Land-as-Growth (7): “Progress and Poverty”

One of the best-selling and influential books in U.S. history, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, sold more than three million copies shortly after publication in 1879 (U.S. population was then about 50 million).  George analyzed how industrialism concentrated the nation’s growing wealth in cities and in the hands of a few people, arguing that the key to progress and eliminating poverty was to democratize ownership of land. George opens with a description of how he came to write the book:

Out of the open West came a young man of less than thirty to this great city of New York….  As he walked he was filled with wonder at the manifestations of vast wealth.  Here, as nowhere that he had dreamed of, were private fortunes that rivaled the riches of the fabled Monte Cristo.  But here, also, side by side with the palaces of the princely rich, was to be seen a poverty and degradation, a want and shame, such as made the young man from the open West sick at heart.

 Why in a land so bountifully blest [, with enough and more than enough for all, should there be such inequality of conditions? Such heaped wealth interlocked with such deep and debasing want?  Why, amid such super-abundance, should strong men vainly look for work?  Why should women faint with hunger, and little children spend the morning of life in the treadmill of toil?

 Was this intended in the order of things?  No, he could not believe it.  And suddenly there came to him—there, in daylight, in the city street—a burning thought, a call, a vision.  Every nerve quivered.  And he made a vow that he would never rest until he had found the cause of, and, if he could, the remedy for, this deepening poverty amid advancing wealth….

 The nation’s growing wealth, which George saw as clearly the product of technological advances, perplexed him because it seemed inextricably tied to  continued, and even intensified  poverty for a huge number of people:

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 laborsaving 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.

.  And, unpleasant as it may be to admit it, it is at last becoming evident that the enormous increase in productive power which has marked the present century and is still going on with accelerating ratio, has no tendency to extirpate poverty or to lighten the burdens of those compelled to toil.  It simply widens the gulf between Dives and Lazarus, and makes the struggle for existence more intense.  The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed.  But in factories where labor-saving machinery has reached its most wonderful development, little children are at work; wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation, and puny infants suckle dry breasts; while everywhere the greed of gain, the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want.  The promised land flies before us like the mirage.  The fruits of the tree of knowledge turn as we grasp them to apples of Sodom that crumble at the touch.

 It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure, and refinement has been raised; but these gains are not general.  In them the lowest class do not share.  I do not mean that the condition of the lowest class has nowhere nor in anything been improved; but that there is nowhere any improvement which can be credited to increased productive power.  I mean that the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. 

[But,] this association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times.  ….  That political economy, as at present taught, does not explain the persistence of poverty amid advancing wealth….

George concludes with a chapter entitled, “The Law of Human Progress,” which wrestles with some of the growth-related issues (such as why modern technology did not emerge from a non-European civilization) as well as issues (such as stagnation and an “end to progress”) that still await us.  George also presents what he calls “an obvious truth” (which we will see developed and documented by books such as Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress,  2004), the sobering, alarming, and perhaps action-evoking observation that (in George’s words) “the forces that finally bring progress to a halt are generated by progress itself.”  That the very forces which generate process may (by necessity?) at the same time end it (or literally destroy a civilization) is a disturbing idea; if it is indeed an accurate description of how human societies evolve, we now find ourselves (as A Larger Pie will explore in detail, forced to escape this pattern.  In the meantime, note that George can seem far ahead of his time, e.g. discussing space travel, while also taking for granted what we now see has the casual racism and ethnocentrism of a gone-but-rarely-mourned era; e.g. use of words like “savages” and “barbarians.”

we have reached a point where progress seems to be natural to us. We look forward confidently to greater achievements. Some even believe people may someday travel to distant planets. This theory of progression seems so natural to us amid an advancing civilization.

But, without soaring to the stars, if we simply look around the world, we are confronted with an undeniable fact — stagnant civilizations.

The majority of the human race today has no idea of progress. They look to the past as the time of human perfection. We may explain the difference between savage and civilized, saying savages are still so poorly developed that their progress is hardly apparent. But how shall we account for civilizations that progressed so far — and then stopped?

Today’s Western civilization is not more advanced than India and China due to a longer period of development. We are not, as it were, adults of nature while they are children. They were civilized when we were savages. They had great cities, powerful governments, art, literature, and commerce when Europeans were living in huts and skin tents.

Yet while we progressed from this savage state to modern civilization, they stood still. If progress is the result of inevitable laws that propel people forward, how shall we account for this? These arrested civilizations stopped when they were superior in many respects to sixteenth century Europe. Moreover, both received the infusion of new ideas from conquering races with different customs and thought.

But it is not simply that current theory fails to account for these arrested civilizations. It is not merely that people have gone so far on the path of progress and then stopped. It is that people have gone so far — and then gone back. It is not merely an isolated case that thus confronts the theory — it is the universal rule.

Every civilization the world has ever seen has had its period of vigorous growth; of arrest and stagnation; then, decline and fall. True, our own civilization is more advanced and moves quicker than any preceding civilization. But so was Roman civilization in its day. That proves nothing about its permanence unless it is better in whatever caused the ultimate failure of its predecessors.

In truth, nothing could be further from explaining the facts of universal history than this theory that civilization is the result of natural selection. It is inconsistent with the fact that civilization has arisen at different times, and in different places, and has progressed at different rates. If improvements were fixed in man’s nature, there might be occasional interruption, but in general, progress would be continuous. Advance would lead to advance, and civilization would develop into higher civilization. It is not merely the general rule, but the universal rule, that the reverse is true. The earth is the tomb of the dead empires.

In every case, the more advanced civilization, supposedly modified by heredity, has been succeeded by a fresh race coming from a lower level. The barbarians of one epoch have been the civilized people of the next. It has always been the case that, under the influences of civilization, people at first improve — and later degenerate. Every civilization that has been overwhelmed by barbarians has really perished from internal decay.

The moment this universal fact is recognized, it eliminates the theory of progress by hereditary transmission. Looking over the history of the world, advance does not coincide with heredity for any length of time. In any particular line, regression always seems to follow advance.

Can we say there is a national or race life, as there is an individual life? Does every social group have, as it were, a certain amount of energy to expend before it decays? Analogies are the most dangerous mode of thought. They may connect similarities, yet disguise or cover up the truth. The aggregate force of a group is the sum of its individual components. A community cannot lose vital power unless the vital powers of its components are lessened. As long as members are constantly reproduced with all the fresh vigor of childhood, a community cannot grow old by loss of its powers as a person does.

Yet within this analogy lurks an obvious truth. The obstacles that finally bring progress to a halt are actually raised by the course of progress itself. The conditions that have destroyed all previous civilizations have been conditions produced by the growth of civilization itself.


Henry George and his book are now mostly forgotten except by those who study U.S. culture and history. But his assertions about poverty and income inequality, as we will see, remain among the most important challenges facing the U.S. In the meantime, let’s remember that Cornelius Vanderbilt (who died in 1877, while George was researching his book) had assets equal to five percent of the money in circulation in the U.S. While George was wrong in blaming such situations on gross imbalances in land ownership,we will have to address the question of whether entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt could stimulate economic growth (along with, of course, jobs and technological advance) without acquiring what 18th London literary wit Samuel Johnson had called “riches beyond the dreams of avarice.”



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