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1897

After Nestor: Henry George and State Socialism

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Tucker chastises the naive libertarianism of Henry George’s land reformers—Land alone feeds no one, and a free society first requires a free money.

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Part Four: Land and Rent

 

Mere Land No Saviour for Labor. 

(published in Liberty on May 7, 1887)

Here is a delicious bit of logic from Mr. George: “If capital, a mere creature of labor, is such an oppressive thing, its creator, when free, can strangle it by refusing to reproduce it.” The italics are mine. If capital is oppressive, it must be oppressive of labor. What difference does it make, then, what labor can do when free? The question is what it can do when oppressed by capital. Mr. George’s next sentence, to be sure, indicates that the freedom he refers to is freedom from land monopoly. But this does not improve his situation. He is enough of an economist to be very well aware that, whether it has land or not, labor which can get no capital—that is, which is oppressed by capital—cannot, without accepting the alternative of starvation, refuse to reproduce capital for the capitalists.

It is one thing for Mr. George to sit in his sanctum and write of the ease with which a man whose sole possession is a bit of land can build a home and scratch a living; for the man to do it is wholly another thing. The truth is that this man can do nothing of the sort until you devise some means of raising his wages above the cost of living. And you can only do this by increasing the demand for his labor. And you can only increase the demand for his labor by enabling more men to go into business. And you can only enable more men to go into business by enabling them to get capital without interest by abolishing the money monopoly, which, by limiting the supply of money, enables its holders to exact interest. And when you have abolished the money monopoly, and when, in consequence, the wages of the man with the bit of land have begun to rise above the cost of living, the labor question will be nine-tenths solved. For then either this man will live better and better, or he will steadily lay up money, with which he can buy tools to compete with his employer or to till his bit of land with comfort and advantage. In short, he will be an independent man, receiving all that he produces or an equivalent thereof. How to make this the lot of all men is the labor question. Free land will not solve it. Free money, supplemented by free land, will.

 

Henry George’s “Secondary Factors.” 

(published in Liberty on September 24, 1887)

In trying to answer the argument that land is practically useless to labor unprovided with capital, Henry George declares that “labor and land, even in the absence of secondary factors obtained from their produce, have in their union to-day, as they had in the beginning, the potentiality of all that man ever has brought, or ever can bring, into being.”

This is perfectly true; in fact, none know it better than the men whom Mr. George thus attempts to meet.

But, as Cap’n Cuttle was in the habit of remarking, “the bearin’ o’ this ere hobserwation lies in the application on’t,” and in its application it has no force whatever. Mr. George uses it to prove that, if land were free, labor would settle on it, thus raising wages by relieving the labor market.

But labor would do no such thing.

The fact that a laborer, given a piece of land, can build a hut of mud, strike fire with flint and steel, scratch a living with his finger-nails, and thus begin life as a barbarian, even with the hope that in the course of a lifetime he may slightly improve his condition in consequence of having fashioned a few of the ruder of those implements which Mr. George styles “secondary factors” (and he could do no more than this without producing for exchange, which implies, not only better machinery, but an entrance into that capitalistic maelstrom which would sooner or later swallow him up,—this fact, I say, will never prove a temptation to the operative of the city, who, despite his wretchedness, knows something of the advantages of civilization and to some extent inevitably shares them.

Man does not live by bread alone.

The city laborer may live in a crowded tenement and breathe a tainted air; he may sleep cold, dress in rags, and feed on crumbs; but now and then he gets a glimpse at the morning paper, or, if not, then at the bulletin-board; he meets his fellow-men face to face; he knows by contact with the world more or less of what is going on in it; he spends a few pennies occasionally for a gallery-ticket to the theatre or for some other luxury, even though he knows he “can’t afford it”; he hears the music of the street bands; he sees the pictures in the shop windows; he goes to church if he is pious, or, if not, perhaps attends the meetings of the Anti-Poverty Society and listens to stump speeches by Henry George; and, when all these fail him, he is indeed unfortunate if some fellow-laborer does not invite him to join him in a social glass over the nearest bar.

Not an ideal life, surely; but he will shiver in his garret and slowly waste away from inanition ere he will exchange it for the semi-barbarous condition of the backwoodsman without an axe. And, were he to do otherwise, I would be the first to cry: The more fool he!

Mr. George’s remedy is similar—at least for a part of mankind—to that which is attributed to the Nihilists, but which few of them ever believed in,—namely, the total destruction of the existing social order and the creation of a new one on its ruins.

Mr. George may as well understand first as last that labor will refuse to begin this world anew. It never will abandon even its present meagre enjoyment of the wealth and the means of wealth which have grown out of its ages of sorrow, suffering, and slavery. If Mr. George offers it land alone, it will turn its back upon him. It insists upon both land and tools. These it will get, either by the State Socialistic method of concentrating the titles to them in the hands of one vast monopoly, or by the Anarchistic method of abolishing all monopolies, and thereby distributing these titles gradually among laborers through the natural channels of free production and exchange.

 

The State Socialists and Henry George. 

(published in Liberty on September 24, 1887)

Just as I have more respect for the Roman Catholic Christian who believes in authority without qualification, than for the Protestant Christian who speaks in the name of liberty, but does not know the meaning of the word, so I have more respect for the State Socialist than for Henry George, and in the struggle between the two my sympathy is with the former. Nevertheless the State Socialists have only themselves to blame for the support they have hitherto extended to George, and the ridiculous figure that some of them now cut in their sackcloth and ashes is calculated to amuse. Burnette G. Haskell, for instance. In his Labor Enquirer, previous to the issue of August 20, he had been flying the following flag: “For President in 1888, Henry George.” But in that issue, having heard of the New York schism, he lowered his colors and substituted the following: “For President in 1888, any man who will go as the servant of the people and not as their ‘boss,’ and who understands that poverty can only be abolished by the abolition of the competitive wage system and the inauguration of State Socialism.” When Haskell hoisted George’s name, did he not know that his candidate believed that poverty was not to be abolished by the abolition of the wage system? If he did not know this, his knowledge of his candidate must have been limited indeed. If he did know it, the change of colors indicates, not the discarding of a leader, but a revolution in ideas. Yet Haskell is undoubtedly not conscious of any revolution in his ideas, and would admit none. All of which tends to show that he has no ideas definite enough to be revolutionized.

 

Liberty and the George Theory.

(published in Liberty on November 5, 1887)

There is much in Liberty to admire, and in Anarchism that I believe has a divine right of way. But I see little of these qualities in the criticisms made by Editor Tucker on the George movement, and much, as I think, of the exaggeration and inconsistency inherent in the Anarchistic temper and teachings.

You have “more respect,” you say, “for the State Socialist than for Henry George,” and “in the struggle between the two your sympathy is with the former.” This is vague, to say the least; and the meaning is not helped by the comparison with “the Roman Catholic who believes in authority without qualification, and the Protestant who speaks in the name of liberty, but does not know the meaning of the word.” Such expressions seem to me to point no issue, but to dodge or confuse issues. The question is threefold, relating to tactics, spirit, and doctrine, which are not always one, or of the same relative importance. You do not say whether the expulsion of the Socialists was just, whether they acted in good faith as members of the United Labor party, or believed their doctrine had any logical filiation with its platform. This ought to have something to do with our “respect” and “sympathy.” To hold to the belief of a Roman Catholic is one thing, and to enter an evangelical body as an emissary of the Pope is quite another. You seem to slur this issue in speaking merely of “the ridiculous figure the Socialists now cut in their sackcloth and ashes,” for “ridiculous” is not a word of a very specific meaning. But your closing remark appears to be a contradiction of the first so praiseful of the simple stable views of the State Socialist; for of the act of the Labor Enquirer in hoisting Henry George’s name one day and pulling it down the next you say it shows, not a revolution in ideas, but that it had “no ideas definite enough to be revolutionized.”

And do you really believe that Protestantism is not an advance on Roman Catholicism; that such men as Luther, Wesley, Channing, are not as “respectable” as the Roman pontiffs? Do you think the apostate or rebellious element in both Church and State is not as deserving of respect as the older body, simply because it does not reach the goal of freedom at a bound? Have you more sympathy with Asia than Europe, with Europe than America, with unqualified despotism than with a constitutional monarchy, with monarchy than with republicanism? And is there no room for theory or experiment between State Socialism and Anarchism, no foothold for large views and manly purposes? Are Henry George and his co-workers of the class who “speak in the name of liberty, but do not know the meaning of the word?” Is their talk and spirit rubbish by the side not only of Anarchism, but its opposite, State Socialism? Did liberty have nothing to do with the writing of Progress and Poverty,—that book that has set so many to thinking and acting, and has done more to popularize the science of political economy than the writings of any dozen men, if not of all men, on that theme? Had liberty nothing to do with the starting of the Standard, the Anti-Poverty Society, the anointing of McGlynn, Pentecost, Huntington, Redpath, McGuire, and the rest of the new apostolate of freedom? I am aware there are things connected with this reform to which exceptions can and must be made; but they do not prove it is not Liberty’s offspring, an onward movement freighted with benefit for the race.

Of a piece with this criticism is another article in the same number, in which you go even farther, and say: “Mr. George may as well understand first as last that labor will refuse to begin this world anew. It never will abandon even its present meagre enjoyment of wealth and the means of wealth which have grown out of its ages of sorrow, suffering, and slavery. If Mr. George offers it land alone, it will turn its back upon him. It insists upon both land and tools.” That is an astounding assertion that he asks labor to “begin this world anew,” and to “abandon” what it already has, and ought to be backed by some show of argument; but I see none. How are the people to lose by being made their own landlords? How are they to be robbed of their present advantages in having the land made free? Your whole argument, filling a column, is that “the city operative will not be tempted to leave what he has for the semi-barbarous condition of the backwoodsman without an axe, building a hut of mud, striking fire with flint and steel, and scratching a living with his finger nails”! Now, if the vacant lots and tracts of land in and about all the cities are brought into use by being built upon or cultivated, will not the stimulus given to industry and the increased opportunity for employment resulting therefrom not only enable the operative to buy an axe, rake, hoe, hammer, saw, and even a horse and plough? And not only this, but to find a suitable patch of land without going so far beyond the boundaries of civilization as you imagine? But the idea is not that every one will become a farmer or landowner, but that the cheapening and freeing of this primary factor of production, the land, will make it possible for those of very limited means and resources to do more for themselves and for the world than now, besides rendering capital more active, more productive; the clear tendency of which would be to relieve the labor market, and make the demand for labor greater than the supply, and so raise wages and secure to labor its just reward. And you do not see how this is in the interest of freedom; how the freeing of land will enable men to become the possessors, not only of the tools they need, but of their individuality as well! Taking taxes off industry, and substituting therefor the social values given to land, you call retrogression, or rather “a remedy similar—for a part of mankind at least—to that attributed to the Nihilists, the total destruction of the existing social order, and the creation of a new one on its ruins”! This is wild talk, and is none the less so because of the use of the feeble adjective, “similar”, and the halting phrase, “at least a part of mankind”, which destroy the value of the comparison for the purpose of argument, and, like the words “respect,” “sympathy”, “ridiculous”, and “semi-barbarous”, show that Liberty, the Anarchist organ par excellence, may dogmatize instead of reason, and make personal dictum or caprice the standard of right.

But there is something of more consequence than the vulnerable points in Liberty’s logic, for it goes deeper. Granting that this reform does mean the creation of a new order involving losses and sacrifices to the individual for a generation, is that its condemnation? Words cannot express my astonishment at the manner in which Liberty tells its readers that the city operative cannot be tempted “to begin life as a barbarian, even with the hope that in the course of a lifetime he may slightly improve his condition,” for he would be a “fool” not to prefer to this the city with its “street bands”, “shop windows”, “theatres”, and “churches”, even though he have to “breathe tainted air” and “dress in rags”. Ah, it is indeed true, as you say, “man does not live by bread alone,” and for that reason he prefers pure air and independence along with isolation and struggle, to tainted air and serfdom along with brass bands and hand organs, gaudy windows, and Black Crook performances. But is that “beginning life as a barbarian,” no matter with implements however rude, at places however remote from the centres of pride and luxury, with fruits of toil however slow in ripening, if the persons are moved by the thought of bettering, not their own condition merely, but that of the world, of the generations to come? Have not the pioneers of freedom, the vanguards of civilization, again and again “begun life as the barbarian,” so to speak? This reform, it is true, means “bread,” but bread for all, though there by luxury for none. We know the advantages of city life, and for that reason we would deny ourselves those advantages in order that cities might spread and civilization expand.

We want the earth, but do not mean to run away with it; there will still be plenty of room,—yes, more than before, far more. It will be the beginning, not the end, of reform; not the last step, but a great stride forward. Socialism and Anarchism will both have a better chance than now, if the insufficiency of the principle is proven. For it is Socialistic in asserting the common ownership of the soil and governmental control of such things as are in their nature monopolies, while it is Anarchistic in leaving all else to the natural channels of free production and exchange, to free contract and spontaneous co-operation.

T.W. Curtis

Mr. Curtis’s criticisms are based upon a series of misapprehensions of Liberty’s statements, and in one instance upon something that looks very like deliberate misrepresentation.

In the first place, he misapprehends my expression of greater respect for and sympathy with the State Socialists than Henry George, seeming to think that this preference included in its sweep not only matters of doctrine, but matters of tactics and spirit. The form of my assertion shows that I confined it to doctrine simply. The declaration was that I have far more respect for the State Socialists than for George, “just as I have more respect for the Roman Catholic Christian, who believes in authority without qualification, than for the Protestant Christian, who speaks in the name of liberty, but does not know the meaning of the word.” No one but Mr. Curtis would dream of inferring from these words that I prefer the tactics and spirit of Torquemada to those of Channing. I left tactics and spirit entirely aside in making the above statement. In respect to conduct I asserted superiority neither for the State Socialist nor for George. Whether the State Socialists went to George or he went to them, or which seceded from or betrayed the other, are questions which interest me only in a minor degree. To me reason is the highest and grandest faculty of man; and I place George lower in my esteem than the State Socialist, because I consider him the greater offender against reason. This is the sense in which I prefer Catholicism to Protestantism, Asia to Europe, and monarchy to republicanism. The Catholic, the Asiatic, and the monarch are more logical, more consistent, more straightforward, less corkscrewy, more strictly plumb-line than the Protestant, the European, and the republican. This is not a novel idea, and I am at a loss to account for Mr. Curtis’s surprise over it. Did he never here that there is no half-way house between Rome and Reason? Likewise there is no room for logical, consistent theory or intelligent, systematic experiment between State Socialism and Anarchism. There is plenty of room between them to jumble theories and to experiment blindly, but that is all. The pity is that room of this kind should be so popular.

Yes, Henry George and his co-workers are of that class who “speak in the name of liberty, but do not know the meaning of the word.” Mr. George has no conception of liberty as a universal social law. He happens to see that in some things it would lead to good results, and therefore in those things favors it. But it has never dawned upon his mind that disorder is the inevitable fruit of every plant which has authority for its root. As John F. Kelly says of him, “he is inclined to look with favor on the principle of laissez faire, yet he will abandon it at any moment, whenever regulation seems more likely to produce immediate benefits, regardless of the evils thereby produced by making the people less jealous of State interference.” The nature of his belief in liberty is well illustrated by his attitude on the tariff question. One would suppose from his generalization that he has the utmost faith in freedom of competition; but one does not realize how little this faith amounts to until he hears him, after making loud free-trade professions, propose to substitute a system of bounties for the tariff system. If such political and economic empiricism is not rubbish beside the coherent proposals of either Anarchism or State Socialism, then I don’t know chaff from wheat.

Liberty, of course, had something to do with the writing of Progress and Poverty. It also had something to do with the framing of divorce laws as a relief from indissoluble marriage. But the divorce laws, instead of being libertarian, are an express recognition of the rightfulness of authority over the sexual relations. Similarly Progress and Poverty expressly recognizes the rightfulness of authority over the cultivation and use of land. For some centuries now evolution has been little else than the history of liberty; nevertheless all its factors have not been children of liberty.

Mr. Curtis tries to convict me of contradiction by pointing to my statement that Burnette Haskell, a State Socialist, has no definite ideas. This he thinks inconsistent with my praise of the simple stable views of the State Socialist. Here is where the color of misrepresentation appears. In order to make his point Mr. Curtis is obliged to quote me incorrectly. He attributes to me the following phrase “the ridiculous figure the Socialists now cut in their sackcloth and ashes.” My real words were: “the ridiculous figure that some of them now cut in their sackcloth and ashes.” It makes all the difference whether in this sentence I referred to the whole body of State Socialists or only to a few individuals among them. It was precisely because I was about to criticise the conduct of one State Socialist in order to show that he had no real idea of State Socialism that I felt it necessary to preface my criticism by separating doctrine from conduct and declaring my preference for the State Socialist over George in the matter of doctrine. But Mr. Curtis will have it that I took Haskell as a typical State Socialist, even if he has to resort to misquotation to prove it.

He next turns his attention to the editorial on Secondary Factors. He thinks that my assertion that George asks labor to begin this world anew ought to be backed by some show of argument. Gracious heavens! I backed it at the beginning of my article by a quotation from George himself. Dislodged by his critics from one point after another, George had declared that “labor and land, even in the absence of secondary factors obtained from their produce, have in their union to-day, as they had in the beginning, the potentiality of all that man ever has brought, or ever can bring, into being.” When such words as these are used to prove that, if land were free, labor would settle on it, even without secondary factors,—that is, without tools,—what do they mean except that the laborer is expected to “begin the world anew?” But if this is not enough for Mr. Curtis, may I refer him to the debate between George and Shewitch, in which the former, being asked by the latter what would have become of Friday if Crusoe had fenced off half the island and turned him loose upon it without any tools, answered that Friday would have made some fish-hooks out of bones, and gone fishing? Isn’t that sufficiently primitive to substantiate my assertion, Mr. Curtis? Tell Mr. George that the laborer can do nothing without capital, and he will answer you substantially as follows: Originally there was nothing but a naked man and the naked land; free the land, and then, if the laborer has no tools, he will again be a naked man on naked land and can do all that Adam did. When I point out that such a return to barbarism is on a par with the remedy attributed to the Nihilists, Mr. Curtis asserts that” this is wild talk”; but his assertion, it seems to me, “ought to be backed by some show of argument.”

He is sure, however, that there is no need of going to the backwoods. There is enough vacant land in the neighborhood of cities, he thinks, to employ the surplus workers, and thus relieve the labor market. But this land will not employ any workers that have no capital, and those that have capital can get the land now. Thus the old question comes back again. Make capital free by organizing credit on a mutual plan, and then these vacant lands will come into use, and then industry will be stimulated, and then operatives will be able to buy axes and rakes and hoes, and then they will be independent of their employers, and then the labor problem will be solved.

My worst offence Mr. Curtis reserves till the last. It consists in telling the workingman that he would be a fool not to prefer the street bands, the shop windows, the theatres, and the churches to a renewal of barbaric life. Mr. Curtis again misapprehends me in thinking that I commend the bands, the windows, etc. I said explicitly that there is nothing ideal about them. But society has come to be man’s dearest possession, and the advantages and privileges which I cited, crude and vulgar and base as some of them are, represent society to the operative. He will not give them up, and I think he is wise. Pure air is good, but no one wants to breathe it long alone. Independence is good, but isolation is too heavy a price to pay for it. Both pure air and independence must be reconciled with society, or not many laborers will ever enjoy them. Luckily they can be and will be, though not by taxing land values. As for the idea that persons can be induced to become barbarians from altruistic motives in sufficient numbers to affect the labor market, it is one that I have no time to discuss. In one respect at least Mr. George is preferable to Mr. Curtis as an opponent: he usually deals in economic argument rather than sentimentalism.

This is part of a series