American Farmers and the Single Tax

J.E. Barr

[A letter to the editor in response to an article by Whidden Graham on "The American Farmer and the Single Tax". Reprinted from Land and Freedom, March-April 1927]

Dear Sir: I read with much interest in your last issue an article entitled The American Farmer and the Single Tax, in which the idea is set forth that the farmer has been neglected by the Single Tax advocate in favor of "labor" and that little hopes of success can be entertained until the farmer has been included in the programme.

This sounds strange to me in view of the fact that my reading and experience had led me to think that the mistakes made with reference to Georgism were mostly of the opposite character. I have a dim recollection of reading in one of Henry George's subordinate books an answer to a criticism that had been passed on Progress and Poverty to the effect that it could only apply to agricultural land. Mr. George went into detail to show that it would apply to all land. This explanation interested me much at the time because I then saw something I had not been able to see before that it was broader than a rural proposition. About the same time a friend of mine sojourned in my home for a few days and spent his extra time reading Progress and Poverty, but before he had finished it he threw it down in disgust and said it was simply a scheme to get everybody out on the farm and set them raising potatoes, and then what would we do for other things which were as necessary to our well being as farm products. In answer to that criticism I tried to convey to him some of my recently acquired information about it applying to all lands, but without avail. This mistake, as I now think, was due to Mr. Georges' frequent use of agriculture as an illustration. But I am at a loss to discover how the rural application would be missed entirely by the latter day leaders.

It seems to me the farmers are now at a stage where they would be open to the Single Tax Philosophy as a solution for their problems. In view of the fact that such problems are growing serious and no other solution seems to offer itself.

I talked with a farmer recently who was complaining about the heavy and unjust burden of taxation. He had probably never heard of the Single Tax but gave utterance to one of the most common Georgian arguments evidently thought out by himself. He said here are two farmers. Both hard workers and very economical. They had saved a little money. Their farms are considerably run down. So one of them takes his money and improves his house and barn making a great difference in the appearance but adding nothing to his income and increasing his taxes. The other buys tax-free bonds and leaves his premises as they were adding considerable to his income, but his taxes remain as they were. He thought it was all very unjust. Is not a mind like that open to the Georgian philosophy?

I have also been impressed lately with the fact that the farmer who lives a mile or more from town and off the improved road (and that is where the average farmer still is in spite of the vast expansion of the city and good roads) realizes that he possesses little or no site value, though he has no knowledge of that term. I know of four heirs to an estate consisting of a farm on a "dirt" road who were trying to dissolve their joint ownership. One of them proposed to buy out the others at 700 per share and the others proposed to sell at $900. I do not know the final price agreed upon but it was not in excess of $3,600. Yet there was a good house and barn and other buildings of the vintage of the '90s which could not be built now for $10,000.

I also saw a farmer building a commodious barn on his farm with all the modern equipment for dairying, and his neighbors were criticising him because they said he is spending money more than he could sell the farm land for, including the barn and the house.

I rode out sometime ago with a real estate agent who had a number of farms listed. As we rode up to one farm after another I said what are you asking for this farm, and he told me. I said tha.t the buildings are worth more than that, and he agreed with me, adding "we are offering these farms at very reasonable prices." But none of them sold at those figures. All this within fifteen miles of a city of 125,000 people. It appears to me under such conditions it ought not to be difficult for a good persuader to make th farmer see that they possess no site value in such cases and therefore to put all the tax on site value would not bear heavily on them. I understand also that the programme of the school authorities call for the gradual closing of the "little red school house" and consolidating in the villages. If that is the case it will withdraw still more of the site value from the "dirt" road farms. If you can indeed take something from nothing, for as I recall Henry George's teaching, the schoolhouse was one of the public improvements that made site value.

This situation may be a little peculiar, for we have been for amny years under what our Ohio neighbors call "The Pennsylvania Single Tax" and that is different from most of the tax systems in the rural states. But such a situation is in keeping with George's teaching that under the operations of his philosophy much land would yield no tax though it would not be affected in any other way.

I do not know how it would work out in the West among the soaring farm prices. But I am under the impression that those figures represent speculative value or something else than either site or utility value.

It seems to me that under the Single Tax if it were generally applied farming would approach the condition of a tax-free industry, not even being required to pay a site tax in many cases, and in view of the present groaning under the tax burden there ought to be some power of appeal in that.

I do not think the farm problem is a problem apart from others, but just a phase of the general problem. And since his is still one of the leading industries I do not believe we are going to solve anybody's problems without including him. If the Single Tax authorities today have overlooked him it is time for them to start a movement with the slogan "back to Henry George" for certainly he had the farmer in mind.