Georgism Revisited

In Christopher England’s Land & Liberty we at last have a modern book on the remarkable political economist Henry George (1839–97). George was the expositor of the “single tax,” the proposition that the only justifiable tax is on the full rental value of land in its unimproved state. However arcane this position on taxes, George’s influence was immense and multifarious. George sold millions of copies of his books and pamphlets, spawned scores of activist reading groups among marginally literate groups of working people, inspired the building of model communities on the basis of the single tax, motivated innumerable “Georgists” successfully to seek elected office, influenced world-historical leaders such as the Mexican Revolution’s Venustiano Carranza and modern China’s founder Sun Yat-Sen, and all but reoriented the agenda of taxation and public works globally as the twentieth century dawned. 

George was an impecunious newspaperman originally from Pennsylvania who, well into the age of majority in the 1860s, was begging for $5 on the streets of San Francisco to feed his young family. He found moderate success as a newspaper editor and book author in booming San Francisco in the 1870s through the publication in 1879 of Progress and Poverty, an effort, England observes, that “might have gone unnoticed without George’s now lesser-known third book,” The Irish Land Question (1881). An invitation to Ireland in 1882 changed everything. Crowds gathered to see George, fawning before this sympathizer with the plight of tenant farmers. Authorities were sufficiently alarmed by the hubbub that they put him in jail on a quickly dismissed conspiracy charge. These events became a press sensation in the United States. When George returned, he was fêted in New York at Delmonico’s. His writings began to fly off the shelves, as they would for the remainder of the century.

Progress and Poverty and The Irish Land Question (along with a first book of 1871) elaborated the central conclusion at which George had arrived when sizing up San Francisco in the post-civil war years. This was that economic efficiency and opportunity demanded that the government nationalize land. “It was George’s explanation of rising urban rents that constituted his most significant contribution,’’ to England. Pondering his experiences in rapidly growing California, and absorbing Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Spencer, and Proudhon on the subject, George found that a tax on the unimproved value of land equal to market rent was the key to optimal economic development in all economic sectors and industries.

Adherents to George’s movement adopted the name “single taxers.” This name reflected the view that there was to be one and only one tax in an economy, and this was to be on the unimproved value of land. Georgist taxation had two “single” characteristics. Land taxation was the only tax, and that tax was invariable, in that it was exactly the rental price a parcel would fetch in the market absent improvements upon it. 

The genius of this formulation lay in its recognition that whatever a government taxes, it effectively nationalizes. If the government owns something, efficiency requires that it act like a proper owner. Charging less or more than the full rental value of land, in property taxes, would mean that the owner, the government, is distorting the market. Some might wonder why George focused on land as the subject of taxation—as opposed to income, sales, commerce, or something else. It was because land is the eternal given. It is the definition of something that is unimproved. Governments properly wish their populations to improve and themselves to flourish as a residual of that improvement. The rental value of land increases only as improvements upon it, and in other neighboring parcels, make it more valuable. A single tax on the unimproved value of land enables a population to become ever freer of taxation the more it develops the economic practices of living. 

In an uncannily direct fashion, the Georgist single tax addressed the problems of both bad government and bad private ownership. Government should properly want people to improve without itself improving to the same degree. If the population gets rich and therefore more self-sufficient and capable of generosity, the government should get proportionately less rich. If private parties own useful resources that they are keeping idle, they should face encouragement to extract proper value from those resources. The single tax, renting land exclusive of its improvements at market value, prompted all actors in the economy to produce to their maximum potential. 

The overconfident style of so many Georgists—their tendency to marvel at how popular their movement was—seems to have undermined a hardheadedness on the part of the movement’s leaders and operatives that was necessary for Georgism to succeed on its own terms.

Economists puzzled over the Georgist notion when it first caught a wave, and to this day there remain contours of a professional consensus in that discipline that George was largely right about the single tax. George’s mass, strange-bed fellows style popularity is perhaps the more important matter. The enthusiasm that George prompted in the public was an expression of the democratic ethos as full as any in political history. 

England recounts the amazing episode—he has many to choose from—of Cleveland streetcar magnate Tom Johnson’s pooh-poohing George’s ideas, only to have a conductor offer to pay for the book of George’s that Johnson had waved away. Johnson read that book, and quickly others, setting his legal team on Progress and Poverty to find its weaknesses. The lawyers came up empty, and Johnson became a convert. He quit business for politics and became the ardent Georgist mayor of Cleveland from 1901–09. In 1886, George placed second (ahead of Theodore Roosevelt) in the election for mayor of New York City. His death in late October 1897 came a week before he surely would have had another strong showing, perhaps a victory, in that race. His funeral attracted 200,000. 

Why did George, writing treatises about taxation, attract mass readership and spark mass movements? Taxation was comparatively small in the latter nineteenth century, soaking up at all levels of government a total of six or seven percent of national income, in contrast to the customary third or more today. It is reasonable to speculate that as societies, particularly that of the United States, pushed ever forward in the Industrial Revolution, the public wished to cement in place a tax system that did not punish continual improvement. Continual improvement was the new given; the single tax would ensure that governments did not squelch this marvelous development. 

The greater part of Land & Liberty concerns the considerable activities and accomplishments of Georgists in the several decades after the master’s death in 1897. These included the numerous attempts, including in Cleveland, to rationalize the process of property-tax land assessment. The first task was to reduce variations. The well-connected often had property assessed too low, and the average holder too high. Once assessment-equalization was accomplished, taxing authorities would be in a position to impose a single tax. 

Invariably, however, the Georgists strayed from strict single-tax principles and emphasized the need for public expenditures on public goods (such as parks and lecture halls) and for public ownership of certain common fruits of the land (such as power plants processing natural resources into electricity). George himself had strayed in such directions. These developments naturally give rise to the question of what the emphasis on “single” had been all about. If Georgists became enamored of spending initiatives and nationalization of assets beyond real estate, would not the advantages of a single tax on the unimproved value of land, which legions of readers took as the crux of Progress and Poverty, fritter away? Following Albert Jay Nock’s criticism, England wonders if George’s “followers had compromised their ideals by becoming ‘double-taxers,’ or even ‘triple-taxers’ and losing sight of natural law’s division between public and private.” 

The most consequential of the developments of this nature was the fateful alliance of many Georgists, in office, the press, and in political activism, with the cause of the federal income tax. A progressive income tax, such as was on offer as the United States considered the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment prior to 1913, is anathema to the principles of the single tax. Income represents improvement, and high income (subject to increasing tax rates in a progressive system) distinct improvement. The logic and allure of the single tax lay in its focus on what was not improved, in what was given before economic activity made the stuff of utility. Land could have enhanced value because of improvements upon and around it, and the government would soak up this enhancement in value via rent, via a single tax. But government was not, under a single tax, to dun what was done with and upon the land. 

As England observes, “Georgists had supported the income tax, believing that, because of business’s hostility, it would be easier to replace with the single tax than the tariff”—the dominant form of federal taxation prior to 1913—“which was supported by an array of entrenched special interests.” However, England continues, “instead of providing an avenue for the single tax, the income tax popularized the doctrine of ability to pay.” Indeed, by the 1920s, the United States had set up a permanent system whereby, at high incomes, at least a quarter of yearly earnings would sail off to the government. By no means did the income tax pave the way to its replacement by the single tax. Instead, the income tax became the new king.

When government acts in the ideal Georgist fashion, when it focuses on taxing that which is unimproved, improvement is given its widest berth.

The overconfident style of so many Georgists—their tendency to marvel at how popular their movement was—seems to have undermined a hardheadedness on the part of the movement’s leaders and operatives that was necessary for Georgism to succeed on its own terms. Free speech, birth control, civil liberties—all these became fascinations of Georgists in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, a switch to a single tax became impossible with the income tax. It turns out that heavy progressive income taxes decrease the unimproved value of land, because they decrease the value of any potential improvement. The collapse of property values at the outset of the Great Depression—as effective property tax rates soared—was a bitter inversion of everything Progress and Poverty had represented. 

American historiography over the last fifty years has produced only a thimbleful of books and articles on George. Land & Liberty rectifies this neglectfulness. Reading this book, one is transported back to the era of impeccably researched and written works of history on major topics that exuded the author’s wholesome sense of civic purpose—Edmund Morgan on colonial Virginia, Bernard Bailyn on the Revolutionary War. Land & Liberty is an earnest book, history written with directness and purpose, and aware that its topic has central importance in the modern history of political economy. There are no wasted words. Every sentence advances a fact essential to the story or makes a useful analytical point. 

England’s central conclusions, however, are ones which Nock would have found unfortunate: that “George’s utopia was never the single tax; it was liberal democracy”—and that “few Americans could claim to have done more for liberalism than Henry George.” Perhaps the more apt conclusion is that in not sticking to their single-tax principles, Georgists helped to enable a big-government state good at curtailing material progress. 

Georgism in its purer form, represented by the single-tax mentality of the 1880s and 1890s, retains its relevance today. It shouts at us across the space of centuries: government is not to tax improvement. When government acts in the ideal Georgist fashion, when it focuses on taxing that which is unimproved, improvement is given its widest berth. Henry George was present at the greatest boom in American economic history, that of the acme of the industrial revolution. He saw that the people of the United States had absolutely prodigious productive potential. He understood that government ought to content itself with getting fully fat by taxing only what was left unimproved by these amazing people.