Henry George (b. 1839 in Philadelphia, d. 1897 in NYC) was a writer and gifted speaker who also ran for mayor of NYC twice; he died a few days before the election and his funeral was among the largest ever in NYC. (Explore the NYT's free archives for more on that.) With Thomas Edison and Mark Twain, he was among the best known figures of his day.
His first and most widely read book, Progress & Poverty, written in San Francisco and published in 1879, was and likely continues to be the best-selling book ever on political economy; by the turn of the century, it had been translated into something like 30 languages, serialized in newspapers and roughly 6 million copies printed -- that would be a big seller today; consider it in light of the population in 1880!
The subtitle of Progress & Poverty is An inquiry into the cause of industrial depressions and of increase of want with increase of wealth ... The Remedy. How timely. (See the blog posts on wealth concentration, on poverty, on the cost of living and boom-bust cycles!) George dedicated it
People as diverse as Bill Buckley, Michael Kinsley, Albert Schweitzer, John Dewey, Henry Ford, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, Molly Ivins and Aldous Huxley, as well as many Nobel economists, have praised Henry George's goals, intellect, analysis and remedy. (See Quotable Notables and Quotable Nobels and links therein.) And while Henry George's name is frequently attached to these ideas, they weren't new with him. He read widely and deeply in the work of the classical economists, the Physiocrats and many others. He integrated the ideas, and presented them logically and painstakingly, proving his points and building a strong case.
If you know nothing about Henry George, here are some good starting points.
1. His speeches. My grandparents were Georgists, and lovingly presented me with copies of P&P, inscribed, for many landmark events in my life ... in case I'd misplaced previous editions. I'd never opened any of them by the time they died. But when I started going through their library and files, I discovered many pamphlets, including some of HG's speeches. The first one I read got my attention. Here are some of my favorites:
2. Progress & Poverty. I didn't even open this book until well after I had been persuaded by some of HG's speeches and by things written by a (young) colleague of my grandfather, Mason Gaffney. The first time I read P&P, I found it tough slogging, and was amazed to hear another Georgist tell me that when she first read it, she found it a page-turner, a mystery whose answer she wanted to find! (I now read it for pleasure.) You can read it in its original unabridged version, in several abridgements and condensations, and in a 2006 abridgement that was done by first updating into the language of Time Magazine and then removing the somewhat lengthy multiple examples and long sentences. You can download the 2006 abridgment as MP3 files. (Those who have read the original will find it ringing in their ears.) A cross-referenced table of contents is available.
Here's my favorite tribute to P&P. It comes from Eric Goldman, author of Rendezvous with Destiny, a book on the progressive era:
3. Social Problems -- This is a book of essays, and I am rereading it now. Timely and relevant. Look for it under "Henry George's writings" on the Schalkenbach website
4. The WealthandWant.com website -- this is my own effort to make Henry George's ideas very accessible to people who come searching for answers to some of the most serious, and supposedly intractible, problems we face as a society.
- low wages
- unaffordable housing
- concentrated wealth
- urban sprawl
- long commutes
- job creation
- natural resource depletion
- unequal opportunities
- free lunches
I am convinced that we are not going to solve any of these problems until a significant number of thinking people understand and our society implements the insights of Henry George, and, further, that if we follow his advice, we will be far down the road to solving these and others of our most serious social, economic, environmental and justice problems. (Solving any one of them would be sufficient to get my attention. Dayenu!)
In particular, I encourage you to read Bob Andelson's essay, Henry George and the Reconstruction of Capitalism, and Weld Carter's An Introduction to Henry George.