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Laurent, J. (ed.). Henry George's Legacy in Economic Thought.

Laurent, J. (ed.). Henry George's Legacy in Economic Thought. Cheltenham: Elgar, 2005. Pp. 271. ISBN 1 84376 885 2 (hb.). 58.50 [pounds sterling].

In our rather mediocre age the edited book of essays is correctly held at a substantial discount for being the repository of half-baked papers that have been summarily rejected from the refereed journals or, what is arguably worse, the product of ill-conceived invitations to acquaintances of the editor. This decline in the fortunes of the collection of essays has been facilitated by the predilection of once reputable publishers to pursue very nearly every objective except scholarship and, at least in Australia, government incentive schemes in which rather ordinary academics are rewarded for the quantity rather than the quality of their research output. It is therefore refreshing to come across a collection of essays on Henry George's legacy in economic thought that is worth reading. It cannot be argued that the essays constitute a landmark development in the field--that would be asking too much--but scholarly standards have been maintained and each contributor has made a solid contribution to the literature. I derived knowledge from each of the essays contained in this book. Every good research library should own a copy of this publication.

The opening essay by the editor of the collection, John Laurent, is a splendid introductory account of the key features and applications of Georgist thought. The traditional editorial duty of providing the context for each of the essays that follow is performed with some skill, while the well-worn Georgist notion (or should I say neo-Millite notion?) of imposing a single tax on the unearned increment in land rents is presented with the minimum of fuss. Non-Australian readers may, however, be somewhat bemused by the fact that most of the historical illustrations of the application of Georgist thought are derived from Laurent's place of residence, Queensland. In fact, the publisher perhaps should have warned those international readers who are more interested in George than Australia--possibly via a suitable sub-title to the publication--that there are strong Antipodean themes in both this and a number of the other essays contained in this collection.

Erin McLaughlin-Jenkins next provides an entertaining essay on T.H. Huxley's much neglected series of articles that appeared in 1890 in The Nineteenth Century. Darwin's bulldog (or 'dragon' as McLaughlin-Jenkins would have it) used these articles to assail second-rate utopian philosophies and, in particular, what he called George's irksome bit of 'fudge'. He declared that Georgist thought was 'More damneder nonsense than poor Rousseau's blether'. It is always a pleasure to read such virile excesses, even if second-hand, and it reminds one just why so many Victorians feared meeting the formidable Huxley in an 'intellectual' dark alley. McLaughlin-Jenkins, of course, finds no difficulty in highlighting the more ill-conceived of Huxley's arguments and attributes these violent exercises in intellectual pugilism to Huxley's ailing health and his fear that individuals without scientific or scholarly credentials, especially those from the left, were gaining a popular audience. The essay acts as a valuable extension of Roy Douglas's earlier 1979 paper on the same subject that appeared in R.V. Andelson's (ed.) Critics of Henry George: A Centenary Appraisal of their Structures on Progress and Poverty (Associated University Presses).

In the third essay Rob Knowles presents a very precise and well-crafted account of the differences between the positions adopted by George and Leo Tolstoy on the single-tax scheme. As is well known, George induced Tolstoy to support a single-tax policy, even though the latter mistrusted the state's capacity to use the tax revenue wisely and even though his true goal was an agrarian utopia of peasants owning the land in common. Knowles points out that, although Tolstoy and George were driven by similar Christian ethics, they were reacting to different socio-economic systems and hence were striving to reach different objectives. Specifically, Tolstoy was confronted with the static totalitarian-cum-feudal system of Russia, whereas George was initially faced with the evolving capitalism of the United States. Tolstoy therefore saw the single-tax policy as no more than an expedient first step towards the emancipation of the Russian peasant from the tyranny of the idle landowner, not, like George, as a final policy that would solve all of the world's ills. Knowles builds upon Kenneth Wenzer's writings on the links between Tolstoy and George (such as his 1997 piece in the Georgist-leaning American Journal of Economics and Sociology), and, with this and other papers, demonstrates that he was more than worthy of the HETSA prize.

Laurent's second essay in the collection is concerned with the extent to which George drew upon the various evolutionary theories that were then prominent (whether they be associated with Lamarck, Wallace, Darwin, Spencer or Bagehot) as well as the precise nature of George's own evolutionary beliefs. A large proportion of the essay is devoted to tracing the influence of Herbert Spencer's evolutionary ideas on George. This is not surprising, given that George himself devoted an entire monograph to Spencer's renunciation of his youthful support for land nationalisation, namely, A Perplexed Philosopher, Being an Examination of Mr. Herbert Spencer's Various Utterances on the Land Question, with Some Incidental References to his Synthetic Philosophy (1893). Laurent's key conclusion, which is nestled within an interesting survey of recent literature devoted to evolutionary economics, is that George believed that the human race progressed via social evolution rather than biological evolution. George believed that the biological constitution of 'man' had remained largely unchanged over the millennia and that progress has instead been executed via the transmission of customs, habits and traditions from one generation to the next.

The fifth essay in the collection, penned by Warren Samuels, Kirk Johnson and Marianne Johnson, concerns the debates between George and G.D. Campbell, the 8th Duke of Argyll, over the issue of land ownership. The essay begins with a rather long account of the economic theory of rent and the institutional framework of land ownership. This introductory analysis is often insightful, but dominates too much space, tries to cover too much ground and occasionally presents the sort of rather tired historical details upon which our more earnest honours students dwell. The editor should have taken a stronger editorial hand to this essay, which is easily the longest in the collection. The reader is, however, more than rewarded when Samuels et al. move on to the Argyll-George debates. Historians of thought will be particularly interested in this section of the essay, since, to my knowledge, the Duke of Argyll has not been the subject of a full-length study from an economist's perspective, even though he played a dominant role in the late Victorian debates over land nationalisation and peasant proprietorships. The essay should be read if only for this reason.

Laurence Moss, the current editor of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, next provides an account of the George-Hotelling-Vickery-Stiglitz Theorem, otherwise known as the Henry George Theorem. This theorem posits a solution to the public goods problem that does not entail government intervention, namely, that the costs of a public good may be funded indirectly by the improvements in the surrounding land rents that arise from the construction of the public good. Moss is as precise as he is lucid in his exemplification of this theorem and concludes that the provision of public goods, by real estate developers and others, is one of the most stunning accomplishments of private entrepreneurs in the postwar US economy. It is, indeed, one of the mysteries of our discipline that the Henry George Theorem has yet to be integrated into the first-year texts (or, for that matter, those horrible little manuals on 'How to Make a Million Dollars from Real Estate'). The theorem is, after all, not rocket science, but, as Moss is inclined to say, a brute fact.

The seventh essay in this collection is John Pullen's provocative piece on the subtle distinction between private ownership and private possession within Georgist thought that appeared in 2001 in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, where it elicited not one, but three rejoinders. (Although strangely none of these academic ripostes is cited in this collection.) It seems that Pullen, like an old and reliable Clydesdale, has moved from the top paddock of Malthusian studies to the bottom paddock of Georgist thought without missing a graceful stride. He investigates the extent to which the taxation of the annual rent of land amounts to the nationalisation of land by default. According to Georgists, the confiscation of the rent, rather than the land, effectively transforms the owners from private proprietors into private possessors. Possession, like ownership, provides the security of tenure required for the possessors to undertake capital improvements, but, due to the land tax, does not give them the right to the unearned increment derived from the growth in land rent. Pullen believes that this is largely a play on words: the landlord is still effectively the owner, only now with the condition that he/she does not have the right to the rent stream. It is private property with restrictions. He concludes that George made a tactical error in failing to make this clear, as it would have made the single-tax policy more palatable.

Pullen's second essay in this collection is devoted to analysing the potential problems with implementing George's single-tax scheme. There is no space to consider these problems here. All that needs to be stated is that Pullen canvasses the associated complex, head-hurting issues with such lucidness that the current reviewer could understand the arguments with ease. Knotty issues ranging from the Lockean interpretation of property rights to the 'land-rich-and-income-poor' problem are presented in an unadorned, but thoughtful, narrative. It is also refreshing to see a collection devoted to Georgist thought that includes an essay that directly and objectively confronts its potential pitfalls. The collection thereby at once ceases to be either a Georgist apologetic or an anti-Georgist text that dismisses the single-tax scheme without sufficient justification. Every undergraduate studying Georgist thought (and indeed every self-proclaimed neo-Georgist) should read this essay.

The ninth essay in this collection, by Terry Dwyer, concerns the way in which George's non-utilitarian, natural rights-based approach to considering economic issues may be employed to gain insights into the appropriate means by which to regulate infrastructure monopolies. Dwyer displays a clear distaste for the neoclassical economist's current tendency to advocate the light-handed regulation of monopolies that are won via a tender process. Although I was a little discomforted by the strident certainty with which Dwyer occasionally concluded his arguments about the almost impossible-to-solve policy issue of overseeing monopolies, his narrative rhythm is strong and his arguments are informed. The greatest compliment I can pay to Dwyer's essay is that I immediately integrated a number of his insights into my undergraduate lecture notes on the regulation of monopolies.

In the penultimate essay Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan advocate the introduction of a neo-Georgist land tax in Australia as a solution to almost every social ill, whether it be housing speculation in Sydney or Australia's Byzantine tax system or the destruction of the environment or economic recessions. I found this exercise in advocacy a little too self-confident for my liking. Even though Stilwell and Jordan consider some of the early (rather feeble) criticism of the Georgist approach, they do not tackle its central problems. They make a single reference to the paper earlier in the volume in which Pullen confronts the failings of the Georgist programme, but they patently chose not to allow any of these considerations to delay the delivery of their policy advice. Still, it is a credit to the authors that, to my own consternation, I found a few of the arguments contained in this essay not only reasonable, but persuasive.

Philip Day's concluding essay maps out the enduring legacy of George in Australia. Day illustrates the powerful impact of Georgist thought in shaping policy in Australia, but predicts that its future influence is somewhat bleak given the schism-prone nature of the Georgist movement, not to mention the naivety of some of its members in judging what is required to win over sceptics. Day, by contrast, is clearly a realist in these matters and provides a more nuanced account of the worth of the Georgist ideals. This, however, simply makes his final, sweeping judgement all the more bewildering. He states that a 'powerful case can be argued that virtually all the symptoms of the widespread malaise lamented by the social commentators--[a long list of social ills follows]--derive from cultural acceptance of the unearned private exploitation of the community's natural resources in the ruthless pursuit of economic efficiency at the expense of social efficiency' (p. 261). Although I am certainly more sympathetic to Georgist thought after reading this book, I could never imagine a time in which I could articulate Georgist sentiments such as these. If only the source of the many social problems in our ineffable world was so easily identifiable!

Gregory Moore, College of Business, University of Notre Dame--Australia, PO Box 1225, Fremantle WA 6959, Australia. Email:
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Author:Moore, Gregory
Publication:History of Economics Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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