Book review: Poverty Is Not Natural by George Curtis

By Bernadette Meaden
January 13, 2020

Inequality is an issue that looks set to rise inexorably up the political agenda in the coming months and years. This excellent and timely little book addresses one of the fundamental causes of inequality, and puts forward a solution that could in principle be acceptable to those on both the left and right of politics. It explores, in a very accessible way, the work of the 19th century political economist Henry George, and with clarity and conviction makes the moral, ethical, and economic case for a land value tax.

The book begins by quoting Nelson Mandela’s speech in Trafalgar Square in 2005, from which its title is taken. Mandela said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man made, and can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” Author George Curtis has a lifelong interest in these questions, and his passionate commitment to justice shines through on every page.

Having left school at 14, Curtis started work on a farm in his native Lincolnshire, and soon joined the National Union of Agricultural Workers. This provided him with many educational opportunities, culminating in a degree in Social Sciences from the Open University. He also became a Methodist preacher, and the Christian roots of his desire for social justice are evident throughout the book. He believes, like Henry George, that “there is in true Christianity a power to regenerate the world.” But it must, said George, be “a Christianity that attacks vested wrongs, not that spurious thing that defends them. The religion which allies itself with injustice to preach down the natural aspirations of the masses is worse than atheism.”

One of the strengths of the book is that it looks at the work of other people around the world who were thinking about the same problems as George and arriving at similar conclusions. Slavery had been abolished in both the United States and the British Empire, and serfdom had been abolished in Russia, but many former slaves and serfs were, in material terms, no better off – in some cases worse off. Leo Tolstoy and others came to think, as George did, that land ownership was, “a bold, base, enormous wrong” which denies “the first and most important of all human rights, the equal right to the material substratum of life.”

Meanwhile in Ireland, Thomas Nulty, Bishop of Meath, wrote a pastoral letter decrying the injustice of land ownership, which he described as “the twin sister of slavery”. Irish peasants could work all year only to see almost all the fruits of their labour taken by landlords, leaving them barely enough to survive – and when grazing became more profitable than the cultivation of crops, they were evicted to make way for livestock. Henry George was so impressed with the Bishop’s letter and his thinking on the subject, he generously said that the school of thought which had become known as Georgism could equally have been called ‘Nultyism.’

Anyone with an interest in Catholic Social Teaching will find the chapter on George’s open letter to Pope Leo XIII particularly fascinating. In 1891 the Pope had published an encyclical, Rerum Novarum, as a response to the growing tension between workers and employers throughout Europe. Amidst growing fears of revolution, it was an attempt to avert conflict by stressing the rights of workers and the moral responsibility of employers to treat them in a fair and just manner. It has been credited with doing much to encourage the growth of the trade union movement, and was considered radical – indeed, much of it would still be considered radical today. However, as far as George was concerned, it had a fatal flaw which meant that it would allow injustice to continue uninterrupted.

The flaw was that the encyclical placed great emphasis on respect for private property, including land ownership. The Pope argued that when a man works and is paid for his labour, he has an unquestionable right to spend it as he sees fit. If a poor man works hard, lives frugally, saves his money and then invests it in buying some land, then that property is his, and the principle is the same, “whether the property be land or movable goods”. That which is bought with rightful property becomes rightful property.

This, says George, is wrong – the same argument could have been used by slave owners. Ownership, he said, “attaches to things produced by labour, but cannot attach to things produced by God.” George congratulated the Pope on refuting the awful idea that poverty was somehow God’s will, but lamented the fact that he had failed to tackle the fundamental problem which caused that poverty. If we really believe that all people are equal, then all people have an equal right to the earth and its resources. What we produce by our own efforts and labour can rightly be owned privately, but the earth should not be in the possession of a relatively few people, who then monopolise its resources and extract unearned wealth through the labour of others.

For the same reasons, the author sees the Christian Socialism espoused by figures like Keir Hardie as an admirable attempt to mitigate the injustice of capitalism, but one that fails to tackle the fundamental cause of that injustice, and so allows it to persist. What we need, says Curtis, is to ensure that wealth is distributed more fairly in the first instance, not allow it to be unjustly accumulated by a few, and then attempt to redistribute it through taxes and benefits.

Henry George’s remedy for such injustice was not the confiscation, nationalisation or redistribution of land, but a land value tax. This would require the user of land to pay a fee to the nation for the privilege of secure tenure and exclusive use, providing government with a secure source of income which could replace taxes on labour.

In the final chapter of the book, The Way Forward, Curtis looks at contemporary thinking on a land value tax, and concludes with the endorsement of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said that, if anything, Henry George underestimated the potential benefits. A land value tax, says Stiglitz, can improve productivity because it would “encourage people to invest in productive capital rather than rent generating” which “in the end leads to a more equal society.”

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in making our economy fairer. At only 120 pages it is not a long read, and doesn’t require any previous knowledge of economics. I hope the book gets the wide readership it deserves.

* Poverty Is Not Natural by George Curtis is published by Shepheard-Walwyn. Paperback, price £9.95

* More information and to order https://shepheard-walwyn.co.uk/product/poverty-is-not-natural/


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 







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