Fighting For Fundamentals

John C. Lincoln

[An address at the Henry George Congress, 12 September, 1928;
Reprinted from Land and Freedom, November-December, 1928]

Henry George in Progress and Poverty after a few hundred pages of the highest kind of research arrived at a momentous conclusion. This conclusion is expressed in the words: "We must make land common property." The rest of the book is an examination of what this change in our economic system would result in; an examination of the improved conditions of labor and capital which would result from this change; and the picture of what society would be like after this change had been introduced.

All of us who are here assembled are here because we believe that Henry George's conclusion was one of the greatest discoveries that was ever made, and that when adopted a new and higher civilization will arise of which we can have no comprehension at the present time.

It is quite clear from many other passages in Progress and Poverty that the method which Henry George proposed to use in making land common property for the community was to take ground rent. In one place he says: "that it is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent" to accomplish our purpose.

We are assembled here because we believe most heartily in the assertion of Henry George that all of us have an equal right to the land, and that land is actually common property, but we must realize that in order to use land properly the continuous, exclusive and private possession of land must exist. Private property in land gives this continuous, exclusive and private possession that is necessary to the proper use of land, but does not assert the common ownership of land which is so necessary, and for which Henry George fought and died.

Our problem is to educate the public in the philosophy of Henry George. It seems to me somewhat unfortunate that the name "Single Tax" should have been adopted so generally as the name of the movement, as this name emphasizes the fiscal side of the proposition rather than the moral side. Most of us are quite sure that slavery was a bad thing for both North and South from the fiscal standpoint. In other words, in a large way slavery did not pay, but I do not think that slavery would ever have been abolished unless the moral side of the slavery question had been brought to the front. In the same way I believe that until we emphasize the moral side of the philosophy of Henry George that we will be unable to invoke the enthusiasm that will be necessary to put our proposition across. It is now forty-nine years since Progress and Poverty was printed, and I think that we will all admit that the public's idea of what we have in mind is quite hazy and indefinite and I believe that if the emphasis from the beginning had been placed on collection of ground rent instead of upon taxation of land values that the public's idea of what we have in mind would be clearer than what it is at the present time.

The term "taxation of land values" has been adopted by some of the followers of Henry George in England, and what they really mean is to eventually tax land until there are no values left in it. What they propose at the present time is to take part of the ground rent as we are doing in this country; but, they propose to take only a small part to begin with and an increasing part as the public is educated.

It seems to me that the movement would have progressed further in public understanding if the proposition that we proposed to take ground rent for public purposes and eliminate taxation had been our slogan instead of taking "land values taxation" for our slogan. We all know that both slogans mean the same thing, but I am sure that the public understanding of what we are after would have progressed much further if we had made it clear that what we intended to do was to abolish taxations and take ground rent for public purposes instead of talking about the taxation of land values.

I have a friend who is a real estate salesman and a very fine fellow, who wanted to know what the Single Taxers had in mind, and said he understood that what they proposed to do was to place all taxes on real estate. In his mind there was no distinction between land and buildings. In his mind the whole emphasis of the matter was the manner of taxation and had nothing to do with making land common property. I told him that what the Single Taxers wanted to do was to abolish all taxation, taking ground rent for public purposes.

These few words gave him a clear idea about what we want to accomplish. He was naturally not in favor of such a programme because his business of selling lots would be very largely abolished. The business of selling lots at the present time is to paint a picture to the purchaser of the large amount of unearned increment which he can secure sometime in the future by buying the particular lot which the salesman has to sell. Our programme would improve every kind ol business except the business of speculating in land and would be the death blow to land speculation.

We have to meet the objections which will be aroused by our complete programme sometime, and it seems to me that we would be further along if we used a nomenclature which would make it somewhat easier for the general public to understand just what we propose to do.

What we want to accomplish is to reduce the selling price of all lands to practically zero, thereby making land common property, by taking the ground rent. But, it will be quite clear to anyone that when the community takes the ground rent that the private, continuous, and exclusive possession of land will not be interfered with.

I remember once when talking to a church group on this subject that a fine old gentleman who had been induced to read Progress and Poverty by Tom L. Johnson, raised the point that Henry George proposed to make land common property. That is as far as he got in the book. I presume he assumed Henry George proposed to divide up the land each year, each five years, or each ten years among everybody, and he knew a scheme of this sort would be impossible; therefore he turned down the whole philosophy of Henry George, because he did not appreciate that the taking of the ground rent by the community would make land common property without interfering with the continuous, exclusive, and private possession of land by the individual.

It is because I believe that the presentation of our philosophy from the standpoint of allowing the community to collect ground rent and abolishing all taxation will appeal to the ordinary person more powerfully than a proposition to increase taxes on land and decrease taxes on other things that I am urging this method of presentation.

I think that we ought to ask for all that we expect to get eventually, which is the whole ground rent, rather than ask for part of what we expect to get eventually by talking of the taxation of land values. It is not difficult to get the idea across to most people that the presence and activity of the community creates land values which are simply actual or anticipated ground rents capitalized.

It follows then that in taking ground rents for public purposes that the public is simply collecting what it produces by its presence and activity.

It will take time and repeated presentation to get the public to realize that the collection of ground rent by the public will cause the selling price of land to sink to zero, thereby making land common property, but it will be much easier to get this idea across by talking of collecting ground rent than by talking of making land common property by taxation of land values, especially as our programme calls for the taxation of land values to increase until there is no value left.

Our programme is one of fundamental reform, and one that will meet the hearty opposition of most of those that profit by the private appropriation of ground rent and by all that are closely associated with them. On the other hand, all that we have to do to make converts for our cause is to have it comprehended.

We all believe that the rent of the land belongs to the people and that the first duty of the government is to collect it and abolish all taxation and if we believe it, why not advertise it?

I therefore move, Mr. Chairman, that the Henry George Foundation Congress here assembled adopt this statement as our slogan and stand on the proposition that "the rent of the land belongs to the people and that it is the first duty of the government to collect it and abolish all taxation."