Henry George and Charity
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Ethics of Macro-Compassion
Henry George and Charity
Did Henry George view charity as just a band-aid, something more, or something less? Or did his writings and speeches reflect a deeper, more transcendent view of the notion of charity?
Here is the fourth installment of a six-part exploration by David H. Chester, looking into the topics of charity, compassion and economics.
by David H. Chester
George’s Implied Double Negative Transformation
Having explained both the working principle and the absent feature from the Georgist system for macroeconomic revival and tax restructuring, it remains to examine how his ethical philosophy may be expressed in the broadest possible manner. George’s deliberate neglect of the act of charity from his system, biases one’s judgement against the man and one is inclined to be somewhat out of sympathy with the high moral standing, with which his writings otherwise abound.
For example, it is clear from his spirited description of Moses14 that George would have a made a fine preacher, were it not for the stronger calling to which he felt drawn. Such capacity and well-tempered emotion in his relating to the Scriptures does not suggest that George wanted to restrict the practical expression of helping the under-privileged. In fact it implies that the opposite attitude would far more likely be true. Without an explanation being provided, his opponents could then logically claim that George was sincere, because he must have been exploiting his newly developed theory for personal gain, just as his general macroeconomic attitude of free-marketing competition itself foretold!
George’s failure to include in his proposals the giving of charity is of particular interest at present, because of our greater ability to understand and separate the various micro and macroeconomic aspects of social science. Today we are more aware of the difficulties and therefore we can better appreciate the strain under which George must have labored to express this vital difference with the implied consequences. He must have constantly reminded himself of the specific aspects of his subject, where it was prudent not to become involved.
An aspect that helps us to better understand George’s ethics is the strong relationship that his philosophy bears to the environmentalist movement. This caucus would conserve natural resources, demanding the avoidance of activities that cause their damage. They stress the need for restoration where possible, or the payment of compensation as a less satisfactory alternative, by those who treat the surroundings in an irresponsible manner.
In common with George’s views, free access to natural resources is a part of their purpose, but the aim here is of avoiding the harming of nature and of preserving it for posterity. This attitude implies that a person or organization who or which is destructive and careless with the Creator’s gifts to mankind, should bear the responsibilities and make amends, by returning the disturbance in nature to its former state, however chaotic. The development of this philosophy now becomes obvious. The implication of what George wanted in general macroeconomic terms, in essence is to instruct that:
We should not offend each other by restricting the benefit from the common right of access to land. The avoidance of this limitation exercises a mutual respect for personal freedom, tempered with an awareness of the social-economic justice on which our society should be based.
The double negative in the first sentence is the heart of the statement, the avoidance from wronging society (namely by the harmful monopolization of land rights) being the crucial transformation. As far as the writer can see, George was unable to adopt this direct argument, however the reason why he chose not to so do has never been examined. Perhaps with his limited Victorian knowledge and power of analysis it would have been too difficult for him to pursue this line of thought, but this does not seem likely. One can guess that within the confines of his macroeconomic attitude, this approach would take him too close to the paradox presented by charity, as described above. He might have wanted to avoid this situation because of the difficulty in giving an acceptable reply. However it seems more likely that he could never have explained it to this depth, because this style of reasoning would bring him in opposition to the beliefs held by his Church.
At this point in our discussion it is necessary to look at the religious aspect of the above implied double negative statement, and to connect it with the previously discussed charity problem.
Next week: Extenders of the “Golden Rule”
REFERENCES AND NOTES
14. “Moses”, repeat of a lecture, as delivered by Henry George in Glasgow Scotland, on 28th. December 1884, printed in a pamphlet by The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York. George describes the Mosaic laws as pertinent to:
“a Jewish commonwealth in which in the absence of deep poverty, the manly virtues that spring from personal independence should harden into a national character…”
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