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


Taxes' Effects

Henry George: The Common Sense of Taxation (1881 article)

The true purposes of government are well stated in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, as they are in the Declaration of Independence. To insure the general peace, to promote the general welfare, to secure to each individual the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — these are the proper ends of government, and are therefore the ends which in every scheme of taxation should be kept in mind.

As to amount of taxation, there is no principle which imposes any arbitrary limit. Heavy taxation is better for any community than light taxation, if the increased revenue be used in doing by public agencies things which could not be done, or could not be as well and economically done, by private agencies. Taxes could be lightened in the city of New York by dispensing with street-lamps and disbanding the police force. But would a reduction in taxation gained in this way be for the benefit of the people of New York and make New York a more desirable place to live in? Or if it should be found that heat and light could be conducted through the streets at public expense and supplied to each house at but a small fraction of the cost of supplying them by individual effort, or that the city railroads could be run at public expense so as to give every one transportation at very much less than it now costs the average resident, the increased taxation necessary for these purposes would not be increased burden, and in spite of the larger taxation required, New York would become a more desirable place to live in. It is a mistake to condemn taxation as bad merely because it is high; it is a mistake to impose by constitutional provision, as in many of our States has been advocated, and in some of our States has been done, any restriction upon the amount of taxation. A restriction upon the incurring of public indebtedness is another matter. In nothing is the far-reaching statesmanship of Jefferson more clearly shown than in his proposition that all public obligations should be deemed void after a certain brief term — a proposition which he grounds upon the self-evident truth that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living, and that the dead have no control over it, and can give no title to any part of it. But restriction upon public debts is a very different thing from restriction upon the power of taxation, and reasons which urge the one do not apply to the other. Nor is increased taxation necessarily proof of governmental extravagance. Increase in taxation is in the order of social development, for the reason that social development tends to the doing of things collectively that in a ruder state are done individually, to the giving to government of new functions and the imposing of new duties. Our public schools and libraries and parks, our signal service and fish commissions and agricultural bureaus and grasshopper investigations, are evidences of this.

But while no limit can be properly fixed for the amount of taxation, the method of taxation is of supreme importance. A horse may be anchored by fastening to his bridle a weight which he will not feel when carried in a buggy behind him. The best ship may be made utterly unseaworthy by the bad stowage of a cargo which properly placed would make her the stiffer and more weatherly. So enterprise may be palsied, industry crushed, accumulation prevented, and a prosperous country turned into a desert, by taxation which rightly levied would hardly be felt. ...

To consider the nature of property of this kind is again to see a clear distinction. That distinction is not, as the lawyers have it, between movables and immovables, between personal property and real estate. The true distinction is between property which is, and property which is not, the result of human labor; or, to use the terms of political economy, between land and wealth. For, in any precise use of the term, land is not wealth, any more than labor is wealth. Land and labor are the factors of production. Wealth is such result of their union as retains the capacity of ministering to human desire. A lot and the house which stands upon it are alike property, alike have a tangible value, and are alike classed as real estate. But there are between them the most essential differences. The one is the free gift of Nature, the other the result of human exertion; the one exists from generation to generation, while men come and go; the other is constantly tending to decay, and can only be preserved by continual exertion. To the one, the right of exclusive possession, which makes it individual property, can, like the right of property in slaves, be traced to nothing but municipal law; to the other, the right of exclusive property springs clearly from those natural relations which are among the primary perceptions of the human mind. Nor are these mere abstract distinctions. They are distinctions of the first importance in determining what should and what should not be taxed.

For, keeping in mind the fact that all wealth is the result of human exertion, it is clearly seen that, having in view the promotion of the general prosperity, it is the height of absurdity to tax wealth for purposes of revenue while there remains, unexhausted by taxation, any value attaching to land. We may tax land values as much as we please, without in the slightest degree lessening the amount of land, or the capabilities of land, or the inducement to use land. But we cannot tax wealth without lessening the inducement to the production of wealth, and decreasing the amount of wealth. We might take the whole value of land in taxation, so as to make the ownership of land worth nothing, and the land would still remain, and be as useful as before. The effect would be to throw land open to users free of price, and thus to increase its capabilities, which are brought out by increased population. But impose anything like such taxation upon wealth, and the inducement to the production of wealth would be gone. Movable wealth would be hidden or carried off, immovable wealth would be suffered to go to decay, and where was prosperity would soon be the silence of desolation.

And the reason of this difference is clear. The possession of wealth is the inducement to the exertion necessary to the production and maintenance of wealth. Men do not work for the pleasure of working, but to get the things their work will give them. And to tax the things that are produced by exertion is to lessen the inducement to exertion. But over and above the benefit to the possessor, which is the stimulating motive to the production of wealth, there is a benefit to the community, for no matter how selfish he may be, it is utterly impossible for any one to entirely keep to himself the benefit of any desirable thing he may possess. These diffused benefits when localized give value to land, and this may be taxed without in any wise diminishing the incentive to production.

To illustrate: A man builds a fine house or large factory in a poorly improved neighborhood. To tax this building and its adjuncts is to make him pay for his enterprise and expenditure — to take from him part of his natural reward. But the improvement thus made has given new beauty or life to the neighborhood, making it a more desirable place than before for the erection of other houses or factories, and additional value is given to land all about. Now to tax improvements is not only to deprive of his proper reward the man who has made the improvement, but it is to deter others from making similar improvements. But, instead of taxing improvements, to tax these land values is to leave the natural inducement to further improvement in full force, and at the same time to keep down an obstacle to further improvement, which, under the present system, improvement itself tends to raise. For the advance of land values which follows improvement, and even the expectation of improvement, makes further improvement more costly.

See how unjust and short-sighted is this system. Here is a man who, gathering what little capital he can, and taking his family, starts West to find a place where he can make himself a home. He must travel long distances; for, though he will pass plenty of land nobody is using, it is held at prices too high for him. Finally he will go no further, and selects a place where, since the creation of the world, the soil, so far as we know, has never felt a plowshare. But here, too, in nine cases out of ten, he will find the speculator has been ahead of him, for the speculator moves quicker, and has superior means of information to the emigrant. Before he can put this land to the use for which nature intended it, and to which it is for the general good that it should be put, he must make terms with some man who in all probability never saw the land, and never dreamed of using it, and who, it may be, resides in some city, thousands of miles away. In order to get permission to use this land, he must give up a large part of the little capital which is seed-wheat to him, and perhaps in addition mortgage his future labor for years. Still he goes to work: he works himself, and his wife works, and his children work — work like horses, and live in the hardest and dreariest manner. Such a man deserves encouragement, not discouragement; but on him taxation falls with peculiar severity. Almost everything that he has to buy — groceries, clothing, tools — is largely raised in price by a system of tariff taxation which cannot add to the price of the grain or hogs or cattle that he has to sell. And when the assessor comes around he is taxed on the improvements he has made, although these improvements have added not only to the value of surrounding land, but even to the value of land in distant commercial centers. Not merely this, but, as a general rule, his land, irrespective of the improvements, will be assessed at a higher rate than unimproved land around it, on the ground that "productive property" ought to pay more than "unproductive property" — a principle just the reverse of the correct one, for the man who makes land productive adds to the general prosperity, while the man who keeps land unproductive stands in the way of the general prosperity, is but a dog-in-the-manger, who prevents others from using what he will not use himself.

Or, take the case of the railroads. That railroads are a public benefit no one will dispute. We want more railroads, and want them to reduce their fares and freight. Why then should we tax them? for taxes upon railroads deter from railroad building, and compel higher charges. Instead of taxing the railroads, is it not clear that we should rather tax the increased value which they give to land? To tax railroads is to check railroad building, to reduce profits, and compel higher rates; to tax the value they give to land is to increase railroad business and permit lower rates. The elevated railroads, for instance, have opened to the overcrowded population of New York the wide, vacant spaces of the upper part of the island. But this great public benefit is neutralized by the rise in land values. Because these vacant lots can be reached more cheaply and quickly, their owners demand more for them, and so the public gain in one way is offset in another, while the roads lose the business they would get were not building checked by the high prices demanded for lots. The increase of land values, which the elevated roads have caused, is not merely no advantage to them — it is an injury; and it is clearly a public injury. The elevated railroads ought not to be taxed. The more profit they make, with the better conscience can they be asked to still further reduce fares. It is the increased land values which they have created that ought to be taxed, for taxing them will give the public the full benefit of cheap fares.

So with railroads everywhere. And so not alone with railroads, but with all industrial enterprises. So long as we consider that community most prosperous which increases most rapidly in wealth, so long is it the height of absurdity for us to tax wealth in any of its beneficial forms. We should tax what we want to repress, not what we want to encourage. We should tax that which results from the general prosperity, not that which conduces to it. It is the increase of population, the extension of cultivation, the manufacture of goods, the building of houses and ships and railroads, the accumulation of capital, and the growth of commerce that add to the value of land — not the increase in the value of land that induces the increase of population and increase of wealth. It is not that the land of Manhattan Island is now worth hundreds of millions where, in the time of the early Dutch settlers, it was only worth dollars, that there are on it now so many more people, and so much more wealth. It is because of the increase of population and the increase of wealth that the value of the land has so much increased. Increase of land values tends of itself to repel population and prevent improvement. And thus the taxation of land values, unlike taxation of other property, does not tend to prevent the increase of wealth, but rather to stimulate it. It is the taking of the golden egg, not the choking of the goose that lays it.

Every consideration of policy and ethics squares with this conclusion. The tax upon land values is the most economically perfect of all taxes. It does not raise prices; it maybe collected at least cost, and with the utmost ease and certainty; it leaves in full strength all the springs of production; and, above all, it consorts with the truest equality and the highest justice. For, to take for the common purposes of the community that value which results from the growth of the community, and to free industry and enterprise and thrift from burden and restraint, is to leave to each that which he fairly earns, and to assert the first and most comprehensive of equal rights — the equal right of all to the land on which, and from which, all must live.

Thus it is that the scheme of taxation which conduces to the greatest production is also that which conduces to the fairest distribution, and that in the proper adjustment of taxation lies not merely the possibility of enormously increasing the general wealth, but the solution of these pressing social and political problems which spring from unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth.

"There is," says M. de Laveleye, in concluding that work in which he shows that the first perceptions of mankind have everywhere recognized a most vital distinction between property in land and property which results from labor, — "there is in human affairs one system which is the best; it is not that system which always exists, otherwise why should we desire to change it; but it is that system which should exist for the greatest good of humanity. God knows it, and wills it; man's duty it is to discover and establish it." ... read the whole article

Henry George: Why The Landowner Cannot Shift The Tax on Land Values (1887)

A VERY common objection to the proposition to concentrate all taxes on Land Values is that the landowner would add the increased tax on the value of his land to the rent that must be paid by his tenants. It is this notion that increased Taxation of Land Values would fall upon the users, not upon the owners of land, that more perhaps than anything else prevents men from seeing the far-reaching and beneficent effects of doing away with the taxes that now fall upon labor or the products of labor, and taking for public use those values that attach to land by reason of the growth and progress of society.

That taxes levied upon Land Values, or, to use the politico-economic term, taxes levied upon rent, do not fall upon the user of land, and cannot be transferred by the landlord to the tenant is conceded by all economists of reputation. However much they may dispute as to other things, there is no dispute upon this point. Whatever flimsy reasons any of them may have deemed it expedient to give why the tax on rent should not be more resorted to, they all admit that the taxation of rent merely diminishes the profits of the landowner, cannot be shifted on the user of land, cannot add to prices, nor check production. ...

 The reason of this will be clear to everyone who has grasped the accepted theory of rent — that theory to which the name of Ricardo has been given, and which, as John Stuart Mill says, has but to be understood to be proved. And it will be clear to everyone who will consider a moment, even if he has never before thought of the cause and nature of rent. The rent of land represents a return to ownership over and above the return which is sufficient to induce use — it is a premium paid for permission to use. To take, in taxation, a part or the whole of this premium in no way affects the incentive to use or the return to use; in no way diminishes the amount of land there is to use, or makes it more difficult to obtain it for use. Thus there is no way in which a tax upon rent or Land Values can be transferred to the user. Whatever the State may demand of this premium simply diminishes the net amount which ownership can get for the use of land, or the price it can demand as purchase money, which is, of course, rent or the expectation of rent, capitalized. ...

But while the Taxation of Land Values cannot raise rents, it would, especially in a country like this, where there is so much valuable land unused, tend strongly to lower them. In all our cities, and through all the country, there is much land which is not used, or not put to its best use, because it is held at high prices by men who do not want to, or who cannot, use it themselves, but who are holding it in expectation of profiting by the increased value which the growth of population will give to it in the future. Now the effect of the Taxation of Land Values would be to compel these men to seek tenants or purchasers. ...

It is also necessary to bear in mind that the value of land is something totally distinct from the value of improvements. It is a value which arises not from the exertion of any particular individual, but from the growth and progress of the community. A tax on Land Values, therefore, never lessens the reward of exertion or accumulation. It simply takes for the whole community that value which the whole community creates.

While it is not true that a tax on Land Values or rent falls on the user, and thus distributes itself through increased prices, it is true that the greater number of taxes by which our public revenues are raised do. Thus, speaking generally, taxes upon capital fall, not upon the owners of capital, but upon the users of capital, and are by them transferred to the consumers of whatever the capital is used to produce; taxes upon buildings or building materials must ultimately be paid in increased building rents or prices by the occupiers of buildings; imposts upon production or duties upon imports must finally fall upon the consumer of the commodities. This fact is far from being popularly appreciated, for, if it were, the masses would never consent to the system by which the greater part of our revenues is raised. But, nevertheless, it is the vague apprehension of this that leads by confusion of ideas to the notion that a tax on Land Values must add to rents. This notion will disappear if it be considered how it is that any tax gives to the person first called on to pay it the power of shifting it upon others by an increase of price.

A tax on matches, for instance, will, as we know by experience, enable the manufacturer or dealer in matches to get a higher price. How? Evidently by adding to the cost of producing matches for sale, thus checking the supply of matches that can be offered for sale until the price rises sufficiently to compensate for the tax. It is this knowledge that the tax will add to the cost of production, and thus, below a certain price, check competition in supply, that enables the dealer to mark up the price of his stock of matches as soon as the tax is imposed, or compels him to mark it down as soon as the tax is remitted.

But a tax on Land Values does not add to the cost of producing land. Land is not a thing of human production. Man does not produce land! He finds it already in existence when he comes into the world. Its price, therefore, is not fixed by the cost of production, but is always the highest price that anyone can give for the privilege of using a particular piece. Land, unlike things that must be constantly produced by labor, has no normal value based on the cost of production, but ranges in value from nothing at all to the enormous values that attach to choice sites in great cities, or to mineral deposits of superior richness, when the growth of population causes a demand for their use.

Hence a tax on Land Values, instead of enabling the holder of land to charge that much more for his land, gives him no power to charge an additional penny. On the contrary, by making it more costly to hold land idle, it tends to increase the amount of land which owners must strive to secure tenants or purchasers for. Thus the effect of a tax on Land Values is not to increase the rent that the tenant must pay the owner for the use of the land, but rather to reduce it. And since the tax must be paid out of what the land will yield the owner, its effect would be to reduce the price for which the land could be sold outright. ...

The general principle which determines the incidence of taxation is this: A tax upon anything or upon the methods or means of production of anything, the price of which is kept down by the ability to produce increased supplies, will, by increasing the cost of production, check supply, and thus add to the price of that thing, and ultimately fall on the consumer. But a tax upon anything of which the supply is fixed or monopolized, and of which the cost of production is not therefore a determining element, since it has no effect in checking supply, does not increase prices, and falls entirely on the owner.

In view of the efforts that are made to befog the popular mind on this point, I have deemed it worth while to show why taxes on Land Values cannot be shifted by landlords upon their tenants. But the fact that such a tax cannot be so shifted is realized well enough by landowners. Else why the opposition to the Single Tax, and why the cry of “confiscation?” Our national experience, like the experience of every other country, proves that those who are called on to pay a tax that can be shifted on others, seldom or ever oppose it, but frequently favor it, and that when once imposed, they generally resist its abolition. But did anyone ever hear of landlords welcoming a tax on Land Values, or opposing the abolition of such a tax? read the whole article

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



Taxes are either direct or indirect; or, as they have been aptly described, "straight" or "crooked." Indirect taxes are those that may be shifted by the first payer from himself to others; direct taxes are those that cannot be shifted.5

5. "Taxes are either direct or indirect. A direct tax is one which is demanded from the very persons who, it is intended or desired, should pay it. Indirect taxes are those which are demanded from one person in the expectation and intention that he shall indemnify himself at the expense of another." — John Stuart Mill's Prin. of Pol. Ec., book v, ch. iii, sec. I.

"Direct taxes are those which are levied on the very persons who it is intended or desired should pay them, and which they cannot put off upon others by raising the prices of the taxed article.. . . Indirect taxes on the other hand are those which are levied on persons who expect to get back the amount of the tax by raising the price of the taxed article." — Laughlin's Elements, par. 249.

Taxes are direct "when the payment is made by the person who is intended to bear the sacrifice." Indirect taxes are recovered from final purchasers. — Jevons's Primer, sec. 96.

"Indirect taxes are so called because they are not paid into the treasury by the person who really bears the burden. The payer adds the amount of the tax to the price of the commodity taxed, and thus the taxation is concealed under the increased price of some article of luxury or convenience." — Thompson's Pol. Ec., sec. 175.

The shifting of indirect taxes is accomplished by means of their tendency to increase the prices of commodities on which they fall. Their magnitude and incidence 6 are thereby disguised. It was for this reason that a great French economist of the last century denounced them as "a scheme for so plucking geese as to get the most feathers with the least squawking."7

6. Jevons defines the incidence of a tax as "the manner in which it falls upon different classes of the population." — Jevons's Primer, sec. 96.
Sometimes called "repercussion," and refers "to the real as opposed to the nominal payment of taxes." — Ely's Taxation, p. 64.

7. Though his language was blunt, the sentiment does not essentially differ from that of "statesmen" of our day who meet all the moral and economic objections to indirect taxation with the one reply that the people would not consent to pay enough or the support of government if public revenues were collected from them directly. This means nothing but that the people are actually hoodwinked by indirect taxation into sustaining a government that they would not support if they knew it was maintained at their expense; and instead of being a reason for continuing indirect taxation, would, if true, be one of the strongest of reasons for abolishing it. It is consistent neither with the plainest principles of democracy nor the simplest conceptions of morality.

Indirect taxation costs the real tax-payers much more than the government receives, partly because the middlemen through whose hands taxed commodities pass are able to exact compound profits upon the tax,8 and partly on account of extraordinary expenses of original collection;9 it favors corruption in government by concealing from the people the fact that they contribute to the support of government; and it tends, by obstructing production, to crush legitimate industry and establish monopolies.10 The questions it raises are of vastly more concern than is indicated by the sum total of public expenditures.

8. A tax upon shoes, paid in the first instance by shoe manufacturers, enters into manufacturers' prices, and, together with the usual rate of profit upon that amount of investment, is recovered from wholesalers. The tax and the manufacturers' profit upon it then constitute part of the wholesale price and are collected from retailers. The retailers in turn collect the tax with all intermediate profits upon it, together with their :usual rate of profit upon the whole, from final purchasers -- the consumers of shoes. Thus what appears on the surface to be a tax upon shoe manufacturers proves upon examination to be an indirect tax upon shoe consumers, who pay in an accumulation of profits upon the tax considerably more than the government receives.

The effect would be the same if a tax upon their leather output were imposed upon tanners. Tanners would add to the price of leather the amount of the tax, plus their usual rate of profit upon a like investment, and collect the whole, together with the cost of hides, of transportation, of tanning and of selling, from shoe manufacturers, who would collect with their profit from retailers, who would collect with their profit from shoe consumers. The principle applies also when taxes are levied upon the stock or the sales of merchants, or the money or credits of bankers; merchants add the tax with the usual profit to the prices of their goods, and bankers add it to their interest and discounts.

For example; a tax of $100,000 upon the output of manufacturers or importers would, at 10 per cent as the manufacturing profit, cost wholesalers $110,000; at a profit of 10 per cent to wholesalers it would cost retailers $121,000, and at 20 percent profit to retailers it would finally impose a tax burden of $145,200 — being 45 per cent more than the government would get. Upon most commodities the number of profits exceeds three, so that indirect taxes may frequently cost as much as 100 per cent, even when imposed only upon what are commercially known as finished goods; when imposed upon materials also, the cost of collection might well run far above 200 percent in addition to the first cost of maintaining the machinery of taxation.

It must not be supposed, however, that the recovery of indirect taxes from the ultimate consumers of taxed goods is arbitrary. When shoe manufacturers, or tanners, or merchants add taxes to prices, or bankers add them to interest, it is not because they might do otherwise but choose to do this; it is because the exigencies of trade compel them. Manufacturers, merchants, and other tradesmen who carry on competitive businesses must on the average sell their goods at cost plus the ordinary rate of profit, or go out of business. It follows that any increase in cost of production tends to increase the price of products. Now, a tax upon the output of business men, which they must pay as a condition of doing their business, is as truly part of the cost of their output as is the price of the materials they buy or the wages of the men they hire. Therefore, such a tax upon business men tends to increase the price of their products. And this tendency is more or less marked as the tax is more or less great and competition more or less keen.

It is true that a moderate tax upon monopolized products, such as trade-mark goods, proprietary medicines, patented articles and copyright publications is not necessarily shifted to consumers. The monopoly manufacturer whose prices are not checked by cost of production, and are therefore as a rule higher than competitive prices would be, may find it more profitable to bear the burden of a tax that leaves him some profit, by preserving his entire custom, than to drive off part of his custom by adding the tax to his usual prices. This is true also of a moderate import tax to the extent it falls upon goods that are more cheaply transported from the place of production to a foreign market where the import tax is imposed than to a home market where the goods would be free of such a tax — products, for instance, of a farm in Canada near to a New York town, but far away from any Canadian town. If the tax be less than the difference in the cost of transportation the producer will bear the burden of it; otherwise he will not. The ultimate effect would be a reduction in the value of the Canadian land. Examples which may be cited in opposition to the principle that import taxes are indirect, will upon examination prove to be of the character here described. Business cannot be carried on at a loss — not for long.

9. "To collect taxes, to prevent and punish evasions, to check and countercheck revenue drawn from so many distinct sources, now make up probably three-fourths, perhaps seven-eighths, of the business of government outside of the preservation of order, the maintenance of the military arm, and the administration of justice." — Progress and Poverty, book iv, ch: v

10. For a brief and thorough exposition of indirect taxation read George's "Protection or Free Trade," ch. viii, on " Tariffs for Revenue."

Whoever calmly reflects and candidly decides upon the merits of indirect taxation must reject it in all its forms. But to do that is to make a great stride toward accepting the single tax. For the single tax is a form of direct taxation; it cannot be shifted.11

11. This is usually a stumbling block to those who, without much experience in economic thought, consider the single tax for the first time. As soon as they grasp the idea that taxes upon commodities shift to consumers they jump to the conclusion that similarly taxes upon land values would shift to the users. But this is a mistake, and the explanation is simple. Taxes upon what men produce make production more difficult and so tend toward scarcity in the supply, which stimulates prices; but taxes upon land, provided the taxes be levied in proportion to value, tend toward plenty in supply (meaning market supply of course), because they make it more difficult to hold valuable land idle, and so depress prices.

"A tax on rent falls wholly on the landlord. There are no means by which he can shift the burden upon anyone else. . . A tax on rent, therefore, has no effect other than its obvious one. It merely takes so much from the landlord and transfers it to the state." — John Stuart Mill's Prin. of Pol. Ec., book v, ch. iii, sec. 1.

"A tax laid upon rent is borne solely by the owner of land." — Bascom's Tr., p.159.

"Taxes which are levied on land . . . really fall on the owner of the land." — Mrs. Fawcett's Pol. Ec. for Beginners, pp.209, 210.

"A land tax levied in proportion to the rent of land, and varying with every variation of rents, . . . will fall wholly on the landlords." — Walker's Pol. Ec., ed. of¥ 1887, p. 413, quoting Ricardo.

"The power of transferring a tax from the person who actually pays it to some other person varies with the object taxed. A tax on rents cannot be transferred. A tax on commodities is always transferred to the consumer." — Thorold Rogers's Pol. Ec., ch. xxi, 2d ed., p. 285.

"Though the landlord is in all cases the real contributor, the tax is commonly advanced by the tenant, to whom the landlord is obliged to allow it in payment of the rent." — Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, book v, ch. ii, part ii, art. i.

"The way taxes raise prices is by increasing the cost of production and checking supply. But land is not a thing of human production, and taxes upon rent cannot check supply. Therefore, though a tax upon rent compels land-owners to pay more, it gives them no power to obtain more for the use of their land, as it in no way tends to reduce the supply of land. On the contrary, by compelling those who hold land on speculation to sell or let for what they can get, a tax on land values tends to increase the competition between owners, and thus to reduce the price of land." — Progress and Poverty, book viii, ch. iii, subd. i.

Sometimes this point is raised as a question of shifting the tax in higher rent to the tenant, and at others as a question of shifting it to the consumers of goods in higher prices. The principle is the same. Merchants cannot charge higher prices for goods than their competitors do, merely because they pay higher ground rents. A country storekeeper whose business lot is worth but few dollars charges as much for sugar, probably more, than a city grocer whose lot is worth thousands. Quality for quality and quantity for quantity, goods sell for about the same price everywhere. Differences in price are altogether in favor of places where land has a high value. This is due to the fact that the cost of getting goods to places of low land value, distant villages for example, is greater than to centers, which are places of high land value. Sometimes it is true that prices for some things are higher where land values are high. Tiffany's goods, for instance, may be more expensive than goods of the same quality at a store on a less expensive site. But that is not due to the higher land value; it is because the dealer has a reputation for technical knowledge and honesty (or has become a fad among rich people), for which his customers are willing to pay whether his store is on a high priced-lot or a low-priced one.

Though land value has no effect upon the price of good, it is easier to sell goods in some locations than in others. Therefore, though the price and the profit of each sale be the same, or even less, in good locations than in poorer ones, aggregate receipts and aggregate profits are much greater at the good location. And it is out of his aggregate, and not out of each profit, that rent is paid, For example: A cigar store on a thoroughfare supplies a certain quality of cigar for fifteen cents. On a side street the same quality of cigar can be bought no cheaper. Indeed, the cigars there are likely to be poorer, and therefore really dearer. Yet ground rent on the thoroughfare is very high compared with ground rent on the sidestreet. How, then, can the first dealer, he who pays the high ground rent, afford to sell as good or better cigars for fifteen cents than his competitor of the low priced location? Simply because he is able to make so many more sales with a given outlay of labor and capital in a given time that his aggregate profit is greater. This is due to the advantage of his location, and for that advantage he pays a premium in higher ground rent. But that premium is not charged to smokers; the competing dealer of the side street protects them. It represents the greater ease, the lower cost, of doing a given volume of business upon the site for which it is paid; add if the state should take any of it, even the whole of it, in taxation, the loss would be finally borne by the owner of the advantage which attaches to that site — by the landlord. Any attempt to shift it to tenant or buyer would be promptly checked by the competition of neighboring but cheaper land.

"A land-tax, levied in proportion to the rent of land, and varying with every variation of rent, is in effect a tax on rent; and as such a tax will not apply to that land which yields no rent, nor to the produce of that capital which is employed on the land with a view to profit merely, and which never pays rent; it will not in any way affect the price of raw produce, but will fall wholly on the landlords." — McCulloch's Ricardo (3d ed.), p. 207


Direct taxes fall into two general classes: (1) Taxes that are levied upon men in proportion to their ability to pay, and (2) taxes that are levied in proportion to the benefits received by the tax-payer from the public. Income taxes are the principal ones of the first class, though probate and inheritance taxes would rank high. The single tax is the only important one of the second class.

There should be no difficulty in choosing between the two. To tax in proportion to ability to pay, regardless of benefits received, is in accord with no principle of just government; it is a device of piracy. The single tax, therefore, as the only important tax in proportion to benefits, is the ideal tax.

But here we encounter two plausible objections. One arises from the mistaken but common notion that men are not taxed in proportion to benefits unless they pay taxes upon every kind of property they own that comes under the protection of government; the other is founded in the assumption that it is impossible to measure the value of the public benefits that each individual enjoys. Though the first of these objections ostensibly accepts the doctrine of taxation according to benefits,12 yet, as it leads to attempts at taxation in proportion to wealth, it, like the other, is really a plea for the piratical doctrine of taxation according to ability to pay. The two objections stand or fall together.

12. It is often said, for instance, by its advocates, that house owners should in justice contribute to the support of the fire departments that protect them and it is even gravely argued that houses are more appropriate subjects of taxation than land; because they need protection, whereas land needs none. Read note 8.

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

... read the book


Weld Carter: An Introduction to Henry George

Another area in which George applied these inherent differences between land and products was the field of taxation. To determine the incidence of taxation, George had to know what was to be taxed, products or the value of land. In each case he traced out the effect from the essential nature of the thing to be taxed: "...all taxes upon things of unfixed quantity increase prices, and in the course of exchange are shifted from seller to buyer, increasing as they go. ...If we impose a tax upon buildings, the users of buildings must finally pay it, for the erection of buildings will cease until building rents become high enough to pay the regular profit and the tax besides. ...In this way all taxes which add to prices are shifted from hand to hand, increasing as they go, until they ultimately rest upon consumers, who thus pay much more than is received by the government. Now, the way taxes raise prices is by increasing the cost of production, and checking supply. But land is not a thing of human production, and taxes upon...[land value] cannot check supply. Therefore, though a tax on...[land value] compels the land owners to pay more, it gives them no power to obtain more for the use of their land, as it in no way tends to reduce the supply of land. On the contrary, by compelling those who hold land on speculation to sell or let for what they can get, a tax on land values tends to increase the competition between owners, and thus to reduce the price of land."  ...

However, what is the effect on production of taxes levied on products and of taxes levied on the value of land?

Of taxes levied on products, George said: "The present method of taxation operates upon exchange like artificial deserts and mountains; it costs more to get goods through a custom house than it does to carry them around the world. It operates upon energy, and industry, and skill, and thrift, like a fine upon those qualities. If I have worked harder and built myself a good house while you have been contented to live in a hovel, the taxgatherer now comes annually to make me pay a penalty for my energy and industry, by taxing me more than you. If I have saved while you wasted, I am mulct, while you are exempt. If a man build a ship we make him pay for his temerity, as though he had done an injury to the state; if a railroad be opened, down comes the taxcollector upon it, as though it were a public nuisance; if a manufactory be erected we levy upon it an annual sum which would go far toward making a handsome profit. We say we want capital, but if anyone accumulate it, or bring it among us, we charge him for it as though we were giving him a privilege. We punish with a tax the man who covers barren fields with ripening grain, we fine him who puts up machinery, and him who drains a swamp. How heavily these taxes burden production only those realize who have attempted to follow our system of taxation through its ramifications, for, as I have before said, the heaviest part of taxation is that which falls in increased prices" (1879, rpt. 1958, p. 434).

Turning to taxation levied on the value of land, George went on to say:

For this simple device of placing all taxes on the value of land would be in effect putting up the land at auction to whosoever would pay the highest rent to the state. The demand for land fixes its value, and hence, if taxes were placed so as very nearly to consume that value, the man who wished to hold land without using it would have to pay very nearly what it would be worth to anyone who wanted to use it.

And it must be remembered that this would apply, not merely to agricultural land, but to all land. Mineral land would be thrown open to use, just as agricultural land; and in the heart of a city no one could afford to keep land from its most profitable use, or on the outskirts to demand more for it than the use to which it could at the time be put would warrant. Everywhere that land had attained a value, taxation, instead of operating, as now, as a fine upon improvement, would operate to force improvement. 

A few pages before this he had told us that, "It is sufficiently evident that with regard to production, the tax upon the value of land is the best tax that can be imposed. Tax manufactures, and the effect is to check manufacturing; tax improvements, and the effect is to lessen improvement; tax commerce, and the effect is to prevent exchange; tax capital, and the effect is to drive it away. But the whole value of land may be taken in taxation, and the only effect will be to stimulate industry, to open new opportunities to capital, and to increase the production of wealth." 

In other words, according to George, taxation of products checks production, whereas taxation of land values stimulates production. ... 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