Why a 130-Year-Old Idea is Still Relevant Today

Jason Bessey

Apr 21, 2009

In the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was well underway. Society, it would seem, was beginning to make a huge leap in progress in areas like technology and production. In places like California, many places went from camps to cities in a relatively short time. Such a time, one could assume, must have been quite exciting and hopeful.

But not everyone at that time would have made such an assumption. A printer from San Francisco named Henry George couldn’t help but notice that in the midst of all this progress, poverty was on the rise. “How could this be?” George wondered. So troubled by this observation, he set out to explore this vexing question in his aptly titled book, Progress and Poverty.

The problem, George concluded, was the inefficient hoarding of land and natural resources by a few at the top of the socio-economic ladder coupled with a taxation system that hindered upward mobility of those at the bottom. George’s solution was to abolish all taxes but one: a single tax on land, (which would include natural resources but not include the products of human labor, like buildings and improvements to land).

Though Henry George was well known in his day, and though Progress and Poverty very popular, these days, it would seem, George has essentially been relegated to a footnote in economic history. This is unfortunate, I would argue, since I believe his idea would still be very relevant today in the larger context of many of today’s pressing issues, like the economy, poverty, the environment, and responsible government.

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