The Great Debate Part 2

The following debate between Serge Schevitch, of the Socialist Party, and the Single Taxer, Henry George, was moderated by Samuel Gompers in Miner’s Theatre, New York. Reprinted from The Standard, 29th October 1887

Mr Schevitch’s argument

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: In coming on this platform tonight I come to you with all due consciousness of the great task which I have undertaken, and of my unworthiness to perform it. I ask your indulgence from the very beginning. I want only to say that the words I will speak tonight will be that which I consider to be the truth without any reference whatever to personal feeling.

The subject of discussion tonight is the scheme of Mr. George of the single land tax, to substitute which for all other forms of taxation will, as he represents, solve the social and the labour problems of our day. I propose to show that this single land tax system is not only insufficient to solve those questions, but if considered alone, if considered as a local panacea independent of all other social reforms, it will be productive of results which will be more hurtful to labour than beneficial.

I will in the second part of my remarks show how, on account of this false basis on which the labour movement, so far as the united labour party is concerned, has been placed, the whole political movement has been side-tracked, has been distorted, has been put on a platform on which no true labour movement can stand.

This is what I will attempt to show during my remarks.

Production, as it is organized now, is regulated by two vast instruments of labour: machinery, with all the powers of nature which now produce such tremendous wealth all over the civilized world, and the land which produces the necessaries of life. Now let us see. If we nationalize one of these instruments of production, if we nationalize what Mr. George calls the natural opportunities given to man by nature, that is to say, the land, will this nationalization of the land by itself solve the problem? Mr. George does not advocate the nationalization of land. He does not want to disturb anybody in the title to property in land. All he wants is to confiscate the rent which the present proprietor of the land gets by a taxation equivalent to the whole rent. But let us study the question broadly. Let us assume that he does want to nationalize the land. What would be the consequence? The consequence would be that a certain lot of land which now belongs to a private citizen, Tom Jones, will belong to the community. The man who builds on that land will have to pay his rent, not to a private proprietor, but to the community. That rent will, perhaps in the long run, be a little less than the rent he pays now.

Now suppose a city in which there are ten factories. In each of these factories one hundred men are working for wages. The factories are supplied with all the necessary machinery. Three hundred men get two dollars a day under present circumstances. Now the system of nationalization of land is introduced. The man who owns the factory, the boss, will pay his rent not to the proprietor of the land, but to the community. Will his workingmen, in consequence of that simple fact, get higher wages? Why should they?

If tomorrow a new machine is made which renders the men superfluous, the proprietor will throw out half his hands. Each of these factories will work with fifty men instead of with on hundred. The men thrown out will come to the proprietor and say, “We are ready to work for less wages; instead of two dollars give us a dollar and twenty-five cents.” And other men, who have no families to support, will say, “Give us one dollar a day.” The same process of competition between labourer and labourer, ground down by that terrible monster, the machine, will go on, whether the land belongs to the community or whether it belongs to Tom Jones.

But Mr. George will say: “This is not true. The competition between the labourers will be, if not entirely destroyed, at least greatly relieved by the fact that the land is free, that these men thrown out of employment by the machine may go out somewhere in the uptown part of the city, take from the community for a very small rent a lot of land, construct their houses on it and live there in peace.” How ill they build a house on it? With their hands, with their nails, with their feet. Where is the money to purchase the instruments of labour? Where is that engine of production capital? Does bare land give them anything except the land? Where are they to get the necessary machinery in order to bring materials so as to be able to subsist from the products of that land? I don’t think that nay answer can be given to these questions. You may laugh, gentlemen, but it is nevertheless the truth. It is not the first truth that has been laughed at in the world.

The single land tax would be a single tax. All other taxes would be abolished. The tremendous concentration of capital would be entirely free of any taxes at all. It would mean absolutely free trade. American labour would have to compete with the combined force of capital all over the civilized world. If you introduce absolute free trade dozens of branches of industry would drop and die.

Thousands and thousands of workingmen would be thrown out of employment. A commercial crisis would be the consequence such as we have never seen yet in this country. The labour market would be over-crowded. What would we do with free land then? Sit on it or lie on it or be tramps upon it. Land without the instruments or labour to cultivate it is just as worthless as a boat without sails.

Mr. George takes the example of Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Suppose Robinson Crusoe said to Friday: “You are not only a free citizen of this island, but the land belongs to you just as well as to me. But there is a little hitch in the matter. I expect a vessel tomorrow to bring to me all the necessary engines to cultivate this land, and some workingmen, but you are free to do just as well as I. “Where would poor Friday be then, without a penny in his pocket, without a single instrument to cultivate the land! Would he not be the slave of Robinson Crusoe? …

The whole theory of the single tax is founded on the sophistry that the present robbery of labour centers in the one fact of private ownership of land, which is not true. If the means of production remained in private hands labour would be robbed just as it is now. The great land owners will immediately form a combine to resist the land tax. In a few years the condition of the labourer would be the same as it is now.

But what will not be the same as this – by that single land tax you will give to the government a tremendous power which it does not now possess. Mr. George likes to accuse the socialists of desiring a paternal government. I tell you Mr. George’s scheme is a much more horrible paternal government than the socialists ever proposed. To the government still belong a vast amount of land. …Capitalists will have the same power over government officials that they now have. The government will fall into the hands of the monopolists of industry just as it does now into the hands of the monopolists of industry and land combined.

The single tax does not touch the labour question. That question centres in the robbery committed on labour by those who hold possession of the instruments of labour. And it is not the socialists who say so, it is the men of organized labour. Mr. George thinks that rent is the robbery committed on workingmen. He forgets that at the bottom of the robbery is the competition between labour and labour, and that competition will not be destroyed by any amount of single land tax.

The land tax scheme, whether it be wrong or right, is a utopian theory, born in one mind, uncorroborated by the actual state of facts. It is a theory of one man, and that theory has been forced upon the large labour movement while that movement was unprepared to understand or even to critically examine that idea. Mr. George may ask why did all the trades of New York as one man support him in that last campaign? “Where is the difference? I was the same man and my theory was the same.” We can answer that. The great majority of the working population of this city supported Mr. George last year, not because of his land theory but notwithstanding his land theory, as a sincere and honest man because he had written in his book, Progress and Poverty, one of the most tremendous indictments against the present order of society that has ever been published. The critical part of his work is grand. Every man who is dissatisfied with the existing order will shake hands with Mr. George even now. The labouring population accepted him as a standard bearer, thinking he was broad minded enough to sink part of his petty theories in the vast, grand labour movement, which is not one sided, but which is many sided and is as broad as the civilized world itself is broad. The man who can force one idea upon millions of people can be the originator of a sect, or if he is a politician, can be the originator of a political machine; but he will never be the originator of a great political party of labour. When Mr. George attempted to do so he smashed the party of united labour. As I told him on the Syracuse platform, under the ban of expulsion: “If you attempt to force this one idea upon the labour movement you will smash the party to pieces, and you have done it.”
Henry George’s reply

Mr. Gompers then introduced Mr. George, who was received with intense enthusiasm. He said:

I am about to speak to you on the time limit, and therefore your applause will simply take away so much of my time. What Mr. George has founded and what he has not founded I do not propose to discuss. We are here tonight for a more important object. We all agree that labour today does not get its fair earnings. I come to defend what I believe to be not merely the best but the only possible way to emancipate labour. I do not claim for this measure – the taking for the use of the community of the rental value of the land – that it would do everything. It is the beginning. After it is done all the other things will be made easier, and until we have done that we shall be rowing against the tide in all other reforms.

Now, the great difference between the opinions that I represent and the opinions that Mr. Schevitch represents may be seen in Lassalle’s open letter to the workingmen of Germany. He accepted the law laid down by the orthodox political economists – the law that wages must always tend to the minimum which will enable the labourer to live and to reproduce. This he calls the iron law of wages. There I and those who think with me take issue. We do not believe that there is in nature any such thing as the iron law of wages. We hold that it is merely the law of wages where natural opportunities are monopolized.

This competition is a one-sided competition of men debarred of their natural opportunities for employment. The means of production, what do they consist of today? The answer will probably be land, machinery and various other things. There was in the beginning nothing but man and the earth. Human labour exerted upon the land brings out, produces, all other means of production. Therefore it is that land is more important than anything else. Given men and given land all other things can be produced. Give a man everything else and deprive him of land and it avails him nothing.

To recur to that illustration of Robinson Crusoe and Friday, Mr. Schevitch says that Robinson Crusoe having machinery and tools, Friday would have been perfectly helpless. Well, that I deny. Friday, without any machinery, could certainly have gone fishing. If the island had belonged to Robinson Crusoe he could not have done that. Friday could have done without machinery and tools, just as Robinson Crusoe did. Friday could have made him a hut out of the limbs of a true. Friday could have lived and produced as a naked man, applying his labour to the natural opportunities offered by the island. If three or four others had come there, they could have lived and lived well. But the moment Robinson Crusoe owned the land, that moment he could say to Friday: “Unless you do so and so you walk off.” Friday would have been his absolute slave.

Wages in all branches of industry are not what they ought to be. That increase in productive power that comes from discovery and invention does not raise wages as it ought to do. But what is the reason of that? It is perfectly clear that wages all occupations must tend to a general level. Now, the broadest of all occupations in the United States is – what? Those occupations which apply directly to nature, which extract wealth from the soil. …The ordinary renting rate in the state of New York today is one-half the produce. The man who does the labour gets only one-half of what his labour produces. The rest goes to the owner of the farm. There, in that primary occupation, labour is divested of one-half its earnings. When, in that primary industry, labour is shorn of one-half of its earnings, what do you expect in those industries that rise above it? To put a tax on the value of land, removing all other taxes that now bear upon labour and to take for the use of the community the value that attaches to land by reason of the growth of the community would have in the first place the operation that Mr. Schevitch concedes. It would make the holding of land on speculation unprofitable. That of itself would tend to destroy that competition which tends everywhere to press wages down. I don’t mean to say that everyone would want to be a farmer. That is the one thing that all men could be. And enough could and would become farmers to relieve the glut in the labour market.

Here is the principle of taxation. A tax which is levied upon the production of a thing that must constantly be produced by human labour will, by making supply more difficult, raise prices, and the man who pays the tax is thus able to push the tax upon the consumer. But a tax upon the value of land has not such effect. Land does not have to be constantly supplied in order to meet the demand. Its price is always a monopoly value, and a tax which falls upon land value does not fall upon all land, but only upon valuable land, and that in proportion to its value.

It is perfectly true that were we to raise our revenue in this way we could get along without the custom house and have absolute free trade. On the contrary, what labour wants is freedom, not protection. Absolute free trade in any sense worthy of the name means free production. Once make production free and labour can take care of itself.

In what consists the value of land? It is a premium, an advantage, which the use of any particular piece of land will give over what the same application of labour and capital can get from the poorest land in use. Therefore, if we take that premium for the use of the whole community we put all land upon a substantial plane of equality. We can abolish all other taxes and enormously simplify government. Opening opportunities for labour, we can get rid of that bitter competition that today everywhere tends to force wages down. Then we can go on, not a paternal government that attempts to regulate everything, but to a government that controls businesses in their natural monopolies. Once put the social foundation on a firm and equal basis and then we can march forward in that as far as may be necessary. We do not hold that everything is done when this one single measure is carried out, but we do hold that a firm and true beginning is made. Men have lived and can live without the railroad and without the telegraph, but no man ever has lived or ever can live without the land.

Mr Shevitch’s rejoinder

“Mr. Schevitch now has his second inning,” said Mr. Gompers, as Mr. George sat down. Mr. Schevitch at once arose and was received with applause from the reds. “I would prefer,” he said with a smile, “to get the applause from the other side of the house,” pointing to the blues. The latter cheered him heartily, and he continued:

Mr. George did not show that the competition of labour would be destroyed by the land tax system. He did not show, he simply made an assertion, that the natural opportunities would be open to labour. He said that labourers might go fishing, and he very graciously said that he did not expect a man to go naked in the city of New York. But that man would be naked practically, and the ideal of George’s free land would be Shantytown. When I hear such things on a platform in New York City in the nineteenth century I begin to believe that Mr. George is a Rip Van Winkle of social economy. He actually has been born in antediluvian times and has all at once waked up in time for the Syracuse convention.

You surely do not expect me to compliment Mr. George. Mr. George seems utterly to forget that we are living in the grand century of machinery, in a great age of production on a large scale, where the mere labourer is absolutely the slave of those who possess the instruments of labour. This simple land tax does not free the labourer from competition with his fellow labourer. The labourer with his free land must have capital to construct his house, and capital to begin farming on a small scale even. And there will be a big man with a big boodle, who will come beside the labourer with his lot, and take not one but ten, twelve, twenty or two hundred lots and will crush down that free-born citizen on the lot by his side.
Henry George concludes the debate

Then Mr. George arose and said:

The object of the labour movement is the abolition of wage slavery. How do you propose to abolish it? That is the question. If any man has any better plan than that which I propose let him come and state it. Mr. Schevitch’s plan, as I understand it, is that of forming a number of co-operative societies, embracing all the working classes, who are to be furnished with capital by the government.

Well, with machinery, then. That plan, I say, is utterly impossible. There attaches to it the same disadvantages that attach to all dreams of the elevation of the workingmen by the formation of co-operative societies. You must raise from the very foundation. You must make labour free. Now such catch-phrases as my picture of Shantytown as an ideal city can avail nothing with any thoughtful man. What I say is this: that even the poorest man, if he has free access to land, can make some use of it, and the condition of those Shantytown people, poor as it was, was very much better than that of many who are herded in tenement houses liable to be turned out at the end of the week or month.

Now, as to capital. When the farmer has to give up one-half of his produce for the privilege of applying his labour to the land, when through the other occupation the same law holds; when men have to pay to an individual for the use of what they call their country one-quarter, one-third, one-half the produce of their labour, is it any wonder that the working classes find it very hard to get capital! Capital is produced by labour exerted upon land. Here, in the fact that we make the land the private property of some of our number, is a constant drain of capital from those who produce it into the hands of those who merely proprietors and monopolizers. “The destruction of the poor is their poverty,” …Labour is the producer of all wealth, but labour without land is helpless, and that is the reason why any attempt to bring about more healthy social conditions must begin with the land.