Progress and Poverty, Henry George. 1879. Book Review

Book Review: Progress and Poverty, Henry George, New York, November, 1880
Modernized and abridged, 2006

Chilling and prescient. Food for thought. When the Nation-state is sick, only an engaged politically active middle class can counter this kind of ill. That’s what corrupt people in power fear the most. An awakened populace that can and will vote with their feet and kick them where it hurts the most.

That is why they allow token protests on fake hot button issues when they are organized and funded by vested interests and attended by organized political groups but come down hard when it comes to spontaneous protests from the middle class.

Excerpt from the Book:  For the record, Henry George, excerpts from Chapter 42, <Progress and Poverty>, 1879.

“Our civilization appears to be advancing faster than ever. … Yet … Wages and interest fall, while rents rise. The rich get richer, the poor grow helpless, the middle class is swept away. … political equality-when coexisting with an increasing tendency toward unequal distribution of wealth-will ultimately beget either tyranny or anarchy. A representative government may become a dictatorship without formally changing its constitution or abandoning popular elections. Forms are nothing when substance has gone. And the forms of popular government are those from which the substance of freedom may go most easily. For there despotism advances in the name of the people. Once that single source of power is secured, everything is secured. An aristocracy of wealth will never struggle while it can bribe a tyrant. 

When the disparity of condition increases, democratic elections make it easy to seize the source of power. Many feel no connection with the conduct of government. Embittered by poverty, they are ready to sell their votes to the highest bidder or follow the most blatant demagogue. One class has become too rich to be stripped of its luxuries, no matter how public affairs are administered. Another class is so poor that promises of a few dollars will outweigh abstract considerations on election day. A few roll in wealth, while the many seethe with discontent at things they don’t know how to remedy.

Where there is anything close to equal distribution of wealth, the more democratic government is, the better it will be. Where there is gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, the opposite is true. The more democratic government is, the worse it will be. To give the vote o people who must beg or steal or starve, to whom the chance to work is a favor-this is to invoke destruction. To put political power in hands embittered and degraded by poverty is to wreak havoc.

Hereditary succession (or even selection by lot) may, by accident, occasionally place the wise and just in power. But in a corrupt democracy, the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are a handicap, while dishonesty brings success. The best sink to the bottom, the worst float to the top. The vile are ousted only by the viler.

National character gradually absorbs the qualities that win power. In the long panorama of history, we see over and over that this transforms free people into slaves. A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people. And when the people become corrupt, there is no resurrection. Life is gone, only the carcass remains. It is left but for the plowshares of fate to bury it out of sight. Unequal distribution of wealth inevitably transforms popular government into despotism. This is not a thing of the far future. It has already begun in the United States, and is proceeding rapidly before our very eyes. Men of the highest ability and character avoid politics. The technique of handlers and hacks counts more than the reputations of statesmen. The power of money is increasing, while voting is done recklessly. Political differences are no longer differences of principle. Political parties are passing into the control of what might be considered oligarchies and dictatorships. Modern growth is typified by the great city. Here we find the greatest wealth and the deepest poverty. And here popular government has most clearly broken down. … rich corporations and powerful financial interests pack the Senate and the courts with their lackeys.”