Richard T. Ely's Autobiography
[Reprinted from Land and Freedom, March-April
1939. Ground Under Our Feet: An Autobiography of Richard T. Ely,
published by The MacMillan Co., New York]
Richard T. Ely has been to the Georgeists almost as much of an "enfant
terrible" as Hearst has been to the Communists. Perhaps a glance
into the lives of our "enemies" would disarm us a little.
For a biography and especially an autobiography reveals, after all, a
human being with a typical human life-pattern. A perusal of Ely's
account of himself in "Ground Under Our Feet" may dispose us
more kindly toward him. For instance, he opens thus:
"I was born before the Civil War. I have witnessed
a panorama of events which has thrilled, saddened, inspired and ever
kindled in me a burning desire to set the world right. I have been
guided in my efforts by the philosophy that "the beginning and
end of all is man." In my youth I was branded a "radical"
for saying things which are today commonly accepted. This does not
mean that the problems of the days of my youth have vanished. On the
contrary, the conflicts raging today are essentially the same
conflicts; between labor and capital, between government and
industry; but they are being fought on a different plane.
Technological advances have brought into view the possibility of
abundance for all. Yet we do not have abundance for all. Therefore
the battle rages between those who have and those who have not.
Technological advances have resulted in a growing interdependence of
human beings. Our economic relations are more and more closely
interwoven, and more and more it is "one for all and all for
one." Failure to act on this means disaster. If we apply
ourselves intelligently and sanely to the problems of today we can
look forward to a future worthy of man. If we unleash the forces of
hatred, selfishness and brutality, we can look forward only to
Ely evidently has been motivated by high-minded purposes. Perhaps we
should be more tolerant. But on the other hand, how can this man who
wants to set the world right, this specialist in land economics, the
very title of whose book suggests a prepossession with land how can he
dismiss Henry George's contribution to these problems so curtly?
"Because I was conscious of my own integrity, I could not see my
way clear to advocate the Single Tax. For this reason, they thought
that I must have lost my way; they suspected me of selling out to the
interests, especially the real estate interests. The advocates of the
Single Tax said, 'Here we have applied Christianity. Follow Henry
George in his eloquent and moving plea for a new and better social
order." Yet it seemed to me that the natural rights doctrine of
Henry George was thoroughly unscientific, a belated revival of the
social philosophy of the eighteenth century. I believed that the
economics underlying Henry George's pleas was unsound."
Let us admit a high-minded purpose. Let us refuse to question
motives. But that stereotyped professorial slam that's what rankles
George's "panacea" was to Ely one of the many typical cases
of "a false Christ who would arise, mislead the multitude and
cause endless destruction."
Immediately after this "criticism" of George, Ely tells us
that in casting about for wise guidance he found a great deal in the
"In the Mosaic law, land was not to be regarded as a commodity,
for the final ownership was God's. 'The land shall not be sold
forever, for the land is mine.' It was to be used by the earthly owner
for home and subsistence. Speculation in land, buying and selling for
gain, was absolutely inconsistent with the spirit of the legislation.
If poverty necessitated it, temporary possession could be given with
widely extended rights of redemption."
[Sic/] Does George say more? But Ely catches himself in time: "Although
these ideas are sound in principle (italics mine), they were never
carried out. In modern complex society they could not be carried out
any more than in primitive Israel [sic]. But, if we cannot apply these
laws to the letter, we must aim at the spirit for which they stand. It
will require our best brains, with all good will, and we must remember
that 'the letter (of the law) killeth, the spirit giveth life.'"
What else is George's proposal to socialize the rent of land and
permit the land itself to be used by individuals, but an application
of the spirit of Moses to "modern complex society"? And how
else would Ely prevent "speculation in land, buying and selling
Ely's unsympathetic attitude toward George has its basis in his
approach to economics. When he proposed the founding of the American
Economic Association, in the 1880's, its central idea was to be "that
the dogma of laissez faire should be abandoned by our leaders."
His program "emphasized historical and statistical study rather
than deductive speculation," which marked a decisive break with
the classical school, and which he joyfully considered an "emancipation."
The written prospectus of the Association, however, did not suggest
such a complete break, and Ely's colleague, S. N. Patten called it to
his attention. Patten said, in effect: Why don't you admit it? We
don't believe in the old-fashioned idea of freedom. "It seems to
me that the very object of our association should be to deny the right
of individuals to do as they please, and that of course is restricting
trade." (Is this one of the things, radical in those days, but "which
are today commonly accepted?")
Further on in the book, Ely tells us "I have always recognized
that we do not have natural law in the economic world, and that
economic laws are different from the laws of external nature." He
groans at the slip he once made in comparing economic tendencies to
the law of gravity. But he feels consoled because such great
economists as Malthus and Walker also made the same mistake. Walker's
error, it seems, was in considering Ricardo's law of the increase of
rent a natural law. Ely informs us that as society grows "we have
relative over-production, and we have a fall in land values and
unearned decrements rather than unearned increments in the rent of
These assertions, I think, sufficiently explain why Ely does not feel
favorably disposed toward George.
Later on, Ely founds the Institute for Research in Land Economics and
Public Utilities. The motto is "Under All, The Land." In
speaking of the aims of this Institute, Ely says, "The poverty
that results from bad utilization of the land and that passes on from
generation to generation is evident to every careful observer of what
is taking place in city and country. Countless needless tragedies
exist. They can be seen on every hand in the struggle of men who
cultivate poor farm land and in every city in the efforts of men and
women to pay for the land that in a generation will not be worth the
price paid." (Unearned decrement!)
Apparently Ely sees no connection between poverty and bad utilization
of land on the one hand, and a system that permits land monopoly and
land speculation on the other. Still, the purpose of the Institute "is
to join in the labors of those who are striving to abolish poverty and
hope in time to achieve their purpose."
We earnestly suggest that Prof. Ely again read Henry George's works,
with an unbothered mind; that is, forgetting for the moment that
Georgeists and Ely do not mix, and keeping in mind that Henry George's
works were undertaken for the same reason as his own, to eradicate
We hope that Prof. Ely will do this, and we will gladly hold our
tongues the while.