Henry George The Single Tax

Henry George and the Single Tax

One of the most important figures in the conflict of ideas on the subject of private land holding was Henry George (1839-1897). The son of a publisher of religious books in Philadelphia, he gained wide experience through travel. A brief adventure in politics brought home to him the power of vested interests. This experience along with his observation of land booms following early railroad construction in California, plus the obvious poverty surrounding him, and his own firsthand acquaintance with it as a young man, gradually produced the ingredients for his famous work Progress and Poverty, published in 1879. The last part of George's life was spent as a lecturer and journalist popu­larizing his ideas. It was the theory of Henry George that poverty tended to increase and wages were forced down even though productive capacity and wealth increased, "because land, which is the source of all wealth and the field of all labor, is monopo­lized." Private property is justified only by the labor expended to produce it, hence labor provides the only right to property— what a man makes is his own; the process of exchange does not change this fact. To George this had the aspect of a natural law.

He drew from this proposition the obvious conclusion that no man had a right to anything which he did not produce. Never­theless, said he, men exact rent for the use of land which they did not create, and reap the increase in value for which society alone is responsible. It is this toll exacted by the land owner that fosters poverty and stifles progress.

To remedy this condition George offered one solution. It was not necessary to confiscate property; "it was only necessary to confiscate rent." This would be done by abolishing all other taxes and introducing a single tax on land. In theory the scheme appears sound: Merely tax the surplus or unearned increment above necessary expenses of land use. But practical difficulties arose and the proposal has remained a theory save for a small number of modified local experiments.