The prescient Henry George
0 comment Sunday, August 17, 2014 |
Henry George, in his work called Social Problems, written in 1883, wrote a great deal that seems to resonate today, even though he lived in a very different time than ours.
George witnessed the effects of the great wave of immigrants that broke on our shores starting in the mid-19th century. He recognized some very important factors in the development of America, and he sensed the pressures that were building with the growth of our country which began during that era of mass immigration.
In some ways, the changes that were happening in George's time are similar to the changes we are seeing in our day, although of course the magnitude of change is greater today. Another factor which was very different in George's day was that, along with all the immigration from Europe, our country was also increasing population by natural means; birth rates were quite high at that time, and so Americans were on the move, looking for more space and more opportunity.
"And across the continent, from east to west, from the older to the newer States, an even greater migration is going on. Our people emigrate more readily than those of Europe, and increasing as European immigration is, it is yet becoming a less and less important factor of our growth, as compared with the natural increase of our population. At Chicago and St. Paul, Omaha and Kansas City, the volume of the westward-moving current has increased, not diminished. From what, so short a time ago, was the new West of unbroken prairie and native forest, goes on, as children grow up, a constant migration to a newer West.
This westward expansion of population has gone on steadily since the first settlement of the Eastern shore. It has been the great distinguishing feature in the conditions of our people. Without its possibility we would have been in nothing what we are. Our higher standard of wages and of comfort and of average intelligence, our superior self-reliance, energy, inventiveness, adaptability and assimilative power, spring as directly from this possibility of expansion as does our unprecedented growth. All that we are proud of in national life and national character comes primarily from our background of unused land."
This is an important point. It is pertinent to the entry I wrote the other day, 'Flight or Fight?' Our ancestors were a mobile people, always looking for better opportunities elsewhere. And the open spaces, the vast areas of the West that still remained to be settled and developed would, in a few generations, become scarcer. George noted that this closing of the frontiers would have social repercussions; these frontiers would cease to be available as a safety valve for a restless people.
''It may be doubted if the relation of the opening of the New World to the development of modern civilization is yet fully recognized. In many respects the discovery of Columbus has proved the most important event in the history of the European world since the birth of Christ. How important America has been to Europe as furnishing an outlet for the restless, the dissatisfied, the oppressed and the downtrodden; how influences emanating from the freer opportunities and freer life of America have reacted upon European thought and life -- we can begin to realize only when we try to imagine what would have been the present condition of Europe had Columbus found only a watery waste between Europe and Asia, or even had he found here a continent populated as India, or China, or Mexico, were populated.
And, correlatively, one of the most momentous events that could happen to the modern world would be the ending of this possibility of westward expansion. That it must sometime end is evident when we remember that the earth is round.
Practically, this event is near at hand. Its shadow is even now stealing over us. Not that there is any danger of this continent being really overpopulated. Not that there will not be for a long time to come, even at our present rate of growth, plenty of unused land or of land only partially used. But to feel the results of what is called pressure of population, to realize here pressure of the same kind that forces European emigration upon our shores, we shall not have to wait for that.''
A little more than a century after George wrote these words, we are seeing these pressures of population increasing, as there are no more lands for westward expansion.
''What I want to point out is that we are very soon to lose one of the most important conditions under which our civilization has been developing -- that possibility of expansion over virgin soil that has given scope and freedom to American life, and relieved social pressure in the most progressive European nations. Tendencies, harmless under this condition, may become most dangerous when it is changed. Gunpowder does not explode until it is confined. You may rest your hand on the slowly ascending jaw of a hydraulic press. It will only gently raise it. But wait a moment till it meets resistance!''
George warned that once the safety valve of open spaces no longer existed, the 'new wine' which had been poured into old bottles would ferment, and pressures would have to be relieved lest this have disastrous consequences.
George was something of a populist and a reformer; his views seem rather liberal on many issues, such as the causes of poverty, but as was typical for his day, he had what would now be called rather 'racialist' ideas about the Anglo-Saxon race and the European race generally. He argued against Chinese immigration, and he did so in terms that would almost certainly be denounced as 'bigoted' and 'xenophobic' in our priggish, PC era.
He was certainly no multiculturalist, and no believer in indiscriminate mixtures of populations in our country.
''Now it is not merely that the greater the difference in language, customs and habits of thought, the greater the difficulties of assimilation between different peoples brought into contact, but the greater the difference the less powerfully do assimilative forces act, for the greater are the tendencies, both attractive and repulsive, to the formation and maintenance of separate societies in which the peculiarities of each are perpetuated.''
George not only recognized the great cultural/racial differences between Europeans and Chinese, and the non-assimilable qualities of the Chinese in America, but he pointed out that cheap immigrant labor depressed wages, a fact which some stubbornly refuse to acknowledge even now.
''He [the Chinese immigrant] may learn something of the languages, something of the laws, and religion and arts and customs, and may adopt some of the methods and habits of the country in which he sojourns, just as the English in India learn and adopt such things of the natives; but as the Englishman in India remains an Englishman and does not become a Hindoo, so does the Chinaman in America remain essentially a Chinaman.
[...]Thus Chinese immigration differs from European immigration in being practically non-assimilable.
[...]That in course of time should their immigration continue, the Chinese would bring their women and permanently settle, just as they have permanently settled in parts of the East Indies, there can be little doubt, but from all appearance and experience this would not be because they had become Americanized but because a permanent Chinese community had been here founded.
[...]This non-assimilability of the Chinese immigration gives a practical importance to all its characteristics, which they would not have if it could be assumed that they would in this country melt away and finally disappear. And that characteristic of the Chinese which is of most practical importance is that they are habituated to a standard of comfort much lower than that of American laborers and much lower even than that of any people whom we receive from Europe. Wages in China touch the absolute minimum that will support life. This at once furnishes a powerful incentive to immigration and enables the Chinese to underbid any competitors in the labor market.
[...]It is from this fact, that the Chinese can, and where necessary to secure employment do, work cheaper than white laborers, that the hostility to their immigration, which shows itself where they have come among us in any numbers, primarily proceeds; and the fundamental difference between those who ask and those who oppose restriction of Chinese immigration will generally be found to be a difference of opinion as to whether cheap labor is an injury or a benefit.''
George also noted that not only were wages depressed by cheap immigrant labor, but he said that the white population of California was less than it would have been had the Chinese laborers not been imported here. In other words, the Chinese actually displaced white laborers. Obviously there are some very close parallels to the illegal Latino immigrants of our day, so what George said also applies to our present situation. George argues against the claims that it was cruel or unethical to exclude Chinese immigrants:
"The ethical considerations which are so often urged against any proposition to shut out Chinese immigration have no force when the real character and effects of that immigration are understood. A conscientious individual may fully recognize his duty toward his neighbor, and yet see that to bring under the same roof with his own family, a family of totally different habits, would be to demoralize instead of elevate, and to produce quarrels and ill will where there should be harmony. And so may one fully imbued with that higher patriotism which regards the whole world as its country and all mankind as brethren, see clearly that such an admixture of peoples as is involved in any considerable Chinese immigration to the United States would be to the degradation of the superior civilization without any commensurate improvement of the lower, and that regarded from the highest standpoint it would tend to check the general progress of the race, not to advance it.
[...]It is not merely the supreme law of self-preservation which justifies us in shutting out a non-assimilable element fraught for us with great social and political dangers, but a regard for the highest interests of the race. It is not that national vanity against which the philosopher should carefully guard, but the obvious fact which it were blindness to ignore, that European civilization as developed on the freer field of the American continent represents the highest advance yet made by humanity, and that upon the great Anglo-Saxon republic of the new world devolves in the era now opening the leadership of the nations.''
Imagine the hue and cry that would result if any public person said similar things in our day, referring to 'the great Anglo-Saxon republic', describing our civilization as representing the 'highest advance yet made by humanity,' or appealing to the 'highest interests of the race.' George argued that the introduction of incompatible and unassimilable elements actually produced 'race prejudices' and social bitterness, and that for that reason, we should avoid introducing these conflicts.
''Whatever will introduce into the life of the republic race prejudices and social bitterness; whatever will reduce wages and degrade labor, and widen the gulf between rich and poor, it is our duty to guard against not merely for the sake of the republic, but for the best interests of mankind.''
George warned against the possible 'Mongolization' of America due to a flood of Chinese labor, and I am sure that were he able to step into a time machine and visit America in 2008, he would warn against the Mexicanization of America.
Henry George was a brilliant and complex man, who is hard to categorize in our terms; in many ways his views seem liberal, and he is obviously a champion of the common man, and the laborer, but yet he was not like today's liberals and leftists.
His Wikipedia entry here details some of his ideas, such as his land tax. He certainly has his admirers among today's leftists because of his condemnation of the means by which many wealthy people obtain their wealth, but as the Wiki notes, his admirers include many of other political leanings.
"His ideas have also received praise from conservative journalists William F. Buckley, Jr. and Frank Chodorov, as well as free-market economists such as Milton Friedman, Fred E. Foldvary and Stephen Moore. The libertarian political and social commentator Albert Jay Nock was also an avowed admirer, and wrote extensively on the Georgist economic and social philosophy.''
I think an honest examination of the kinds of issues George wrote about will lead us away from the cliche 'left-vs.-right' dichotomy today; we can consider the globalists and see that both left and right are acting in collusion. Many of us on the right have learned a knee-jerk defense of capitalism when it is becoming clearer by the day that corporate interests are just as much a part of this undeclared war on the peoples of the West as are the assorted ragtag communists and leftists. I think we will have to look beyond the old categories and examine the ideas of men like Henry George.

Labels: , , , ,