Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us


Financing Infrastructure

When government, on our behalf, invests in infrastructure, amazing things happen. Land values rise. If you are in the New York metro area, think of the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, and of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which connects Westchester and Rockland Counties. In each case, federal dollars produced huge windfalls for local landholders. If an infrastructure project is worth doing, it will produce increases in land values that exceed its cost.

So, knowing that, who should pay for infrastructure, and how should the cost burden be shared? Does it make sense to pay for such projects through taxes on income? On sales? On buildings? Or does it make sense to impose a tax only on the increase in land values that the infrastructure investment creates? I submit that such a tax is both the most just option and the most logical option, because it doesn't impose on those who work for a living, and doesn't suppress job creation or demand.

When a new commuter train line is built, shouldn't those whose land value increases as a consequence be the ones to pay for the cost of the construction? When a new highway exit increases the value of surrounding land, shouldn't the owners of the land be the ones to pay, in proportion to their benefit? It makes a lot more sense that taking a portion of people's wages, be they at the top or the bottom of the income spectrum, without regard for whether or not they own landed property or how much value they receive from the infrastructure as landholders. It makes a lot more sense than taxing sales, which tends to burden the people at the bottom of the income spectrum disproportionately, especially since many lower income people own no land at all and thus would both pay their landlords more and then pay again in sales taxes, and lower income people who do own land generally own land that is not in the prime locations.

Think about that bridge in Alaska. The cost is something like $250 million. Based on the assessed value of some property held by some of the family members of the governor, the land value of that island is something like $450 million. So it would only take a 50% increase in land values on the island (and this ignores the increase in land values on the mainland) to make the bridge a worthwhile investment. So. The question becomes, whose $250 million should be spent on this, and how should it be collected? The initial proposal is that it, like other pork projects, should be financed from income taxes imposed on individuals and corporations and estates all over the US. The benefit falls to the lucky folk who own property on the island and on the other end of the bridge, in proportion to the size and location of their holdings. Please explain to us why others' incomes should be taxed to pay for this.

In your own town, are income taxes, or sales taxes, or building taxes, being used to pay for infrastructure investment? Where is the justice, or the logic, in this? How much better would your community be if those who benefited were those who paid? How much better use would they put the best land to? How many jobs would be created?

How many projects on the geographic fringes would not get done, if it was the beneficiaries who were asked to pay for them? How might we be able to contain sprawl, and prevent the premature development of land on the fringes?

Henry George: The Condition of Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)

God’s laws do not change. Though their applications may alter with altering conditions, the same principles of right and wrong that hold when men are few and industry is rude also hold amid teeming populations and complex industries. In our cities of millions and our states of scores of millions, in a civilization where the division of labor has gone so far that large numbers are hardly conscious that they are land-users, it still remains true that we are all land animals and can live only on land, and that land is God’s bounty to all, of which no one can be deprived without being murdered, and for which no one can be compelled to pay another without being robbed. But even in a state of society where the elaboration of industry and the increase of permanent improvements have made the need for private possession of land wide-spread, there is no difficulty in conforming individual possession with the equal right to land. For as soon as any piece of land will yield to the possessor a larger return than is had by similar labor on other land a value attaches to it which is shown when it is sold or rented. Thus, the value of the land itself, irrespective of the value of any improvements in or on it, always indicates the precise value of the benefit to which all are entitled in its use, as distinguished from the value which, as producer or successor of a producer, belongs to the possessor in individual right.

To combine the advantages of private possession with the justice of common ownership it is only necessary therefore to take for common uses what value attaches to land irrespective of any exertion of labor on it. The principle is the same as in the case referred to, where a human father leaves equally to his children things not susceptible of specific division or common use. In that case such things would be sold or rented and the value equally applied.

It is on this common-sense principle that we, who term ourselves single-tax men, would have the community act.

We do not propose to assert equal rights to land by keeping land common, letting any one use any part of it at any time. We do not propose the task, impossible in the present state of society, of dividing land in equal shares; still less the yet more impossible task of keeping it so divided.

We propose — leaving land in the private possession of individuals, with full liberty on their part to give, sell or bequeath it — simply to levy on it for public uses a tax that shall equal the annual value of the land itself, irrespective of the use made of it or the improvements on it. And since this would provide amply for the need of public revenues, we would accompany this tax on land values with the repeal of all taxes now levied on the products and processes of industry — which taxes, since they take from the earnings of labor, we hold to be infringements of the right of property.

This we propose, not as a cunning device of human ingenuity, but as a conforming of human regulations to the will of God.

God cannot contradict himself nor impose on his creatures laws that clash.

If it be God’s command to men that they should not steal — that is to say, that they should respect the right of property which each one has in the fruits of his labor;

And if he be also the Father of all men, who in his common bounty has intended all to have equal opportunities for sharing;

Then, in any possible stage of civilization, however elaborate, there must be some way in which the exclusive right to the products of industry may be reconciled with the equal right to land.

If the Almighty be consistent with himself, it cannot be, as say those socialists referred to by you, that in order to secure the equal participation of men in the opportunities of life and labor we must ignore the right of private property. Nor yet can it be, as you yourself in the Encyclical seem to argue, that to secure the right of private property we must ignore the equality of right in the opportunities of life and labor. To say the one thing or the other is equally to deny the harmony of God’s laws.

But, the private possession of land, subject to the payment to the community of the value of any special advantage thus given to the individual, satisfies both laws, securing to all equal participation in the bounty of the Creator and to each the full ownership of the products of his labor. ...

Nor do we hesitate to say that this way of securing the equal right to the bounty of the Creator and the exclusive right to the products of labor is the way intended by God for raising public revenues. For we are not atheists, who deny God; nor semi-atheists, who deny that he has any concern in politics and legislation.

It is true as you say — a salutary truth too often forgotten — that “man is older than the state, and he holds the right of providing for the life of his body prior to the formation of any state.” Yet, as you too perceive, it is also true that the state is in the divinely appointed order. For He who foresaw all things and provided for all things, foresaw and provided that with the increase of population and the development of industry the organization of human society into states or governments would become both expedient and necessary.

No sooner does the state arise than, as we all know, it needs revenues. This need for revenues is small at first, while population is sparse, industry rude and the functions of the state few and simple. But with growth of population and advance of civilization the functions of the state increase and larger and larger revenues are needed.

Now, He that made the world and placed man in it, He that pre-ordained civilization as the means whereby man might rise to higher powers and become more and more conscious of the works of his Creator, must have foreseen this increasing need for state revenues and have made provision for it. That is to say: The increasing need for public revenues with social advance, being a natural, God-ordained need, there must be a right way of raising them — some way that we can truly say is the way intended by God. It is clear that this right way of raising public revenues must accord with the moral law.


It must not take from individuals what rightfully belongs to individuals.

It must not give some an advantage over others, as by increasing the prices of what some have to sell and others must buy.

It must not lead men into temptation, by requiring trivial oaths, by making it profitable to lie, to swear falsely, to bribe or to take bribes.

It must not confuse the distinctions of right and wrong, and weaken the sanctions of religion and the state by creating crimes that are not sins, and punishing men for doing what in itself they have an undoubted right to do.

It must not repress industry. It must not check commerce. It must not punish thrift. It must offer no impediment to the largest production and the fairest division of wealth.

Let me ask your Holiness to consider the taxes on the processes and products of industry by which through the civilized world public revenues are collected — the octroi duties that surround Italian cities with barriers; the monstrous customs duties that hamper intercourse between so-called Christian states; the taxes on occupations, on earnings, on investments, on the building of houses, on the cultivation of fields, on industry and thrift in all forms. Can these be the ways God has intended that governments should raise the means they need? Have any of them the characteristics indispensable in any plan we can deem a right one?

All these taxes violate the moral law. They take by force what belongs to the individual alone; they give to the unscrupulous an advantage over the scrupulous; they have the effect, nay are largely intended, to increase the price of what some have to sell and others must buy; they corrupt government; they make oaths a mockery; they shackle commerce; they fine industry and thrift; they lessen the wealth that men might enjoy, and enrich some by impoverishing others.

Yet what most strikingly shows how opposed to Christianity is this system of raising public revenues is its influence on thought.

Christianity teaches us that all men are brethren; that their true interests are harmonious, not antagonistic. It gives us, as the golden rule of life, that we should do to others as we would have others do to us. But out of the system of taxing the products and processes of labor, and out of its effects in increasing the price of what some have to sell and others must buy, has grown the theory of “protection,” which denies this gospel, which holds Christ ignorant of political economy and proclaims laws of national well-being utterly at variance with his teaching. This theory sanctifies national hatreds; it inculcates a universal war of hostile tariffs; it teaches peoples that their prosperity lies in imposing on the productions of other peoples restrictions they do not wish imposed on their own; and instead of the Christian doctrine of man’s brotherhood it makes injury of foreigners a civic virtue.

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” Can anything more clearly show that to tax the products and processes of industry is not the way God intended public revenues to be raised?

But to consider what we propose — the raising of public revenues by a single tax on the value of land irrespective of improvements — is to see that in all respects this does conform to the moral law.

Let me ask your Holiness to keep in mind that the value we propose to tax, the value of land irrespective of improvements, does not come from any exertion of labor or investment of capital on or in it — the values produced in this way being values of improvement which we would exempt. The value of land irrespective of improvement is the value that attaches to land by reason of increasing population and social progress. This is a value that always goes to the owner as owner, and never does and never can go to the user; for if the user be a different person from the owner he must always pay the owner for it in rent or in purchase-money; while if the user be also the owner, it is as owner, not as user, that he receives it, and by selling or renting the land he can, as owner, continue to receive it after he ceases to be a user.

Thus, taxes on land irrespective of improvement cannot lessen the rewards of industry, nor add to prices,* nor in any way take from the individual what belongs to the individual. They can take only the value that attaches to land by the growth of the community, and which therefore belongs to the community as a whole.

* As to this point it may be well to add that all economists are agreed that taxes on land values irrespective of improvement or use — or what in the terminology of political economy is styled rent, a term distinguished from the ordinary use of the word rent by being applied solely to payments for the use of land itself — must be paid by the owner and cannot be shifted by him on the user. To explain in another way the reason given in the text: Price is not determined by the will of the seller or the will of the buyer, but by the equation of demand and supply, and therefore as to things constantly demanded and constantly produced rests at a point determined by the cost of production — whatever tends to increase the cost of bringing fresh quantities of such articles to the consumer increasing price by checking supply, and whatever tends to reduce such cost decreasing price by increasing supply. Thus taxes on wheat or tobacco or cloth add to the price that the consumer must pay, and thus the cheapening in the cost of producing steel which improved processes have made in recent years has greatly reduced the price of steel. But land has no cost of production, since it is created by God, not produced by man. Its price therefore is fixed —

1 (monopoly rent), where land is held in close monopoly, by what the owners can extract from the users under penalty of deprivation and consequently of starvation, and amounts to all that common labor can earn on it beyond what is necessary to life;
2 (economic rent proper), where there is no special monopoly, by what the particular land will yield to common labor over and above what may be had by like expenditure and exertion on land having no special advantage and for which no rent is paid; and,
3 (speculative rent, which is a species of monopoly rent, telling particularly in selling price), by the expectation of future increase of value from social growth and improvement, which expectation causing landowners to withhold land at present prices has the same effect as combination.

Taxes on land values or economic rent can therefore never be shifted by the landowner to the land-user, since they in no wise increase the demand for land or enable landowners to check supply by withholding land from use. Where rent depends on mere monopolization, a case I mention because rent may in this way be demanded for the use of land even before economic or natural rent arises, the taking by taxation of what the landowners were able to extort from labor could not enable them to extort any more, since laborers, if not left enough to live on, will die. So, in the case of economic rent proper, to take from the landowners the premiums they receive, would in no way increase the superiority of their land and the demand for it. While, so far as price is affected by speculative rent, to compel the landowners to pay taxes on the value of land whether they were getting any income from it or not, would make it more difficult for them to withhold land from use; and to tax the full value would not merely destroy the power but the desire to do so.

To take land values for the state, abolishing all taxes on the products of labor, would therefore leave to the laborer the full produce of labor; to the individual all that rightfully belongs to the individual. It would impose no burden on industry, no check on commerce, no punishment on thrift; it would secure the largest production and the fairest distribution of wealth, by leaving men free to produce and to exchange as they please, without any artificial enhancement of prices; and by taking for public purposes a value that cannot be carried off, that cannot be hidden, that of all values is most easily ascertained and most certainly and cheaply collected, it would enormously lessen the number of officials, dispense with oaths, do away with temptations to bribery and evasion, and abolish man-made crimes in themselves innocent.

But, further: That God has intended the state to obtain the revenues it needs by the taxation of land values is shown by the same order and degree of evidence that shows that God has intended the milk of the mother for the nourishment of the babe.

See how close is the analogy. In that primitive condition ere the need for the state arises there are no land values. The products of labor have value, but in the sparsity of population no value as yet attaches to land itself. But as increasing density of population and increasing elaboration of industry necessitate the organization of the state, with its need for revenues, value begins to attach to land. As population still increases and industry grows more elaborate, so the needs for public revenues increase. And at the same time and from the same causes land values increase. The connection is invariable. The value of things produced by labor tends to decline with social development, since the larger scale of production and the improvement of processes tend steadily to reduce their cost. But the value of land on which population centers goes up and up. Take Rome or Paris or London or New York or Melbourne. Consider the enormous value of land in such cities as compared with the value of land in sparsely settled parts of the same countries. To what is this due? Is it not due to the density and activity of the populations of those cities — to the very causes that require great public expenditure for streets, drains, public buildings, and all the many things needed for the health, convenience and safety of such great cities? See how with the growth of such cities the one thing that steadily increases in value is land; how the opening of roads, the building of railways, the making of any public improvement, adds to the value of land. Is it not clear that here is a natural law — that is to say a tendency willed by the Creator? Can it mean anything else than that He who ordained the state with its needs has in the values which attach to land provided the means to meet those needs?

That it does mean this and nothing else is confirmed if we look deeper still, and inquire not merely as to the intent, but as to the purpose of the intent. If we do so we may see in this natural law by which land values increase with the growth of society not only such a perfectly adapted provision for the needs of society as gratifies our intellectual perceptions by showing us the wisdom of the Creator, but a purpose with regard to the individual that gratifies our moral perceptions by opening to us a glimpse of his beneficence.

Consider: Here is a natural law by which as society advances the one thing that increases in value is land — a natural law by virtue of which all growth of population, all advance of the arts, all general improvements of whatever kind, add to a fund that both the commands of justice and the dictates of expediency prompt us to take for the common uses of society. Now, since increase in the fund available for the common uses of society is increase in the gain that goes equally to each member of society, is it not clear that the law by which land values increase with social advance while the value of the products of labor does not increase, tends with the advance of civilization to make the share that goes equally to each member of society more and more important as compared with what goes to him from his individual earnings, and thus to make the advance of civilization lessen relatively the differences that in a ruder social state must exist between the strong and the weak, the fortunate and the unfortunate? Does it not show the purpose of the Creator to be that the advance of man in civilization should be an advance not merely to larger powers but to a greater and greater equality, instead of what we, by our ignoring of his intent, are making it, an advance toward a more and more monstrous inequality? ... read the whole letter

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

Let it once be perceived that the value of the service which government renders to each individual would be justly measured by the single tax, and neither objection would any longer have weight. We should then no more think of taxing people in proportion to their wealth or ability to pay, regardless of the benefits they receive from government than an honest merchant would think of charging his customers in proportion to their wealth or ability to pay, regardless of the value of the goods they bought of him." 13

13. Following is an interesting computation of the cost and loss to the city of Boston of the present mixed system of taxation as compared with the single tax; The computation was made by James R. Carret, Esq., the leading conveyancer of Boston:

Valuation of Boston, May 1, 1892
Land... ... . .. ... .. ... .. $399,170,175
Buildings ... ... ... ... ..$281,109,700
Total assessed value of real estate $680,279,875
Assessed value of personal estate $213,695,829
.... ....
... ... ... ... ... ... .... .... .... ... .... ... $893,975,704
Rate of taxation, $12.90 per $1000
Total tax levy, May 1, 1892 $11,805,036

Amount of taxes levied in respect of the different subjects of taxation and percentages of the same:
Land .... .... .... .... $5,149,295 43.62%
Buildings .... .... .. $3,626,295 30.72%
Personal estate .. $2,756,676 23.35%
Polls ... .... ... .... .... ...272,750   2.31%

But to ascertain the total cost to the people of Boston of the present system of taxation for the taxable year, beginning May 1, 1892, there should be added to the taxes assessed upon them what it cost them to pay the owners of the land of Boston for the use of the land, being the net ground rent, which I estimate at four per cent on the land value.

Total tax levy, May 1, 1892 ... ... ... ... .... .... .... .... .... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..$11,805,036
Net ground rent, four percent, on the land value ($399,170,175)..... ... ... ...$15,966,807
Total cost of the present system to the people of Boston for that year ... $27,771,843

To contrast this with what the single tax system would have cost the people of Boston for that year, take the gross ground rent, found by adding to the net ground rent the taxation on land values for that year, being $12.90 per $1000, or 1.29 per cent added to 4 per cent = 5.29 per cent.

Total cost of present system as above .. .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ....$27,771,843
Single tax, or gross ground rent, 5.29 per cent on $399,170,175 ... ..$21,116,102
Excess cost of present system, which is the sum of
taxes in respect of buildings, personal property, and polls .... ...... .. $6,655,741

But the present system not only costs the people more than the single tax would, but produces less revenue:

Proceeds of single tax ... ... ... ... ..... .... .... ..... .... .... .... ..... ..... .... $21,116,102
Present tax levy ... ... ... ... ... .... .... .... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ....$11,805,036
Loss to public treasury by present system ... .... .... .... .... .. ..... ..$9,311,066

This, however, is not a complete contrast between the present system and the single tax, for large amounts of real estate are exempt from taxation, being held by the United States, the Commonwealth, by the city itself, by religious societies and corporations, and by charitable, literary, and scientific institutions. The total amount of the value of land so held as returned by the assessors for the year 1892 is $60,626,171.

Reasons can be given why all lands within the city should be assessed for taxation to secure a just distribution of the public burdens, which I cannot take the space to enter into here. There is good reason to believe also that lands in the city of Boston are assessed to quite an appreciable extent below their fair market value. As an indication of this see an editorial in the Boston Daily Advertiser for October 3, 1893, under the title, "Their Own Figures."

The vacant lands, marsh lands, and flats in Boston were valued by the assessors in 1892 (page 3 of their annual report) at $52,712,600. I believe that this represents not more than fifty per cent of their true market value.

Taking this and the undervaluation of improved property and the exemptions above mentioned into consideration, I think $500,000,000 to be a fair estimate of the land values of Boston. Making this the basis of contrast, we have:

Proceeds of single tax 5.29 per cent on $500,000,000 ... .... .... .... $26,450,000
Present tax levy ... .... ... .... .... .... .... .... ..... .... .... .... .... ..... .... .... ..$11,805,036
Loss to public treasury by present system ... ... ... ... .... .... .... ....$14,644,974


To perceive that the single tax would justly measure the value of government service we have only to realize that the mass of individuals everywhere and now, in paying for the land they use, actually pay for government service in proportion to what they receive. He who would enjoy the benefits of a government must use land within its jurisdiction. He cannot carry land from where government is poor to where it is good; neither can he carry it from where the benefits of good government are few or enjoyed with difficulty to where they are many and fully enjoyed. He must rent or buy land where the benefits of government are available, or forego them. And unless he buys or rents where they are greatest and most available he must forego them in degree. Consequently, if he would work or live where the benefits of government are available, and does not already own land there, he will be compelled to rent or buy at a valuation which, other things being equal, will depend upon the value of the government service that the site he selects enables him to enjoy. 14 Thus does he pay for the service of government in proportion to its value to him. But he does not pay the public which provides the service; he is required to pay land-owners.

14. Land values are lower in all countries of poor government than in any country of better government, other things being equal. They are lower in cities of poor government, other things being equal, than in cities of better government. Land values are lower, for example, in Juarez, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where government is bad, than in El Paso, the neighboring city on the American side, where government is better. They are lower in the same city under bad government than under improved government. When Seth Low, after a reform campaign, was elected mayor of Brooklyn, N.Y., rents advanced before he took the oath of office, upon the bare expectation that he would eradicate municipal abuses. Let the city authorities anywhere pave a street, put water through it and sewer it, or do any of these things, and lots in the neighborhood rise in value. Everywhere that the "good roads" agitation of wheel men has borne fruit in better highways, the value of adjacent land has increased. Instances of this effect as results of public improvements might be collected in abundance. Every man must be able to recall some within his own experience.

And it is perfectly reasonable that it should be so. Land and not other property must rise in value with desired improvements in government, because, while any tendency on the part of other kinds of property to rise in value is checked by greater production, land can not be reproduced.

Imagine an utterly lawless place, where life and property are constantly threatened by desperadoes. He must be either a very bold man or a very avaricious one who will build a store in such a community and stock it with goods; but suppose such a man should appear. His store costs him more than the same building would cost in a civilized community; mechanics are not plentiful in such a place, and materials are hard to get. The building is finally erected, however, and stocked. And now what about this merchant's prices for goods? Competition is weak, because there are few men who will take the chances he has taken, and he charges all that his customers will pay. A hundred per cent, five hundred per cent, perhaps one or two thousand per cent profit rewards him for his pains and risk. His goods are dear, enormously dear — dear enough to satisfy the most contemptuous enemy of cheapness; and if any one should wish to buy his store that would be dear too, for the difficulties in the way of building continue. But land is cheap! This is the type of community in which may be found that land, so often mentioned and so seldom seen, which "the owners actually can't give away, you know!"

But suppose that government improves. An efficient administration of justice rids the place of desperadoes, and life and property are safe. What about prices then? It would no longer require a bold or desperately avaricious man to engage in selling goods in that community, and competition would set in. High profits would soon come down. Goods would be cheap — as cheap as anywhere in the world, the cost of transportation considered. Builders and building materials could be had without difficulty, and stores would be cheap, too. But land would be dear! Improvement in government increases the value of that, and of that alone.

Now, the economic principle pursuant to which land-owners are thus able to charge their fellow-citizens for the common benefits of their common government points to the true method of taxation. With the exception of such other monopoly property as is analogous to land titles, and which in the purview of the single tax is included with land for purposes of taxation, 15 land is the only kind of property that is increased in value by government; and the increase of value is in proportion, other influences aside, to the public service which its possession secures to the occupant. Therefore, by taxing land in proportion to its value, and exempting all other property, kindred monopolies excepted — that is to say, by adopting the single tax — we should be levying taxes according to benefits.16

15. Railroad franchises, for example, are not usually thought of as land titles, but that is what they are. By an act of sovereign authority they confer rights of control for transportation purposes over narrow strips of land between terminals and along trading points. The value of this right of way is a land value.

16. Each occupant would pay to his landlord the value of the public benefits in the way of highways, schools, courts, police and fire protection, etc., that his site enabled him to enjoy. The landlord would pay a tax proportioned to the pecuniary benefits conferred upon him by the public in raising and maintaining the value of his holding. And if occupant and owner were the same, he would pay directly according to the value of his land for all the public benefits he enjoyed, both intangible and pecuniary.

And in no sense would this be class taxation. Indeed, the cry of class taxation is a rather impudent one for owners of valuable land to raise against the single tax, when it is considered that under existing systems of taxation they are exempt. 17 Even the poorest and the most degraded classes in the community, besides paying land-owners for such public benefits as come their way, are compelled by indirect taxation to contribute to the support of government. But landowners as a class go free. They enjoy the protection of the courts, and of police and fire departments, and they have the use of schools and the benefit of highways and other public improvements, all in common with the most favored, and upon the same specific terms; yet, though they go through the form of paying taxes, and if their holdings are of considerable value pose as "the tax-payers" on all important occasions, they, in effect and considered as a class, pay no taxes, because government, by increasing the value of their land, enables them to recover back in higher rents and higher prices more than their taxes amount to. Enjoying the same tangible benefits of government that others do, many of them as individuals and all of them as a class receive in addition a tangible pecuniary benefit which government confers upon no other property-owners. The value of their property is enhanced in proportion to the benefits of government which its occupants enjoy. To tax them alone, therefore, is not to discriminate against them; it is to charge them for what they get.18

17. While the landholders of the City of Washington were paying something less than two per cent annually in taxes, a Congressional Committee (Report of the Select Committee to Investigate Tax Assessments in the District of Columbia, composed of Messrs. Johnson, of Ohio, Chairman, Wadsworth, of New York, and Washington, of Tennessee. Made to the House of Representatives, May 24, 1892. Report No. 1469), brought out the fact that the value of their land had been increasing at a minimum rate of ten per cent per annum. The Washington land-owners as a class thus appear to have received back in higher land values, actually and potentially, about ten dollars for every two dollars that as land-owners they paid in taxes. If any one supposes that this condition is peculiar to Washington let him make similar estimates for any progressive locality, and see if the land-owners there are not favored in like manner.

But the point is not dependent upon increase in the capitalized value of land. If the land yields or will yield to its owner an income in the nature of actual or potential ground rent, then to the extent that this actual or possible income is dependent upon government the landlord is in effect exempt from taxation. No matter what tax he pays on account of his ownership of land, the public gives it back to him to that extent.

18. Take for illustration two towns, one of excellent government and the other of inefficient government, but in all other respects alike. Suppose you are hunting for a place of residence and find a suitable site in the town of good government. For simplicity of illustration let us suppose that the land there is not sold outright but is let upon ground rent. You meet the owner of the lot you have selected and ask him his terms. He replies:

"Two hundred and fifty dollars a year."

"Two hundred and fifty dollars a year!" you exclaim. "Why, I can get just as good a site in that other town for a hundred dollars a year."

"Certainly you can," he will say. "But if you build a house there and it catches fire it will burn down; they have no fire department. If you go out after dark you will be 'held up' and robbed; they have no police force. If you ride out in the spring, your carriage will stick in the mud up to the hubs, and if you walk you may break your legs and will be lucky if you don t break your neck; they have no street pavements and their sidewalks are dangerously out of repair. When the moon doesn't shine the streets are in darkness, for they have no street lights. The water you need for your house you must get from a well; there is no water supply there. Now in our town it is different. We have a splendid fire department, and the best police force in the world. Our streets are macadamized, and lighted with electricity; our sidewalks are always in first class repair; we have a water system that equals that of New York; and in every way the public benefits in this town are unsurpassed. It is the best governed town in all this region. Isn't it worth a hundred and fifty dollars a year more for a building site here than over in that poorly governed town?"

You recognize the advantages and agree to the terms. But when your house is built and the assessor visits you officially, what would be the conversation if your sense of the fitness of things were not warped by familiarity with false systems of taxation? Would it not be something like what follows?

"How much do you regard this house as worth? " asks the assessor.

"What is that to you?" you inquire.

"I am the town assessor and am about to appraise your property for taxation."

"Am I to be taxed by this town? What for?"

"What for?" echoes the assessor in surprise. "What for? Is not your house protected from fire by our magnificent fire department? Are not you protected from robbery by the best police force in the world? Do not you have the use of macadamized pavements, and good sidewalks, and electric street lights, and a first class water supply? Don't you suppose these things cost something? And don't you think you ought to pay your share?"

"Yes," you answer, with more or less calmness; "I do have the benefit of these things, and I do think that I ought to pay my share toward supporting them. But I have already paid my share for this year. I have paid it to the owner of this lot. He charges me two hundred and fifty dollars a year -- one hundred and fifty dollars more than I should pay or he could get but for those very benefits. He has collected my share of this year's expense of maintaining town improvements; you go and collect from him. If you do not, but insist upon collecting from me, I shall be paying twice for these things, once to him and once to you; and he won't be paying at all, but will be making money out of them, although he derives the same benefits from them in all other respects that I do." ... read the book

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

Q2. Would the single tax yield revenue sufficient for all kinds of government?
A. Thomas G. Shearman, Esq., of New York, estimates that sixty-five per cent of the rent that the land in the United States now yields actually and potentially to its owners, would be sufficient. But whether it would or not is as yet an unimportant question. If all revenues ought to be raised from land values, then no revenues should be drawn from other sources while any land value remains in private possession. Until land values are exhausted the taxation of labor cannot be excused.

Q3. In an interior or frontier town, where land has but little value, how would you raise enough money for schools, highways, and other public needs?
A. There is no town whose finances are reasonably managed in which the land values are insufficient for local needs. Schools, highways, and so forth, are not local but general, and should be maintained from the land values of the state at large.

... read the book

In this particular example, the Canal was done by a corporation, not a government entity, but the description is instructive:
Winston Churchill: The People's Land 

Now let the Manchester Ship Canal tell its tale about the land. It has a story to tell which is just as simple and just as pregnant as its story about Free Trade. When it was resolved to build the Canal, the first thing that had to be done was to buy the land. Before the resolution to build the Canal was taken, the land on which the Canal flows -- or perhaps I should say 'stands' -- was, in the main, agricultural land, paying rates on an assessment from 30s. to L2 an acre. I am told that 4,495 acres of land purchased fell within that description out of something under 5,000 purchased altogether. Immediately after the decision, the 4,495 acres were sold for L777,000 sterling -- or an average of L172 an acre -- that is to say, five or six times the agricultural value of the land and the value on which it had been rated for public purposes.

Now what had the landowner done for the community; what enterprise had he shown; what service had he rendered; what capital had he risked in order that he should gain this enormous multiplication of the value of his property! I will tell you in one word what he had done. Can you guess it! Nothing.

But it was not only the owners of the land that was needed for making the Canal, who were automatically enriched. All the surrounding land either having a frontage on the Canal or access to it rose and rose rapidly, and splendidly, in value. By the stroke of a fairy wand, without toil, without risk, without even a half-hour's thought many landowners in Salford, Eccles, Stretford, Irlam, Warrington Runcorn, etc., found themselves in possession of property which had trebled, quadrupled, quintupled in value.

Apart from the high prices which were paid, there was a heavy bill for compensation, severance, disturbance, and injurious affection where no land was taken -- injurious affection, namely, raising the land not taken many times in value -- all this was added to the dead-weight cost of construction. All this was a burden on those whose labour skill, and capital created this great public work. Much of this land today is still rated at ordinary agricultural value, and in order to make sure that no injustice is done, in order to make quite certain that these landowners are not injured by our system of government, half their rates are, under the Agricultural Rates Act, paid back to them. The balance is made up by you. The land is still rising in value, and with every day's work that every man in this neighbourhood does and with every addition to the prosperity of Manchester and improvement of this great city, the land is further enhanced in vaIue.

The shareholders and the ratepayers I have told you what happened to the landowners. Let us see what happened to the shareholders and the ratepayers who found the money. The ordinary shareholders, who subscribed eight millions, have had no dividend yet. The Corporation loan of five millions interest on which is borne on the rates each year, had, until 1907, no return upon its capital. A return has come at last, and no doubt the future prospects are good; but there was a long interval -- even for the corporation. These are the men who did the work. These are the men who put up the money. I want to ask you a question. Do you think it would be very unfair if the owners of all this automatically created land value due to the growth of the city, to the enterprise of the community, and to the sacrifices made by the shareholders -- do you think it would have been very unfair, if they had been made to pay a proportion, at any rate, of the unearned increment which they secured, back to the city and the community? ... Read the whole piece

Bill Batt: Who Says Cities are Poor? They Just Don't Know How to Tax Their Wealth!

The problem

It's been an axiom of urban policy for the past half century to lament the plight of American cities — that they have lost their most productive populations, that their infrastructure is deteriorated and obsolete, that they contain people most in need, and that their tax base is limited. This essay argues that none of this needs to be so, and that municipal leaders need only to think "outside the box" as the hackneyed phrase goes, to find undreamed of revenue that will not only provide all the support cities need but enhance the economic vitality of their being by its collection.

As conventionally viewed, cities not only have need for more services but lack the tax base on which to draw from. The services are greater in cities than in suburban and rural communities because that's where streets and other general services are the heaviest, where the schools are the greatest challenge, where the police and fire departments are most relied upon, where the social programs face the greatest pathologies, and where general administration is the most complex and requires the greatest control and coordination. It seems so obvious that it hardly needs mentioning, and no further discussion is required.

At the same time, so the argument goes, the revenue bases upon which to levy taxes are most lacking: the middle class and the wealthier populations have largely moved out, and stores have relocated to malls and highway junctions taking the sales tax base with them. What's left are deteriorating buildings and a complaining citizenry: the footloose commercial and industrial sector also threatens to relocate along with a residential population feeling strangled by growing municipal and school taxes on real property. A few cities have reached beyond taxation of property and sales to impose one more — an income tax — on top of the others. And greater reliance upon user fees and on privatized services shifts the burden increasingly to the poor. ... read the whole article

Further reading:

Rick Rybeck: Using Value Capture to Finance Infrastructure and Encourage Compact Development, at http://www.edrgroup.com/ted2006/T3_Rybeck_Rick.pdf.

Fred Harrison: Wheels of Fortune: Self-funding Infrastructure and the Free Market Case for a Land Tax at http://www.iea.org.uk/files/upld-publication307pdf?.pdf.

Bill Batt: The Nexus of Transportation, Economic Rent, and Land Use

... capital investments affect the market value of locational sites by conveying rent to those in any way benefitting from the service. That rent accruing to proximate sites and can easily recaptured to pay off the debt service of project construction. Typically rent collection is ignored, however, left instead in the hands of titleholders whose sites are serviced by the infrastructure investment. This drives speculation in land, with all the negative effects it brings both economically and politically. In fact the rent created by capital investment in transportation can be enormous.
  • One nine-mile stretch of interstate highway in Albany, New York, costing $125 million to construct has yielded $3.8 billion in increased land values within just two miles of its corridor in the 40 years of its existence.(27) This is a thirty-fold return in a timespan typically used for bond repayment!
  • The Washington Metro created increments in land value along much of the 101-mile system under of construction in 1980 that easily exceeded $3.5 billion, compared with the $2.7 billion of federal funds invested in Metro up until that time.(28) No doubt the return is far greater today.

The component of transportation costs constituting capital expenditure can and should be recaptured through the collection of land rent since it accounts for the creation of that value particular to proximate locational sites.... read the whole article


To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper