The Land Value Tax (LVT) is a “radical” form of taxation first proposed by Henry George in his 1879 Progress and Poverty (see What If Marx Got it Wrong?). What George proposes is to replace taxes on wages, purchases, and investments with a tax on unimproved land and natural resources. Fred Harrison’s The Traumatised Society: How to Outlaw Cheating and Save Our Civilisation (Shepheard-Wallwyn Limited, 2012) provides an exhaustive update of George’s original work.
As Winston Churchill famously observed, “History is written by the victors.” Nearly all history books written in the last 400 years were written by or on behalf of the ruling elite. The Traumatised Society is unique in that it recounts the history of the industrial revolution from the perspective of the 99%. Harrison also presents a simple, but elegant prescription for taking back power from the corporate oligarchy, ending economic inequality and the debt crisis, staving off ecological disaster, and preventing World War III. On the surface these claims appear extravagant and somewhat grandiose. Yet, in my view, Harrison makes his case very convincingly.
Adam Smith was the first prominent economist to propose the LVT as the most “moral” and least economically harmful tax in his classic Wealth of Nations. Neoconservative icon Milton Friedman also considered it the “least bad” kind of tax. The most famous contemporary Georgist is former World Bank Economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.
Basically the argument for an LVT goes as follows: because publicly funded infrastructure increases land values, this added value should return to the public. It shouldn’t return to the landowner, who has done nothing more than sit on his land. An LVT provides a valuable source of public revenue. It eliminates the need for governments to borrow from private banks without depleting the total wealth of the landowner.
Economies and personal freedom flourish wherever an LVT has been implemented. As Harrison reminds us, the economic surge known as the Asian Tiger didn’t start in China, but in Taiwan and Hong Kong – as a direct result of LVT-based economies. Moreover unlike China, economic growth in both Taiwan and Hong Kong has proved genuine and sustainable. In 2011, the per capita GDP of China was $8,400, while that of Taiwan was $37,900.
The Trauma of Cultural Genocide
The title The Traumatised Society is based on a severe dislocation Europeans experienced during the eighteenth century, a process remarkably similar to that of African slaves and indigenous people oppressed by colonization. The cause of this dislocation was The Enclosure Acts, a series of laws that drove our peasant ancestors off the communal farm lands that had supported them for a thousand years and fenced it to off as private property. In England alone, 160,000 freehold farmers were thrown off their land between 1700 and 1812. In addition to being stripped of their livelihood, our ancestors also experienced “cultural genocide,” as they lost a thousand years of cultural tradition linked to communal land ownership. This process is vividly described in the poems of 18th century poet John Clare, whose parents ended up in the poor house (i.e. jail) after being thrown off their land. Clare’s work was suppressed until the late 19th century, when the work of American journalist Henry George revived the British land reform movement.
The end result of this massive dislocation has been slavery, debt, alienation, depression, poverty (which was virtually non-existent prior to the Industrial Revolution), murder, rape, child abuse and alcohol and drug addiction. Counselors and therapists who work with African American and indigenous communities are very much aware of the trauma, which is passed from generation to generation, that results from severe economic dislocation and cultural genocide. Ironically, however, Europeans have no historical memory that we have been subjected to the same kind of trauma.
According to Harrison, the “moral evolution” of the human race ceased in the 1700s. This is when an authentic human culture of cooperation and interdependence was replaced with an artificial “cheating culture,” in which the highest ideal is to get something for nothing. The modern, free market version of Christianity is part and parcel of this phony culture – as is Marxism. Harrison feels Marx did us a great disservice by demonizing capitalism. The capitalistic funding model in itself isn’t the primary source of our major economic and social problems.
The Concept of Economic Rents
The Traumatised Society is written in classical economic language, in which “rent” refers to unearned income from the monopolization of land, natural resources, or the cultural commons (e.g. the public airwaves and money). Economic rent includes unearned profit gained from selling land that has increased in value (often due to land speculation). A “rent-seeker” is someone who derives unearned income from monopolization of these resources.
For most of human history land and resources were owned communally and any “rent” or unearned income went to finance public services. Beginning in the 18th century, this all changed. When “rent-seekers” privatized land and natural resources, they also captured control of government and shifted the burden of funding public services to workers. In this way modern capitalist society came to be divided into two classes, the Predators or rent-seekers, and the Producers, who engage in work to create economic wealth.
The Link Between Rent-Seeking, War, and Revolution
As more and more wealth is extracted from Producers, both as “rents” and as taxes, there is less and less money available to maintain public infrastructure. Eventually the number of Producers becomes inadequate to support the Predator rent-seeking class. At this point, the latter seeks to remedy the problem by conquering new lands and colonizing new populations, by using fossil fuel technology to increase productivity, by borrowing and extracting wealth from future generations, and/or by capital depletion (liquidating assets created by past production – like Greece).
Harrison believes competition between Western and Asian rent-seekers is bringing us ever closer to World War III. In his view, the best way to prevent war is to eliminate debt, reduce income inequality, and restore growth through widespread adoption of an LVT. He gives several historical examples of rulers who could have averted bloody revolutions if they had adopted an LVT. Shortly before the French Revolution, Louis XVI’s minister of finance strongly advised him to implement an LVT. Tolstoy gave Czar Nicholas II similar advice on the eve of the Russian revolution.
Britain’s Experience with an LVT
In Britain there have been several attempts to end predatory rent-seeking through the enactment of an LVT. As a result of Henry George’s 1879 international bestseller Progress and Poverty, Winston Churchill (still a liberal in 1909) became one of the most vocal proponents of the People’s Budget. The law, passed by the British parliament in 1909, sought to shift the burden of taxation from wages to land. It was never implemented because the British aristocracy went to court to block the land valuation required to assess the tax. In 1931 Parliament passed a revised version of the People’s Budget, which Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain simply deleted it from the law book in 1934. If the LVT had been fully implemented, Britain would have been spared the worst effects of the Great Depression.
How an LVT Might Have Altered the Course of History
Harrison moves on to explore how an LVT might have alleviated severe economic and political turmoil in other countries:
- Ireland – rent seekers “sucked: out all the wealth of Ireland for 200 years, a process that didn’t end with independence. Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” could have been sustainable if it had been funded by a LVT rather than debt. The result was a debt/real estate bubble that left the country even worse off when the bubble burst in 2008. In 2010, Harrison advocated for Ireland to pay off its debt by implementing a LVT. This would have provided the revenue the Irish government needed to stimulate growth. Instead the IMF bailout and austerity cuts has deeply suppressed growth.
- China – made a fatal error by failing to implement an LVT when they began to privatize collectively owned land in the 1980s. China is currently facing slowing growth, thanks to a $1.7 trillion debt incurred by their city and provincial governments. While the central government was building up massive cash reserves by selling cheap exports, they forced regional governments to self-fund their public services. The only way they could do this was by selling land to property developers and by borrowing money.
- Cuba – made a fatal error on November 11, 2011 when they began selling collectively owned land to rent-seekers, and allowed rents to be capitalized into land prices – instead of taxing them.
- Russia – Gorbachev envisioned land remaining in public hands as part of Glasnost. After a threatened military coup forced him to step down, Harrison went to Russia trying to persuade Yeltsin to adapt an LVT. Instead Russia’s first president opened the country to the IMF and western rent-seekers. Both sucked out sufficient wealth to set the country’s standard of living back several decades.
- Africa – South Africa’s current economic difficulties relate to a fatal error they made in 2004. They amended their LVT to add a tax on property improvements but should have done the opposite – increase the LVT and reduce other taxes. Much of the land in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa is still communally owned. Thus there is still great potential for emerging African economies to adopt an LVT. This would allow them to develop debt-free, sustainable economies that don’t leave the majority of the population in abject poverty.
- The US – suffers from a “constitutional neurosis,” according to Harrison. Supposedly the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were based on the Scottish Enlightenment. Whereas John Locke talked about a universal right to “Life, Liberty and Estate (Land),” our founding fathers changed this to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” even before the Constitution was written.
The Future of LVT
As Harrison points out, at present rent-seekers are extremely powerful and have absolute control over government, media, and public education. Nevertheless as countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America escape US military control, it’s imperative they have an avenue to escape the economic control of local and international rent-seekers. By adopting an LVT, they guarantee themselves sufficient income to provide government and public services – without falling into the predatory clutches of international bankers and the IMF.
In his 2011 book Re-Solving the Economic Puzzle, Walter Rybeck relates how the US contemplated LVT enabling legislation during the Carter administration. As an assistant to Representative Henry Reuss (D-Milwaukee), Rybeck helped Reuss (as chair of the House, Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee) promote land and resource taxes as a way to address crumbling infrastructure in financially strapped cities and states.
Enter Sarah Palin
According to Rybeck, a number of communities (and one state) have already adopted variations of an LVT. Alaska’s oil/gas tax is the best example of a resource-based LVT. This tax provides 80-90% of Alaska’s general fund, as well as providing annual dividends to residents. As governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin introduced Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES), which charges a 25 percent tax rate on oil profits, with the rate increasing progressively as oil prices go up.
Other American communities that have already benefited from an LVT include California’s Central Valley, Fairhope in Alabama, Arden in Delaware, and Pittsburgh and other cities in Pennsylvania.