Edwin Burgess


Charles B. Fillebrown

[Reprinted from the book, Natural Taxation, published 1917.
Part I / The Authorities / Chapter 4]

In 1859 and 1860 Edwin Burgess published in the Racine Advocate of Racine, Wisconsin, a series of letters on taxation in which he advocated a single tax on land. The Mr. Burgess who was born in London, settled at Racine during the forties and established a successful business as merchant tailor. By those who knew him he is described as "a man of liberal ideas in politics and religion," kindly and moderate, and "thoughtful in all things." He revisited England in 1864 taking with him an edition of his letters. Sometimes after his death, which occurred in 1869, his wife returned to England and printed them in pamphlet form for distribution among friends. Subsequently the letters seem to have been lost sight of, until in 1908 they were reprinted at Auckland, New Zealand, in the Liberator the well-known single-tax organ. In 1912, William S. Buffham and Hyland Raymond, old friends of Mr. Burgess, again reprinted the pamphlet in Racine where the letters were originally published.

The first letter described as follows the evils of attempting to tax personal property:

1st. Taxing people for their personal property -- on their oath, is a premium on perjury, because those who lie the most pay the least taxes, and children born under such influences will be famous for lying -- if there is any connection between cause and effect in the condition of parent and offspring.

2nd. The means of valuing or assessing are very expensive, thus increasing the cost of government, as well as the cost of corruption.

3rd. Taxing personal property prevents production, because the tax, being added to the article for sale, increases its price in proportion to the means of buying. Hence, less is sold and less is made, and the makers are less employed; and having, consequently, less with which to buy, the makers of other things will be less employed also -- and suffer much misery inconsequence....

4th. Taxing personal property is not only costly, corruptive, and pauper-making, and promotive of misery and crime, but inquisitorial, burdensome, and aggressive against our right to labor and enjoy the fruit of our toil unmolested; as long as we injure no one, we should be protected against aggression, instead of suffering aggression. Are we not now taxed for the aggression instead of the protection against it?

5th. Taxing people in proportion to their industry prevents industry; because land and industrious person labors twelve hours per day, successfully, he must pay twelve times as much taxes, because he has made twelve times as much property to be taxed, as if he had worked only one hour per day....

The second letter enlarges on the evils of taxing personal property; the third, fourth, and fifth call attention to various anomalies in the laws relating to that subject or in the administration of them. The third letter concludes as follows:

We exempt railroad property from local taxes, and gas property, and schools, churches, and banks; now, if it is good in one case, I challenged anyone to show that it is not good in all. Then away with your paltry special privilege legislating, and let us have, instead, laws which, if universally applied, would cause the most permanent prosperity for all; and though we can never do good to the taxpayer by taxing him, let us be sure that we do him the least possible injury; and that, I contend, the "ad valorem" land tax will do, and no other forced tax whatsoever, for it is less costly in valuation and collection, less corruptive and unequal, and causes less pauperism, misery, and crime than any other tax; in fact, is the only Free Trade Tax, and sets up no board of inquisition on the industry of any man or woman.

The sixth letter considers federal taxation, and maintains that neither customs duties nor "any tax on any product of industry" can bring about an equal distribution of burdens. The seventh contains the following significant paragraphs:

To illustrate the relative merits of the tariff and the land tax, let us suppose, for example, that Racine exempted all merchants and manufacturers' goods from taxes, and all grain, farm produce, etc., and all people from poll tax and all improvements from taxes, and put all the taxes on the land; and at the same time Milwaukee and Kenosha exempted all land from taxes, and put all the taxes on the farm produce and merchants' and manufacturers' goods and improvements and poll tax, in fact, on all articles which are exempt from taxes in Racine; where would the mechanics, merchants, and manufacturers settle? If all other advantages were equal, evidently where the goods were untaxed, because it would cost less to commence and carry on manufactories, and they could sell goods better also where no special tax raised the price of the article. Where would the farmers go to sell their produce and by their goods? Doubtless where neither was taxed, because they would obtain the most money for their produce, and the most goods for their money. Would not Racine grow rapidly while Milwaukee and Kenosha dwindled? And will not this be true of any city, town, county, state, or nation?

But where will the land speculators go? Will it not be where the land is untaxed? Because there it will sell for the highest price, while it cost nothing to keep the land idle and the man idle; there the land monopolist might flourish -- but there it would be more difficult to commence farming, because the land will be higher and manufacturing also, not only because the land for the factory will cost much more, but because of the higher special tax on the raw material, and every implement for manufacturing it. And where the land is untaxed, the land being higher, the rents will be higher also, and it will be doubly difficult for the landless mechanic to buy a lot for his house, and his rent will be high in proportion as the land is high; and the high price and highly rents, instead of defraying the expenses of government (as the land tax would do), go to enrich the land monopolist at the cost of every landless consumer; and by making and keeping people landless and dependent on the monopolist for employment, and thus making the means of living in the most uncertain, promote misery, pauperism, and crime, and thus vastly increase the cost of government by increasing the taxes for the prevention of crime and the support of paupers, criminals, and their officers.

The land tax, unlike the tariff, would require no extra officers for assessing and collecting revenue for the general government, as the expenses would be defrayed by a percentage on the assessment for State purposes, which would be transmitted to the general government in the best manner.

The eighth and ninth letters show the advantages of placing "all the taxes on the land alone, irrespective of all improvements." Mr. Burgess says:

Now, I think I can show a much clearer case with the land tax for revenue than any ream you there it to or protective tariff whatsoever; for, while all the taxes are on the land, not only does the land tax defray all the cost of the government, and diminish the cost of government, but the land sells for the lowest price also, instead of the highest, thus keeping the land within the means of all, or at least the great majority of the people; so that we have the greatest number of land-owning producers of food, who having no rents to pay, can supply us with cheaper food minus the rents, or divide what was hitherto paid in rents between the producer and the consumer. And with the land at the lowest price, rents would be the lowest also, and ultimately cease, so that the rent hitherto paid by mechanics, laborers, merchants, and manufacturers, would then be divided between the maker, the seller, and the consumer.

For, with all the taxes on the land, it would not pay to keep it idle; therefore speculation in land with soon cease and be transferred to untaxed manufacturers or labor, which would increase the demand and raise the wages of labor and reduce the profits of capital and speculation; and at the same time we should create and sustain the most permanent and profitable home market for produce and manufactures, and settle forever that oft-mooted question of political economists, how to realize the utmost economy in the production and distribution of wealth; and in this way it could be done with the least possible cost of government, and with the protection of free commerce and free land instead of the violation of both.

Then, when food becomes cheap in the country, from cheap land and no tax on improvements, mechanics, manufacturers, and merchants can go where food is cheapest whenever it will pay better than having the food transported to them, as they will then have the increased means, which were hitherto paid in rents, with which to travel. And when farmers desire to settle near factories for the benefit of market and exchange, they may be sure the land will never be high, nor manufactures either; because the tax is on the land and not on the manufactures.

Edwin Burgess' pamphlet, likes so many other fugitive publications of merit, seems to have produced no effects at the time, and probably was soon forgotten by all except a few of the author's friends. Despite faults of style and occasional vagaries of opinion, the pamphlet exhibits in most strongest light the evils that result from the taxation of products of human labor, and anticipates the main proposals of the modern single tax philosophy.

PREFACE Ch. 1 - Adam Smith
Ch. 2 - John Stuart Mill Ch. 3 - Patrick Edward Dove
Ch. 4 - Edwin Burgess Ch. 5 - John MacDonnell
Ch. 6 - Henry George Ch. 7 - Edward McGlynn
Ch. 8 - Thomas G. Shearman, Pt 1 Ch. 8 - Thomas G. Shearman, Pt 2
Ch. 9 - A Burdenless Tax to the Threefold to Support Upon Which the Single Tax Rests Ch. 10 - Land -- the Rent Concept -- the Property Concept
Ch. 11 - Taxation and Housing Ch. 12 - Thirty Years of Henry George
Ch. 13 - Henry George and the Economists Ch. 14 - The Professors and the Single Tax
Ch. 15 - A Catechism of Natural Taxation ...