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HENRY GEORGE AND JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY
 

HENRY GEORGE AND JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY

Richard Giles

I had hoped to advance further with this talk than an outline of Jeffersonian Democracy.   I had hoped to look at its opposite, what is normally called Hamiltonian Democracy.   I had also hoped to look at political arrangements by which Jefferson’s approach to government can be implemented.   They will have to wait.

Nowadays we do not realise that in the C19 democracy in America was viewed in a somewhat similar way to the way we viewed Communism in Russia in the early part of the C20.   How did it work?   Would it work for us? At the heart of that democracy was the Declaration of Independence.

Most of us will have heard that Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence. In part it says

“We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …”          Henry George (1839-97) often identified himself with what he called Jeffersonian Democracy which we may say this Declaration defines.    When he began his campaign for Mayor of New York in October, 1897, the same month in which he died, George told a large audience at Coopers Union

“I am a Democrat in the Jeffersonian sense; because I believe in the principles and stand for the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson”.(Henry George Collected Journalistic Writings ed. K.C. Wenzer , III, 316)

So important was this connection that he named his final campaign, not the Party of the Single Tax, but the Party of Thomas Jefferson.   Its defining principle is that “all men are created equal”.

In his speech at Coopers Union George says

“I am a Democrat … who believes in the cardinal principle of Jeffersonian Democracy, to whom this great truth is self-evident – that all men are created equal” (op. cit., III, p.317).

Because of this principle Jeffersonian Democracy lays stress upon protecting that equality by encouraging ordinary people to think about social problems.    That is why the Association for Good Government stresses public education.    The faith is that social evils can be made understandable to the public.    There is the belief that legislation should be determined by public opinion.     At the same time Jeffersonian Democracy tries to protect the right of the public to hear and examine different points of view.   Hence the interest of the Association for Good Government in civil liberties.

 

Reverting to First Principles

But how can social evils be made understandable to the public?   Six weeks before his death and writing about strikes George says

 

“I have constantly endeavoured in every way I could to induce men to revert to first principles, and to think of these questions in a large way; …” (op. cit., III, 303)

 

So: he is arguing that effective answers to social evils demand that we probe them by the principle that ‘all men are equal’.  This brings social evils within the realm of justice. With respect to the use of land the principle is ‘all men have an (equal) right to the use of land’.  With respect to elections the principle is ‘one vote, one value’.   And this is why the Association for Good Government advocates proportional representation.

 

What will reverting to first principles do?     George suggests that it will

 

“convince (men) that the evils which they feel are not due to greed or wickedness of individuals, but are the result of social maladjustments, for which the whole community is responsible, and which can only be righted by general action” (ibid., my emphasis).

 

So: by this examination by principles we will gain a wider perspective.    We are talking here not of physical principles but social or moral principles.   Moral principles are social principles.   The observance of moral principles keeps a society healthy.   Both Confucius and Christ enunciated the Golden Rule ‘To do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.   But this Rule does not have to be learned.   It is knowledge that is self-evident.   It is not like Boyle’s Law.   We know it intuitively.   Our right actions fall under the law but sometimes we need to be reminded of it.

 

This approach by reverting to principle is not the usual populist approach which may be to call a public meeting and hear a hundred different partial and often conflicting opinions and then go off to a demonstrate.    It is more a quieter Socratic approach which brings to the surface what we already know.

 

Just how quickly and effectively first principles might operate is demonstrated by the case of slavery in England.    In 1770 a Negro slave in England who had run away was brought to court and Lord Mansfield declared that, in England, all men are free.   This man was in England.   He was a free man.

 

Such an approach implies a society which gradually alters its direction as it is progressively enlightened.   It is not a society altered by Government.    For this reason Lao Tzu wisely describes the best of all governments as “a shadowy presence”.

 

In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu says of the wise ruler

 

“When his task is accomplished and his work done

The people all say ‘It happened to us naturally’.” (Penguin, XVII, p.73)

 

 

Natural Rights

Jeffersonian Democracy is associated with what is called natural rights. The meaning of this is I think essentially the right to behave naturally.   Natural rights rests upon the notion that freedom and justice both mean the obedience to nature.   George in Progress and Poverty

“For Liberty means Justice, and Justice is the natural law …”. (p.546)

 

Each natural behaviour is called a natural right.   For example, there is the right to life.   George would add the right to use land.  When one thinks about it these natural rights are almost infinite.  There is an ocean of rights.

 

In Social Problems George writes (p.83) that social evils are obstructions or blockages to natural social behaviour.    To remove them he says does not require elaborate and clever plans.   We simply discover the obstruction and remove it.    What is natural will then follow.

 

In other words a healthy society is as attainable as a healthy body.   It is by knowing how a healthy body functions that we are able to recognise disease.    It is my using moral principles that we can recognise a maladjustment in society and remove it.

 

The obstructions can of course exist in Government in the form of bad laws.   These cause unnatural behaviour.   In the American Declaration of Independence Jefferson talks of the principal duty of Government as “to secure” natural rights.    We see straight way that this duty to “secure” natural rights is the duty to remove obstructions in Government.    Thus we understand the stress of classical liberalism upon the repeal rather than the enactment of laws.    Natural behaviour does not have to be legislated.

 

The term laissez faire puts the liberal doctrine perfectly but only if it tells the whole story.   As George explains it in The Science of Political Economy (p.153) the duty of government is not only to “let things alone” but to “clear the ways”; that is, to remove laws that are unnatural to society.

 

To do this Government does not need an exceedingly elaborate or clever politician’s plan.     The single tax, George says in The Condition of Labour, is not some clever human contrivance (p.6).  It is an adjustment to bring the use of land within the natural order.   It simply removes an obstruction to the natural order, that is, that claim that constitutes private property in land.   And this is why the Association for Good Government teaches about the economic rent of land.

 

This duty of Government to remove maladjustments to nature arises because it is subservient to a higher authority: the nature of society or, if you like, the Will of the Creator.    As George writes in Social Problems

 

“there is a higher law than any human law – to wit, the law of the Creator, impressed upon and revealed through nature …”(p.92)

 

Nowadays natural law and natural rights are commonly rejected.   Unfortunately they are rejected by many Georgists.    The eminent educational philosopher, John Dewey, for many years a director on a Georgist Foundation, rejected natural law and natural rights in favour of the idea that certain behaviours were valuable because of the effects of using them.  This empirical and fragmented approach was not the approach of Henry George nor of Thomas Jefferson.

 

Some here may doubt the concept of natural law and natural rights –even natural behaviour.    But what else is common sense and what we call common decency?   And to see behaviour in accord with natural law simply observe the actions of a great sportsman.

What is being “in the Zone” as they call it in sport than natural behaviour?   What else are the movements of a great violinist or pianist other than natural behaviour, action that deals precisely with the needs of the moment as the Creator intended.   This, rather than the acts of Government is what keeps society going.

 

The need is to abolish social evil.    As George says

“the remedy can be nothing less than the abolition of the wrong” (Social Problems,p.81).

 

That is meeting the needs of the moment.

 

Government is needed to meet emergencies.   Yet its basic aim is the same aim of every institution and the aim of society itself.   That aim is stated by J.S. Mill in his preface to his essay On Liberty.

 

“The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity” (my emphasis).

 

Impediments to Jeffersonian Democracy

So far we have looked at what we could call the do’s of Jeffersonian Democracy.   Let us now look at the don’ts.      According to Henry George (Social Problems, p.173) it is not the province of Government to make people virtuous or religious, nor even (vainly) to protect us from our own foolish acts.    That kind of law-making which legislates virtue puts obedience above freedom is counter-productive.  It works by intimidation and incites corruption.

 

It weakens self-respect, our moral sense and the use of common sense.    Its message is “There is no need to use common sense or make any moral judgment here, simply obey our direction”.   Political correctness also erodes freedom and those institutions in society that stand between Government and the individual.  The nanny state runs counter to Jeffersonian Democracy.

This style of law-making may be a reaction against the tendency to have taken the idea of freedom too far.    We have too often downplayed duty or obedience.   The Swiss educational philosopher Pestalozzi (1746-1827) saw this coming.  He said in 1776

 

“Liberty is a good thing and obedience is equally so.  We should re-unite what Rousseau has separated”.

Impressed by the evils of an unwise constraint that only tends to degrade humanity, he has not remembered the limits of liberty”. (A Short History of Educational Ideas Curtis and Boultwood, 322)

 

(Interestingly, the “unwise constraint”, the oppression that Rousseau so disliked, came from observing a peasant, whose life was made miserable by the exactions of taxation (see op. cit. p. 268)).   The concept of the freedom of the individual unbalanced by the concept of obedience leads both to the gross and to the ridiculous.    One example of the ridiculous is cited by John Dewey.    Teachers at one school who were so fearful of giving directions to their students that they would only place materials and equipment in front of them.   As Dewey said, if they had really held to their beliefs, would they even have given them materials and equipment?

 

Freedom without obedience seems to come to the same end as obedience without freedom.      That is, both weaken our moral sense, our self-respect and our use of common sense.   Essentially, there is not much to separate anarchy and tyranny.   Tyranny, as Stalinism illustrates, is pretty well State anarchy.   Both anarchy and tyranny have lost sight of the natural order.   After the ruler who is a “shadowy presence” says Lao Tzu, and the one who is loved and praised,

 

“Next comes one they fear;

Next comes one with whom they take liberties.” (op. cit.. 73)

 

You will have to say where we stand at the moment.

The Silent Treatment

 

The fact is that we have never really tried to come to terms with the vision in the Declaration of Independence. We have never seriously tried to revert to first principles.    As it is it seems difficult to focus people’s minds upon principles.     And when any substantial interest has been involved first principles have always been ignored.  Meantime, the rundown in the United States is going on at an exponential rate.

 

Leo Tolstoy seemed never to tire of saying that the only effective answer to George was silence.   When one examines what arguments there are put against Henry George one finds that almost all concern the single tax.   The fiscal side of Georgism, the single tax or, its more degenerate form, land values taxation, can provoke argument.   The principles George enunciated are unarguable.   They are self-evident.

 

A curious document from the Catholic Church (III, xviii-xix) will illustrate how to deal with them.    Archbishop Edward Gibbon in 1887 wrote to the Prefect of the Holy Congregation of the Propaganda that the move to put George’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books “would be neither opportune nor useful”.

 

Gibbon explains George’s theory as, firstly, protecting all wealth earned by labour even if it is very large or inherited and, secondly, as advocating the alteration in land ownership, not by dispossession, but “that our system of taxation would change so that the taxes would come from the land and not from the fruits of human labour”.

 

The document does not reveal any moral principle by which to condemn this theory.   The only “moral principle” that Archbishop Gibbon cites is that one should not adopt a policy whose consequences fail to advance “the proposed laudable purpose”.   The laudable purpose here is to cause Henry George’s theory to vanish away.   But to do this he says the prestigious Holy See should not launch an attack on “a humble American artisan”.  That would draw attention to him, arouse curiosity and increase the sales of his books.   Rather, since Americans are practical people, he writes, allow his “bizarre and impractical” ideas to go to their grave, allow “the absurdities and falsities to die by themselves”.

 

There were no absurdities and falsities but it made good politics to implant the idea that there are.     So, a theory that appealed to Christianity and free enterprise all but died out by about 1917 attacked by the most powerful of all weapons, a noble silence.

 

This same silent treatment may be seen much earlier in the treatment of chattel slavery.

Jefferson enunciated the great principle that “all men are equal” as publicly as any principle can be.   It plainly condemned slavery.   He even framed a plan for gradual emancipation of slaves but it did not take on.    He was wary that he might be criticised  for his attacks on slavery in his Notes on Virginia.    But public opinion was not inflamed. It remained apathetic.   No one wanted to know about it.   Public opinion clearly was not ready yet to consider the ending slavery.   Jefferson recognised this and hoped that in time, as the spirit of liberty infected society, that future generations would abolish slavery.

 

Social Democracy

 

The United States has fallen very short of the vision Jefferson laid before it.    And even George had greater success in Britain than in the United States.     Archbishop Gibbon read public opinion in the United States better than Henry George.  The Americans seemed to be a pragmatic people, not disposed to consider principles.   By the end of the C19 democracy had triumphed in the West, but it was one ruled by pragmatic policies.

 

Curiously Henry George seems to have had a hand in this.  In Britain in the 1880s Joseph Chamberlain invented a new brand of politics.    He had read Progress and Poverty.  He had met and talked with Henry George.    He saw what was called in Britain at the time the ‘unearned increment’ from landownership.   But Chamberlain as a politician put the knowledge to a use that George might have detested.   The rich had a skeleton in the cupboard.    Rather than say what it was Chamberlain was instead prepared to blackmail them in the public interest and, of course, in his own.   They could keep their ‘unearned increment’.    No one would mention it.   But, at the same time, they would be taxed to pay for a raft of radical policies.   These included better housing for the poor and free education.  In 1885 he put it rather bluntly:

 

“What ransom will property pay for the security it enjoys?” (Modern England, R.K.Webb, 424)

 

The wealthy kept the source of their power intact and secure from attack, but the State (or the politicians) confiscated enough of it to pay for promises which they made to the poor to win elections.      That has been the way ever since.    It characteristics are a combination of public charity and expanding regulation.     We all understand nowadays that when you talk to politicians you just do not mention principles.   We are led to think that principles are not in the sphere of politics.   In reality principle is the enemy of how our State operates and the power it enjoys.

 

In one of his last statements on the subject of slavery Jefferson wrote in 1814

 

“My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for (the slaves), we should endeavour, with those whom fortune has thrown into our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labour only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them”.(Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone, III. 208)

Page 8.

If we read this passage again and replace slaveowners with politicians have we not describes our own times?    The Welfare State is fast becoming a benign slave State.    There is one difference however.   Neither politicians nor slaveowners want to know that  a better situation is possible.

A Single Tax Philosophy?

 

What has Jeffersonian Democracy to say to the Georgist movement?  George might have called his campaign The Party of the Single Tax.  He might have but he did not.    Why not?    It is because the name of Thomas Jefferson far better identifies his teaching than the name Single Tax.

The single tax is not an explanatory tool.    Someone some time ago referred to The Single Tax Philosophy.     There is no such thing.   The single tax is not a philosophy but one application of a philosophy.   The single tax does not make sense of things.  We just do not understand social evils by the single tax.    A single tax is something to promote.    We understand social problems only by reverting to first principles.

This idea is something that the Georgist movement has to come to terms with.   As George makes clear in The Condition of Labour (p.18) the single tax is a way to avoid any discussion of first principles.     It sets the movement in the wrong direction.

 

To show that it is taking the wrong direction let me quote the very recent advice of one of its promoters.   He writes

 

“DON’T attack private property in land, capitalization of land values, or private appropriation of increases in land values on moral-philosophical grounds.” (Progress, Sept-Oct., 2004)

 

In effect he says “Do not revert to first principles”.

 

But reverting to first principles is just the way to go.   It was by first principles that George became a world figure in his own day.   And it was merely by the connection of the single tax to first principles that it at first attracted a large measure of its support.  To see the importance of first principles we have only to combine what George says in Social Problems (p.81) with The Condition of Labour (p.56)

“For every social wrong there must be a remedy.   But the remedy can be nothing less than the abolition of the wrong.” (p.81) and “Thus, to us, all that is needed to remedy the evils of our time is to do justice and give freedom” (p.56)

 

We can either go on looking for remedies using the Chamberlain model of politics until we become subjects of a benign dictatorship or we can begin to revert to first principles.   The choice I believe is really that simple.

 

References to the works of Henry George are to the Schalkenbach Editions except for The Condition of Labour which is to the edition produced by Land and Liberty Press, 1947

Richard Giles

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