The real, just and useful tax is the tax on land

Frank E. Nelson

[Reprinted from the Wilmington, Delaware News-Journal, 20 April 1983]

DOES IT matter what we tax? Would the long-term effects of a new tax on manufacturers' fixtures be important? What about the effects of proposed increases in Wilmington's and New Castle County's property, wage, head and transfer taxes, along with hikes in sewer fees?

We need sound, creative thinking about taxes and their effect on economic behavior. Where higher revenues are absolutely necessary, shouldn't they be raised by the only tax whose consequences would encourage and reward productive activity - the Incentive land tax?

A few years ago, columnist Bill Frank suggested that Delawareans might some day rediscover Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours This patriarch of the Du Pont family, philosopher, economist and social reformer, lived and died near Wilmington in the early I800s. Du Pont in his native France was a leader of the Physiocrat Movement whose members believed the land was the source of all wealth and should be the sole source of public revenue.

In this country, du Pont shared with his friend Thomas Jefferson belief that freedom and justice for the "common man" were best served by assuring ample access to land and resources. Du Pont believed this could only be secured through full public collection of "ground rent" from landowners.

Advocacy of a single tax on land was later echoed and amplified by another famous economist and philosopher in the latter 1800s. Henry George, who was born in Philadelphia, gained fame as author of a classic book on political economy, "Progress & Poverty," in which he championed the single tax concept.

If du Pont and George were alive they would certainly deplore our dependence on taxes that wring from us the fruits of our labor and are disincentives to employment and production. They undoubtedly would link many of the distressing signs of our times with such taxation: lack of affordable housing, especially rental, for low- and middle-income families; boarded-up dwellings and deplorable housing in the city; high unemployment; hunger; a crime rate rising faster than courts and prisons can handle; urban sprawl and disappearance of Delaware's farmland.

They would both probably regard as important the current debate over whether plant equipment and fixtures (like tanks, pipes and pumping systems) should remain exempt from taxation by the county, or be classified and taxed as "improvements." They would allow that fixtures are man-made improvements, since they are obviously not part of the God-created land Having made that distinction, they would hasten to argue what they believed should really be the proper basis for taxation.

Du Pont and George, staunch defenders of free enterprise, wanted to strengthen rather than shackle it. They strongly believed everyone was entitled to keep all the fruits of his labor and that the community was entitled only to a tax on what it itself created - land values.

Power to tax being power to destroy, too high a tax on income is a disincentive to earning more. Tax homes, apartments, barns, factories, buildings - and fixtures - too highly and there would surely be fewer (and fewer of the jobs associated with them). Nobel economist Milton Friedman agrees, urging that we "tax improvements as little as possible, and tax land as much as possible."

What is so special about land values, and why a tax on them? Land is not a product of human labor, and the value of a site is not something created by an individual owner. It is created by the community by having made that location attractive or profitable. City sites become very valuable if near to commercial enterprises, offices, hospitals, parking, shopping, dining and entertainment, along with streets, sidewalks, lighting, water and sanitation, parks, fire and police protection.

A tax on land values, which would collect ground rent, isn't really a tax at all, since the community would only be recouping what it has expended in creating these values.

The land tax also eliminates the privilege whereby landowners are enabled to live off the efforts of production's active factors, labor and capital, and off everyone's basic need for access to land for existence.

Other advantages would include: lowered property taxes for most homeowners; simplified assessments that could save most of the cost for periodic reassessments; elimination of need to offer tax abatements and subsidies to entice development; benefits to the working farmer as taxes on incomes and improvements are lowered and development of a more reliable tax base, not subject to tax evasion or to the "underground economy."

We already tax land values as part of our existing property tax, but only lightly. Land is generally far underassessed. Vacant land, urban, suburban and rural, is usually assessed far below its market value. Actual farmland is further protected from market values by tax assessments based on its agricultural productive value.

Delaware's land taxes are the nation's second lowest as a percentage of all other state and local taxes. This is just the opposite of, what du Pont and George advocated. Such a low land tax encourages rampant speculation and the holding of land out of use while waiting for values to rise.

This is a major reason why downtown Wilmington remains a checkerboard of nonproductive parking lots; why there are so many vacant, often boarded-up dwellings; why, in defiance of the new vacant house-tax, whole blocks of housing have-been demolished; why urban poor, displaced by "gentrification," have no other private housing to turn to, why the unsightly, unsafe steel skeleton of the Brookside Towers building has remained a gross misuse of valuable commercial site for over a decade; why farmland is snapped up by speculators, driving prices beyond reach of younger, would-be, farmers.

The concept of placing greater reliance on land taxation has found" acceptance with good effect in a growing number of states and counties: Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Hawaii, California, Pennsylvania, Alabama and in Delaware's three residential communities, the Ardens.

Isn't it lime Delaware citizens had a chance to experience the' reforms of du Pont and George that now benefit others around the world?