The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 44

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


Privilege Wields Subtle Censorship

EXAMINE the personnel of the Board of Regents or of the Board of Trustees of most of our universities, and what do we find? That men of large, personal fortunes or representing large wealth are prominent there. This in itself is not in any respect to be regretted. Proper is it not only that men of scholarship and executive ability should compose bodies so important to the progress of civilization, but that men of material substance should also be included, to insure broadness of lines and stability. In every age such are sought as patrons. In every age such men deem it an honor to help hold the torch of learning. In this country they give freely out of their means to that end, and they attract donations from others. "In England," Mr. Bryce recently observed, "nothing is so hard as to get money from private persons for any educational purpose. Mr. Carnegie's splendid gifts to the universities of Scotland stand almost alone. In America nothing is so easy." ("America Revisited," The 0utlook, March 25, 1905.)

But who are the men of means we nowadays find among our university regents and trustees, and who from without contribute so handsomely toward endowment funds? They are not mere men of independent bank accounts. They are Princes of Privilege. Generally, they are steam railroad, or municipal franchise, or tariff, or land-owning magnates; or bankers who back, or lawyers who advise, the large pnvilege-owning corporations. They are of the Blood Royal of the House of Privilege.

In the university, says the poet Lowell, "truth is sought, knowledge is increased and stored; literature, science and art are fostered; honor, duty and piety are taught." And says our contemporary, Dean Van Amringe of Columbia, "The voice of reason is the voice of the university."

Why, then, should not all men be glad of enrollment in this service? An added motive for Princes of Privilege is that the universities are to large extent what Bacon called "the eyes of the nation." The people as a whole view the world through the eyes of the university. Controlling the universities then, Privilege will direct the gaze of the nation. It will have them see itself, Privilege, not as Privilege - not as special favor or advantage - but as right. Hence it is that Privilege adapts for itself the Hebrew words of wisdom: "Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go; keep her, for she is thy life."

Once strongly established, Privilege turns preceptor. It quietly extends its influence over the upper schools. It benignantly fosters the adding of knowledge to knowledge. It encourages the investigation of all things: in the heavens above, in the earth beneath and in the waters under the earth. It seeks the nature, relation and sequence of all things. It issues the proclamation of universal law.

That is to say, it does all this except in respect to one thing: itself. It endeavors to hide from general view its own nature. It wants to be represented as other than that which it really is. It aims to be classified as wealth, when in fact it is not wealth, but only a power for appropriating wealth. Wealth is stored labor; labor impressed upon matter in such a way as to fit it for the satisfaction of human desire. Wealth is natural, legitimate and to be protected. The power of appropriating wealth is not natural. It is not legitimate. It should be destroyed.

There is a science, as exact as a physical science, that treats of the nature of wealth, and of the laws governing its production and distribution. This is the science of political economy. It should be a foundation science in a university, since it explains the conditions under which the civilized man gets his living. It might properly be called the corner-stone science of avilization. It goes to the base of society. It underlies all other sciences, as well as literature and art. Indeed, it is the very wellspring of "honor, duty and piety," since it deals with the question of how men obtain physical subsistence; and unless human physical wants are satisfied, morals cannot survive.

On the other hand, Privilege is not the subject-matter of any science, any more than is robbery. It is nothing more than a subtle means of confiscation; an ingenious and stealthy scheme of robbery. It means violence, disorder. It is directly contradictory to the peaceful and orderly precepts of science.

Obviously the science of political economy can have nothing to do with appropriation, with confiscation, with robbery. It has to do with the nature of wealth, with the laws relating to its production, and with the laws relating to its distribution among those who produce it.

Of course a university must teach political economy, else it is no school of universal knowledge. Indeed, without it, its instruction is all superstructure and no foundation. But with Princes of Privilege among its regents or trustees and its heaviest contributors, how can the real science of political economy which condemns privilege as robbery be taught? If it were so taught, the nobles of government favor would not for a moment lend their countenances and open their purses to the institution. They would not only leave it, and stop their own contributions, but through the control of politics, they would find some pretext to prevent contributions being made from the public treasury as well. They would do all in their power to destroy such an institution.

But the Princes of Privilege have no mind to abandon the university to others. They keep before them the Hebrew injunction, "Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go; keep her, for she is thy life." This admonition was intended for the mass of men, but Privilege sees in it a peculiar application to itself. If it would not have a kind of political economy taught in the schools fatal to its life, it must direct that instruction itself.

This is a fact plain of view to any who will look. "Teaching is more than a theory; it is an act," says President Hadley of Yale. ("Academic Freedom in Theory and Practice," Atlantic Monthly, February, 1903.) "It is not a subjective or individual affair, but a course of conduct which creates important social relations and social obligations." It follows that teaching - especially the teaching of political economy - must have regard to "social expediency."

What have science and morality to do with expediency? Nothing. They do not know the word. They do not compromise: advancing a little here, withdrawing a little there. Science and morality are not to be trimmed, or whittled, or paltered with. They are downright, absolute, final. They take no ifs, or buts, or perhapses. They deal with vast unchanging truths that were, that are, that ever will be. Expressions of the Supreme Will that made and governs the cosmos, they belong to a benevolent plan which, followed, would lead man out of his mere animal shell to an infinite progression. But expediency is his cry. It is the sign of his faltering weakness; the hobbling excuse for his non-compliance with the obvious natural mandates.

President Hadley admits as much. "Teaching costs money," says he. "Modern university teaching costs more money per capita than it ever did before, because the public wishes a university to maintain places of scientific research, and scientific research is extremely expensive. A university is more likely to obtain this money if it gives the property owners reason to believe that vested rights will not be interfered with. If we recognize vested rights in order to secure the means of progress in physical science, is there not danger that we shall stifle the spirit of independence, which is equally important as a means of progress in moral science?"

Vested rights? What does President Hadley mean? If vested rights accord with natural justice, what business is it of a university to "interfere" with them? If they violate natural justice, then it certainly is the business of the teacher of universal truth to condemn them.

If the language of the head of the great New Haven institution of learning lacks absolute clearness, we must remember that he is dealing with a matter requiring extreme delicacy of language. He is raising the question whether a university should be passively for privilege, or actively against it; whether it should refuse to build up its institution and carry on its work with money received from sources that it ought, in justice, to denounce, or accept the money, say nothing about its source, and so warp the moral teachings? For when he speaks of "property owners," he obviously means the owners, not of that which is properly, in the eye of uncompromising, unswerving, unchanging science, property; but what in colloquial speech and in legal diction is given that name.

Property in common speech and in law is any object of value which a person may legally acquire and hold. Piracy has at various ages been legal. Its fruits were at such times in the colloquial and in the legal sense property. The ownership of human flesh and blood was lawful in a large section of this country up to forty years ago. Legally it was property. Neither custom nor law now upholds these things. Neither in custom nor in law are they property.

The principles of political economy do not rest on human custom or human enactment. Nor do they change. They are based on laws of nature which are eternal. Those laws decree the unalienable right of each human being to himself and to the fruit of his exertions. Since a man's energies cannot produce anything except they be applied to natural elements, it follows that there must be free or at least equal access to nature, and no right of exclusion. Free human labor can then apply itself to the free natural elements and produce things needed to satisfy human desires. These things so produced are property. They are brought forth by labor from the natural elements. They belong to the man who produces them. The origin and only title to property in the politico-economic sense is production.

Privileges do not proceed from production: from labor applied to nature. They are not in essence even tangible things. They are grants of power: active or passive delegation of power of government to certain individuals to take property from other individuals. They are not moral; they contravene the moral law.

Is not this what President Hadley implies? When he uses the term "vested rights," he surely does not mean vested justice, but things that in morals must be classed as forms of injustice. "Vested rights" that are based upon the moral as well as the civil law can have no injustice in them, can do no harm, and should not be interfered with. But this President Hadley does not discuss. He refers not to what are morally vested rights. He speaks of what are legally vested rights, but implies that morally they are vested wrongs. Paraphrased to suit this meaning, the conclusion of his statement would be: "If we recognize vested wrongs in order to secure the means for progress in physical science, is there not danger that we shall stifle truth in its distinction between what constitutes the production of wealth and what constitutes the appropriation of wealth?"

Dr. Hadley answers this question indirectly. He implies that vested wrongs are recognized by the higher institutions of learning and that the truth of political economy is stifled.

Tolstoy, in one of his later books, "The Slavery of Our Times," has a chapter devoted to "Why Learned Economists Assert what is False." In another chapter, on the "Justification of the Existing Position of Science," he says:-

Tolstoy is not confining his arraignment to those who under present civil law are adjudged thieves and robbers. He includes as well those who, by privilege, by present social sanction, possess powers to take from laborers the fruits of their labor. Because such men do so appropriate, the distinguished Russian moralist accounts them to be, under the moral code, thieves and robbers.

What can be hoped for political economy in these circumstances? Biology, astronomy, physics, therapeutics, logic, theology and scores of other grand and sub-divisions of learning may be as free as the air. Deep researches may be conducted, remarkable advances made in application. The microscope may lend itself to horticulture, the telescope and camera resolve the Magellanic cloud into binary suns. The laboratory may disclose the illusive element, helium; the mysterious metal, radium; or open up a world of wonders embraced within the human frame. We may be informed how to double the crops, save stock from epidemics, or produce a new kind of cheese. Philology may trace through surviving words the wanderings of long-forgotten nations; anthropology search the gigantic Persian Rock of Behistan, and, despite the scour and scar of a score and a quarter of centuries, read from its granite surface the vainglorious deeds of Darius, the king of kings; and from bits of baked clay dug from desert sand flash back the learning, art, wars, love, wit, wisdom, pride, ambition and mishaps of the remote city of Nippur. "Many subjects are taught to large classes at the best Eastern universities," says Mr. Bryce, "for the study of which hardly any students can be secured in England."

But when subjects are approached that lead up to such nowaday things as the source of great fortunes, research and demonstration must move cautiously, lest all at once some one hit the pocket nerve, and, presto! away goes what President Hadley calls "the base of supplies."

Next Week: Endowing a Chair, Burying a Science

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