Realizing Utopia or Sundry Reflections on the Future of Georgism

Cay Hehner

[A banquet presentation at the annual conference of the Council of Georgist Organizations, held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 6 August, 2005. Reprinted from GroundSwell, September-October 2005]

“After all the rest has failed you shall find within yourself the key to perfect change.” Sri Aurobindo

It is an honor to work with people who have not become cynical in face of the world’s dire injustices. I want to thank all of you who have been organizing this CGO Conference, and all who have been responsible for hiring me to the position as Director of the Henry George School, especially its President and all its members of the Board of Trustees. Since I have worked for the UNESCO-endorsed international city-project Auroville in South India since 1978 this has been the most rewarding work experience of my life. Even with working weekends this kind of work is its own reward regardless of its remuneration in lucre. The media recently ran a story of Ted Gwartney, long-time Georgist and assessor of Bridgeport, Ct., having upgraded the land value of a considerable piece of farm property owned by Mel Gibson, because he did not find it credible that Gibson was actually doing any personal work there as a farmer. The downside of this, Ted of course, is that none of us will henceforth ever be eligible for a bit part in one of his movies.

In expressing my gratitude I have to single out one more person who has been my mentor, since the days when I first became a student and then a teacher at the Henry George School, and that person is George Collins. Everything that I learned about Henry George I more or less owe to George Collins. If from kindergarden through postgraduate work I had a hundred teachers -- let’s say they were a hundred -- about 95 of them were so bad that I can still only speak of them in expletives deleted. There were five that were great, inspiring, and genuine educators. And George Collins was one of these five.

And this leads me to the topic of this evening: How to Realize Utopia and the Future of Georgism. I have a trick question for you: What do George Collins and I have in common? It may sound presumptuous to make an undue comparison with my mentor, but I think the one thing we have in common -- and we talked about this recently, George -- George Collins and I seem to be the only Georgists who have no cavils with Henry George! We think Henry George had great ideas and they can be implemented today exactly as he proposed. All the other Georgists seem to be saying George is alright but here he was wrong and there he made a mistake and that doesn’t work. In the day-to-day grind of our work we tend to lose touch of a lot of things. We tend to lose sight of the horizon. My father was a four-time Gold medalist and he sailed the Atlantic twice, the Pacific twice and he taught me the virtue of keeping the larger picture in mind. If you go on a long arduous voyage into the unknown you need to have your navigation intact, your celestial navigation. This is an in-joke between some of the HGS Board members and faculty and myself referring to a trip we once took together. In other words when you go on a difficult voyage into the unknown you need to know were you are going! If we lose sight of our horizon and our stars as humankind we shall not survive. John Dewey said in his famous appraisal of world philosophy that from Plato down there are only about ten social philosophers of the first magnitude and he counted Henry George amongst them. We concur entirely. There are only about one, two handful of philosophers who have throughout the vicissitudes of the ages not lost sight of the horizon for humankind.

Who is also certainly amongst those ten, is the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, one of whose aphorisms I have selected as the guiding idea for this speech. Sri Aurobindo was also the founder of the City of Auroville for which I worked as a young man at the age of 22, four years younger than my own son is now.

Lindy Davies recently put an article on his website entitled: Malthus -- Still Wrong After All Those Years. I couldn’t agree more and next to the excellent arguments Lindy Davies puts forth proving the good minister wrong there is one additional one that I always found most striking. If Malthus were right none of us could be here, at least not in these numbers. Malthus proved conclusively that the earth would not be capable to support a world population of 6.6 billion. So in a way all of us through our very existence are proving Neo-Malthusianism or Geo-Malthusianism -- to use an appropriate term of Mark Sullivan and Lindy Davies -- wrong. The on-going refutation of Malthus does not only mark one of the stellar hours in the History of Philosophy, it marks in a way the stellar hour and birth of Henry George’s own philosophy which obviously encompasses but does not remain limited to the land question. The conundrum that so baffled Malthus is indeed a vexing and serious one: why do with increasing material and technological progress increasing numbers of people are forced to a race to the bottom below the level of sustainable subsistence rather than being engaged in a leisurely walk to the top of wealth and comfort for all? According to the last count of the UN about half the world population lives on less than two dollars a day, that is, it is imminently impacted by life-threatening levels of poverty. This is a scandal that should put all of us to shame! Especially so, since no eminent economist, and no one in his or her right mind who has given the question some thought, denies that world production of food, shelter, and clothing can take comfortably care of many times a world population than the one we have.

Malthus, like Marx, saw and identified a social issue of paramount importance, but also like Marx he did not happen upon the right solution. The issue in Malthus’s case is, of course, overpopulation. Malthus’s undoing was not the identification of that issue, his undoing was that, albeit, he was historically made the first paid economist, he understood preciously little of economics and in our humble opinion he would have fared far better staying with his original line of vocation of being a parson.

It was Henry George who correctly pointed out that Malthus analysis never penetrated the surface. In identifying not increasing world populations as the main poverty-inducing culprit but Ricardo’s Law of Rent, George cut the Gordian knot of economics and social science. In reversing the increasing monopolizing of land and natural resources through Land Value Taxation (LVT) George gave a practicable solution to the problem of world poverty and a credible superhighway to wealth and well-being for all.

Mark Sullivan some years ago wrote a penetrating essay in which he analyzed correctly the various failures of Georgism to achieve a level of recognition and importance that it no doubt merits on the mere quality of its veracity. We would like to take Lindy Davies’s and Mark Sullivan’s essays as points of departure and in identifying the major problems and solutions we are facing at the present time and underscore why George is still right after all these years and how he did not only give us a blueprint of the Land Value Tax, but a concrete vision of a palpable, practical and highly realizable utopia. When asked what is holding Georgism back as a world force (I mean we have the earth on our side, that is not bad for starters, and it is more than anyone else has), when examining the question carefully four answers come to mind:

  • For about the last century and a half Marxism monopolized progressive thought to such a degree on a global scale that it made it all but impossible to continue activism along Georgist lines without constantly having to defend oneself the reproach of impracticality and the condoning of social injustice from the left (of not expropriating all the means of production), and of being a kind of totalitarian socialism in itself from the right.
  • The second answer is the obvious and rather deplorable human trait to fight more with one’s brethren than with one’s enemies. (Does that sound familiar?) As long as we continue to magnify the mote in our brother's eye while sweeping under the rug the beam in our own eye we shall continue to remain a house divided against itself and we shall continue to remain inconsequential and weak as a social force.
  • The third answer is a kind of faulty historical analysis. It is no doubt correct that great things have been achieved in the past. It is no doubt further correct that seasoned veterans of the Georgist movement have much wisdom and experience to contribute to our cause. It is incorrect, however, to think that we can survive as a social, economic, and political force if we target as our first and primary audience and potential of alliance and allegiance the class of 1935 rather than the class of 2005. It is correct that those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. Reverting back to the past, however, as a social movement does not lead to the conquest of the Future, but to a premature death and decay. The Future are our children and grandchildren and the upcoming generations, not our grandparents and great grandparents, God bless their hearts.
  • The fourth answer to what is hindering the realization of a Georgist economics is of course the question of ownership. If we continue to monopolize Henry George’s analysis and economic insights and fail to put it at the disposition of the world in face of the most serious global threats the planets has ever faced on a global scale we make ourselves complicit to its destruction rather than -- as was originally intended by George -- to contribute to its peaceful continuation and solution of its problems. In other words we have to open our discourse to the world rather than staying in our comfortable parochial little corner.

Many Georgists had parents or relatives from the preceding generations who adhered to the same philosophy. My own grandfather was a Georgist, so we pass on the torch from generation to generation, and that is well.

Another trick question: Who now are the potential Georgists of the future and from where do we recruit them? I don’t think that there is any question in the world that is more easily answered:

Potential Georgists are 6.6 billion people in the world and our “ground of recruitment” is the Good Earth in its entirety. Tolstoy was right: Henry George cannot be refuted, he can only be ignored! It is up to us who have “seen the cat”, or who have understood and tested the validity of his economic theorems to spread that message. How many people on earth now don’t have any direct access to land, how many in being thus locked out from the land, and thus from the gaining of their rightful livelihood are imperiled in their very existence? I have not seen the latest figures, but my guess is that this number by far exceeds the 3.25 billion skirting poverty line as quoted above. It is basically the ratio of landowners and natural resource monopolists to non-landowners and non-monopolists. A valiant war was fought in this country from 1860--1865 to end slavery on ethnic grounds once and for all. Unfortunately, given today’s economic practices in most parts of the globe, this becomes only a heroic job half done. Slavery on the grounds of economic injustice is rampant and all-pervasive everywhere and as long as we let this injustice remain unchallenged and unabolished, our entire planet, nay, all of our very existence remains gravely and permanently imperiled! What lies before us is not to fight the US-Civil War all over again, but to prevent a War of Secession between the so few very rich and the so many so very poor from going global and literally blowing all of us individually and collectively to smithereens off the face of the planet. Upton Sinclair identified the Spanish Civil War fought from 1936 to 1939 as the beginning of the first Global Civil War. And unfortunately we are right in it!

To go back to our initial quote: “After all the rest has failed we shall find within ourselves the key to perfect change.” This quote from the Indian philosopher, statesman, and revolutionary Sri Aurobindo highlights and illuminates one of the fortes of George’s insights and it throws into stark relief what needs to be done. We ourselves as zoon politikon -- to use the phrase of Aristotle -- or barely thinking social animals are imminently and eminently depending on nature for our very survival, indeed, in a certain sense, we are barely anything else but nature ourselves. If we earmark nature and the ownership and access thereof, to all but a privileged “happy few” we indeed are sawing off the very branch of livelihood on which we are sitting ourselves. All natural resources have been monopolized down to and including water. Air has not been successfully monopolized, no doubt plans in this direction are in the works, it has only been exposed to global pollution which in a number of densely populated areas at peak times reaches life-threatening levels. One does not need to be a trained economist or a died-in-the-wool Georgist to realize that the moment all air has been monopolized and put up for sale, those who don’t happen to have the ready change to buy their very air to breathe will perish. If we allow this to happen we enter into connivance with a kind of unconscious or half-conscious Eco-Fascism or Eco-Social Darwinism. And by inference we become only slightly less guilty of an avoidable foolishly man-made global catastrophe than all those in the first decades of the 20th Century who did not check and nip in the bud Hitler’s extremely avoidable rise to power.

It is a widely accepted truism that there remains an unbridgeable gulf and mutually exclusive dichotomy between economics and ecology -- between the Science of Wealth and the Science of the Environment. Either you make profit and money galore for the happy few and you destroy the environment as an inevitable fall-out effect or you pamper nature and forfeit all profit. We identified this kind of fallacious thinking as Geo or rather Neo-Geo-Malthusianism a little while ago. The man who sanely, forcefully, and rightfully exploded this kind of fallacy of course was Henry George. He becomes not only the father, but the “mother” of all ecologists, because in admiting the traditionally “female” element of Nature and traditionally “male” element of Spirit and all the other various dichotomies into the process of analysis he reestablished the original balance and he found the key and correct solution to our continual conundrums. Nobody in this world is or ever has been so depraved as to wanting to sell his or her own mother. Not even Hitler! Comparative anthropology teaches us that the vast majority of cultures both ancient and contemporary identifies Heaven with the male and Earth with the female principle. We globally think it the ultimate epitome of ethical depravation to sell our mothers, however, we think nothing of it to sell land perpetually! If there were no other arguments against the absolute private ownership of land to the detriment of the communal and “eminent domain” interest there always remains one that strikes me as more convincing than all the rest of them put together. Absolute private ownership of land presupposes the practically eternal life of the individual proprietor. Short of achieving that I fail to see how it can be otherwise justified.

I would like to end these reflections with a question and with a proposal: The question is the obvious one: How could we have gone so very wrong economically for such a very long time given the collective genius of all the eminent economists of all ages? The answer leads to another question: Since economics and the world economies have been so very mismanaged to all of our detriment for all this time the only possible solution to this dismal economic quandary is the following: The great economists haven’t done their homework properly! Rephrase this as another question and you get: Which of the great economists haven’t done their homework?

And for the answer I would like to single out all but two of the most eminent: Adam Smith on the right, and Karl Marx on the left, both arguably with Henry George the most globally influential economists of all times.

Strangely enough they all firmly stand on the irrefutable and well-established grounds of the School of Classical Economics. And with equal and unexpected strangeness they all do agree on the fundamentals:

Land, Labor, and Capital are the principal basic factors of production; rent, wages, and interest are the avenues of [re-]distribution. While Smith and Marx pay ample, initial lip service to that trichotomy, they quickly forget the factor land or nature for all practical purposes and henceforth work with an equation of two elements, leaving the third, most basic, and most importantly nourishing and balancing element out and unheeded. It may not be a coincidence in this context that Smith was a bachelor and that Marx was heavily abusive of his wife Jenny von Westphalen. And it may not be a mistake either that Henry George was by all accounts a considerate husband and ardent life-long lover of his consort Annie Fox George. So George alone did his homework and never for one second forgot to include land/nature as the basic factor of the economic equation.

For that reason he alone of all the great economic thinkers is still with us and we have to go back to the future to redress the global balance and re-establish the lost balance between ecology and economics according to his theorems. And this leads me to a concluding

proposal. If we want to stop dividing our own house sincerely and if we want to stop to look for minute motes in the eyes of our brethren while sweeping under the carpet the gigantic beams of our own eyes till the carpet scandalously hits the ceiling and breaks the roof of the divided house why not stop looking at this dismal spectacle of seeing the Nobel Prize of Economics be given every year to economists whose equations solve nothing, but who just entrench and deepen the gulf between the Haves and the Have-Nots? It is true that the venerable William Vickery received the Prize, alas, for a piece of economic analysis which had nothing whatsoever to do with Georgist economics. At the outset of the 3rd Millenium to my knowledge we have three great Georgist economists worthy of that prize -- and I gladly take additional suggestions:

  • The late Professor Robert Andelson
  • Professor Mason Gaffney
  • Professor Steven Cord

Why not propose all three as candidates for the Nobel Prize of Economics 2005 and set a sign and example of our joint will to go forward and in an open, united, and integrating fashion?

In concluding these reflections I would like to return to my initial question: the reason for the failure of Georgism to become a visible global force. After everything has been analyzed, said and done, it amounts to a common weakness in many Georgist friends and many an aspiring Georgist student, teacher, or activist: Don’t put your light under a bushel! I repeat: Don’t put your light under a bushel. After all has been analyzed, said and done, two things are needed to change our nature and implement social justice on a global scale -- and here I am quoting again from Sri Aurobindo: If you have the twin qualities of Courage and Love, all the rest will be added onto you.

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