Henry George: Quotes & Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Henry George was an economist best known for his work, 'Progress and Poverty.' His core argument was that people own what they create themselves, but land belongs to everyone equally.

Roots of an Economist

Henry George tapped into the growing frustration of industrial America and sought to find an economic solution to the problem of wealth, land, capital, and labor. But before all that, he was born in September 1839 in Philadelphia, the second of ten children. His parents had modest economic means, and he dropped out of school at age 14. A year later he left home to travel the world.

George's exposure to poverty in Calcutta and Melbourne left a deep impression on him. Upon his return home, he was lured by tales of the California Gold Rush and he moved to California. George found little gold and he took a job as a typesetter. He married Annie Corsica Fox while there, and he gradually found his niche in journalism. He wrote for the San Francisco Times and then became a reporter and owner of the San Francisco Daily Evening Post.

Henry George Childhood Home in Philadelphia
Henry George Birth Home

Politics and Economics

George initially supported the Republican Party of Lincoln, but switched and ran as a Democrat for the California state legislature. He lost his election bid, but he soon turned to publishing his economic views. His early work, Our Land and Land Policy (1871), argued that people own only what they create, but land belongs to nature and thus to all people. George once asked: 'How can a man be said to have a country when he had not right of a square inch of it?' It was not his best known work, but it introduced his ideas to a wider audience.

Henry George
Henry George

Progress and Poverty

George's most popular work, and the reason for his enduring legacy, was Progress and Poverty, published in 1879. In it, he was primarily concerned with the relationship between land, capital, and labor, as well as its unequal distribution. 'What has destroyed every previous civilization,' he wrote, 'has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power.'

In some respects, this work is not seen as original, but a restatement of earlier ideas of economic theorists such as John Stuart Mill, David McCulloch, David Ricardo, and Jeremy Bentham. Nevertheless, it presented a clear view of his economic viewpoint, and it is the work for which he is best known. His basic arguments are broken down into two parts below.

Labor and Taxes

George's best known policy prescription was his 'land value tax.' He conceded that high taxes in general drained the economy because they created a disincentive to work. Think of it this way -- if the fruits of your labor are all taken away through taxation, you'll have less incentive to work, right? Why bother if there is less of a reward?

George argued that people owned their own labor and had a right to whatever they created or produced. He stated: 'Capital is a result of labor, and is used by labor to assist it in further production. Labor is the active and initial force, and labor is therefore the employer of capital.' However, he felt very differently about land taxes, which formed a core part of his thinking.

Henry George
Henry George

Land and Taxes

George argued that land first and foremost has a dual value. Land has a natural value in itself and a secondary value in providing space for commercial properties such as homes, buildings, warehouses, or factories. These additions to land in turn increases its value.

However, George argued since the amount of land is fixed, the concentration of land in the hands of a few creates an unfair advantage. He wrote 'the fact that the land on which and from which all must live is made exclusive property of some' was the problem. He therefore wanted to make land the common property for all people. He furthermore called for a 'single land tax' that would not fluctuate based on whether the land was improved or unimproved, or developed or undeveloped. As he pointed out, although salaries and access to consumer goods increased, wages did not keep up with the increase in prices, and high rents contributed to this directly.

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