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Biggest Beneficiaries of Land Value Taxation


It is an axiom of statesmanship, which the successful founders of tyranny have understood and acted upon that great changes can best be brought about under old forms. We, who would free men, should heed the same truth. It is the natural method. When nature would make a higher type, she takes a lower one and develops it. This, also, is the law of social growth. Let us work by it. With the current we may glide fast and far. Against it, it is hard pulling and slow progress.

By making use of this existing machinery, we may, without jar or shock, assert the common right to land by appropriating rent by taxation. We already take some rent in taxation. We have only to make some changes in our modes of taxation to take it all.*

*Rent in the economic sense is not, as those unfamiliar with economic terminology may assume, the whole amount paid for the use of real estate. It is only that part of such amount which is paid for the use of the bare land or site employed, exclusive of the payment for the use of any buildings or other improvements on it. H. G. B.

In form, the ownership of land would remain just as now. No owner of land need be dispossessed, and no restriction need be placed upon the amount of land any one could hold. For, rent being taken by the State in taxes, land, no matter in whose name it stood, or in what parcels it was held, would be really common property, and every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership.

Now, insomuch as the taxation of rent, or land values, must necessarily be increased just as we abolish other taxes, we may put the proposition into practical form by proposing --

to abolish all taxation save that upon land values.

As we have seen, the value of land is at the beginning of society nothing, but as society develops by the increase of population and the advance of the arts, it becomes greater and greater. In every civilized country, even the newest, the value of the land taken as a whole is sufficient to bear the entire expenses of government. In the better developed countries it is much more than sufficient. Hence it will not be enough merely to place all taxes upon the value of land. It will be necessary, where rent exceeds the present governmental revenues, commensurately to increase the amount demanded in taxation, and to continue this increase as society progresses and rent advances. But this is so natural and easy a matter, that it may be considered as involved, or at least understood, in the proposition to put all taxes on the value of land. That is the first step upon which the practical struggle must be made. When the hare is once caught and killed, cooking him will follow as a matter of course. When the common right to land is so far appreciated that all taxes are abolished save those which fall upon rent, there is no danger of much more than is necessary to induce them to collect the public revenues being left to individual landholders.

Wherever the idea of concentrating all taxation upon land values finds lodgment sufficient to induce consideration, it invariably makes way, but there are few of the classes most to be benefited by it, who at first, or even for a long time afterward, see its full significance and power.

  • It is difficult for workingmen to get over the idea that there is a real antagonism between capital and labor.
  • It is difficult for small farmers and homestead owners to get over the idea that to put all taxes on the value of land would be unduly to tax them.
  • It is difficult for both classes to get over the idea that to exempt capital from taxation would be to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

These ideas spring from confused thought. But behind ignorance and prejudice there is a powerful interest, which has hitherto dominated literature, education, and opinion. A great wrong always dies hard, and the great wrong which in every civilized country condemns the masses of men to poverty and want, will not die without a bitter struggle. ... read the whole chapter

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty, Chapter 8: Why a Land-Value Tax is Better than an Equal Tax on All Property (in the unabridged P&P: Book VIII: Application of the Remedy — Chapter 3: The proposition tried by the canons of taxation)

The ground upon which the equal taxation of all species of property is commonly insisted upon is that it is equally protected by the state. The basis of this idea is evidently that the enjoyment of property is made possible by the state — that there is a value created and maintained by the community, which is justly called upon to meet community expenses. Now, of what values is this true? Only of the value of land. This is a value that does not arise until a community is formed, and that, unlike other values, grows with the growth of the community. It exists only as the community exists. Scatter again the largest community, and land, now so valuable, would have no value at all. With every increase of population the value of land rises; with every decrease it falls. This is true of nothing else save of things which, like the ownership of land, are in their nature monopolies.

The tax upon land values is, therefore, the most just and equal of all taxes.

  • It falls only upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive.
  • It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community.
  • It is the application of the common property to common uses.

When all rent is taken by taxation for the needs of the community, then will the equality ordained by Nature be attained. No citizen will have an advantage over any other citizen save as is given by his industry, skill, and intelligence; and each will obtain what he fairly earns. Then, but not till then, will labor get its full reward, and capital its natural return. ... read the whole chapter

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 10. Effect of Remedy Upon Wealth Production (in the unabridged P&P: Part IX — Effects of the Remedy: Chapter 1 — Of the effect upon the production of wealth)

The elder Mirabeau, we are told, ranked the proposition of Quesnay, to substitute one single tax on rent (the impôt unique) for all other taxes, as a discovery equal in utility to the invention of writing or the substitution of the use of money for barter.

To whosoever will think over the matter, this saying will appear an evidence of penetration rather than of extravagance. The advantages which would be gained by substituting for the numerous taxes by which the public revenues are now raised, a single tax levied upon the value of land, will appear more and more important the more they are considered. ...

Consider the effect upon the production of wealth.

To abolish the taxation which, acting and reacting, now hampers every wheel of exchange and presses upon every form of industry, would be like removing an immense weight from a powerful spring. Imbued with fresh energy, production would start into new life, and trade would receive a stimulus which would be felt to the remotest arteries. 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 tax collector 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 any one 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.

To abolish these taxes would be to lift the whole enormous weight of taxation from productive industry. The needle of the seamstress and the great manufactory; the cart horse and the locomotive; the fishing boat and the steamship; the farmer's plow and the merchant's stock, would be alike untaxed. All would be free to make or to save, to buy or to sell, unfined by taxes, unannoyed by the taxgatherer. Instead of saying to the producer, as it does now, "The more you add to the general wealth the more shall you be taxed!" the state would say to the producer, "Be as industrious, as thrifty, as enterprising as you choose, you shall have your full reward! You shall not be fined for making two blades of grass grow where one grew before; you shall not be taxed for adding to the aggregate wealth."

And will not the community gain by thus refusing to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; by thus refraining from muzzling the ox that treadeth out the corn; by thus leaving to industry, and thrift, and skill, their natural reward, full and unimpaired? For there is to the community also a natural reward. The law of society is, each for all, as well as all for each. No one can keep to himself the good he may do, any more than he can keep the bad. Every productive enterprise, besides its return to those who undertake it, yields collateral advantages to others. If a man plant a fruit tree, his gain is that he gathers the fruit in its time and season. But in addition to his gain, there is a gain to the whole community. Others than the owner are benefited by the increased supply of fruit; the birds which it shelters fly far and wide; the rain which it helps to attract falls not alone on his field; and, even to the eye which rests upon it from a distance, it brings a sense of beauty. And so with everything else. The building of a house, a factory, a ship, or a railroad, benefits others besides those who get the direct profits.

Well may the community leave to the individual producer all that prompts him to exertion; well may it let the laborer have the full reward of his labor, and the capitalist the full return of his capital. For the more that labor and capital produce, the greater grows the common wealth in which all may share. And in the value or rent of land is this general gain expressed in a definite and concrete form. Here is a fund which the state may take while leaving to labor and capital their full reward. With increased activity of production this would commensurately increase.

And to shift the burden of taxation from production and exchange to the value or rent of land would not merely be to give new stimulus to the production of wealth; it would be to open new opportunities. For under this system no one would care to hold land unless to use it, and land now withheld from use would everywhere be thrown open to improvement.

The selling price of land would fall; land speculation would receive its death blow; land monopolization would no longer pay.* Millions and millions of acres from which settlers are now shut out by high prices would be abandoned by their present owners or sold to settlers upon nominal terms. And this not merely on the frontiers, but within what are now considered well settled districts.

* The fact that a tax on the rental value of land cannot be shifted by landowners to tenants, though recognized by all competent economists, is sometimes a stumbling block to persons untrained in economics. The reason such a tax cannot be shifted is that it cannot limit the supply of land. Landowners are presumably, before the tax is laid, charging all the rent they can get. There is nothing in a tax on the rental value of land to make tenants willing to pay more or to make land more difficult to hire. On the contrary, more land will be on the market, because of such a tax, rather than less, since the tax puts a heavy penalty on holding land out of use and unimproved for mere speculation. The competition of former vacant land speculators to get their land used will make land cheaper to rent rather than more expensive. And since only the net rent remaining after the tax is subtracted is capitalized into salable value, land will be very much cheaper to buy. H.G.B.

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. Whoever planted an orchard, or sowed a field, or built a house, or erected a manufactory, no matter how costly, would have no more to pay in taxes than if he kept so much land idle.

  • The monopolist of agricultural land would be taxed as much as though his land were covered with houses and barns, with crops and with stock.
  • The owner of a vacant city lot would have to pay as much for the privilege of keeping other people off of it until he wanted to use it, as his neighbor who has a fine house upon his lot.
  • It would cost as much to keep a row of tumble-down shanties upon valuable land as though it were covered with a grand hotel or a pile of great warehouses filled with costly goods.

Thus, the bonus that wherever labor is most productive must now be paid before labor can be exerted would disappear.

  • The farmer would not have to pay out half his means, or mortgage his labor for years, in order to obtain land to cultivate;
  • the builder of a city homestead would not have to lay out as much for a small lot as for the house he puts upon it*;
  • the company that proposed to erect a manufactory would not have to expend a great part of its capital for a site.
  • And what would be paid from year to year to the state would be in lieu of all the taxes now levied upon improvements, machinery, and stock.

    *Many persons, and among them some professional economists, have never succeeded in getting a thorough comprehension of this point. Thus, the editor has heard the objection advanced that the greater cheapness of land is no advantage to the poor man who is trying to save enough from his earnings to buy a piece of land; for, it is said, the higher taxes on the land after it is acquired, offset the lower purchase price. What such objectors do not see is that even if the lower price of land does no more than balance the higher tax on it, (and this overlooks, for one thing, the discouragement to speculation in land), the reduction or removal of other taxes is all clear gain. It is easier to save in proportion as earnings and commodities are relieved of taxation. It is easier to buy land, because its selling price is lower, if the land is taxed. And although the land, after its purchase, continues to be taxed, not only can this tax be fully paid out of the annual interest on the saving in the purchase price, but also there is to be reckoned the saving in taxes on buildings and other improvements and in whatever other taxes are thus rendered unnecessary. H.G.B.

Consider the effect of such a change upon the labor market. Competition would no longer be one-sided, as now. Instead of laborers competing with each other for employment, and in their competition cutting down wages to the point of bare subsistence, employers would everywhere be competing for laborers, and wages would rise to the fair earnings of labor. For into the labor market would have entered the greatest of all competitors for the employment of labor, a competitor whose demand cannot be satisfied until want is satisfied — the demand of labor itself. The employers of labor would not have merely to bid against other employers, all feeling the stimulus of greater trade and increased profits, but against the ability of laborers to become their own employers upon the natural opportunities freely opened to them by the tax which prevented monopolization.

With natural opportunities thus free to labor;

  • with capital and improvements exempt from tax, and exchange released from restrictions, the spectacle of willing men unable to turn their labor into the things they are suffering for would become impossible;
  • the recurring paroxysms which paralyze industry would cease;
  • every wheel of production would be set in motion;
  • demand would keep pace with supply, and supply with demand;
  • trade would increase in every direction, and wealth augment on every hand. ... read the whole chapter

H.G. Brown: Significant Paragraphs from Henry George's Progress & Poverty: 12. Effect of Remedy Upon Various Economic Classes (in the unabridged P&P: Part IX: Effects of the Remedy — Chapter 3. Of the effect upon individuals and classes

When it is first proposed to put all taxes upon the value of land, all landholders are likely to take the alarm, and there will not be wanting appeals to the fears of small farm and homestead owners, who will be told that this is a proposition to rob them of their hard-earned property. But a moment's reflection will show that this proposition should commend itself to all whose interests as landholders do not largely exceed their interests as laborers or capitalists, or both. And further consideration will show that though the large landholders may lose relatively, yet even in their case there will be an absolute gain. For, the increase in production will be so great that labor and capital will gain very much more than will be lost to private landownership, while in these gains, and in the greater ones involved in a more healthy social condition, the whole community, including the landowners themselves, will share.

  • It is manifest, of course, that the change I propose will greatly benefit all those who live by wages, whether of hand or of head -- laborers, operatives, mechanics, clerks, professional men of all sorts.
  • It is manifest, also, that it will benefit all those who live partly by wages and partly by the earnings of their capital -- storekeepers, merchants, manufacturers, employing or undertaking producers and exchangers of all sorts from the peddler or drayman to the railroad or steamship owner -- and
  • it is likewise manifest that it will increase the incomes of those whose incomes are drawn from the earnings of capital. ...

Take, now, the case of the homestead owner -- the mechanic, storekeeper, or professional man who has secured himself a house and lot, where he lives, and which he contemplates with satisfaction as a place from which his family cannot be ejected in case of his death. He will not be injured; on the contrary, he will be the gainer. ...

And so with the farmer. I speak not now of the farmers who never touch the handles of a plow, but of the working farmers who constitute such a large class in the United States -- men who own small farms, which they cultivate with the aid of their boys, and perhaps some hired help, and who in Europe would be called peasant proprietors. Paradoxical as it may appear to these men until they understand the full bearings of the proposition, of all classes above that of the mere laborer they have most to gain by placing all taxes upon the value of land. That they do not now get as good a living as their hard work ought to give them, they generally feel, though they may not be able to trace the cause. The fact is that taxation, as now levied, falls on them with peculiar severity. They are taxed on all their improvements -- houses, barns, fences, crops, stock. The personal property which they have cannot be as readily concealed or undervalued as can the more valuable kinds which are concentrated in the cities. They are not only taxed on personal property and improvements, which the owners of unused land escape, but their land is generally taxed at a higher rate than land held on speculation, simply because it is improved. But further than this, all taxes imposed on commodities, and especially the taxes which, like our protective duties, are imposed with a view of raising the prices of commodities, fall on the farmer without mitigation.

The farmer would be a great gainer by the substitution of a single tax upon the value of land for all these taxes, for the taxation of land values would fall with greatest weight, not upon the agricultural districts, where land values are comparatively small, but upon the towns and cities where land values are high; whereas taxes upon personal property and improvements fall as heavily in the country as in the city. And in sparsely settled districts there would be hardly any taxes at all for the farmer to pay. For taxes, being levied upon the value of the bare land, would fall as heavily upon unimproved as upon improved land. Acre for acre, the improved and cultivated farm, with its buildings, fences, orchard, crops, and stock, could be taxed no more than unused land of equal quality. The result would be that speculative values would be kept down, and that cultivated and improved farms would have no taxes to pay until the country around them had been well settled. In fact, paradoxical as it may at first seem to them, the effect of putting all taxation upon the value of land would be to relieve the harder working farmers of all taxation.*

*Let us remember that fertility elements put into the soil -- or maintained through constant renewal -- are in the economic sense, capital rather than land, and under Henry George's plan would not be taxed. The farmer who builds up, or maintains, the fertility of his land, would not have to pay any higher tax than if he kept it in run-down condition and with no buildings, orchards or other improvements on it. H.G.B

But the great gain of the working farmer can be seen only when the effect upon the distribution of population is considered. ... read the whole chapter


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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper