Henry George and the Single Tax

Benjamin R. Tucker

[Excerpted from the book Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker, Vanguard Press, New York, 1926. Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973]

Following are some fragmentary paragraphs relating to different phases of the Single Tax and to Henry George's perplexities concerning his economic theories. The editor of Liberty took great delight in pointing out his inconsistencies:

Some of Henry George's correspondents have been pestering him a good deal with embarrassing questions as to what will become, under his system, of the home of a man who has built a house upon a bit of land which afterwards so rises in value that he cannot afford to pay the taxes on it. Unable to deny that such a man would be as summarily evicted by the government landlord as is the Irish farmer in arrears by the individual landlord, and yet afraid to squarely admit it, Mr. George has twisted and turned and doubled and dodged, attempting to shield himself by all sorts of irrelevant considerations, until at last he is reduced to asking in rejoinder if this argument has not "a great deal of the flavor of the Georgia deacon's denunciation of abolitionists because they wanted to deprive the widow Smith of her solitary 'nigger,' her only means of support." That is, Mr. George virtually asserts that the claim to own a human being is no more indefensible than the claim of the laborer to own the house he has built and to the unencumbered and indefinite use of whatever site he may have selected for it without dispossessing another. The editor of the Standard must have been reduced to sore straits when he resorted to this argument. With all his shuffling he has not yet escaped, and never can escape, the fact that, if government were to confiscate land values, any man would be liable to be turned out of doors, perhaps with compensation, perhaps without it, and thus deprived, maybe, of his dearest joy and subjected to irreparable loss, just because other men had settled in his vicinity or decided to run a railroad within two minutes' walk of his door. This in itself is enough to damn Mr. George's project. That boasted craft, Land Nationalization, is floundering among the rocks, and the rock of individual liberty and the inalienable homestead has just made an enormous hole in its unseaworthy bottom which will admit all the water necessary to sink it.

Henry George's correspondents continue to press him regarding the fate of the man whose home should so rise in value through increase of population that he would be taxed out of it. At first, it will be remembered, Mr. George coolly sneered at the objectors to this species of eviction as near relatives of those who objected to the abolition of slavery on the ground that it would "deprive the widow Smith of her only 'nigger.'" Liberty made some comments on this, which Mr. George never noticed. Since their appearance, however, his analogy between property in "niggers" and a man's property in his house has lapsed, as President Cleveland would say, into a condition of "innocuous desuetude," and a new method of settling this difficulty has been evolved. A correspondent having supposed the case of a man whose neighborhood should become a business centre, and whose place of residence, therefore, as far as the land was concerned, should rise in value so that he could not afford or might not desire to pay the tax upon it, but, as far as his house was concerned, should almost entirely lose its value because of its unfitness for business purposes, Mr. George makes answer that the community very likely would give such a man a new house elsewhere to compensate him for being obliged to sell his house at a sacrifice. That this method has some advantages over the "nigger" argument I am not prepared to deny, but I am tempted to ask Mr. George whether this is one of the ways by which he proposes to "simplify government."

Henry George, in the Standard, calls Dr. Cogswell of San Francisco, who has endowed a polytechnic college in that city, and for its maintenance has conveyed certain lands to trustees, a "philanthropist by proxy," on the ground that the people who pay rent for these lands are really taxed by Dr. Cogswell for the support of the college. But what are Henry George himself, by his theory, and his ideal State, by its practice, after realization, but "philanthropists by proxy"? What else, in fact, is the State as it now exists? (Oftener a cannibal than a philanthropist, to be sure, but in either case by proxy.) Does not Mr. George propose that the State shall tax individuals to secure "public improvements" which they may not consider such, or which they may consider less desirable to them than private improvements? Does he not propose that individuals shall "labor gratis" for the State, "whether they like it or not"? Does he not maintain that what the State "does with their labor is simply none of their business"? Mr. George's criticism of Dr. Cogswell is equally a criticism of every form of compulsory taxation, especially the taxation of land values. He has aptly and accurately described himself.

There must be a limitation to great fortunes, says Henry George, "but that limitation must be natural, not artificial. Such a limitation is offered by the land value tax." What in the name of sense is there about a tax that makes it natural as distinguished from artificial? If anything in the world is purely artificial, taxes are. And if they are collected by force, they are not only artificial, but arbitrary and tyrannical.

Henry George answers a correspondent who asks if under the system of taxing land values an enemy could not compel him to pay a higher tax on his land simply by making him an offer for the land in excess of the existing basis of taxation, by saying that no offers will change the basis of taxation unless they are made in good faith and for other than sentimental motives. It seems, then, that the tax assessors are to be inquisitors as well, armed with power to subject men to examination of their motives for desiring to effect any given transaction in land. What glorious days those will be for "boodlers"! What golden opportunities for fraud, favoritism, bribery, and corruption! And yet Mr. George will have it that he intends to reduce the power of government.

The idiocy of the arguments employed by the daily press in discussing the labor question cannot well be exaggerated, but nevertheless it sometimes makes a point on Henry George which that gentleman cannot meet. For instance, the New York World lately pointed out that unearned increment attaches not only to land, but to almost every product of labor. "Newspapers," it said, "are made valuable properties by the increase of population." Mr. George seems to think this ridiculous, and inquires confidently whether the World's success is due to increase of population or to Pulitzer's business management. As if one cause excluded the other! Does Mr. George believe, then, that Pulitzer's business management could have secured a million readers of the World if there had been no people in New York? Of course not. Then, to follow his own logic, Mr. George ought to discriminate in this case, as in the case of land, between the owner's improvements and the community's improvements, and tax the latter out of the owner's hands.

Henry George was recently reminded in these columns that his own logic would compel him to lay a tax not only on land values, but on all values growing out of increase of population, and newspaper properties were cited in illustration. A correspondent of the Standard has made the same criticism, instancing, instead of a newspaper, "Crusoe's boat, which rose in value when a ship appeared on the horizon." To this correspondent Mr. George makes answer that, while Crusoe's boat might have acquired a value when other people came, "because value is a factor of trading, and, when there is no one to trade with, there can be no value," yet "it by no means follows that growth of population increases the value of labor products; for a population of fifty will give as much value to a desirable product as a population of a million." I am ready to admit this of any article which can be readily produced by any and all who choose to produce it. But, as Mr. George says, it is not true of land; and it is as emphatically not true of every article in great demand which can be produced, in approximately equal quality and with approximately equal expense, by only one or a few persons. There are many such articles, and one of them is a popular newspaper. Such articles are of small value where there are few people and of immense value where there are many. This extra value is unearned increment, and ought to be taxed out of the individual's hands into those of the community if any unearned increment ought to be. Come, Mr. George, be honest! Let us see whither your doctrine will lead us.

Cart and horse are all one to Henry George. He puts either first to suit his fancy or the turn his questioner may take, and no matter which he places in the lead, he "gets there all the same" - on paper. When he is asked how taxation of land values will abolish poverty, he answers that the rush of wage-laborers to the land will reduce the supply of labor and send wages up. Then, when somebody else asks him how wage-laborers will be able to rush to the land without money to take them there and capital to work the land afterwards, he answers that wages will then be so high that the laborers will soon be able to save up money enough to start with. Sometimes, indeed, as if dimly perceiving the presence of some inconsistency lurking between these two propositions, he volunteers an additional suggestion that, after the lapse of a generation, he will be a phenomenally unfortunate young man who shall have no relatives or friends to help him start upon the land. But we are left as much in the dark as ever about the method by which these relatives or friends, during the generation which must elapse before the young men get to the land, are to save up anything to give these young men a start, in the absence of that increase of wages which can only come as a consequence of the young men having gone to the land. Mr. George, however, has still another resource in reserve, and, when forced to it, he trots it out, - namely, that, there being all grades between the rich and the very poor, those having enough to start themselves upon the land would do so, and the abjectly poor, no longer having them for competitors, would get higher wages. Of course one might ask why these diminutive capitalists, who even now can go to the land if they choose, since there is plenty to be had for but little more than the asking, refrain nevertheless from at once relieving an over-stocked labor market; but it would do no good. You see, you can't stump Henry George. He always comes up blandly smiling. He knows he has a ready tongue and a facile pen, and on these he relies to carry him safely through the mazes of unreason.

Henry George thinks the New York Sun's claim, that it is "for liberty first, last and forever," pretty cool from a paper that supports a protective tariff. So it is. But the frigidity of this claim is even greater when it comes from a man who proposes on occasion to tax a man out of his home, and to "simplify" government by making it the owner of all railroads, telegraphs, gas-works, and water-works, so enlarging its revenues that all sorts of undreamed-of public improvements will become possible, and unnumbered public officials to administer them necessary.

Perhaps no feature of Henry George's scheme is so often paraded before the public as a bait as the claim that with a tax levied on land values all other taxes will be abolished. But now it is stated in the Standard that, if any great fortunes remain after the adoption of the land tax, it will be "a mere detail to terminate them by a probate tax." This is offered for the benefit of those who believe that interest no less than rent causes concentration of wealth. To those who fear the effects upon home industry in case of an abolition of the tariff Mr. George hints that he will be perfectly agreeable to the offering of bounties to home industries. To be sure, he would pay the bounties out of the land tax; but the use of the proceeds of the land tax for a new purpose, after existing governmental expenses had been met, would be equivalent to a new tax. So we already have three taxes in sight where there was to be but one, - the land tax, the probate tax, and the bounty tax. Presently, as new necessities arise, a fourth will loom up, and a fifth, and a sixth. Thus the grand work of "simplifying government" goes on.

The Single Taxer starts with the proposition that "each individual has a just claim to the use of every part of the earth," and, thus starting, he arrives at this conclusion: "When land has no Value, - that is, when only one man wants to use it, - we would exact no tax, but, when it acquires a value, our principle that each has an equal right to the earth demands that its rental value should be paid into the public treasury." These two propositions are made in so many words by Mr. A. H. Stephenson, than whom the Single Tax has no abler advocate, not excepting Henry George himself. And yet truth requires the assertion that a more absurd non sequitur than this it is not possible for the human mind to conceive. It has the form of reasoning, but, instead of reasoning, it is flat and absolute contradiction. It is exactly paralleled in its essential by such an argument as the following: "This watch belongs to you; therefore it should be put into my pocket." How does this differ, so far as logic and equity are concerned, from the Single-Tax argument: "To the use of this corner-lot you have a just claim; therefore the rental value of this lot should be put into the public treasurer"?

If I have a just claim to the use of every piece of land on the globe, then of course I have a just claim to the use of any particular piece of land. If I have this latter claim, I, and I alone, have the right to sell this claim. Whoever sells my claim without my consent is a robber. Since every Single Taxer favors such sale of my claim, whether I consent or not, every Single Taxer is an advocate of robbery.

Again: since I have the sole right to sell my claim, I have the sole right to decide at what price it shall be offered in the market. Whoever sells it, even with my consent, is a robber, unless he exacts as great a price as that fixed by me. Since the Single Taxer proposes to sell it without even asking what I am willing to take for it, the Single Taxer is an advocate of robbery.

If my just claim to a particular piece of land is sold, the proceeds of the sale must go into my pocket. If, after putting them in my pocket, I then see fit to take them out again and turn them over to the public treasury in exchange for police or other services that I may desire, well and good. But this must be entirely optional with me. I may keep these proceeds, if I choose; I may spend them, if I choose; and, in the latter case, I may choose how I will spend them. Any one who attempts to substitute his choice for mine in this matter is a robber. Any one who lays violent hands on the proceeds of this sale and deposits them in the public treasury without my consent is a robber. Nearly every Single Taxer proposes to do precisely that, and therefore nearly every Single Taxer is an advocate of robbery.

But even if I were to allow that it would not be robbery to deposit in the United States treasury without my consent the proceeds of the sale of my just claim to a particular piece of land (on the ground that I get an equivalent in the use of streets, etc.), it would still be robbery to deposit such proceeds in the treasury of Great Britain or France or Russia or China or Peru. If I have a just claim to the use of every piece of land on the globe, then I have a just claim to the use of any particular piece of land in Peru. If this claim is sold, whoever lays hands on the proceeds and deposits them in the Peruvian treasury is a robber. But nearly every Single Taxer says that such a course as this ought to be followed, and hence nearly every Single Taxer is an advocate of robbery.

Bear in mind that I claim no right to any part of the earth. But a right to every part of it is asserted for me by the Single Taxers. The objection that I am now urging is to their use of their own assertion that a certain thing is mine as a foundation for stealing it from me. Their doctrine may be summed up in three words: Property justifies robbery. Proudhon's paradox is eclipsed.

Mr. Bolton Hall has expressed the opinion that I am increasingly worried as to the Single Tax. Well, Mr. Hall, you are right. I am worried as to the Single Tax, - not "increasingly," but worried to the extent that I have been ever since "Progress and Poverty" made its appearance. Whenever an intelligent man announces a purpose to tyrannize by force over peaceable folk, it worries me. And it especially worries me when a dishonest man like Henry George uses the pull of hypocritical piety, and an honest man like G. F. Stephens uses the pull of high moral appeal, to induce others to join them in their criminal effort to forcibly take from men the products of their labor. Every form of authority worries me, every attempt at authority worries me. State Socialism worries me, Prohibition worries me, Comstockism worries me, the custom houses worry me, the banking monopoly worries me, landlordism worries me, and the Single Tax worries me. Do you suppose for a moment, Mr. Hall, that, if these things did not worry me, I should be publishing Liberty? Why, my good sir, I am bending all my energies to the thwarting of you and all others who propose, from whatever sincere and generous motives, to enforce their will upon non-invasive people. You worry me; indeed you do. I wish most heartily that you would let me and other peaceable people alone, abandon your menacing attitude toward our property, and quit worrying us, so that we might go about our business.

So much for the charge of worry, which Mr. Hall used as an introduction to a complaint against me for printing, and against Mr. Yarros for writing, an article containing the following passages: "Wherever it is profitable to improve land, it is generally improved without the compulsion of the Single Tax"; "How would the Single Tax help labor in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and France? There is no land speculation in those countries worth mentioning." With Mr. Hall's objections to these passages I do not propose to deal elaborately; perhaps Mr. Yarros will do so later. But, in vindication of myself, I may say that to point out vacant lots does not overthrow Mr. Yarros's statement that generally that land is improved which it is profitable to improve, and that to point to instances of land speculation in European countries does not overthrow Mr. Yarros's other statement that land speculation in Europe is so much less frequent than in newer countries that it is not worth mentioning. The comparative and qualified statements of Mr. Yarros are construed by Mr. Hall into positive and sweeping ones, and then criticized as such. Mr. Yarros's claims amount simply to this, - that land speculation is an overrated evil even in this country, and that in older countries, where the land question is much more serious than here, speculation in land is so small an element in the problem that it may be neglected. Mr. Hall's surprise that I should print such statements is paralleled by my surprise at his hasty and careless reading of them.

It appears further from Mr. Hall's letter that the Single Taxers propose first to capture Delaware, and then to capture the Anarchists. Like the theatrical manager who prefers to test his new play in a country town before making a venture in the city, the Single Taxers will begin by "trying it on a dog." If they succeed with the dog, then they will accept our challenge. Our chances for a fight would be very bad, were it not that the dog, instead of giving bark for bark, is snapping at the Single Taxers' heels. If Delaware continues to send Single Taxers to the lock-up, there is a bare chance that Delaware will be captured through its own stupidity, and then the Anarchists' innings will begin. In view of Mr. Hall's honest admission that the Single Taxers are less intelligent than the Anarchists, the promised attempt of the less to swallow the greater is indicative of more valor than discretion. It is one thing for the less to worry the greater; it is quite another to swallow it.