Understanding Comes One Person at a Time
by Sam Venturella
Some twenty years ago, I was asked to speak at the annual dinner of the Henry George Club of Chicago. At that time, I said that I pray and look for a St. Paul -- for it was he who put his talents to the enormous task of spreading the word of the crucified Nazarene rabbi who would lead his people to freedom. Today, I sit among these panelists who have just edified us with tales of their labors: Josh Vincent, Jeff Smith, Alanna Hartzok, Dan Sullivan, and Hanno Beck. I admire them.
Politicians, whether local or national, can be very difficult to deal with. Those who make politics a full-time occupation, who are in politics for their own aggrandizement, cannot be convinced by argument or empirical data. Their minds operate differently than ours. They are interested in knowing only to things about a proposition: 1) How does the proposer benefit? and 2) What organization of voters back the proposal? John Kelly, of Peoria, learned about the benefit angle earlier this year when the one Illinois legislator from his district who has the power to kill a bill or get it passed asked John how he personally would benefit. How would John Kelly benefit from eliminating the tax on improvements and imposition of a higher tax on land? John's response -- that he personally would benefit only to the extent everyone else in Peoria would benefit -- fell on deaf ears: no one works as hard and as long as John Kelly had unless he personally would benefit. The other I learned years ago when I appeared before a legislative committee on behalf of bill written by my brother and introduced by my brother's State Representative. After introducing myself and then beginning my remarks, I was stopped by the Chairman. He asked me to name the organizations in favor of the bill. My response that I know of none resulted in dismissal.
Josh Vincent can convince only those local politicians who are in office to do the best they can for their city and their neighbors. And that too is not an easy thing to do. It very rarely can be done in a single visit. This means repeated visits and phone calls and notes. It means also working on allies of the one who understands the change we suggest.
Jeff Smith's audiences also are difficult. He may give talks before groups of five or ten or fifteen or a hundred Greens and other environmentalists. But the difficult part comes when one or two person from the group come up later to ask questions. They are the ones who were listening, who have been searching for ideas, who heard he said. They now must be convinced in a face- to-face encounter, for it is they who will help their fellow activists see the cat.
Alanna Hartzok, too, faces a difficult task. And, as she said, one must dress and speak appropriate to the occasion. She shows us that it is one's attitude, one demeanor, that must be appropriate -- that one cannot have the attitude of superiority, or of having the only answer to the perceived problems.
Dan Sullivan no only must recruit and develop new adherents, but he must also counter those who actively work to undo what has been accomplished in Pittsburgh. Those who benefit from a real estate tax which combines land and improvements into a unit as though there were no essential difference between the two, are constantly working to reverse the gains made in shifting the tax from labor produced buildings to community created site value.
Hanno Beck has grasped the new communication technology. He plays the mysterious realm of cyberspace as a virtuoso plays a violin. Hanno has shown himself to be a true virtuoso of the Internet, of the world wide web, the newest of our communication technology.
I, I can only bask in the light of these luminaries. I can rejoice that they use their talents to further the cause of freedom and justice. My efforts pale beside theirs.
I don't look to convince any politician that taxation is robbery; that the only justifiable source for public revenue is the value engendered by privilege: economic rent. A lone voice is a voice in the wilderness: no one hears it. If we must have one of the modern forms of government, then we must have citizens who understand Henry George's message and will constantly talk about it -- will demonstrate by their questions and their speech that they'd understand the difference between justice and robbery. When a significant number of citizens repeat the same theme, politicians will make the effort to heed the message.
The writers of the new testament tell us that on the feast of the Pentecost, the followers of the crucified Teacher stood on the roof of the house where they had been staying and spoke to the crowd on the street below. The crown consisted of observant Jews from many nations, and each heard the words in their own tongue. And, we are told, that 5,000 people were converted that day. Yes, we are told that and other tales of instances where large numbers of people were suddenly converted.
It brings to mind the days of my youth. In those day, itinerant preacher -- religious revivalists -- traveled about the country. They would pitch a tent in some suitable spot in town, and for several nights they would preach. Each evening at the end of their talk they would call for those in the audience who were now ready to come forth and accept Jesus as their Savior.
Henry George, in one of his talks, tells of such a preacher. He asked the preacher how his mission was faring. The preacher told him, not of how many had come forth and declared their rebirth, but of the one who came forth with sadness that he could not declare because he had to earn a living to feed his family. I'll not repeat the story here. You can read it for yourself in George's talk, "The Crime of Poverty." I mention it to make t he point that not all who agree that taxation is robbery and that taxing economic rent is the proper way to finance public needs will become vocal advocates.
Today I want to talk about one of my successes. In the mid 1980s, Dorothy and I were at a libertarian dinner. Sitting across from us at the table were two gentlemen from a newly instituted think tank -- The Heartland Institute. One of those gentleman was Joe Bast, president of the newly formed institution. His companion was Pat Peterson, development director. It was natural that I had not heard of The Heartland Institute as it had not yet become well known. It was also natural that they had not heard about the Henry George School, of even of Henry George. They were curious about the School and asked about it. I then told them of Henry George and his economic and social philosophy. They did not become instant converts that evening. Conversion came ten years later for Joe Bast, has not yet come for Pat Peterson.
Joe Bast's conversion came slowly. In preparation for an all- day seminar on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Joe Bast read Henry George's "Protection or Free Trade." I had provided that and other of George's books for Heartland's embryonic lib library. Over the years, we had several occasions for discussion of George's economic and social philosophy. I invited Joe to participate on Ed Dodson's panel on the future of democracy at the 1995 Georgist Conference in Evanston. Joe read Progress and Poverty to prepare for his participation. He declared his final conversion in his opening remarks. There were some ten years between the planting of the seed and the bearing of the fruit.
In the meantime, I've been trying to crack the code on how to get people who not only practice their religion but are active in their church. The name of the religion doesn't matter. You know that we embrace all, even those who do not belong to organized churches. I've given copies of Progress and Poverty to a Hindu who read it in a single sitting overnight. He declared, he would take the book with him when he returned to India in a week or so. A Catholic priest from India, to whom I gave the book, said he would circulate it among he fellows when he returned to his diocese. During the winter term, I gave a talk on Land and Justice to a class in Old Testament Theology. There were about forty-five enrolled in that class. One of them enrolled in our course in fundamental economics in the summer term.
We don't make instant converts. We don't convert crowds. Understanding comes one person at a time over a period of time.