Econ-Atrocity {special History of Thought series} Henry George’s “Single Tax”

(4/21/04)
By Alanna Hartzok, Co-Director, Earth Rights Institute

One day, while riding horseback in the Oakland hills, merchant seaman and journalist Henry George had a startling epiphany. He realized that speculation and private profiteering in the gifts of nature were the root causes of the unjust distribution of wealth. The insights presented in Progress and Poverty, George’s masterwork, launched him to fame. His policy approach was known at that time as the “single tax” – meaning that taxation should be shifted off of labor and onto the socially created surplus value of land and other natural resources. His message reached as far as the great Russian Leo Tolstoy, who was so taken with the idea that he frequently referred to George and “Georgism” in his novel Resurrection.

During the last 20 years of the 19th century George built an impressive populist movement bent on solving the problem of the wealth gap, and he died in 1897 while campaigning to be New York’s mayor. The “Georgists” were determined to free labor and all productive effort from the burden of taxation. Land and natural resources were gifts of nature to be fairly shared by all. The role of government would be to secure democratic rights to the earth for all people via the collection of resource rents, the surplus value accruing to natural wealth, which would be distributed in social goods, services or by direct citizen dividends.

But just as this solution to the rich/poor gap was gaining momentum, the Georgist movement was stopped in its tracks. Wealthy individuals poured their money into leading schools of economics to encourage the writing of treatises against George and the movements he had spawned. The ethical perspective that land is a common heritage and the policy approach of land value taxation were subsequently eliminated from the field of economics. The newly dominant theory focused on only two primary factors – labor and capital – with capital having the upper hand as “employing labor.” “Labor,” of course, is quite capable of self-employment given access to land. This is what the elites and the plutocrats feared most – that labor would gain full power to directly produce capital given conditions of equal rights to the resources of the earth.

Despite the elites’ success in mangling the science of political economy, the Georgist paradigm has had some influence over the years. The 1887 Wright Act in California enabled bonds raised by local irrigation districts to be paid from the increase in land values, resulting in a powerful and beneficial land reform, though this equitable and successful public finance approach was eventually undermined by private banking institutions. Now taxpayers nationwide subsidize the irrigation needs of agribusiness. Alaska’s state constitution vests the ownership of oil and other natural resources in the people as a whole and the state’s Permanent Fund distributes substantial oil revenue as citizen dividends to state residents. With no state income or sales taxes, Alaska has been the only state where the wealth gap has decreased during the past decade. This is essentially a Georgist paradigm approach, and surface land values and electromagnetic spectrum rent could be similar sources for citizen dividends.

Meanwhile, Georgist economics is again making steady progress. In Pennsylvania, eighteen municipalities, including Harrisburg and Allentown, have been revitalizing their local economies via property tax reform which shifts taxes off of homes and the built environment and onto the value of land sites. Movements for land value taxation are growing now in Scotland, UK, Ireland, South Korea and elsewhere, while Venezuela, Russia and other countries are pushing for greater resource rents from oil and mineral resources. Georgist economics is increasingly recognized as a key to economic democracy based on equal rights to the earth for all.

Recommended:

Mason Gaffney, Fred Harrison and Kris Feder, The Corruption of Economics. Shepheard-Walwyn Ltd., 1994.

Henry George’s books can now be read online. Hardcopies of his books, and those of other Georgist authors, can be ordered from The Robert
Schalkenbach Foundation
(212-683-6424).

J.W. Smith, Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the Twenty-First Century. This excellent Georgist paradigm book can be ordered from The Institute for Economic Democracy (866-588-7445).

Kenneth C. Wenzer, ed. Land Value Taxation. M.E. Sharpe, 1999.

Georgist paradigm articles and links to other sites: Earth Rights Institute.

The Council of Georgist Organizations 2004 conference will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 21 – 25. For details: www.progress.org/cgo.

The International Union for Land Value Taxation conference is scheduled for May 27 – 30 in Madrid, Spain. For details: www.interunion.org.uk/.

Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection can be read online.

(c) 2004 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.