Land and Taxation: A Conversation
with David Dudley Field
[Originally published in the North American
Review, July, 1885, and circulated
in tract form in the United
States, Canada and Great Britain]
David Dudley Field
graduated from Williams College in 1825, and settled in New York
City, where he studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1828 and
rapidly won a high position in his profession. Becoming convinced
that the common law in America, and particularly in New York state,
needed radical changes in respect to the unification and
simplification of its procedure, he visited Europe in 1836 and
thoroughly investigated the courts, procedure and codes of England,
France and other countries, and then applied himself to the task of
bringing about in the United States a codification of the common law
procedure. Field was originally an anti-slavery Democrat, and he
supported Martin Van Buren in the Free Soil campaign of 1848. He
gave his support to the Republican party in 1856 and to the Lincoln
Administration throughout the American Civil War. After 1876,
however, he returned to the Democratic party, and from January to
March 1877 served out in Congress the unexpired term of Smith Ely,
elected mayor of New York City. He died in New York City in 1894.
MR. DAVID DUDLEY FIELD. Will you explain to me how you expect to
develop, in practice, your theory of the confiscation of land to the
use of the State?
MR. HENRY GEORGE. By abolishing all other taxes and concentrating
taxation upon land values.
F. Then suppose A to be the proprietor of a thousand acres of land on
the Hudson, chiefly farming land, but at the same time having on it
houses, barns, cattle, horses, carriages, furniture; how is he to be
dealt with under your theory?
G. He would be taxed upon the value of his land, and not upon the
value of his improvements and stock.
F. Whether the value of his land has been increased by his
cultivation or not?
G. The value of land is not really increased by cultivation. The
value that cultivation adds is a value of improvement, which I would
exempt. I would tax the land at its present value, excluding
improvements; so that such a proprietor would have no more taxes to
pay than the proprietors of one thousand acres of land, equal in
capabilities, situation, etc., that remained in a state of nature.
F. But suppose the proprietor of such land to have let it lie waste
for many years while the farmer that I speak of has devoted his time
and money to increasing the value of his thousand acres, would you tax
them exactly alike?
P. Let us suppose B, an adjoining proprietor, has land that has never
yielded a blade of grass, or any other product than weeds; and that A,
a farmer, took his in the same condition when he purchased, and by his
own thrift and expenditure has improved his land, so that now, without
buildings, furniture, or stock, it is worth five times as much as B's
thousand acres; B is taxed at the rate of a dime an acre; would you
tax A at the rate of a dime an acre?
G. I would certainly tax him no more than B, for by the additional
value that A has created he has added that much to the common stock of
wealth, and he ought to profit by it. The effect of our present
system, which taxes a man for values created by his labour and
capital, is to put a fine upon industry, and repress improvement. The
more houses, the more crops, the more buildings in the country, the
better for us all, and we are doing ourselves an injury by imposing
taxes upon the production of such things.
F. How are you to ascertain the value of land considered as waste
G. By its selling price. The value of land is more easily and
certainly ascertained than any other value. Land lies out of doors,
everybody can see it, and in every neighbourhood a close idea of its
value can be had.
F. Take the case of the owner of a thousand acres in the Adirondack
wilderness that have been denuded of trees, and an adjoining thousand
acres that have a fine growth of timber. How would you value them?
G. Natural timber is a part of the land; when it has value it adds to
the value of the land.
F. The land denuded of timber would then be taxed less than land that
G. On general principles it would, where the value of the land was
therefore lessened. But where, as in the Adirondacks, public policy
forbids anything that would hasten the cutting of timber, natural
timber might be considered an improvement, like planted timber, which
should not add to taxable value.
F. Then suppose a man to have a thousand acres of wild timber land,
and to have cut off the timber, and planted the land, and set up
buildings, and generally improved it, would you tax him less than the
man that has retained his land with the timber still on it?
G. I would tax the value of his land irrespective of the improvements
made by him, whether they consisted in clearing, in ploughing, or in
building. In other words, I would tax that value which is created by
the growth of the community, not that created by individual effort.
Land has no value on account of improvements made upon it, or on
account of its natural capabilities. It is as population increases,
and society develops, that land values appear, and they rise in
proportion to the growth of population and social development. For
instance, the value of the land upon which this building stands is now
enormously greater than it was years ago, not because of what its
owner has done, but because of the growth of New York.
F. I am not speaking of New York City in particular; I am speaking of
G. The same principle is generally true. Where a settler takes up a
quarter section on a western prairie, and improves it, his land has no
value so long as other land of the same quality can be had for
nothing. The value he creates is merely the value of improvement. But
when population comes, then arises a value that attaches to the land
itself. That is the value I would tax.
P. Suppose the condition of the surrounding community in the West
remained the same; two men go together and purchase two pieces of land
of a thousand acres each; one leaves his with a valuable growth of
timber, the other cuts off the timber, cultivates the land, and makes
a well ordered farm. Would you tax the man that has left the timber
upon his land more than you would tax the other man, provided that the
surrounding country remained the same?
G. I would tax them both upon the value of the land at the time of
taxation. At first, I take it, the clearing of the land would be a
valuable improvement. On this, as on the value of his other
improvements, I would not have the settler taxed. Thus taxation upon
the two would be the same. In course of time the growth of population
might give value to the uncut timber, which, being included in the
value of land, would make the taxation upon the man that had left his
land in a state of nature heavier than upon the man that had converted
his land into a farm.
P. A man that goes into the western country and takes up land, paying
the government price, and does nothing to the land; how is he to be
G. As heavily as the man that has taken a like amount of land and
improved it. Our present system is unjust and injurious in taxing the
improver and letting the mere proprietor go. Settlers take up land,
clear it, build houses, and cultivate crops, and for thus adding to
the general wealth are immediately punished by taxation upon their
improvements. This taxation is escaped by the man that lets his land
lie idle, and, in addition to that, he is generally taxed less upon
the value of his land than are those who have made their land
valuable. All over the country, land in use is taxed more heavily than
unused land. This is wrong. The man that holds land and neglects to
improve it keeps away somebody that would, and he ought to pay as much
for the opportunity he wastes as the man that improves a like
F. Then you would tax the farmer whose farm is worth $1000 as heavily
as you would tax the adjoining proprietor, who, with the same quantity
of land, has added improvements worth $100,000; is that your idea?
G. It is. The improvements made by the capitalist would do no harm to
the farmer, and would benefit the whole community, and I would do
nothing to discourage them.
F. In whom would you have the title to land vested -- in the State,
or in the individuals, as now?
G. I would leave the land titles as at present.
F. Your theory does not touch the title to land, nor the mode of
transferring the title, nor the enjoyment of it; but it is a theory
confined altogether to the taxing of it?
G. In form. Its effect, however, if carried as far as I would like to
carry it, would be to make the community the real owner of land, and
the various nominal owners virtually tenants, paying ground rent in
the shape of taxes.
P. Before we go to the method by which you would effect that result,
let me ask you this question: A, a large landlord in New York, owns a
hundred houses, each worth say $25,000 (scattered in different parts
of the city); at what rate of valuation would you tax him?
G. On his houses, nothing. I would tax him on the value of the lots.
P. As vacant lots?
G. As if each particular lot were vacant, surrounding improvements
remaining the same.
P. If you would have titles as now, then A, who owns a ten thousand
dollar house and lot in the city, would still continue to be the
owner, as he is at present?
G. He would still continue to be the owner, but as taxes were
increased upon land values he would, while still continuing to enjoy
the full ownership of the house, derive less and less of the pecuniary
benefits of the ownership of the lot, which would go in larger and
larger proportions to the State, until, if the taxation of land values
were carried to the point of appropriating them entirely the State
would derive all those benefits, and, though nominally still the
owner, he would become in reality a tenant with assured possession, so
long as he continued to pay the tax, which might then become in form,
as it would be in essence, a ground rent.
P. Now, suppose A to he the owner of a city lot and building, valued
at $500,000; who would give a deed to it to B?
G. A would give the deed.
F. Then supposing A to own twenty lots, with twenty buildings on
them, the lots being, as vacant lots, worth each $1000, and the
buildings being worth $49,000 each; and B to own twenty lots of the
same value, as vacant lots, without any buildings; would you tax A and
G. I would.
F. Suppose that B, to buy the twenty lots, had borrowed the price and
mortgaged them for it; would you have the tax in that case
G. I would hold the land for it. In cases in which it became
necessary to consider the relations of mortgagee and mortgager, I
would treat them as joint owners.
F. If A, the owner of a city lot with a house upon it, should sell it
to B, do you suppose that the price would be graduated by the value of
the improvements alone?
G. When the tax upon the land had reached the point of taking the
full annual value, it would.
F. To illustrate: Suppose A has a city lot, which, as a vacant lot,
is worth annually $10,000, and there is a building upon it worth
$100,000, and he sells them to B; you think the price would be
graduated according to the value of the building; that is to say,
$100,000, after the taxation had reached the annual value of $10,000?
F. To what purpose do you contemplate that the money raised by your
scheme of taxation should be applied?
G. To the ordinary expenses of government, and such purposes as the
supplying of water, of light, of power, the running of railways, the
maintenance of public parks, libraries, colleges, and kindred
institutions, and such other beneficial objects as may from time to
time suggest themselves; to the care of the sick and needy, the
support of widows and orphans, and, I am inclined to think, to the
payment of a fixed sum to every citizen when he came to a certain age.
F. Do you contemplate that money raised by taxation should be
expended for the support of the citizen?
G. I see no reason why it should not be.
F. Would you have him fed and clothed at the public expense?
G. Not necessarily; but I think a payment might well be made to the
citizen when he came to the age at which active powers decline that
would enable him to feed and clothe himself for the remainder of his
F. Let us come to practical results. The rate of taxation now in the
city of New York, we will suppose, is 2.30 upon the assessed value.
The assessed value is understood to be about sixty per cent, of the
real value of property. Land assessed at $60,000 is really worth
$100,000, and being assessed at 2.30 when valued at $60,000, should be
assessed at about 1.40 on the real value; you would in crease that
amount indefinitely, if I understand you, up to the annual rental
value of the land?
G. I would.
F. Which we will suppose to be five per cent.; is that it?
G. Let us suppose so.
F. Then your scheme contemplates the raising of five per cent, on the
true value of all real estate as vacant land, to be used for the
purposes you have mentioned. Have you thought of the increase in the
army of office-holders that would be required for the collection and
disbursement of this enormous sum of money?
G. I have.
F. What do you say to that?
G. That as to collection, it would greatly reduce the present army of
office-holders. A tax upon land values can be levied and collected
with a much smaller force than is now required for our multiplicity of
taxes; and I am inclined to think, that, directly and indirectly, the
plan I propose would permit the dismissal of three fifths of the
officials needed for the present purposes of government. This
simplification of government would do very much to purify our
politics; and I rely largely upon the improvement that the change I
contemplate would make in social life, by lessening the intensity of
the struggle for wealth, to permit the growth of such habits of
thought and conduct as would enable us to get for the management of
public affairs as much intelligence and as strict integrity as can now
be obtained for the management of great private affairs.
F. Supposing it to be true that you would reduce the expense of
collection, would you not, for the disbursement of these vast funds,
require a much larger number of efficient men than are now required?
G. Not necessarily. But, whether this be so or not, the full scheme I
propose can only be attained gradually. Until, at least, the total
amount needed for what are now considered purely governmental purposes
were obtained by taxation on land values, there would be a large
reduction of office-holders, and no increase.
F. How do you propose to divide the taxation between the State and
G. As taxes are now divided. As to questions that might arise, there
will be time enough to determine them when the principle has been
F. Your theory contemplates the raising of nearly four times as much
revenue in the State of New York as is now raised; how many
office-holders would it require to disburse this enormous sum of money
among the various objects that you have mentioned?
G. My theory does not require that it should be disbursed among the
objects 1 have mentioned, but simply that it should be used for public
F. Do you not think that the present rate of taxation is more than
sufficient for all purposes of government?
G. Under the state of society that I believe would ensue, it would be
much more than sufficient for present purposes of government. We
should need far less for expenses of revenue collection, police,
penitentiaries, courts, alms-houses, etc.
F. Then, to bring the matter down to a point, you propose for the
present no change whatever in anything, except that the amount now
raised by all methods of taxation should be imposed upon real estate
considered as vacant?
G. For a beginning, yes.
F. Well, what do you contemplate as the ending of such a scheme?
G. The taking of the full annual value of land for the benefit of the
whole people. I hold that land belongs equally to all, that land
values arise from the presence of all, and should be shared among all.
F. And this result you propose to bring about by a tax upon land
values, leaving the title, the privilege of sale, of rent, of
testament, the same as at present?
F. Your theory appears to be impracticable. I think that the raising
of such an enormous sum of money; placing it in the coffers of the
State, to be disbursed by the State in the manner you contemplate,
would tend to the corruption of the government beyond all former
precedent. The end you contemplate -- of bettering the condition of
the people -- is a worthy one. I believe that we -- you and I -- who
are well to do in the world, and others in our condition, do neglect
and have neglected our duty to those in a less fortunate condition,
and that it is our highest duty to endeavour to relieve, so far as we
can, the burdens of those who are now suffering from poverty and want.
Therefore, far from deriding or scouting your theory, I examine it
with respect and attention, desirous of getting from it whatever I can
that may be good, while rejecting what I conceive to be erroneous.
Taken altogether, as you have explained it, I do not see that it is a
G. But your objections to it as impracticable only arise at the
point, yet a long distance off, at which the revenues raised from land
values would be greater than those now raised. Is there anything
impracticable in substituting for the present corrupt, demoralising,
and repressive methods of taxation a single tax upon land values?
F. I think it possible to concentrate all taxation upon land, if that
should be thought the best method. Many economists are of opinion that
taxes should be raised from land alone, conceiving that rent is really
paid by every consumer, but they include in land everything placed
upon it out of which rent comes.
G. Then we could go together for a long while; and when the point was
reached at which we would differ, we might be able to see that a purer
government than any we have yet Had might he possible. Certainly here
is the gist of the whole problem. If men are too selfish, too corrupt,
to co-operate for mutual benefit, there must always be poverty and
F. My theory of government is that its chief function is to keep the
peace between individuals and allow each to develop his own nature for
his own happiness. I would never raise a dollar from the people except
for necessary purposes of government. I believe that the
demoralisation of our politics comes from the notion that public
offices are spoils for partisans. A large class of men has grown up
among us whose living is obtained from the State -- that is to say,
out of the people. We must get rid of those men, and instead of
creating offices we must lessen their number.
G. I agree with you as to government in its repressive feature; and
in no way could we so lessen the number of office-holders and take the
temptation of private profit out of public affairs as by raising all
public revenues by the tax upon land values, which, easily assessed
and collected, does not offer opportunities for evasion or add to
prices. Though in form a tax, this would be in reality a rent; not a
taking from the people, but a collecting of their legitimate revenues.
The first and most important function of government is to secure the
full and equal liberty of individuals; but the growing complexity of
civilised life and the growth of great corporations and combinations,
before which the individual is powerless, convince me that government
must undertake more than to keep the peace between man and man -- must
carry on, when it cannot regulate, businesses that involve monopoly,
and in larger and larger degree assume co-operative functions. If I
could see any other means of doing away with the injustice involved in
growing monopolies, of which the railroad is a type, than by extension
of governmental functions, I should not favour that; for all my
earlier thought was in the direction you have indicated-the position
occupied by the democratic party of the last generation. But I see
none. However, if it were to appear that further extension of the
functions of government would involve demoralisation, then the surplus
revenue might be divided per capita. But it seems to me that there
must be in human nature the possibility of a reasonably pure
government, when the ends of that government are felt by all to be the
promotion of the general good.
F. I do not believe in spoliation, and I conceive that that would be
spoliation which would take from one man his property and give it to
another. The scheme of the communists, as I understand it, appears to
me to be not only unsound, but destructive of society. I do not mean
to intimate that you are one of the communists; on the contrary, I do
not believe you are.
G. As to the sacredness of property, I thoroughly agree with you. As
you say in your recent article on industrial co-operation in the "North
American Review," "To take from one against his will that
which he owns and give it to another, would be a violation of that
instinct of justice which God has implanted in the heart of every
human being; a violation, in short, of the supreme law of the Most
High"; and my objection to the present system is that it does
this. I hold that that which a man produces is right fully his, and
his alone; that it should not be taken from him for any purpose, even
for public uses, so long as there is any public property that might be
employed for that purpose; and therefore I would exempt from taxation
everything in the nature of capital, personal property, or
improvements-in short, that property which is the result of man's
exertion. But I hold that land is not the rightful property of any
individual. As you say again, "No one can have private property
in privilege," and if the land belongs, as I hold it does belong,
to all the people, the holding of any part of it is a privilege for
which the individual holder should compensate the general owner
according to the pecuniary value of the privilege. To exact this would
not be to despoil any one of his rightful property, but to put an end
to spoliation that now goes on. Your article in the "Review"
shows that you see the same difficulties I see, and would seek the
same end -- the amelioration of the condition of labour, and the
formation of society upon a basis of justice. Does it not seem to you
that some thing more is required than any such scheme of co-operation
as that which you propose, which at best could he only very limited in
its application, and which is necessarily artificial in its nature?
F. Undoubtedly. The hints that I have given in the article to which
you refer, would affect a certain number of persons, not by any means
the whole body politic. I conceive that a great deal more is
necessary. There should be more sympathy, more mutual help. I think,
as I have said, that we are greatly wanting in our duty to all the
people around us, and I would do everything in my power to aid them
and their children. I do not think that we have arrived at the true
conception of our duty -- of the duty of every American citizen to all
other American citizens.
G. I think you are right in that; hut does it not seem as though it
were out of the power of mere sympathy, mere charity, to accomplish
any real good? Is it not evident that there is at the bottom of all
social evils an injustice, and until that injustice is replaced by
justice, charity and sympathy will do their best in vain? The fact
that there are among us strong, willing men unable to find work by
which to get an honest living for their families is a most portentous
one. It speaks to us of an injustice that, if not remedied, must wreck
society. It springs, I believe, from the fact that, while we secure to
the citizen equal political rights, we do not secure to him that
natural right more important still, the equal light to the land on
which and from which he must live. To me it seems clear, as our
Declaration of Independence asserts, that all men are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that the first of these
rights -- that which, in fact, involves all the rest, that without
which none of the others can be exercised -- is the equal right to
land. Here are children coming into life to-day in New York; are they
not endowed with the right to more than struggle along as they best
can in a country where they can neither eat, sleep, work, nor lie down
without buying the privilege from some of certain human creatures like
themselves, who claim to own, as their private property, this part of
the physical universe, from the earth's centre to the zenith?
F. I was not speaking of charity, but of sympathy leading to help --
helping one to help himself -- that is the help I mean, and not the
charity that humbles him.
G. Then I cordially agree with you, and I look upon such sympathy as
the most powerful agency for social improvement. But sympathy is
little better than mockery until it is willing to do justice, and
justice requires that all men shall be placed upon an equality so far
as natural opportunities are concerned.
F. How would you secure that equality? Take the case of a child born
to-day in a tenement house, in one of those rooms that are said to be
occupied by several families, and another child born at the same time
in one of the most comfortable homes in our city. The parents of the
first child are wasteful, intemperate, filthy: the parents of the
second are thrifty, temperate, cleanly; how would you secure equality
in opportunities of the first child with the second?
G. Equality in all opportunities could not be secured; virtuous
parents are always an advantage, vicious parents a disadvantage; but
equality of natural opportunities could be secured in the way I have
proposed. And in a civilisation where the equal rights of all to the
bounty of their Creator were recognised, I do not believe there would
be any tenement houses, and very few, if any, parents such as those of
whom you speak. The vice and crime and degradation that so fester in
our great cities are the effects, rather than the causes, of poverty.
F. The principle announced in the Declaration of Independence to
which you have referred, is one of the cardinal principles of the
American government -- the unalienable right of all men to "life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That, however, does not
mean that all men are equal in opportunities or in positions. A child
born to day is entitled to the labours of its parents, or rather to
the products of their labour, just as much as they are entitled to it
until he is able to take care of himself. One of the incentives to
labour is to provide for the children of the labourer. The aim of our
American civilisation ought to be to furnish, so far as can be done
rightfully, to every child born into the world, an equal opportunity
with every other child, to work out his own good. This, however, is
the theoretical proposition. It is impossible in practice to give to
every child the same opportunity; what we should aim at is, to
approximate to that state of things: that is the work of the
philanthropist and Christian. In short, my belief is that the truest
statement of political ethics and political economy is to be found in
the doctrines of the Christian religion.
G. In that I thoroughly agree with you. But Christianity that does
not assert the natural rights of man, that has no protest when the
earth, which it declares was created by the Almighty as a
dwelling-place for all his children, is made the exclusive property of
some of them, while others are denied their birthright -- seems to me
a travesty. A Christian has something to do as a citizen and lawmaker.
We must rest our social adjustments upon Christian principles if we
would have a really Christian society. But to return to the
Declaration of Independence; the equal right to life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness, does it not necessarily involve the equal right
to land, without which neither life, liberty, nor the freedom to
pursue happiness is possible?
F. You do not propose to give to every child a piece of land; you
only propose to secure its right, if I understand you, by taxing land
as vacant land in the mode you propose.
G. That is all, but it is enough. In the complex civilisation we have
now attained it would be impossible to secure equality by giving to
each a separate piece of land, or to maintain that equality, even if
once secured; but by treating all land as the property of the whole
people, we would make the whole people the landlords, and the
individual users the tenants of all, thus securing to each his equal
F. In how long a time, if you were to have such legislation as you
would wish, do you think we should arrive at the condition that you
G. I think immediately a substantial equality would be arrived at,
such an equality as would do away with the spectacle of a man unable
to find work, and would secure to all a good and easy living, with a
mere modicum of the hard labour and worriment now undergone by most of
us. The great benefit would not be in the appropriation to public use
of the unearned revenues now going to individuals, but in the opening
of opportunities to labour, and the stimulus that would be given to
improvement and production by the throwing open of unused land and the
removal of taxation that now weighs down productive powers. And with
the land made the property of the whole people, all social progress
would be a progress towards equality. While other values tend to
decline as civilisation progresses, the value of land steadily
advances. Such a great fact bespeaks some creative intent; and what
that intent may be, it seems to me we can see when we reflect that if
this value -- a value created not by the individual, but by the whole
community -- were appropriated to the common benefit, the progress of
society would constantly tend to make less important the difference
between the strong and the weak, and thus, instead of those monstrous
extremes towards which civilisation is now hastening, bring about
conditions of greater and greater equality.
F. As a conclusion of the whole matter, if I understand this
explanation of your scheme, it is this, that the State should tax the
soil, and the soil only; that in doing so it should consider the soil
as it came from the hands of the Creator, without anything that man
has put upon it; that all other property -- in short, everything that
man has made-is to be acquired, enjoyed, and transmitted as at
present; that the rate of annual taxation should equal the rate of
annual rental, and that the proceeds of the tax should be applied, not
only to purposes of government, but to any other purpose that the
legislature from time to time may think desirable, even to dividing
them among the people at so much a head.
G. That is substantially correct.
F. I am glad to hear your explanation, though I do not agree with
you, except as I have expressed myself.