Why Georgism? Why Now?
A Guest Essay by Chris Dobro
If you’re reading this Substack, I’m going to assume a couple things:
You’ve noticed that it seems to be having a moment of resurgent interest in some online circles as well as the tech world.
I find this highly encouraging, as I think a worldview like Georgism is particularly well-suited to the current political moment. Let me explain.
An ideology for recovering ideologues
From my teens through my mid-20s, I was a pretty steadfast libertarian. I’ve done a fair amount of introspection as to why that particular ideology was so appealing to me at the time, as well as why I’m so politically inclined to begin with (it seems like it has something to do with my discomfort in knowing that the future is largely out of my control). But that’s less important here.
What interests me is the way in which Georgism seems to appeal to those who started out as uncompromising ideologues (libertarian, socialist, nationalist, or what have you), but who have since grown tired of the dogma, divisiveness, and purity tests demanded by those ideologies.
Something I find quite unique about Georgism is the way in which it encourages synthesis and harmoniousness without devolving into a contentless, wishy-washy centrism. Henry George was a person of strong moral convictions, but he was able to make arguments that appealed to a broad swathe of people without the demonization of opponents that plagues our current politics.
George does this by simultaneously speaking to our individualist and communitarian impulses without arbitrarily demanding that we pick one and discard the other. By George (get it?), people are entitled to make their own life choices, and to the fruits of their labor, but it doesn’t follow that they must then become atomized individuals who selfishly abandon the common good or the well-being of others. Embracing that compatibility and telling folks that they don’t have to choose between being an individual and a social animal is kind of the secret sauce that makes Georgism stand out in a crowd of all-or-nothing, zero-sum worldviews.
In recent years, I’ve become a much less ideological person. In fact, I agree pretty strongly with these two essays from the Niskanen Center, arguing that rigid adherence to ideologies has mostly led us further astray. That said, the idea that we could ever get to a post-ideological world where most people judge things pragmatically on a case-by-case basis strikes me as, ironically, kind of utopian. Most of us don’t have the time or resources to comb through the fine details of every complex policy issue, and when we try, we often end up engaging in motivated reasoning—only looking at sources that confirm our preexisting biases. Ideology offers an easy shortcut for people to assess how they ought to feel about certain issues, based on what like-minded people are saying about them. And for better or worse, many people just feel like they need something to believe in. As The Dude famously observed, believing in nothing can be exhausting.
So, if ideologies will always be with us in some form or another, the most sensible thing to do is to try and elevate the more humane, pluralistic ones over the more authoritarian varieties that appear ascendant right now.
To my eyes, the trick that Georgism pulls off so well is appealing to a broad range of people with differing values, while also advancing a coherent and principled vision, rather than just trying to split the difference between the standard “Left” and “Right” platforms. Furthermore, it does this in a way that doesn’t demand a whole lot from its adherents. Think people should have maximal control over their own lives and be able to pursue their own happiness? Want to keep more of your own hard-earned money while also raising enough tax revenue to pay for basic public goods? Like nature and/or big cities? Congrats, you’re in! Welcome to the big tent.
Workable, but broadly appealing
Another great thing Georgism manages to do is to emphasize efficiency maximization, but in a way that is broadly appealing to ordinary people.
Something that Americans across the political divide really seem to dislike is the idea of technocracy, or that a bunch of smart, highly-educated experts should be making decisions about public policy. I think this contempt for experts is somewhat misguided, but I can also understand where it comes from. Elitism is a real thing (even if the term is thrown around a bit haphazardly these days), and nobody likes being condescended to.
At the same time, I tend to believe that at their core, most people are still pragmatic consequentialists. If you can demonstrate in a way that leaves little room for doubt that a certain policy results in more needless human suffering, I don’t think most people are going to insist that it’s still the right thing to do for some abstract moral reason (though some ideologues certainly will). This, of course, gets trickier in an ecosystem of misinformation and hyper-partisan media, where evidence is more easily obscured by nonsense, but that’s another matter.
I think this is what many people (myself included) find off-putting about an ideology like strict libertarianism. When presented with evidence that goes against their orthodoxy (like the way in which having some form of universal health insurance usually results in people paying less for better outcomes) some libertarians will revert to dogmatic moral arguments, such as the non-aggression principle. Essentially, this asserts that collecting public money to fund public services is just wrong because it’s wrong—consequences be damned! Perhaps this inflexibility helps explain why the “libertarian moment” of the early 2010s quickly fizzled out. This is unfortunate, as many libertarian-ish ideas (zoning reform, occupational licensing reform, criminal justice reform) actually have a lot of merit to them.
The point is, most people want to believe that their favored ideas actually work in practice, but also rest on a solid moral foundation. This is why hardline ideologues often employ a motte-and-bailey style argument—typically starting out with a pragmatic point (“this policy doesn’t work!”) but then falling back to a moral one in the face of contrary evidence (“supporting this policy makes you a bad person, a traitor, etc.”). Consequentialist arguments provide a better offense because they rely on demonstrable evidence, whereas moral arguments offer a better defense as they’re impossible to fully refute due to their inherent subjectivity.
Personally, I don’t really love the distinction between what works and what is morally “right.” I tend to think the two are actually one. But regardless, consequentialist arguments by themselves can have an off-putting technocratic feel if they don’t seem to have a strong moral base behind them. And moral arguments can be easily dismissed if they aren’t rooted in empirical evidence. It’s good to have both positions thoroughly fortified, as partisans tend to use the opposite of whichever their opponent appears to be using.
Georgism manages to cover both bases pretty well here. Henry George’s writing takes a clear moral stand (some people getting rich without producing anything of value, or actively harming society in the process, just feels intuitively wrong to most of us), while also resting on a strong consequentialist foundation (if we can collect revenue for public goods and safety nets while discouraging rent-seeking and negative externalities in the process, why on Earth shouldn’t we?). I haven’t encountered many other worldviews that pull this off in the same way.
Separating ideology from identity
While it manages to address some of the most significant issues of the day, from climate change and poverty, to big tech and globalization, to the rent being too damn high, Georgism is uniquely positioned to do this in a different way from other ideologies.
In an increasingly tribal political environment, people often play a sort of guilt-by-association game in order to dismiss differing points of view. Andrew Yang, the presidential and NYC mayoral candidate (who a Washington Post columnist critically compared to Henry George), was frequently criticized for being associated with “tech bro” culture (I’m not going to indulge those sleazy hit pieces by linking to them, but a quick Google search will show you what I mean). This, unfortunately, is a common strategy employed by partisan hacks. Conservatives regularly associate progressives with the smug, self-righteous Whole Foods hippie caricature, while progressives often struggle not to insinuate that conservatives are just a bunch of bigoted hicks. To be sure, tech bros, smug hippies, and bigoted hicks are all real subcultures that exist in the U.S., but these types of ad-hominem critiques only dumb down our already grossly oversimplified political discourse and encourage deeper rifts between Americans.
The advantage Georgism could have (though this remains to be seen) is that because of its broad, catch-all appeal, there isn’t necessarily a certain type of person who becomes a Georgist. One could easily imagine people of two very different identities, a religious traditionalist who runs a small farm in a rural county and a lifestyle libertine struggling to afford the rent in San Francisco, uniting around Georgist ideas, so long as they both share a basic commitment to pluralism (ideally, a more positive and inclusive worldview like Georgism could even be a driver of greater pluralism). The harder it is to pigeonhole the Georgist personality type, the easier it will be for Georgists to stay out of the culture war quagmire and remain focused on issues that affect the material well being of all people.
While Georgism has been a minimal political force for a long time now, we are currently seeing something of a resurgence- and with it, a great opportunity for improving our politics. An ideology with the potential to unite different people around humane values seems to me like exactly what the U.S. and the world need right now. A worldview that is workable and evidence-based while also being straightforward and morally-grounded enough to appeal to non-technocrats just seems like a recipe for success.