Ability to Pay
We frequently talk about "ability to pay" as one of the criteria for judging
a tax. But this page makes the case that it is an imprecise criterion, and
that it is not as good a criterion as we are used to considering it to be.
Louis Post: Outlines of Louis F. Post's
with Illustrative Notes and Charts (1894)
2. THE TWO KINDS OF DIRECT TAXATION
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
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
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
3. THE SINGLE TAX FALLS IN PROPORTION TO BENEFITS
To perceive that the single tax would justly measure the value of government
service we have only to realize that the mass of individuals everywhere and
now, in paying for the land they use, actually pay for government service in
proportion to what they receive. He who would enjoy the benefits of a government
must use land within its jurisdiction. He cannot carry land from where government
is poor to where it is good; neither can he carry it from where the benefits
of good government are few or enjoyed with difficulty to where they are many
and fully enjoyed. He must rent or buy land where the benefits of government
are available, or forego them. And unless he buys or rents where they are greatest
and most available he must forego them in degree. Consequently, if he would
work or live where the benefits of government are available, and does not already
own land there, he will be compelled to rent or buy at a valuation which, other
things being equal, will depend upon the value of the government service that
the site he selects enables him to enjoy. 14 Thus does he pay for the service
of government in proportion to its value to him. But he does not pay the public
which provides the service; he is required to pay land-owners.
14. Land values are lower in all countries of poor government
than in any country of better government, other things being equal. They
are lower in cities of poor government, other things being equal, than
in cities of better government. Land values are lower, for example, in
Juarez, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, where government is bad,
than in El Paso, the neighboring city on the American side, where government
is better. They are lower in the same city under bad government than
under improved government. When Seth Low, after a reform campaign, was
elected mayor of Brooklyn, N.Y., rents advanced before he took the oath
of office, upon the bare expectation that he would eradicate municipal
abuses. Let the city authorities anywhere pave a street, put water through
it and sewer it, or do any of these things, and lots in the neighborhood
rise in value. Everywhere that the "good roads" agitation of
wheel men has borne fruit in better highways, the value of adjacent land
has increased. Instances of this effect as results of public improvements
might be collected in abundance. Every man must be able to recall some
within his own experience.
And it is perfectly reasonable that it should be so.
Land and not other property must rise in value with desired improvements
in government, because, while any tendency on the part of other kinds
of property to rise in value is checked by greater production, land can
not be reproduced.
Imagine an utterly lawless place, where life and property
are constantly threatened by desperadoes. He must be either a very bold
man or a very avaricious one who will build a store in such a community
and stock it with goods; but suppose such a man should appear. His store
costs him more than the same building would cost in a civilized community;
mechanics are not plentiful in such a place, and materials are hard to
get. The building is finally erected, however, and stocked. And now what
about this merchant's prices for goods? Competition is weak, because
there are few men who will take the chances he has taken, and he charges
all that his customers will pay. A hundred per cent, five hundred per
cent, perhaps one or two thousand per cent profit rewards him for his
pains and risk. His goods are dear, enormously dear — dear enough
to satisfy the most contemptuous enemy of cheapness; and if any one should
wish to buy his store that would be dear too, for the difficulties in
the way of building continue. But land is cheap! This is the
type of community in which may be found that land, so often mentioned
and so seldom seen, which "the owners actually can't give away,
But suppose that government improves. An efficient administration
of justice rids the place of desperadoes, and life and property are safe.
What about prices then? It would no longer require a bold or desperately
avaricious man to engage in selling goods in that community, and competition
would set in. High profits would soon come down. Goods would be cheap — as
cheap as anywhere in the world, the cost of transportation considered.
Builders and building materials could be had without difficulty, and
stores would be cheap, too. But land would be dear! Improvement
in government increases the value of that, and of that alone.
Now, the economic principle pursuant to which land-owners are thus able
to charge their fellow-citizens for the common benefits of their common government
points to the true method of taxation. With the exception of such other monopoly
property as is analogous to land titles, and which in the purview of the
single tax is included with land for purposes of taxation, 15 land is the
only kind of property that is increased in value by government; and the increase
of value is in proportion, other influences aside, to the public service
which its possession secures to the occupant. Therefore, by taxing land in
proportion to its value, and exempting all other property, kindred monopolies
excepted — that is to say, by adopting the single tax — we should
be levying taxes according to benefits.16
15. Railroad franchises, for example, are not usually
thought of as land titles, but that is what they are. By an act of sovereign
authority they confer rights of control for transportation purposes over
narrow strips of land between terminals and along trading points. The
value of this right of way is a land value.
16. Each occupant would pay to his landlord the value
of the public benefits in the way of highways, schools, courts, police
and fire protection, etc., that his site enabled him to enjoy. The landlord
would pay a tax proportioned to the pecuniary benefits conferred upon
him by the public in raising and maintaining the value of his holding.
And if occupant and owner were the same, he would pay directly according
to the value of his land for all the public benefits he enjoyed, both
intangible and pecuniary.
And in no sense would this be class taxation. Indeed, the cry of class
taxation is a rather impudent one for owners of valuable land to raise against
the single tax, when it is considered that under existing systems of taxation
they are exempt. 17 Even the poorest and the most degraded classes in the
community, besides paying land-owners for such public benefits as come their
way, are compelled by indirect taxation to contribute to the support of government.
But landowners as a class go free. They enjoy the protection of the courts,
and of police and fire departments, and they have the use of schools and
the benefit of highways and other public improvements, all in common with
the most favored, and upon the same specific terms; yet, though they go through
the form of paying taxes, and if their holdings are of considerable value
pose as "the tax-payers" on all important occasions, they,
in effect and considered as a class, pay no taxes, because government, by
increasing the value of their land, enables them to recover back in higher
rents and higher prices more than their taxes amount to. Enjoying the same
tangible benefits of government that others do, many of them as individuals
and all of them as a class receive in addition a tangible pecuniary benefit
which government confers upon no other property-owners. The value of their
property is enhanced in proportion to the benefits of government which its
occupants enjoy. To tax them alone, therefore, is not to discriminate against
them; it is to charge them for what they get.18
17. While the landholders of the City of Washington were
paying something less than two per cent annually in taxes, a Congressional
Committee (Report of the Select Committee to Investigate Tax Assessments
in the District of Columbia, composed of Messrs. Johnson, of Ohio, Chairman,
Wadsworth, of New York, and Washington, of Tennessee. Made to the House
of Representatives, May 24, 1892. Report No. 1469), brought out
the fact that the value of their land had been increasing at a minimum
rate of ten per cent per annum. The Washington land-owners as a class
thus appear to have received back in higher land values, actually and
potentially, about ten dollars for every two dollars that as land-owners
they paid in taxes. If any one supposes that this condition is peculiar
to Washington let him make similar estimates for any progressive locality,
and see if the land-owners there are not favored in like manner.
But the point is not dependent upon increase in the capitalized
value of land. If the land yields or will yield to its owner an income
in the nature of actual or potential ground rent, then to the extent
that this actual or possible income is dependent upon government the
landlord is in effect exempt from taxation. No matter what tax he pays
on account of his ownership of land, the public gives it back to him
to that extent.
18. Take for illustration two towns, one of excellent
government and the other of inefficient government, but in all other
respects alike. Suppose you are hunting for a place of residence and
find a suitable site in the town of good government. For simplicity of
illustration let us suppose that the land there is not sold outright
but is let upon ground rent. You meet the owner of the lot you have selected
and ask him his terms. He replies:
"Two hundred and fifty dollars a year."
"Two hundred and fifty dollars a year! " you
exclaim. "Why, I can get just as good a site in that other town
for a hundred dollars a year."
"Certainly you can," he will say. "But
if you build a house there and it catches fire it will burn down; they
have no fire department. If you go out after dark you will be 'held up'
and robbed; they have no police force. If you ride out in the spring,
your carriage will stick in the mud up to the hubs, and if you walk you
may break your legs and will be lucky if you don t break your neck; they
have no street pavements and their sidewalks are dangerously out of repair.
When the moon doesn't shine the streets are in darkness, for they have
no street lights. The water you need for your house you must get from
a well; there is no water supply there. Now in our town it is different.
We have a splendid fire department, and the best police force in the
world. Our streets are macadamized, and lighted with electricity; our
sidewalks are always in first class repair; we have a water system that
equals that of New York; and in every way the public benefits in this
town are unsurpassed. It is the best governed town in all this region.
Isn't it worth a hundred and fifty dollars a year more for a building
site here than over in that poorly governed town?"
You recognize the advantages and agree to the terms.
But when your house is built and the assessor visits you officially,
what would be the conversation if your sense of the fitness of things
were not warped by familiarity with false systems of taxation? Would
it not be something like what follows?
"How much do you regard this house as worth? " asks
"What is that to you?" you inquire.
"I am the town assessor and am about to appraise
your property for taxation."
"Am I to be taxed by this town? What for?"
"What for?" echoes the assessor in surprise. "What
for? Is not your house protected from fire by our magnificent fire department?
Are not you protected from robbery by the best police force in the world?
Do not you have the use of macadamized pavements, and good sidewalks,
and electric street lights, and a first class water supply? Don't you
suppose these things cost something? And don't you think you ought to
pay your share?"
"Yes," you answer, with more or less calmness; "I
do have the benefit of these things, and I do think that I ought to pay
my share toward supporting them. But I have already paid my share for
this year. I have paid it to the owner of this lot. He charges me two
hundred and fifty dollars a year -- one hundred and fifty dollars more
than I should pay or he could get but for those very benefits. He has
collected my share of this year's expense of maintaining town improvements;
you go and collect from him. If you do not, but insist upon collecting
from me, I shall be paying twice for these things, once to him and once
to you; and he won't be paying at all, but will be making money out of
them, although he derives the same benefits from them in all other respects
that I do." ...
Q18. How would you reach the bondholder, or the man with money alone?
A. Why should we wish to reach him if his bonds or his money represent labor
products to which he has honestly acquired a just title? This question
is a legitimate offspring of the plundering theory that men should be
taxed according to their ability to pay, the merits of which are considered
on pages 7-9. It is a question which may also have been suggested by
the fact that "bondholders" and "men of money" are
so often men who have special privileges which coin money for them. There
is a feeling that it would be unfair to allow such special privileges
to escape taxation. It would be. But inquiry will show that the most
important of these privileges rest in the ownership of land, and that
the "bondholders" and "men of money" whom the questioner
probably has in mind, are in fact great landlords; that is to say, that
their fortunes are really based upon land. When land values were taxed,
the great source of unearned incomes — land monopoly — would
be practically abolished, and bondholders and men of money would be only
those who earn what they have. Such property no man of honest instincts
should wish to expropriate. ... read the book
Mason Gaffney: The Taxable Surplus
of Land: Measuring, Guarding and Gathering It
Taxable surplus is also what you
can tax without driving land into the wrong use. It is not enough
that the land supply is fixed: a tax must not force underuse or other
misuse of the fixed supply.
A great advantage of taxing rent
is that it does not change the ranking of land uses in the eyes of the landowner. Let
In a free market, the function of rent is to sort and arrange land uses:
landowners allocate land to those uses yielding the most net product, or
rent. Economists have shown (and you can easily see) that this is socially
advantageous: the net product is the excess of revenue over all costs, so
land yielding the highest rent is adding its utmost to the national product.
When you base your tax on the net product (or rent), the ranking of rival
land uses remains the same after-tax as it was before-tax. That is, if use "A" yields
20% more rent than use "B", and a tax takes 50% of the rent, then use A still
yields the owner 20% more after-tax than use B, and the owner still prefers
use A. We will see below, (Section
D), that when you tax something other than rent (say the Gross Revenue,
G), you will drive the land into less intensive uses, or out of use altogether.
A related advantage of taxing rent
is that you can often levy the tax on the land's potential to
yield rent, regardless of what use the owner actually chooses. This
is, indeed, a standard way of taxing rent in most capitalist nations. It
is possible because buyers and sellers trade land based on their careful
estimates of its maximum rent-yielding capability. The tax valuer observes
and records these value data, and uses them to place a value on all comparable
lands. Many books and manuals and professional journals have been published
on the techniques used: it is a well established art, with its own professional
associations, of which our speaker Mr. Gwartney is a leading member.
Such a tax is limited to the maximum possible
rent, and so will not exceed a landowner's ability to pay - provided he uses
the land in the most economical manner (which is not always the most intensive
manner). It will surely not interfere with his using the land in the best
way, but will discourage using it any other way. ...
When you base a tax on taxable surplus,
and keep the tax proportional to taxable surplus, you levy taxes without
twisting and inverting the landowner's or land manager's ranking of land
uses. As noted before, the owner's preferred use after tax remains
the same as it would be without any tax. On
the other hand, if you
tax on some other basis (Gross Revenue, for example), you
bias the owner
against uses more heavily taxed. To keep the example simple, and
realistic, we assume here that the seller is a "price-taker," meaning he sells
on a world market and cannot raise the price, and so has no choice but to bear
the tax. ... read the whole article