The Menace of Privilege Chapter Seven first part
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under 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 7, ARISTOCRACY, A FRUIT OF PRIVILEGE
The Japanese say, “The cucumber vine will not bear an eggplant.” And likewise it is true that the idea of equality cannot spring from privilege. From such a source ideas opposed to equality will come — superiority, exclusiveness, aristocracy.
Land is the basis of an aristocracy, as De Tocqueville, in accord with common view, observes. Other forms of privilege help to create it, but ownership of land is the chief cause. This does not occur where none of the land has a high price and where plenty of good land is to be had for nothing. Only where it is hard to get, where the price of some of it is high, and where its ownership is unequal, does the ownership of land constitute a privilege. For then some, perhaps many, must ask leave of its owners for its use, and must accompany that request with a payment of rent, fixed by competition with others who desire to use it — a competition that intensifies as population grows. At all times and among all peoples in the world’s history, those who have owned the land have been the masters of those who were compelled to use it. We retain in the common term “landlord” the early meaning of lord of the land. We have forgotten that many of the names of rank in titled aristocracy arose originally from the tenure of land.
The principle of aristocracy arises from the possession of privilege, and of all its forms the ownership of land is the widest in extent, most potent and most permanent. Even when the start is made from equality of condition, those who acquire large holdings and become the large land-owners become the real ruling class, the possessors of other privileges swelling their numbers.
A realization of this advantage in material circumstances on the part of those possessing it begets the feeling of superiority and the sentiments of aristocracy.
This is not to say that virtue and talents do not bring a preeminence and advantage to their possessors, for they do. Jefferson, corresponding with John Adams on this point, called it a “natural aristocracy, . . . the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trust and the government of society” (letter of October 28, 1813, Jefferson’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. IX, p.425).
But what we are discussing is the opposite of this: an artificial aristocracy “founded,” as Jefferson described it, on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents a mischievous ingredient in government.”
In the early social conditions of the Republic there was, viewed from our standpoint of to-day, little of this artificial aristocracy. It was true that in the colonial days there had been a crownocracy who enjoyed the crown grants, offices and other favors. It finds modem examples in the “Castle Irish” in Dublin, who bask in the.sunshine of the Lord Lieutenancy. Among the American Tories, as they were called, were the larger landowners. General Greene was of opinion that they owned at least two-thirds of the land of New York (Whitlock’s “Life and Times of Jay,” p.92).
In Pennsylvania the successors of William Penn, known as the “proprietaries,” owned vast tracts. (In 1759 Benlamin Franklin was a leader in a popular movement to have proprietary estates taxed in accordance with other landed possessions in Pennsylvania. The proprietaries were only willing under extraordinary circumstances to submit to a tax on their “rents and quit-rents, but not on vacant lands, whether appropriated or not.” Franklin’s Works, Vol. VII, p. 319.)
While some of these estates were large, and while these large estate owners then practiced what they aim to practice everywhere, the evasion of taxes, there was in no sense at that time what nowadays would be called a monopoly of land. Easy and independent subsistence was within the reach of all. As Jefferson said of the country generally: “Here every one may have land to labor for himself, if he chooses; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence, but wherewith to provide for a cessation from labor in old age. Every one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order.”‘ (Jefferson’s Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. IX, p.428.)
So generally was it the rule for men to be self-supporting and independent that none were encouraged to look to government employment for a living. In proof of this Franklin took occasion once to quote the thirty-sixth article of the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania, running: “As every freeman, to pursue his independence (if he has not a sufficient estate) ought to have some profession, calling, trade, or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no necessity for, nor use in, establishing offices of profit, the usual effects of which are dependence and servility unbecoming freemen, in the possessors and expectants; faction, combination, corruption and disorders among the people. Wherefore, whenever an office through increase of fees or otherwise, becomes so profitable, as to occasion many to apply for it, the profits ought to be lessened by the Legislature.” (Franklin’s Works, Bigelow Edition, Vol. Viii, pp. 174-i 75.) In connection with this, Franklin said that the typical American of his day “would be more obliged to the genealogist who could prove for him that his ancestors and relations for ten generations had been plowmen, smiths, carpenters, tanners, tinners, weavers, or even shoemakers, and consequently that they were useful members of society, than if he could only prove that they were gentlemen, doing nothing of value, but living idly on the labor of others, mere fruges consumere nati, and otherwise good for nothing, till by their death their estates come to be cut up. (Franklin’s Works, Vol. VIII, pp.174-175. Said Franklin ironically “The people have a saying that God Almighty is himself a mechanic, the greatest in the universe ; and he is respected and admired more for the variety, ingenuity and utility of his handiworks, than for the antiquity of his family. )
The war of the Revolution distressed many of the American Tories. Some went to England, some to Canada. But a considerable number remained, though by reason of the cutting free of the colonies from the crown, they were, for the time being, reduced to quietness and submissiveness. But they were the main landowners, the possessing element; and if comparatively small, they nurtured within them the seed of an aristocracy, which, with the growth of population, would sprout and give forth a tree larger and stronger than the mere office-holding and favor-obtaining Tory aristocracy that had flourished during the pre-Revolutionary days.
Franklin constantly struck at this small but vital spirit of aristocracy of his time. Even toward the end of his life he leveled the shaft of irony against it and its trappings, commencing his will with the joking words: “I, Benjamin Franklin, printer, late minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America to the Court of France, now President of the State of Pennsylvania, do make and declare my last will and testament.” (Sparks’s Franklin, Vol. I, p.597.)
These were the early days of the Republic. And even fifty years ago De Tocqueville could say: “Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people.” (“Democracy in America,” Vol. I, p. xlii.)
At that time, as Dr. Gilman in his introductory to the French observer’s writings says: “De Tocqueville came to this country, and found not only political equality, but an absence of noteworthy social distinctions. There was no rich class, no fashionable class; there were no families of inherited importance, no privileged people.” (Ibid., Vol. I, p. xlii.)
Something must be allowed in the Frenchman’s broad statement respecting equality here to the fact that he had come fresh from a land in which were great social distinctions growing out of established privilege, notwithstanding the leveling revolution. He was as a man who, emerging suddenly from a darkened chamber, is dazzled by the blaze of the sunlight. Yet he did realize that the principles of social differences might exist in the United States, even though those differences be small and the line between them be very faint. For he affirmed “that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and soul of every faction in the United States.” (Ibid., Vol. I, p.227.)
As we have seen, a powerful class has arisen in the United States from possessing of land and other government-made or government-approved advantages. The Federal Constitution from the beginning declared that “no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States; and no person holding any office of profit and trust under them shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” (Art. I, Sec. 9, Clause 7.) But “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So the causes of aristocracy existing, its results will appear, even if under other outward attributes than those of titled nobility.
Mr. Bryce notes one aspect of this. He asserts that the railroads particularly “illustrate two tendencies specially conspicuous in America — the power of the principle of association, which makes commercial corporations, skillfully handled, formidable to individual men; and the way in which the principle of monarchy, banished from the field of government, creeps back again and asserts its strength in the scarcely less momentous contests of industry and finance.” (“The American Commonwealth,” Vol.11, p.532.)
And winning in what Mr. Bryce calls the “contests of industry and finance ” (which might better be called “monopoly and finance”), they acquire the power of aristocrats, if devoid of the garnishings. Professor Bascom of Williams College fearlessly utters a clear word on this point: –
- The multi-millionaire cannot be the member of a free state, on equal terms with his fellow-citizens. This would be true under any circumstances, but it is still more true when this wealth has been acquired in abuse and in defiance of economic and civil law. This additional fact shows that the tyrannical temper is present, which, opportunity favoring, will disregard all rights in behalf of personal power. We can but predict that the next generation is threatened with a still greater perversion of the conditions which belong to a free and democratic community. ( “Social Forecast,” The Independe, March 30, 1905. )
President Wheeler of the University of California, in a recent address on “The Abundant Life,” becomes still more specific, saying: –
- One of the saddest features of lives pursued by wealth consists in isolation from humanity. People who maintain steam yachts and dine Frenchfully at night and flit between Lenox and Newport and Palm Beach and Homburg are naturally and automatically driven into the society of the like conditioned and bound there. Their sons attend the same expensive academies, their daughters are polished off at the same elite schools, their sons and daughters meet together, and they intermarry and interdivorce, and the caste of the great rich emerges. Sound judgment and clear perspective in the motives and movements of human life are seldom found among these people of the caste who drag the golden ball and chain.
Next week — peerage and peasantry.
What’s your reaction to this chapter? Tell it to The Progress Report!