In the aftermath of one of the nation’s worst economic disasters—the long depression of the 1870s—a California journalist named Henry George strived to understand a distinctive dilemma of modern capitalism: the fact that progress seemed perversely to deepen social inequality and economic stability. The result of George’s investigation was Progress and Poverty (1879). The book challenged widely accepted doctrines of property rights and laissez-faire and changed the way many people thought about and understood political economy. It also became a bestseller.
By the close of the nineteenth century, Progress and Poverty outsold every other book except the Bible.
Born September 2, 1839, the second of 10 children, Henry George hailed from humble beginnings. At age 13, George dropped out of school to help support his family. As a workingman in post-Gold rush California, George bounced from job-to-job until he found his calling in journalism. After working long hours at the office, George spent his evenings and weekends reading the best and latest literature. When he failed to find a publisher willing to print Progress and Poverty, he borrowed and set the printing tiles himself.
Henry George proposed a simple solution to the problems of economic inequality and industrial depression. In contrast to others of his era who attributed inequity to overproduction, unsound monetary policy, or the Darwinian nature of economic forces, George singled out one of the most cherished institutions of liberal capitalist societies: private property in land. He called for replacing all federal, state, and local taxes with one tax on the full value of land.
His proposal became known as “the single tax” and those who supported it were called “single taxers.”
The single tax was neither a property tax nor a land tax. Unlike the general property tax which taxes both the value of houses and the land upon which those houses stand, the single tax only applied to the socially created value of land. Like others before him, George understood that land values increase not as a result of the efforts of individuals, but as a result of the location of land near schools, hospitals, businesses, and the like. Under the single tax, land without value would not be taxed.
Taxing only land values, George believed, would generate all the revenue needed to operate government and produce ever greater levels of opportunity, as man’s right to the bounty of nature and his desire for a productive life was strengthened.
Taxing only land values, George believed, would ameliorate and one day eliminate the hardship caused by continually bursting bubbles of land speculation.
Taxing only land values, George believed, was not just the application of sound public policy, but the acknowledgement of a spiritual duty.
[Adapted from Alexandra W. Lough, “The Last Tax: Henry George and the Social Politics of Land Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era” PhD diss (Brandeis University, 2013) Click here to read more]