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

These are truisms. Yet so widespread and persistent is the notion that all property should be taxed, that they are generally ignored. Nothing is clearer than that when a farmer who wants more capital puts a mortgage on his farm, no new value is thereby created. Yet, in most of our States, both the farm and the mortgage are taxed; though so obvious is the double taxation that in some of them the clumsy expedient of making an exemption to the debtor is resorted to.

But it is manifest that property of this kind is not a fit subject for taxation, and ought not to be considered in making up the assessment rolls. It has, in itself, no value. It is merely the representative, or token, of value — the certificate of ownership, or the obligation to pay value. It either represents other property, or property yet to be brought into existence. And, as nothing real can be drawn from that which is not real, taxation upon property of this kind must ultimately fall, either upon the property represented, in which case there is double taxation, or upon those whose obligations it expresses, in which case men are taxed, not upon what they own, but upon what they owe; and all cumbrous devices to prevent the unjust effects of such taxation, like other complications of the revenue system, simply give to the stronger and more unscrupulous opportunities of throwing the burden upon the weaker and more conscientious. Property of this kind ought not to be taxed at all. Property in itself valuable is clearly that with which any wise scheme of taxation should alone deal.

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. ... read the whole article

Rev. A. C. Auchmuty: Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)

THE phenomena of value are at bottom illustrations of one principle. The value of everything produced by labor, from a pound of chalk or a paper of pins to the elaborate structure and appurtenances of a first-class ocean steamer, is resolvable on analysis into an equivalent of the labor required to reproduce such a thing in form and place; while the value of things not produced by labor, but nevertheless susceptible of ownership, is, in the same way, resolvable into an equivalent of the labor which the ownership of such a thing enables the owner to obtain or save. — A Perplexed Philosopher (Mr. Spencer's Confusion As To Value)

WHEREVER land has an exchange value there is rent in the economic meaning of the term. Wherever land having a value is used, either by owner or hirer, there is rent actual; wherever it is not used, but still has a value, there is rent potential. It is this capacity of yielding rent which gives value to land. . . . No matter what are its capabilities, land can yield no rent and have no value until some one is willing to give labor or the results of labor for the privilege of using it; and what anyone will thus give, depends not upon the capacity of the land, but upon its capacity as compared with that of land that can be had for nothing. — Progress & Poverty Book III, Chapter 2 — The Laws of Distribution: Rent and the Law of Rent

STATED reversely, the law of rent is necessarily the law of wages and interest taken together, for it is the assertion, that no matter what be the production which results from the application of labor and capital, these two factors will only receive in wages and interest such part of the produce as they could have produced on land free to them without the payment of rent — that is the least productive land or point in use. — Progress & Poverty Book III, Chapter 2 — The Laws of Distribution: Rent and the Law of Rent

... go to "Gems from George"



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