Not every improvement to land is a building or a structure. The
labor involved in clearing a site of trees and rocks to make it
possible to farm it constitutes an improvement, and that improvement is
rightly the property of the landholder in the same way that a building
is. He may sell that product of his labor to the next holder, and
neither of them should be taxed on it. Similarly, one who
takes sterile barren land and transforms it into something fertile,
through his own labor and his legitimate share of the planet's natural
resources, is entitled to consider private the value he has added, at least
for some period of time. This might have some useful applications when we consider
But the natural fertility of a plot of land is different. That is our common
I live in a 75-year-old house on a hillside. When it was built, it was
sited on a property that might have been 6 or 8 acres, and the architect
felt was the best location on the property available to him. During construction,
some grading was done to create a level building site. Initially, that improvement
the site would have been treated as similar to the building. As time goes
as more sites around it were developed, and perhaps as one owner gives way
to another, that "improvement" to the land becomes part of the site. Perhaps
the same thing could be said of the ubiquitous stone walls and the clearing
of the stumps that gave way to lawn.
H.G. Brown: Significant
Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty:
Chapter 9. Alleged Difficulty of Distinguishing Land From Improvements (in
the unabridged P&P: Part
VIII — Application of the Remedy: Chapter 4 — Indorsements
The only objection to the tax on rent or land values which is to be met
with in standard politico-economic works is one which concedes its advantages — for
it is, that from the difficulty of separation, we might, in taxing the rent
of land, tax something else. McCulloch, for instance, declares taxes on the
rent of land to be impolitic and unjust because the return received for the
natural and inherent powers of the soil cannot be clearly distinguished from
the return received from improvements and meliorations, which might thus
be discouraged. Macaulay somewhere says that if the admission of the attraction
of gravitation were inimical to any considerable pecuniary interest, there
would not be wanting arguments against gravitation — a truth of which
this objection is an illustration. For admitting that it is impossible invariably
to separate the value of land from the value of improvements, is this necessity
of continuing to tax some improvements any reason why we should continue
to tax all improvements? If it discourage production to tax values which
labor and capital have intimately combined with that of land, how much greater
discouragement is involved in taxing not only these, but all the clearly
distinguishable values which labor and capital create?
But, as a matter of fact, the value of land can always be readily distinguished
from the value of improvements.
- In countries like the United States there is much valuable land that
has never been improved; and in many of the States the value of the land
and the value of improvements are habitually estimated separately by the
assessors, though afterward reunited under the term real estate.
- Nor where ground has been occupied from immemorial times, is there any
difficulty in getting at the value of the bare land, for frequently the
land is owned by one person and the buildings by another, and when a fire
occurs and improvements are destroyed, a clear and definite value remains
in the land.
- In the oldest country in the world no difficulty whatever can attend
the separation, if all that be attempted is to separate the value of the
clearly distinguishable improvements, made within a moderate period, from
the value of the land, should they be destroyed.
This, manifestly, is all that justice or policy requires. Absolute accuracy
is impossible in any system, and to attempt to separate all that the human
race has done from what nature originally provided would be as absurd as
impracticable. A swamp drained or a hill terraced by the Romans constitutes
now as much a part of the natural advantages of the British Isles as though
the work had been done by earthquake or glacier. The fact that after a certain
lapse of time the value of such permanent improvements would be considered
as having lapsed into that of the land, and would be taxed accordingly, could
have no deterrent effect on such improvements, for such works are frequently
undertaken upon leases for years. The fact is, that each generation builds
and improves for itself, and not for the remote future. And the further fact
is, that each generation is heir, not only to the natural powers of the earth,
but to all that remains of the work of past generations. ... read
the whole chapter
The Most Rev. Dr Thomas Nulty, Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath
to the Land (1881)
Individuals May Rightfully
Collect Payment for Improvements in
The tracts of country known in England as the Bedford Level, and
in Flanders as the Pays des waes,
were, not so very long ago, as
sterile, as barren, and even more useless than the bogs of our own
country at this moment. By an enormous expenditure, however, of
capital and labour they have been drained, reclaimed and fertilised,
till they have at last become among the most productive lands in
Europe. That productiveness is entirely the result of human labour
and industry, for nature did hardly anything for these lands.
If the question, then, was asked:
Who has a right to charge or
demand a rent for the use of the soil of these lands for agricultural
or industrial uses? the answer undoubtedly would be, the person who
by his labour and capital had created all their productiveness, who
had imparted to them all the value they possess. In charging,
therefore, a rent for the use of what he had produced he is only
demanding a most just and equitable return for his capital -- a fair
and honest remuneration for his labour. His right to demand this
could not possibly be disputed.
Now, the artificial productiveness
of these tracts of country
hardly equals, and certainly does not surpass, the natural fertility
of large districts of rich, luxuriant, arable and pasture lands in
the County of Meath, in this Diocese. If it were asked, then, who has
a right to charge a rent for the use of the soil of these highly
favoured districts in Meath for agricultural or industrial purposes,
the answer should be that if human industry or labour had imparted to
these lands a real and substantial amount of artificial
productiveness, by the cultivation and permanent improvement of the
soil, then the person who had created that productiveness had a
perfect right to demand a rent for the use of it.
Exaction by Individuals of
Rent for Land is Wanton
But who, it may be further asked, has a right to demand a rent
the natural fertility of these lands "which no man made," and which,
in fact, is not the result of human industry and labour at all? The
answer here, also, should be, he who had produced it.
But who produced it? God. If God,
then, demanded a rent for the
use of these lands, He would undoubtedly be entitled to it. But God
does not sell His gifts or charge a rent for the use of anything He
has produced. He does not sell; but He gives or bestows, and in
bestowing His gifts He shows no respect of persons.
If, then, all God's creatures are
in a condition of perfect
equality relatively to this gift of the land, no one can have an
exceptional right to claim more than a fair share of what was
intended equally for all, and what is, indeed, directly or
indirectly, a necessary of life for each of them.
When all, therefore, relatively to
this gift, are perfectly equal,
and nobody has any real claim to it; when all equally need the
liberality and generosity of God in it, and no one can afford, or is
willing, to part with his share in it -- to alienate it from any or
all of them would be to do them a wanton injustice and grievous
wrong, and would be a direct disappointment to the intentions of the
The Whole People the True
Owners of the Land.
When, therefore, a
privileged class arrogantly claims a right of
private property in the land of a country, that claim is simply
unintelligible, except in the broad principle that the land of a
country is not a free gift at all, but solely a family inheritance;
that it is not a free gift which God has bestowed on His creatures,
but an inheritance which he has left to His children; that they,
therefore, being God's eldest sons, inherit this property by right of
succession; that the rest of the world have no share or claim to it,
on the ground that origin is tainted with the stain of illegitimacy.
The world, however, will hardly submit to this shameful
its own degradation, especially when it is not sustained by even a
shadow of reason.
I infer, therefore, that no
individual or class of individuals can
hold a right of private property in the land of a country; that the
people of that country, in their public corporate capacity, are, and
always must be, the real owners of the land of their country --
holding an indisputable title to it, in the fact that they received
it as a free gift from its Creator, and as a necessary means for
preserving and enjoying the life He has bestowed upon them. ...
Public and Private Interests.
An usufructuary or
who labours might and main for his own
self-interests, labours with the same amount of earnestness and zeal
for the interests of the public as well. But it is the consideration
of the public interests that will determine the continuity of his
occupancy. The continuity of his occupancy entirely depends on the
continuity of its real, practical effectiveness for the advancement
of the interests of the public. The moment it ceases to be useful and
beneficial to the public welfare, that moment it ceases to have a
right to exist any longer. If individuals could have a right of
Private Property in Land, that right would not be fettered by these
responsibilities; in fact, it would not be liable to any
responsibility at all.
of reclaimed tracts like the Bedford Level
approximates closely, without, however, fully realising, to a right
of private property in land. The Bedford Level owner is not
responsible to society for the management of that property, nor is he
bound to have any regard to its interests in the use he wishes to
make of it. Being master of his own free actions, he was not bound to
create that property for the benefit of society, but for his own, and
he may now make whatever use he pleases of it. If through
mismanagement it produces less than it is capable of yielding, that
is his own affair altogether. If he allowed it to return to its
original sterility society might regret that it suffered a great bas,
but it could not complain that he did it an injustice or a wrong.
The distinction, therefore,
between the two rights of property in
land is essential and fundamental, and it is absolutely necessary to
apprehend it clearly and to bear it distinctly in mind. ...
Land Monopoly Usurps God's
Gifts to All.
Thus, on the highest and most unquestionable authority, are we
forced to conclude that, owing to the monopoly which the landlords
have usurped in the land of the nation, they sell out the "use of the
original and indestructible powers of the soil"; of "the natural and
inherent powers of the soil"; of "the natural powers of the soil";
that is to say, they sell the use of God's gifts like so many
articles of private property, and as if they were purely the result
of their own toil and labour.
If the "Bedford Level," and the
rich tract of land in Meath with
which I have compared it, were to be leased out to tenant farmers for
a given term of years, the one would fetch quite as high a rent as
the other. The farmer would not concern himself much in inquiring
into the source from which the fertility of the land was derived; all
his solicitude and inquiries would be directed to the existence of
the fact that the fertility was there, and which of them possessed it
in the higher degree. The rent which the owner of the "Bedford Level"
would receive for the use of his land would be the just and equitable
remuneration to which he was entitled for the expenditure of his
labour and capital, while the Meath proprietor would receive as high
a reward for having done nothing at all. Only that his income is so
woefully wanting in justice, the condition of the Meath proprietor
would certainly be enviable. Read the whole letter
HG, Science of Political Economy, Book IV? Chap VI? Bedford Level
Henry George: The Condition of
Labor — An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII in response to Rerum Novarum (1891)
Your use, in so many passages of your Encyclical, of the inclusive term “property” or “private” property,
of which in morals nothing can be either affirmed or denied, makes your meaning,
if we take isolated sentences, in many places ambiguous. But reading it as
a whole, there can be no doubt of your intention that private property in
land shall be understood when you speak merely of private property. With
this interpretation, I find that the reasons you urge for private property
in land are eight. Let us consider them in order of presentation. You urge:
1. That what is bought with rightful property is rightful property. (RN,
paragraph 5) ...
2. That private property in land proceeds from man’s gift of reason.
(RN, paragraphs 6-7.) ...
3. That private property in land deprives no one of the use of land. (RN,
paragraph 8.) ...
4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (RN,
paragraphs 9-10.) ...
5. That private property in land has the support of the common opinion of
mankind, and has conduced to peace and tranquillity, and that it is sanctioned
by Divine Law. (RN, paragraph 11.) ...
6. That fathers should provide for their children and that private property
in land is necessary to enable them to do so. (RN, paragraphs 14-17.) ...
7. That the private ownership of land stimulates industry, increases wealth,
and attaches men to the soil and to their country. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
8. That the right to possess private property in land is from nature, not
from man; that the state has no right to abolish it, and that to take the
value of landownership in taxation would be unjust and cruel to the private
owner. (RN, paragraph 51.) ...
4. That Industry expended on land gives ownership in the land itself. (9-10.)
Your Holiness next contends that industry expended on land gives a right
to ownership of the land, and that the improvement of land creates benefits
indistinguishable and inseparable from the land itself.
This contention, if valid, could only justify the ownership of land by those
who expend industry on it. It would not justify private property in land
as it exists. On the contrary, it would justify a gigantic no-rent declaration
that would take land from those who now legally own it, the landlords, and
turn it over to the tenants and laborers. And if it also be that improvements
cannot be distinguished and separated from the land itself, how could the
landlords claim consideration even for improvements they had made?
But your Holiness cannot mean what your words imply. What you really mean,
I take it, is that the original justification and title of landownership
is in the expenditure of labor on it. But neither can this justify private
property in land as it exists. For is it not all but universally true that
existing land titles do not come from use, but from force or fraud?
Take Italy! Is it not true that the greater part of the land of Italy is
held by those who so far from ever having expended industry on it have been
mere appropriators of the industry of those who have? Is this not also true
of Great Britain and of other countries? Even in the United States, where
the forces of concentration have not yet had time fully to operate and there
has been some attempt to give land to users, it is probably true today that
the greater part of the land is held by those who neither use it nor propose
to use it themselves, but merely hold it to compel others to pay them for
permission to use it.
And if industry give ownership to land what are the limits of this ownership?
If a man may acquire the ownership of several square miles of land by grazing
sheep on it, does this give to him and his heirs the ownership of the same
land when it is found to contain rich mines, or when by the growth of population
and the progress of society it is needed for farming, for gardening, for
the close occupation of a great city? Is it on the rights given by the industry
of those who first used it for grazing cows or growing potatoes that you
would found the title to the land now covered by the city of New York and
having a value of thousands of millions of dollars?
But your contention is not valid. Industry expended on land gives ownership
in the fruits of that industry, but not in the land itself, just as industry
expended on the ocean would give a right of ownership to the fish taken by
it, but not a right of ownership in the ocean. Nor yet is it true that private
ownership of land is necessary to secure the fruits of labor on land; nor
does the improvement of land create benefits indistinguishable and inseparable
from the land itself. That secure possession is necessary to the use and
improvement of land I have already explained, but that ownership is not necessary
is shown by the fact that in all civilized countries land owned by one person
is cultivated and improved by other persons. Most of the cultivated land
in the British Islands, as in Italy and other countries, is cultivated not
by owners but by tenants. And so the costliest buildings are erected by those
who are not owners of the land, but who have from the owner a mere right
of possession for a time on condition of certain payments. Nearly the whole
of London has been built in this way, and in New York, Chicago, Denver, San
Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as in continental cities, the owners
of many of the largest edifices will be found to be different persons from
the owners of the ground. So far from the value of improvements being inseparable
from the value of land, it is in individual transactions constantly separated.
For instance, one-half of the land on which the immense Grand Pacific Hotel
in Chicago stands was recently separately sold, and in Ceylon it is a not
infrequent occurrence for one person to own a fruit-tree and another to own
the ground in which it is implanted.
There is, indeed, no improvement of land, whether it be clearing, plowing,
manuring, cultivating, the digging of cellars, the opening of wells or the
building of houses, that so long as its usefulness continues does not have
a value clearly distinguishable from the value of the land. For land having
such improvements will always sell or rent for more than similar land without
If, therefore, the state levy a tax equal to what the land irrespective
of improvement would bring, it will take the benefits of mere ownership,
but will leave the full benefits of use and improvement, which the prevailing
system does not do. And since the holder, who would still in form continue
to be the owner, could at any time give or sell both possession and improvements,
subject to future assessment by the state on the value of the land alone,
he will be perfectly free to retain or dispose of the full amount of property
that the exertion of his labor or the investment of his capital has attached
to or stored up in the land.
Thus, what we propose would secure, as it is impossible in any other way
to secure, what you properly say is just and right — "that
the results of labor should belong to him who has labored.” But private
property in land — to allow the holder without adequate payment to
the state to take for himself the benefit of the value that attaches to land
with social growth and improvement — does take the results of labor
from him who has labored, does turn over the fruits of one man’s labor
to be enjoyed by another. For labor, as the active factor, is the producer
of all wealth. Mere ownership produces nothing. A man might own a world,
but so sure is the decree that “by the sweat of thy brow shalt thou
eat bread,” that without labor he could not get a meal or provide himself
a garment. Hence, when the owners of land, by virtue of their ownership and
without laboring themselves, get the products of labor in abundance, these
things must come from the labor of others, must be the fruits of others’ sweat,
taken from those who have a right to them and enjoyed by those who have no
right to them.
The only utility of private ownership of land as distinguished from possession
is the evil utility of giving to the owner products of labor he does not
earn. For until land will yield to its owner some return beyond that of the
labor and capital he expends on it — that is to say, until by sale
or rental he can without expenditure of labor obtain from it products of
labor, ownership amounts to no more than security of possession, and has
no value. Its importance and value begin only when, either in the present
or prospectively, it will yield a revenue — that is to say, will enable
the owner as owner to obtain products of labor without exertion on his part,
and thus to enjoy the results of others’ labor.
What largely keeps men from realizing the robbery involved in private property
in land is that in the most striking cases the robbery is not of individuals,
but of the community. For, as I have before explained, it is impossible for
rent in the economic sense — that value which attaches to land by reason
of social growth and improvement — to go to the user. It can go only
to the owner or to the community. Thus those who pay enormous rents for the
use of land in such centers as London or New York are not individually injured.
Individually they get a return for what they pay, and must feel that they
have no better right to the use of such peculiarly advantageous localities
without paying for it than have thousands of others. And so, not thinking
or not caring for the interests of the community, they make no objection
to the system.
It recently came to light in New York that a man having no title whatever
had been for years collecting rents on a piece of land that the growth of
the city had made very valuable. Those who paid these rents had never stopped
to ask whether he had any right to them. They felt that they had no right
to land that so many others would like to have, without paying for it, and
did not think of, or did not care for, the rights of all.... read the whole letter
Charles B. Fillebrown: A Catechism
of Natural Taxation, from Principles of
Natural Taxation (1917)
Q53. How would the single tax effect the farmer?
A. It would greatly reduce his taxes. His buildings, stock, and crops would be
exempt. His land is at present assessed at nearly twice its proper unimproved
value, while town and city land is often valued at less than one half its actual
value, thus subjecting him to a more than fourfold disadvantage.
Q66. What has the single tax to say about the taxation of forest lands?
A. Perhaps the majority opinion would be to tax annually all forests old
or new on what would be the value of the land if denuded of all growth
-- a stumpage tax to be collected upon old growth timber when cut, but
not upon new growth such as may be reasonably classed as a cultivated crop.... read the whole article
Nic Tideman: Private Possession
as an Alternative to Rental and Private Ownership for Agricultural Land
Implementation of a system of private possession of land requires a procedure
for determining the rental value that land would have in an unimproved condition.
This would be the responsibility of an assessor, whose job would be somewhat
similar to that of property tax assessors. However, while property tax assessors
specify the sale value of land, the task of the assessor under a system of
private possession would be to specify the rental value that land would have
in an unimproved condition.
Agricultural land is rarely found in an unimproved condition, except in places
that have never been farmed, or have not been farmed for decades. Therefore
the task of the assessor of agricultural land would entail making adjustments
for any improvements to land such as drainage, irrigation, fencing, fertilization,
and removal of stones. From an economic perspective, the return to these improvements
is not rent, but rather interest on capital that has been invested. Keeping
such returns untaxed ensured that those who possess land will have an incentive
to maintain those improvements and make any new improvements that yield adequate
To discover the rental value of agricultural land in an unimproved condition,
assessors would monitor land rentals in the vicinity. From an agreed rental
price, the assessor would subtract amounts for interest and depreciation on
any improvements to the land. What remained would be the rental value of the
land in an unimproved condition. However, if the assessor believed that some
improvement added less to the rental value of land than its cost as measured
by interest and depreciation, then for that improvement he would subtract not
its cost, but his estimate of what it added to the rental value of the land.
... read the whole article
Charles T. Root — Not a Single Tax! (1925)
Now, what price should he get for it? He did not pay the government much for
his title deed, but he has worked on this land for fifteen years, and deserves
some compensation when he transfers it. By his labor and also, in part,
by reason of his clearing, draining and fencing, he has been able to make twelve
dollars an acre from his ground, while his economic rent had not until now
gone above five dollars an acre. Furthermore, he has built on these parcels
a barn and two storehouses.
The method of computing the proper selling price under such circumstances
would have to be the result of experience, but that price would certainly
include the present value of the improvements and probably some lump sum
compensation for loss of farming opportunity. But just as certainly it
would not include, (as it would do under our present conditions), the increased
value which the town itself has created by its own growth and public works,
and which in all justice belongs to the town or community and not to the
individual. ... read
the whole article