How Modern Civilization May Decline
— The Central Truth —
In this condensation of the final three chapters of Progress and Poverty, Henry George urgently warns that our civilization could easily decline and fall, as many others have before. Yet, he contends, there is hope indeed, and there is vital work to be done, in which all thinking people can help.
The conditions of social progress, as we have traced the law, are association and equality. The general tendency of modern development, since the time when we can first discern the gleams of civilization, has been towards political and legal equality — to the abolition of slavery; the abrogation of status; the sweeping away of hereditary privileges; the substitution of parliamentary for arbitrary government; the right of private judgment in matters of religion; the greater freedom of movement and of occupation, of speech and of the press. The history of modern civilization is the history of advances in this direction — of the struggles and triumphs of personal, political and religious freedom. As this tendency has asserted itself civilization has advanced, while as it has been repressed or forced back civilization has been checked.
Where there is gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, the more democratic the government the worse it will be; for while rotten democracy may not in itself be worse than rotten autocracy, its effects upon national character will be worse. To give the suffrage to tramps, to paupers, to men to whom the chance to labor is a boon, to men who must beg, or steal, or starve, is to invoke destruction.
To turn a republican government into a despotism the basest and most brutal, it is not necessary formally to change its constitution or to abandon popular elections. Forms are nothing when substance has gone, and the forms of popular government are those from which the substance of freedom may most easily go. Extremes meet and a government of universal suffrage and theoretical equality may, under conditions which impel the change, most readily become a despotism. For there despotism advances in the name and with the might of the people.
The accidents of hereditary succession may sometimes 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 weighted and unscrupulousness commands success. The best gravitate to the bottom, the worst float to the top, and the vile will only be ousted by the viler. A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people, and when a people becomes corrupt there is no resurrection. The life is gone, only the carcass remains; it is left but for the ploughshares of fate to bury it out of sight.
This transformation of popular government into despotism of the vilest and most degrading kind, which must inevitably result from the unequal distribution of wealth, is not a thing of the far future. It has already begun and is rapidly going on under our eyes. Voting is done more recklessly; it is harder to arouse the people to the necessity of reforms and more difficult to carry them out; political differences are ceasing to be differences of principle, and abstract ideas are losing their power; parties are passing into the control of what in general government would be oligarchies and dictatorships. These are all evidences of political decline.
The very foundations of society are being sapped before our eyes while we ask how it is possible that such a civilization as this, with its railways, and dally newspapers, and electric telegraphs, should ever be destroyed? While literature breathes but the belief that we have been, and for the future must be, leaving the savage state farther and farther behind us, there are indications that we are actually turning back again toward barbarism.
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. 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.
Where this course leads is clear to whoever will think. As corruption becomes chronic; as public spirit is lost; as traditions of honor, 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 accident gives 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 civilization.
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!
Anyone who will think over the matter will see that this must necessarily be the case where advance gradually passes into retrogression. 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 recognize 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 civilization, communities do not go down by the same paths as those by which they came up.
The tendency to inequality, which is the necessary result of material progress where land is monopolized, cannot go much farther without carrying our civilization into that downward path which is so easy to enter and so hard to abandon. Everywhere the increasing intensity of the struggle to live, the increasing necessity for straining every nerve to prevent being thrown down and trodden underfoot in the scramble for wealth, is draining the forces that gain and maintain improvements. When the tide turns in bay or river from flood to ebb, it is not all at once; but here it still runs on, though there it has begun to recede. When the sun passes the meridian, it can only be told by the way the short shadows fall — for the heat of the day yet increases. But as sure as the turning tide must soon run full ebb, as sure as the declining sun must bring darkness, so sure it is that though knowledge yet increases and invention marches on, and new states are being settled, and cities still expand, civilization has begun to wane when, in proportion to population, we must build more and more prisons, more and more almshouses, more and more insane asylums. It is not from top to bottom that societies die; it is from bottom to top.
What change may come, no mortal man can tell, but that some great change must come, thoughtful men begin to feel. The civilized world is trembling on the verge of a great movement. Either it must be a leap upward, which will open the way to advances yet undreamed of, or it must be a plunge downward, which will carry us back towards barbarism.
The Call of Liberty
The truth to which we were led in the politico-economic branch of our inquiry is clearly apparent in the rise and fall of nations and the growth and decay of civilizations. It accords with those deep-seated recognitions of relation and sequence that we denominate moral perceptions.
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 civilization has trod. These evils are not imposed by natural laws. They spring solely from social maladjustments that ignore natural laws; and in removing their cause we shall be giving an enormous impetus to progress.
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; we shall abolish poverty; tame the ruthless passions of greed; dry up the springs of vice and misery — light in dark places the lamp of knowledge; give new vigor to invention and a fresh impulse to discovery; substitute political strength for political weakness; and make tyranny and anarchy impossible.
The reform I have proposed accords with all that is politically, socially, or morally desirable. It has the qualities of a true reform, for it will make all other reform easier. What is it but the carrying out in letter and spirit of the truth enunciated in the American Declaration of Independence — the “self-evident” truth that is the hear and soul of the Declaration — “That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These rights are denied when the equal right to land — on which and by which alone men can live — is denied. Equality of political rights will not compensate for the denial of the equal right to the bounty of nature. Political liberty, when the equal right to land is denied, becomes, as population increases and invention goes on, merely the liberty to compete for employment at starvation wages.
We honor Liberty in name and in form. We set up her statues and sound her praises. But we have not fully trusted her. And with our growth so grow her demands. She will have no half-service!
Liberty! it is a word to conjure with, not to vex the ear in empty boastings. For Liberty means justice, and justice is the natural law — the law of health and symmetry and strength, of fraternity and cooperation.
They who look upon Liberty as having accomplished her mission when she has abolished hereditary privileges and given men the ballot, who think of her as having no further relations to the everyday affairs of life, have not seen her real grandeur. As the sun is the lord of life, as well as of light; as his beams not merely pierce the clouds, but support all growth, supply all motion, and call forth from what would otherwise be a cold and inert mass all the infinite diversities of being and beauty, so is liberty to mankind. It is not for an abstraction that men have toiled and died; that in every age the witnesses of Liberty have stood forth, and the martyrs of Liberty have suffered.
We speak of Liberty as one thing, and of virtue, wealth, knowledge, invention, national strength and national independence as other things. But of all these Liberty is the source, the mother, the necessary condition. She is the genius of invention, the brawn of national strength, the spirit of national independence. Where Liberty rises, there virtue grows, wealth increases, knowledge expands and invention multiplies human powers. Where Liberty sinks, there virtue fades, wealth diminishes, knowledge is forgotten, invention ceases, and empires become a helpless prey to freer barbarians.
Only in broken gleam and partial light has the sun of Liberty yet beamed among men, but all progress hath she called forth. As Liberty grew, so grew art, wealth, power, knowledge and refinement.
Shall we not trust her?
In our time, as in times before, creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy Liberty. On the horizon the clouds begin to lower. Liberty calls to us again. We must follow her further; we must trust her fully. Either we must wholly accept her or she will not stay. 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.
Our primary social adjustment is a denial of justice. In allowing one man to own the land on which and from which other men must live, we have made them his bondsmen in a degree that increases as material progress goes on. It is this that crowds human beings into noisome cellars and squalid tenement houses; that fills prisons and brothels; that goads men with want and consumes them with greed; that robs women of the grace and beauty of perfect womanhood; that takes from little children the joy and innocence of life’s morning.
Civilization so based cannot continue. The eternal laws of the universe forbid it. Ruins of dead empires testify, and the witness that is in every soul answers, that it cannot be. Something grander than benevolence, something more august than charity — justice herself — demands of us to right this wrong. justice that will not be denied; that cannot be put off — justice that with the scales carries the sword.
Though it may take the language of prayer, it is blasphemy that attributes to the inscrutable decrees of Providence the suffering and brutishness that come of poverty. A merciful man would have better ordered the world. It is not the Almighty, but we who are responsible for the vice and misery that fester amid our civilization. The Creator showers upon us His gifts — more than enough for all. But like swine scrambling for food, we tread them in the mire — tread them in the mire, while we tear and rend each other!
Can it be that the gifts of the Creator may be thus misappropriated with impunity? Is it a light thing that labour should be robbed of its earnings while greed rolls in wealth — that the many should want while the few are surfeited? Look around today. Can this state of things continue? May we even say, “After us the deluge?” Nay; the pillars of the state are trembling even now, and the very foundations of society begin to quiver.
Forces have entered the world that will either compel us to a higher plane or overwhelm us — as nation after nation, as civilization after civilization, have been overwhelmed before. Between democratic ideas and the aristocratic adjustments of society there is an irreconcilable conflict. We cannot go on permitting men to vote and forcing them to tramp. We cannot go on educating boys and girls in our public schools and at the same time refuse them the right to earn an honest living. We cannot go on prating of the inalienable rights of man and at the same time deny the inalienable right to the bounty of the Creator.
But if, while there is yet time, we turn to justice and obey her, if we trust Liberty and follow her, the dangers that now threaten must disappear, the forces that now menace will turn to agencies of elevation. Think of the powers now wasted, the infinite fields of knowledge yet to be explored. With want destroyed; with greed changed to noble passions; with the fraternity that is born of equality taking the place of the jealousy and fear that now array men against each other; with mental power loosed by conditions that give to the humblest comfort and leisure; and who shall measure the heights to which our civilization may soar? Words fail the thought! It is the Golden Age of which poets have sung and high-raised seers have told in metaphor. It is the glorious vision that has always haunted man with gleam of fitful splendor. It is the reign of the Prince of Peace!
Conclusion — The Problem of the Individual Life
My task is done. Yet the thought still mounts. The problems we have been considering lead into a problem higher and deeper still. Behind the problems of social life lies the problem of individual life. I have found it impossible to think of the one without thinking of the other, and so, I imagine, will it be with those who, reading this book, go with me in thought.
The truth that I have tried to make clear will not find easy acceptance. If that could be, it would have been accepted long ago. If that could be, it would never have been obscured. But it will find friends — those who will toil for it; suffer for it; if need be, die for it. This is the power of Truth.
Will it at length prevail? Ultimately, yes. But in our own times, or in times of which any memory of us remains, who shall say?
To how few of those who sow the seed is it given to see it grow, or even with certainty to know that it will grow. Let us not disguise it. Over and over again has the standard of Truth and Justice been raised in this world. Over and over again has it been trampled down.
But for those who see Truth and would follow her, for those who recognize justice and would stand for her, success is not the only thing. Success! Why, falsehood has often that to give; and injustice often has that to give. Must not Truth and justice have something to give that is their own by proper right — theirs in essence, and not by accident?
I have in this inquiry followed the course of my own thought. When, in mind, I set out on it I had no theory to support, no conclusions to prove. Only, when I first realized the squalid misery of a great city, it appalled and tormented me, and would not let me rest, for thinking of what caused it and how it could be cured.
But out of this inquiry has come to me something I did not think to find and a faith that was dead revives.
When we come to trace and to analyze the ideas that destroy the hope of a future life, we shall I think find that they have their source, not in any revelations of physical science, but in certain teachings of political and social science that have deeply permeated thought in all directions. They have their root in the doctrines that there is a tendency to the production of more human beings than can be provided for, that vice and misery are the result of natural laws and the means by which advance goes on, and that human progress is by a slow race development. These doctrines, which have been generally accepted as approved truth, reduce the individual to insignificance; they destroy the idea that there can be in the ordering of the universe any regard for his existence, or any recognition of what we call moral qualities.
It is difficult to reconcile the idea of human immortality with the idea that nature wastes men by constantly bringing them into being where there is no room for them. It is impossible to reconcile the idea of an intelligent and beneficent Creator with the belief that the wretchedness and degradation that are the lot of such a large proportion of human kind result from His enactments. And the idea that man mentally and physically is the result of slow modifications perpetuated by heredity irresistibly suggests the idea that it is the race life and not the individual life that is the object of human existence. Thus has vanished with many of us, and is still vanishing with more of us, that belief which in the battles and ills of life affords the strongest support and deepest consolation.
In the inquiry through which we have passed we have met these doctrines and seen their fallacy. We have seen that population does not tend to outrun subsistence. We have seen that the waste of human powers and the prodigality of human suffering do not spring from natural laws, but from the ignorance and selfishness of men in refusing to conform to natural laws. We have seen that human progress is not by altering the nature of men but that, on the contrary, the nature of men seems, generally speaking, always the same.
Thus the nightmare which is banishing from the modern world the belief in a future life is destroyed. But this is not all.
Political Economy has been called the dismal science and, as currently taught, it is hopeless and despairing. But this, as we have seen, is solely because she has been degraded and shackled, her truths dislocated, her harmonies ignored, the word she would utter gagged in her mouth, and her protest against wrong turned into an endorsement of injustice. Freed, as I have tried to free her — in her own proper symmetry, Political Economy is radiant with hope.
For properly understood, the laws that govern the production and distribution of wealth show that the want and injustice of the present social state are not necessary. On the contrary, they show that a social state is possible in which poverty would bc unknown and all the better qualities and higher powers of human nature would have opportunity for full development.
And further than this, when we see that social development is governed neither by a special providence nor by a merciless fate, but by law at once unchangeable and beneficent; when we see that economic law and moral law are essentially one, and that the truth that the intellect grasps after toilsome effort is but that which the moral reaches by a quick intuition; then a flood of light breaks in upon the problem of individual life. Those countless millions like ourselves, who on this earth of ours have passed and still are passing, with their joys and sorrows, their toil and their striving, their aspirations and their fears, their strong perceptions of things deeper than sense, their common feelings that form the basis even of the most divergent creeds — their little lives do not seem so much like meaningless waste.