By Alexandra W. Lough
Numerous articles and studies published over the past eight years on the effect of the 2008 financial crisis on the future of America’s “millennial” generation have reached the same conclusion: at its best, the future is uncertain; and its worst, the future is downright bleak. It’s not difficult to understand why. While the most highly educated generation of young adults in the nation’s history, Americans born between 1980 and 2002 also carry the highest loads of student debt and suffer one of the highest rates of underemployment. As a result of their strained economic situation, many millennials are delaying marriage, starting a family, and buying homes—once considered central components of the American Dream.
Despite all this, millennials report feeling “hopeful” about their own futures and that of the country. And many have channeled that hope into the 2016 presidential race, in which recent polls show that young voters aged 18 to 29 are participating in larger numbers in primaries and caucuses than in previous elections. The two candidates who have thus far attracted the most support from millennials include Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the so-called “anti-establishment” candidates who have promised to radically transform America’s rigged political and economic systems. Although they stand on the opposite sides of many issues, both Sanders and Trump employ a certain type of rhetoric called “economic populism,” that decries crony capitalism and especially resonates with millennials and others who have yet to benefit from America’s economic recovery.
Before millennials cast their vote for one or another of these candidates, however, they should consider the modern origins of economic populism and the particular lessons of one of America’s most famous “economic populists”—Henry George (1839-1897). Never heard of Henry George? Think again. If you’ve played the popular board game Monopoly, at the very least, you’re familiar with his ideas which inspired the game’s founder, Lizzie Magie.
In the wake of one of the worst economic disasters in the nation’s history—the Long Depression of the 1870s—George, a middling California journalist, set out to expose and explain why industrial and technological progress seemed perversely to deepen poverty, inequality, and economic instability. In 1879, George published his findings in the aptly titled economic treatise, Progress and Poverty. The work became an international success and likely outsold every other book published in the nineteenth century except The Bible.
More than 135 years later, Progress and Poverty still holds key insights into the polarizing character of American capitalism and helps explain why vast disparities of wealth continue to accompany economic growth. More importantly, George’s ideas—and the amazing story of their life—provide important lessons to those seeking to build a more just and sustainable economic system. George’s ideas not only provide the necessary context for understanding the origins of America’s broken economic system but also the steps for constructing a more just and viable one.
The failure to treat land and natural resources as the common property of all people—as opposed to the private property of individuals—perpetuates crony capitalism, accounts for the growing divide between the wealthy and poor, and causes the pernicious boom and bust cycle that has afflicted the American economy since the late-eighteenth century.
Living and working in California in the post-Gold Rush Era, George closely observed the new and perplexing realities of industrial capitalism. Over the past century, human civilization had experienced unprecedented levels of technological development and industrial production. New sources of power including steam and electricity as well as improved methods of transportation such as canals, turnpikes, and railroads enabled mankind to produce and distribute more goods than ever before.
Despite the fact that society could produce exponentially more food, families continued to starve. Despite the fact that the nation’s leading industrialists earned more profit than at any other time in history, workers struggled to support their families. Despite the fact that America’s economy had become larger and more diversified, the nation continued to face worsening financial panics and industrial depressions.
Unlike other social commentators of his generation who attributed these conditions to overproduction, under-consumption, or a unsound monetary policy—Congress had recently passed the Coinage Act of 1873, which drastically reduced the price of silver—George concluded that at the heart of this dilemma was land. As he explained:
The reason why, in spite of the increase of productive power, wages constantly tend to a minimum, which will give but a bare living, is that, with the increase in productive power, rent tends to even greater increase, thus producing a constant tendency to the forcing down of wages.
By “rent” George referred not only to the monthly fee a tenant paid to their landlord, but to “economic rent”—which economists define as the profit one earns simply by owning something of value, such as land.
Land being necessary to labor, and being reduced to private ownership, every increase in the productive power of labor but increases rent—the price that labor must pay for the opportunity to utilize its powers; and thus all the advantages gained by the march of progress go to the owners of land, and wages do not increase.
George defined land broadly to include not just the surface of the earth, but all the materials, forces, and opportunities freely supplied by nature. To George, buildings, houses, farms and other improvements to land represented wealth or capital, whose values could be separated from land. Unlike the value of capital, land value increased not as the result of any effort on behalf of the individual owner, but to the increase in the demand for land as a result of advancing population, the building of a railroad, the construction of a school, or a multitude of other public improvements. In other words, George argued that land values are social in origin, completely dependent on the development of the surrounding community.
The relationship between public improvements and an increase in land values was especially apparent in California and other western states. Following the announcement of a new railway route, for example, land values skyrocketed and investors raced to purchase large sections near the planned route. Speculators made a killing following the completion of the railway when they could sell the land for many more times what they had initially paid. Railroad officials often colluded with speculators to increase the price of land to help finance construction.
Unbridled speculation in land values, George correctly surmised in Progress and Poverty, had preceded every major North American economic panic since the late-eighteenth century.
To break the boom and bust cycle and prevent deepening wealth inequality, the federal government should replace all taxes that penalize the working and middle classes with one “single tax” on the full value of land rent.
Prior to the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, which enshrined the modern federal income tax into the Constitution, Congress mainly relied on public land sales and tariffs—taxes on imported goods—to finance the activities of the federal government. State and local governments raised revenue almost entirely from the general property tax. Both tariffs and property taxes, George pointed out, unfairly privileged the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle classes.
By design, tariffs protect manufacturers by restricting and raising the price of imported goods and materials. Defenders of high tariffs claimed such taxes protected American jobs by reducing foreign competition. Opponents like George, however, pointed out that high tariffs make most goods purchased by laborers more expensive and thus, reduce the true value of wages.
Property taxes also tended to benefit the rich by failing to differentiate between the economic value of land and the value added by capital improvements. In many places, only improved land—that is, land with houses, farms, buildings, etc.—reached tax rolls, while the owner of many acres of valuable albeit undeveloped land entirely escaped taxation. Additionally, the rich were rather adept at “hiding” certain types of property—valuable jewelry, stocks, paintings, etc.—while also convincing tax assessors to underreport the value of property they could not hide—land.
To reduce corruption and more fairly distribute the tax burden, George proposed to eliminate all taxes save one tax on the full value of land minus the value of improvements. As he explained,
Were all taxes placed upon land values, irrespective of improvements, the scheme of taxation would be so simple and clear, and public attention would be so directed to it, that the valuation of taxation could and would be made with the same certainty that a real estate agent can determine the price a seller can get for a lot…
A tax upon land values is, therefore, the most just and equal of all taxes. It falls only upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive. It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community.
George’s proposal became known as the single tax and those who supported it were called “single taxers.”
Through the single tax, George hoped not only to reform the system of taxation, but also abolish the system of private property in land, which allowed individuals to horde resources nature bestowed to all of mankind and profit from the efforts of the entire community. According to George:
The wide-spreading social evils which everywhere oppress men amid an advancing civilization spring from a great primary wrong—the appropriation, as the exclusive property of some men, of the land on which and from which all men must live…
It is the continuous increase of rent—the price that labor is compelled to pay for the use of land, which strips the many of the wealth they justly earn, to pile it up in the hands of the few, who do nothing to earn it.
Beyond righting a wrong, the single tax promised a host of other social benefits. Taxing only land values would generate all the revenue needed to operate government and doing so would 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 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.
The unprecedented popularity of the single tax and all that it stood for prompted the beneficiaries of crony capitalism—the defenders of the status quo—to accept half-measures such as the federal income tax, while at the same time burying George under a mound of lies and epithets.
The simplicity and inherent fairness in the single tax drew followers from different walks of life and from all over the world. In 1886, the United Labor Party selected George as its candidate for Mayor of New York City. In a hotly contested and nationally followed race, the Democratic candidate Abram Hewitt narrowly defeated George, who earned more votes than any other third party candidate in the City’s history. He also outperformed the Republican in the race, Theodore Roosevelt, who placed third.
George was a profound influence on the religious reform movement known as the Social Gospel, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. One of his best known followers was the popular New York City priest, Edward McGlynn, whose outspoken efforts to bring a Georgist solution to the deepening poverty and inequality led him to be ex-communicated—and then re-communicated, in his lifetime and under the reign of Pope Leo XIII.
George’s growing religious influence in Europe and the United States coupled with the McGlynn controversy prompted Pope Leo XIII to issue the famous 1891 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which he reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s support for private property rights in land and also reminded Catholics of their spiritual duty to charity and the less fortunate.
Because he campaigned against private ownership of land, George’s detractors labeled him a socialist. In supporting private ownership of capital, however, George was clearly not a socialist. Karl Marx vehemently opposed George and the single-tax movement for misleading workers into believing that landowners rather than capitalists were to blame for their suffering. “Theoretically the man is utterly backward!” Marx wrote of George in 1880.
Despite the economic nature of his subject, George wrote for the common reader. He rejected the idea that one must possess a good deal of formal schooling to grasp the laws of political economy. His lack of academic credentials and increasing popularity threatened a growing number of professional economists who dismissed George’s theories as “half-baked” and “dangerous.”
The widespread appeal of the single tax together with the growing demand to lower tariffs, led many in Congress in 1913 to support a federal income tax. Although a good deal more progressive than today’s version, the federal income tax was a poor substitute for a tax on economic rent. The main problem with an income tax, according to George, was that it failed to differentiate between incomes justly earned and those earned from the labor of others. As he explained:
Nature gives to labor; and to labor alone…
Now, here are two men of equal incomes—that of the one derived from the exertion of his labor, that of the other from the rent of land. Is it just that they should equally contribute the expenses of the state? …The income of the one represents wealth he creates and adds to the general wealth of the state; the income of the other represents merely wealth that he takes from the general stock, returning nothing.
Despite attempts to discredit George, his ideas inspired a generation of social activists on multiple continents who successfully built the single tax into a number of Progressive Era reforms and programs—particularly at the state and local levels—that continue to provide such basic human services as clean water, electricity, and public transportation to large populations all over the world.
Although the single tax was never fully implemented anywhere in the world, George’s ideas animated many of the most notable social reform movements of the era of high industrialism. In particular, local government leaders of the Progressive Era pulled heavily from the single tax to justify their efforts to raise taxes on public service corporations and transfer the provision of water, power, and transportation from private to public suppliers—a movement known as municipal ownership.
Similar to George’s single tax, which aimed at reclaiming and distributing socially created land values, advocates of municipal ownership targeted the socially generated wealth of public service corporations, which amassed huge profits by providing services required by all residents and using public property, such as streets, waterways, gas lines, and franchises, to do so. As Ohio State Senator and single tax advocate Frederic C. Howe explained in 1907,
The value which these corporations enjoy in the market is social in its origin. It is created by the community itself. No act of the owner gives them the earning power which they enjoy…Moreover, the franchises and privileges that these corporations enjoy are granted by the people themselves. They are created by law. No labor enters into their making. They are a free gift from all of the community to a few of its members.
In states with constitutional provisions against municipal ownership, urban reformers utilized the single tax in their efforts to increase taxation on the property of public service corporations, particularly that of railroads and streetcars.
The reach of the single tax into such seemingly disparate movements as labor politics, religious reform, and municipal ownership testifies to the importance of land and natural resources to the fundamental dilemma facing democratic society: how to encourage economic growth and provide an equal opportunity to all persons to engage in and benefit from the advancements of human civilization. To George the answer was simple: one tax based solely upon the wealth produced by land—the resource from the time of its creation that has always existed for the benefit of all men.
As the presidential election rolls nearer, young voters might fare well to remember George’s lesson that so long as the government continues to treat socially generated wealth as the private property of individuals, the benefits of industrial progress and economic recovery will not be shared equally; instead, those benefits will flow to those who control the greatest shares of economic rent.
Alexandra (Alex) holds a Ph.D. in American History from Brandeis University. She currently serves as the Director of the Henry George Birthplace and is preparing a book manuscript based on her 2013 dissertation, “The Last Tax: Henry George and the Social Politics of Land Reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.”