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Rent - Defined
Henry George: The Land for the People (1889 speech)
... THE way to secure equality is plain. It is not by dividing the land; it is by calling upon those who are allowed possession of pieces of land giving special advantage to pay to the whole community, the rest of the people, aye, and including themselves--to the whole people, a fair rent or premium for that privilege, and using the fund so obtained for the benefit of the whole people. What we would do would be to make the whole people the general landlord, to have whatever rent is paid for the use of land to go, not into the pockets of individual landlords, but into the treasury of the general community, where it could be used for the common benefit.
Now, rent is a natural and just thing. For instance, if we in this room were to go together to a new country and we were to agree that we should settle in that new country on equal terms, how could we divide the land up in such a way as to insure and to continue equality? If it were proposed that we should divide it up into equal pieces, there would be in the first place this objection, that in our division we would not fully know the character of the land; one man would get a more valuable piece than the other. Then as time passed the value of different pieces of land would change, and further than that if we were once to make a division and then allow full and absolute ownership of the land, inequality would come up in the succeeding generation. One man would be thriftless, another man, on the contrary, would be extremely keen in saving and pushing; one man would be unfortunate and another man more fortunate; and so on. In a little while many of these people would have parted with their land to others, so that their children coming after them into the world would have no land. The only fair way would be this-- that any man among us should be at liberty to take up any piece of land, and use it, that no one else wanted to use; that where more than one man wanted to use the same piece of land, the man who did use it should pay a premium which, going into a common fund and being used for the benefit of all, would put everybody upon a plane of equality. That would be the ideal way of dividing up the land of a new country.
THE problem is how to apply that to an old country. True we are confronted with this fact all over the civilized world that a certain class have got possession of the land, and want to hold it. Now one of your distinguished leaders, Mr. Parnell in his Drogheda speech some years ago, said there were only two ways of getting the land for the people. One way was to buy it; the other was to fight for it. I do not think that is true. I think that Mr. Parnell overlooked at that time a most important third way, and that is the way we advocate.
That is what we propose by what we call the single tax. We propose to abolish all taxes for revenue. In place of all the taxes that are now levied, to impose one single tax, and that a tax upon the value of land. Mark me, upon the value of land alone -- not upon the value of improvements, not upon the value of what the exercise of labor has done to make land valuable, that belongs to the individual; but upon the value of the land itself, irrespective of the improvements, so that an acre of land that has not been improved will pay as much tax as an acre of like land that has been improved. So that in a town a house site on which there is no building shall be called upon to pay just as much tax as a house site on which there is a house.
I said that rent is a natural thing. So
it is. Where one man, all rights being equal, has a piece of land of better
quality than another man, it is only fair to all that he should pay the difference.
Where one man has a piece of land and others have none, it gives him a special
advantage; it is only fair that he should pay into the common fund the value
of that special privilege granted him by the community. That is what is called economic
rent. BUT over and above the economic rent there is the
power that comes by monopoly, there is the power to extract a rent, which
may be called monopoly rent. On this island that I have supposed we
go and settle on, under the plan we have proposed each man should pay annually
to the special fund in accordance with the special privilege the peculiar
value of the piece of land he held, and those who had land of no peculiar
value should pay nothing. That rent that would be payable by the individual
to the community would only amount to the value of the special privilege
that he enjoyed from the community. But if
one man owned the island, and if we went there and you people were fools
enough to allow me to lay claim to the ownership of the island and say it
belonged to me, then I could charge a monopoly rent; I could make you pay
me every penny that you earned, save just enough for you to live; and the
reason I could not make you pay more is simply this, that if you would pay
more you would die.
I cannot pass on without mentioning the name of one of the distinguished Irishmen who have declared for the principle long before they heard of me. I refer to only one name. Many of you know, and doubtless all of you have heard, of Dr. Nulty, the Bishop of Meath.
IN 1881, before I had ever been in Ireland or Dr. Nulty had ever heard of me, he wrote a letter on the Land Question to the clergy and laity of the diocese of Meath. Dr. Nulty lays down precisely the principle that I have endeavored to lay down here before you briefly, that there is a right of ownership that comes from work, from production; that it is the law of nature, the law of God,
Dr. Nulty goes on to say what every man who has studied this subject will cordially endorse, that the natural law of rent -- that law by which population increases the value of land in certain places and makes it grow higher and higher -- that principle by which, as the city grows, land becomes more valuable -- that that is to his mind the clearest and best proof, not merely of the intelligence but of the beneficence of the Creator. For he shows clearly that that is the natural provision by virtue of which, if men would only obey God's law of justice, if men would only obey the fundamental maxim of Christianity to do to others as they would be done to them: that by virtue of that provision, as the advance of civilization went on, it would be towards a greater and greater equality among men-not a now to a more and more monstrous inequality. Read the whole speech
Henry George: Why The Landowner Cannot Shift The Tax on Land Values (1887)
... Here, for instance, is a piece of land that has a value — let it be where it may. Its rent, or value, is the highest price that anyone will give for it — it is a bonus which the man who wants to use the land must pay to the man who owns the land for permission to use it. ... read the whole article
Winston Churchill: The People's Land
Every form of enterprise only undertaken after the land monopolist has skimmed the cream off for himself It does not matter where you look or what examples you select, you will see that every form of enterprise, every step in material progress, is only undertaken after the land monopolist has skimmed the cream off for himself, and everywhere today the man or the public body who wishes to put land to its highest use is forced to pay a preliminary fine in land values to the man who is putting it to an inferior use, and in some cases to no use at all. All comes back to the land value, and its owner for the time being is able to levy his toll upon all other forms of wealth and upon every form of industry. A portion, in some cases the whole, of every benefit which is laboriously acquired by the community is represented in the land value, and finds its way automatically into the landlord's pocket. If there is a rise in wages, rents are able to move forward, because the workers can afford to pay a little more. If the opening of a new railway or a new tramway or the institution of an improved service of workmen's trains or a lowering of fares or a new invention or any other public convenience affords a benefit to the workers in any particular district, it becomes easier for them to live, and therefore the landlord and the ground landlord, one on top of the other, are able to charge them more for the privilege of living there. ... Read the whole piece
The rent of land is the amount of money that would be bid for the use of land in an auction. It can be thought of as 100 [rubles] more than the second-highest bid, that is, the amount of money that the person for whom the use of land is most valuable must bid to outbid the person who places the second-highest value on it.
Fred Foldvary: The Rent, the Whole Rent, and Nothing but the Rent
Rent is the highest bid that a normal tenant would pay for the use of land. Economists have divided the resources that go into production into land, labor, and capital goods. The wealth that is produced is distributed to the owners of these three "factors of production." That portion that goes to landowners is rent. ...
Professor Nicolaus Tideman defines rent more precisely as the "second highest bid for the use of land when it is unimproved, when the user has an option on continued use into the indefinite future." In an ideal auction, we want the good to go to the highest bidder but at the price set by the second-highest bid, to avoid penalizing too-high bidding. In practice, if the folks who want to rent land have no special emotional attachment to a site, then the highest bids will be similar.
Land includes all natural resources, including
A tenant's payment for a site has two components.
Real-estate land rent and rentals arise from the differing productivity of various sites: rent is the differential between the productivity of a site relative to the least productive marginal sites. ...
If we regard human beings as having equal moral worth, then it is morally wrong for some to be masters and others slaves. Each person therefore has proper moral ownership of his labor and wage. Such self-ownership does not extend to land, but people may properly have individual rights to possess land, since this is necessary for the application of labor, and it is efficient for land to be under private title and control.
But it is not necessary for efficiency for the pure land rent to belong to the individual title holder. Economists use the term "economic rent" for payments beyond what is needed to put a factor of production to efficient use. Land rent is economic rent, since the land is already there, and for real estate, the amount of land within some boundary line is fixed. So when rent is used for the public finances, it does not reduce the quantity of land. The rent will not be passed on to the tenant, since the payment of the rent to a community does not change the supply or demand for land.
The use of rent for public revenues therefore has no excess burden, no burden on society or the economy. Taxes on income, goods, and transactions do have an excess burden, since by raising the price and reducing the quantity of goods, resources do not get allocated to where the people most want them. Taxes on labor and goods raise prices, while rent-based payments do not affect the rent, and they lower the price of land rather than raise it.
Rent is therefore the ideal source of general public and community revenue. Tax reform should therefore shift to rent as the primary source of general funds. Pollution charges can supplement the rent, and indeed can be considered a rental charge for using and abusing the atmosphere, land, soil, and other forms of land. There could also be user fees for services specific to users, fines for violating traffic rules, and profits from enterprises.
The economic rent from minerals, water, and oil would be natural resource royalties that could be paid by bidding for the rights to extract, from payments based on the amount of mining, and the profits from the operations, depending on the circumstances. ...
The public and community collection of rent puts land at its most productive use, maximizing the wages of workers while minimizing sprawl as well as boom/bust cycles. We need to understand rent to fully understand the market process and the cause and remedy of many of today's social problems. Read the whole article
Everett Gross: Explaining Rent
Nic Tideman: The Case for Taxing Land
The fact that structures are durable and immobile also means that care must be taken in defining the value of the flow of land services. There is a tendency to think of “the rent of land” as the amount of money that land yields to those who have exclusive use of it. However, this formulation is not always useful for defining the rent of land over a particular interval of time. If an investor spends a year and £20 million erecting a building that is expected to last for 30 years, what was the rent of the land under the building during the year of construction? It is not sensible to say that, if the best possible use of the land produces a negative cash flow over a given interval of time, then land has no rental value over that interval. If markets were perfect and the decision to construct the structure was optimal, the finished building would have a value that was greater than its cost of construction by the rent of the land it occupied and the accumulated interest on construction costs and land rent. But if a non-optimal construction decision is made, that does not reduce the rent of land.
To give a meaning to ‘the rent of land’ that does not depend on when construction happens to occur, it is useful to define ‘the rent of land’ as the opportunity cost of leaving vacant land vacant. Thus in the case of the year of construction discussed above, one would ask, ‘Suppose that the construction had been postponed for a year. Perhaps by that time it would be appropriate to invest in a £21 million building rather than a £20 million building. If one developed the most profitable possible plan for the land, subject to the constraint that the land be left vacant for the first year, how much lower would the present value of net returns be?’ The answer to this question, the loss of the present value of net returns from postponing use of land for a year, would be the rent of the land for the year. This is the amount of money that one would need to get in net returns from some pre-existing use to justify postponing redevelopment for a year. Thus the rent of land for any developed site, for any year, is defined to be the answer to the question, ‘If this site were undeveloped, what would be the cost of leaving undeveloped and unused for a year?’
Land also differs from labor and capital in the origin of claims to own it.
Ownership of land is thus a form of privilege. The word ‘privilege’ comes from the Latin prive + legis, meaning ‘private law’. A private law is a law that has someone’s name it, that is, a law that authorizes one person to do what others are not permitted to do. In a just world, there would be no privilege. (Thus no one is underprivileged.) In a just world, land would not be ‘owned’, but rather ‘held’ or ‘possessed’, subject to a payment that reflected the value given up by others in allowing one person to have exclusive use of a site. ... Read the whole article
Charles T. Root — Not a Single Tax! (1925)
Jeff Smith and Kris Nelson: Giving Life to the Property Tax Shift (PTS)
John Muir is right. "Tug on any one thing and find it connected to everything else in the universe." Tug on the property tax and find it connected to urban slums, farmland loss, political favoritism, and unearned equity with disrupted neighborhood tenure. Echoing Thoreau, the more familiar reforms have failed to address this many-headed hydra at its root. To think that the root could be chopped by a mere shift in the property tax base -- from buildings to land -- must seem like the epitome of unfounded faith. Yet the evidence shows that state and local tax activists do have a powerful, if subtle, tool at their disposal. The "stick" spurring efficient use of land is a higher tax rate upon land, up to even the site's full annual value. The "carrot" rewarding efficient use of land is a lower or zero tax rate upon improvements. ...
In real estate there are two basic tautologies.
In the United States, the definition of real property as explicated in the legal Commentaries of Sir William Blackstone may have been pivotal in the adoption of freehold interpretations of ownership over leasehold.21 For several years after this nation was founded which system of title would prevail hung in the balance.22 Thomas Paine was certainly an advocate of the latter,23 as was Jefferson.24 Hamilton, on the other hand, was a defender of propertied interests and titles in fee simple, and especially to his in-laws, the landowning families of upstate New York known as the Patroons.25 Leaseholds were used in several of the colonies, with the fees paid to governors.26
Rent becomes critically important in Georgist economics, because rent is the increment of market gain that accrues to choice land parcels. This insight arose originally in the context of agricultural societies, where differential qualities of land were recognized by varied payment in rent. An individual’s return on investment was represented by his labor — that was his and his alone to keep. So also were whatever capital goods he acquired through the efforts of his past labor. On the other hand, whenever land offered a higher yield separate from whatever the individual’s labor investment might represent, this constituted a windfall gain above and beyond what might be minimally expected. This is land rent, and it exists even if it isn’t collected. Today, as earlier noted, the greatest land rents derive from their location, grown out of nearby social investment.
The concept of rent needs further explication precisely because it is so foreign to 20th century students, even those who have been schooled in economics at it is currently taught. Land rent has no relationship to the word rent as it is used in contemporary vernacular, that is, when one rents a car or an apartment. Rather, rent is a surplus, defined as the return on investment above and beyond what is minimally required to bring a service into production. To take just an elementary example, consider that there are three parcels of land available for farming and three farmers of equal ability and enterprise. But suppose the parcels differ in their productive capacity, due perhaps to their fertility, access to water, and so on. If planted with similar quality seed, the three parcels will yield different quantities of harvest, the one with the highest quality land having the best return. The one with the lowest quality land would in like fashion have the lowest return. Economic rent is defined as the amount of surplus harvest qualitatively measured by the difference between the parcel with the highest return and that with the lowest return. ...
As with all nineteenth century moral philosophers, Henry George subscribed to a belief in natural law. The natural order of things as he saw it required that land be held in usufruct and that rent from such should be returned to society. The theory was inspired by his deeply religious roots and grounded in his reading of the prominent thinkers that predated him. The natural order was also a moral order, and the failure to comply with the order of nature and society as he saw it was a perversion of justice. The fruits of the land belonged to everyone, just as the fruits of one’s own labor were uniquely one’s own. Since one owned one’s body, one was entitled to keep the product of one’s physical efforts. Society had no more right to confiscate the earnings of one’s sweat and brow than it ought to leave in the hands of rich landowners the rent that was everyone’s inherent birthright to be shared. There were just and unjust taxes, and the only just tax was that which grew out of rent, of the unearned increment that visited certain land sites as windfall gains because of the efforts and investments by the community. Income and excise taxes were unjust and confiscatory— even theft, as especially were tariffs. Taxing or collecting land rent alone was the means of ending poverty and restoring progress. Indeed many Georgists reject use of the word tax entirely, preferring instead to talk instead about rent collection. There is even a lapel button Georgists use that says “Abolish all taxes; collect ground rent instead.” ... read the whole article
Bill Batt: Water and Privatization
... But only recently, with the advent of data availability and increased computer power, is it possible to demonstrate that Henry George was right: i.e. that taxing what he called "land" - really meaning all natural capital and resources rather than labor or human capital - constitutes the best possible tax design we could have.
If these natural resources are a "commons" worthy of being preserved as the birthright of all humanity, their use can be rented at rates sufficient to cover the costs of not only the provision of those services but for all public needs. All taxes are ultimately shifted through the economy to rest on what classical economists call land rent in any case, and levying the taxes directly on rent improves efficiency by eliminating "deadweight loss." Moreover, taxing or collecting what classical economists call economic rent bears all the hallmarks of a perfect tax -- fairness, simplicity, stability, administrability, neutrality, and efficiency.... read the whole article
Bill Batt: How the Railroads Got Us On the Wrong Economic Track
As recently as a century ago classical economic thought still regarded land for the most part as the common heritage of mankind. From Adam Smith, through Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and finally with John Stuart Mill economic productivity was regarded as a function of three interacting factors: land, labor, and capital. John Locke also accepted these premises. To achieve optimal economic productivity, one had to exact the appropriate price from each of those factors. The price of labor was in wages; the price of capital was interest; and the price of land, particularly following the thinking of David Ricardo, was rent. Rent in its classical sense means payment for the use of something in fixed supply, or, more generally, payments above the costs incurred for its creation. Disequilibriums and inefficiencies in economic development resulted if the appropriate prices were not paid for each factor. But, as we shall see, there were powerful interests in this country, bent on not seeing any rent extracted from land use, that persuaded the nascent economics profession at the end of the 19th century no longer to regard land as a separate factor and to redefine the terms of production instead in two-factor theory. This was concurrent with the inclusion of land as property, since called "real property."... read the whole article
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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper