Civilizations Greek Roman The Menace of Privilege Chapter Twenty-Three third part
|September 18, 2002||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
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.
start of CHAPTER 24, TO FREE NATURAL OPPORTUNITIES
To shake a city is easy even for the viler sort; but to restore it to its place is difficult, indeed.
The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government, presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government. All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.
- WASHINGTON: Farewell Address.
Ah! when shall all men’s good Be each man’s rule, and universal peace Lie like a shaft of light across the land, And like a lane of beams athwart the sea, Through all the circle of the golden year?
- TENNYSON: The Golden Year.
WE have now seen at some length the nature of privilege in the United States, and its varied and deadly fruits — that the wonderfully great volume of wealth being produced in this country is being most unequally distributed; that this is due to the exercise of powers of appropriation possessed by some individuals, and conferred upon them by special or general grants of government or by government passively sanctioned; that these powers are privileges, and are, in effect, what the word “privileges” in its original sense meant, private laws — laws for the advantage of particular persons; that in consequence of these privileges, veritable princes of riches are being raised on the one side, while the masses are being held down to an intensifying struggle for a living on the other; that this is producing two distinct classes — the one imbued with feelings of superiority and arrogance, the other of envy and hatred; that as a further consequence, public and private morals are suffering, the superabundantly rich falling into monstrous business practices, private infidelities, divorce habits and irresponsibility for child-bearing, while the multitude of workers are being reduced to conditions breeding want, sin and crime, from which must come general physical, mental and moral deterioration.
Proceeding, we have seen how, rising out of this state of things, the country is being divided into two great militant camps that of the owners of privileges and that of the resisting working masses; that the latter, organizing trade unions for defense, and then realizing the power coming to cornbination, have in specific cases passed from the defensive to the offensive with circumstances of tyranny and insolence; that to destroy trade unions, Privilege is abusing court orders and the military functions of Government; that in order to control Government, Priv~ege is corrupting politics; that in order to influence public opinion, it is reaching out for press, university and pulpit; that in order to extend its conquests and divert the popular mind with dreams of glory, it is directing foreign aggression.
All these results we have seen to follow a continuing unequal distribution of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth to be a fruit of the grants and passive sanctions of Government, called privileges.
Therefore in looking for a remedy or for remedies for this mass of great evils besetting the Republic, we must address ourselves to their causes — to privileges. What is the cure for privileges?
As was stated earlier, the privileges that concern us particularly are divisible into four grand classes or categories: –
- I. Private ownership of natural opportunities;
II. Tariff and other taxation on production and on its fruits;
III. Special Government grants; and
IV. Grants under general laws and immunities in the courts.
Let us proceed to consider these in order.
I. Private Ownership of Natural Opportunities
This is the underlying ill of the Republic. Other forms of privilege at this time attract more attention, but none compare with it in baleful effect upon the nation. For, reduced to simple terms, it means that the land of the United States does not belong to all the people of the United States, but only to some. That some, owing to the law of concentration, is diminishing in number, while the general population at the same time is increasing. The mass have to pay the comparatively few for the right to live on the soil of the United States, so that the aggregate of that payment is augmenting with multiplying population.
This state of things is not indispensable to high civilization. It is part of our civilization because we adopted it from other peoples. We might have adopted other land laws, or we might have originated laws. But it happens that we applied on this virgin continent the land laws that the Romans used when on their decline, and which succeeding European peoples, copying much that was bad with what was good of those institutions, adopted, thereby abandoning the principle of equal rights that existed in their own land laws.
And so this form of privilege was instituted among us not by a distinct and formal act, like the adoption of a constitution or the passage of a law. It came by absorption, with our language and other institutions from Europe. At first it did not appear in the light of a privilege, because few or none were deprived of opportunity of getting and owning land. But as the supply of free land gave out, and thousands and millions could not obtain any, and as the number of landowners is, not only relatively to the population but actually, lessening, the exclusive nature of the institution of private property in land appeared here. It concentrates land in few hands, precisely as if the land had originally been granted by special private acts, that is, by special acts of Government distributing all the land as particular gifts to individuals.
But because a bad institution exists, it does not follow that it should continue to exist. “There used to be cannibalism and human sacrifices,” says Count Tolstoy; “there used to be religious prostitution and the murder of weak children and of girls; there used to be bloody revenge and the slaughter of whole populations, judicial tortures, quarterings, burnings at the stake, the lash; and there have been, within our memory, spitzruthens [Spitzruthens – sticks used by soldiers when one of them was condemned to run the gantlet, a punishment which the victim often did not survive], and slavery, which have also disappeared. But if we have outlived these dreadful customs and institutions, this does not prove that there does not exist institutions and customs amongst us which have become as abhorrent to enlightened reason and conscience as those which have in their time been abolished, and have become for us only a dreadful remembrance.” (“A Great Iniquity,” London Times, Aug. 1, 1905.)
An institution which Tolstoy thinks has become “abhorrent to enlightened reason and conscience,” is private property in land. He says: –
- The evil and injustice of private property in land have been pointed out a thousand years ago by the peasants and sages of old. Later progressive thinkers of Europe have been oftener and oftener pointing it out. With special clearness did the workers of the French Revolution do it. In latter days, owing to the increase of the population and the seizing by the rich of a great quantity of previously free land, also owing to general enlightenment and the spread of humanitarianism, this injustice has become so obvious that not only the progressive, but even the most average people cannot help seeing and feeling it. But men, especially those who profit by the advantages of landed property — the owners themselves, as well as those whose interests are connected with this institution — are so accustomed to this order of things, they have for so long profited by it, have so much depended upon it, that often they themselves do not see its injustice, and they use all possible means to conceal from themselves and others the truth which is disdosing itself more and more clearly, and to crush, extinguish and distort it, or, if these do not succeed, to hush it up.
Count Tolstoy here speaks of the world at large, but his words have peculiar application to us, for here private property in land is having more marked effect than perhaps anywhere else on the globe; since it is cramping and warping the growth of a great, strong, sanguine, virile, intelligent people. For as the English Professor Cairnes says in words that may be adapted to the United States, “The large recent addition to the wealth of the country has gone neither to profits [interest] nor to wages, nor yet to the public at large, but to swell a fund ever growing even while its proprietors sleep – the rent-roll of the owners of the soil.” (“Some Leading Principles of Political Economy Newly Stated.”)
What does that signify? What, indeed, when we consider that the rent-roll of the Astor family in New York — the yearly income from the land they own in that city — amounts to millions; while the total yearly ground value of the whole of Greater New York equals, perhaps exceeds, one hundred and fifty millions!
What would the anthracite coal mines of Pennsylvania bring to their owners yearly if they were leased to a new set of coal operators? Would not the sum be enormous?
What terms would the Standard Oil combination make for use of its wells alone, supposing it were willing to turn over the business of oil production to other hands? Would it not seem to one who had not thought about such things as if it were asking payment for the use of fountains spurting gold?
And so consider the country generally, its varieties and vast amounts of valuable land. All is yielding a revenue or rent. This ground or economic rent is in the aggregate prodigious in amount, and all but a small portion of it is going into private pockets.
But this conceded, what is to be done in remedy? How is the principle of equal rights to be reconciled with individual use of the land? If all have the same interest in the land, each has a different interest in the labor he puts into or upon the land — in his improvements. The dullest can see that to declare all land of common right would make chaos of the products of labor resting upon the land, since none would have a place upon which he might take an undisputed stand. All improvements in or on land would be in confusion.
Fixity of tenure, assurance of a permanence of holding, is necessary for the advancement of civilization. How continue that usage and at the same time destroy the evil principle of privilege in land — of private property in natural opportunities? Does this lead to a proposal that the Government resume title in all the land in the United States and then lease it out in lots or parcels to suit, and so obtain the economic rent?
No; nothing of the kind. There is no need to disturb present titles. Let present owners continue to call themselves owners, but let them be subject to a tax heavy enough to take the whole yearly value of the land, instead of the tax that now takes but an inconsiderable part of it. Leave the land in its present hands, but tax its entire annual value into the public treasury!
That would leave the shell and take the kernel of the nut. Individuals would go on using land as they pleased, so long as they paid its full value, as a tax, to the public. It would cause all the people to share in common what Professor Cairnes calls “the rent-roll of the owners of the soil.”
Next Week: How and Why This Remedy Would Work
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