Henry George

The American economist and social reformer Henry George (1839-1897) popularized the "single-tax" reform movement.

Henry George was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Sept. 2, 1839. He left school when he was 13 years old and spent 2 years as a clerk before becoming a seaman. After his arrival in San Francisco in 1858, he worked as a laborer, gold prospector, and printer. He married and started to raise a family and for several years experienced a desperate, grinding poverty.

In 1865 George became a journalist. In several newspapers, including the San Francisco Daily Evening Post, which he founded and edited (1871-1875), he criticized and exposed some of the major inequities of his day, such as speculation in public lands, the illegal actions of monopolies, and the exploitation of new Chinese immigrants in California. As a deeply religious and moral man, he felt that America could not condone such actions.

George studied economics and slowly systemized his thinking. In his editorials and writings he proposed various economic reforms, including public ownership of utilities and public-oriented industries such as railroads and the telegraph system. Still, he never embraced the ideology of socialism. His major work was Progress and Poverty (1879), which he infused with his strong moral passion for justice and his hatred of poverty. George claimed that private ownership of land was the root cause of poverty and also held up progress. It was morally wrong for people to become wealthy without working, but just from ownership of a natural resource that should be accessible to all people. He claimed that the rise of rents that went along with the growth of industry and progress forced wages to fall. For a "remedy" he proposed the nationalization of land or the taxing of land so highly that the economic rent would go to the community and be used for the public good.

George's simple solution, the "single tax," and his moral questioning of society's values and actions appealed to the people, though not to most economists, and made George famous. In the 1880s the single tax became the focus of a powerful reform movement. Local clubs were formed, and George propagandized for acceptance of the single tax. The idea even had a formidable impact on British radicalism in that decade.

George moved to New York in 1880, where his fame was such that he was asked to run for mayor as a reform candidate in 1886; he was narrowly defeated by Abram Hewitt but ran ahead of the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt. Though in poor health, he was persuaded to run again, but he died before the election, on Oct. 29, 1897.


Further Reading on Henry George

Charles Albro Barker, Henry George (1955), is a thorough study of George's life, and Edward J. Rose, Henry George (1968), is a good, shorter biography. Other studies include Henry George, Jr., The Life of Henry George (1900); Elwood P. Lawrence, Henry George in the British Isles (1957); and Steven B. Cord, Henry George: Dreamer or Realist? (1965). Robert L. Heilbroner discusses George in the context of 19th-century economic thought in The Wordly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1953; 3d ed. rev. 1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Barker, Charles A. (Charles Albro), Henry Georg, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1974.

Cord, Steven B., Henry George, dreamer or realist?, New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1984.

Geiger, George Raymond, The philosophy of Henry George, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1975, 1933.

George and the scholars: a century of scientific research reveals the reformer was an original economist and a world-class social philosopher, New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1991.

Jones, Peter d'Alroy, Henry George and British socialism, New York: Garland Pub., 1991.

Rather, Lois, Henry George—printer to author, Oakland Calif.: Rather Press, 1978.