I generally eschew question-and-answer as a format for presenting ideas but the choice I confront is to use this ‘easy’ structure or to delay the promised ‘refutation’ until next week due to deadline pressure. I chose ‘easy’. The following commentaries do not exhaust my objections to the Single Tax – far from it. But they provide a good indication of those objections and (hopefully) a springboard for productive discussion. The questions in bold face represent the Georgist position, followed by my ‘refutation.’
How can someone justify claiming property by the ‘right of first occupation’ when everyone else has a similar claim to the same property?
No system of land ownership is without difficulties, and I do not put forth the ‘mixing one’s labor’ standard as ideal. But every theory is meant to solve a problem and, so, the salient question becomes, “How well does this theory solve the problem compared to every other one?” In other words, all theories face difficulties in establishing the right of first ownership; which one offers the best solution?
I believe the ‘mixing of labor’ standard is superior. Everyone has the same and equal right to mix their labor with unoccupied land according to some reasonable standard that I believe would evolve in common law. Thus, a man could not claim a square mile of land because he planted a tree in the middle of it. Reasonable standards of land ownership would and have evolved under the free market through history, even when the freedoms were imperfect. (Similarly, Georgists believe a reasonable rate for and collection of the single tax would evolve.)
I do not deny that the second person to arrive at the same land is prevented from using it without the first’s consent. The situation is akin to a man gathering a basket of wild berries and sitting down to breakfast. A passer-by can go on a similar berry hunt but he cannot properly snatch the basket of picked berries from the man’s lap. Nor can the passer-by demand payment for the man’s breakfast. The ‘profit’ of the berry-breakfast belongs entirely to the one whose efforts secured the basket.
For me, the most extreme advantage of the ‘mixing labor’ standard is that land quickly becomes available on the open market; indeed, this form of pre-owned property soon dominates the marketplace. Georgists object that land is not created by people’s labor, by the use of their faculties. But property on the open market is an expression of people’s labor and faculties in that they exchange the result of their productive labor – currency, barter, etc. – for the property. In short, the ‘mixing labor’ standard quickly results in property ownership and value being determined by the free market and it becomes possible to write the state entirely out of the dynamics.
By contrast, Georgism cements a land-assessing, tax-collecting authority into the very concept of property and it does so in perpetuity. Even if you believe that a tax-collecting authority would not naturally expand or become corrupt, it remains perilously close if not identical to a State. The free market is the only vehicle that does not have force or privilege embedded in its core.
As a matter of principle, you cannot claim a right to something you do not own – land – simply because you mix it with something you do own – your labor.
If this is true, then it proves more than I believe Georgists wish to accept. If I can make no rightful claim to the riches of nature with which I must mix my labor in order to produce bread, clothing, shelter, and the other necessities of life then I can never claim to ‘own’ the loaf I am baking, the dress on my back, the chair in which I sit, the roof over my head. I am in possession of these goods only because I deprived others of their equal claim to the raw materials consumed in their production.
This means that the cane I whittle from a stick of wood found in a ditch is partially owned by my neighbor and everyone else on the globe because I have no rightful claim of ownership over the original wood. It is futile for the Georgist to point to the high degree of labor mixed with the wood or to the fact the wood had been abandoned because neither observation mitigates his principled argument that the natural resource was and is not mine. Why is it only land to which the Georgist applies his principles and not to sticks or wild berries? Why not make every person pay every other person for all goods that include a natural resource?–which is to say, all goods.
I suspect it is because the Georgist argument would reduce to absurdity if carried to its logical conclusion. When the consistent application of a principle results in absurdity, it is time to reconsider that principle.
The Georgist land system would also block incentives for people to improve themselves by their own efforts; at every turn, an industrious individual would owe positive duties rather than negative ones to the community at large. Actions to improve his life by plowing or whittling would automatically create positive obligations to profit other people which would go far beyond his obligation to merely refrain from using force against them. Even if the single tax were based on the desirability of the land rather than the productivity coaxed from it, that desirability is often a result of the improvements in soil, clearing, etc. that comes from one person’s labor.
In Free Life (1898) Auberon Herbert commented on the adverse impact of such a tax. “The community is entitled to all values arising from land…that are not due to labor. But…it would surpass the skill of men to disentangle these intermixed values. It could only be done by guess work of a very coarse kind. If the principle were just in itself, it would still be used as a mask for taking from others….All taking of so-called unearned increment would be a farce—and a very mean farce.”
Herbert then asks a key question – do Georgists advocate making good the losses that occur as well as profiting from the gains? “A site falls in value owing to the movement of population—will the believers in unearned increment compensate the owner?”
But the point remains that natural resources belong equally to everyone.
Again, I doubt that Georgists wish to follow this argument to its logically conclusion because it would necessitate impartially dividing the benefits of all land among all human beings. If one area of the world was gifted with rich soil and abundant water, then it would owe a debt to areas of barren sand and drought. Any line drawn to include some people in the rich area’s advantages while excluding others would violate the Georgists’ own principle that the earth equally belongs to all. Thus, a single tax that benefits a small portion of the global community reveals itself as being inherently and manifestly ‘unfair’. And, yet, a globally ‘fair’ distribution of value would be nigh well impossible to achieve; it cannot even be envisioned without a sprawling global authority that collects data, assesses and taxes far beyond what libertarian-style Georgists would tolerate. Like absurdity, the impossibility of implementing a principle should make you reconsider it.
Moreover, the idea that a ‘good’ properly belongs to everyone and, yet, cannot be owned by an individual makes no sense. If it is not proper for an individual to do X, then how can it be proper for 10 or 10,000,000 individuals to do X? In this regard, Georgism denies methodological individualism on which so much of libertarianism is based. As Tucker wrote regarding paying a single tax to a ‘society’ or a ‘community’, “‘[T]he community’ is a non-entity that…has no existence, and is simply a combination of individuals having no prerogatives beyond those of the individuals themselves. This combination of individuals has not better title to the land than any single individual outside it.”(Liberty, 1888) Tucker concluded, “land belong[s] not to the people but to the occupant and user.”(Liberty, 1894.)
The foregoing does not contest that social arrangements can and have existed based on “a commons” or collective ownership. But a society that respects the individual also acknowledges the right of individual ownership of natural resources based upon use and occupancy or upon purchase on the open market.
Justice requires there to be an authority to distribute the ‘unfair’ advantages enjoyed by those who use and occupy land.
I can give no better answer than that offered by Auberon Herbert (Free Life, 1898):
“Who is to decide whether it is to be prairie value or market value? Whether a land tax is to be permanent or be liable to increase? Who is to disentangle the share of nature and of human labour and skill? In the second place he has created for his purposes an official body with power to tax and to spend the taxes so imposed; but what reason has he to suppose that an official body–necessarily armed in this matter with absolute power–elected under the false system of a majority possessed of all rights and a minority possessed of no rights–will give a just and true interpretation to his dogma of ‘nature’s gifts the property of everybody’? Is there not an instructive light thrown upon the truth of his dogma by the fact that in order to arrive at a practical application of it he is obliged to perpetuate a large part of the very evils from which we are trying to escape–the absolute power of the majority–the power to take what amount they like and to spend it for such purposes as they like. If compulsory taxation is wrong in itself, how can you concede a land-tax, to be levied by the majority on the minority, without at the same time conceding all the evils and oppressions of compulsory taxation?”
Claiming a person owns his labor but not the material upon which it is expended is tantamount to denying the person’s ownership of his labor. Or, at the very least, to deny him the benefit of labor. With the exception of purely intellectual endeavor, work is always expended on something; a good is produced out of material that reduces to a natural resource. To say a worker owns the hands that fashion a wooden chair but he does not own the chair because he has no exclusive claim to that natural resource is to make a mockery or a semantic game of anyone ‘owning their labor’. Where is the advantage to owning your labor when you cannot control what it produces in order to feed yourself? Georgism is not merely a Single Tax but an assault upon the concept of ownership itself.