Congress is divided on the subject of immigration. It is entertaining proposals to allow many of our 13.4 million undocumented aliens become lawful permanent residents and proposals to criminalize them all. Restrictionist hate-group invective, border vigilantism and massive pro-immigrant demonstrations show that the American population is similarly divided. How to get a handle on immigration policy?
For starters, we need clarity on the immigration question itself. As an immigration lawyer, I see it as a three-sided question.
On one side is the immigrant. Strong forces drive people here from the many places in the world where, sadly, it is much harder to make a living than it is here. People will even risk their lives to cross a desert or an ocean to come here.
On another side is the salaried American worker, afraid of losing his or her job to foreign labor. Even here, it gets tougher all the time for the average working American to survive. For nearly all Americans, poverty is the sound, be we never so prosperous, of the waterfall roaring at our backs as we paddle as hard as we can upstream, and the current flows faster all the time.
On the third side is the American employer. Some employers need to hire foreign professionals with skills we can't sufficiently supply here. Others need more general labor from abroad; they can't find native-born Americans willing to do menial work at wages they can afford to pay in order to stay afloat.
The immigration question is, how to reconcile the interests of these three sides?
Accordingly, the immigration question is at bottom the poverty question. Address the poverty question and we lessen the drive to migrate, the need to import foreign labor and the fear of competition for jobs.
However, recent history, from the fall of the Soviet Union to our inability to deal satisfactorily with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrates that the conventional views from both the left and the right address the poverty question inadequately.
What is needed is a third, independent view. This view must value the strengths in both conventional views while spotting their weaknesses. There must be such a view. In this great country of ours, bums (that is, men and women) sleep in doorways, and conditions abroad are worse.
There is such an independent view. It was actively debated in Congress and elsewhere in this country about a century ago. I think it is high time it was revived.
As it happens, it was an American thinker who most cogently developed and promulgated that view. Resting during a horseback ride he had taken into the hills outside San Francisco one afternoon in the late summer of 1869 (just a few months after the completion of the transcontinental railroad), a journalist named Henry George had a casual conversation with a passing teamster on the subject of land values. While visiting New York earlier that year he had vowed to understand the relationship between the advance of civilization and the amassing of great fortunes, on the one hand, and the concomitant deepening of poverty on the other. At this moment at the time of the closing of the frontier, it was the rise of land values, accompanying both the progress of civilization and the deepening of poverty, that struck him as being vitally important. To George (and to the multitudes who were influenced by his ideas), the poverty question was at bottom the land question.
Like others, George saw that in an advanced society, the cause of economic problems must lie not with production but with distribution. But he went further than others to work out the problem with distribution: If, as he understood, it is the development of society at large that creates and increases the value of land, then the privileged few who own most of the land of a country, enabled by that ownership to demand rent from their countrymen in return for permission to use the land, thereby rob the mass of people of wealth that is rightly theirs.
This insight explains certain puzzling facts. The growth of population, the advance of mechanical invention, the policy of free trade, all are of tremendous potential value to the development of civilization, yet all of these things have been, and still are, regarded sometimes as anathema to society. As George saw, so long as our arrangements concerning private property in land permit the monopolistic amassing of immense fortunes at public expense, any such contribution to the development of civilization can benefit only the landed interests by raising rent, and will impoverish the rest of the people. (That is why he advocated legislation which would impose a single tax on ground rent.)
So it is with immigration, I think. Though immigration is in so many ways a boon to America, some in Congress and elsewhere in this nation of immigrants fear and would limit it, even ban it. But as with other beneficial dynamics similarly feared, immigration itself is not at fault. Poverty is.
And to address the poverty question effectively, I believe we must address the land question. If we are to remain a great country and not decline or fall to ruin as others have, the American people must guide a struggling Congress by thinking more clearly and deeply on the forces bearing down upon us in connection with the immigration question. Otherwise, those forces will tear us apart.
Maplewood, New Jersey
April 6, 2006
This essay was also published on:
ImmigrationProf Blog, A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network,
on April 13, 2006, at:
This is the greatest country in the world. I do not believe that simply because our native-born flag-wavers say it. And although I was born here, I did not always believe it. It's easy to boast about a group when you are a member of it. I am willing to believe that this is the greatest country in the world because those born elsewhere who have made sacrifices to come here - my clients - tell me that it is so.
But if this is the greatest country in the world it is, let's face it, not without serious problems. If this is the greatest country in the world, let's not congratulate ourselves too heartily, because the fact is, the world itself is not in such great shape. If nothing else of value comes out of the debate on immigration policy now going on in the Senate, maybe at least those facts will.
Congress is divided on the subject of immigration.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, after its own contentious debate, has just voted 13.4 to 6 to recommend to the wider Senate legislation that would afford many among the reportedly 13.4 million undocumented aliens living in this country new avenues to try to legalize themselves. The Senate is just now beginning to debate those recommendations. Under temporary worker provisions within the Committee's recommendations, undocumented aliens who work for six years would be able to apply for permanent resident status.
On the other hand, last December the House passed a far more anti-immigrant bill. That bill will also be a part of what will surely be very heated debate, right now in the Senate and then throughout Congress. The House bill would criminalize unlawful presence, making it an imprisonable offense. Its provisions would also criminalize as alien "smuggling" some of the activities of those who counsel the undocumented population, such as church organizations, legal aid organizations, lawyers and employers. Under such provisions, such counselors could go to jail for counseling undocumented aliens, never mind that the law will still allow some of those aliens, often as a result of the counseling, to acquire legal status. (The Senate Judiciary Committee's recommendations opposed these provisions of the House bill, even while supporting provisions that would toughen immigration law enforcement.) The House bill would also continue the trend begun in 1997 to limit due process protections available here to the foreign-born, even the lawfully resident foreign-born. That bill would further curtail their right to judicial review, a right that one would have thought was guaranteed to them by the Constitution. And some of the proposals from both the House and the Committee would make it possible for aliens in this country to be detained indefinitely on security grounds. I have clients who have fled here from dictatorships to avoid just such strong-arm governmental treatment.
When you have Congress proposing both types of provisions, it's fair to say that Congress is divided.
But perhaps we should not fault too strongly a Congress looking sharply toward upcoming mid-term elections and the next presidential election for being divided on the issues. Congress's voting constituents - we, the people - are divided as well.
If the subject of immigration comes up in casual conversation, for example, you are likely to hear strong opinions both pro and con. On both sides those opinions are likely to come from the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Sometimes those even closer to the immigrant, who ought to be more sympathetic, take the anti-immigrant view. Case in point: just the other day I happened to discuss some of the proposals being made in Congress with a client of mine. Some of the proposals are too harsh, he agreed. But, he added, we ought to stop "illegal immigration." Now the man is a perfectly likeable person, and is moreover a devoted and loving husband, and I pointed out to him that his own wife was here illegally not so long ago; it is the law that is in place as of this writing that allowed her to legalize. Similarly, another man of my acquaintance, discussing the current legislative debate not long ago, opined that illegal immigration should be stopped, entirely ignoring the fact that he himself recently obtained lawful permanent residence status after having been here in violation of immigration law.
Emotions run high on the subject, and never more so than now. American business, in industry after industry, cries for more permissive immigration rules, while the unions lobby for stricter quotas. Restrictionist hate-groups, selling bumper stickers reading "Illegal Immigration Sucks," "Deport Everyone," "Can't Afford Medical Care? Thank an Illegal Alien!" and "A Vigilante is Just an Undocumented Border Patrol Agent" on the internet, appear to have the ear of the most restrictionist of our representatives. Prominent among those is Representative Tom Tancredo (R., CO) who appears to be starting a long-shot bid for the White House in 2008 on the strength of a restrictionist platform. At the same time, massive crowds are turning out to protest restrictionism and support immigration; within the past week, there were tens of thousands who demonstrated in Los Angeles.
Even basic terminology is a battleground. The restrictionists deride the use of the word "undocumented" by immigration advocates. As a synonym for "illegal" it is probably a fair target for mockery. But the word "undocumented" is not intended to mean exactly what "illegal" means. Because the law now permits some aliens who are here illegally to acquire legal status, and because the legislature is now redetermining where the zig-zagging line between legal and illegal should be drawn, immigration advocates favor the word less likely to stigmatize the people whose fate is being considered. But phraseology aside, what an immigration advocate thinks of and what a restrictionist thinks of when they consider aliens who are here unlawfully are two very different things indeed.
Meanwhile, people born abroad continue to be willing to risk their lives to come here, whether by hiking with little more than the clothes on their backs through a hundred miles of border desert or in other ways.
In light of the divisiveness of the subject, then, it is heartening that the bill which the Senate Judiciary Committee has reported to the floor of the Senate is entitled "The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act." Clearly it is time that this subject got treated comprehensively.
In order for that to happen, however, we must start by taking into account not merely one but by my count three populations. That is something the Senate Judiciary Committee at last appears to have realized. The fact is that the immigration question is a three-sided question.
On one side, however much it may be discounted by the restrictionists, is the immigrant population itself. In so much of Central and South America, so much of Asia, so much of Africa, so much of Europe (particularly Eastern Europe) - so much, sadly, of the whole world - it is obviously much harder for a person to make a living than it is here. Strong forces drive people here from many parts of the world. Consider what results.
I spoke several weeks ago to a part-time member of the Coast Guard, who told me that each and every time the Coast Guard searches a large incoming ship they find (and of course interdict and deport) at least one stowaway. Since 2004, the Coast Guard has been interdicting people at the rate of around 10,000 a year; and clearly the Coast Guard does not and cannot search every ship. But more to the point is the fact, which this Coast Guard man revealed to me, that the typical stowaway is not some cozy character, holed up for a nice ocean crossing. The typical stowaway is grateful to be found by the Coast Guard, because the typical stowaway is in danger of dying by stowing away. Banana shipments, it seems, are particularly risky on account of the tarantulas that are found in them, and it is not that uncommon for Coast Guard men, much to their chagrin, to find corpses stowed away among such cargoes.
Congress has had us build a length of wall between the U.S. and Mexico and contemplates extending it at great cost. Border patrol numbers have been increased, and appropriations for electronic bells and whistles, perennially popular, are predicted by at least one immigration expert to pass in Congress without opposition. And still they come, stowing away or hiking through a hundred miles of desert.
On a less dramatic point, consider the new rules that have been adopted regarding drivers' licenses. Not all foreign labor is here against the law. But to focus, for the sake of discussion, on the undocumented immigrant population, our legislators have in the last two years made it well-nigh impossible to get a driver's license for those who lack the proper immigration status. This would seem to be an effective way to cut down on unauthorized employment. Outside of our biggest cities, it is hard to work in this country without driving. But to the extent it has not already happened, I have no doubt that it will happen - what IT professionals call a workaround. Others will be found to drive the undocumented gardener, or roofer, or baker or cook to work. Bicycling will become more popular. Unlicensed driving will proliferate. To those who try to enforce the immigration controls on employment, it must feel like trying to nail jelly to the wall.
The reason that these things are so is that people will strive to better their lives. Likely as not our forebears - yours, mine and the restrictionists' as well - did just that. And the worse those lives are and the relatively better they might be elsewhere, the harder they will strive to do so by migrating, lawfully if they can, unlawfully if they have to. You cannot legislate against the tide. Get all the laws and walls and guards and nightvision scopes and bells and whistles you want, the history of the world makes it clear that when people are motivated to come, come they will.
That's on one side of a three-sided problem.
On another side are those from among the ranks of salaried American workers to whom job security is both vitally important and a constant matter of concern.
As good as our economy is, relative to that of so many other parts of the world, I believe that in general - not for this or that individual, but for people in general - for the American who makes a living by working for somebody else, year by year and even month by month he or she has to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place. On the average it takes less and less of a misstep or unfortunate turn of events for the working American in the middle or lower class to get shifted that much closer toward outright poverty. Poverty is the sound, be we never so prosperous, of the waterfall roaring at our backs as we paddle as hard as we can upstream, and the current flows faster all the time. And this is true even at income levels above the lowest. We have laptops and cell phones and can be that much more productive as a result; but we must carry them with us always, and for many people, gone are the days of magazine- reading on the train ride to work, or the business-call-free lunch. The constant decline in gender discrimination in the workplace has allowed women to work more and more the way they want to, but considering the effect on childrearing in a two- worker family, it is not a blessing that, more and more, both parents have to.
Accordingly, although nearly all of us are descended from immigrants in this nation of immigrants, one would expect some members of Congress, seeking for a message that will get them reelected, to calculate that a restrictionist message will sell, no matter how other sides involved in the question may favor immigration.
Which brings us to the third side of the question, because there is a third side. On that side is the American employer, whether he or she runs a large business or a small business. That American's interest in immigration tends to be aligned with the interest of the would-be immigrant. It is clear that it is not just the economic prospects of salaried Americans or of people in other countries that need to be taken into account in this debate. There are many Americans who want and depend upon immigrant labor. Not for the American employee only, the roar of the waterfall. The American employer hears it too, and the sound makes him or her grateful for foreign labor.
For some employers, hiring needs motivate them to hire foreign professionals with skills we can't, or can't sufficiently, supply here - the foreign-born IT professional workforce which supplements our own, the engineers and scientists we have always cherry-picked from among the best in the world. (This is the policy of "brain drain," a policy I expect Congress will maintain. And rightly so. Why not the world's best and brightest for America?) For other American employers the need is for more general labor from abroad because they can't find native-born Americans willing to do certain menial work.
The immigration question is: how to reconcile the interests of all three sides? That is what makes the question problematic.
But even considering the three-sided nature of the immigration question, I don't believe that accounts for the polarized, divisive and sometimes hysterical nature of the debate. Because even to many of those who might be expected to fear it most, immigration is so clearly beneficial. First, the very nature of the immigrant labor we are eager to employ here shows that it is obviously a boon to us.
The skilled labor we cannot sufficiently field here would not appear to pose a great threat to American labor, and contrary to the claims of restrictionists, Congress has built in wage and educational or experience requirements, and quotas, that limit the number of people filling these positions and prevent them from underbidding the American workforce where wage levels are concerned.
Regarding more manual and less professional foreign labor, employers will tell you right and left that they can scarcely find the native-born workers they need to fill these positions. Countless private households are unable to satisfy their needs for babysitters from the pool of native-born labor. And in roofing, building construction, fishing and fish preparation, farming, meatpacking, gardening - in industry after industry after industry there are American-born employers who depend on the services of foreign labor, whether legal or not, in order to stay afloat. This is particularly true of the owners of small business, whom some would call the lifeblood of an independent people. The work is menial, demanding of long and sometimes unpleasant working hours. In some of these industries, the reality (as these employers will tell you) is that good ol' American boys just aren't willing to work hard enough for the wages their employers can afford to pay them to get the job done.
History, too, suggests that immigration is a boon and not a curse. Immigration not only settled but built this country. Furthermore, America is great in part because it is big. Our founders did right to opt against making us a loose federation of independent states in favor of unifying us as one republic. (Europe has woken to this, in seeking to unify its member nations commercially through the European Union.) Our success as a vast republic itself ought to suggest that further and more global openness would only make us the greater.
And most importantly, immigration bestows on us a benefit that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual - one that is, for all that, no less powerful.
It is a benefit implicit in the face and voice of Sergio Oliveira, a construction worker in Newark, New Jersey, who after many years of waiting and hoping has just been approved for lawful permanent residence status (also called green card status because the cards documenting that status many decades ago were green).
I know it will be in the face and voice of Hector Alonzo, who arises at 3 or 4 a.m. five or six days a week to bake pastries for a large, high-end baking company that supplies our most luxurious hotels' business and social functions with these delicacies, when he and his hardworking wife and their son get their green cards, as I hope they will.
It is in the face and voice of my friend in Danbury, Connecticut, Carlos Pasajero, a man from Ecuador who first came here illegally. After working and paying taxes here for years, and five years after getting permanent residence status, he is about to realize his dream of opening a small restaurant. Carlos is blessed with the qualities of amiability, diligence and stalwartness, and loves cooking above all other types of work and is good at it. I therefore have no doubt whatsoever that, spurred on by the enthusiasm, pride and hopefulness that permanent resident status gives him, he will be successful in this venture. That will leave the city of Danbury, Connecticut, itself struggling these days, that much better off as a place to live, work and eat, for the established American population there as much as for anyone.
The feeling of which I speak is implicit in the look on the face and the sound of the voice and the content of the speech of almost every person whom it has been my honor to assist in obtaining a green card. It is even a feeling, I will say, of love for this country, rarely matched in the hearts of those of us who were born here. Being a feeling it is unlikely to show up directly on a statistical report. But indirectly it is bound to improve all desirable statistics you can think of and is a constructive power, a force for good in America that it would be a grave error to vitiate or destroy.
At the same time, the numbers involved suggest that immigration is not to blame for our social and economic ills. It is a myth that illegal immigrants come to this country to get welfare. Ninety percent of undocumented men work, which is a higher percentage than is true of their U.S. citizen or legal immigrant counterparts. Meanwhile, as a 2001 Urban Institute study points out, "undocumented immigrants are ineligible for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and most other public benefits."
It is also reported, and we have no reason to doubt, that there are 13.4 million undocumented aliens living in the U.S. (Annual quotas for legal immigration are estimated to total in the 800,000 range for temporary and permanent residents together.) Now that is a lot of people, no doubt. But on the numbers alone it is clear that immigration cannot and does not account for the kind of difficulty the American worker in general has in making a living. For it is also reported that, taking into account the portion of that undocumented population that also works here, undocumented labor accounts for five percent of the U.S. work force. Five percent. That does not seem likely to me to account for the waterfall of economic insecurity roaring in American ears today.
And finally, just as restrictionism cannot be justified on the grounds of expediency or statistics, it cannot be justified on the grounds of morality. When it is considered that restrictionists, like the rest of us, are overwhelmingly likely to be descended from immigrants themselves, their opposition to immigration amounts to this: it was good enough for them and their families but it is not good enough for others. They may have the power to back legislation that will support that position, but they lack the moral right.
No, I believe restrictionists get the traction they do because of a confusion of thought, and one that goes beyond Congress. We, as much as our representatives, confuse the symptom for the cause. Restrictionists claim immigration will impoverish us, and there are many who are willing to believe it. But immigration does not cause poverty. The problems most feared as side-effects of immigration are actually the signs and results of poverty. If all were well here, we would not fear immigration. Resolution of the problems revealed by the immigration question must therefore be sought in the cause of poverty. The immigration question is at bottom the poverty question.
At present, however, we are not addressing poverty nearly as well as we ought to be. At present, the best that our current and conventional political ideology has to offer toward the solution of social problems is inadequate to that task.
At its best, the political left, acknowledging that we have a poverty problem, would protect the interests of people in the lowest class most vulnerable to poverty through social programs. From welfare to educational programs to health care programs to retirement programs, those programs are to be funded by society at large and administered by the government. Given that we are beset by economic woes, this instinct toward the protection of society's weakest and most vulnerable is admirable, even vitally important.
At its best, the right would seek to protect the rights of the individual against undue government incursion. (That is the traditional position of the right, anyway - I'm not so sure that it is universally held on the right today. Consider the power of the executive, and which party has been ascendant as that has grown.) Among these rights, the political right values highly and would certainly protect the individual's right to property. And, considering the despotism to which powerful government is prone, this view, too, is laudable and desirable.
But by now it is clear that each side of the political spectrum (as each is quick to point out about the other) is fundamentally limited in its ability to keep society healthy. This is apparent in the tendency that the left has to lapse into a disturbing militancy, and to threaten too great a loss of individual freedom to the collective interest. The mode of operation of labor unions is one case in point. Unions need to be militant to keep their members marching in lock step. Only in that way can their members combine forces to fight for gains against management. But those gains, if they come, come at the expense of the freedom of operation of a union's members, and they are gains in which the general mass of workers do not share, because unfortunately the mass of workers cannot get into the unions. The failure of socialism demonstrated by the history and fall of the Soviet Union is another example of the failure of the left to achieve its important goals. The right (itself no stranger to militancy of late) is at fault insofar as it lapses into a tendency to favor unfairly the interests of a privileged few over those of society at large. Power is thereby able that much more easily to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands, with the result that those few gain an unfair advantage over the mass of people, who are thereby easily victimized. In an earlier age, it was the railroad magnates and other robber barons who reaped the benefits of such lapses. Their modern successors control business combinations that continue to grow ever larger. Controlling interests in huge and growing corporations thereby find it ever easier to fix prices and to destroy competition by tilting the field of competition in their favor. (The right is, in my opinion, even more at fault than the left in that our conservatives are the ones most likely to deny, even aggressively so, the existence of social problems. Though I could swear I'm meeting registered Democrats who show this tendency, too, if more tentatively and politely.)
Our readiness to deny the existence of economic problems in this country is, I think, at least partly the reason that the security issue is able to occupy the place that it does occupy in the present debate. I don't deny that security is an issue. On the morning of Tuesday, 9-11, I climbed a hill near my office to join others and see with my own eyes the smoke from the fallen towers in New York, and I was outraged and wanted retribution. But I do believe firmly that security is nothing like the issue in this immigration debate that restrictionists claim it to be. The attackers on 9-11 were born abroad, it is true. But that alone does not argue for reducing visa quotas. It argues for better security checks (and, I might add, for learning to listen to experts such as Richard Clarke, who did their best to forewarn us of security risks). The death toll on our highways does not make us ban auto traffic; we pass seatbelt laws and work on highway safety. We should, and I believe will, address security the same way, by working on security without curtailing immigration. (Even the subject of security, I would argue, should raise the poverty question. As Madrid and London have learned to their cost, as we ought to have learned from the Oklahoma City bombing, the threat from domestic terror is far greater than the threat from foreign terror. There are no borders to protect against the domestic terrorist. And as poverty abroad has bearing on foreign terrorism, so poverty at home has bearing on domestic terror.)
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, too, illustrates the inadequacy of our conventional views on poverty. In one revealing story, we read that refugees from the storm, most or all of them blacks from poor parishes in New Orleans, were at first invited to shelter themselves in a large public building in a relatively prosperous community outside Louisiana. Before long, however, welcome turned to revulsion; I do not believe that was racism as much as it was an expression of reluctance to bear, however communally, the burden of an influx of poor people. These refugees - Americans all - were asked by their fellow Americans to go elsewhere.
On the one hand, then, we have the reactionary impulse to deny that we have economic problems. On the other, we have the failure of the substantial social programs we now fund to deal adequately with those problems.
Nor does centrism, the politics currently being most resorted to by our legislators as they seek to avoid the divisiveness these problems bring, seem able to address these problems with greater success. As House Representative Jim Kolbe (an Arizonan Republican) put it recently concerning the Congressional debate on immigration: "Rarely have I seen an issue that divides people so clearly, with so little possibility of seeking a middle ground." Centrism only manages to juggle two half-truths without producing wholeness.
What is needed is a third view, one taken not merely from the middle ground but, as it were, from a vantage point above the plain of confusion. This would be a perspective on social problems which is independent of, but capable of appreciating the characteristic strengths in both conventional views while spotting wherein they cannot move us forward. There must be such a view. In this great country of ours, bums (that is, men and women) sleep in doorways; in other countries, there are entire families, men, women and children, who sleep that way, and it is not enough, and not accurate, for us to dismiss them with the phrase, "they don't want to work." We can no longer do what increasingly we seem to want to do, which is to pretend that they do not exist, and to celebrate as a hero the mayor of a mighty city who would shift them out of sight while doing nothing whatever to better their condition.
There is such an independent view. I believe it reconciles the valuable and otherwise apparently irreconcilable features of left and right. That view values the respect for private property and the rights of the individual to be free of government interference which have sometimes been the hallmarks of the political right. And it values the concern for social problems and the reliance on government and social arrangements for the protection of the interests of the lowest classes which make liberalism admirable. This third view would seek to understand and use the democratic process to combat monopoly; it sees monopoly as wrongly burdening the general field of business and robbing the general population of the ability to make a living. According to this third view, social arrangements which not only permit but encourage such monopoly also necessitate a too-great involvement of government in affairs which are better left to individual and private enterprise.
This is a view which was once actively debated in Congress and elsewhere in this country. I think it is high time it was revived and reintroduced into our thinking on social problems, whether they are the problems involved in the immigration question or others like them. I will do no more than highlight its salient features here, but I will at least do that.
It was, as it happens, a thoroughly American thinker who most cogently developed and promulgated that view. Perhaps it was inevitable that the seminal insight that allowed him to do so came to him at the time and in more or less the place of the closing of our national frontier, the same frontier that made independence the mark of our national character and played a vital role in raising this country to greatness. Resting during a horseback ride he had taken into the hills outside San Francisco one afternoon in the late summer of 1869 (just a few months after the completion of the transcontinental railroad), a journalist named Henry George had a casual conversation with a passing teamster on the subject of land values. It was that conversation which brought him the insight he had begun seeking in earnest some months earlier during a visit to New York. He had determined while back east to understand the relationship between the advance of civilization and the amassing of great fortunes, on the one hand, and the concomitant deepening of poverty on the other. At this moment at the time of the closing of the frontier, it was the rise of land values, accompanying both the progress of civilization and the deepening of poverty, that struck him as being vitally important. From that point forward, he worked it out that it was not the growth of population or other theories popular in his day that accounted for the ongoing and increasing insecurity of employment and poverty as civilization progresses, but social arrangements which allow a few individuals to monopolize the wealth that is created by the presence of society. To George (and to the multitudes who were influenced by his ideas), the poverty question was at bottom the land question.
Where a society is increasingly able to produce great wealth and yet its population finds it increasingly difficult to make a living, the fault must lie not with production but with distribution. George is not the only person to have seen this. But foremost among those who did he was the one who worked out the problem with distribution: If, as he understood, it is the development of society at large that creates and increases the value of land, then the privileged few who own most of the land of a country, enabled by that ownership to demand rent from their countrymen in return for permission to use the land, thereby rob the mass of people of wealth that is rightly theirs.
The thinking of George and of the men and women who followed him suggests how, in this nation of immigrants, immigration has come to be at once so greatly appreciated and so bitterly vilified. As that thinking made clear, there have been other social dynamics that, like immigration, tend to benefit society greatly but, closely debated by legislatures, have sometimes been feared as threatening economic harm. The growth of population, the advance of mechanical invention, the policy of free trade, all are of tremendous potential value to the development of civilization. A comparison of the quality of life in sparsely populated areas with that made possible by the growth of towns and cities shows that population growth aids - indeed is practically synonymous with - the development of civilization. The huge increase in wealth-producing power made possible by such technological advances as the telephone, the airplane, electromechanical devices and the computer, demonstrates the value of invention to society. The mutual benefit, both commercially and culturally, available to both sides of any freely arrived at commercial exchange suggests the value to nations of free trade.
And yet all of these things have been, and continue to be, regarded sometimes as anathema to society. Even in a land where abortion is controversial and even among those who would outlaw it as a violation of the moral order, the birth of a baby is not always, as a matter of policy, viewed as a cause for celebration. Rather, it has long been established economic thinking in conservative as well as liberal quarters that the growth of population naturally tends to outstrip the capacity of nature to provide subsistence, or that there is a fixed fund of capital out of which wages must be paid so that the more people there are seeking work, the less wages the average worker can get. So ingrained can the fear of population growth become that even in times where the rate of population growth has been negligible or negative, even in countries such as ours where we publicly abhor the practice, there may be a private readiness to consider as reasonable such a thing as China's coercive population control policy (i.e. forced sterilization once a couple has had a child). As to invention, when times are tough, such that the general mass of laborers finds it hard to keep or to find employment, technological advances are sometimes seen as inimical to social health. There are then some who would almost rather return to more primitive methods of production than use the tools that invention provides. As to free trade, protectionism (the policy of burdening trade with protective tariffs, ostensibly to protect "home industry") has been a part of our legislative debate since at least the nineteenth century.
In each case, it is the existence, and often the deepening, of economic woes - the problem of unemployment, the concomitant fear of job loss, the existence and even deepening of the problem of poverty - that causes us to fear these dynamics that would otherwise be welcomed and celebrated wholeheartedly. In each case, the only thinking that I am aware of that has provided insight is the independent view of the type I have mentioned. In my opinion that must be a view which introduces the land question into the relevant debate. For, as George saw, as long as our arrangements concerning private property in land permit the monopolistic amassing of great fortunes at public expense, any advance in the development of civilization can benefit only the landed interests by raising rent and will impoverish the rest of the people. (That is why he advocated legislation which would impose a single tax on ground rent.) And that is true whether the advance is brought about by population growth, the march of invention or free trade.
So it is with immigration. Though immigration is in so many ways a boon to America, Congress and many people outside Congress in this nation of immigrants fear and would limit it, even ban it. The beneficial nature of immigration itself makes clear that, as with other beneficial dynamics similarly feared, immigration is not at fault. It is the poverty question that needs to be addressed, and that with an independent mind, if we would solve the three-sided immigration question. Address the poverty question and we lessen the drive to migrate, the need to import foreign labor and the fear of competition for jobs.
On the other hand, if we continue business (and analysis) as usual, given the waterfall effect, people will continue to die trying to get here and our population will continue to be divided and will continue to suffer on account of the issue. Moreover, while we are satisfied to look at the matter narrowly and in a piecemeal fashion, we deepen the problems underlying the debate. For example, beefing up security and increasing enforcement, however justified, are expensive. The cost for such things is borne by the taxpayer. It will add to the pressures which make immigration a ground for ongoing problems and debate.
Our current approach can be characterized all too aptly as a Red versus Blue animosity. I myself lapsed into that attitude during the last election, and I have come to feel as a result that this way of looking at things is a complete waste of energy. If we are to improve things we must, like my immigration clients, adopt a more constructive attitude towards dealing with social problems.
Why should we let ourselves be driven by the fear of a downward pull from downtrodden outsiders? Why not instead revel in being the lifting force that pulls the whole world upward? On this question as on others like it we can lead the world. The motto on the base of the Statue of Liberty reminds us we have done so before. And because immigration is a boon both to the host nation and to the immigrant, in favoring it we better ourselves not only practically but morally, by helping the outsider.
If, however, we go the wrong way on this issue, the implications are ominous both morally and practically. As the Senate Judiciary Committee appears to have realized, if we act fearfully - and wrongheadedly - we will do nothing but establish, or reaffirm, our willingness to scapegoat millions of people who are members of our own community. If we ever did actually follow the exhortation on the restrictionist bumper sticker to deport everyone, only we who were born here could serve as the pool from which we would select the next outcastes.
Empire after empire has fallen. Egypt. The Incan. The Aztec. Greece. Rome. Others have declined. With all due respect to Western Europe, Britain is not what it once was. Nor is France. Nor Spain. Nor Portugal.
This is the greatest country in the world. Although I have not visited every country that I would like to see (New Zealand comes to mind at the moment), and so cannot make the surest claim, I am, as I say, willing to believe that we are. But I also believe that if we are to remain a great country and not decline or fall to ruin as others have, we must think more clearly and deeply on the forces bearing down upon us in connection with the immigration question. Otherwise, those forces will tear us apart.
I believe there are those in Congress, even as interested as they are in election, who would like to help this country in this matter. When Senator Kennedy, insisting that provisions concerning the fate of our undocumented population remain an important part of the debate, told the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, "this issue is NOT going away, like some other issues," he was right. But if the matter is not to remain a mere political football, with progress on reconciling the different sides limited to jiggering quotas up and down or playing chicken with the Constitution, it may well be that the American people, thinking more clearly on the subject than we have been doing, will have to point the way so that Congress can achieve real progress.
Maplewood, New Jersey
March 30, 2006
Good morning. So. Poverty. Progress and poverty, a puzzle. The economy. You must be a bunch of hardy and otherwise exemplary souls indeed to come out of a Sunday morning to consider the likes of that. And that reminds me of a joke:
A soldier, an engineer and an economist are stranded on a desert island. No food for weeks, they're starving, and then they find this can of beans. The soldier tries to open it first. He takes a rock and tries to crack it open. But the island's rocks are too soft, and he gets nowhere. The engineer drops it off a cliff, figuring soft or not, let gravity do the work. No luck there. So the economist sizes up the situation, and he says: "First, we must assume we have a can-opener..."
Hardy souls you are indeed, if you thought we would be talking about economics. Actually, though (as Sam Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings might put it), we will and we won't, if you take my meaning.
And actually, the important (and final, I'm sorry to say) joke of this talk, the one that'll be on the test, is this one:
These two guys, not the brightest - I'll tell no ethnic jokes this morning; supply the national origin yourselves - these two dumb guys are out deer hunting and they shoot a buck in the woods. They grab it by the hind legs and start dragging it back to their car. As they're dragging this thing, they run into another guy who sees them struggling and says, "You'll find it a lot easier if you hold it by the antlers while you're dragging it." So they start dragging it by the antlers. They're going maybe 20, 30 minutes when one of them says to the other, "Y'know, that guy was right. It is a lot easier this way." And the other one says, "Yeah. There's only one thing that bothers me. Now we're getting farther from the car."
Why do I mention this? I mention it because, when it comes to our ability, using the conventional wisdom, to solve the puzzle of why or how poverty persists and even deepens as civilization progresses - we are moving farther from the car.
At the moment, this wet Sunday morning in late September, it scarcely needs me telling you that we have a global economic crisis. Banks failing, huge accounting firms and other well established business concerns - rocks of stability we'd've thought would last forever - going under. Mass layoffs, ongoing. The question of the day is, given that the bills don't stop coming, if the income checks stop coming, what're you going to do? And for those who have been lucky enough to buck this trend, good luck bucking the anxiety of being caught up in it down the road.
And in light of the wealth-producing power our modern civilization enjoys in the Information Age, it is puzzling that poverty persists and deepens. We can find all manner of useful information on a personal computer in a matter of seconds, we can design and manufacture with greater ease than ever before, our transportation infrastructure is more streamlined than ever. But across the board, on the whole, for people in general it has long been the case, even before the current crisis, that you have to run harder and harder, financially speaking, just to keep from losing ground.
A hundred and forty years ago, the very puzzle of which I speak was described this way:
The present century has been marked by a prodigious increase in wealth-producing power. The utilization of steam and electricity, the introduction of improved processes and labor-saving machinery, the greater subdivision and grander scale of production, the wonderful facilitation of exchanges, have multiplied enormously the effectiveness of labor.
At the beginning of this marvelous era it was natural to expect, and it was expected, that labor-saving inventions would lighten the toil and improve the condition of the laborer; that the enormous increase in the power of producing wealth would make real poverty a thing of the past....
Now, however, we are coming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world come complaints of industrial depression; of labor condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; of pecuniary distress among business men; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes. All the dull, deadening pain, all the keen, maddening anguish, that to great masses of men are involved in the words "hard times," afflict the world to-day....
...[J]ust as ... a community realizes the conditions for which all civilized communities are striving, and advances in the scale of material progress -- just as closer settlement and a more intimate connection with the rest of the world, and greater utilization of labor-saving machinery, make possible greater economies in production and exchange, and wealth in consequence increases, not merely in the aggregate, but in proportion to population - so does poverty take a darker aspect. Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at all. The "tramp" comes with the locomotive, and almshouses and prisons are as surely the marks of "material progress" as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses, and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled by uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied.
As I said, then, with respect to the global economy, we are getting farther from the car. That being the case, this year as we enter that season when I have taken to addressing people at Ethical Culture, I say to myself, what better topic than the life and thought of the man whose writing I have just quoted?
Henry George's personal history is the story of the transformative impact of an insight on a life. And at the heart of the transformation, a puzzle and a solution.
Before the insight, George was a venturesome Philadelphian who'd tried his hand first at merchant seamanship, then at prospecting out West, then as a printer's apprentice, and had finally settled into a career as a California-based journalist, an editorial writer and an editor. It's true that he had been gaining a certain amount of attention from his writing about social problems, but it was a revelation of sorts that served as a kind of turning point in his life. In 1869, on behalf of the small newspaper he wrote for and edited, he'd gone to New York City to try to secure decent news wire service from the big telegraph companies. The trip was a failure on that score - the bigger papers and the telegraph companies had a relationship that papers of his type could not break in on.
But, the trip was valuable to him in another way. As his biographer George Geiger put it, "It was in New York that George saw at first hand an example of the bewildering coincidence of progress and poverty that he had been vaguely conscious of. Here in that mighty city of the East - where wealth and prestige were written on every brownstone front and the very air seemed charged with power - misery and wretchedness were already smugly accepted and the slums were beginning to fester." In New York, George vowed to himself to solve the puzzle. The solution to the puzzle, or at least the seminal insight which would make a committed reformer out of him, would come to him later, back in California.
But let's hold off on that insight for just a moment, to fast-forward to the facts of his life after that revelatory moment. Working out, over the next nine years, a body of thought based on the seminal insight, he produced what remains his best-known work, Progress and Poverty. It sold in the millions of copies, more than many a bestseller of its day, and this in the days before mass advertising; it was translated into French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Swedish, Russian and Chinese. Speaking and writing further about the ideas set down in that book, George amassed and inspired many followers, among them a good number of prominent figures - Tolstoy, Sun Yat Sen (a rare example of a statesman revered by both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan), the young Winston Churchill, the young Clarence Darrow (who began his own public speaking career at a rally for George), the young George Bernard Shaw. George went on to debate some of the leading figures of his time - Pope Leo the XIII, the Scottish Duke of Argyll (himself a prominent writer of that day), and, as debate was declined in this instance, he criticized, in a provocative book entitled "The Perplexed Philosopher," the social thinking of the philosopher Herbert Spencer. His followers nominated him to run, twice, for Mayor of New York. When he died in the middle of his second mayoral campaign, 100,000 people turned out to mourn him. He was eulogized by, among others, Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture.
And now let's return to that moment of insight. The time is the late summer of 1870, not that long after the end of the Civil War. The country is still in the throes of what would come to be known as the Panic and Depression of 1869. The transcontinental railroad has just been completed. The place is the hills just outside San Francisco, which is to say, the site, more or less, of the closing of the frontier, and with that closing and the joining of coasts by the railroad, land values in the San Francisco area have skyrocketed. George has gone out riding, and remembers the revelatory moment thus:
...Absorbed in my own thoughts, I had driven the horse into the hills until he panted. Stopping for breath, I asked a passing teamster, for want of something better to say, what land was worth there. He pointed to some cows grazing off so far that they looked like mice, and said: "I don't know exactly, but there is a man over there who will sell some land for a thousand dollars an acre [which in those days was a huge sum]." Like a flash it came upon me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege. I turned back, amidst quiet thought, to the perception that then came to me and has been with me ever since.
The constituent ideas which together make up George's thinking on social problems differ markedly, in important respects, from the tenets of the conventional wisdom, both left and right. I can do no more, in a talk of this length, than describe them fairly briefly, but I will do at least that.
George clarifies that the three factors of wealth production - three elements as necessary to the creation of wealth as heat, oxygen and fuel are for the creation of fire - are land, labor and capital. By itself, this does not seem particularly revolutionary. Nor do his definitions of terms. He defines wealth, quite sensibly, as "natural products so secured, moved, combined or altered by human labor as to fit them for the satisfaction of human desires." And he defines capital as wealth that is used, not directly to satisfy human desire by consumption, but for the purpose of obtaining more wealth. (Think of a person who finds a fruit tree and expends labor in picking the fruit. The result of that labor - the picked apples - can then be applied directly to satisfying desire, by being eaten; or the picked fruits can be held for sale or exchange. In the first instance, there is wealth consumed, in the second, wealth held for use as capital.) From these definitions it is clear enough that wealth can only be produced by the operation of labor (human exertion) on land (the natural universe).
But this analysis of wealth production differs in two respects, at least, from other analyses. First, George is clear and consistent in defining wealth, where other thinkers in the field, those preceding him and those coming after, are inconsistent, sometimes adopting the meaning just mentioned, sometimes confusing the term with the term value - and after all, land, too has value - and virtually always giving it a meaning that is vaguer or shifting or both. Second, and similarly, George draws a clear distinction between land and capital, where others do not. John Stuart Mill and virtually all others who have considered the subject, essentially confuse and mingle the two terms. And it is the ramifications of those fairly simple differences in thinking that are tremendous.
For one thing, if land is distinguished from capital or from any other wealth produced by human exertion, and if it is understood that labor, whether by itself or with the use of capital, must act upon land to produce wealth, the Wages Fund Theory, which persists in popular economic thought, is shown to be a fallacy. And that in turn has huge significance, where thought on social problems is concerned.
According to the Wages Fund Theory, the ultimate source of wages paid to the laborer is the fund of capital devoted to and set aside for that purpose. That being the case (so the theory would have it), the more laborers there are, the smaller the wages that will be available on the average to each laborer. Under this view, in other words, capital being likened to the pie that feeds all, the more mouths, the less pie for each mouth. (This, incidentally, is the strongest source of anti-immigrant sentiment, something I am well aware of from my day job as an immigration lawyer, and many of my fellow immigration lawyers are ideologically torn by their dedication to the cause of immigration and their belief in the validity of the Wages Fund Theory.)
George shows the Wages Fund Theory to be erroneous. He points out that the ultimate source of wages is not capital but the labor that produces wealth, that the operation of the production and distribution of wealth depends, not primarily upon the pre-existence of a fund of capital unrelated to labor, but far more fundamentally upon the exertion of labor itself: business, whether simple or complex, is fundamentally hand to mouth, and the flow of wages back to the laborer is siphon-like, ultimately depending on the wealth produced by labor. Or in pie-eating terms, what the theory mistakenly leaves out of account is that with each new mouth that comes into the world, there is also a pair of hands - hands capable of labor and thus wealth production - that come with it. George also points out that if labor and capital are naturally opposed to each other, as the Theory mandates, wages would be expected to be high where interest (the return to capital) is low, and vice-versa, whereas the truth is that wages and interest rise and fall with each other, and not in inverse proportion.
According to the Wages Fund Theory, Labor and Capital (or laborers and capitalists, so-called) are natural antagonists, what is good for one being bad for the other. This bears repeating because it is, essentially, the thinking that is central to Marxism. But George, developing and improving upon the thought of earlier thinkers (for example the French Physiocrats of the 18th Century, such as Turgot or Francois Quesnay), makes it clear that, where land is subject to private ownership, it is in effect land, or more properly speaking, the holders of large or otherwise highly valuable tracts of land, rather than capital or capitalists, that are the natural antagonists of labor, and in fact of labor and capital both. Again, this is made clear from the central idea that labor must have access to land in order for wealth to be produced.
Another and similar consequence of George's thinking is that it debunks the Malthusian theory. According to that theory (ascribed to David Malthus, an Englishman of the 18th century), increase of population brings about the conditions of poverty because increase of population has a natural tendency to outstrip the ability of nature to produce the wealth that is needed to support population. But George points out that in fact, population tends to increase the efficiency of wealth production. His thinking also makes clear that there is another, and entirely man-made (as opposed to natural) dynamic that depresses wages and makes poverty persist and deepen as civilization progress. And once again, that is private property in land, both in and of itself as a wrongful monopoly and insofar as it must bring with it land speculation.
A word or two about land speculation is in order, because of the role it plays in George's understanding of social problems. The value of land increasing as a community develops and progresses, where land may be privately held it is tempting - even inevitable - that some - many - and some on a grand scale - will hold it strictly for speculative purposes, against some future day when it can be expected to be worth more than they bought it for. And that dynamic will tend to hold land out of use, that is, will tend to keep it out of the access of labor. The more that process goes on, the farther people will have to travel from any given center of population to get access to land and the more land will be worth, being needed as much as ever but harder to get access to.
Two very local examples may be useful here. In 1991 or so, my wife and I bought a house on Ridgewood Road in Millburn for $175,000. Five years later, after putting about $20,000 of expenditure into it, we sold it for around $300,000. The market value of houses in Millburn, as in so many towns and cities throughout the country, had climbed steadily, and in Millburn in particular in those years it had climbed precipitously. Now, we did not buy the property in order to turn it around at a profit, and we might like to think (and at least one of us does think) that it was our cleverness in choice of interior paint color or rather basic, tan, affordable new wall-to-wall carpeting that netted us this handsome return, but the truth is that it was the market for land in Millburn, and the introduction of New Jersey Transit Midtown Direct service, which brought resident commuters within one rather pleasant 40 minute train ride of midtown Manhattan, that put that windfall into our pockets, and had we sought to time it better and been able to do so, two or three years between purchase and sale of that property probably would have netted us the greater part of that gain. Considering the money we made from one deal to the next, we had expended little to no labor of our own (I know my wife would disagree with me here, but I did virtually all of the painting that wasn't done by an outside guy, and besides, I'm giving the talk here, so who are you going to believe?). Rather, it was the growth of value due to the growing desirability of living in Millburn - the progress of the community, the development of the community infrastructure - that increased market value.
We did not engage in these transactions in order to speculate in land; we needed to cut down on our carrying costs, and when a broker told us what we could get for that house, we jumped at the opportunity. But it was the easiest $100,000 dollars we ever made, and it's a sore temptation to do the same thing over and over again. Financially speaking, it beats the hell out of the practice of immigration law, so far, anyway.
Now consider a second local phenomenon. About 3 miles from here, down Millburn Avenue past Millburn High School and before you get to Morris Turnpike, on a large lot, stands the old Saks Fifth Avenue building. You have probably passed it many times even if you don't go there that frequently, because the large vacant building and the vast, vacant parking lot on which it is situated have been a-standing there, vacant, for at least 15 years, if not more. Recently, aware that this property had always intrigued me, if only on Georgist grounds, and knowing that the date for this talk was coming up, I took it upon myself to do a little research. Really, it was a little research. I simply Googled about the property. A search phrase of "Saks Fifth Avenue building Millburn, NJ" or the like turned up some links, those links led to others, and pretty soon this picture emerged: It seems that the property has for the past 15 years been owned by a company called the Ahold Corporation, which is a European conglomerate that owns, I assume among other things, supermarket chains. And for at least some of that time, if not all of it, development of the property has been tied up in a kind of three- (or four-) cornered wrangling between Ahold, the Townships of Millburn and Springfield (the property being on the border between them) and, somewhat but not entirely sotto voce, Kings Supermarket in Millburn. It seems that Ahold has been desirous of putting up a supermarket on the property; the people of Millburn and Springfield (or perhaps the developers among them who attend town board meetings) are against that use of the property; Kings is against that use of the property. And so nothing has been done. But I say to you: fifteen years? Every so often, someone, a town resident, will look at the vacant property and propose to the town, or to anyone who will listen, "why don't we at the very least use the place for parking? Let's do something with it. There's a parking shortage in town." And, they might well also add, space is tight in Millburn and goes at a premium, whether for residential, or commercial purposes; a lot of that size, that centrally located, represents a lot of use - a lot of access to land, if you will, and the holding of it out of use inevitably forces would-be users of that land, whether shoppers or residents or office space users, that much further out; at the same time and for that very reason it keeps the cost of the use of land in Millburn, already high, that much higher than it would otherwise be. But, as I well know, and as a real estate lawyer in the offices I share reminded me recently when I discussed this situation with her, there's nothing the town can do to force Ahold to sell the property. That's the law. Ahold owns it.
A few years of wrangling, I could understand. That happens. A small space, who cares. But THAT much space, and FIFTEEN YEARS? There's no excuse for it. An explanation, in my view - my guess is that at this point this can only be land speculation - a guess, an explanation at best, but no excuse. In any event, you do not have to know the first thing about political economy to know that there is a serious sin against the public interest being committed here in keeping that much property in that location that long out of use.
Ahold and the old Saks Fifth Avenue property are but one example, and relatively speaking, not a very big one. The landscape is full of them. Sometimes you find vacant properties even in the heart of New York City, held for increase, or the depression season variant of these, newly erected ghost buildings asking rents which people now just can't afford and which landlords refuse to lower. New York City, where people are so desperate for even miniscule apartments (those professionals who can afford them; forget being a cobbler and living in the City these days) that they scan the obituaries for rental opportunities. Look around Main Street, here in suburban U.S.A., and you will find more ghost vacancies, stores and offices held for rents we can no longer afford to pay. Look at great parts of the landscape across the country. Try this experiment, the next time you are flying. Look down at the outskirts of even the most densely populated areas; scan the ground from the air. You will notice how quickly congestion (apparent overpopulation) gives way to great, unpopulated stretches, and only the smallest fraction of that is public parkland. I saw this over Puerto Rico this summer. San Juan, a city of more than a million people, many of them packed together in the barrios that are famous for crime and poverty. But the island of Puerto Rico on the whole, seen from the air - verdant, luxurious, like one great nature preserve. Can the people of Puerto Rico use that land, even if (as is apparent from the air) no one is doing so? They cannot. It is privately owned.*
On the subject of "private property in land," by the way, the provenance of private land ownership is itself a kind of interesting one. As George points out, if you go back in history in any region far enough, you find that land was held in common for public access; consider the concept of the commons, or the view of land tenure held by many native American tribes. Even in feudal times, it was held by the landholder, to some extent, in trust for the public; feudal tenure carried with it public obligation, including but not limited to the obligation to provide for the public defense by fielding a fighting force. There are still vestiges in law (albeit meaningless ones) of the difference between real property (that is, land) and personal property, in the archaic practices of the conveyance of land, which once were meaningful and connected with the public nature of land tenure. The point being, land has not always been subject to private ownership as it is today. Moreover, chains of title, if you trace them back far enough, originate either in conquest or theft. There came a time in England, centuries ago, when the public obligations of even the feudal lord gave way to private landholdings; the commons were long ago fenced in and reduced to private ownership, most of them; at some point, or so I remember reading, great estates were carved out of the landscape and doled out by the English monarch as private gifts to his favorites. In this country, we can look back to genocide that dispossessed the aboriginal inhabitants in order to start many chains of title, and, particularly out west, to claim jumping and other ruthless practices of land grabbing.
As to Malthusianism, I put it to you that we are too ready to blame the sheer presence and increase in number of people on the planet for the existence of poverty. Rather, I think the true usefulness of the theory is a pernicious one: from the point of view of great landed interests, it's a wonderful diversion from the true source of economic problems. It puts the blame on nature, and what better way to keep it off of the entirely man-made institution of private property in land?
Well, all of that brings me, finally, to the second puzzle I was going to talk about today: if George's thinking is so compelling and the wrong he analyzed so glaring, why has that wrong not met with greater opposition, and why is George by this day relegated to virtual obscurity?
George's influence has, in its time, been greater abroad than in this his native country. It has extended to Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland for a time, England, Vancouver. It is true that there are still people, to judge by Internet listings, promulgating George's ideas and reform proposals. And even here, there are still the last vestiges of so-called Single Tax communities. Fairhope, Alabama. Arden, Deleware. Free Acres, a small pocket about a 15 minutes drive from here at Berkeley Heights. The residents of those communities may have heard the name of Henry George but nearly all of them are wholly unfamiliar with his works. Vestiges, too, perhaps, have been left in the form of property taxes, even in this State, but those fall on improvements as well as land, and in any event vie for our funds with plenty of other taxes that, to a Georgist way of thinking, are wrongheaded and harmful. Given the very real and considerable excitement George stirred up in his day, here and elsewhere, how have the ideas he debated receded into obscurity? There have been several suggestions:
One explanation I have read has to do with a shift in the academic approach to the study of economic problems. That study used to be known by the term political economy. Thinkers in the field, such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo and the French Physiocrats, attempted, as George did after them, to discover economic laws by analyzing the workings of society using logic, common sense and thought experiment. But political economy began during George's lifetime to be replaced in the colleges with the study of economics as we know it today. This has included the so-called Austrian school, and monetarist theory, and now has a fair emphasis on statistics and mathematical modeling. To the Georgist way of thinking, a science has been replaced with a kind of metaphysical casuistry, as if in the place of natural philosophy you now have the study of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (As a Georgist might put it, the economist can tell you, with charts and graphs, how many poor people there might be in a given area, but of insight into why wages fall and unemployment rises, why there is poverty, there is none.) But what explains the disappearance of a once vibrant and fascinating study with a jargon-filled, hypertechnical and essentially entirely different one? It has been suggested that the change has to do with the influence of wealthy interests in Academe. The Rockefellers, for example, stand to wield great influence over Columbia University; they owned the land and for all I know still own the land on which the university sits. And, through endowment, other similar examples of influence are common enough.
Similarly, it is possible to see in the influence of great wealth over large media, in this age of ever more concentrated corporate ownership, another factor in the relative obscurity into which George's thinking has fallen.
However, as much as I find these conspiracy theories attractive, I must admit that I don't think they are the whole story.
I think there are ideological trends that have also contributed to the virtual disappearance of George's thoughts from the popular mental landscape. The advent and relative vitality of Social Darwinism - the view that the important law, and probably the only important law, that applies to the workings of human society as it does to the rest of the animal kingdom is survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle, dog eat dog - is a perennial opponent of any proposal for reform that is based on considerations of justice and fairness. The strain of relativism or subjectivism, in modern intellectual thought - that is, the view that there is no such thing as truth, that there are no absolute principles worth adhering to - is another natural opponent to thinking like George's, particularly as we are talking about the field of social problems, an especially fertile ground for relativism.
And beyond that lies the difficulty of getting people to think for themselves. Even the type of thinking that George valued most, which is to say, thinking that eschews jargon and does not depend upon technical training - does take some time and some energy. And as we are pressed to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place, most days time, even for fairly simple thought, is harder to come by. My life is as much an example of that as anybody's. Introduced to these ideas in my youth, I consider how long it has taken me to take them up again and spend some thought on them.
So it is that nowadays George is, in this country at least, all but forgotten. When I was 18 (many moons ago), I went to England with a friend of mine and met a 90 year old ex-Labour-Party Member of the House of Commons, Sir Andrew MacLaren, who could speak of the Georgist Movement (wrongly, I think) as if it were still the hot, going thing. He has passed on, needless to say. And now, even at the annual convention of what is left in the way of Georgists, you are as likely as not to have those in attendance there pass the time by playing a board game, for the nostalgic value that's in it. (Monopoly is the game, it having been, and this is no joke, originated many years ago by followers of Henry George). People sitting around playing Monopoly. That, in this country at least, is what the once vibrant Commonwealth Land Movement (also called the Single Tax Movement) has come to.
But dormant as they may seem, the ideas, like certain tenacious seeds, have a way of living on.
This talk is only an introduction, and the ideas I've mentioned, many of them, anyway, do require (and I think deserve) more attention if you want to be in a position to evaluate them properly. I am, of course, ready to teach a ten session course on this stuff, if there is enough interest in it either now or in the future. Just give me contact info on the sheet that is floating around here somewhere, and if there's enough interest, I'll set up a course.
Remember those two dumb guys in the forest, lugging that deer by the antlers? If, when it comes to our understanding of social problems, we have been moving in the wrong direction - and we have - I believe that the thinking I speak of today is what's needed to get us moving back to the car. In any event, I commend George's writings to your attention.
[A brief question and answer session followed the lecture.]
*I have researched the subject of land tenure in Puerto Rico somewhat, though not exhaustively, since giving this talk, in an attempt to confirm my belief that much of the apparently unused land I saw from the air over Puerto Rico is privately owned. Land tenure in Puerto is a bit of a tricky research matter. It seems that, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, a great part of the land of Puerto Rico was owned by absentee corporations located in the mainland U.S. Now, however, my research so far suggests that the system of land tenure on the island may be a bit of a legal morass, if it is true as reported that registration of land ownership is spotty and incomplete. It continues to appear to me that much of the land in Puerto Rico (and accordingly, much of the land I saw from the air) is privately owned, but by whom and in what sizes of holdings is (as it is elsewhere) not so easily ascertained without some deeper digging. It also appears that land tenure itself has been the subject of controversy in Puerto Rico during its history.
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