Apprehending the Social Philosophy of Henry George

By McCann, Charles R., Jr. | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Apprehending the Social Philosophy of Henry George


McCann, Charles R., Jr., The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Robert Andelson's impressive collection of critical appraisals of the principles and ideas of Henry George brings into focus nearly all of the major controversies surrounding George's masterwork, Progress and Poverty. That this single work, from a journalist, no less, a mere popularizer, whose knowledge of economic theory came through an appreciation of the writings of the classical economic thinkers and not through any formal academic training, should generate such intense international interest and no small amount of consternation is a testament to the power of the message, if not the messenger.

The Andelson collection stands as a testament to the grandeur of George's work. Many of the great economists of George's time (and since) contributed to the debate as to the substance of Progress and Poverty and the merits of the arguments therein developed. Francis A. Walker, John Bates Clark, Alfred Marshall, Richard T. Ely, Frank H. Knight, and E A. Hayek are but a few of the eminent academics who felt it necessary to confront George on the issues addressed in his great book.

While the coverage afforded by Andelson is impressive, some few lacunae remain. It is the purpose of this paper to consider but three questions that have to now received insufficient attention: George's views with respect to the nationalization of land, the efficacy of socialism, and the place of the individual.

I

Argyll's Attack

WE SHALL BEGIN by considering a quite serious charge leveled by the critic who perhaps took the greatest offense. In an acknowledged but otherwise neglected essay on Progress and Poverty, George Douglas Campbell, the eighth Duke of Argyll, presents an interpretation of George that is absolutely uncompromising in its ferocity and tenor. In "The Prophet of San Francisco" (1884), Argyll states in no uncertain terms his opinion of the works of George (not confined to Progress and Poverty): "Never, perhaps, have communistic theories assumed a form more curious, or lent themselves to more fruitful processes of analysis, than in the writings of Mr. Henry George" (Argyll 1884: 540). (1) George's depiction of the conditions of modern society is little more than "a picture only of the darkest shadows with a complete omission of the lights," a portrayal of the problems afflicting industrial society that one might more realistically expect to find in the pages of a Victorian novelist than in what purports to be a sober analysis of the circumstances of the working classes and the plight of the poor. This representation is the drama of a "Pessimist," who "has a theory of his own as to the only remedy for all the evils of humanity; and this remedy he knows to be regarded with aversion both by the intellect and by the conscience of his countrymen" (1884: 541). His solution to the ills of society, appearing to Argyll to call for a wholesale alteration of the existing social order, commends him as a "Preacher of Unrighteousness," a scourge of custom and tradition, and destroyer of those institutional structures that are essential to the stability of any society. This is highlighted in the fact that "he goes to the roots of things, and shows us how unfounded are the rules of probity, and what mere senseless superstitions are the obligations which have been only too long acknowledged" (1884: 548).

George's great Satan is Thomas Robert Malthus, the preacher cure economist whose theory of population George expends considerable space in criticism--specifically, he argues that the Malthusian philosophy requires a static vision of human progress and so is in conflict with development theories, such as those of Herbert Spencer. To Argyll, George is as all communists who seek to promote their peculiar theories of social development by condemning the conclusions of the Parson--in the present case, Argyll insists that George actually accepts the empirical evidence as to the validity of Malthus's theory, while stubbornly refusing to admit it the status of a law of economic development (Argyll 1884: 541-542). …

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