Henry George In New England

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In May, 1890, Henry George delivered three public lectures in northern New South Wales, Australia. Reports of two of these lectures were recently discovered in the Dixson Library of the University of New England and re-published in the History of Economics Review (M.L Threadgold and J.M. Pullen, pp. 83-95) No. 23, 1996

Glen Innes Examiner, June 3, 1890
The Armidale Lecture
Henry George in New England
– by X.L.

Monday, the 26th inst., was announced as the date of the great social reformer’s visit to Armidale, but somehow his managers had contrived to make the least possible use of the occasion by neglecting to give publicity to the event by the ordinary means of advertisement throughout the district. Although the visit of Mr Henry George was intended to serve as his personal introduction to the New England district – including Glen Innes, Walcha and Uralla; yet, so far as we know, no advertisement outside of Armidale was inserted in any other newspaper circulating in New England.

Arriving at the city by the northern train, we certainly expected to see the usually crowded platform filled with representatives of the intelligence and even the beauty of Armidale, to do honour to the arrival of a man who – whatever may be his faults as a practical politician – has succeeded by the mere power of his genius in stirring the intellectual faculty of his fellow man throughout the civilised world to a depth which has not been equalled since the “Contrat Social” came hot from the brain of Jean Jacques Rosseau (sic), and developed itself in living action during the next generation by means of the French Revolution. Whether “Progress and Poverty” will so fertilise the mind of the present generation as to produce in the next a peaceful political Reformation, which will banish the inequality of the conditions of life, and save this fair country of ours from being swallowed up in the Stygian pool of landlordism; or whether its voice will be rather that of “one crying in the wilderness”, a warning note only of sudden and sanguinary revolution to come; the fact remains that the author of this monumental work, so far as Armidale was concerned on Monday last, “came to his own and his own received him not”.

Had a couple of unaspirating members of Parliament, aspiring nevertheless to be Cabinet Minister in futuro, arrived at the cathedral city to do a bit of log-rolling about land offices or railways, the platform would doubtless have been crowded; but on Monday, although the city was so full that a bed could not be got for love or money, and a shakedown was a matter of favour, yet it was not the great solver of social problems who had drawn the crowd, but a programme of trotting matches, hurdle races, and football which had filled the town with muscular Christians. From them the question, “Are you going to hear Henry George this evening?” brought the answer, “Perhaps I may look in after settling,” so that having no anxiety about getting a seat we betook ourselves leisurely to the Town Hall in the evening without much fear of being trampled upon by a crowd of hungry truth-seekers.

Yet the large hall was fairly filled, and when Mr George appeared on the stage the applause was hearty and genuine enough. A somewhat clumsy and insignificant figure, clad Yankee-like in broadcloth trousers and double-breasted frock coat, whose cut Holly would not perhaps own to, with a presence that at first reminded one of a “meenister’s”, gave no promise of great magnetic influence. A somewhat thin and harsh voice gave no promise of what is called oratorical power, but when the footlights illuminated the rugged, homely face, and brought the square cut brow and massive head into bold relief against the darkness of the empty stage behind, the eye then rested on something that commanded attention and as the lecture proceeded a certain art of posing the body in rhythm with the action of the arms and hands, and a marvellous control over the modulations of his voice, forced the listener to attend, made him feel that he was in the presence of one of nature’s kings, and impressed him all the more forcibly owing to the very absence of sensational adjuncts.

The lecture itself was short, little over an hour, and except that once the lecturer allowed himself to be betrayed for a few minutes into a rather tedious repetition, that hour sped swiftly. Of course it is impossible in an hour to do justice to all or even part of the topics discussed in Mr George’s writings; he therefore cleared a little space on the bedrock – the land question – which underlies all political enquiry, and there planted the seed which may fertilise hereafter in many a shrewd New England brain.

Taking the land question as necessarily the fundamental question – the bedrock so to speak – of all political enquiry, Mr George without preamble announced himself as about to give a reason for the doctrine of the Single Tax to which he stood pledged. In order to understand my doctrine, said he, you must understand the great economic law of rent. Economic rent has nothing whatever to do with rent as generally understood – that is, the rent of land inclusive of its improvements; it simply includes the unimproved value of the land in its natural state – which may be nil – together with the whole additional value conferred upon it by the increase of population, and consequent growth of civilisation. This is rent economically speaking, and he illustrated the increase of rent by the position of the ranks of chairs on which the audience were seated. Let the front rank represent land which produces 20 bushels of wheat, bags of potatoes, or anything else that is the best from its quality and position. Rank No 2 produces 19, and is therefore second best, and so on until the last, which is the worst. The labour on each class of land being the same, it is obvious that No 1 is five, 10 or 20 times better than inferior land; or, in other words, a man could give five, 10 or 20 pence, shillings or pounds more in proportion for it, as a stand upon which to employ his labour. Hence rent – economic rent – arises as a necessary condition of things, and is therefore called the law of rent. This rent must go to someone, and as its increase is not caused by the improvements or labour of any individual, but by the growth of population and public improvements consequent on civilisation, it is just that the community, whose increase in members and civilisation creates rent, should be the recipient of it. But when land comes into private ownership, the individual receives what he has not created, instead of the Commonwealth.

Henry George proposes therefore to appropriate economic rent as national revenue, which increasing along with, and in consequence of population will thus supply a constantly sufficient fund for all the purposes of government, will enable governments to sweep away the whole taxation through customs, and live upon the rent of the national estate, just as the landlords do now on the rent of their private estates.

By this means it is theoretically possible to establish Freetrade; by which Henry George means, not English or Sydney Freetrade, which levies duties through the custom (sic) houses for revenue purposes to the extent of one-fourth its whole income, and which he describes as spurious or German-silver freetrade – but absolute Freetrade – freedoms from customs as well as excise.

At this point the lecturer descended from his high level to a little play to the “gallery”, by tongue-flogging what he called “howling Protectionists”, though later on he let it be again seen that the great theme does not touch the colonial or domestic dispute between Freetrade and Protection at all, as he has no more sympathy for the one than the other. (See “Protection or Freetrade,” Chap VIII, in which he declares “protection is the only justification for a revenue tariff”, and that “the advocate (sic) of a tariff revenue only, have no case”.)

Returning to the Law of Rent, the lecturer declared that it was as simple as the laws of nature; profound and all embracing as they are, unchangeable and beneficent as they are – for the profoundest things are also the simplest. This irresistible (sic) and unchangeable economic law of rent provides therefore a means of relieving labor and the products of labor, as well as capital – which is but labor accumulated or labor saved, labor in latent condition-from all taxation. He traced some of the effects of the application of this doctrine, upon the actual conditions of life, leading to abolition of municipal rates, poor rates, customs and excise; the possibility of ennobling the national and individual (sic) life by creating libraries, public baths, even free railways, out of the rent of the public estate. Finally, its effect on poverty, that greatest of modern problems; illustrating the pressure of modern poverty by the declaration of an American judge that there were families to whom an increase of numbers among the proletarian classes of New York meant only “another boy for the penitentiary, another girl for the brothel”.

-ooOoo-

At the close of his lecture the chairman invited questions, and Mr George spent over half an hour in good humoredly replying to some childlike queries asked with a mysterious assumptions (sic) of importance by the junior member for Glen Innes, who, having been told by someone that Henry George is a Freetrader, sought to “put him down” by asking if he thought the Single Tax would abolish the natural selfishness of mankind, and especially of the Sydney importor (sic). Fortunately Sir Henry Parkes was not there, but as the audience clamoured loudly against monopoly of the privilege of questioning the lecturer, place was given at the chairman’s request to Mr Cleghorn and some other questioners who received instructive replies.

Mr Henry George and the chairman occupied the stage alone, and though the effect was to make the lecturer’s physique more striking when lit up by the footlights against the comparatively dark background, yet the loneliness of his position was to a stranger somewhat conspicuous, and suggestive of the position occupied by the prophets and truth seekers of all ages in the delivery of their messages, who have ever lived alone, worked alone, and died alone.

Re-printed in Good Government, October, 1996

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