Herbert Spencer, Henry George, and the Land Question, Part 1
Smith discusses Henry George’s allegation that Spencer’s later views on land ownership were intellectually dishonest.
The Englishman Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was involved in many controversies throughout his life, but none disturbed him more than the allegation of the American Henry George (1839–1897) that he had sold out to British landed interests by repudiating his early opposition to the private ownership of land–a position he had passionately defended in Chapter IX of his first book, Social Statics. (Although the first edition by John Chapman bears the year 1851, Social Statics was actually published in December 1850.) In 1892 George published a book of over 300 pages, A Perplexed Philosopher, that attacked Spencer personally. Spencer’s later views on land ownership, according to George, were not simply wrong; they were intellectually dishonest. Spencer was guilty of nothing less than “intellectual prostitution.”
The personal insults that recur throughout A Perplexed Philosopher were not written rashly, in the white heat of anger. Shortly before his book was published, George wrote to a friend (18 April 1892): “In turning his back on all he has said before, Mr. Spencer has not argued, and no explanation is possible that does not impute motives.” George did not believe it was possible to explain Spencer’s change of views on the land question except by attributing to him disingenuous motives. George reached this conclusion not because of Spencer’s later views per se but because of how Spencer defended those views. As George argued in A Perplexed Philosopher, if Spencer eventually came to believe that the private ownership of land is justifiable, that it is indeed consistent with his Law of Equal Freedom, then he should have said so plainly, in a straightforward manner. Spencer could have said, for example, “that he was young and foolish” when he asserted that (quoting Spencer) “equity does not permit property in land, and that the right of mankind to the earth’s surface is still valid, all deeds, customs, and laws notwithstanding.” But this is not how Spencer explained his change of position, according to George: “instead of manfully defending the truth he had uttered, or straightforwardly recanting it, Mr. Spencer sought to shelter himself behind ifs and buts, perhapses and it‐may‐bes.…” Thus it was Spencer’s supposedly devious method of defending his later views on the land question that so infuriated Henry George, and caused him to impugn Spencer’s motives.
Herbert Spencer, who prided himself on his intellectual integrity, was deeply offended by George’s personal attacks. In “Reflections” (the last part of An Autobiography), Spencer recalled George’s allegations.
In my first work, Social Statics, it was contended that alienation of the land from the people at large is inequitable; and that there should be a restoration of it to the State, or incorporated community, after making due compensation to existing landowners. In later years I concluded that a resumption on such terms would be a losing transaction, and that individual ownership under State‐suzerainty ought to continue. In his Progress and Poverty, Mr. Henry George, quoting the conclusion drawn in Social Statics, made it a part‐basis for his arguments; and, when my changed belief was made public, his indignation was great. There resulted after some years a work by him entitled A Perplexed Philosopher, in which he devoted three hundred odd pages to denunciation, not only of my views but of my motives, and assailed me as a traitor to the cause of the people. He alleged that my change of opinion must have resulted from a wish to ingratiate myself with the landed and ruling classes: applying to me Browning’s lines in The Lost Leader–“Just for a handful of silver he left us, just for a ribbon to stick in his coat.”
Although Spencer responded in detail to many of his critics, he usually ignored personal attacks. But it was difficult to ignore Henry George, a San Francisco journalist who had achieved international fame with Progress and Poverty (1879), a book that quoted Social Statics numerous times in the course of building a case against the private ownership of land. The fact that many reviewers of A Perplexed Philosopher accepted George’s claims at face value troubled Spencer, who believed that George had misrepresented his views, both early and late, on the land question. Quoting again from Spencer’s “Reflections”:
Mr. George’s book, circulated in the United States and in England, has been reviewed in various journals which have accepted its statements; and many have quoted its denunciations, apparently supposing that there was ground for them. Even The Times cites, without any condemnation of it, Mr. George’s charge that I have “abandoned the necessary inferences, from motives less abstract and considerably less creditable, than those founded on sound logic and the truth of things.” (January 12, 1893.)
The influence of George’s criticisms may be seen in the Encyclopedia of Social Reform (Boston, 1897). In the article on Herbert Spencer, we find this misleading analysis:
Mr. Spencer has advocated his views with such power that he is sometimes called the philosopher of the century, but his influence is today distinctly waning in university circles, while his later utterances in Justice [i.e., Part IV of The Principles of Ethics], disowning his former position in Social Statics…that equity does not allow private property in land, has much hurt his influence among the masses. His present view is that, tho[ugh] absolute equity does not allow private property in land, to nationalize land without compensation would be wrong, since society has allowed private ownership, and that, with compensation, to nationalize land would do no good. In his Social Statics, however, he asked, How long it took a wrong to grow into a right?
In subsequent parts of this series I will explore (and criticize) Spencer’s arguments against the private ownership of land, as well as his reasons for retreating from some of the conclusions presented in Social Statics. For the remainder of this installment, I will provide additional background on the controversy between Spencer and George.
Before proceeding, however, I wish to make it clear that I regard George’s personal allegations as wholly unjustified. But this is only part of the story. If George failed to understand Spencer’s position on the land question, he was far from the only reader to do so. As I discussed in an earlier Excursions essay, Spencer’s insistence that the political principles defended in Social Statics were meant to apply only to morally perfect people at the highest stage of social evolution–an idea that he later expressed in terms of “absolute” versus “relative” ethics–could easily cause immense confusion in readers. This was especially liable to happen when Spencer railed against injustices–including, in his opinion, the private ownership of land–with such passion as to suggest that immediate action should be taken.
The views of Henry George inspired the formation of “land reformation” leagues in England, Ireland, America, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. And given the enormous influence of Herbert Spencer, it became common practice for these organizations to reprint, in pamphlet form, Chapter IX of Social Statics (“The Right to the Use of the Earth”) as a key argument for either the outright nationalization of land (as Spencer recommended) or for a “single tax” on land (as George recommended). Unfortunately, Spencer’s defense of land nationalization, when considered in isolation from the crucial qualification found earlier in Social Statics (regarding the restriction of his principles to a morally perfect society), could easily give the impression that Spencer was more radical than he actually was.
Henry George found this out, much to his dismay, when he met Spencer during a visit to London in March 1882. After writing a tract defending the Irish National Land League (The Irish Land Question, 1881), George attended a London gathering of notables that included Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. George, to his regret, did not get a chance to talk to either of these men, but he was introduced to Spencer. This opportunity gave George “real pleasure,” according to his son and biographer, Henry George, Jr. (The Life of Henry George, 1900). George believed that Spencer was “immovably against the institution of private property in land,” so he “expected to find a man who, like himself, saw in the agrarian struggle in Ireland the raising of the question of land ownership and fundamental economic principles.” But George quickly became disillusioned when Spencer asked his opinion of the Irish Land Leaguers who had recently been imprisoned after organizing resistance to evictions and calling for a rent strike. After George expressed his support for the protestors, “Spencer burst into vehement dissent.” George’s son continued the story:
“They,” said [Spencer], meaning the imprisoned Land Leaguers, “have got only what they deserve. They are inciting the people to refuse to pay to their landlords what is rightfully theirs–rent.” This speech and the manner of its delivery so differed from what was expected of the man who in Social Statics wrote, “equity does not permit property in land,” that Mr. George was first astonished and then disgusted at this flat denial of principle. “It is evident that we cannot agree on this matter,” was all that he could say, and he abruptly left Mr. Spencer. The meeting had proved a deep disappointment.
Shortly after this meeting, George wrote to a friend: “Discount Herbert Spencer. He is most horribly conceited, and I don’t believe many great men are.” Spencer had failed to meet George’s expectations, after which George’s former intellectual hero became fair game. The following year (1883), reacting to Spencer’s explanation (in the St. James’s Gazette) of how and why he had changed his opinion on the land question, George privately speculated that Spencer was “going insane from vanity.” Nine years later, in A Perplexed Philosopher, George continued his psychoanalysis of Spencer, but this time he did it publicly.