[FOUNTAIN]Progress, poverty and landHenry George (1839-1887) was a hungry man. At age 13, he became a boatman. When his classmates were studying Latin in Philadelphia, he shipped out on the sloop Hindoo bound for Calcutta. He was an adventurer, a gold miner, a laborer, a typesetter, a journalist, a government official and a college instructor. Until he died at age 58, his heart was filed with patriotism and wanderlust.
When he was 20, he met 17-year-old Annie Fox. The Fox family did not approve a union, and the young couple eloped. As expected, the newlyweds suffered from extreme poverty. They hit the bottom when Annie became pregnant with their second child.
Mr. George decided he would get money from the first person he met on the street. He told a stranger that he needed five dollars. The stranger asked why he needed the money and then gave him five dollars. Mr. George was so desperate that if the stranger had not given him the money, he would have killed him, Robert Heilbroner wrote in his book, “The Worldly Philosophers.”
Starvation pushed Mr. Henry into frustration. In the 19th century, the United States had been in the grip of land hunger ever since the founding of the nation. George Washington established the Mississippi Company to purchase lands in the west, and Benjamin Franklin bought a large plot of land in Illinois. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton also took part in real estate speculation. Land was the link between wealth and more wealth.
Henry George was furious at the reality that one could become rich just because he happened to own good land or was born to rich parents. He dreamed of the City of God with no great landowners. He also proposed solutions: public ownership of lands and the “single tax” on land. He argued that if all the profits from land were collected, the unfair inheritance of wealth would disappear, and all other taxes should be levied. He could not find a publisher for “Progress and Poverty,” a book in which he laid out his theories, and published it himself privately. It became a best-seller eventually; the New York Tribune praised it as the best text on political economy since Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.”
A few days ago, an economist condemned the real estate policy of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which claims the legacy of Henry George. From the additional tax to the post-construction sales system to forced disclosure of construction costs, land has always been at the center of the economic controversies that shook the nation. No serious economic debate arises without a serious economic problem.
by Yi Jung-jae
The writer is a deputy business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.