Review of the Book:
The Self-Supporting City
by Gilbert Tucker

H. William Batt


[Reprinted from GroundSwell, July/August 2010]


The following presentation was made at the Council of Georgist Organizations Conference in Albany, NY on July 13, 2010


Albany New York's most notable Georgist was Gilbert Tucker, more completely Gilbert Milligan Tucker, Jr. He deserves a significant place in the Georgist pantheon of historic figures. He was born on November 3, 1880, died on February 26, 1968 at the age of 88 in Monterey, CA, where he'd lived for a short time, and was brought home to be interred in Albany Rural Cemetery family plot. He was survived by his wife, Mildred, of many years, but had no children.

Tucker wrote six books, four on Georgist philosophy which deserve our attention. They are The Path to Prosperity (1935), For the Good of All (1944), Common-Sense Economics (1957), and The Self-Supporting City, (1946, revised 1958). His last two books were Your Money and What to Do With It (1960) and The Private School (1965).

Writing came to him easily, as his forbears were all journalists. Luther Tucker, the great-grandfather, was founder of early newspapers in Rochester and publisher of a farming journal called The Genesee Farmer, later consolidated with The Country Gentleman as a monthly which continued until 1955. For many years it was the largest and most widely circulated agricultural publication in America. When the first Luther Tucker died in 1873, responsibility passed to his son, Luther H. (1834-1897). Ownership ultimately went to the great grandsons Luther H. and Gilbert M. Tucker, Senior (1847-1932). Tucker Senior wrote a book on American English, Our Common Speech in 1895, that was an important source for H. L. Mencken's more widely known book on the subject published in 1919. In 1913 he offered an exposition of his religious ideas titled A Layman's Apology.

Gilbert Tucker, Jr. also led a long and interesting life as did his older brother by eleven years, Luther Henry Tucker. All the male Tuckers are identified in the records of the elite private boys' school, Albany Academy. Gilbert Junior graduated in 1898 with a strong record in French and Latin as well as the sciences. He was class treasurer, wrote for the literary magazine, and was on the debating team. Gilbert would go on to Cornell University rather than to Williams where his father had gone, finishing in three years. His last book pays tribute to the quality of his Academy education by noting not only the "criticism and correction" of his writing but the literature to which he was introduced. (p 68) One of these authors, he notes, was Henry George. In a letter decades later to the Headmaster of the Academy, he again expressed gratitude for its honing his debating skills, noting therein that presiding over a gathering of "some hundreds" of Georgists was made easier by this training.

The next time Gilbert Tucker's name appears in history is on April 15, 1912, when he was 31, as he was one of 705 (of about 2,200) to survive the sinking of The Titanic. His cabin was C-53, First Class, strategically chosen to be near a woman he'd met in Europe and with whom he was purportedly smitten. The record shows that he was rebuffed, however, and he ultimately married at age 42 to Mildred Penrose Stewart. In stories about the Titanic in the Albany Times Union and as far away as the Baltimore American, Tucker was listed as a "prominent person" worthy of note.

During the first World War he was involved in food administration, and one wonders if he may have known Herbert Hoover who was director of the relief program. This is noted in the first edition of The Self-Supporting City. From 1918 to 1933, he was Supervisor of Exhibits in the New York State Health Department's Division of Public Health Education. He was responsible for articles, exhibits and films about epidemiology and health maintenance. The Department's Health News noted upon his retirement that early on "Mr. Tucker developed the Healthmobile [sic], probably the first automobile to be equipped to show health motion pictures in localities where electric current was not available." The Department of Health films were shown even in the most remote sections of the State, frequently before people who had never seen a motion picture. Tucker's other activities in Albany involved editing the family's weekly magazine and work with the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Gilbert Tucker, Jr. grew up in Albany. In 1913 he moved to a 40 acre estate in the Albany suburb of Glenmont. But he returned to the City of Albany in the late 1950s. He moved to California for the last three years of his life.

Georgist philosophy was important to him. His first book, The Path to Prosperity, was published in 1935 at the depth of the depression, an experience which may have turned his fortunes as well as his intellectual concerns. This book shows that he was already a dedicated and knowledgeable Georgist; he begins his first chapter with a quotation from Progress and Poverty, then lays out his views on the plight of the nation as he saw it. His exposition of Georgist thought begins in Chapter VIII, and his remedy follows Henry George to the letter. He has no use for Roosevelt, and sees the intervention of government on so massive a scale as both misguided and threatening. He also expresses alarm at the more liberal turns in philosophy expressed by the Supreme Court.

He was in the fullest sense a classical nineteenth century liberal, and his exposition of Georgist thought was grounded in natural law every bit as much as that of George himself. At the end of Chapter VI, he wrote, "If we would leave these matters to work out freely in accordance with natural economic laws, keeping our fingers out of the pie, we should all be a great deal better off." He had no regard for social programs, believing that self-reliance, given the opportunities which a Georgist regime would offer, would be sufficient to relieve injustice and poverty.

In a pivotal chapter titled "The Land Privilege," he buttressed his argument — twice! — with passages from Blackstone. He then pointed out that "In recognizing the right of absolute ownership of land and its resources, we are denying to every man his natural right, his share in the ownership of those things which are rightfully the heritage of all." To further make his point he chose a quotation remaining from the New York State Constitution of 1846 and 1894 that, "The People, in their right of sovereignty, are deemed to possess the original and ultimate property in and to all lands without the jurisdiction of the State." This language, deemed a vestige of feudal law culminating in New York's "rent wars" of the 1840s was already vitiated by other provisions, and was finally eliminated only in 1962. Its implications for a Georgist regime of taxing land rent is a subject for another place and time.

Even though The Path to Prosperity is 75 years old as this review is written, the book is very timely. The references to events and issues of the time are few; rather the pages are filled largely with exposition of general themes and arguments. If the references to natural law and moral truth are dated to some, certainly his prose is not, making his work easily readable. He does cite a few names recognizable today, and his references to the spectrum, to air and water, and to other resources yielding "rents" make clear that he understands "land" in the broadest sense.

Tucker's second Georgist work, For the Good of All, is half the size of his first Georgist piece and was completed at the height of the Second World War. Much of what he says earlier, is repeated, as Georgist thought certainly didn't change. The first chapter is titled "A Universe of Law," again reflecting his view that there are laws that govern not only the natural realm but the moral and political realm as well. But he spends much more effort in laying out what he sees as the ideals and proper role of government before then describing "The Great Injustice" (i.e., the usurpation of land rights), followed then by "The Doctrine of Henry George" and "Practical Benefits" (i.e., The Remedy). Almost as much attention is later given to advocacy of free trade before finally turning to a concern about world peace. Again, like the first, this book has a timelessness that warrants its being part of a Georgist compendium.

Mr. Tucker would write The Self-Supporting City at the end of WWII, but revise it a decade later. A few copies remain available today from its publisher, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation but it's largely forgotten. It touches on urban blight and explains how land value taxation can revitalize cities in flagging circumstances. Both editions cover the ground in about 100 pages, exploring in non-mathematical language what has since come to be known as the Henry George Theorem: that the totality of taxable rent generated in any urban locality is commensurate with the community requirements for its services. In hindsight, this is Tucker's most significant contribution: he unearthed an insight from Progress and Poverty that others had overlooked until recently. Both contain chapters on matters such as "the poor widow," delinquency and forfeiture, zoning, corruption, and slum clearance. In line with the thesis of its title, Tucker argues that taxing land value could supplant other taxes, and indeed that all the ground rent should be collected (p 24-25, 88,98). The first edition contains a forward by Lawson Purdy, a leading figure in both the Georgist movement as well as Director of Taxation and Assessment for New York City for decades. Probably because the reviews in various journals were positive, this book is easily accessible in libraries.

He addresses the question whether to call such revenue "ground rent" or taxes, concluding that it's really a technical point with no practical difference (p 72-73). He further argues, however, that governments too should pay ground rents on the sites they occupy, simply as a matter of cleaner bookkeeping (p 93). By inference this would include non-profit organizations as well, but he doesn't explain that doing so would ensure land use efficiencies now lacking in urban areas. To phase in a shift to taxing land values, he first proposes that land assessments should be raised to their true market price. He also proposes public acquisition of land sites instead of forfeiture for unpaid taxes or delinquency (p 99), thereby leaving over-extended people their houses. Parts of it are superseded today by empirical work of the Center or the Study of Economics now based in Philadelphia. But no exposition of the arguments is more complete and better written than what The Self-Supporting City lays out.

Common-Sense Economics was Tucker's last Georgist work, a textbook issued by the Stackpole Publishing Company in Harrisburg, one of a series in what was presumptuously called the Stackpole Library. Two others in the series had more than one printing, used at the college level in classes of business and economics. In twenty-eight chapters and just under 300 pages, Tucker's book covers the ground. I was fortunate in obtaining what is likely the last new copy. The dust jacket lists questions reflecting subject matter: "Should Homes be Taxed?, Foolish Spending, Inflation and Prices, Public Revenue and Borrowing, The American Way or Communism, What is Wealth?, Is the Income Tax Fair?, Does Capital Aid Labor?, The Maligned Profit Motive, What is a Monopoly?, Figures, Fallacies, and Frauds, and Are We Losing Our Liberty?" This listing is more provocative than the actual chapter titles inside. As befits a textbook, each chapter ends with questions that invite review and understanding.

Common-Sense is sufficiently commonplace in its wording that it is easily comprehensible. It is characteristically Georgist in arguing that ground rent should support all public goods and services. Repeating his earlier argument, he writes, "Were the entire ground rent taken in lieu of taxes, it would reduce the sale price of land, possibly almost wipe it out, but it would increase tremendously the use-value of land, the benefit which results from ownership, tenure, occupation and use. Therefore, the landowner, if a land-user, would gain far more than he would lose." (p. 210) In Georgist parlance, he is very much a protector of property rights, the right of people to keep all of what they earn or buy. Today's property rights advocates, more interested in capturing speculative gains, would find it hard to understand the distinction that Tucker makes.

In his later years, Tucker became vehement in his denunciation of socialism, and was alarmist in his view that the US was drifting toward a socialist political economy. He picks several illustrations, the TVA for example, to support this. Looking at all his work together one sees the growth of this paranoia in The Self-Supporting City.

The list of suggested readings at the end of Common-Sense Economics is just as timebound, focusing as it does on the spectres of socialism and communism. Most of the suggestions reflect the conservative orientation that captured Georgist thought during this period, for example the accolades heaped upon Albert J. Nock's Our Enemy the State, and Herbert Spencer's Man Versus the State. At that time both were available from the Schalkenbach Foundation. In this regard, the book is not at all reflective of contemporary Georgism — the reading list begins, for example, with a recommendation for one book he deems "Excellent: shows how communism has penetrated our educational institutions and how insincere are the 'leftists' in pleading for freedom of speech, academic freedom, and similar high-sounding aspirations, by which they mean freedom for their side and for no one else." He also praises William F Buckley, Jr. whom he may not have known was also very much a Georgist. The book is dedicated to the leader of the Henry George School in Seattle, George Dana Linn, "in gratitude for his generous support, encouragement and friendship." Linn is sometimes mentioned in passing in Georgist accounts, but was a distinctly minor figure; his notability may be best remembered as a friend of Gilbert Tucker. Wylie Young's book, Antidote For Madness, published first in 1976 and again in 1999, is dedicated to Gilbert Tucker.

As Tucker aged, he became more disillusioned with the capacities of government to address matters of social concern as he saw them. His fifth book, Your Money and What to Do With It (1960), was just that, a simple advisory on personal finance, and it ventured political commentary only in one spot. He castigated Roosevelt for taking the US currency off the gold standard. He also noted (p 55-56) "Senator Harry Byrd [of Virginia] ... as saying that the present national debt exceeds the value of all property in the United States of every kind and nature — land, buildings, machinery, railroads, personal possessions, and everything — regardless of who owns it. In other words, our nation is insolvent, our liabilities exceeding our assets. The carrying cost of this debt — the interest which must be paid sooner or later if our national credit is to be preserved — is terrific and is constantly increasing. State spending and state debts are getting constantly bigger, and the federal government seems determined to spend, waste, squander, and give away the money wrung from its taxpayers regardless of the size of the debt. Taxes are growing apace and the business of the country is operated for four months out of each year not for the profit of the owners or the workers but to support the government, for taxes take a third of our earnings." The rest of the chapter continues in the same vein.

His last book, The Private School: Its Advantages, Its Problems, Its Financing is a 127 page treatise less about the value of private education than his expressions of alarm about the political and economic directions of the nation — for which he held the schools and colleges accountable. Published in 1965, three years before he died, it reflects his increasingly conservative political and economic thinking, if this is possible. Since he relied on Vantage Press, he likely paid for it himself. With his vituperative harping on America's drift to socialism and communism, it is no wonder that the book found little audience. He was just as disturbed by usurpation of state and local government powers by Washington. Quoting Woodrow Wilson, he wrote, "The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of government powers ..., the concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties."

His central argument for private schools is lost in the sweep of his other diatribes, where he argues that "Unlike the public schools they can implant a background of spiritual and moral values; and if desired by their patrons, they can teach a definite creed or sectarian theology. This is not desirable to some but to others it is, and there should be complete freedom of choice, but all schools should endeavor to promote a sense of spiritual and moral values in the minds of youth [italics original]. The private school can also teach very definite political science and economics without being submitted to political pressure and control or threats of denial of funds. In questions of political philosophy and of economics, there is room for difference of opinion, and the honest and conscientious teacher will teach the philosophy which he believes to be sound." (p 42)

Many might accept the validity of his criticism of "some of the social sciences, and we do not mean the rubbish often included in 'progressive' education but refer particularly to studies necessary if we are to be worthy of citizenship. Elementary economics, the ability to define such words as 'wealth,' 'rent,' 'wages,' 'interest,' and the knowledge of what determines price and fixes wages, also the basic relations of capital and labor, and the meaning of inflation, all are things to which every student should be introduced. There is a feeling, perhaps due to Carlyle's unfortunate comment on economics as 'the dismal science,' that it is dull, boring and difficult. Generally presented as a mass of artificial phraseology, questionable statistics, algebraic equations and tiresome charts, it is pretty heavy; but, if properly taught, it can be made fascinating even to immature minds, for it is concerned with human desires and how to gratify them. That it can be taught to mere children has been demonstrated by using simplified and abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson," (p 70-71) The next section is a short summary of basic Georgist thought, but in the midst of a 127 page verbal onslaught, its value is lost. Tucker would have been better to stop writing after his book on how to manage money; in fact some sections of the earlier book are repeated at the end of this one — which make no sense here and are totally out of place. His views about paying taxes was unwavering, and his last will, composed in 1966, a year after completing The Private School and two years before he died, leaves the bulk of his fortune to Albany Academy.

Yet there are other legacies than his books that Gilbert Tucker leaves to us. He was, for a time, a Director on the Boards of the Henry George and Schalkenbach Foundations. He attended Georgist conferences, and took an active part. Clearly he had hopes that Georgist economic thought would reach a broader audience at some point, but opposed a project to abridge Progress and Poverty. In 1952, he chartered a non-profit corporation in Albany called the Economic Education League, Inc., which numbered among its trustees other well-known Georgists Edward Harwood and Wylie Young. Under this mark, he also wrote a pamphlet on "Housing and Slum Clearance at No Cost," and published under contract a Lehigh University study in 1958 on the feasibility of land value taxation in Pennsylvania. The ownership of his Common-Sense Economics text arguably reverts to this organization, since Stackpole Press no longer cares to hold title to it. He also wrote reviews of others' books for the Georgist publication Land and Freedom, and his "The Value of Land and Its Assessment" appeared in a 1953 issue of American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Several other short pieces on either George or his philosophy were published elsewhere, one in Scientific Monthly. There is evidence that WGY, the General Electric flagship radio station in Schenectady, carried a scheduled program hosted by Gilbert Tucker in the 1920s and 1930s. It was likely first in his capacity as representative of the State Health Department. But it occasionally focused on the philosophy of Henry George.

I would like to see Tucker be better recognized among past Georgists, as he wrote clearly and helped maintain visibility of Georgist ideas. The Path to Prosperity is in the public domain as is Common-Sense Economics. The Baker Publishing Group, which bought the original publisher, Revell, in 1971, will allow us to reprint For the Good of All essentially at cost, and the Schalkenbach Foundation is the publisher of The Self-Supporting City.



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