In lieu of reviewing Henry George — April 30, 2016

In lieu of reviewing Henry George

…I’d like to direct you to a particularly good episode of my favorite podcast, Vox’s The Weeds. They discuss land taxes, soda taxes, and carbon taxes, and regrettably find themselves unable to produce a list of three things without concluding “…oh my!” One day some brave soul will figure out how to do that, but that day is not yet.

As with every episode of The Weeds, I agree with a lot, want to argue with some, and wish they had time to dive more into all. The discussion of Henry George‘s single tax is very good, and really had my head spinning. The soda-tax stuff was interesting, though the “paternalism” framing is less productive than they think it is. It’s “paternalistic” when the government tries to tell you what to do via tax policy; it’s not paternalistic when cigarette companies tell you what to do via advertising. I’d like to dispense with this word altogether. For similar reasons, actually, I’d like to dispense with “unintended consequences”. This term is used as a catch-all by which government policies are rejected with a shrug: “We’d love the government to do x, but, y’know, unintended consequences.” There are unintended consequences to everything; why single out unintended consequences from what the government does on our behalf?

One of these days I will review Henry George properly. I’ve just gone back and reread a lot of the passages I highlighted from Progress and Poverty, and I’m reminded both of how brilliant it is and how crankish. Definitely worth reading, thinking about, and reviewing.

“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin” — December 11, 2015

“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin”

I’m reading Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, prompted in part by the 99% Invisible episode about the origins of Monopoly (the board game), but more prompted by having seen him cited many, many times; at the latest, I first saw him cited when I read The Worldly Philosophers as a callow youth.

Most of the attention the book gets is from its focus on land and the single tax. But I was really struck just now by his attack on Malthus. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve seen Malthus cited not quite approvingly, but more as though he had proven some basic truths about the universe that were beyond all questioning. The Malthusian idea, of course, is that humanity will always remain teetering on a knife’s edge: whenever we accumulate a little extra in agricultural surplus, we immediately fritter it away by making more children, who consume all the surplus and return us to conditions of famine. The most anyone bothers to engage with this idea is to say that it used to be true, that it stopped being true at the Industrial Revolution, and that Malthus was unlucky enough to have written it five or ten seconds before the Industrial Revolution really got going in the early 19th century.

George rejects the whole Malthusian idea. As far as I’ve read, he doesn’t reject it because it’s obviously false, but rather because there’s no evidence that it’s true. The examples Malthus apparently cites are India, Ireland, and China, all of which — George says — are examples of famine caused by the intercession of a brutal government. (George disdains equally the Mughals and the Raj.) It may well be that humanity eventually reaches the carrying capacity of the land, kills itself off through famine, rebuild its numbers, and repeats the whole bloody cycle, but we’ve certainly (George says) not yet seen this pattern.

It embarrasses me that I’ve never read Malthus himself. Indeed, it embarrasses me that I’ve never even read anyone who questioned Malthus all that much. Gregory Clark’s annoying A Farewell To Alms more or less takes Malthus for granted, then explains that we in the UK and its dominions escaped the Malthusian curse by good old-fashioned Protestant self-abnegation. Malthus is alive and well; Henry George, 150 or so years ago, tells us that he shouldn’t be.

More generally, George feels that Malthus and his ilk are yet more examples of people ascribing the sad fate of the poor to their bestial natures rather than to the institutions that continually grind them into the dirt. My having accidentally gone along with this is what embarrasses me the most.