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Tax Certainty

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


The single tax conforms most closely to the essential principles of Adam Smith's four classical maxims, which are stated best by Henry George 19 as follows:

The best tax by which public revenues can be raised is evidently that which will closest conform to the following conditions:

  1. That it bear as lightly as possible upon production — so as least to check the increase of the general fund from which taxes must be paid and the community maintained. 20
  2. That it be easily and cheaply collected, and fall as directly as may be upon the ultimate payers — so as to take from the people as little as possible in addition to what it yields the government. 21
  3. That it be certain — so as to give the least opportunity for tyranny or corruption on the part of officials, and the least temptation to law-breaking and evasion on the part of the tax-payers. 22
  4. That it bear equally — so as to give no citizen an advantage or put any at a disadvantage, as compared with others. 23

19. "Progress and Poverty," book viii. ch.iii.

20. This is the second part of Adam Smith's fourth maxim. He states it as follows: "Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state. A tax may either take out or keep out of the pockets of the people a great deal more than it brings into the public treasury in the four following ways: . . . Secondly, it may obstruct the industry of the people, and discourage them from applying to certain branches of business which might give maintenance and employment to great multitudes. While it obliges the people to pay, it may thus diminish or perhaps destroy some of the funds which might enable them more easily to do so."

21. This is the first part of Adam Smith's fourth maxim, in which he condemns a tax that takes out of the pockets of the people more than it brings into the public treasury.

22. This is Adam Smith's second maxim. He states it as follows: "The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor and to every other person. Where it is otherwise, every person subject to the tax is put more or less in the power of the tax gatherer."

23. This is Adam Smith's first maxim. He states it as follows: "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government as nearly as possible in proportion to their respective abilities, that is to say, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation."

In changing this Mr. George says ("Progress and Poverty," book viii, ch. iii, subd. 4): "Adam Smith speaks of incomes as enjoyed 'under the protection of the state'; and this is the ground upon which the equal taxation of all species of property is commonly insisted upon — 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 only exists 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."

Adam Smith's third maxim refers only to conveniency of payment, and gives countenance to indirect taxation, which is in conflict with the principle of his fourth maxim. Mr. George properly excludes it. ...



c. Certainty

No other tax, direct or indirect, conforms so closely to the third maxim. "Land lies out of doors." It cannot be hidden; it cannot be "accidentally" overlooked. Nor can its value be seriously misstated. Neither under-appraisement nor over-appraisement to any important degree is possible without the connivance of the whole community. 27 The land values of a neighborhood are matters of common knowledge. Any intelligent resident can justly appraise them, and every other intelligent resident can fairly test the appraisement. Therefore, the tyranny, corruption, fraud, favoritism, and evasions that are so common in connection with the taxation of imports, manufactures, incomes, personal property, and buildings — the values of which, even when the object itself cannot be hidden, are so distinctly matters of minute special knowledge that only experts can fairly appraise them — would be out of the question if the single tax were substituted for existing fiscal methods. 28

27. The under-appraisements so common at present, and alluded to in note 25, are possible because the community, ignorant of the just principles of taxation, does connive at them. Under-appraisements are not secret crimes on the part of assessors; they are distinctly recognized, but thoughtlessly disregarded when not actually insisted upon, by the people themselves. And this is due to the dishonest ideas of taxation that are taught. Let the vicious doctrine that people ought to pay taxes according to their ability give way to the honest principle that they should pay in proportion to the benefits they receive, which benefits, as we have already seen, are measured by the land values they own, and underappraisement of land would cease. No assessor can befool the community in respect of the value of the land within his jurisdiction.

And, with the cessation of general under-appraisement, favoritism in individual appraisements also would cease. General under-appraisement fosters unfair individual appraisements. If land were generally appraised at its full value, a particular unfair appraisement would stand out in such relief that the crime of the assessor would be exposed. But now if a man's land is appraised at a higher valuation than his neighbor's equally valuable land, and he complains of the unfairness, he is promptly and effectually silenced with a warning that his land is worth much more than it is appraised at, anyhow, and if he makes a fuss his appraisement will be increased. To complain further of the deficient taxation of his neighbor is to invite the imposition of a higher tax upon himself.

28. If you wish to test the merits in point of certainty of the single tax as compared with other taxes, go to a real estate agent in your community, and, showing him a building lot upon the map, ask him its value. If he inquires about the improvements, instruct him to ignore them. He will be able at once to tell you what the lot is worth. And if you go to twenty other agents their estimates will not materially vary from his. Yet none of the agents will have left his office. Each will have inferred the value from the size and location of the lot.

But suppose when you show the map to the first agent you ask him the value of the land and its improvements. He will tell you that he cannot give an estimate until he examines the improvements. And if it is the highly improved property of a rich man he will engage building experts to assist him. Should you ask him to include the value of the contents of the buildings, he would need a corps of selected experts, including artists and liverymen, dealers in furniture and bric-a-brac, librarians and jewelers. Should you propose that he also include the value of the occupant's income, the agent would throw up his hands in despair.

If without the aid of an army of experts the agent should make an estimate of these miscellaneous values, and twenty others should do the same, their several estimates would be as wide apart as ignorant guesses usually are. And the richer the owner of the property the lower as a proportion would the guesses probably be.

Now turn the real estate agent into an assessor, and is it not plain that he would appraise the land values with much greater certainty and cheapness than he could appraise the values of all kinds of property? With a plot map before him he might fairly make every appraisement without leaving his desk at the town hall.

And there would be no material difference if the property in question were a farm instead of a building lot. A competent farmer or business man in a farming community can, without leaving his own door-yard, appraise the value of the land of any farm there; whereas it would be impossible for him to value the improvements, stock, produce, etc., without at least inspecting them.


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