Fighting for our Most Important Rights

Robert Tideman

[An edited version of a talk titled "Free Speech? Why?" delivered on station KPFA, Berkeley, California. At the time Mr. Tideman was Executive Secretary of the Henry George School in San Francisco. Reprinted from the Henry George News, May, 1965]

The free-speech fracas on the Berkeley campus reminds me of what Carlyle said when his friends waved a newspaper at him on a London street and asked him what he thought of the news. "What news?" he said. "Why the cable to India! It's finished! Isn't it wonderful!" Carlyle growled, "What have we to say to India?"

Cables and radios and free speech are indispensable - but insufficient. When the cable is open, when free speech is won, what have we to say?

One of the things we have to say, I am told, is that every man has a right to vote and a right to assemble with others. But again we can ask with Carlyle, what does he have to vote for? And what will we all say or do when we assemble?

Let me be understood. I do not say that the right to speak and assemble and vote are unimportant. What I do say is that the good, earnest people who struggle for these political rights, if they do not acquire a better comprehension of what to do with them, will destroy what they aim to build and in time lose the political rights themselves.

For behind political questions lie always the questions of economics, the questions of property. Who shall own what? Who shall keep what? Who shall take what? These are the crucial questions. Suppose half the people in the country had all the political rights and the other half had all the economic or property rights, and each group was bound not to invade the other's sphere. One group would have nothing to say but could exercise their property rights fully. The other would do all the talking and voting and assembling - if they could find a spot of land on which to assemble - but would avoid all questions economic. Which group would be more powerful? Would not those who held the economic rights exercise complete domination? For they alone could own property - that is to say, ships and homes and land, not to mention clothing and food, which are property too.

It would be a mistake to say that civil rights enthusiasts confine themselves entirely to political questions. They do indeed have various economic ideas. But their economic programs are generally confused, superficial, and worst of all, inconsistent with the ideals of liberty and equal rights which they proclaim so well in the field of politics.

Their economic programs-talk with them and you will see - come down almost universally to this: the government should spend money (not the local government, of course, but the national government).

As to how the government should get the money, that is seen as an impertinent if not reactionary question. The assumption seems to be that it already has the money but is spending it on the wrong things. How does the federal government get the money it spends? Does not five-sixths of the income tax revenue come from people who earn less than $6000 a year? Does it not come almost entirely from the wages of working people?

It will be said that governments are necessary to the survival of society, and governments cannot exist without money ... but governments have their own proper earnings. Whenever a new bridge is built or highway laid, whenever a school is improved or a fire department strengthened, whenever an area is better served in all the ways that government serves it, that area becomes more desirable to live in and work in, and the value of the land goes up. This increase in the value of the land is due to nothing the landholder does. The land commands a rent because of government services and general community growth. We can get our necessary public revenue from that socially created fund and stop what people earn. We already tax land a little. We can readily tax it more... A survey based on a study of 716 properties, showed that if idle land and slums were assessed as the law requires, an additional $812 million a year would be available to local governments in California, with no increase in tax rates.

While we are fighting for civil rights, could we not mention - at least every fourth Wednesday - that the economic rights of California citizens are invaded by this illegal undervaluation [of land], engaged in by all 58 assessors in the state? And it is an invasion of rights. The undervaluation of land increases the burden of tax that men must pay on the labor they put into their homes and other improvements. It makes land speculation so profitable that land prices are driven up beyond the reach of those who need it for homes and shops and farms. It enables those who hold land to collect higher and higher rents not for any productive contribution but just for allowing others to use their tax-favored holdings. Most of our newly rich in California made it not by working but by speculating in undertaxed land.

What will be the use of free speech - what the use of any civil right - if more and more of what men earn is taken from them, more and more taxes removed from land so that in the end we have political equality in a society of gross economic inequality?

We who believe in civil rights and civil liberties must learn the whole meaning of freedom lest we win our battles and lose the war. Liberty will have no half service.