Born in Philadelphia in 1839, Henry George went on to San Francisco and became a newspaper editor who addressed the social problems of his day. On a visit to New York, he was shocked by the contrast between wealth and poverty. He resolved to find a solution, if he could. The result was Progress and Poverty, published in 1879, which is said to be the all-time best selling book on economics.
A hundred and twenty-five years separate the statements of Henry George and Mandela above. Despite the well meaning efforts of philanthropists, charities, governments and international agencies to root out poverty, the disparity remains. In fact, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, even in the affluent West.
As Mandela also pointed out: ‘Poverty is not natural, it is man-made and can be overcome by the action of human beings’. But how?
The twentieth century was dominated by the Marxist and Socialist attempts to tackle the problem. While they can claim some success in mitigating the worst levels of deprivation, the general standard of living lagged far behind the market economies. While the Capitalist system can be said to have triumphed over the Socialist/Marxist in producing wealth, the benefits are not shared by all and a third of the human race lives in abject poverty still.
The unique feature of Progress and Poverty is that Henry George reveals the cause of poverty, which is man-made, as Mandela says. George shows how the cause can be removed by a simple tax reform. This reform could be introduced in incremental stages to allow time to adjust.
‘The main, underlying idea of Henry George … is an argument that makes a lot of sense.’
Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel Laureate and author of Globalization and Its Discontents