We hear a great deal today about the "Ownership Society" and privatizing
functions that have traditionally been government activities. We don't hear
the Commons any more, but that doesn't mean it has gone away, or is any
less valid a concept in 21st century America — and 21st century Planet
Earth — than it was 100, 200, 300 years ago. Some things are rightly
private property, and others are rightly common property. But most of us
don't look closely at it
— and most of us are net losers as a result.
Mason Gaffney: George's
Economics of Abundance: Replacing dismal choices
with practical resolutions and synergies
Georgist policy harmonizes
collectivism and individalism; government and the market; common rights
and private tenure. It has been called "commons without tragedy,"
because it lets common-access resources like fisheries and open ranges
be closed off, without destroying common rights. The principle is
simple and basic. Common lands, with
open access, become overcrowded. Optimal management calls for
restricting entry and usage. Entry is limited by issuing licenses (or
leases, permits, concessions, possessory interests, etc.). However, instead of giving these away
gratis, as is the current practice, they are leased out annually to the
highest bidder. Thus, those excluded are compensated, while those
included get only what they pay for.
to land already in private tenure, taxation asserts common rights to
the income of that land, without impairing private tenure rights.
Indeed, private tenure is strengthened when the owner can truly say
"This is my land, I pay the taxes on it." Squatters, trespassers, and
vandals may be evicted with a clear conscience: their common rights
have been protected otherwise, through the tax system. Thus, the policy reconciles common rights
and heavy taxation with the free market and strong private tenure
addition, taking tax revenues from land lets capital and labor go
untaxed. Private property in labor - the basic right of a person
to himself, as posited by John Locke - and private property in capital,
the right of a person to the full value of what he saves, are
the whole article
The Most Rev. Dr Thomas Nulty, Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath
(Ireland): Back to the Land
How Best to Use the Common
The great problem, then, that the nations, or, what comes to the
same thing, that the Governments of nations have to solve is -- what
is the most profitable and remunerative investment they can make of
this common property in the interest and for the benefit of the
people to whom it belongs? In other words, how can they bring the
largest, and, as far as possible, the most skilled amount of
effective labour to bear on the proper cultivation and improvement of
the land? -- how can they make it yield the largest amount of human
food, human comforts and human enjoyments -- and how can its
aggregate produce be divided so as to give everyone the fairest and
largest share he is entitled to without passing over or excluding
I have already shown that the land of every country is the
property of the people of that country, and consequently, that its
exclusive appropriation by a class is a substantial injustice and
wrong done to every man in that country", whom it robs of his fair
share of the common inheritance. The injustice of this appropriation
is enormously enhanced by the fact that it further enables the
landlords, without any risk or trouble, and in fact makes it a matter
of course for them, to appropriate a vast share of the earnings of
the nation besides. They plundered the people first of God's gifts in
the land, and that act of spoliation puts them under a sort of
necessity of plundering them again of an enormous amount of their
direct earnings and wages. The line of argument that leads directly
to this conclusion seems abundantly clear. Read
the whole letter
Charles B. Fillebrown: A Catechism
of Natural Taxation, from Principles of
Natural Taxation (1917)
Q5. What is meant by equal right to land?
A. The right of access upon equal terms -- preference to be secured only upon
payment of a premium that will extinguish the equal rights of all other men.
Q6. What is meant by a joint or common right to land?
A. A joint or common right to the rent of land -- a right such as heirs-at-law
have to share the income of or rent of an estate. ... read the whole article
Mason Gaffney: Land as a
Distinctive Factor of Production
Much land remains untenured
Access to land is open by nature until and unless land is
appropriated, defended, bounded and policed. No one claims land
right of production; no producer must be rewarded to evoke and maintain
the supply; and submarginal land is not worth policing, unless to
it for its possible future values, or to preclude anticipated
for markets or labor. Centuries of human customs have developed
around regulating common use of lands with open access.
Tenure control of some land tends to drive the excluded
untenured land (the "commons"), creating an allocational bias
unless all land is either tenured or common. Thomas N. Carver
styled this the phenomenon of "The
Congested Frontier", and he
might have added backwoods. Land which is partly common today
includes parks and public beaches, streets and highways, water
wild fish and game, and some at least of the "wide open spaces"
in less hospitable regions. Today there are homeless people for
whom life would literally be impossible without some form of access,
however precarious, to untenured land. Some of it, ironically, is
near the centers of large cities, where the price of land is
No great damage is done if submarginal land is untenured: it
used anyway. There may be damage, however, when rentable land is
untenured. It attracts too many entrepreneurs with too much labor
and capital, leading either to the use of private force to establish
tenure - unjust, dangerous, and wasteful
or overcrowding and waste, called the "dissipation of rent,"
when the average cost of the average firm equals the average product of
labor and capital. Fisheries and open range are classic
cases. Read the whole article
Nic Tideman: The Shape of a World
Inspired by Henry George
How would the world look if its
political institutions were
shaped by the conception of social justice advanced by Henry
Jeff Smith and Kris Nelson: Giving
Life to the Property Tax Shift (PTS)
John Muir is right. "Tug on any
thing and find it connected to everything else in the universe." Tug on
the property tax and find it connected to urban slums, farmland loss,
political favoritism, and unearned equity with disrupted neighborhood
tenure. Echoing Thoreau, the more familiar reforms have failed to
address this many-headed hydra at its root. To think that the root
could be chopped by a mere shift in the property tax base -- from
buildings to land -- must seem like the epitome of unfounded faith. Yet
the evidence shows that state and local tax activists do have a
powerful, if subtle, tool at their disposal. The "stick" spurring
efficient use of land is a higher tax rate upon land, up to even the
site's full annual value. The "carrot" rewarding efficient use of land
is a lower or zero tax rate upon improvements. ...
What's won or lost is a value generated by
society. That is, land rises in value
These factors driving land value are not
improvements made by
lone owners but by the entire community. The closest correlation to
land value is density and no one person creates that. Hence the site
value levy merely puts public values in the public treasury for public
benefit, as untaxing homes, sales, and income leaves
privately-generated values in private pockets. ...
- where a new resource is
discovered (during a gold rush, more money is made by land developers
than by prospectors),
- where population grows (see the Sun
- where technology advances (witness
the land values
in the various Silicon Valleys, Forests, etc),
- where infrastructure
expands (e.g., near a new road or sewer), and
- where society cooperates
(e.g., in communities that organize street fairs, neighborhood watches,
A big problem needs a big solution which in turn
matching shift of our prevailing paradigm. Geonomics -- advocating that
we share the social value of sites and natural resources and untax
earnings -- does just that. Read the whole article
Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan: The
Political Economy of Land: Putting Henry George in His Place
Georgism has a distinctive ethical basis. So a review of the contemporary
relevance of Georgist political economy can usefully begin by making this
explicit. The key moral issue is the private appropriation of public wealth.
As George recognised, land is a ‘gift from nature’ and, as such,
is rightfully a community resource. Hence, those deriving benefits from the
private ownership of land should recompense the community for the privilege.
This principle has strong echoes of the idea of ‘usufruct’, a
pre-capitalist term denoting a person’s legal right to use and accrue
benefits from property that does not belong to them. In return, the user
is obliged to keep the property in good repair and pay all costs as a ‘ground
rent’ (‘Lectric Law Library, n.d). The concept of ‘usufruct’ has
fallen out of common usage, so one hesitates to try to revive it. Moreover,
as Richards (2002) notes, ‘it is difficult to image how this word could
be employed, or brought back into circulation, in the modern world, since
we live in a world in which people tend to be remarkably unsympathetic to
the property rights or claims of others’.
However, the principle of ‘usufruct’ goes to the heart of the
question of how best to balance collective and individual rights and interests.
George’s solution of a tax on the value of land squarely addresses
this issue. By returning a proportion of the land value to the community
in the form of taxation revenue, restitution would be paid for the use of
a community resource. This is an ethical justification for land taxation.
... read the whole article
Bill Batt: The
Compatibility of Georgist Economics and Ecological Economics
Hence it becomes important,
critically important, to understand the
meaning of “ownership” and “property” in the Georgist lexicon. But it
is not difficult, for they continue to have their classical meanings,
just as for John Locke, Adam Smith, and all the major forerunners and
thinkers of classical economics until the advent of neoclassical
economics. What was the meaning of ownership and property in their
classical sense? Property was the product of human labor and capital,
and that alone. Items of property were household goods, personal
attire, armaments, and similar such goods. Property belonged in the
category of capital. Land was not part of property, but rather was its
own category. Land, broadly defined,
belonged to everyone and was the common heritage of all humanity.15 One could no more “own” land than one
could own water, air, or other parts of nature, at least in the sense
of ownership that people often use today. Much like the
native-American concept of ownership, it was part of what was
classically called “the commons.” 16 “What
is this you call property?” Massasoit, a leader of the Wampanoag, asked
the Plymouth colonists whom he had befriended in the 1620s. “It cannot
be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children,
beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on
it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say
it belongs to him?” 17
Indeed Georgists see a moral equivalency between monopoly ownership of
land and nature and the ownership of slaves! ...
POINTS OF SYNTHESIS OF GEORGIST
The commonalities of Georgist economics and ecological economics
to be organizable into six general points:
1) preservation of the commons,
Implicit in all these points is
the view that market activity needs to
be circumscribed and juxtaposed to the non-human, biological realm. It
appears that there is lots to be gained by some synthesis of the two
fields of discourse.
2) sustainable development,
3) appropriate valuation of natural capital,
4) ensuring social and biological community,
5) fostering individual self-realization, and
6) securing economic justice.
Ecological economists worry about the encroachment, and even the
elimination, of those elements of nature to which private property
title has not been granted. In their concern about the need to protect
the “commons,” they are torn between the view that only through
privatization can all the world’s assets be preserved and the
alternative view that any private appropriation of the commons
constitutes a moral compromise. They fear a repeat of Garrett Hardin’s
“tragedy of the commons.” Their argument often proposed is rather
complex to explicate: it assumes that private property titles may
perhaps provide the best incentive not to exploit the fruits of the
earth and the earth itself.126 To
Georgists, on the other hand, the earth and all its resources are
already in fact the birthright of all humanity; individuals are
entitled to its use in return for the payment of rents. Further
privatization is anathema. The key rather is in distinguishing the
various components of ownership and getting prices right— mainly
in the collection of economic rents.... read the whole article
Judge Samuel Seabury: An Address delivered
upon the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henry George
WE are met to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henry George.
We meet, therefore, in a spirit of joy and thanksgiving for the great life
which he devoted to the service of humanity. To very few of the children
of men is it given to act the part of a great teacher who makes an outstanding
contribution toward revealing the basic principles to which human society
must adhere if it is to walk in the way which leads to freedom. This Henry
George did, and in so doing he expressed himself with a clarity of thought
and diction which has rarely been surpassed.
... Indeed, if we try to envision, in view of our present location
this afternoon, "The World of Tomorrow," I have no hesitation
in saying that if the world of tomorrow is to be a civilized world,
and not a world
which has relapsed into barbarism, it can be so only by applying the
principles of freedom which Henry George taught. The principles to
which I refer are:
First, that men have equal rights in natural resources, and that these rights
may find recognition in a system which gives effect to the distinction between
what is justly private property because it has relation to individual initiative
and is the creation of labor and capital, and what is public property because
it is either a part of the natural resources of the country, whose value
is created by the presence of the community, or is founded upon some governmental
privilege or franchise.
Henry George believed in an order of society in which monopoly should be
abolished as a means of private profit. The substitution of state monopoly
for private monopoly will not better the situation. It ignores the fact that
even where a utility is a natural monopoly which must be operated in the
public interests, it should be operated as a result of cooperation between
the representatives of labor, capital. and consumers, and not by the politiciaps
w'ho control the political state.
We should never lose sight of the fact that all monopolies are created and
perpetuated by state laws. If the states wish seriously to abolish monopoly,
they can do so by withdrawing their privileges; but they cannot grant the
privileges which make monopoly inevitable and avoid the consequences by invoking
anti-trust laws against them.
It is strange that the state, which has assumed all sorts of functions
which it cannot with advantage perform, still persists in neglecting
a vital function
which it should and can perform — the function of collecting
public revenues, as far as possible, from those who reap the benefits
resources. In view of public and social needs, it is remarkable that
no effort has been made by governments to reduce the tax burdens
on labor and capital,
which are engaged in increasing production, by transferring them
to those who restrict production by making monopoly privileges special
These monopolistic privileges are of course disguised under many different
forms, but the task of ascertaining what they are, and their true value,
is a task within the competency of government if it really desires to accomplish
it. ... read the whole speech
Peter Barnes: Capitalism
3.0 — Chapter 1: Time to Upgrade (pages 3-14)
When most people think of the commons, they imagine a pasture where
animals graze. That’s an antiquated notion, and not what I have
in mind. In this book I use the commons as a generic term, like the
market or the state. It refers to all the gifts we inherit or create
This notion of the commons designates a set of assets that have two
characteristics: they’re all gifts, and they’re all shared.
A gift is something we receive, as opposed to something we earn. A
shared gift is one we receive as members of a community, as opposed
to individually. Examples of such gifts include air, water, ecosystems,
languages, music, holidays, money, law, mathematics, parks, the Internet,
and much more.
These diverse gifts are like a river with three tributaries: nature,
community, and culture (see figure 1.1). This broad river precedes
and surrounds capitalism, and adds immense value to it (and to us).
Indeed, we literally can’t live without it, and we certainly
can’t live well.
There’s another quality to assets in the commons: we have a
joint obligation to preserve them. That’s because future generations
will need them to live, and live well, just as we do. And our generation
has no right to say, “These gifts end here.” This shared
responsibility introduces a moral factor that doesn’t apply to
other economic assets: it requires us to manage these gifts with future
generations in mind. Markets don’t naturally do this. If an asset
yields a competitive return to capital, markets keep it alive; otherwise,
they let it die. No other factors matter.
Assets in the commons are meant to be preserved regardless of their
return to capital. Just as we receive them as shared gifts, so we have
a duty to pass them on in at least the same condition as we received
them. If we can add to their value, so much the better, but at a minimum
we must not degrade them, and we certainly have no right to destroy
Besides the commons, I use a few similar-sounding terms that should
be clarified here as well.
- By common wealth I mean the monetary and nonmonetary value of
all the assets in the commons. Like stockholders’ equity
in a corporation, it may increase or decrease from year to year
on how well
the commons is managed.
- By common property I mean a class of human-made rights that lies
somewhere between private property and state property. Like private
property arises when the state recognizes it. Unlike private property,
inclusive rather than exclusive — it strives to share ownership as
widely, rather than as narrowly, as possible.
- By the commons sector I mean an organized sector of our economy.
It embraces some of the gifts we inherit together, but not all.
In effect, it’s a
subset of the given commons that we consciously organize according to commons
principles. It’s small at the moment, but the point of this book
is that we should enlarge it.... read
the whole chapter
Peter Barnes: Capitalism
3.0 — Chapter 2: A Short History of Capitalism (pages 15-32)
In the beginning, the commons was everywhere. Humans and other animals
roamed around it, hunting and gathering. Like other species, we had
territories, but these were tribal, not individual. ...
Why did this happen? There are many explanations. One is that welfare
kept the poor poor; this was argued by Charles Murray in his 1984 book
Losing Ground.Welfare, he contended, encouraged single mothers to remain
unmarried, increased the incidence of out-of-wedlock births, and created
a parasitic underclass. In other words, Murray (and others) blamed
victims or particular policies for perpetuating poverty, but paid scant
attention to why poverty exists in the first place.
There are, of course, many roots, but my own hypothesis is this: much
of what we label private wealth is taken from, or coproduced with,
the commons. However, these takings from the commons are far from equal.
To put it bluntly, the rich are rich because (through corporations)
they get the lion’s share of common wealth; the poor are poor
because they get very little.
Another way to say this is that, just as water flows downhill to the
sea, so money flows uphill to property. Capitalism by its very design
maximizes returns to existing wealth owners. It benefits, in particular,
those who own stock when a successful company is young; they can receive
hundreds, even thousands of times their initial investments when the
company matures. Moreover, once such stockholders accumulate wealth,
they can increase it through reinvestment, pass it on to their heirs,
and use their inevitable influence over politicians to gain extra advantages — witness
the steady lowering of taxes on capital gains, dividends, and inheritances.
On top of this, in the last few decades, has been the phenomenon called
globalization. The whole point of globalization is to increase the
return to capital by enabling its owners to find the lowest costs on
the planet. Hence the stagnation at the bottom alongside the surging
wealth at the top. ... read
the whole chapter
Peter Barnes: Capitalism
3.0 — Chapter 5: Reinventing the Commons (pages 65-78)
Everyone knows what private wealth is, even if they don’t have
much of it. It’s the property we inherit or accumulate individually,
including fractional claims on corporations and mutual funds. In the
United States in 2005, this private wealth (minus mortgages and other
liabilities) totaled $48.5 trillion. As previously noted, the top 5
percent of Americans owns more of this treasure than the bottom 95
But there’s another trove of wealth that’s not so well-known:
our common wealth. Each of us is the joint recipient of a vast inheritance.
This shared inheritance includes air and water, habitats and ecosystems,
languages and cultures, science and technologies, social and political
systems, and quite a bit more.
Common wealth is like the dark matter of the economic universe — it’s
everywhere, but we don’t see it. One reason we don’t see
it is that much of it is, literally, invisible. Who can spot the air,
an aquifer, or the social trust that underlies financial markets? The
more relevant reason is our own blindness: the only economic matter
we notice is the kind that glistens with dollar signs. We ignore common
wealth because it lacks price tags and property rights. ...
Organizing Principles of the Commons Sector
Property rights, especially the common kind, require competent institutions
to manage them. What we need today, then, along with more common property,
is a set of institutions, distinct from corporations and government,
whose unique and explicit mission is to manage common property.
I say set of institutions because there will and should be variety.
The commons sector should not be a monoculture like the corporate sector.
Each institution should be appropriate to its particular asset and
Some of the variety will depend on whether the underlying asset is
limited or inexhaustible. Typically, gifts of nature have limited capacities;
the air can safely absorb only so much carbon dioxide, the oceans only
so many drift nets. Institutions that manage natural assets must therefore
be capable of limiting use. By contrast, ideas and cultural creations
have endless potential for elaboration and reuse. In these commons,
managing institutions should maximize public access and minimize private
Despite their variations, commons sector institutions would share
a set of organizing principles. Here are the main ones.
- LEAVE ENOUGH AND AS GOOD IN COMMON As
Locke argued, it’s okay to privatize parts of the commons as long
as “enough and as good” is left for everyone forever.
Enough in the case of an ecosystem means enough to keep it alive
and healthy. That much, or more, should be part of the commons,
even if parts of the ecosystem are private. In the case of culture
and science, enough means enough to assure a vibrant public domain.
Exclusive licenses, such as patents and copyrights, should be kept
to a minimum.
- PUT FUTURE GENERATIONS FIRST Corporations
put the interests of stockholders first, while government puts
the interests of campaign donors and living voters first. No one
at the moment puts future generations first. That’s Job Number
One for the commons sector.
In practice, this means trustees of common property should be legally
accountable to future generations. (We’ll see how this might
work in chapter 6.) They should also be bound by the precautionary
principle: when in doubt, err on the side of safety. And when faced
with a conflict between short-term gain and long-term preservation,
they should be required to choose the latter.
- THE MORE THE MERRIER Whereas
private property is inherently exclusive, common property strives
to be inclusive.
It always wants more co-owners or participants,
consistent with preservation of the asset.
This organizing principle applies most clearly to commons like culture
and the Internet, where physical limits are absent and increasing
use unleashes synergies galore. It also applies to social compacts
Social Security and Medicare, which require universal participation.
In these compacts, financial mechanisms express our solidarity with
other members of our national community. They’re efficient and
fair because they include everybody. Were they to operate under profit-maximizing
principles, they’d inevitably exclude the poor (who couldn’t
afford to participate) and anyone deemed by private insurers to be
- ONE PERSON, ONE SHARE Modern
democratic government is grounded on the principle of one person,
one vote. In the same
way, the modern commons sector would be grounded
on the principle of one person, one share. In the case of scarce
natural assets, it will be necessary to distinguish between usage
income rights. It’s impossible for everyone to use a limited
commons equally, but everyone should receive equal shares of the
income derived from selling limited usage rights.
- INCLUDE SOME LIQUIDITY Currently,
private property owners enjoy a near-monopoly on the privilege of
receiving property income. But as the Alaska Permanent Fund
shows, it’s possible for common property co-owners to
receive income too.
Income sharing would end private property’s monopoly not only
on liquidity, but also on attention. People would notice common property
if they got income from it. They’d care about it, think about
it, and talk about it. Concern for invisible commons would soar.
Common property liquidity has to be designed carefully, though. Since
common property rights are birthrights, they shouldn’t be
tradeable the way corporate shares are. This means commons owners
reap capital gains. Instead, they’d retain their shared income
stakes throughout their lives, and through such stakes, share in
rent, royalties, interest, and dividends. ... read
the whole chapter
Peter Barnes: Capitalism
3.0 — Chapter 10: What You Can Do (pages 155-166)
To build Capitalism 3.0, we each have unique roles to play. I therefore
address the final pages of this book to a variety of people whose participation
is critical. ...
You’re going to change the world. You will build the new commons
sector, one piece at a time. You’ll be the unsung, or modestly
sung, heroes and heroines of Capitalism 3.0.
A commons entrepreneur, like a private entrepreneur, is a visionary,
a catalyst, a starter. You see a need that isn’t being met, and
a way to meet it. You bring people together, come up with a plan, and
make it happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The
difference is, a commons entrepreneur doesn’t get stock. You’re
motivated by a different force, a desire to give back. You aren’t
selfless; you enjoy success, recognition, and even money. But on balance,
your desire to contribute to shared wealth outweighs your desire to
accumulate private wealth. Accordingly, you choose the commons over
the corporate sector.
A commons entrepreneur can work almost anywhere. Take a stroll around
your neighborhood. What’s missing? A community garden? A bike
path? A wi-fi hot spot? A food-buying club? Make it happen! Whether
your interests relate to a river, a form of culture, or the planet,
get involved. Adopt a commons. Learn everything about it. Fall in love
with it. See who’s in charge. Then join or build an organization
to revive it.
If you want a role model, consider Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor and
promoter of the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee was a programmer at CERN,
the European high-energy physics lab, when he had an idea to simplify
the Internet through hypertext. Readers of an Internet page would simply
click on a hypertext link and be transported automatically to another
page, anywhere in the world. No more clunky protocols only geeks understand.
Just one seamless information space, freely accessible to all.
Berners-Lee wrote the codes for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)
and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). More importantly, he persuaded
CERN to release them into the world with no patents, licenses, or other
strings attached. This made it possible for anybody to adopt them without
fear of lawsuits or ever having to pay a penny. Within a few years,
the World Wide Web was ubiquitous. Berners-Lee then moved to MIT to
lead an international consortium dedicated to preserving the Web as
a nonproprietary space. At numerous points along the way, Berners-Lee
could have started or joined a business, and in all likelihood he would
have reaped millions. At each point, he declined. “I wanted to
see the Web proliferate, not sink my life’s hours into worrying
over a product release,” he explained. Making a contribution
to the commons was more important to him than taking out a bundle for
As a commons entrepreneur, your work is more difficult than your corporate
counterpart’s. That’s because you’re treading in
uncharted waters. The commons you seek to protect will probably lack
property rights, and getting them can take years or decades. In fact,
rounding up property rights will frequently be the first thing you
do. That’s in addition to rounding up money, which is tough enough.
Ultimately, you should strive to leave behind an institution that protects
your beloved commons for generations to come. This is the measure of
your success. ... read
the whole chapter
Bill Batt: Comment on Parts
of the NYS Legislative Tax Study Commission's 1985 study “Who
Pays New York Taxes?”
The question still begs to be answered, “why tax land?” And
what happens when we don’t tax land? Henry George answered this
more than a century ago more forcefully and clearly, perhaps, than
anyone has since. He recognized full well that the economic surplus
not expended by human hands or minds in the production of capital wealth
gravitates to land. Particular land sites come to reflect the value
of their strategic location for market exchanges by assuming a price
for their monopoly use. Regardless whether those who acquire title
to such sites use them to the full extent of their potential, the flow
of rent to such locations is commensurate with their full capacity.
This is why John Stuart Mill more than a century ago observed that, “Landlords
grow richer in their sleep without working, risking or economizing.
The increase in the value of land, arising as it does from the efforts
of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the
individual who might hold title.”33 Absent its recovery by taxation
this rent becomes a “free lunch” to opportunistically situated
titleholders. When offered for sale, the projected rental value is
capitalized in the present value for purposes of attaching a market
price and sold as a commodity. Yet simple justice calls for
the recovery in taxes what is the community’s creation. Moreover, the failure
to recover the land rent connected to sites makes it necessary to tax
productive activities in our economy, and this leads to economic and
technical inefficiency known as “deadweight loss.”34 It
means that the economy performs suboptimally.
Land, and by this Henry George meant any natural factor of production
not created by human hands or minds, is ours only to use, not to buy
or sell as a commodity. In the equally immortal words of Jefferson
a century earlier, “The earth belongs in usufruct to the living;
. . . [It is] given as a common stock for men to labor and live on.”35
This passage likely needs a bit of parsing for the modern reader. The
word usufruct, understood since Roman times, has almost passed from
use today. It means “the right to use the property of another
so long as its value is not diminished.”36 Note also that Jefferson
regarded the earth as a “common stock;” not allotted to
individuals with possessory titles. Only the phrase “to the living” might
be subject to challenge by forward-looking environmentalists who, taking
an idea from Native American cultures, argue that “we do not
inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” The
presumption that real property titles are acquired legitimately is
a claim that does not withstand scrutiny; rather all such titles owe
their origin ultimately to force or fraud.37
If we own the land sites that we occupy only in usufruct, and the
rent that derives from those sites is due to community enterprise,
it is not a large logical leap to argue that the community’s
recovery of that rent should be the proper source of taxation. This
is the Georgist argument: that the recapture of land rent is the proper – indeed
the natural – source of taxation.38 ... read the whole commentary