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Justice and Mr George: What Henry George knew, what the neoclassicists forgot, and why it matters

  • Economics
  • Mathematics
  • Political Science


Purpose – Henry George was acclaimed by the general public and disdained by the professional economists, largely for the same reasons. For the general public, progress, and poverty seemed to go to the heart of the matter, treating economics as a question of justice. But for the professionals, George was often regarded as a dangerous radical, even though he reasoned within the tradition of Smith, Ricardo, and Mill. However, he conducted his studies at the precise moment of the marginalist revolution, just as the profession was undergoing a transition from political economy to economics. For the former, economic science was embedded in particular political and cultural systems, while the latter aspired to be a pure science with its own mathematics. While some of the marginalists, such as Walras and Marshall, could maintain a commitment to justice, many others found the whole question superfluous. The purpose of this paper is to argue, however, that without some notion of justice, and especially justice in property relations, a complete description of an economy is impossible. Design/methodology/approach – The paper examines three issues: the relation between distributive and corrective justice, the relation between normative and positive science, and the relation between equity and equilibrium. Findings – The paper finds that, without some notion of equity, equilibrium is unattainable. And this relation can be shown to be present in the very starting conditions of neoclassical formulations, which initial conditions are, alas, too often forgotten. Originality/value – The paper provides an intriguing view of the neoclassicists' different stance in regard to justice, pointing out that William Stanley Jevons, for example, explicitly states that “feelings” of justice are “more or less extraneous to a theory of economics,” and expands upon this argument.

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