A Moral Vision of a Better America
“Though we may not speak it openly, the general faith in democratic institutions, where they have reached their fullest development, is narrowing and weakening; it is no longer the confident belief in democracy as the source of national blessings that it once was.” [Menace&Promise par 1]
Writing in 1897, when workers were losing their battle with Owners. Henry George lived in a time very much like us. A corrupt GOP setup a system of giant monopolies and monopolistic corporations whose power and influence gave them private separate advantage (Locke's definition of tyranny) over most of the people of the country. The result was a tiny 1% living in immense wealth and ostentation and overlording over many of the rest of our people. Efforts to combat the inequality and corruption involved had been frustrating. Populists had elected Grover Cleveland, only to see him betray his promises to them and go along with laws that made the lives of the overlords even more oppressive. Later Progressives would face many of the same problems and this would continue until FDR, in the 30's managed to merge the two movements.
Henry George, however, understood that the biggest danger was not from the corrupt and powerful overlords but from people accepting the inevitability of corruption!
Reagan as Anti-George
“Thoughtful men are beginning to see its dangers, without seeing how to escape them; they are beginning to accept the view of Macaulay and to distrust that of Jefferson. The people at large are becoming used to the growing corruption; the most ominous political sign is the growth of a sentiment which either doubts the existence of an honest man in public office or looks on him as a fool for not seizing his opportunities. That is to say, the people themselves are becoming corrupted.” [Menace&Promise par 1 continued]
In our own present time this generalized corruption has only spread. Worse, we had a counter-Humanist revolution led by Con artists (so-called Conservatives like Ronald Reagan) who spread this doctrine. What do you think Ronald Reagan was saying when he pinned the country's problems on "Government." Contrast George's words with what Reagan saying:
Reagan: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help”
Reagan was assaulting the very idea of Democracy. In that 'joke' he undermined the very notion that government can be public service, honorable, or democratic. He cast doubt on the very notion that there can be an "honest man in public office" and saw such officials as "fools" for not enriching themselves. And look where that attitude has gotten us! Henry George was pointing out that thoughts, words and deeds are interconnected. That what we expect from ourselves, others and our leaders is important in determining what they do and what we get from them. Unsound disciples of Henry George who think that Ronald Reagan's corrupt project can be reconciled with Georgism ought to re-read this passage. You cannot build a virtuous system on a passel of lies and frauds and those lies and frauds start with undermining the very notion that virtue is possible. Reagan was the Anti-George. Just as many so-called Christians are the opposite of what the Gospels tell us to do. Reagan's policies were designed to accelerate our country's decline.
Ayn Rand as Barbarian
“Where this course leads is clear to whoever will think. As corruption becomes chronic; as public spirit is lost; as traditions of honour, virtue and patriotism are weakened; as law is brought into contempt and reforms become hopeless; then in the festering mass will be generated volcanic forces which will shatter and rend when seeming accidents give them vent. Strong unscrupulous men, rising up upon occasion, will become the exponents of blind popular desires or fierce popular passions, and dash aside forms that have lost their vitality. The sword will again be mightier than the pen, and in carnivals of destruction brute force and wild frenzy will alternate with the lethargy of a declining civilisation.” [Menace&Promise par 2]
The Ayn Rand's of the world are not reformers. They are corruptors. They are deeply corrupt individuals spreading corruption. Corruption is a three fingered thing. It occurs because people think it's okay to occur. It occurs when we accept it as inevitable and start thinking it's natural. Cynicism is the prelude to corruption. We must be realistic and recognize it's a problem, but that doesn't mean accepting the behaviors. Corruption is destructive. It operates like flies laying eggs in the vulnerable. The eggs hatch into corrupt human maggots and then crawl through civilization and eat it alive.
Whence Come the Barbarians?
The pain they cause goads people to act like barbarians. As Henry says next:
“Whence shall come the new barbarians? Go through the squalid quarters of great cities, and you may see, even now, their gathering hordes. How shall learning perish? Men will cease to read, and books will kindle fires and be turned into cartridges! ” [Menace&Promise par 2]
Only in our time you can find the barbarians in the exclusive parts of cities too. You see young people who only read for the sake of being more clever at extraction and freebooting. We elected a President who cheated at everything he did. Did we expect him then to not lie us into a war he'd promised to lie us into? Books nowadays are never read and are rendered into smokeless gunpowder. Our cartridges nowadays are metal, made from worthless pennies.
Henry George as Prophet
“It is startling to think how slight the traces that would be left of our civilisation did it pass through the throes that have accompanied the decline of every previous civilisation. Paper will not last like parchment, nor are our most massive buildings and monuments to be compared in solidity with the rock-hewn temples and titanic edifices of old civilisations. And invention has given us not merely the steam engine and the printing press, but petroleum, nitro-glycerine and dynamite. ” [Menace&Promise par 3]
He wrote this in 1897. Had he lived another 20 years he'd have seen his solemn warning burning across the fields of France and Belgium. His warnings were a prophesy.
“Yet to hint today that our civilisation may possibly he tending to decline seems like the wildness of pessimism. The special tendencies to which I have alluded are obvious to thinking men, but with the majority of thinking men, as with the great masses, the belief in substantial progress is yet deep and strong -- a fundamental belief that admits not the shadow of a doubt.” [Menace&Promise par 4]
Sadly, our generation has lost this faith. And that is sad because that faith is what (paradoxically) propels progress.
“But anyone who will think over the matter will see that this must necessarily be the case where advance gradually passes into retrogression.” [Menace&Promise par 5]
Is there any doubt now our morality, our ethical standards, are in moral decline? Is there any doubt that there is a connection between the economic distress, the horror and the periodic hell of most of us common people and the ethics of our time? Henry sounds prophetic. He warned of this when the world seemed new and the United States seemed anything but wicked. For a long time we lived on inertia, but this has been coming for a long time too:
“For in social development, as in everything else, motion tends to persist in straight lines and therefore, where there has been a previous advance, it is extremely difficult to recognise decline, even when it has fully commenced; there is an almost irresistible tendency to believe that the forward movement, which has been advance, and is still going on, is still advance. The web of beliefs, customs, laws, institutions and habits, constantly being spun by each community and producing, in the individual environed by it, all the differences of national character, is never unravelled. That is to say, in the decline of civilisation, communities do not go down by the same paths as those by which they came up.” [Menace&Promise par 5 continued]
Buried in this criticism is some hope. The innovation, sense of common good, solidarity and efforts to improve the lives of everyone and not just the rich, where a virtue of our civilization. We developed that web of beliefs, customs, laws through efforts of will and brilliant illumination. The Enlightenment was a time when people re-awakened hope that man can do better and developed disgust for the easy corruption of aristocracy and insider business. It took a lot of work to create such expectation of virtue. The Guilded age was an age of moral decline, reversed by many virtuous people who sought to restore public virtue to representation, governing functions and business.
Here Henry George Talks of the slow decline that led to the guilded age:
“And how the retrogression of civilisation, following a period of advance, may be so gradual as to attract no attention at the time; nay, how that decline must necessarily, by the great majority of men, be mistaken for advance, is easily seen.” [Menace&Promise par 5 continued]
Decline is not extrinsic. The Greeks and Romans didn't decline from attacks of Barbarians from outside. Their wealthy and powerful classes were seduced by empire and cynicism to accept the corrupt as normal. It was easier to bribe officials than to produce safe food. It was easier to raise armies and take what they wanted than to work out differences. In a virtuous society "aristocrats" are officers "raised up" by the common people to serve their needs and be their leaders. Corruption makes them switch from being servants and herders to being predators. Empire turns people into human wolves or human locusts because of the corruption that goes along with warfare and power. George was being prophetic.
“For instance, there is an enormous difference between Grecian art of the classic period and that of the lower empire; yet the change was accompanied, or rather was caused, by a change of taste. The artists who most quickly followed the change of taste were in their day regarded as the superior artists. And so of literature. As it became more vapid, puerile and stilted, it would be in obedience to an altered taste, which would regard its increasing weakness as increasing strength and beauty. The really good writer would not find readers; he would be regarded as rude, dry, or dull. And so would the drama decline; not because there was a lack of good plays, but because the prevailing taste became more and more that of a less cultured class, who, of course, would regard that which they most admire as the best of its kind. And so too of religion the superstitions that a superstitious people will add to it will be regarded by them as improvements. As the decline goes on, the return to barbarism, where it is not in itself regarded as an advance, will seem necessary to meet the exigencies of the times. ” [Menace&Promise par 6]
Fascism, Imperialism, marching armies, aren't the work of abstract forces of history, but of people seduced by "private, separate advantage" and easy corruption. During 1897 we were on the cusp of continuing greatness or rapid decline. We had fought the imperialist Spanish American War and were increasingly being sucked into International intrigue. Henry George's observations about the United States were true world wide. There was a "fin de cycle" feeling about the world. It would only be a matter of time before we were all caught up in World War I. We are still caught in that battle:
“Whether in the present drifts of opinion and taste there are as yet any indications of retrogression, it is not necessary to inquire; but there are many things about which there can be no dispute that go to show that our civilisation has reached a critical period and that, unless a new start is made in the direction of social equality, [the] nineteenth century may to the future have marked its climax.” [Menace&Promise par 7]
How to Reverse the Decline
The 20th century was the Century of the United States, largely because compared to Europe the USA was virtuous and powerful because it had great armies of people who were well enough off that they were willing to fight for what they saw as freedom and justice around the world. What made that possible was that progressives held off the worst designs of the unjust. Even though Henry George's Single Tax failed to become the law of the land -- from 1900-1947 and even to 1980 -- the spirit of his efforts prevailed among the many virtuous people who gave their lives, sometimes literally, to achieve justice and social equality. Since 1980 the counter ideology. The easy ideology that sees opportunity to get rich as the preferred course and that laughs and is suspicious of the virtuous and which sees nothing wrong with the rule of might makes right, or top dogs over the pack. An ideology that sees the working poor as losers and that labels the destitute as lazy and undeserving. Such ideology is an assault on everything George Stood for.
“This truth involves both a menace and a promise. The evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth are not incidents of progress, but tendencies that must bring progress to a halt; they will not cure themselves, but on the contrary must, unless their cause is removed, grow greater and greater, until they sweep us back into barbarism by the road every previous civilisation has trod. But it also shows that these evils are not imposed by natural laws, that they spring solely from social maladjustments that ignore natural laws; and that in removing their cause we shall be giving an enormous impetus to progress.” [Menace&Promise par 8]
Equality versus Inequity
Wealth doesn't redistribute itself from the wealthy who monopolize it and other resources, except when it is taxed or made to work to maintain itself as capital investment. Small Government is smaller, not necessarily better. And all the false ideologies that justify "social maladjustments" and premise themselves on natural laws that are anything but natural, just justify inequity and corruption.
“In permitting the monopolization of the natural opportunities that nature freely offers to all, we have ignored the fundamental law of justice. But by sweeping away this injustice and asserting the rights of all men to natural opportunities, we shall conform ourselves to the law -- we' shall remove the great cause of unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth and power. It is not enough that men should vote; it is not enough that they should be theoretically equal before the law. They must have liberty to avail themselves of the opportunities and means of life; they must stand on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature. Either this, or Liberty withdraws her light! Either this, or darkness comes on, and the very forces that progress has evolved turn to powers that work destruction. This is the universal law. This is the lesson of the centuries. Unless its foundations be laid in justice the social structure cannot stand.” [Menace&Promise par 9]
The darkness is like a shadow over our country. We've divided into the incredibly wealthy who think they can rule us through deception (PR & Propaganda) and corruption -- and increasing numbers of the dispossessed and oppressed. WE can turn it around if we restore virtue, especially public virtue, to it's place in society and create governments that are of the people, by the people and for the people.
- Note this post follows:
- a review of "A Tale of Two Cities"
- Spencer Versus George from 2014
- and "The Death of Henry George" I wrote in March 2015.
- All quotes from:
- Except the quote from the Anti-George Ronald Reagan which I got from memory but quoted from brainyquotes