Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us



Seems to me that a “right” is something everyone should have, like life, liberty, free speech, rewards of working and saving. A privilege is something A can only have by depriving B et al. Those with privileges have sought to expand the meaning of “right” to include their privileges. — Mason Gaffney (May 2006 correspondence)


Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

Now, what are the rights of this case?

  • To whom rightfully does the soil of Ireland belong?
  • Who are justly entitled to its use and to all the benefits that flow from its use?

Let us settle this question clearly and decisively, before we attempt anything else.

Let me go to the heart of this question by asking another question: Has or has not the child born in Ireland a right to live? There can be but one answer, for no one would contend that it was right to drown Irish babies, or that any human law could make it right. Well, then, if every human being born in Ireland has a right to live in Ireland, these rights must be equal. If each one has a right to live, then no one can have any better right to live than any other one. There can be no dispute about this. No one will contend that it would be any less a crime to drown a baby of an Irish peasant woman than it would be to drown the baby of the proudest duchess, or that a law commanding the one would be any more justifiable than a law commanding the other.

Since, then, all the Irish people have the same equal right to life, it follows that they must all have the same equal right to the land of Ireland. If they are all in Ireland by the same equal permission of Nature, so that no one of them can justly set up a superior claim to life than any other one of them; so that all the rest of them could not justly say to any one of them, "You have not the same right to live as we have; therefore we will pitch you out of Ireland into the sea!" then they must all have the same equal rights to the elements which Nature has provided for the sustaining of life – to air, to water, and to land. For to deny the equal right to the elements necessary to the maintaining of life is to deny the equal right to life. Any law that said, "Certain babies have no right to the soil of Ireland; therefore they shall be thrown off the soil of Ireland;" would be precisely equivalent to a law that said, "Certain babies have no right to live; therefore they shall be thrown into the sea." And as no law or custom or agreement can justify the denial of the equal right to life, so no law or custom or agreement can justify the denial of the equal right to land.

It therefore follows, from the very fact of their existence, that the right of each one of the people of Ireland to an equal share in the land of Ireland is equal and inalienable: that is to say, that the use and benefit of the land of Ireland belong rightfully to the whole people of Ireland, to each one as much as to every other; to no one more than to any other–not to some individuals, to the exclusion of other individuals; not to one class, to the exclusion of other classes; not to landlords, not to tenants, not to cultivators, but to the whole people.

This right is irrefutable and indefeasible. It pertains to and springs from the fact of existence, the right to live. No law, no covenant, no agreement, can bar it. One generation cannot stipulate away the rights of another generation. If the whole people of Ireland were to unite in bargaining away their rights in the land, how could they justly bargain away the right of the child who the next moment is born? No one can bargain away what is not his; no one can stipulate away the rights of another. And if the new-born infant has an equal right to life, then has it an equal right to land. Its warrant, which comes direct from Nature, and which sets aside all human laws or title-deeds, is the fact that it is born.

Here we have a firm, self-apparent principle from which we may safely proceed. The land of Ireland does not belong to one individual more than to another individual; to one class more than to another class; to one generation more than to the generations that come after. It belongs to the whole people who at the time exist upon it. ... read the whole article

Henry George: Ode to Liberty  (1877 speech)

In the very centers of our civilization today are want and suffering enough to make sick at heart whoever does not close his eyes and steel his nerves. Dare we turn to the Creator and ask Him to relieve it? Supposing the prayer were heard, and at the behest with which the universe sprang into being there should glow in the sun a greater power; new virtue fill the air; fresh vigor the soil; that for every blade of grass that now grows two should spring up, and the seed that now increases fifty-fold should increase a hundredfold! Would poverty be abated or want relieved? Manifestly no! Whatever benefit would accrue would be but temporary. The new powers streaming through the material universe could be utilized only through land. And land, being private property, the classes that now monopolize the bounty of the Creator would monopolize all the new bounty. Land owners would alone be benefited. Rents would increase, but wages would still tend to the starvation point!

This is not merely a deduction of political economy; it is a fact of experience. We know it because we have seen it. Within our own times, under our very eyes, that Power which is above all, and in all, and through all; that Power of which the whole universe is but the manifestation; that Power which maketh all things, and without which is not anything made that is made, has increased the bounty which men may enjoy, as truly as though the fertility of nature had been increased.
  • Into the mind of one came the thought that harnessed steam for the service of mankind.
  • To the inner ear of another was whispered the secret that compels the lightning to bear a message around the globe.
  • In every direction have the laws of matter been revealed; in every department of industry have arisen arms of iron and fingers of steel, whose effect upon the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of nature.
What has been the result? Simply that land owners get all the gain. The wonderful discoveries and inventions of our century have neither increased wages nor lightened toil. The effect has simply been to make the few richer; the many more helpless! Can it be that the gifts of the Creator may be thus misappropriated with impunity? Is it a light thing that labor should be robbed of its earnings while greed rolls in wealth — that the many should want while the few are surfeited? Turn to history, and on every page may be read the lesson that such wrong never goes unpunished; that the Nemesis that follows injustice never falters nor sleeps! Look around today. Can this state of things continue? May we even say, “After us the deluge!” Nay; the pillars of the state are trembling even now, and the very foundations of society begin to quiver with pent-up forces that glow underneath. The struggle that must either revivify, or convulse in ruin, is near at hand, if it be not already begun. The fiat has gone forth! With steam and electricity, and the new powers born of progress, forces have entered the world that will either compel us to a higher plane or overwhelm us, as nation after nation, as civilization after civilization, have been overwhelmed before. It is the delusion which precedes destruction that sees in the popular unrest with which the civilized world is feverishly pulsing only the passing effect of ephemeral causes. Between democratic ideas and the aristocratic adjustments of society there is an irreconcilable conflict. Here in the United States, as there in Europe, it may be seen arising. We cannot go on permitting men to vote and forcing them to tramp. We cannot go on educating boys and girls in our public schools and then refusing them the right to earn an honest living. We cannot go on prating of the inalienable rights of man and then denying the inalienable right to the bounty of the Creator. Even now, in old bottles the new wine begins to ferment, and elemental forces gather for the strife! ... read the whole speech

William Ogilvie: An Essay on the Right of Property in Land (Scotland, 1782)
All Right of property is founded either in occupancy or labour. The earth having been given to mankind in common occupancy, each individual seems to have by nature a right to possess and cultivate an equal share. This right is little different from that which he has to the free use of the open air and running water; though not so indispensably requisite at short intervals for his actual existence, it is not less essential to the welfare and right state of his life through all its progressive stages. ... Read the entire essay

D. C. MacDonald: Preface (1891?) to Ogilvie's Essay (circa 1782)
Do we not find the Birthright of Man stereotyped in the words “OUR FATHER”? The Faiths of the world, ancient and modern, whether considered natural or revealed, have all something in them, in common with genuine Christianity, which declares “Equality of Rights” between man and man.   ...   Read the entire preface

Nic Tideman:  A Bill of Economic Rights and Obligations
Our nation was founded on the idea that we are all created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In living, expressing our liberty, and pursuing happiness we sometimes conflict with one another, so we need a shared understanding of the extent of the sphere of equal rights given to every person, and beyond that sphere our obligation to respect the rights of others. This Bill is concerned with the economic aspects of these rights and obligations.  Read the entire article

Nic Tideman:   The Case for Taxing Land
I.  Taxing Land as Ethics and Efficiency
II.  What is Land?
III.  The simple efficiency argument for taxing land
IV.  Taxing Land is Better Than Neutral
V.  Measuring the Economic Gains from Shifting Taxes to Land
VI. The Ethical Case for Taxing Land
VII. Answer to Arguments against Taxing Land

There is a case for taxing land based on ethical principles and a case for taxing land based on efficiency principles.  As a matter of logic, these two cases are separate.  Ethical conclusions follow from ethical premises and efficiency conclusions from efficiency principles.  However, it is natural for human minds to conflate the two cases.  It is easier to believe that something is good if one knows that it is efficient, and it is easier to see that something is efficient if one believes that it is good.  Therefore it is important for a discussion of land taxation to address both question of efficiency and questions of ethics.

This monograph will first address the efficiency case for taxing land, because that is the less controversial case.  The efficiency case for taxing land has two main parts. ...

To estimate the magnitudes of the impacts that additional taxes on land would have on an economy, one must have a model of the economy.  I report on estimates of the magnitudes of impacts on the U.S. economy of shifting taxes to land, based on a mathematical model that is outlined in the Appendix.

The ethical case for taxing land is based on two ethical premises: 
1) every person has a right to himself or herself, and
2) all persons have equal rights to the natural opportunities that are not embodied in persons.
The first premise leads to the conclusion that taxing people according to the products of their efforts or the products of their saving can only be just if people voluntarily agree, individually, to be subject to such taxes.  Taxing land, on the other hand, does not involve such an intrusion on individual rights.  In fact, taxing land is a way equalizing the advantages of access to land, as required by the second premise.
The ethical case for taxing land ends with a discussion of the reasons why recognition of the equal rights of all to land may be essential for world peace.

After developing the efficiency argument and the ethical argument for taxing land, I consider a variety of counter-arguments that have been offered against taxing land.  For a given level of other taxes, a rise in the rate at which land is taxed causes a fall in the selling price of land.  It is sometimes argued that only modest taxes on land are therefore feasible, because as the rate of taxation on land increases and the selling price of land falls, market transactions become increasingly less reliable as indicators of the value of land.   ...

Another basis on which it is argued that greatly increased taxes on land are infeasible is that if land values were to fall precipitously, the financial system would collapse.   ...

Apart from questions of feasibility, it is sometimes argued that erosion of land values from taxing land would harm economic efficiency, because it would reduce opportunities for entrepreneurs to use land as collateral for loans to finance their ideas.  ...
Another ethical argument that is made against taxing land is that the return to unusual ability is “rent” just as the return to land is rent. This argument represents a refusal to make a distinction that begs to be made.  The first principle of economic justice is that people have rights to themselves.  While some scholars have asserted that people have rights to them­selves but not to their talents, this is nonsensical.  Without talents, there is no self.  Talents are fundamentally different from land.  The equal rights of all to land can consistently be asserted while still asserting that every person has right to the use of his or her talents.

But before developing any of these arguments, I must discuss what land is. ...

The Ethical Case for Taxing Land
The ethical case for taxing land is based on two premises.  The first is that people have rights to themselves.  This has not been controversial since the end of slavery, so I will simply assume that this is agreed.  The second premise is that all people have equal rights to natural opportunities.  This is not so widely agreed. ...

Justice requires that we acknowledge the equal rights of all persons to the gifts of nature.  At the level of relations among nations, this requires every nation to determine whether it is using more than its share of natural opportunities, and if it is using more than its share, to compensate other nations that therefore have less than their shares. ...

An additional ethical reason for recognizing equal rights to natural opportunities is that it may be necessary to secure world peace.  Nations have arisen through violence.  While the world condemns violence among nations, it has persistently acquiesced to regimes established by violence.  The greater the natural resources of a nation, the greater is the attraction to potential tyrants of the possibility of taking over the nation.  If the world is able to establish an understanding, backed up by the threat of economic boycotts, that nations have an obligation to share the value of natural opportunities in proportion to population, and that people are free to leave nations that they find unacceptable, then the return to violent appropriation of power will be removed.  As long as we accept the continued exercise of disproportionate power over natural opportunities by those who acquired that power through violence, we will have difficulty persuading potential usurpers of power that we will not accept their conquests. ...

It is sometimes suggested that collecting all of the rental value of land is not feasible because it would bankrupt the financial system, which uses land as collateral for loans.  The use of land as collateral for loans is a fact that would need to be weighed carefully in working out a feasible transition to a system of collecting nearly all rent publicly, but it does not make public collection of rent impossible.  Public collection of the rental value of land, and the consequent elimination of other taxes, would represent redistribution from the old to the young and unborn.  It is equivalent to saying that each person enters the world with a more complete right to himself or herself (to the extent the income and value added taxes are reduced) and with a right to an equal share of the gifts of nature.  If we are to acknowledge that every newborn person does have such rights, we must reduce the wealth of previously born persons, corresponding to the expectation of collecting the shares of rent of the newborns.  The question that then arises is, Who should pay?

This can be interpreted as a question of who should pay the cost of an accident.  We have had a moral accident.  We have been living under the delusion that it is possible for a person to have a respectable claim to a disproportionate share of the gifts of nature.  This is akin to the delusion under which humanity long lived, that it was possible for one human being to own another.  In recovering from such a delusion, we need to disappoint some people.  If not the slave owners, then the people who compensate the slave owners.  If not the land owners, then the people who compensate the land owners.  I propose that the cost be divided among land owners, shareholders in financial institutions that made loans with land as collateral, and owners of wealth in general. ...

Morality requires that we acknowledge the equal rights of all to the gifts of nature.  Doing so is feasible and promotes efficiency as well.   Read the whole article

Fred Foldvary: Underprivileged or Rights-Deprived?
Poor folk are often labeled "underprivileged" and richer folk are called "privileged." For example, there is a book titled "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All." But "privileged" and "underprivileged" are confused and misleading expressions. If you think the poor are "underprivileged," then you don't really understand poverty.

What is a "privilege?" The term originally meant "private law." A privilege is a special advantage or prerogative or immunity or benefit given only to some people only because they have power or are favored by those with power. If everyone is entitled to something, like freedom of expression, or if everyone may obtain an item such as a passport with the same rules applying to all, then it is not a privilege but a right.

Whether a rich person is "privileged" depends on how he got the money.  ...

So if a person is poor, it is not because he is lacking in special protections, subsidies, and other privileges. A person is usually poor because he has been deprived of the natural right to work. Governments world-wide impose barriers between labor and productive resources, keeping some workers deprived of labor and others who do work deprived of their earnings from labor.

Taxes on wages create a wedge between the cost of labor to employers and the take-home pay of the worker. More costly labor results in less employment. Taxes on the income from capital goods and on the sale of goods has the same effect. There are unemployment taxes, disability taxes, and payroll taxes that increase the tax wedge. On top of that, there are minimum-wage laws that prevent the least productive workers from getting hired. There are permits, zoning, and other rules and costs that also prevent some workers from becoming self-employed.

Deprived of the full natural right to peaceful enterprise and labor, and the natural right to fully keep one's earnings, the poor have little or no income, and depend on charity and governmental assistance. To call them "underprivileged" is a lie. The rights-deprived poor do not need privileges. They just need government to stop interfering with their right to work and save!

The biggest privilege world-wide is subsidies to landowners.  ...

There has been confusion about what is a right and what is a privilege....

Real privileges are favors arbitrarily given to some groups and not others.  ...

The really underprivileged folks are all consumers, taxpayers and those who are restricted from peaceful and honest practices or have to pay extra to the government while others are unrestricted and non-taxed. These people lack privileges which others have. The proper remedy is not to expand privileges, but to eliminate all governmental privileges. That is why libertarians and geoists alike have the motto: "Equal rights for all; privileges for none!"Read the whole article

To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper