The "Practical" Approach
Robert V. Andelson
[Reprinted from the Henry George News,
When Grover Cleveland argued for tariff reduction during the
presidential campaign of 1888, some of his more timorous supporters
sought to mollify protectionist voters by chanting:
Don't, don't, don't be afraid
--Tariff reform is not free trade.
This doggerel is brought to mind by a refrain we seem to have been
hearing lately, which runs approximately as follows:
Be reassured, relax, relax --
Incentive taxation is not the single tax.
To be sure, incentive taxation is not the "single tax." It
is merely the first, feeble step in that direction. Still, those of us
whose hearts are ultimately set upon a much more thoroughgoing reform
are backing it with all the strength at our disposal. For we know that
politics has been aptly termed "the art of the possible,"
and at this juncture incentive taxation seems more possible of general
acceptance than does the full-scale Georgist program. We furthermore
realize that to gratuitously introduce terms and concepts such as "Henry
George" and "single tax" into the campaign for
incentive taxation would be to create for it unnecessary handicaps.
The campaign can best be waged with pragmatic, common-sense arguments,
and by steering clear of ideological entanglements and moralistic
appeals. It will yield results in proportion to the number of
non-Georgists who can be enlisted, whatever their motives, in the
fight to shift local property taxes on to sites, and off of buildings
On this level and on this front, ostensible disassociation is the
most strategic policy. However, the matter of disassociation can be
carried to extremes. This is not the only level nor the only front. In
their determination to be "practical," some of our people
have been altogether too quick to concede the final struggle -- too
willing to relegate full-orbed Georgism to the realm of utopian
To avoid inexpedient mention of George and his philosophy is one
thing; to ignore, belittle, or seemingly repudiate them is quite
another. And when the disassociation becomes insistent and obtrusive
(as it sometimes has), prospective sympathizers turn away, convinced
with Hamlet's mother that "the lady doth protest too much."
At this point, a brief digression concerning the term "single
tax" may be in order: It is, admittedly, a misleading choice of
words, for it suggests that we conceive the social collection of
ground rent to be the only possible just source of public revenue, and
that we assert dogmatically that this source would, under all
circumstances, be sufficient to meet the legitimate needs of
government. The latter contention is, of course, absurd, just as is
its opposite, since any estimate either of the amount of ground rent
under a Georgist economy, or of the future needs of government, must
of necessity be highly conjectural. As for ground tent being the only
possible just source of public revenue, this is an oversimplification.
Should it prove to be inadequate to pay for necessary protective
social functions, I know of no Georgist who would oppose its being
supplemented from another source. We would simply insist that the
total ground rent be collected first.
There is, however, a sense in which the term "single tax"
is accurately descriptive of a major element in George's thought --
namely, the principle that payment for benefits received is
the sing/e ethical criterion for the imposition of a public
levy. This is the real touchstone without which any system of taxation
(and therefore any system of government) must, in the last analysis,
be arbitrary. In this sense, therefore, let us champion the singleness
of the "single tax," even though it may be tactically
desirable to refrain from using the term outside our own circles.
Now for the appellation, "Georgist": Let's quit apologizing
for Henry George. We have no wish to be mere memorializers, and there
may indeed be times when his ideas can be presented most effectively
unlabeled with his name, yet never did a social movement have a more
appealing founder. From Mohammed to Marx, he suffers b5' comparison to
none. Generally speaking, it will do his cause no harm to claim him,
and frequently much good.
While we're being "practical," let's not miss the forest
for the trees, or like the man with the muck-rake, concentrate on
problems to the exclusion of opportunities. Discouraged by past
defeats, many are now willing to settle for half a loaf. Remembering
the many political failures sustained by the movement during George's
lifetime, the debacle of the Single Tax party, the poor showing of the
Commonweath Land party, the sorry fate of Luke North's 'Great
Adventure," etc., etc., it is understandable that they should
lower their sights to goals more modest than a comprehensive
application of the theory of land value taxation. I am not an "all-at-oncer."
I well appreciate the necessity of gradualism in the implementation of
George's "remedy." But we live today in apocalyptic times.
National and world conditions cry for George as never before. While
our attention is fixated upon local assessment practices, public
opposition to the federal income tax is mounting. Throughout the world
the fanatical Marxist dogma is winning acceptance, opposed only by
weak and desiccated cliches. America desperately needs an ideology.
The West needs an ideology. Georgism, as a fully articulated system,
is that ideology.
It boils down to a question of survival. "True believers"
may not be respectable in academic circles, but history is a record of
their triumph. It is also a record of the downfall of the complacent,
the undecided, and the coolly skeptical. Without a vital ideology the
West is surely doomed.
Social Democracy is a bankrupt ideology; witness its repudiation in
Germany and England, and the spirit of ennui which has overtaken
Sweden. Traditional free enterprise is only half an ideology; where
there is no equality, to prate of freedom is a mockery. Incentive
taxation? Excellent, as far as it goes! But how many people willing to
risk "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor"
merely in order to shift taxes to sites from buildings and
improvements? I know I wouldn't.
Only the complete philosophy of George possesses the interior dynamic
which can produce final victory in the global struggle against
Marxism. We may have reservations about it at minor points. We may not
fully comprehend it at others. We may be quite willing to admit that
there have been major contributions to economic theory since George
wrote. We may hesitate to present his doctrine as a panacea. But the
Communists are not so hesitant about their doctrine. In the
struggle for the minds of the masses, one panacea can only be driven
out by another.
Shall we, then, bow to the defeatist notion that although George had
a beautiful theory, it is useless to work for its adoption on a
national and international scale? Shall we forfeit the opportunity
afforded by a dissatisfaction with the federal tax structure so
profound that even the Administration has expressed its recognition of
the need for radical revision? Shall we resign ourselves to exclusive
preoccupation with local and limited reform?
This, we are told, is the only "practical" approach.
Perhaps so. But if we are going to be practical, we might as well be
completely practical. If we are going to resign ourselves to this, we
might as well resign ourselves to the prospect of a Soviet America and
the end of Western Civilization. For the only thing which can avert
such a nightmare is the doctrine for which we will have been too "practical"