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Adam Smith

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense . . . of those who have some property against those who have none at all. — Adam Smith, 1776

As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

"Both ground-rents and the ordinary rent of land are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. The annual produce of the land and labour of the society, the real wealth and revenue of the great body of the people, might be the same after such a tax as before. Ground-rents, and the ordinary rent of land are, therefore, perhaps the species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them."

Henry George: Progress & Poverty: Wages & Capital: The Meaning of the Terms (Book I, Chapter 2)

"That part of a man's stock," says Adam Smith (Book II, Chap. 1), "which he expects to afford him a revenue, is called his capital," and the capital of a country or society, he goes on to say, consists of

(1) machines and instruments of trade which facilitate and abridge labor;
(2) buildings, not mere dwellings, but which may be considered instruments of trade -- such as shops, farmhouses, etc.;
(3) improvements of land which better fit it for tillage or culture;
(4) the acquired and useful abilities of all the inhabitants;
(5) money;
(6) provisions in the hands of producers and dealers, from the sale of which they expect to derive a profit;
(7) the material of, or partially completed, manufactured articles still in the hands of producers or dealers;
(8) completed articles still in the hands of producers or dealers.

The first four of these be styles fixed capital, and the last four circulating capital, a distinction of which it is not necessary to our purpose to take any note. ... read the entire chapter

Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's Lectures, with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)


The single tax conforms most closely to the essential principles of Adam Smith's four classical maxims, which are stated best by Henry George 19 as follows:

The best tax by which public revenues can be raised is evidently that which will closest conform to the following conditions:

  1. That it bear as lightly as possible upon production — so as least to check the increase of the general fund from which taxes must be paid and the community maintained. 20
  2. That it be easily and cheaply collected, and fall as directly as may be upon the ultimate payers — so as to take from the people as little as possible in addition to what it yields the government. 21
  3. That it be certain — so as to give the least opportunity for tyranny or corruption on the part of officials, and the least temptation to law-breaking and evasion on the part of the tax-payers. 22
  4. That it bear equally — so as to give no citizen an advantage or put any at a disadvantage, as compared with others. 23

19. "Progress and Poverty," book viii. ch.iii.

20. This is the second part of Adam Smith's fourth maxim. He states it as follows: "Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state. A tax may either take out or keep out of the pockets of the people a great deal more than it brings into the public treasury in the four following ways: . . . Secondly, it may obstruct the industry of the people, and discourage them from applying to certain branches of business which might give maintenance and employment to great multitudes. While it obliges the people to pay, it may thus diminish or perhaps destroy some of the funds which might enable them more easily to do so."

21. This is the first part of Adam Smith's fourth maxim, in which he condemns a tax that takes out of the pockets of the people more than it brings into the public treasury.

22. This is Adam Smith's second maxim. He states it as follows: "The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor and to every other person. Where it is otherwise, every person subject to the tax is put more or less in the power of the tax gatherer."

23. This is Adam Smith's first maxim. He states it as follows: "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government as nearly as possible in proportion to their respective abilities, that is to say, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation."

In changing this Mr. George says ("Progress and Poverty," book viii, ch. iii, subd. 4): "Adam Smith speaks of incomes as enjoyed 'under the protection of the state'; and this is the ground upon which the equal taxation of all species of property is commonly insisted upon — that it is equally protected by the state. The basis of this idea is evidently that the enjoyment of property is made possible by the state — that there is a value created and maintained by the community; which is justly called upon to meet community expenses. Now, of what values is this true? Only of the value of land. This is a value that does not arise until a community is formed, and that, unlike other values, grows with the growth of the community. It only exists as the community exists. Scatter again the largest community, and land, now so valuable, would have no value at all. With every increase of population the value of land rises; with every decrease it falls. This is true of nothing else save of things which, like the ownership of land, are in their nature monopolies."

Adam Smith's third maxim refers only to conveniency of payment, and gives countenance to indirect taxation, which is in conflict with the principle of his fourth maxim. Mr. George properly excludes it.

a. Interference with Production

Indirect taxes tend to check production and cause scarcity, by obstructing the processes of production. They fall upon men as they work, as they do business, as they invest capital productively. 24 But the single tax, which must be paid and be the same in amount regardless of whether the payer works or plays, of whether he invests his capital productively or wastes it, of whether he uses his land for the most productive purposes 25 or in lesser degree or not at all, removes fiscal penalties from industry and thrift, and tends to leave production free. It therefore conforms more closely than indirect taxation to the first maxim quoted above.

24. "Taxation which falls upon the processes of production interposes an artificial obstacle to the creation of wealth. Taxation which falls upon labor as it is exerted, wealth as it is used as capital, land as it is cultivated, will manifestly tend to discourage production much more powerfully than taxation to the same amount levied upon laborers whether they work or play, upon wealth whether used productively or unproductively, or upon land whether cultivated or left waste" — Progress and Poverty, book viii, ch. iii, subd. I.

25. It is common, besides taxing improvements, as fast as they are made, to levy higher taxes upon land when put to its best use than when put to partial use or to no use at all. This is upon the theory that when his land is used the owner gets full income from it and can afford to pay high taxes; but that he gets little or no income when the land is out of use, and so cannot afford to pay much. It is an absurd but perfectly legitimate illustration of the pretentious doctrine of taxation according to ability to pay.

Examples are numerous. Improved building lots, and even those that are only plotted for improvement, are usually taxed more than contiguous unused and unplotted land which is equally in demand for building purposes and equally valuable. So coal land, iron land, oil land, and sugar land are as a rule taxed less as land when opened up for appropriate use than when lying idle or put to inferior uses, though the land value be the same. Any serious proposal to put land to its appropriate use is commonly regarded as a signal for increasing the tax upon it.

b. Cheapness of Collection

Indirect taxes are passed along from first payers to final consumers through many exchanges, accumulating compound profits as they go, until they take enormous sums from the people in addition to what the government receives.26 But the single tax takes nothing from the people in excess of the tax. It therefore conforms more closely than indirect taxation to the second maxim quoted above.

26. "All taxes upon things of unfixed quantity increase prices, and in the course of exchange are shifted from seller to buyer, increasing as they go. If we impose a tax on money loaned, as has been often attempted, the lender will charge the tax to the borrower, and the borrower must pay it or not obtain the loan. If the borrower uses it in his business, he in his turn must get back the tax from his customers, or his business becomes unprofitable. If we impose a tax upon buildings, the users of buildings must finally pay it, for the erection of buildings will cease until building rents become high enough to pay the regular profit and the tax besides. If we impose a tax upon manufactures or imported goods, the manufacturer or importer will charge it in a higher price to the jobber, the jobber to the retailer. and the retailer to the consumer. Now, the consumer, on whom the tax thus ultimately falls, must not only pay the amount of the tax, but also a profit on this amount to everyone who has thus advanced it — for profit on the capital he has advanced in paying taxes is as much required by each dealer as profit on the capital he has advanced in paying for goods." — Progress and Poverty, book viii, ch. iii, subd. 2.

c. Certainty

No other tax, direct or indirect, conforms so closely to the third maxim. "Land lies out of doors." It cannot be hidden; it cannot be "accidentally" overlooked. Nor can its value be seriously misstated. Neither under-appraisement nor over-appraisement to any important degree is possible without the connivance of the whole community. 27 The land values of a neighborhood are matters of common knowledge. Any intelligent resident can justly appraise them, and every other intelligent resident can fairly test the appraisement. Therefore, the tyranny, corruption, fraud, favoritism, and evasions that are so common in connection with the taxation of imports, manufactures, incomes, personal property, and buildings — the values of which, even when the object itself cannot be hidden, are so distinctly matters of minute special knowledge that only experts can fairly appraise them — would be out of the question if the single tax were substituted for existing fiscal methods. 28

27. The under-appraisements so common at present, and alluded to in note 25, are possible because the community, ignorant of the just principles of taxation, does connive at them. Under-appraisements are not secret crimes on the part of assessors; they are distinctly recognized, but thoughtlessly disregarded when not actually insisted upon, by the people themselves. And this is due to the dishonest ideas of taxation that are taught. Let the vicious doctrine that people ought to pay taxes according to their ability give way to the honest principle that they should pay in proportion to the benefits they receive, which benefits, as we have already seen, are measured by the land values they own, and underappraisement of land would cease. No assessor can befool the community in respect of the value of the land within his jurisdiction.

And, with the cessation of general under-appraisement, favoritism in individual appraisements also would cease. General under-appraisement fosters unfair individual appraisements. If land were generally appraised at its full value, a particular unfair appraisement would stand out in such relief that the crime of the assessor would be exposed. But now if a man's land is appraised at a higher valuation than his neighbor's equally valuable land, and he complains of the unfairness, he is promptly and effectually silenced with a warning that his land is worth much more than it is appraised at, anyhow, and if he makes a fuss his appraisement will be increased. To complain further of the deficient taxation of his neighbor is to invite the imposition of a higher tax upon himself.

28. If you wish to test the merits in point of certainty of the single tax as compared with other taxes, go to a real estate agent in your community, and, showing him a building lot upon the map, ask him its value. If he inquires about the improvements, instruct him to ignore them. He will be able at once to tell you what the lot is worth. And if you go to twenty other agents their estimates will not materially vary from his. Yet none of the agents will have left his office. Each will have inferred the value from the size and location of the lot.

But suppose when you show the map to the first agent you ask him the value of the land and its improvements. He will tell you that he cannot give an estimate until he examines the improvements. And if it is the highly improved property of a rich man he will engage building experts to assist him. Should you ask him to include the value of the contents of the buildings, he would need a corps of selected experts, including artists and liverymen, dealers in furniture and bric-a-brac, librarians and jewelers. Should you propose that he also include the value of the occupant's income, the agent would throw up his hands in despair.

If without the aid of an army of experts the agent should make an estimate of these miscellaneous values, and twenty others should do the same, their several estimates would be as wide apart as ignorant guesses usually are. And the richer the owner of the property the lower as a proportion would the guesses probably be.

Now turn the real estate agent into an assessor, and is it not plain that he would appraise the land values with much greater certainty and cheapness than he could appraise the values of all kinds of property? With a plot map before him he might fairly make every appraisement without leaving his desk at the town hall.

And there would be no material difference if the property in question were a farm instead of a building lot. A competent farmer or business man in a farming community can, without leaving his own door-yard, appraise the value of the land of any farm there; whereas it would be impossible for him to value the improvements, stock, produce, etc., without at least inspecting them.

d. Equality

In respect of the fourth maxim the single tax bears more equally— that is to say, more justly — than any other tax. It is the only tax that falls upon the taxpayer in proportion to the pecuniary benefits he receives from the public; 29 and its tendency, accelerating with the increase of the tax, is to leave every one the full fruit of his own productive enterprise and effort. 30

29 The benefits of government are not the only public benefits whose value attaches exclusively to land. Communal development from whatever cause produces the same effect. But as it is under the protection of government that land-owners are able to maintain ownership of land and through that to enjoy the pecuniary benefits of advancing social conditions, government confers upon them as a class not only the pecuniary benefits of good government but also the pecuniary benefits of progress in general.

30. "Here are two men of equal incomes — that of the one derived from the exertion of his labor, that of the other from the rent of land. Is it just that they should equally contribute to the expenses of the state? Evidently not. The income of the one represents wealth he creates and adds to the general wealth of the state; the income of the other represents merely wealth that he takes from the general stock, returning nothing." — Progress and Poverty, book viii, ch. iii, subd. 4. ... read the book


Fred Foldvary: Geo-Rent: A Plea to Public Economists

Ground-rents, and the ordinary rent of land, are, therefore, perhaps, the species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them. . . . The annual produce of the land and labour of the society, the real wealth and revenue of the great body of the people, might be the same after such a tax as before. . . . [A tax of this kind would be] much more proper to be established as a perpetual and unalterable regulation, or as what is called a fundamental law of the commonwealth, than any tax which was always to be levied according to a certain valuation.      ─Adam Smith ([1776], 844, 834)

Lindy Davies: Socialism, Capitalism and Geoism
see the discussion

Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan: The Political Economy of Land: Putting Henry George in His Place

Land is the most basic of all economic resources, fundamental to the form that economic development takes. Its use for agricultural purposes is integral to the production of the means of our subsistence. Its use in an urban context is crucial in shaping how effectively cities function and who gets the principal benefits from urban economic growth. Its ownership is a major determinant of the degree of economic inequality: surges of land prices, such as have occurred in Australian cities during the last decade, cause major redistributions of wealth. In both an urban and rural context the use of land – and nature more generally – is central to the possibility of ecological sustainability. Contemporary social concerns about problems of housing affordability and environmental quality necessarily focus our attention on ‘the land question.’

These considerations indicate the need for a coherent political economic analysis of land in capitalist society. Indeed, the analysis of land was central in an earlier era of political economic analysis. The role of land in relation to economic production, income distribution and economic growth was a major concern for classical political economists, such as Smith, Ricardo and Malthus. But the intervening years have seen land slide into a more peripheral status within economic analysis. Political economists working in the Marxian tradition have tended to focus primarily on the capital-labour relation as the key to understanding the capitalist economy.1 Neo-classical economists typically treat land, if they acknowledge it at all, as a ‘factor of production’ equivalent to labour or capital, thereby obscuring its distinctive features and differences. Keynesian and post-Keynesian economists have also given little attention to land because typically their analyses focus more on consumption, saving, investment and other economic aggregates. ... read the whole article

Fred E. Foldvary — The Ultimate Tax Reform: Public Revenue from Land Rent

What qualities make for the best (or least-bad) tax system? Public finance economists identify simplicity, efficiency, fairness, and revenue sufficiency as the proper objectives of tax policy.4 In his Wealth of Nations,5 Adam Smith identified equality, certainty (clear manner and quantity), convenience, and economy in collection. Transparency is also an important criterion; visible taxes are better than hidden taxes.

In Progress and Poverty (1879), his most important book, Henry George contended the ideal tax would most closely conform to the following conditions, similar to those of Smith:

1. That the tax bears as lightly as possible upon production, minimizing the excess burden or deadweight loss.
2. That the revenues be easily and cheaply collected, and fall as directly as may be upon the ultimate payers—so as to take from the people as little as possible in addition to what it yields the government.
3. That it be certain and visible, so as to give the least opportunity for tyranny or corruption on the part of officials, and the least temptation to lawbreaking and evasion on the part of the taxpayers.
4. That it be equitable, giving no citizen an arbitrary advantage or privilege, and in being consistent with moral principles.6 ...

Land value taxation is central to the political philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States. Far from being a new idea, or the idea of a small group of thinkers, it is a concept embraced by many of the most important figures from our history: John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and today, Milton Friedman. Land value taxation is part of America’s proud and distinguished tradition of political philosophy. Surely it belongs in the national debate over how best to reform the nation’s tax system. ... read the whole document

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 6: Trusteeship of Creation (pages 79-100)

Commons Rent

It shouldn’t be thought that the commons is, or ought to be, a money-free zone. In fact, an important subject for economists (and the rest of us) to understand is commons rent.

By this I don’t mean the monthly check you send to a landlord. In economics, rent has a more precise meaning: it’s money paid because of scarcity. If you’re not an economist, that may sound puzzling, but consider this. A city has available a million apartments. In absolute terms, that means apartments aren’t scarce. But the city is confined geographically and demand for apartments is intense. In this economic sense, apartments are scarce. Now think back to that check you pay your landlord, or the mortgage you pay the bank. Part of it represents the landlord’s operating costs or the bank’s cost of money, but part of it is pure rent — that is, money paid for scarcity. That’s why New Yorkers and San Franciscans write such large checks to landlords and banks, while people in Nebraska don’t.

Rent rises when an increase in demand bumps into a limit in supply. Rent due to such bumping isn’t good or bad; it just is.We can (and should) debate the distribution of that rent, but the rent itself arises automatically. And it’s important that it does so, because this helps the larger economy allocate scarce resources efficiently. Other methods of allocation are possible. We can distribute scarce things on a first come, first served basis, or by lottery, political power, seniority, or race. Experience has shown, though, that selling scarce resources in open markets is usually the best approach, and such selling inevitably creates rent.

Rent was of great interest to the early economists — Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, among others — because it constituted most of the money earned by landowners, and land was then a major cost of production. The supply of land, these economists noted, is limited, but demand for it steadily increases. So, therefore, does its rent. Thus, landowners benefit from what Mill called the unearned increment — the rise in land value attributable not to any effort of the owner, but purely to a socially created increase in demand bumping into a limited supply of good land.

The underappreciated American economist Henry George went further. Seeing both the riches and the miseries of the Gilded Age, he asked a logical question: Why does poverty persist despite economic growth? The answer, he believed, was the appropriation of rent by landowners. Even as the economy grew, the property rights system and the scarcity of land diverted almost all the gains to a landowning minority. Whereas competition limited the gains of working people, nothing kept down the landowners’ gains. As Mill had noted, the value of their land just kept rising. To fix the problem, George advocated a steep tax on land and the abolition of other taxes. His bestselling book Progress and Poverty catapulted him to fame in the 1880s, but mainstream economists never took him seriously.

By the twentieth century, economists had largely lost interest in rent; it seemed a trivial factor in wealth production compared to capital and labor. But the twenty-first century ecological crisis brings rent back to center-stage. Now it’s not just land that’s scarce, but clean water, undisturbed habitat, biological diversity, waste absorption capacity, and entire ecosystems.

This brings us back to common property rights. The definition and allocation of property rights are the primary factors in determining who pays whom for what. If, in the case of pollution rights, pollution rights are given free to past polluters, the rent from the polluted ecosystem will also go to them. That’s because prices for pollution-laden products will rise as pollution is limited (remember, if demand is constant, a reduction in supply causes prices to go up), and those higher prices will flow to producers (which is to say, polluters).

By contrast, if pollution rights are assigned to trusts representing pollutees and future generations, and if these trusts then sell these rights to polluters, the trusts rather than the polluters will capture the commons rent. If the trusts split this money between per capita dividends and expenditures on public goods, everyone benefits.

At this moment, based on pollution rights allocated so far, polluting corporations are getting most of the commons rent. But the case for trusts getting the rent in the future is compelling. If this is done, consumers will pay commons rent not to corporations or government, but to themselves as beneficiaries of commons trusts. Each citizen’s dividend will be the same, but his payments will depend on his purchases of pollution-laden products. The more he pollutes, the more rent he’ll pay. High polluters will get back less than they put in, while low polluters will get back more. The microeconomic incentives, in other words, will be perfect. (See figure 6.1.)

What’s equally significant, though less obvious, is that the macroeconomic incentives will be perfect too. That is, it will be in everyone’s interest to reduce the total level of pollution. Remember how rent for scarce things works: the lower the supply, the higher the rent. Now, imagine you’re a trustee of an ecosystem, and leaving aside (for the sake of argument) your responsibility to preserve the asset for future generations, you want to increase dividends. Do you raise the number of pollution permits you sell, or lower it? The correct, if counterintuitive answer is: you lower the number of permits. ... read the whole chapter

Dan Sullivan: Are you a Real Libertarian, or a ROYAL Libertarian?

Classical liberals recognized that exclusive access to land, and especially to more land than one was using, was a privilege that should be paid for, thereby eliminating the need for taxes. It is not a fee for using land, but a fee for the state privilege of denying use of that land to everyone else.

Men did not make the earth.... It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.... Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds. --Tom Paine, "Agrarian Justice," paragraphs 11 to 15 Another means of silently lessening the inequality of [landed] property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise.--Thomas Jefferson

Today's land value tax advocates consider graduated land value tax to be unnecessary and problematic, leading to artificial subdivision (and phony subdivision) of land. The point is that Jefferson, to whom libertarians pay homage, considered land monopoly a great evil and land value tax a remedy, as did many other classical liberals:

Ground rents are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. Ground rents are, therefore, perhaps a species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them. --Adam Smith

Landlords grow richer in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing. The increase in the value of land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title. --John Stuart Mill  ... Read the whole piece

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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper