Although it had no direct impact on government policy, Progress and Poverty probably commanded more public attention than any book on economics in American history. An antislavery newspaper editor in California in the 1850s and 1860s, Henry George had witnessed firsthand the rapid monopolization of land in the state. His book began with a famous statement of “the problem” suggested by its title—the growth of “squalor and misery” alongside material progress. His solution was the “single tax,” which would replace other taxes with a levy on increases in the value of real estate. The single tax would be so high that it would prevent speculation in both urban and rural land. No one knows how many of Henry George’s readers actually believed in this way of solving the nation’s ills. But millions responded to his clear explanation of economic relationships and his stirring account of how the “social distress” long thought to be confined to the Old World had made its appearance in the New.

Freedom lay at the heart of George’s analysis. The “proper name” for the political movement spawned by his book, he once wrote, was “freedom men,” who would “do for the question of industrial slavery” what the Republican Party had done for the slavery of blacks. George rejected the traditional equation of liberty with ownership of land (since the single tax in effect made land the “common property” of the entire society). In other ways, however, his definition of freedom was thoroughly in keeping with mainstream thought. Despite calling for a single massive public intervention in the economy, George saw government as a “repressive power,” whose functions in the “co-operative society” of the future would be limited to enhancing the quality of life—building “public baths, museums, libraries, gardens,” and the like.

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