Melbourne, April 1890
The motive of Mr Henry George’s mission to the colonies is one which all philanthropic minds must approve. His purpose is to better the condition of that large mass of mankind, who, whilst a smaller section of their fellows is revelling in superfluity, are condemned to what he calls the “hell of poverty”. His fundamental position is that the Great Father has given in the land an ample estate for all, and that the few who claim it for themselves to the exclusion of others are guilty of injustice.
Addressing quite lately the Baptist Ministers’ Meeting at Philadelphia, he contended:- “The want that festers in our centres is not the fault of God. The fault is with men; it is in our institutions. We are animals; we are land animals. It is only from the land that men can live. Man is a maker; he is the only animal that brings things forth. He cannot create; God alone creates. The first human being who came here was a naked man. In his powers lay the potentiality of all that has since been produced. Land is the passive factor in production, as man is the active factor. Now, suppose the land is made the property of a part of the people. We will have wealth on one side and poverty on the other. Give me the land; and I am the master, and men are my slaves. Slavery claimed the right to make one man work for another, without giving him an equivalent. This is what the landlord does. When I am forced to give my labour for that which God has created, that is robbery. In England, Scotland and Ireland, you find good men, God-fearing men, slaving away all their days for the merest necessaries and other creatures living in luxury on their work, proud neither they nor their fathers have ever done anything. This is worse than negro slavery: hunger is more cruel than the lash or the bloodhound. We have not abolished slavery; the more insidious form remains.”
“We make private property of what God intended for all His children. No Christian dare deny that every human being comes into the world with an equal right to the land.” As illustrating the innate propriety of this claim, Mr. George cites the following naive claim of an unsophisticated aboriginal:- “In New Zealand, the English Government bought the land of the Maories. Then presently a woman with a baby would come along and say, ‘I want to be paid for the land that belongs to this baby.’ The English would say, ‘We have bought the land and paid for it.’ ‘Oh, no; you bought our land, but you did not buy this baby’s land. You could not; he was not born then, and he wants his land.’ The fact of existence is a title to as much land as is needed for one’s support.”
He urges that the right to possess unused land so as to exclude those who need it for their sustenance, is as absurd as to claim possession of so much sea. “A man may not claim the fish which I have caught out of the ocean; but he may claim the right to fish in the sea. The products of the land belong to the individual; the land itself belongs to the community.”
His ideal condition of things would be one in which the State retained from the first formal possession of the land as trustees of the people. As such they would lease, as perpetual landlords, the land at such prices as would prevent any person caring to retain more than would actually meet his requirements, whilst the increase in value which population would foster would pass to those who would be the cause of the enlarged value. The huge difficulty is that in nearly every State under heaven the rights of property in land have been conceded, and could not be wrested from their possessors without a revolution too violent to bear thinking about. Mr George anticipates this objection. The abolition of private titles and nationalising all land is a method advocated (in conjunction with the compensation of present holders) by no less an authority than Herbert Spencer. Mr. George, however, repudiates the claim for compensation as unjust, and consequently sees how shocking and unworkable would be any scheme the initiation of which involves the annihilation of all existing titles, and their merging into one great national possession. He would neither purchase nor confiscate private property in land.
Men shall continue to call it their land and sell and bequeath it, but they shall no longer receive the rent. “It is not necessary to confiscate land, it is only necessary to confiscate rent”, and the panacea for all social ills growing out of the mal-administration of landed property is discovered in the appropriation of rent by taxation. The land shall be taxed according to its value. If of no value, no tax. If of little value, a little tax. If of large value, a large tax.
By this means the whole value of the land would be appropriated by the State, preventing speculation in land, replenishing the public coffers, throwing open the land to those who really need it, and making its retention impossible to those who would fain keep it for unearned increments.
By this tax he would supersede all other methods of taxation and meet all requirements of government. “Under the plan proposed, a man who has a lot will then have to pay as much as if he had a house on it. This will remove the temptation to corruption. The land lies out of doors; it cannot be hid; its value can be ascertained more exactly than the value of anything else. If you choose, you can put up a sign,. ‘This land, so many feet by so many, belonging to AB, is assessed at so much’. If it is assessed at too much, the man himself will complain; if too little, his neighbours will complain. Thus we can get rid of oaths, and we should get rid of many bad officials.” The money thus levied would go to make the commonwealth rich, instead of enriching the few who, by extortionate rents, keep the many poor.
We should like to see Mr. George’s theories reduced to practice and so tested. It will be a bold community which first does so. Nothing, however, will so cogently convince men of its worth as a good experiment. Socialism tested its vaunted power to rectify all human ills, and issued in the three failures of Robert Owen its great apostle. It proved itself incapable, in Britain and America, of producing the effects which its advocate promised to his followers.
Our own conviction is that the great evil, the root of every wrong, is found in what Mr George calls the other “active factor ” in all production namely, man himself. To better the condition of man is, without controversy, a Christlike object, and worthy of every Christian, but we must better the man simultaneously, or every alleviation of his lot will only give him larger opportunity for a life self-centered, God defiant! Mr George’s aims are worthy. He has secured the respectful hearing of large numbers of the best men in America, and he is doing the same in Australia, and if his scheme is at all feasible, he will doubtless find that his most reliable allies will be the men who call Christ “Master and Lord”.
One unfortunate circumstance makes Victoria give but small promise of practical response to his appeals. Its interests have been and are so intimately bound up with the protection of the products of labour by taxation, that it will require powers of persuasion superhuman, to induce a reversal of this policy. South Australia has also committed herself to a similar policy. Perhaps New South Wales will listen to his siren song, and immolate herself in an experiment which is said to have in it the promise of all possible social adjustments. Doubtless Victoria will cautiously follow her lead in view of such an outcome. Meantime, we cannot withhold our admiration of the well- intentioned efforts of Mr Henry George to put things right – from our point of view an achievement only very partially practicable.
Our very best can only issue in rectifications very inadequate in power, and limited in range. We want the presence of “the Proper Man”. Nevertheless, our heart goes out with a hearty “God speed you” to every endeavour to minimise human wrongs, with their consequent suffering.
Faint praise and backsliding is palpable in the final paragraphs of what otherwise is a fair assessment of Henry George’s ideas. One is left to wonder: why?