importantly that my answer to that question comes from my own predilections, independent of and, probably, prior to anything I’ve learned about Georgist philosophy. Where does Georgism stand on the question of class struggle?

Henry George recognized the existence of such a thing. The effects of material progress were, he wrote, “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.” Yet George couldn’t point to a clearly-defined group of villains to blame for all this. He took pains to show that it wasn’t capital; defined as mere physical wealth, a product of labor, capital couldn’t possibly be the exploiter of labor. On the other hand, capital defined as the means by which one group exploits the labor of another group, well — that wasn’t what George was talking about; that definition was too vague to be useful to him. And the landowner wasn’t really the bad guy either: there are lots of small, hardworking landowners who stand to gain a net benefit under George’s remedy. Who, then, would be the people who would struggle — against which other people — to bring the Georgist Good Society into being? George dedicated Progress and Poverty to “… those who, seeing the vice and misery that spring from the unequal distribution of wealth and privilege, feel the possibility of a higher social state and would strive for its attainment.” These would be the people who would take up “the cross of a new crusade” — a crusade that would offer deeper rewards than mere success.

Unlike Marx, George didn’t see society as moving along a teleological arrow. George believed that human civilization would always come to a fork in the road, at which it could either ascend to the Good Society of equality and association, or decline into barbarism. Indeed, the rise and fall of civilizations, in George’s view, can be seen as a long-run manifestation of the rise and fall of prosperity in boom-bust cycles. The same fundamental institution causes both; there’s only one way to get off the roller coaster.

So did Henry George view history as merely cyclical? Not entirely; he did see civilization as moving in a direction. A civilization could be cast down and reset at its material beginning, but it would nevertheless move through certain stages as it rose. George saw society generally moving from local to international, and from self-reliant to interdependent. Particularly, he thought that a primitive state of production which was driven by skill would inevitably be superseded by a modern one in which knowledge took precedence. George was bullish on industrialization, which would allow — once the dead weights of rent and taxation were lifted from workers — for shorter and shorter workdays and wider and wider sharing of cultural amenities.

Social development is in accordance with certain immutable laws. And the law of development… is the law of integration. It is in obedience to this law — a law evidently as all-compelling as the law of gravitation — that these new agencies, which so powerfully stimulate social growth, tend to the specialization and interdependence of industry. It is in obedience to this law that the factory is superseding the independent mechanic, the large farm is swallowing up the little one, the big store shutting up the small one, that corporations are arising that dwarf the State, and that population tends more and more to concentrate in cities. Men must work together in larger and in more closely related groups. Production must be on a greater scale…. Even butter and cheese are now made and chickens hatched and fattened in factories —The Land Question

Now this is a striking passage, and one that could be quoted rather damningly by today’s progressive-minded folk. Henry George a supporter of Big-box retailers and factory chicken farms? Egad! It seems that the normally prescient George went rather off the rails on this point. But, before we revoke George’s “green” card, we should remember that it’s hard — probably impossible — for any writer to transcend his frame of reference. Industrial progress in his day was speedy, and accelerating. Socialists envisioned a technological workers’ paradise in which labor hours would be short, varied, and demand no skills at all — a scenario with which Henry George seemed not to have a problem.

George did recognize, however, that sometimes the bigness of modern society represented not progress but distortion.

Trade as it is carried on today does involve much unnecessary transportation, and… producer and consumer are in many cases needlessly separated…. Everywhere that modern civilization extends, and with greatest rapidity where its influences are most strongly felt, population and wealth are concentrating in huge towns and an exhausting commerce flows from country to city. But this ominous tendency is not natural, and does not arise from too much freedom; it is unnatural, and arises from restrictions. It may be clearly traced to monopolies, of which the monopoly of material opportunities is the first and most important.—Protection or Free Trade

This “wasteful overtransportation of goods” is an integral part of the nasty syndrome that’s currently referred to as “globalization.” Goods made by subsistance-wage workers under unsafe conditions are shipped, using subsidized, atmosphere-destroying energy to be sold in corporate outlets that undersell local producers and destroy communities! Could such entrenched perniciousness really be addressed by something as simple, as cleanly theoretical as… The Single Tax?

Well, actually — yes, it could. There are a wagon-load of good reasons why, and as Georgist teachers, we should be careful not to get sidetracked on Henry George’s evident — but small — mistakes. In this case, it seems clear to me that George didn’t conceive of a state of society in which industrial development per se could be seen as regressive and damaging — in other words, a society that, even if it had the Single Tax, would see positive benefit in moving toward local production and away from centralization.

I think that’s where we find ourselves today. Now it may be that the Single Tax, with its many ramifications, would ferret out, and gobble up, all the externalities that make corporate control and all its “wasteful over-transportation” profitable, which would make this whole point moot in the end. It’s more likely, though, that the Single Tax would enable the kind of prosperity that would give people the luxury of time and resources to devote to their local environments, and to the inefficient, but oh-so-satisfying development of skills.

What is it, after all, that millions of us do when we get the chance to retire from the job market? We take up a hobby — which demands that we learn new skills, which we gladly do for pleasure, and to gird our brains against aging. Furthermore, though we tend to view it as romantic and impracticable, we admire those who are able to make a living by using a skill, rather than by applying some knowledge, acting like (and being replaceable by) just one more cog in a machine. Carpenters, painters, artisans of all kinds, hunters who actually know how to stalk game, cooks who know how to season dishes with the herbs they grow — we admire them, and when we can afford it, we pay premium prices for the products and services they offer. So, hey, maybe Henry George didn’t actually foresee that we’d want to do such things. He did, however, posit that human beings seek to satisfy their desires — whatever those desires are — with the least exertion. No harm, no foul.

I suppose that this leaves us without a truly coherent theory of history with which to contest the Marxists. But I wonder how bad that really is. I’m reminded of George’s contention, in the conclusion to Progress and Poverty, that “beyond the problem of social life lies the problem of individual life.” It may be that beyond the problem of economic history — which is, after all, ultimately resolvable to the satisfaction of everyone — lies the problem of cultural history, which is multifarious, intimately complex, and beyond the comfortable bounds of theory. We’re definitely not going to be able to get serious about that unless we can count on a just and prosperous economic order.

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