Richard T. Ely was a member of that small yet growing group of advanced economists who, even during Henry George's lifetime, advocated a substantially greater role for government in the economy. After earning his baccalaureate degree at Columbia, he pursued graduate study for three years in Germany, receiving the doctorate from Heidelberg in 1879. Following a little more than a decade on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, he became director of the School of Social Science, History and Economics at the University of Wisconsin where, in 1920, he founded the Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities. Later he moved this organization to Northwestern University and ultimately to New York, changing its name, after the first move, to the Institute for Economic Research.
Under his direction, the Institute, which was privately funded and that at one time had a staff of twenty-five or thirty, conducted graduate courses, produced a considerable amount of economic literature including a quarterly journal, and engaged in adult education through an arrangement with the United YMCA Schools. One of the founders of the American Economic Association, Ely was author of more than twenty-five books, and co-author or editor of many others. His potency was by no means confined to scholarly efforts; not least of his accomplishments was that of fathering two children after his second marriage at the age of seventy-seven. He had wide influence as a teacher and advisor clear into the 1930s. Msgr. John A. Ryan, the subject of a chapter in the present volume, was among his many proteges, and Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Jackson Turner, and John R. Commons studied under him. His circle of personal friends included such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. LaFollette, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Cardinal Gibbons, not to mention numerous leaders in academe, on the one hand, and the world of commerce and industry, on the other. Raised in a strict Presbyterian home, he retained a strong lifelong Christian involvement, and lectured frequently to diverse denominational gatherings, and also to meetings of the Chautauqua Society, which was religious in its origins and overall atmosphere.
While at Wisconsin, Ely was the subject of a sensational trial before the Board of Regents, stemming from charges of socialism by the state superintendent of education. The assault upon him turned into a fiasco, and, as part of their statement of exoneration, the regents issued a famous declaration upholding academic freedom, which was inscribed on a tablet in Bascom Hall. Before he left for Northwestern, they conferred upon him an L.L.D. and other honors.
Despite his rejection of laissez faire, Ely did not regard himself as a socialist. He held that only certain areas of business are inherently monopolistic, (1) and he did not, by and large, consider land ownership to be among them. Psychological reasons for his generally sympathetic attitude toward land ownership may perhaps be revealed by his autobiographical remark that "a strong attachment to the land is characteristic of nearly all the Elys and of most New England families. ... We, in Connecticut, loved the land we owned and would not let it go." (2) While he nowhere essayed a thoroughgoing critique of Henry George's writings, he did devote some adverse paragraphs to the single tax, and doubtless displayed his antipathy toward it orally in such a way as to inculcate his students, most of whom came to occupy positions that enabled them to further disseminate his unfavorable opinions.
In spite of his antipathy to the single tax, Ely, to his credit, was capable of generous sentiments concerning George's broader contribution:
Perhaps the greatest service of all which Mr. George has rendered
is to be found in the discussions of right and wrong in economic
affairs and institutions which he has provoked. There have always
been plenty to advocate the economic rights of the individual, and
it is very fortunate that now, at least, a few leaders of thought
are urging us to look at rights from the standpoint of the public
as well as the individual. …