Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

1 Introduction

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

1 Introduction

Article excerpt

Purpose and Scope of the Book

"People do not argue with the teaching of George, they simply do not know it." This sentiment, expressed by Tolstoy in 1905, (1) had a degree of validity even then. The writers of economics textbooks in particular, when deigning to mention George at all, have tended to dismiss his contribution with a few patronizing sentences that, more often than not, display a lamentable absence of real acquaintance with his thought. (2)

Henry George was one of a long succession of political economists--including Adam Smith, Malthus, the two Mills, Ricardo, Chalmers, Sidgwick, and Marx--with no official training in the discipline. Like that of most of the other members of this line, moreover, his pursuit of the subject was merely a particularization of broader social and even metaphysical concerns. It was his misfortune, however, to have launched his theory just as economics was becoming a specialized profession, as signaled by the founding of the American Economic Association in 1885 by scholars, many of whom had done postgraduate study in Germany. Henceforth, at least in the United States, he who presumed to write on economic theory without having first armed himself with advanced degrees in the field would run the risk of being disparaged as an amateur in academic circles. And George held no degrees at all--advanced or otherwise! His response to the coolness elicited by his ideas in these circles was scarcely calculated to dispel it. It was perhaps both understandable and inevitable that this self-taught reformer, who believed with passionate sincerity in the unassailability of his logic and the imperative necessity of his social program, should impute motives of intellectual cowardice to his scholarly detractors. "George's unwarranted suspicion, even contempt, for the academic world, an attitude duplicated by many of his followers, undoubtedly created much antagonism for him among the very people whose endorsement he desperately needed." (3) And this antagonism all too often manifested itself in contemptuous silence or peremptory dismissal.

Yet there have been those who, Tolstoy to the contrary notwithstanding, have argued with the teaching of George. Not all of their arguments have been sketchy, crude, or ill-informed; several have been detailed, closely reasoned, and based upon a careful study of his works. Had most of his disciples in this century taken Tolstoy's assertion (justifiably a commonplace among them) less literally, they might have discovered not a few criticisms worthy of their analysis and possible refutation, together with some areas in which the master's legacy could profit from judicious modification or supplementation.

I do not, of course, wish to impart the impression that George's thought met with only hostile or indifferent response among the literati. A formidable list of testimonials, ranging from Tolstoy and Sun Yat-sen to Nicholas Murray Butler and John Dewey, could be cited to show the opposite. (4) The list would, in fact, contain statements from some prominent economists, although not many have accorded unqualified approval to the Georgist doctrine. Even George's most dedicated opponents have, almost without exception, paid tribute to the eloquence of his literary style and the luminous nobility of his intentions, and some have credited him with calling needed attention to abuses, with awakening their interest in economic problems, and with performing yeoman service in exposing certain hoary fallacies. (5) Joseph Schumpeter, to mention but one recent economist of great distinction, spoke appreciatively of George in no uncertain terms in his last book, History of Economic Analysis, posthumously published. *

My purpose here, however, is not to rehearse encomia; that task may be left to the various periodicals of the Georgist movement without fear that they will be in the least delinquent in fulfilling it. Rather, I am convinced that the highest tribute we can pay his memory, and the one that he himself would cherish most, is to present as fairly as possible the arguments of his most significant critics, and to weigh them in the scales both of abstract reason and of empirical evidence. …

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