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Repaying Henry George

“Repaying Henry George”   Chapter 5, Book 10 of Progress and Poverty

By Tony Fitzgerald


I remember a quotation of a modern philosopher to the effect that we do not reward our teachers if we think exactly how they think. Some people would say that the goal of teaching is to transmit knowledge and I am sure with regard to some things we did get the point of what our teachers taught us as they got  it from someone else. However, I think this quotation makes a lot of sense when it is understood that the ‘building blocks’ or ideas we got from our teachers, can be developed in all sorts of ways that they may not have envisaged.

For us to get an idea of our teacher’s ‘building blocks’, this talk will present a summary of the penultimate chapter of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, namely, chapter 5 of Book 10, which is on the Law of Human Progress, the theme of this conference. George often appeals to religious sentiment and social instincts with a good deal of ‘heart language’ but there is a solid core of rational truths that I wish to bring out. The author has in fact called this chapter, “The Central Truth”. I also want to comment on some of the extensive rhetoric that is used in this book and make some brief observations of George’s excursions into metaphysical themes.

One way disciples of Henry George can repay him, is by giving realization to his passionate dream for liberty in the world. He gives expression to this dream in his highly rhetorical and beautiful “Ode to Liberty” found in this chapter. I also want to give a very brief account of freedom from an Aristotelian point of view, not so much because there may be some  linkage between George’s view and this view, but to introduce a couple of important themes. The first, is the idea of the good in relation to liberty and second, is the idea of the limitation of freedom .Modern views of freedom have their ‘own take’ on the good and also on the limits to which must be applied to liberty. Today, there is a debate or tension between those who support negative liberty and those who support positive liberty. There are also those who seem to want to combine the two. I want to give an account of both of these kinds of liberty in the hope that Georgists may find it useful to relate these to George’s idea of Liberty. I will comment on some aspects of Henry George’s idea of freedom prominent in this book. Finally, I would also like to plant the suggestion,  that a consideration of virtue may help his  freedom philosophy deal with those twin issues facing all freedom philosophies, namely that of defining the good and  determining the limits of freedom.

Summary of the Chapter

It is incredibly difficult to give a highlights package of this chapter. It is already only a few pages and really the best way to appreciate it is to read it all. It may not be appropriate to do that right now but I am sure most present here have either indulged in doing this or will do so in the future. A summary of the chapter can be given only on the understanding that ‘artistic’ licence must be given by removing some wonderful rhetoric from direct consideration today. I hesitate calling this licence artistic because it could easily be described as an act of vandalism.  In spite of its rhetorical flushes, this chapter contains important economic and social truths. George does present some cogent if not always perfectly elaborated reasons for them.  George could maintain that the reasons have been already established in previous chapters and he could be forgiven for some reiterations as it is the third last chapter of the book.

I will endeavour to convey its main message with only a few hints of some of its rhetoric.  Henry George traces the causes of the evils of unjust and unequal distribution of wealth to social maladjustments which ignore natural laws. He maintains that the monopolization of the opportunities freely offered to all by nature flies in the face of the fundamental law of justice.  To sweep away this injustice we have to assert the rights of all men to natural opportunities and conform ourselves to the supreme law of the universe, which he calls justice. He describes his remedy as the true reform which will make all other reforms easier. The second part of this claim seems to be intuitive or maybe it rests on an a fortiori argument, namely that if you effect a basic change that smaller changes should be easier.  He also ties his reform to the self-evident truth found in the Declaration of Independence.

“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!”

He reasons that when these rights are denied the equal right to land is denied because of our dependence on land. Political freedom is of no avail because where equal rights to land are not forthcoming it will simply mean freedom to compete for employment at starvation wages. He paints a gloomy but vivid picture of the ill social effects of this denial. With a spirit of optimism, his Ode to Liberty points to in poetic form to the heroine who will save the day. He sees Liberty as it were having her say over the sad state of affairs in various historical events. He sees the final victory coming to Liberty if we can first but trust her. Then we will be able to follow her call and do what she requires which in the first instance will be to secure equal rights to the earth. Not to achieve this will mean that the blessings of material progress will become a curse. He presents civilization as being at stake and he maintains we are unable to forestall the inevitable sword of justice even by prayers. This is all the more remarkable in that he obviously has a strong faith in Providence, that God showers his gifts upon us, but his point seems to be that we have to right the basic wrong for these gifts to be dispersed properly. He alerts us to the experience of history which teaches us that such wrong never goes unpunished. He states that the Nemesis that follows injustice never sleeps. George closes out the chapter in a kind of visionary hope and even describes the achievement of justice in terms of religious fervour, as the culmination of Christianity, the City of God and the Reign of the Prince of Peace. It would be cynical to suggest he was simply making a play for Christian support but what he was saying must have been music to the ears of those Christians with a sharp social conscience. The statements seem consistent with the peculiar kind of Christian religious belief that he seemed to hold, which one might add was not always consonant with mainstream Christian dogma, and expressing in symbolic form the better world he envisaged that would be the result of his reform.

Some Remarks about the Chapter’s  Rhetoric

According to Aristotle the three forms of rhetoric are display, deliberative and forensic. For him, rhetoric that aims to influence the decisions of the audience is deliberative and there are examples of this style of rhetoric in this chapter. Even if there are display aspects in his Ode to Liberty, it was a speech that George delivered at the statue of Liberty on Independence Day; his main purpose is to persuade people to rally to his call. This form is evident in other parts of the chapter too, where he uses fear and anger like a prophet when he is warning of destruction unless we mend our ways. At other times he wants to remain positive, optimistic and inspire reform. He is very enthusiastic when it comes to calling forth effort, in spite of the odds being stacked against us. However, he does not want to convey the sense of too much of a hopeless cause if we are to hop aboard his justice and freedom train.

Probably because he is on about more than just social reform there does seem to be some forensic rhetoric evident. After all he wants to be credible in terms of political economy and even at times statesmanlike. His appeal to historical examples seems indicative of this forensic intent. Further this aspect comes to the fore,  considering the insight and sensitivity with which he draws out the deleterious social consequences of the law of rent operating under conditions of land enclosure, just like a doctor diagnosing an illness.

George’s Great  Metaphysical Themes

Even though George does at times, as it were, touch onto metaphysical themes he by no means has a complete metaphysical position and this is excusable because his great contribution to humanity is his political economy. Further, most of his metaphysical asides are in the context of his elaboration of political economy and social philosophy. I believe much of his metaphysics is sound and consistent with the best of philosophy of religion and or mainstream Christian belief, but he does not elaborate his views in any systematic way as he undoubtedly does his economic views.  For example, the existence of a provident Creator, the eventual triumph of good  over evil,  the drama of the struggle between liberty and slavery, Divine retribution of Injustice and a Divine Power at work in the Universe. In this last respect he is far removed from the deistic absent clockmaker view of God.

The duality of his very literary style in this book reflects a deeper duality the author has between the way things should be and the way things are. We seem to get an alternation of the dark of the problems we face and the light of the hope to which we are called. He is aware of the greatness of the good possible with justice and also the gravity and seriousness of the evil against it. He seems tuned into the broad band of reality and possessed of a superior discrimination or indeed conscience for social matters.

The Universal Appeal of Freedom

His very beautiful “Ode to Liberty” given in Chapter 5 of book 10 presents his dream but it does not constitute a rigorous analysis of liberty. As a piece of rhetoric and as poetry it is a masterpiece. Henry George has been described as a seer and philosopher of freedom. He is not the only one who has had a passion in this direction as his very ode testifies, “We honour Liberty in name and form. We set up her statues and sound her praises.” Cohen in his book on Political Philosophy characterizes Rousseau’s whole philosophy as an Ode to Liberty.[1] Even if all its adherents did not break out into poetic song, Dawson maintains, “The idea of freedom is practically universal, and there is no race, however lacking in political capacity or experience that is entirely insensitive to its appeal.” [2]

Aristotelian Freedom

John Thornhill’s account of Aristotelian freedom is relevant for reasons which will become clear. He says that freedom can only make sense “in terms of purpose” and that this feature of it marks it off from licence, which discards all restraints.[3] Thornhill adds that genuine freedom merely gets rid of those restraints that would prevent a human being “from pursuing the purposes which are his prerogative” or in other words the good that belongs to him as a human being.[4] To lose sight of this good and to see freedom merely “as an absence of external impediments” becomes ‘an open slather’ to do whatever we want.[5]

Freedom according to him is not an ultimate or an absolute, because it points to a value beyond itself, namely, the good.[6] He seems to suggest that we will not fail to see this if we ask ourselves, freedom for what?(my emphasis)  The Aristotelian will thus talk about human beings being free about the means but not the end, which is the human good or happiness.  Mansfield puts it this way, “nature may incline us to what is good, but it does not tell us unambiguously what that is, or move us toward it without hindrance or distraction, as it does with other animals.” [7] The lack of a program in this respect makes for a good deal of latitude in pursuing our natural law determined end of happiness.

The Good and Limits to Freedom in the ‘Two Freedoms’of the Liberal Tradition

(A) In Negative Freedom

The brief Aristotelian background given above gives the genesis of two recurring themes in liberal theory. Michael Ignattieff is a liberal thinker, who seems to adopt a ‘thinner’ theory of the human good and ‘broader’ limits to human freedom. He suggests that there is likely to be continued disagreement about the good because of the existence of different cultures. However, he puts faith in that there is “a higher degree of agreement about what is insufferably, unarguably wrong.”[8] In this respect, he is like Shklar who “concentrates on what is bad and should be avoided.” It could be said that this is letting ‘the good’ in by the side door because “to speak only of vice and evil does not erase a theoretical dependence on virtue and the good.”[9] It is not surprising that Ignattieff is quick to get back to affirmative territory and to base such agreement on the belief that human rights are about the exercise of human agency. These rights protect their individual and rational bearer from external encroachments on his or her agency.[10] He sees human rights as such as a vehicle for ‘negative liberty’. His liberal individualism does not, on the reverse side of the coin, “prescribe the positive range of good lives that human beings can lead.” [11] There can even be “competing visions of the good life” in such a framework.[12] Chesterton encapsulates this indeterminacy of the liberal tradition with regard to the good in the catch cry, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty”. He then offers a sober translation of it, “Let us not decide what the good is, but let it be considered good not to decide it”.[13] Although for Ignattief, humans universally need specific freedoms ‘from’; he does not similarly define what their freedom ‘to’ should consist in. [14] So the liberal ideal is of a citizen who follows his or her idea of the good life wherever it may lead, without being bothered by the state or other individuals. [15] Even if it is undecided about ‘the good’, individual freedom is paramount in liberalism and its ‘unwritten’ good.

Liberalism also addresses the issue of licence by its consideration of these questions. What happens though if this freedom from restriction is taken too far?  May the state restrict the freedom of some who do not respect the freedom of others?  How can the freedom of the individual be reconciled with the freedom of others? This notion of freedom allows for some restriction by taking into account the so-called harm principle. It declares a person should be free to do whatever they want so long as there is no harm done to others. [16] The state is said to be neutral and does not prescribe any set of choices for its citizens or provide any actual constraints.[17] Isaiah Berlin defines this negative view of freedom “as the capacity of each individual to achieve rational intentions without let or hindrance.”[18]

(B) In Positive Freedom

As this capacity would seem to suggest more than mere absence of restraint, if it is to amount to anything, what is called positive freedom calls comes into view. This seems to involve more than how Berlin described positive freedom, drawing on the ancient Stoic idea of freedom, which consisted in achieving somehow, not wanting anything.[19] A more realistic version of positive freedom would entail equipping the person with what resources he needs to be able to do what he wants. In this conception there must be positive help from others or the state in providing these means.[20] The state is thus not a force against individual liberty in this conception, but “an instrument of freedom,” [21] in that it provides each individual with certain conditions of life in which he or she could realize their possibilities toward self development. Green argues “that true freedom is not merely the absence of restraint and compulsion but the maximum power for all members of society to make the best of themselves.”[22] Positive freedom then, is “a positive capacity of self-determination that would enable individuals to be the author of their life plan.”[23] Therefore, this liberal tradition also sees human beings as bearers of rights but the concept of right is broadened to include “economic and social rights that provide positive benefits from the state or other collective body.”[24]

Some advocates of positive freedom, possibly those who are more socialistic, want society to express a more public kind of freedom in which individuals fulfil their duties toward the community. There is also greater stress on the political right of human beings to define and decide public matters.[25] The state is even more involved in the public kind of freedom and is not impartial, in terms of what is the good for the individual citizen. The individual may not know what is good for him or her and so social norms are appealed to, such as freedom under the rule of law or even the idea of what a properly reasoning person ought to want.[26] “For Kant, rational consent was basically recognition of the reasonableness of the moral law.”[27] For Rousseau, the role of society is decisive because it is only in society that man becomes a free and intelligent being able “to enjoy the experience of justice and right.”[28] He becomes able to subordinate his immediate personal desires to a higher social good.[29] Discourse ethics in contrast grounds the validity of a norm on an agreement that comes out of a practical discourse  in which all those affected by it account for its validity.[30] Habermas, a proponent of discourse ethics, nevertheless maintains there is equilibrium in principle, anyway, between “the individual liberties of the members of the modern market society” and “the rights of democratic citizens to political participation.”[31]

These Freedoms and their Relation to the Individual , Society and State

I would like to consider briefly some implications these kinds of liberty for the individual, society and the State. From the perspective of negative liberty the State is basically a protector of rights relevant to man’s social conduct. Stephen Law maintains that some liberals assert that the only liberty that counts lies with the individual and their choices whatever they may be. They see positive freedom as a dangerous mystification because it can lead to state collectivism and hence they often will want to reduce the size and powers of the State.[32] According to Rousseau’s idea of positive liberty, political association is aimed at man becoming truly moral and rational through his participation in society. [33] Rousseau’s accent on the results for the individual is remarkable, “He will then bring order into his life and achieve the virtue and moral freedom which make him master of himself.”[34] Hegel also expresses positive freedom in similar individualistic terms, “in duty the individual liberates himself so as to attain substantial freedom.”[35] But some positive freedom advocates go beyond this emphasis on the individual. Kant, for example, calls for a constitution in which “the freedom of each is made consistent with that of all the others.”[36] Rousseau at least saw that a condition of civil equality among individuals, as being essential for their political freedom.[37] Consistent with his communitarian position, Charles Taylor sees the duty of citizens more in terms of creating the less individual centred good of social freedom.[38]

Some Aspects of George’s  Freedom

George seemed to learn from Rousseau that man makes progress in society and gets nowhere in isolation and this applies to the economic freedom he was promoting as well as to other worthwhile endeavours. Georgists are well aware of the association of rent with cooperation, and the positive benefits that rent brings collectively and individually. Rousseau spoke of “mutual frequentation” that brings about the perfection of “the most sublime faculties” but this would seem to be true according to George, not just for individuals but for both the body economic and the body politic as well. [39] For Rousseau even though human beings have their own destiny, their freedom to pursue it does not lead to arbitrary behaviour. Maybe this was an influence on George’s identification of freedom with justice and justice with the natural law. One can be tempted to think George was just using slogans but if we consider the implications of these different looking concepts it seems sound to attempt to resolve them. George does not seem to give too much obvious attention to this project, content to assert their symmetry, but when you have Henry George’s understanding of the law of rent, any difference in each concept seems to disappear. If I could get away with one rhetorical question, wouldn’t we get freedom with justice and vice versa?

Henry George seems to assume that by delivering economic freedom, the freedom of all people to the earth, all other kinds of freedom will necessarily follow.  It is almost as if this will cause or at least occasion some kind of instantaneous and universal moral education. Shklar, a modern liberal, seems to have a similar optimism that life under a liberal regime will foster “habits of patience, self-restraint, respect for the claims of other, and caution” in its citizens.[40] We can just cast our minds back to some alleviation efforts after natural disasters to see that “want and fear of want” produces bad behaviour. George sees the difference between table manners in first class and steerage as inextricably linked to the amount of food available and not to the upbringing or social standing of the travellers. Lindy Davies rightly asserts that “if society moves to a more just and prosperous social order…..the kinds of desires that people seek will shift in beneficent ways.”[41] (The emphasis is in the original.) We also can have his optimism that this can happen given the necessary conditions, viz. equal access to natural opportunities or to land. Davies notes that there is empirical evidence that birth rates decline as living and education standards improve. Further in this vein, he points to both strong positive and negative correlations between regional prosperity and environmental outcomes.[42] It could be objected that even if untold freedom could be let out of the Jeanie’s bottle by George’s reform, that some people may spoil things through retaining a residue of poor desires or even by some pursuing good desires in the wrong way. It seems that social and moral laws could curb or correct such evil tendencies but George shows a liberal reticence about developing a catalogue of virtues. Possibly he did not think we needed one as to follow natural law is the epitome of virtue. On the other side of the coin, he could be leaving it up to his students to develop and this is the way that we can repay him.

George would have been unaware of the positive and negative classification of freedom used by Berlin and some of the current developments in such thought. It could be noted that not all of these developments are consistent let alone desirable from a Georgist point of view. However, I think his idea of freedom is to some extent consistent with the best of each side of this equation, as it were. For example, I feel certain that he did not see freedom merely in terms of lack of restraint and that he must have been alive to the enormous potential that a human being has for good under the right conditions. Furthermore, a government reconnected with its natural revenue and alive to its constituency could do much to establish such conditions.  I also believe that it useful for Georgist educators to be conversant with the different ways of viewing liberty and ready to relate them to George. Maybe it is up to us to show the appeal of his freedom who are coming from a preference for either ‘the left’s positive liberty’ or ‘the right’s negative liberty’. Hopefully, they each may be led to a broader and deeper vision of the subject. After all, doesn’t Mason Gaffney describe George as a great reconciler and assert that very often with him you can get more of two apparently opposed goods. We will no doubt have to filter out some negatives from both ingredients in making this sweet bread of liberty. Just as the Golden Rule implies the right balancing of self interest and altruism, and his law of rent distinguishes what belongs to the community as opposed to the individual, we have can look to these principles to guide us in  giving due weight to what is best in both negative and positive liberty perspectives. I think we will also need to develop adequate understandings of the good for human nature to distinguish true freedom from the chaff of its ‘empty boastings’ namely, licence, irresponsibility and recklessness. This seems to me to give a clue to problem of the limits of freedom and furthermore, human virtues seen as specific qualities perfecting human nature and not as human inventions will be relevant to the task as well. [43]


What I have tried to do today is to show how George thought, by my summary of this book and my commentary of different aspects of it. From all the presentations this weekend, it is pretty obvious today of the great debt we all feel to the teaching of Henry George. Now, I have a better recollection of that quote I began with although I still don’t know who it was attributed to. It said “we repay our teachers badly if we merely think the same way that they think”. To me our duty should be to repay our great teacher and there is probably not much we would like to change because he got his principles or ‘building blocks’ so right. Still we have some new situations to apply his teaching to and we have to relate it to people of our time. We may have to understand better where our new students are coming from and use a different rhetoric. We may even have to update or bolster up some of his arguments and introduce some new insights. We may need to address how Georgism deals with the good and limits to freedom, and state how it does this differently from other philosophies of freedom. We may also want to fill out his thinking on freedom taking account of the renewed appreciation of the ancient idea of virtue. Finally, we may be able bring his teaching into practical effect in our society and that to me will be the best way to repay Henry George. In that case, we are not just thinking as he thought but creatively living his philosophy.

[1] Martin Cohen, Political Philosophy from Plato to Mao,(London:Pluto,2008),136.

[2] John Thornhill, The Person and the Group,(Milwaukee: Bruce,1967),132.

[3] Thornhill, The Person and the Group, 132.

[4] Thornhill, The Person and the Group,132.

[5] Roland Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,2007),65.

[6] Thornhill, The Person and the Group, 109.

[7] Harvey  C Mansfield, A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy, (Delaware: ICI,2001),18.

[8] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspestives,64.

[9] Peter Berkowitz Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism,(Princeton: Princeton University Press,1999),29.

[10] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,64.

[11] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,65.

[12] Berkowitz, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism,23.

[13] Thornhill, The Person and the Group,109.

[14] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,65.

[15] Stephen Law, Philosophy,(London: Dorling Kindersley,2007),162.

[16] Law,Philosophy,163.

[17] Law, Philosophy,163.

[18] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,66.

[19] Martin Cohen, 101 Philosophy Problems,(London:Routledge,2008), 153.

[20] James R Otteson, Actual Ethics, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006),66..

[21] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives, 67.

[22] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives, 67.

[23] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives, 67.

[24] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,67.

[25] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,67.

[26] Law, Philosophy,175.

[27] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,71.

[28] Ronald Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau,(London:1973, OUP),92.

[29] Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau,96.

[30] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives, 71.

[31] Axtmann, Democracy Problems and Perspectives,178.

[32] Law,Philosophy,175.

[33] Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau,116.

[34] Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau, 119.

[35] Law,Philosophy,174.

[36] Berkowitz, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism,125.

[37] Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau,98.

[38] Law, Philosophy,175.

[39] Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau,119.

[40] Berkowitz Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism,30.

[41] Lindy Davies, “A Georgist Theory of History” Georgist Journal CXIV (Winter 2010), 19.

[42] Davies, “A Georgist Theory of History”,19.

[43] Berkowitz Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism,16.

Anthony Fitzgerald

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