Land and Liberty: Henry George, The Single Tax Movement, and the Origins of 20th Century Liberalism
England, Christopher William
In the 1880s, Henry George rose to fame with a series of best-selling books that proposed a social state funded by revenue from a single tax on land. Many historians have described his dramatic race for mayor of New York on a Labor Party ticket in 1886. Few, however, have written about the relationship between George, who died in 1897, and his campaign manager, Tom Johnson, who as Mayor of Cleveland became the nation’s leading proponent of public ownership of utilities during the early 20th century. Similarly absent from the literature is an appreciation of how Louis Post’s single-tax newspaper, The Public, modernized George’s policies for leading progressive reformers like Brand Whitlock, Newton Baker, William U’Ren, and Frederic C. Howe.Rather than fading after George’s death, the movement had by the 1910s developed a firm basis of power in American cities, where it expanded the Democratic Party’s reach and accrued the political capital to obtain high positions in the Wilson Administration. Its leading members worked to establish important reforms like the Australian ballot, direct legislation, and the income tax.I show that George’s ideas found their home in a cosmopolitan, urban, and transnational middle class. The historiography does not account for the importance of the single tax in British liberalism or the implementation of land value taxation in Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark. The single tax, I argue, was a response to exorbitant premiums charged for space in urban areas. George’s disciples hoped to redistribute the wealth levied in high urban rents. By attaching itself to this sort of universal factor of exchange, the movement garnered both global and cross-class appeal.Furthermore, I show that Georgism was part of the transnational ideology of liberalism. Because classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo had composed the canon of liberal thought with a view toward undermining the moral legitimacy of the landed aristocracy, George had ample precedent to argue that the success of modern capitalism was contingent upon the nationalization of land. George offered a powerful way to incorporate elements of socialism into classical liberalism.
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