Progress: Poverty or Prosperity? Joining the Debate between George and Marshall on the Effects of Economic Growth on the Distribution of Income. (History of Thought)

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Two Late-19th-Century Authors

HENRY GEORGE AND Alfred Marshall were among the most influential authors of the late 19th century. George's best-selling Progress and Poverty fueled many policy debates of the time; and Marshall's Principles of Economics, the standard textbook for decades, laid the foundation for modern economics. Each recognized the other's influence. In 1883, at the height of George's fame in the British Isles, Marshall acknowledged George's "singular and almost unexampled power of catching the ear of the people" (Marshall and George [1884] 1969:221); and over a decade later, when Marshall's Principles had begun to establish its academic preeminence, George described this text as "the latest and largest, and scholastically the most highly indorsed, economic work yet published in English" (George SPE:125).

Not only were George and Marshall important figures in intellectual history, but they had an important common ground in their deep concern with poverty. Both considered poverty mentally and morally debasing in large part because of its general association with relentlessly hard manual labor. The commonality of their views is best seen by simple juxtaposition. Said George:

The poverty to which in advancing civilization great masses of men are condemned ... is a degrading and embruting slavery, that cramps the higher nature, dulls the finer feelings, and drives men by its pain to acts which the brutes would refuse (George P&P:356-357).

In a similar vein, Marshall stated:

We scarcely realize how subtle, all pervading and powerful may be the effect of the work of man's body in dwarfing the growth of the man....[T]he poor labourer may live and die without even realizing what a joy there is in knowledge, or what delight in art; he may never have conceived how glorious a thing it is to be able to think and to feel about things and with many men (Marshall, in Pigou 1925:105-06).

Indeed, the "destruction of the poor is their poverty" and the study of the causes of poverty is the study of "the causes of the degradation of a large part of mankind" (Marshall 1920:3).

George and Marshall also shared the optimistic belief that "progress" could eliminate poverty from society. Neither carefully--nor casually, for that matter--defined this term,(1) but it is tellingly equivalent to growth in national income in George's work. Marshall therefore uses the same terminology in his three lectures on George's issues, and we employ it here instead of the modern term because of the importance of the historical coupling of "progress" and "poverty."

Unlike some modern critics of economic growth who emphasize the concomitants of debasing materialism, degradation of the environment, dehumanization of the masses by technology, and destruction of important elements in the "quality" of life, both George and Marshall were keen advocates of economic progress and regarded it as necessary but not sufficient for the good life. For George, as we shall see, sufficiency conditions involved redistributing land rents, while Marshall required educating the population and inculcating habits of thrift and restraint in breeding. Without such public distribution of rents, George owned that industrialization worsened the plight of the poor because of the deleterious effects of the division of labor on the laborers' independence and well-roundedness. Marshall deplored the unhealthy living conditions of the urban poor as a temporary cost of growth before the effects of his training programs became apparent.

However, George and Marshall both asserted that because poverty is the major source of moral degradation, a society rich enough to eliminate material poverty could achieve in spiritual wealth as well. In such a society, wages for crude labor would become so high that the hours anyone expended in such work would be minimal. …