In this second installment of my short series on land and property rights (see my first installment here), I begin to respond to “We Can Have It All: The Beauty of Value Capture” by Edward Miller. In particular, I focus on the idea of the single tax on the value of land, as originated by Henry George. Mr. Miller, a contemporary representative of the Georgist position, states that “We can eliminate taxes and debt, poverty and special privilege. Contrary to the dour pronouncements from the curators of the dismal science, we can have it all.” Mr. Miller advocates doing this by advocating the elimination of “no-strings-attached sovereignty” over land and replacing it with what he calls “Value Capture” and which many others would call a land-value tax. Mr. Miller states that this “is a tax only in the sense that Pigovian ‘Taxes’ are. It is not a tax on production, and thus there is nothing objectionable about it from the perspective of classical liberalism. Indeed, I’d argue that without it, classical liberalism is a cruel joke. Value capture is simply a reconceptualization of who owns the value of the access rights over the Earth.” In this installment, I will focus on the Pigovian/Georgist land-value tax idea in particular. In subsequent installments, I will address what I consider to be a more desirable approach to land in a free-market, classically liberal manner that seeks to facilitate economic growth and the continual improvement of living standards.
I am not a supporter of a land-value tax (however it may be termed) or of Pigovian taxation in general. The idea of a Pigovian tax (however called) seems to me rather contrived, in that it assumes a perfect knowledge on the part of the taxing authority of not just which activities create negative externalities, but also the precise extent to which a particular instance of such activities creates those externalities – and, correspondingly, the precise extent of taxation needed to take the “social cost” of these activities into account. The economic distortions of taxation, relative to a tax-free free-market situation, cannot be avoided in practice, no matter what form the tax takes – though, admittedly, it can be said that some types of taxes produce greater distortions or different kinds of distortions than others. Furthermore, the idea of a Pigovian tax is unworkable in practice, because political incentives and the influence of special-interest pressure groups would surely distort the incidence of the tax to benefit those with lobbying clout. In other words, even if the exact “social cost” of every activity could be calculated, the influence of lobbyists on elected officials would result in the incidence of the tax departing from a proper reflection of that “social cost.”
The elimination of all other possible taxes would be a definite advantage of the Georgist system, though – in practice – attempts to introduce a new type of tax have seldom supplanted existing taxes but have merely resulted in yet another kind of tax alongside all others. In fact, in the United States today, we might consider the current system of property taxation to be a partially Georgist system – but the property taxes are paid alongside income, sales, excise, gift, estate, fuel, and numerous other taxes – not to mention a myriad of fees to fund specific government services.
However, let us assume that it is politically feasible to enact a single land-value tax that supplants all other taxes. Perhaps an added advantage of this simplified approach would be the reduction in the overall cost of administering tax determination and collection – which the most benevolent conceivable government would entirely pass on to the people in the form of a lower tax rate. Even in this ideal situation, why might a land-value tax still be less favorable than other possible taxes?
Consider that certain kinds of taxes can be avoided by a property-owning individual entirely. He only needs to pay an income tax if he earns taxable income. He only needs to pay a sales tax if he purchases taxable goods. He can avoid gift taxes by not giving gifts (beyond the tax-exempt amounts). If he has enough money saved up to live on, grows/produces all of his own goods, and keeps his property largely to himself, he can avoid all such taxes in theory (even though, in practice, he would admittedly be part of a small minority of the population). The similarity among these taxes (no matter their other flaws, of which there are many) is that they do not reduce current wealth kept for personal use. Property taxes are different in that they are able to actually diminish a person’s stock of wealth without that person undertaking any positive action. As long as a person owns a house, or a commercial building, or even a stretch of land for recreational use, he cannot avoid the diminution of his wealth through taxation solely due to the passage of time. An income tax only reduces one’s potential earning opportunities. A sales tax only reduces one’s potential purchasing power if one chooses to make purchases. A property tax, however, reduces one’s existing stock of wealth, no matter what one chooses to do. Thus, with all other things (including the total tax collected) being equal, a property tax is more adverse to an individual because it compels him to engage in positive actions in order to maintain his present wealth, rather than merely discouraging the individual from undertaking certain additional activities that might be taxed to a greater extent than he might prefer.
A Georgist land-value tax is different from the current American property tax in that it taxes the land only and not the manmade improvements on that land. In this respect, the land-value tax is superior. It would probably encourage significant vertical building by landowners/occupants in order to increase the amount of improvements per unit of land. However, it would also probably result in large stretches of land being unoccupied and unused, because there would be a sub-optimal level of interest in developing that land, as the owners/occupants would be responsible for paying tax. This may make the unfortunate phenomenon of urban congestion common even in less populated areas.
Furthermore, one can conceive of a supremely sub-optimal outcome of the single land-value tax, which would be the result of a perverse incentive indeed. This is the scenario where most individuals decide that it is not worth the trouble to own land (or partially own it or “rent” it from the community – however this might be described legally). Instead, large landholding corporations would emerge and purchase most or all of the land. Their owners (probably a lot of dispersed shareholders beholden to an entrenched management and thereby subject to numerous principal-agent problems) would be willing to absorb the costs of the land-value tax in exchange for collecting rents from everyone else who lives and works on that land. Many ordinary people might think that they are getting a good deal by avoiding all legal incidence of taxation – but in reality, the amount of rent they would pay to the landholding corporations would be higher to reflect the taxes those corporations have to pay. In other words, the cost of the land-value tax would be at least partially passed on to the renters/majority of people in the community by the landholding corporations. Economically, this is identical to the scenario that the Georgist proposal seeks to avoid – the situation where (whether or not this is indeed the case) it is alleged that most of people are beholden to a minority of landowners or lienholders by means of payment of rent or repayment of expensive mortgages.
One significant downside of this scenario, relative to the status quo, is that the possibility of “free and clear” ownership of property would be more definitively off-limits to everybody – even in theory. Another even greater concern is that the landholding corporations would essentially behave like supercharged homeowners’ associations – with even more power to micromanage people’s lives and impose arbitrary restraints on the use of personal property and the improvement of land. They would be able to conduct this abuse with impunity, because there would be fewer of them in any given geographical area, compared to today’s homeowners’ associations. This would give the landholding corporations the oligopoly (and sometimes monopoly) power that enables many similar entities to disregard consumer preferences and extract large amounts of unearned money.
The reality is that the market always seeks to correct for economic distortions that are the result of confiscatory or redistributive policies. The correction is always imperfect, because real wealth is in fact appropriated through taxation. However, changing the tax structure cannot, by itself, solve the whole distortion – without addressing how much wealth is kept by private citizens and what they are legally able to do with that wealth. There may, however, be a valid argument for changing a tax structure if this inherently results in a lower total proportion of tax collected, relative to the wealth that exists among the general population. This, of course, depends on the real rates of tax selected for each alternative under consideration. For instance, I would wholeheartedly support (as an unambiguous directional improvement relative to the status quo) a single land-value tax whose entire collections would be a mere 0.5% of the Gross Domestic Product. Irrespective of any concerns about the incentive effects of the tax, those would be dwarfed by the sheer amount of wealth that individuals would be able to keep compared to today’s tax regime. In this situation, though, I would still strongly prefer that the legal concept of full ownership of land be retained and that the land-value tax be administered similarly to today’s property taxes – as opposed to treating the occupant of the land as a “tenant” who owes a “rent” to “the community.”
There may also be a valid argument for changing a tax structure if doing so results in more wealth-generating behavior and increased productivity. However, I cannot find a system that allows for the diminution of current wealth through taxation to be more encouraging of productivity than a system that merely takes a share of future active production or consumption. If one cannot be guaranteed the peaceful and total enjoyment of the wealth one has already earned, then earning more seems less attractive from a psychological (in addition to a purely economic) perspective. Productivity is simply not as enjoyable if one views it as a chore to be done in order to remain in one’s present situation and prevent a decline – rather than an ambitious endeavor of self-improvement and possible enrichment.
Next, I will address how land might properly be approached from a libertarian/classical liberal standpoint, with beneficial practical consequences to most and the avoidance of effects that might stifle economic growth or decrease individual opportunities.