Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

6 Mallock and the "Most Elaborate Answer"

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

6 Mallock and the "Most Elaborate Answer"

Article excerpt

The publication of Progress and Poverty exerted an early and enormous effect upon opinion in the British Isles. One of George's first English theoretical critics was the litterateur and publicist William Hurrell Mallock (1849-1923), whose book Property and Progress was based on earlier essays, and published as a complete work in 1884. Mallock's attentions were not directed at George alone, but George was his most serious target. One twentieth-century commentator has gone so far as to describe Property and Progress as "the most elaborate answer to Henry George ever written." (1) Although Mallock's criticisms were essentially destructive in character, he was concerned to reason rather than indulge in empty polemics, and--unlike many of George's critics--genuinely sought to understand the gravamen of George's arguments and in places made important concessions to them. Above all, Mallock refused to accept the almost hysterical and highly personal denunciations that were much in vogue among the more comfortable social classes at the time: "There has been a strong disposition among certain English critics to regard Mr. George as though he were nothing more than a charlatan, and to think, upon that ground, that a passing sneer will dispose of him. In both these views we consider them wholly wrong: but even were the first of them never so well founded, we shall fail to see in it the least support for the second." (2) Mallock sought to meet George's principal economic arguments by an implied defence of the status quo.

The Malthusian Argument

The dialogue between George and Mallock was partly, though by no means entirely, concerned with the arguments advanced by T. R. Malthus. "Malthusianism" in its most sweeping form is seldom advanced by serious disputants today; but many people are still prone to adopt attitudes that contain a substantial Malthusian element, particularly when they are considering--for example--very poor people or societies.

All creatures, the Malthusian argument runs, tend to increase in geometrical progression. The lives of most wild animals will be terminated by violence, by starvation, or by disease. Man also tends to reproduce at an exponential rate, and the natural forces that keep his reproductive proclivities in check are similar to those that apply to the rest of nature. Whatever technological or economic improvements we make, the great mass of mankind will continue to live at around the level of subsistence. As we find ways of growing more corn, so do more mouths appear to consume it. If the Malthusian view is correct, then any argument--whether of George or anyone else--which turns on the contention that the economic condition of the mass of mankind is susceptible of prolonged improvement, appears to be in vain.

Mallock quoted the apparently devastating reply that George delivered to Malthus:

   Of all living things, man is the only one who can give play to the
   reproductive forces, more powerful than his own, which supply him
   with food. Both the jay hawk and man eat chickens, but the more jay
   hawks the fewer chickens, while the more men the more chickens....
   Within the limits of the United States alone, there are now
   forty-five millions of men, where there were only a few hundred
   thousand; and yet there is now within that territory much more
   food per capita for the forty-five millions than there was for
   the few hundred thousand. It is not the increase of food that has
   caused the increase of men, but the increase of men that
   has brought about the increase of food.... In short, while all
   through the animal and vegetable kingdoms the limit of subsistence
   is independent of the thing subsisted with men the limit of
   subsistence is, within the final limits of earth, water and
   sunshine, dependent upon man himself. (3)

Mallock was compelled to admit the force of much of George's argument. With one small exception, he confessed, "Mr. …

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