Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

20 Seligman and His Critique from Social Utility

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

20 Seligman and His Critique from Social Utility

Article excerpt

Edwin R. A. Seligman (1861-1939), a long-time doyen of American tax economists, criticized the single tax with such unrelenting vigor that of the six sentences comprising his biographical sketch in the World Book Encyclopedia one is devoted to setting forth this fact. Louis E Post, an ardent Georgist who served as assistant secretary of labor in the Wilson administration, speaks of him as "the chief antagonist of our Prophet's cause, the most influential in scholastic and also in business circles .... " (1)

Seligman was the son of a prominent banker, philanthropist, and Jewish leader who, on one occasion, declined President Grant's offer of a major Cabinet post. Upon graduation from Columbia University, young Seligman spent three years studying history and political science in Germany and France, returning to Columbia to earn both a law degree and a Ph.D. In 1885 he was appointed a lecturer at his alma mater; by 1891 he was full professor of political economy and finance; in 1904 he was named to the McVickar chair. Author of more than a dozen books, he originated and edited the Political Science Quarterly and served on numerous advisory commissions, as a consultant to the League of Nations, and, in 1931, as financial advisor to the Cuban government. Seligman's The Income Tax (1911) expounded principles that Congress embodied in the income tax law of 1913. He was active in New York City reform politics, and was chairman of the mayor's tax commission, 1914-1916. His distinctions included five honorary doctorates and several foreign decorations. He took pride in owning the largest private library on economics in America, rich in rare sixteenth- and seventeenth-century volumes.

When not yet thirty and already of professorial rank, Seligman took the lead in opposing George at the 1890 conference of the American Social Science Association in Saratoga, which was wholly devoted to a debate on the merits of the single tax. Their eloquent but acerbic exchange was the high point of the proceedings.

At this event Seligman provoked all of George's combative instincts, which were never far below the surface, with the assertion that "there is not a single man with a thorough training in the history of economics, or an acquaintance with the science of finance, who is an advocate of the single tax on land values. In biology, in astronomy, in metaphysics, we bow down before the specialist; but every man whose knowledge of economics or of the science of finance is derived from the daily papers, or one or two books with lopsided ideas, thinks that he is a full-fledged scientist, able to instruct the closest student of the markets or of the political and social organisms." (2)

To this broadside George replied that the antagonism of the professors toward his teaching was attributable to the domination of the universities by vested interests, condemned Seligman for his elitism, and asked: "If our remedy will not do, what is your remedy?" He went on to say that palliatives would not avail. "You must choose between the single tax, with its recognition of the rights of the individual, with its recognition of the province of government, with its recognition of the rights of property, on the one hand, and socialism on the other.... " He accused the professors of proposing "more restrictions, more interference, more extensions of government into the individual field, more organization of class against class, more bars to the liberty of the citizen. In turning from us, even though it be to milk-and-water socialism, you are turning to the road that leads to revolution and chaos.... " (3)

Seligman's rejoinder ended with a peroration that summed up the attitude of most academic economists of his day:

   Mr. George, you ask us, if the single tax is not the remedy, what is
   remedy? Ay, that is the question .... If we thought that you had
   the problem we would enthrone you on our council seats, we would
   bend the knee and acknowledge in you a master, a prophet. … 
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