Henry George: An Exploration of Some Penalties to Taxing Solely Land – Econlib


Henry George
  • A Liberty Classics Ebook Assessment of Progress and Poverty, by Henry George.
Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) was among the many most necessary and extensively learn books printed within the nineteenth century, however George’s work and the only tax motion it spawned had largely light frequent data by the Thirties. George’s central thought was {that a} single tax on land values was adequate to fund the federal government, and that non-public appropriation of land’s worth was the reason for the persistence of extreme poverty even within the richest and most developed cities on the earth. Right this moment, Georgist concepts are starting to obtain renewed curiosity, as housing affordability has develop into a political difficulty all over the world, making this an excellent a time to revisit this necessary textual content.

Books 1 and a pair of—Critique of Earlier Political Economic system

The primary two books of Progress and Poverty determine the failings of different methods of political economic system George’s his day—most notably these of John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. The prevailing view held that there continued to be poverty regardless of monumental materials advances, as a result of the wages of labor have been drawn from society’s inventory of capital, which was being break up amongst an ever-growing variety of folks because of inhabitants development and worldwide competitors. The treatment would thus appear to be protectionism and inhabitants management.

George’s first critique is that these authors don’t use phrases in a constant and clear approach. To this finish, George presents definitions of phrases that will likely be wanted for the remainder of the e book:

  • • Land—”the whole materials universe outdoors man himself” (22) to incorporate land, but in addition minerals, air, water, and many others.
  • • Labor—all human exertion.
  • • Wealth—”a pure product that has been secured, moved, mixed, separated, or in different methods modified by human exertion.”
  • • Capital—the portion of wealth that’s dedicated to producing extra wealth.

Land, labor, and capital are the three components of manufacturing for George, as for the opposite classical political economists. Anybody acquainted with up to date economics will know that theories right now possess simply two components of manufacturing: labor and capital—lumping capital and land collectively. George’s system ought to be of curiosity to us, partly, as a result of it’s arguably essentially the most well-developed system of political economic system that considers land as a definite issue of manufacturing.

George additionally believed that there’s a relation of logical precedence among the many components of manufacturing. Land is previous to labor, as a result of no labor may very well be exerted if there have been no sources to exert it upon. Land can exist with out labor, however labor can not exist with out land. Labor is previous to capital, as a result of labor may be exerted to supply one thing with out the help of capital (suppose right here of a Robinson Crusoe who should produce at first with out the help of any instruments), however capital can not produce with out labor. Different political economists proceed incorrectly by inspecting capital first and holding that wages are drawn from capital. As a substitute, argued George, political economic system ought to proceed from the bottom up, because it have been.

Although George shares Smith’s elementary perception that the division of labor is genesis of the overwhelming share of society’s wealth, he departs from Smith by holding that the wages of laborers derive from the productive energy of labor, not from a set capital inventory. The precedence of labor over capital simply mentioned establishes this. Chapters 3 and 4 of Ebook 1 include a number of additional arguments for this conclusion.

In chapter 2, George relentlessly assaults the prevailing concept that overpopulation is the reason for poverty. His argument boils right down to this easy thought: the extra folks there are, the additional the division of labor can advance. Because the division of labor is the elemental reason for wealth—as a result of it makes employees extra productive—a rise in inhabitants can by no means, by itself, trigger society to develop into poorer since employees’ wages are decided by their productiveness. For that reason, George even speculates, contra Malthus, that the Earth may simply help a trillion folks or extra.

Books 3 to five—The Science of Distribution

Ebook 3 is essentially the most theoretical and summary of the whole work. Its intention is to derive a complete concept of the distribution of the social surplus among the many three components of manufacturing. George derives this from the elemental axiom of social science: folks search to gratify their wishes with the least exertion. From this elementary precept follows Ricardo’s regulation of lease: the lease that land instructions is the distinction between the productiveness of that land and the productiveness of the least productive land in use, the so known as “margin of production.” The perception that animates this e book is George’s realization that the margin of manufacturing determines not solely lease, but in addition the speed of wages and the speed of curiosity on capital. Chapter 5 examines the previous and chapter 6 examines the latter. Capital, in accordance with George, is simply human labor impressed upon matter. Capital is labor saved up on materials kind. Therefore, capital’s share of the social product is only a particular case of labor’s share.

The regulation of lease holds for city land in addition to agricultural land. Two legal professionals of equal ability, with similar regulation faculty transcripts, and many others., go to work in Cleveland and New York. The one in New York earns thrice extra over the course of his profession than the one in Cleveland as a result of he’s “working more productive land,” that’s, he’s way more productive as a result of he works within the middle of the worldwide data economic system and thus has entry to extra connections, data and alternatives than the lawyer in Cleveland. However, the house owners of the land in New York are capable of acceptable a good portion of the surplus worth that this lawyer produces. The lease for his house is 5-10 instances as a lot than a Cleveland house could be, and better lease is baked into the value of all the items and companies he buys in New York. So, although the lawyer in New York is extra productive and earns a better wage, his wage after lease is probably going way more just like his colleague in Cleveland. Wages are decided by the margin of cultivation, even for skilled jobs within the data economic system.

As soon as George derives the idea of wages and curiosity on this static context, he strikes on in Ebook 4 to review the legal guidelines in a dynamic context: how does the share of the social product obtained by landowners, employees, and capitalists evolve beneath circumstances of fabric progress. The quick reply is, when there’s financial development, brought on by enhance in inhabitants or productiveness, lease will repeatedly enhance as effectively. When there are extra folks the margin of manufacturing expands, growing lease and lowering wages. And when productiveness will increase, the distinction in productiveness between one of the best land and the margin of manufacturing will increase, growing lease and lowering wages. So, for George, the primary purpose why materials progress doesn’t enhance the lives of everyone seems to be that a lot of the wealth created by materials progress goes to landowners as lease, to not employees. Have been George alive right now, the truth that employees in our most efficient cities typically spend a majority of their incomes on lease (and much more on the oblique lease that’s baked into the costs of products and companies) would possible strike him as a affirmation of his view.

In Ebook 5, George derives his concept of the enterprise cycle from the remainder of his concept. Land hypothesis performs a key explanatory position. In international locations with financial or inhabitants development, land costs generally develop too quick out of speculative anticipation. When this occurs, helpful land is left idle for speculative functions and the economic system under-produces. This underproduction ripples by way of the remainder of the economic system to trigger an industrial melancholy. George, as a newspaperman in San Francisco within the 1860s and 1870s, noticed this course of occur first hand. Land costs in San Francisco soared within the lead as much as the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. However it will definitely turned out to be a bubble, and the correction in land costs brought on extra normal financial turmoil. Hire and hypothesis don’t play main roles in up to date theories of the enterprise cycle, although housing markets are undoubtedly necessary for understanding some downturns, because the Nice Recession reveals.

Books 7 to 9—Land Worth Taxation: Justice and Effectivity

“George’s remedy to the problem of progress and poverty is to tax land and eliminate all other taxes.”

George’s treatment to the issue of progress and poverty is to tax land and get rid of all different taxes. George has two arguments for the land worth tax, one based mostly on justice (Ebook 7) and the opposite based mostly on effectivity (Ebook 8).

Right here is the simplified type of George’s argument that non-public property in land is unjust:

  • • Individuals are solely entitled to the worth they create by way of their very own labor.
  • • No particular person created the worth of land.
  • • Subsequently, no particular person is entitled to the worth of land.

The primary premise ought to be endorsed by any theorist within the liberal custom. It embodies a liberal perception in self-ownership: nobody is entitled to take what you create.

The second premise is what’s harder to see. Let’s have a look at city land once more. There’s a very small plot of land close to the place I stay that’s on the market for $550,000. First, no particular person created this land itself—that’s the doing of God, or nature. Second, the proprietor of the parcel just isn’t accountable for the parcel’s worth. The parcel is price a lot solely as a result of it’s located close to different issues of worth, near the middle of a affluent metropolis. George clearly acknowledges the significance of cities:

  • Right here is the center, the mind, of the huge social organism… Right here, when you have something to promote, is the market; right here, when you have something to purchase, is the most important and the choicest inventory. Right here mental exercise is gathered into a spotlight, and right here springs that stimulus which is born of the collision of thoughts with thoughts. Listed here are the good libraries, the storehouses and granaries of data, the realized professors, the well-known specialists. Listed here are museums and artwork galleries, collections of philosophical equipment, and all issues uncommon, and precious, and better of their sort. Right here come nice actors, and orators, and singers, from all around the world. Right here, in brief, is a middle of human life, in all its diversified manifestations” (Chapter 4, Ebook 2).

Briefly, the parcel in my neighborhood is price $550,000 not due to any efforts of its house owners (a gap within the floor has no intrinsic worth), however reasonably due to the constructive externalities created by the actions of the thousands and thousands of people that stay inside a 20-mile radius of the parcel. Since individuals are entitled solely to the product of their very own labor, the proprietor couldn’t be entitled to the worth of the parcel. Quite, the folks of town, who collectively created its worth by their productive actions, are entitled to it.

George extends this argument within the subsequent two chapters. He compares personal possession of land to slavery. He argues that non-public landownership results in the (partial) enslavement of laborers: “it is the ownership of the soil that everywhere gives the ownership of the men that live upon it” (Ebook 7 Chapter 2). Since tenants must pay a part of their earnings in land lease (the portion of their general lease that’s as a result of land, not the constructing), the owner can acceptable a part of the worth that their labor creates as his personal. George is attuned to this analogy as a result of he wrote simply two years after the top of Reconstruction, and he writes incisively in regards to the failure of emancipation to actually free the previously enslaved given emancipation was not accompanied by land reform. Within the third chapter, he argues that if land worth is socialized, present landowners are not entitled to compensation, for exactly the identical purpose that slaveowners weren’t entitled to compensation when their slaves have been emancipated.

Right here we will see why it’s so necessary to obviously distinguish land and capital as separate components of manufacturing. George’s conclusion is that non-public property in land is unjust, and tantamount to slavery, although personal possession of capital—machines, know-how, stock, factories, mental property and many others.—deserves the strictest safety, as a result of capital is just saved up labor. Karl Marx’s mistake was to analogize capital to land and to view personal capital possession as oppressive, however the mistake made by the neoclassical economists is to view land as identical to capital, ignoring the truth that the proprietor of capital is entitled to it however the proprietor of land just isn’t.

Let’s contemplate George’s efficiency-based arguments for land worth taxation, which primarily seem in Books 8 and 9. In Chapter 2 of Ebook 8, George lastly states his important coverage proposal: “To abolish all taxation save that upon land values.” Within the many years after the publication of Progress and Poverty, a social motion grew up round this “single tax” thought.

The efficiency-based justification of that is that land worth taxes don’t endure from what economists now name deadweight loss, although different taxes do. The provision of pure sources is totally fastened unbiased of something human beings do. So, when they’re taxed, the availability of pure sources doesn’t shrink. Examine this to taxes on labor, capital, or items. When wages are taxed, folks work lower than they in any other case would. When capital is taxed, folks save much less. And when items are taxed, within the type of tariffs or gross sales taxes, folks produce and eat fewer items. In technical phrases, the availability of pure sources is totally inelastic, whereas the availability of the whole lot else is elastic. Because of this taxing something aside from land creates deadweight loss, financial worth that’s utterly destroyed by the tax. By changing taxes on wages, capital and items with taxes on land, society would develop into a lot richer.

George rigorously attracts out the concrete implications of a shift to land worth taxation. Actual wages would rise by way of a number of completely different channels: the elimination of taxes on wages, the discount within the value of all items that employees purchase, and the elevated productiveness of the whole economic system. The charges of return on capital would enhance, for a similar causes. Much less social spending could be required, as a result of the primary factor that drives folks into poverty in industrialized international locations is the excessive price of dwelling. The land worth tax can be simpler to gather and fewer prone to arbitrary enforcement than different taxes.

Lastly, George argues that the web impact of this modification could be constructive even for the overwhelming majority of people who personal land. To replace his instance in right now’s phrases: the most important proportion of the standard family’s internet price is the family’s major residence. One would possibly suppose that the proposal to socialize land worth, as such, make most individuals worse-off. However maybe 2/3 of the worth of a typical residence is within the construction, not the land, so could be untouched by the land worth tax. And for the standard family, their actual earnings would enhance way more than the quantity of elevated land taxes they must pay.


For extra on these subjects, see

We’ve got seen that George makes use of two moral ideas to argue for land worth taxation: a deontological precept interesting to norms of justice and rights, and a consequentialist precept interesting to norms of effectivity and results. George summarizes the attraction of land worth taxation in these phrases: “Wealth would not only be enormously increased; it would be equally distributed. I do not mean that each individual would get the same amount of wealth. That would not be equal distribution, so land as different individuals have different powers and different desires. But I mean that wealth would be distributed in accordance with the degree in which the industry, skill, knowledge, or prudence of each contributed to the common stock” (Ebook 9, Chapter 3). Land worth taxes would notice the perfect of a meritocracy, and resolve the issue of progress and poverty.


[1] Henry George. Progress and Poverty. Initially printed 1879, Doubleday, Web page & Co. On-line on the Library of Economics and Liberty.

[2] In some areas of the British empire, slaveowners have been compensated when their slaves have been emancipated, however this was a matter of political necessity. Slave-owners didn’t deserve this compensation.

* Paul Forrester is a fifth-year scholar within the philosophy Ph.D. program at Yale. Earlier than that, he earned his BA in political science and philosophy from Duke. He makes a speciality of ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of social science, and he’s particularly occupied with interdisciplinary approaches to points resembling housing, local weather change and rising applied sciences.

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