Progress and Poverty (edited and abridged for modern readers by Bob Drake), by Henry George

The Robert Shalkenbach Foundation, New York, 2006, paperback, $12.95, distributed in the UK by Shepeard Walwyn, London, 0 911312 98 6.

Just to envisage a book on economics and taxation among the world’s best-sellers is a significant stretch of the imagination for many people. Yet here is such a book. Progress and Poverty by Henry George has, since its first publication in 1879, sold millions of copies throughout the world.

However, in recent years, the 600 odd pages of the original have proved too much for contemporary readers, and it was allowed to go out of print. In order to correct this, and to make George’s work known to a wider audience, Bob Drake of the Chicago Henry George School began a five year project to ‘translate’ the language, one idea at a time, into a more modern idiom. This is the result, pruned down to half the original length, yet still containing all the ideas and arguments.

Though first published so long ago, this book still has an important message for all concerned with the inequalities of wealth, the causes of poverty and possible solutions. The book’s central message is, in Henry George’s own words:

‘The association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact from which spring industrial, social and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship, philanthropy and education battle in vain.’

As wealth increases, poverty spreads and deepens, but he is clear that this is not inevitable. There is a way in which the world’s wealth can be more equally shared. The essential problem lies in the unequal ownership of land and resources. George examines the remedies currently proposed (at the time of writing) such as increased government efficiency and regulation, better education, unions and co-operatives and even the nationalisation and redistribution of land, and finds all of them wanting. This abridged edition makes it clear that this is as true today as it was then.

His remedy is clear and simple: ‘We must make land common property’. However, this does not mean what it appears to at first sight. He rejects the idea that all land be nationalised or re-distributed, and we have only to look at what has happened in Zimbabwe, for example, to see that he is right. To be effective, he says, a remedy must flow with both the essential harmony of the universe and the natural development of society. One wonders what he would have made of the growth and decay of communism.

Ownership, whether of land or anything else, relies on the right of the individual to the fruits of his or her labour, and this relationship must be fair. This has, for George, a spiritual basis.

‘The laws of nature are the decrees of the Creator. They recognise no right but labour. As nature gives only to labour, the exertion of labour in production is the only title to exclusive possession.’

This means that people may only profit from land that they own by working it, and not in any other way. It is rent that he would seek to take out of private hands and put to public use. If this were done, he suggests, we would not need any other form of taxation. Whether we agree or not, his ideas demand consideration by all who are concerned with tax reform, and with workers receiving just rewards for energy expended, whether in ‘paid’ or ‘unpaid’ employment.

Taxation should be based on the following ‘canons’.

  1. It should bear as lightly as possible on production, least impeding the growth of the general fund, from which taxes must be paid and the community maintained.
  2. It should be easily and cheaply collected, and it should fall as directly as possible on the ultimate payers – taking as little as possible from the people beyond what it yields the government.
  3. It should be certain – offering the least opportunity for abuse and corruption, and the least temptation for evasion.
  4. It should bear equally – giving no-one an advantage, nor putting another at a disadvantage.

If universally adopted, these ‘canons’ could underlie substantial reform of the taxation system, and allow the funds for a citizen’s income to be generated. The basis of this tax is to limit social and commercial elites in their capacity to monopolise natural abilities and deny the same right to others. It is based on a single tax on location values (not merely land values, as George was prophetically aware that location is all important, particularly in the development of city structures). We only have to look at the spiralling rents in our cities to see the relevance of this.

In conclusion, I will only say that I tried to read the original many years ago, but gave up before finishing it. I suppose I was not sufficiently interested at that time, and the language and length of the book were against me.. This new edition is a different story. It held my attention from beginning to end, and left me feeling that the work of this pioneer still has a valid message for the 21st century. It deserves to be read again, even if you have the original. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, reading it will raise sufficient questions to make the effort worthwhile.

Jim Pym, Edinburgh