Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book Review: 'Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age' by Edward T. O'Donnell

Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age

By Edward T. O'Donnell

Review by David Wineberg

As with so many of the great minds, Henry George was struck by metaphorical lightning one day. It happened while riding on the outskirts of San Francisco. Stopping to inquire on the status of land being parceled, a worker told him it was selling for a thousand dollars an acre. Instantly, George understood that the price of land was what creates poverty. It took another decade for him to formalize his theory. He went so far as to posit land as a third factor in the equation of capital and labor. Landowners’ rents reduced the income of both capitalists and labor, yet it was the only factor that was not expandable. Capital and labor were fungible, but you couldn’t manufacture more land. He wrote a massive book, Progress and Poverty, which eventually became a worldwide bestseller (first he had to self publish it), the first economics book to do so. A good sign was that the Vatican banned his works.

Yet he wasn’t a socialist. He was thoroughly pro-capitalism; it was class conflict he abhorred, and his “single tax” was to be the great leveler, achieving for real what America thought of itself in theory. The solution was to tax all land. This would prevent speculation and prevent rents, as they would be taxed out of existence. It was not seizure; it was taxation. He said poverty was an artificial condition of man’s invention, and the single tax would correct the imbalance. He became such a celebrity in New York they nominated him to run for mayor in an era when inequality was getting critically ugly.

O’Donnell sets the stage expertly, recounting the various key events that snowballed into a unique and unexpected political opportunity for George and the labor movement. George, reporting in Ireland, hardly makes an appearance for about a hundred pages of this “social” biography, as circumstances mount back home for his celebrated return and rise to political fame.

George’s singleminded focus on the single tax was also his weakness. After nearly winning the mayoral election in New York, he did not turn pro. He did not leverage the gigantic wave of interest in labor nationwide, did not take sole charge and build a national party, and did not become the federal level politician whose credibility and authority would be respected coast to coast. Not only did he not build his goodwill in labor circles, he downplayed and deemphasized it, melting his constituency into warring factions, while he pursued the middle classes. No surprise, it all evaporated. As much as he vaulted labor to the forefront, he also set it back 20 years.

The one odd thing about this biography is George’s next big book, on economics and free trade. Widely quoted even today, O’Donnell only mentions it because George lost the manuscript in a move to Brooklyn. He had to rewrite the whole thing. It was particularly important to both him and us because George left school at 14. He was a self taught economist, whose insights remain respected. But we never hear about it again.

This oversight aside, Henry George was a pivotal figure in a pivotal time. His influence is acknowledged worldwide. It is very much worth knowing and understanding the role he played in the maturing of the USA.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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