Alfred Russel Wallace's Campaign to Nationalize Land: How Darwin's Peer Learned from John Stuart Mill and Became Henry George's Ally

By Gaffney, Mason | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Alfred Russel Wallace's Campaign to Nationalize Land: How Darwin's Peer Learned from John Stuart Mill and Became Henry George's Ally


Gaffney, Mason, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Alfred Russel Wallace would have bolted upright to see a 1987 article on side-effects of vaccination. Pierce Wright, Science Editor of The London Times, reported that a WHO researcher found smallpox vaccination to be spreading AIDS in Africa (11 May 1987).

One hundred years ago, Wallace (1823-1913) had questioned what he saw as the uncritical vogue for smallpox vaccination, chic and "scientific" in his day. He analyzed data to show it was likely to do more harm than good, and publicized his claims. For this "political incorrectness" he was attacked and ridiculed. Whether he was right then, or now, is not the present subject nor my expertise. It just shows the kind of man he was: his own man, inner-directed, collecting his own data and interpreting them himself, unswayed by cheering or jeering from the crowd. We may surmise he might dislike the oppressiveness of modem peer review, too, although he was on intimate terms with his own peers in his own profession.

Who was Alfred Russel Wallace that we should be mindful of him? He was the independent codiscoverer of the principle of natural selection, and coauthor of the theory of evolution. He and his friend Charles Darwin announced these simultaneously, and published their independent findings in the same proceedings in 1858. Many believe that Wallace was first, but he was not one to press such a claim, nor to give it any importance. He was a simple, modest man with no ego problems.

Wallace was a man who jumped disciplinary lines - critics would say "like a grasshopper," but we will see he landed on economic policy with the thud of a 400 pound gorilla. As Darwin's peer (and possible predecessor), his opinions were widely sought and heeded in many fields by social leaders. He mingled with Brahmins in Boston, Robber Barons in California, and a U.S. President in Washington. The success of natural selection gave natural scientists new authority to prescribe rules of social conduct.

Wallace also leapt into political economy. His invasion was probably a good thing. Political economy has benefited from many interlopers. Francois Quesnay was a physician; Adam Smith a philosopher; David Ricardo a broker and sometime MP; John Stuart Mill a customs official and sometime MP; Thomas Robert Malthus and Philip Wicksteed, clergymen; Karl Marx a sometime journalist and professional revolutionary; Johann Heinrich von Thunen a baron; Henry George a journalist; Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk a bureaucrat; Francis A. Walker a military general; and William Vickrey a mathematician.

Today, economists have become isolated even from each other, many of them deep in their private pigeonholes paltering over pointless paradoxes with a few pals prating in their own peculiar patois. Francis A. Walker in 1886 already was complaining about isolation and narcissism within the profession, yet his contemporaries were Renaissance men compared with many economists today. Ironically, at the same time, some emerge from their cubbyholes to become imperialists who flatter themselves with such titles as "The Expanding Domains of Economics" (friendship and admiration stay me from naming those authors).

The years have taught me that economists are difficult. They want to rule you by messing with your minds, but at the same time keep you at a distance with bafflegab. To get some forward motion, outside stimuli help. Wallace applied a strong one.

Wallace invaded political economy (as it was then called) along a route he knew well: land economics. Like George Washington and Anthony Wayne, he had been a surveyor. As a zoologist he was best known as a zoogeographer (The Geographical Distribution of Animals, 1876). He had drawn the "Wallace Line" through the Makassar Straits: crookeder and trickier than the Mason-Dixon Line, and marking a more ancient, enduring separation (that between Indo-Malayan and Austro-Malayan fauna). Wallace's insights were not just into man and nature, but man and nature in relation to land. …

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