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Georgism is an economic philosophy holding that the economic value derived from natural resources and natural opportunities should belong equally to all residents of a community, but that people should own the value they create themselves. Any natural resource which is inherently limited in supply can generate economic rent, but the classic example is ground rent, the rent paid for the use of locations. Georgists argue that taxing economic rent derived from land and natural resources is efficient, fair, and equitable. The main Georgist policy tool is a fee assessed on location value commonly called land value tax or LVT. Georgists argue that socially captured rents can reduce or eliminate existing taxes on labor and investment that are unfair or inefficient. Some Georgists also advocate for the return of surplus public revenue collected from economic rent to be returned to the people through a basic income or citizen's dividend.
The Georgist paradigm can be described as a model of political economy that offers solutions to social and ecological problems, relying on principles of land rights and public finance which attempt to integrate economic efficiency with social justice. 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).
Economists since Adam Smith have known that – unlike other taxes – a land value tax would not cause economic inefficiency. A land value tax would also be a progressive tax, since it would be paid primarily by the wealthy, would reduce economic inequality, would remove incentives to misuse real estate, and would reduce the vulnerability that economies face from credit and property bubbles. Georgist ideas were popular and influential in the earlier part of the 20th century. Political parties, institutions and communities were founded based on Georgist principles during that time. Early followers of George's philosophy called themselves Single Taxers, associated with the idea of a single tax on the value of land. The term Georgism was coined later, and some prefer the term geoism instead.
- 1 Main tenets
- 2 Synonyms and variants
- 3 Influence
- 4 Critical reception
- 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.
Both ground-rents and the ordinary rent of land are a species of revenue which the owner, in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. Though a part of this revenue should be taken from him in order to defray the expenses of the state, no discouragement will thereby be given to any sort of industry. The annual produce of the land and labour of the society, the real wealth and revenue of the great body of the people, might be the same after such a tax as before. Ground-rents and the ordinary rent of land are, therefore, perhaps, the species of revenue which can best bear to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them.
Income flow resulting from payments for restricted access to natural opportunities or for contrived privileges over geographic regions is called economic rent. Georgists argue that economic rent of land, legal privileges, and natural monopolies should accrue to the community, rather than private owners. In economics, "land" is everything that exists in nature independent of human activity. While the philosophy of Georgism does not say anything definitive about specific policy interventions needed to address problems posed by various sources of economic rent, the common goal among modern georgists is to capture and share (or reduce) rent from all sources of natural monopoly and legal privilege.
Henry George shared the goal of modern Georgists to socialize or dismantle rent from all forms of land monopoly and legal privilege. However, George focused mainly on his preferred policy tool known as land value tax, which targeted a particular form of unearned income called ground rent. George focused on ground-rent because basic locations were more valuable than other monopolies and everybody needed locations to survive, which he contrasted with the less significant streetcar and telegraph monopolies that George also spoke out against at that time. George likened the problem to a laborer traveling home who is waylaid by a series of highway robbers along the way, each who demand a small portion of the traveler's wages, and finally at the very end of the road waits a robber who demands all that the traveler has left. George reasoned that it made little difference to challenge the series of small robbers when the final robber remained to demand all that the common laborer had left. George predicted that over time technological advancements would increase the frequency and importance of lesser monopolies but that ground rent would remain dominant. Partly based on his personal experiences, George even predicted that ground-rents would rise faster than wages, a prediction that subsequent analysis has shown to be more plausible during the 19th Century than today.
Common ground rent is still the primary focus of Georgists because of its large value and the known diseconomies misused land. However, there are other sources of rent that are theoretically analogous to ground-rent and are highly debated topics within Georgism. The following are some sources of economic rent.
- extractable resources (minerals and hydrocarbons)
- severables (forests and stocks of fish)
- extraterrestrial domains (geosynchronous orbits and airway corridor use)
- legal privileges tied to location (taxi medallions, billboard and development permits, or the monopoly of electromagnetic frequencies)
- restrictions/taxes on pollution or severance (tradable emission permits and fishing quotas)
- Right-of-way (transportation) used by railroads, utilities, and internet service providers
- issuance of legal tender (see seigniorage)
- privileges that are less location dependent but that still exclude others from natural opportunities (intellectual property)
Georgism and environmental economics
The early conservationist movement of the Progressive Era was inspired by Henry George and his influence extended for decades afterward. Some ecological economists still support the Georgist policy of land value tax as a means of freeing or rewilding unused land and conserving nature by reducing urban sprawl.
Pollution degrades the value of what Georgists consider to be commons. Because pollution is a negative contribution, a taking from the commons or a cost imposed on others, its value is economic rent, even when the polluter is not receiving an explicit income. Therefore, to the extent that society determines pollution to be harmful, most Georgists propose to limit pollution and then capture the resulting rents for public use, restoration, or a citizen's dividend.
Georgism is related to the school of ecological economics, since both propose market based restrictions on pollution. The schools are compatible in that they advocate using similar tools as part of a conservation strategy, but they emphasize different aspects. Conservation is the central issue of ecology, whereas economic rent is the central issue of geoism. Ecological economists might price pollution fines more conservatively to prevent inherently unquantifiable damage to the environment, whereas Georgists might emphasize mediation between conflicting interests and human rights. Geolibertarianism, a market oriented branch of geoism, tends to take a direct stance against what it perceives as burdensome regulation and would like to see auctioned pollution quotas or taxes replace most command and control regulation.
Since ecologists are primarily concerned with conservation, they tend to put less emphasis on the issue of equitably distributing scarcity/pollution rents, whereas Georgists insist that unearned income not be captured by those who hold title to natural assets and pollution privilege. To the extent that geoists recognize the impact of pollution or share conservationist values, they will agree with ecological economists about the need to limit pollution, but geoists will also crucially insist that pollution rents generated from those conservation efforts are not captured by polluters and are instead used for public purposes or to compensate those who suffer the negative effects of pollution. Ecological economists advocate similar pollution restrictions but, placing conservation first, might be willing to grant private polluters the privilege to capture pollution rents. To the extent that ecological economists share the geoist view of social justice, they would advocate auctioning pollution quotas instead of giving them away for free. This distinction can be seen clearly in the difference between basic cap and trade and the geoist variation, cap and share, a proposal to auction temporary pollution permits, with rents going to the public, instead of giving pollution privilege away for free to existing polluters or selling perpetual permits.
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).
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. Many other geoists disagree on the question of compensation, ranging from complete compensation to only the compensation required to achieve Georgist reform.
Synonyms and variants
Most early advocacy groups described themselves as Single Taxers, and George reluctantly accepted "single tax" as an accurate label for the movement's main political goal—the replacement of all unjust or inefficient taxes with the capture of land-rents, primarily using a land value tax (LVT). In the modern era, some groups inspired by Georgism emphasize environmentalism, while others emphasize its egalitarian free market philosophy; utilitarians and urbanists emphasize the economic and social benefits of efficiently utilizing land.
Some modern proponents are dissatisfied 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 now prefer the term geoism, with the meaning of geo (earth, in Greek) deliberately ambiguous. The terms Earth Sharing, geonomics, and geolibertarianism (see Libertarianism) are also used by some Georgists. 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.
Compulsory fines and fees related to land rents are the most common Georgist policies, but some geoists prefer voluntary value capture systems that rely on methods such as non-compulsory or self-assessed location value fees, community land trusts, and purchasing land value covenants.
Some geoists believe that partially compensating landowners is a politically expedient compromise necessary for achieving reform. For similar reasons, others propose capturing future land value increases instead of all land rent. Though Georgism has historically been viewed as a radically progressive or socialist ideology, some libertarians and minarchists who have been influenced by geoism take the position that limited social spending should be financed with using georgist concepts of value capture, but that not all land rent should to be captured. This conservative adaptation is considered incompatible with true geolibertarianism, which requires that excess rents be gathered and then distributed back to residents. (See Milton Friedman in "Critical reception")
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.
Richard T. Ely, known as the "Father of Land Economics", agreed with the economic arguments for Georgism but believed that correcting the problem the way Henry George wanted (without compensation) was unjust to existing landowners. In explaining his position, Ely wrote that "If we have all made a mistake, should one party to the transaction alone bear the cost of the common blunder?"
Karl Marx viewed 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. George argued that the rent of land increased faster than wages for labor because the supply of land is fixed. Modern economists, including Ottmar Edenhofer have demonstrated that George's assertion is plausible, though not certain, and that was likely more plausible during George's time than today.
Some recent critics, such as Keynesian economist 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.
Anarcho-capitalist political philosopher and economist Murray Rothbard criticized Georgism in Man, Economy, and State as being philosophically incongruent with subjective value theory, and further stating that land is irrelevant in the factors of production, trade, and price systems. Rothbard's economic critique is well recognized as relying on false assumptions and flawed reasoning, even by people who ultimately agree with Rothbard in opposing Georgism.
Chicago school libertarian economist 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 titles should remain private and not be socialized. However, Friedman viewed Georgism as partially immoral, due to a difference of opinion about the validity of vested property rights in land. Georgists believe that the private capture of unimproved land-rents is inherently unjust, drawing comparisons to slavery.
Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek credited early enthusiasm for Henry George with developing his interest in economics. Later, Hayek said that the theory of Georgism would be very strong if assessment challenges didn't lead to unfair outcomes, but he believed that they would.
- Harry Gunnison Brown
- John R. Commons
- Raymond Crotty
- Ottmar Edenhofer
- Fred Foldvary
- Mason Gaffney
- Robert J. Gordon
- John Kenneth Galbraith 
- Max Hirsch
- Wolf Ladejinsky
- Philippe Legrain
- Donald Shoup
- Herbert A. Simon
- Robert Solow
- Joseph Stiglitz
- Nicolaus Tideman
- William Vickrey
- Léon Walras
Heads of state
- Winston Churchill
- George Grey
- Rutherford B. Hayes
- William Morris Hughes
- Woodrow Wilson
- Sun Yat-sen
- H. H. Asquith & David Lloyd George gave speeches and private statements supporting geoism but later publicly distanced themselves from more radical Georgists.
Other political figures
- Warren Worth Bailey
- Newton D. Baker
- Willie Brown
- J. Frank Colbert
- George F. Cotterill
- William Jay Gaynor
- Frederic C. Howe
- Blas Infante
- Tom L. Johnson
- Samuel M. Jones
- Frank de Jong
- Franklin Knight Lane
- Andrew MacLaren
- John Norquist
- Hazen S. Pingree
- George Lawrence Record
- Stephen R. Reed
- Linda D. Thompson
- Louis Brandeis
- Clarence Darrow
- Michael Davitt
- Suzanne La Follette
- Samuel Gompers
- Bolton Hall
- Benjamin C. Marsh
- Mumia Abu-Jamal
- Ralph Nader
- Louis Freeland Post
- Samuel Seabury
- Nicholas Shaxson
- Helen Taylor (feminist)
- William Simon U'Ren
- William Bauchop Wilson
- Daniel Carter Beard
- Matthew Bellamy
- Walter Burley Griffin
- James A. Herne
- John Hutchinson
- George Inness
- Emma Lazarus
- Agnes de Mille
- Henry Churchill de Mille
- William C. deMille
- Francis Neilson
- Banjo Paterson
- 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
- Progress and Poverty
- Prosper Australia (formerly "Henry George League")
- Tragedy of the commons/anticommons
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- "Two Centuries of Economic Thought on Taxation of Land Rents." In Richard Lindholm and Arthur Lynn, Jr., (eds.), Land Value Taxation in Thought and Practice. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1982, pp. 151-96.
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- Quotes from Nobel Prize Winners Herbert Simon stated in 1978: "Assuming that a tax increase is necessary, it is clearly preferable to impose the additional cost on land by increasing the land tax, rather than to increase the wage tax – the two alternatives open to the City (of Pittsburgh). It is the use and occupancy of property that creates the need for the municipal services that appear as the largest item in the budget – fire and police protection, waste removal, and public works. The average increase in tax bills of city residents will be about twice as great with wage tax increase than with a land tax increase."
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- Trescott, Paul B. (2007). Jingji Xue: The History of the Introduction of Western Economic Ideas Into China, 1850-1950. Chinese University Press. pp. 46–48. "The foregoing help to demonstrate why Sun Yat-sen would have regarded Henry George as a very credible guide, and why in 1912 Sun could tell an interviewer, 'The teachings of your single-taxer, Henry George, will be the basis of our program of reform.'"
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- Arcas Cubero, Fernando: El movimiento georgista y los orígenes del Andalucismo : análisis del periódico "El impuesto único" (1911–1923). Málaga : Editorial Confederación Española de Cajas de Ahorros, 1980. ISBN 84-500-3784-0
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- "101+ Famous Thinkers on Owning Earth". Retrieved 22 October 2013. Brandeis said, "I find it very difficult to disagree with the principles of Henry George... I believe in the taxation of land values only."
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- A Great Iniquity.. Leo Tolstoy once said of George, "People do not argue with the teaching of George, they simply do not know it".
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- https://twitter.com/dylanmatt/status/414149160775204864 Dylan Matthews's verified account states, "I think we've both been Georgists for a while now."
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- Muse return with new album The Resistance "Sure, he has already launched into a passionate soliloquy about Geoism (the land-tax movement inspired by the 19th-century political economist Henry George)".
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