Progress and Poverty | Henry George

Summary of: Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry in the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth… The Remedy
By: Henry George


Dive into the fascinating world of ‘Progress and Poverty,’ a book by Henry George that uncovers the enigmatic relationship between wealth and poverty. Explore vital topics revolving around an increase in wealth but a simultaneous rise in poverty, often the result of unfair distribution and land monopolization. Discover the meticulous process of labor, value, and capital generation along with how wealth is distributed in various forms such as rent, wages, and interest. Delve into the impact of railways and land speculation to fully comprehend the economic and financial disparities shaping our world.

The Inequality of Wealth and Poverty

Despite technological advancements, poverty remains a persistent issue worldwide, and the wealthiest nations often have the highest levels of deprivation. This problem cannot be explained by the current political economy teachings, which overlook a crucial factor. Wealth is defined as anything with exchange value, derived from labor and natural resources. Capital aids labor in creating more wealth, and land value is an essential factor in determining wealth distribution. The more wealth a nation produces, the more its rent on land property increases, leaving less for wages and interest. Thus, poverty persists even as prosperity grows.

The American Dream

During the 19th century, the western and midwestern states of America provided fertile ground for settlers hoping to build better lives for themselves. With cheap rents and an abundance of land, pioneers could keep the fruits of their labor, allowing them to earn higher wages and amass a fortune. To them, owning a little plot of land was the ultimate symbol of prosperity, a stark contrast to the poverty in major cities. Moving west represented an opportunity for individuals to achieve their own version of the American Dream.

Landlords’ Capture

As settlers occupy all available farmland, cooperation becomes necessary for improving their welfare. With time, towns spring up, and individuals specialize in different trades while merchants and others establish stores, medical, and postal services. Agricultural practices advance, and population centers develop trade advantages. However, concentration of land ownership into fewer hands leads to landlords raising rents, which captures most gains from the progress of the community. This leads to a downward spiral of rising rents and extractive wealth that induces poverty, as seen in New York City in 1879. Railroads only exacerbated the problem of speculative rent advances that hinder normal production increases.

The Misconception of the Conflict between Capital and Labor

The belief that capitalists exploit laborers and that interest on capital results in the robbery of industry is a common misconception in society. Many fail to distinguish between the active return on investment and passive income from rents and debt repayments. In reality, capitalists who provide tangible assets for wealth creation are just as vulnerable to the whims of landlords as laborers. The economic progress of the American West was driven by capitalists who risked their capital to build railroads. However, some railroad barons engaged in unscrupulous behavior like demanding bribes, colluding to raise rates, and extracting monopoly rents. In contrast, rent, which is not spontaneous from land, belongs to the whole community and not just landholders.

The Corrupted Democracy

When a small group owns valuable land in a growing region and wields economic power, democracy becomes corrupted. The poor, although having political power, lack the ability to vote independently and may follow extremist politicians. History has shown that unequal distribution of wealth ultimately crumbles civilizations. The young US republic, despite having political aspirations, adopted the same attitudes towards landownership as the Old World, leading to economic inequality. In anticipation of railroads, land speculation led to US recessions in the 1870s and worldwide economic decline. Speculative land values often pave the way to economic depressions.

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