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Georgism is an economic philosophy and ideology which holds that people own what they create, but that income from things found in nature (economic rent), most importantly from land, belongs equally to all. The philosophical basis of Georgism dates back to early proponents such as John Locke and Baruch Spinoza, but the concept was widely popularized by the economist and social reformer Henry George (1839–1897). Georgism, a term later coined by followers of George's philosophy, is sometimes associated with the idea of a single tax on the value of land and nature.
Georgists argue that a tax on land value is economically efficient, fair, and equitable; and that it can generate sufficient revenue so that other taxes (e.g. taxes on profits, sales or income), which are less fair and efficient, can be reduced or eliminated. A tax on land value has been described by many as a progressive tax, since it would be paid primarily by the wealthy, and would reduce economic inequality.
- 1 Main tenets
- 2 Synonyms and variants
- 3 Influence
- 4 Criticisms
- 5 Notable Georgists
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Henry George is best known for his argument that the economic rent of land should be shared equally by the people of a society rather than being owned privately. George held that people own what they create, but that natural resources, most importantly land, belong equally to all. George believed that although scientific experiments could not be carried out in political economy, theories could be tested by comparing different societies with different conditions and through thought experiments about the effects of various factors. Applying this method, George concluded that many of the problems that beset society, such as poverty, inequality, and economic booms and busts, could be attributed to the private ownership of the necessary resource, land.
In Progress and Poverty George argued: "We must make land common property." He believed there was an important distinction between common and collective property. Although equal rights to land could be achieved by nationalizing land and then leasing it to private parties, George preferred taxing unimproved land value. A land value tax would not overly penalize those who had already bought and improved land, and would also be less disruptive and controversial in a country where land titles have already been granted.
Some Georgists have observed that in modern states, privately created wealth is socialized via the tax system (through income tax, etc.), but socially created wealth from community created land values are privatized and owned by private individuals and corporations. They argue that the opposite would be the case when a single tax on land value is implemented; that socially created wealth is taxed and used by the community, while privately created wealth remains private as no other taxes are levied.
In Georgism, a land value tax is seen as fitting the definition of a user fee instead of a tax, since it is tied to the market value of socially created locational advantage, the privilege to exclude others from locations. Assets consisting of commodified privilege can be viewed as wealth since they have exchange value, similar to taxi medallions, so charging fees for exclusive use of land as a means of raising public revenue is considered a form of progressive taxation tending to reduce economic inequality.
Standard economic theory suggests that a land value tax would be extremely efficient – unlike other taxes, it does not reduce economic productivity. Nobel laureate Milton Friedman described Henry George's tax on unimproved value of land as the "least bad tax", since unlike other taxes, it would not impose an excess burden on economic activity (leading to "deadweight loss"); hence, a replacement of other more distortionary taxes with a land value tax would improve economic welfare.
Ground-rents are a still more proper subject of taxation than the rent of houses. A tax upon ground-rents would not raise the rents of houses. It would fall altogether upon the owner of the ground-rent, who acts always as a monopolist, and exacts the greatest rent which can be got for the use of his ground. More or less can be got for it according as the competitors happen to be richer or poorer, or can afford to gratify their fancy for a particular spot of ground at a greater or smaller expense.
In every country the greatest number of rich competitors is in the capital, and it is there accordingly that the highest ground-rents are always to be found. As the wealth of those competitors would in no respect be increased by a tax upon ground-rents, they would not probably be disposed to pay more for the use of the ground. Whether the tax was to be advanced by the inhabitant, or by the owner of the ground, would be of little importance. The more the inhabitant was obliged to pay for the tax, the less he would incline to pay for the ground; so that the final payment of the tax would fall altogether upon the owner of the ground-rent.
Georgists also argue that all economic rent (i.e., unearned income) collected from natural resources (land, mineral extraction, the broadcast spectrum, tradable emission permits, fishing quotas, airway corridor use, space orbits, etc.) and extraordinary returns from natural monopolies should accrue to the community rather than a private owner, and that no other taxes or burdensome economic regulations should be levied.
Modern environmentalists find the idea of the earth as the common property of humanity appealing, and some have endorsed the idea of ecological tax reform as a replacement for command and control regulation. This would entail substantial taxes or fees for pollution, waste disposal and resource exploitation, or equivalently a "cap and trade" system where permits are auctioned to the highest bidder, and also include taxes for the use of land and other natural resources.
Georgists suggest two uses for the revenue from a land value tax. The revenue can be used to fund the state (allowing the reduction or elimination of other taxes), or it can be redistributed to citizens as a pension or basic income (or it can be divided between these two options). If the first option were to be chosen, the state could avoid having to tax any other type of income or economic activity.
In practice, the elimination of all other taxes implies a very high land value tax, higher than any currently existing land tax. Introducing a high land value tax would cause the price of land titles to decrease correspondingly, but George did not believe landowners should be compensated, and described the issue as being analogous to compensation for former slave owners.
Synonyms and variants
Most early advocacy groups described themselves as Single Taxers, and George reluctantly accepted "single tax" as being an accurate description of the philosophy's main political goal – the replacement of all taxes with a land value tax. During the modern era, some groups inspired by Henry George emphasize environmentalism more than other aspects, while others emphasize his ideas concerning economics.
Some devotees are not entirely satisfied with the name Georgist. While Henry George was well known throughout his life, he has been largely forgotten by the public and the idea of a single tax of land predates him. Some people now use the term Geoism, with the meaning of Geo deliberately ambiguous. Earth Sharing, Geoism, Geonomics, and Geolibertarianism (see libertarianism) are also preferred by some Georgists; Geoanarchism is another one. These terms represent a difference of emphasis, and sometimes real differences about how land rent should be spent (citizen's dividend or just replacing other taxes); but all agree that land rent should be recovered from its private recipients.
Georgist ideas heavily influenced the politics of the early 20th century. Political parties that were formed based on Georgist ideas include the Commonwealth Land Party, the Justice Party of Denmark, the Henry George Justice Party, and the Single Tax League.
In the UK in 1909, the Liberal Government included a land tax as part of several taxes in the People's Budget aimed at redistributing wealth (including a progressively graded income tax and an increase of inheritance tax). This caused a crisis which resulted indirectly in reform of the House of Lords. The budget was passed eventually—but without the land tax. In 1931, the minority Labour Government passed a land value tax as part III of the 1931 Finance act. However, this was repealed in 1934 by the National Government before it could be implemented.
In Denmark, the Georgist Justice Party has previously been represented in Folketinget. It formed part of a centre-left government 1957–60 and was also represented in the European Parliament 1978–79. The influence of Henry George has waned over time, but Georgist ideas still occasionally emerge in politics. In the 2004 Presidential campaign, Ralph Nader mentioned Henry George in his policy statements.
Several communities were also initiated with Georgist principles during the height of the philosophy's popularity. Two such communities that still exist are Arden, Delaware, which was founded in 1900 by Frank Stephens and Will Price, and Fairhope, Alabama, which was founded in 1894 by the auspices of the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation.
The German protectorate of Jiaozhou Bay (also known as Kiaochow) in China fully implemented Georgist policy. Its sole source of government revenue was the land value tax of six percent which it levied on its territory. The German government had previously had economic problems with its African colonies caused by land speculation. One of the main aims in using the land value tax in Jiaozhou Bay was to eliminate such speculation, an aim which was entirely achieved. The colony existed as a German protectorate from 1898 until 1914, when seized by Japanese and British troops. In 1922 the territory was returned to China.
Georgist ideas were also adopted to some degree in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan. In these countries, governments still levy some type of land value tax, albeit with exemptions. Many municipal governments of the USA depend on real property tax as their main source of revenue, although such taxes are not Georgist as they generally include the value of buildings and other improvements, one exception being the town of Altoona, Pennsylvania, which only taxes land value.
Institutes and organizations
Various organizations still exist that continue to promote the ideas of Henry George. According to the The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, the periodical Land&Liberty, established in 1894, is "the longest-lived Georgist project in history". Also in the U.S., the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy was established in 1974 founded based on the writings of Henry George, and "seeks to improve the dialogue about urban development, the built environment, and tax policy in the United States and abroad". The Henry George Foundation continues to promote the ideas of Henry George in the UK. The IU is an international umbrella organisation that brings together organizations worldwide that seek land value tax reform.
Karl Marx saw the Single Tax platform as a step backwards from the transition to communism and referred to Georgism as “Capitalism’s last ditch.” Marx argued that, "The whole thing is... simply an attempt, decked out with socialism, to save capitalist domination and indeed to establish it afresh on an even wider basis than its present one." Marx also criticized the way land value tax theory emphasizes the value of land, arguing that, "His fundamental dogma is that everything would be all right if ground rent were paid to the state." Fred Harrison replies to these Marxist objections in "Gronlund and other Marxists – Part III: nineteenth-century Americas critics", American Journal of Economics and Sociology, (November 2003).
George has also been accused of exaggerating the importance of his "all-devouring rent thesis" in claiming that it is the primary cause of poverty and injustice in society.
Recent critics, such as Paul Krugman, agree that land value taxation is the best means of raising public revenue but assert that increased spending has rendered land rent insufficient to fully fund government. Georgists have responded by citing studies showing that land values of nations like the US, UK, and Australia are more than sufficient to fund government.
Austrian economist and anarcho-capitalist political philosopher Murray Rothbard criticized Georgism in Man, Economy, and State as being incongruent with subjective value theory, and further stating that land is irrelevant in the factors of production, trade, and price systems.
Milton Friedman agreed with "the Henry George argument" as being "the least bad" means of raising whatever public revenue was needed. Georgists agree with Friedman that land ownership and use should remain private and not be socialized. However, Friedman's view Georgism as being partly immoral was due to a difference of opinion about the validity of vested property rights. Georgists believe that the private capture of unimproved land-rents is unjust, drawing comparisons to slavery.
Friedrich Hayek credited early enthusiasm for Henry George with developing his interest in economics. Later, Hayek said that the theory would be very strong if it were possible to accurately assess land values, which he believed it was not. Georgists respond that modern GIS technology allows accurate assessments even from remote locations, and that by making assessments publicly available while leaving a significant margin for error between the tax rate and the rental value of land, most concerns about unfairness and inaccuracy are avoided.
Kevin Carson believes that Georgist concerns about the private extraction of land rent are better addressed with mutualist principles. Carson believes much of the land problem could be addressed by restructuring cities and not enforcing land claims of absentee landowners. Although Carson's proposal would not completely resolve the land issue, some Georgists agree with his mutualist approach and adhere to an ideological synthesis termed geo-mutualism.
- Ottmar Edenhofer
- Fred Foldvary
- Mason Gaffney
- Robert J. Gordon
- Michael Hudson
- John Kenneth Galbraith 
- Wolf Ladejinsky
- Philippe Legrain
- Herbert A. Simon
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- Joseph Stiglitz
- Nicolaus Tideman
- William Vickrey
- Léon Walras
- Richard D. Wolff
- H. H. Asquith
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- Nicholas Boles
- Willie Brown
- Andy Burnham
- George Grey
- David Lloyd George
- Patrick Harvie
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- William Morris Hughes
- Blas Infante
- Jenny Jones
- Frank de Jong
- Dennis Kucinich
- Caroline Lucas
- Andrew MacLaren
- Michael Meadowcroft
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- George Lawrence Record
- Sun Yat-sen
- Daniel Carter Beard
- Matthew Bellamy
- Walter Burley Griffin
- John Hutchinson
- Emma Lazarus
- Agnes de Mille
- Henry Churchill de Mille
- William C. deMille
- Francis Neilson
- Will Price
- Frank Stephens (sculptor)
- Frank Lloyd Wright
- Cap and Share
- Economic rent
- Excess burden of taxation/Deadweight loss
- Community land trust
- Land value tax
- Law of rent
- Optimal tax
- Pigovian tax
- Prosper Australia (formerly "Henry George League")
- Tragedy of the commons/anticommons
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