Friday, March 23, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part I, Chapter 3



The single tax is the remedy offered by Mr. George, by which he proposes to shift the public burdens, and concentrate them all upon private land monopoly, leaving intact all the other forms of monopoly: the patent and copyright monopolies, the transportation monopoly, the telegraph and telephone monopolies, the money monopoly, etc. While the main object is not to decrease the public burdens, one of its effects is expected to be a certain measure of decrease in the aggregate amount of those burdens, arising from a possible simplification of the machinery of government, and a consequent decrease in the necessary expenditures. This expectation, however, if ever realized, is admitted to be only incidental, and not the principal or even a necessary result.

By so concentrating the public burdens, in the form of taxation, upon the private monopoly of land, it is hoped to destroy it: to make the burden so heavy that the private monopolists, —the landlords,—will drop it. But when they do, then that public monopoly which we call government, and which is operated by means of law, in the hands of politicians, is to pick it up, and work it in the interest of the people. What the people may hope for from a monopoly, operated by politicians through the machinery of political parties, we will consider in another part of this work. It is only necessary to point out here that the single tax [34] merely proposes to substitute a public monopoly for a private one; and operate it in the only way that any law can be operated, in what is termed a popular government: I do not suppose any single taxer will claim that the purpose is to subvert popular government.

No person who has given the subject serious consideration, or whose opinion is entitled to respect, will deny the evil effects of land monopoly. That those effects are far-reaching is also evident; but the one who tries to make it responsible for all the oppressions from which men suffer has undertaken too much. The farmer who must sell his wheat to one particular combination controlling a system of elevators, and at any price the combination may offer; who must pay more for a reaper than the same manufacturer will sell the same machine for, to an Englishman, laid down in England; who must burn his corn for fuel because the cost of transportation will not permit its shipment to market; and who is being eaten up slowly but surely by the interest on his mortgage, knows better. Tell this to the woman who pays $60 for a sewing- machine which only costs $15, and the chances are she will regard you as a lunatic, and with very good reason.

That the purpose of the single tax is, not to destroy the monopoly of land, but to shift it, is shown both by Mr. George, in “Progress and Poverty,” and in the platform adopted at the Single Tax Conference in New York, in Sept., 1890. It proposes to substitute a common ownership of land for a private ownership. See Chapter II, Book 6, “Progress and Poverty:” “This, then, is the remedy for the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth apparent in modern civilization, and for all the evils which flow from it: We must make land common property.” (The italics are his own.) See also Chapter II, Book 8: “How shall we do it? We should satisfy the law of Justice, we should meet all economic requirements, by at one [35] stroke abolishing all private titles, declaring all land public property, and letting it out to the highest bidders in lots to suit, under such conditions as would sacredly guard the private right to improvements.”

The Single Tax Platform says: “We hold that all men are equally entitled to the use and enjoyment of what God has created and of what is gained by the general growth and improvement of the community of which they are a part. Therefore, no one should be permitted to hold natural opportunities without a fair return to all for any special privilege thus accorded to him, and that value which the growth and improvement of the community attach to land should be taken for the use of the community.”

I must ask the reader to note the phraseology, that “no one should be permitted to hold natural opportunities (the land) without a fair return (the payment of the rent,—the price of the monopoly) to all (the community,) for any special privilege thus accorded him, and that value which the growth and improvement of the community attach to land should be taken for the use of the community.”

This assumes that there is a value which naturally attaches to land by virtue of the growth of the community; which is not true, except as it represents the power of monopoly to take. Land value is always rent, and nothing but rent. If it is paid in a lump sum, at one time, it is simply the present worth of the rent which is expected to accrue; and rent is always “the price of monopoly,” the amount of which is determined by the strength of the monopoly (its freedom from competition), and the needs of those against whom it operates. If the community is a progressive one, its needs are progressive; and, consequently, the monopoly can increase the price. These two elements, the monopoly on the one side, and the need on the other, and none other, constitute all land values. Either of them being absent, land can have no value, and consequently can bear no rent. Destroy the monopoly; that is, make land free, and whatever the need, people can satisfy it, because there is land enough [36] for all. And if there is no need there can be no value, whatever the monopoly. But, it is said, that some land is more advantageously located than other; and that something is needed to equalize that advantage. Let us see.

Advantage of location operates precisely in the same way as does advantage in improved processes, or improved machinery. The advantage is in the fact that more wealth can be produced on that spot than on another. But there is no spot so good that there are not others just as good; and the wealth produced on it must compete with wealth produced elsewhere for the trade. And if the competition is free the advantage of location must go to the consumer in the cheapened price of the goods, and thereby distribute itself naturally and equally. The man who occupies the location cannot possibly put the advantage of the location in his pocket, as increased profits. But even if there were no other equally good location, his advantage is likely to be offset by improved machinery, or improved processes. When a man finds himself at a disadvantage in his trade from any cause, it stimulates his ingenuity to renewed exertion to find something to counterbalance it.

It has thus been necessary to make such a careful examination of the nature of rent, even to repetition, to fully identify it with other methods for the robbery of labor, because it is made the basis of the single tax philosophy; because it is proposed to substitute one injustice for another; and because there is a certain amount of plausibility in the proposition that land values are the result of social growth, and ought to be taken for social uses.

As to some of the other forms of monopoly, “where free competition becomes impossible, as in telegraphs, railroads, water and gas supplies,” it is true the Single Tax Conference did include a paragraph looking to public management “through their proper government, local, state and national,” but this is not a [37] necessary part of the scheme; nor are the single tax adherents by any means agreed upon it. What I wish to make clear is, that the single tax only aims to substitute one monopoly for another, whether of the land or of transportation, etc., and not to free them. And since it does not propose to lessen the burdens of taxation, but merely to shift them, it could not possibly free the land, for that would cut off the revenue. According to Mr. George’s own showing “rent is the price of monopoly,” therefore, if the monopoly were broken,—if land were freed, there could be no rent, and therefore no revenue. That is why the monopoly must be maintained through the political machine called government.

But is it any consolation to the farmer with a mortgage hanging over him that he cannot pay, and with the prospect of eviction confronting him, to tell him that in the dim and uncertain future, when a majority of men have been converted to the single tax, when usurers and landlords have been abolished, and when politicians have all become honest, that he can get another home merely by paying the amount of the annual rental value, which really won’t amount to much anyway? What hope is there in all this for the business man whose goods are unsold, collections slow, paper at the bank nearly due, and who sees nothing but bankruptcy staring him in the face? And the tenant, behind with his rent, out of work, out of bread, served with five days’ notice of eviction—is there anything in the single tax which offers him relief? To the workingmen on strike against reduction of wages, or unreasonable hours of work and unjust regulations, surrounded by special police and Pinkerton detectives, or confronting the militia, armed with gatling guns, does the single tax give any help or safety? Well, yes! To all these it holds out the same kind of relief that the church does to the starving—that if they are only virtuous here, when they die they will go to heaven. If they will only vote for the single tax, when the [38] single tax party gets a majority it will pass a law (provided the single tax politicians are all honest) levying all taxes on land values, which will scare the landlords so that they will give up their monopoly, and the single tax politicians will make everything lovely. Bah! Out upon such trumpery! What me want is relief — present positive relief. Not in a fabulous and unknown future, when all the good and all the bad stand up in a row to be divided off into two flocks for reward and punishment, but now and here. You might as well tell a man who is sitting on a hot griddle that, if he will only be patient, after a while the weather will change.

But the single tax is more than inadequate; it is illogical. It is based upon the inalienable right of men to the land; and Mr. George’s works, like single tax literature generally, abound with appeals to that inalienable right. Chap. i, Book 7, “Progress and Poverty” says:

“If we are all here by the equal permission of the Creator, we are all here with an equal title to the enjoyment of His bounty—with an equal right to the use of all that nature so impartially offers. This is a right which is natural and inalienable; it is a right which vests in every human being as he enters into the world, and which during his continuance in the world can be limited only by the equal rights of others There is in nature no such thing as a fee simple in land. There is on earth no power which can rightfully make a grant of exclusive ownersiip in land. If all the existing men were to unite to grant away their equal rights, they could not grant away the right of those who follow them. For what are we but tenants for a day? Have we made the earth, that we should determine the rights of those who after us shall tenant it in their turn? The Almighty, who created the earth for man and man for the earth, has entailed it upon all the generations of the children of men by a decree written upon the constitution of all things—a [39] decree which no human action can bar and no prescription determine. Let the parchments be ever so many, or possession ever so long, natural justice can recognize no right in one man to the possession and enjoyment of land that is not equally the right of all his fellows. Though his titles have been acquiesced in by generation after generation, to the landed estates of the Duke of Westminster the poorest child that is born in London to-day has as much right as his eldest son. Though the sovereign people of the State of New York consent to the landed possessions of the Astors, the puniest infant that comes wailing into the world, in the squalidest room of the most miserable tenement house, becomes at that moment seized of an equal right with the millionaires. And it is robbed if the right is denied.”

And yet—the single tax, in the hands of a bare majority, would prescribe conditions on which men might be “permitted” to exercise their inalienable rights: the payment of the tax; and on failure to comply with the conditions, it would bar them from the land; that is, deprive them of their inalienable rights. See portions of platform already quoted.

Again: What are men said to get when they buy land now? Is it more than the right of exclusive possession, and disposition of it for all time? No. And what do they pay? Why! the value. And what is the value? The estimated present worth of the rent which is expected to accrue. And under the single tax, what will they get? Just as they get now; the right of exclusive possession and disposition of it for the year, or such time as may have been fixed for the periodical assessments. And what will they pay? Why! The rent. The principle is the same in both cases. The difference is in the time for which the transfer is made, except that the public monopoly has been substituted for the private one. It is hoped that the politicians will expend the funds judiciously for the good of the people. And they will—when [40] they all become angels. And if we are going to have a socialistic state for the control of one of the factors in production—the land—I see no reason why we may not entrust the other factor, the labor, to the tender mercies of the same socialistic state. I don’t know why the politicians would be any the less angelic. It might tax their wisdom a little further, perhaps; but as they are known to have an infinite stock of that we need not fear of exhausting it.

Among the astonishing virtues claimed for the single tax are, that it would be no hindrance to production; and that it could not be shifted by the payer in the first instance, upon the consumers of the goods produced. “Taxes upon the value of land cannot check production in the slightest degree, until they exceed rent, or the value of land taken annually, for unlike taxes upon commodities, or exchange, or capital, or any of the tools or processes of production, they do not bear upon production.” See page 297, “Progress and Poverty.” Is that so? Well, let us see! Dismissing the tax, and taking only the rent, so that we cannot be accused of taking more, what have we? Rent being “the price of monopoly,” and land the thing monopolized, let us re-state the essential part of the above proposition. “The price of monopoly cannot check the use of the thing monopolized in the slightest degree.” How is that for a proposition to be put forward by a professed economist? And yet that is precisely what Mr. George’s proposition means. In the light of this, the absurdity of the following proposition, on the same page of “Progress and Poverty”, is apparent: “Taxes on the value of land not only do not check production as do other taxes, but they tend to increase production, by destroying speculative rent.” How can the price of a thing stimulate the use of it? And if the destruction of speculative rent is a good thing, why not destroy the monopoly for which it, along with so-called economic rent, is the price? [41]

Now for the claim that the single tax cannot be shifted! Suppose the single tax in full operation and I have paid the tax for a location on which to do business, what do I do with that account? Do I not charge it up to expense; and, like all the other items in the expense account, do I not add it to the cost of the goods produced, and do not those who buy the goods pay it? Of course! I could not do business in any other way; nor could others. No! the single tax is like every other tax, a burden upon consumption. It hinders production by increasing the cost of production and thereby decreasing consumption.

As an instance of the curious absurdities into which men are led in pursuit of a theory, the single tax is instructive. The official formula, as adopted at the Single Tax Conference, in New York, reads: “To carry out these principles we are in favor of raising all public revenues for national, state, county and y municipal purposes by a single tax upon land values, irrespective of improvements, and of the abolition of all forms of direct and indirect taxation.” Passing over the manifest self-contradiction in this plank of the platform, let us apply it, and see how it would work. The sale of postage stamps is now one of the sources of public revenue. But according to our single tax platform that must be abolished, the postal service performed free, and the revenue for its support raised by a single tax upon land values. This would be a pretty good arrangement for those who use the mails as the principal means of doing their business, but decidedly disadvantageous to those who only write a letter occasionally. And should the government, under the single tax, finally assume control of other monopolies, such as the “telegraphs, railroads, water and gas supplies,” as hinted at in the platform, it must follow the same rule as with the post office, so far as it performs any service, and make that service free, levying the tax for its support upon the land values. Edward Bellamy certainly ought to be a single taxer, if he is not. [42]

After taking account of all these incongruities, contradictions, and absurdities, is it any wonder that men are slow to grasp the intricacies of the single tax; and that the movement drags? for it is slowly, but certainly, dying out as a specific reform movement. Men of independent thought and good ability may be drawn into it for a time, but they soon learn its inconsistencies, and either go further, or cease their activity altogether; while the ignorant cannot be made to understand it at all. A few men of mediocrity, who take their opinions from authority, will continue to champion the single tax; but it is too cumbersome and complicated at best, to awaken any considerable responses in the popular mind. “The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness.”

Mr. George says: “If private property in land is just, then the remedy I propose is a false one; if, on the contrary, private property in land be unjust, then is this remedy the true one,” which does not follow at all. That is like saying that, “if private property in niggers is unjust, then to make niggers public property is the true remedy.” “In the name of the Prophet, Figs!” Before we accept his remedy as the true one, I think we may properly ask for further evidence on that point. And, while we are considering the ethical side of the question, may it not be as well to ask what right single taxers have to prescribe conditions upon which men may be permitted to exercise their “inalienable rights,’ say the payment of the single tax, for instance?

At several points during the course of Mr. George’s works he touches upon some very suggestive subjects. On page 64 of “Progress and Poverty,” he says:

“If bad government rob the laborer of his capital, if unjust laws take from the producer the wealth with which he would assist production, and hand it over to those who are mere pensioners upon industry, the real limitation to the effectiveness of labor is in misgovernment, and not in want of capital.” [43]

Right there is a rich vein of ore. It is a pity lie did not follow that lead a little further. But he didn’t. If he had, he might have learned that government is always mis-government, and that law always has for its object the “taking from the producer the wealth with which he would assist production, and the handing it over to those who are mere pensioners upon industry.” He would have seen that law never promotes the prosperity and happiness of any but those pensioners; and that it is just as impossible to make men prosperous and happy by law, as to make them good by law.

Is there anything more needed for the complete refutation and disproof of the single tax? I think not. But if there is, I will try and supply it when I come to treat of government and politics in Part III of this work.

Shall we say then that Mr. George’s great labors have been in vain,—that his work has been a failure? By no means. If all the mistakes, the inconsistencies, and absurdities which I have pointed out in “Progress and Poverty,” his greatest work, remain unanswered; and the whole fabric of the single tax is destroyed, does it lessen the brilliancy of his genius, or detract from the fame which the future will accord him? Not a whit. These are but the tarnish which hides the polished surface beneath. And when they are rubbed off, the life-work of Henry George will shine with a luster it else could not know. In every hamlet between the two oceans men have learned the lesson of human dignity, have obtained a clearer knowledge of human rights, and human equality, and have caught a higher inspiration of liberty. And not here alone, but wherever civilization has lifted men above the savage, he has awakened a larger hope and painted a higher ideal. The seed thus planted is taking deep root, and cannot fail, ere long, to bear an abundant harvest of blessings to every human being. I, too, drank at his fountain. I salute my Teacher.

1 comment:

Gilbert De Bruycker said...

".... if the competition is free the advantage of location must go to the consumer in the cheapened price of the goods, and thereby distribute itself naturally and equally."

I don't think so. The advantage would NOT be to the consumer's benefit. This advantage goes to the producer having the least costs; it is RENT.