The Land Tax and the Problem of the Unemployed

Herbert s. Bigelow

[Reprinted from Twentieth Century Magazine, April 1911]

WHY stand ye here all the day idle?" The workingmen of the parable could not answer that question. Their stupid reply was that no man had hired them. But why had no man hired them? Why were jobs dear and men cheap? They had mouths to feed and hands to work. Why, then, should they stand in the marketplace idle?

This is the answer they should have made: "If no one will hire us we have to remain idle, because we have no land on which to employ ourselves."

Every man has an inalienable right to a piece of land on which he may be his own employer if he likes.

Not every idle man wants to go to work directly upon the land. But if every man could do so who wants to, the rest would have no difficulty finding other employment.

I know men who arrived in Western Canada a few years ago utterly without resources. The expense of the trip had taken their last dollar. To-day they are independent farmers. The Canadian government gave them land. Having honest faces and a quarter section each, they readily borrowed money for their teams and the dealers trusted them for their implements. These two men whom I have in mind once stood in the marketplace of Wilmington, Delaware, idle. Now they employ themselves productively, and when they exchange their labor products they create a demand for men who would otherwise crowd the marketplace. The work that is done directly upon the land is the basis of all industry. National welfare is directly dependent upon the nation's land policy.

"But," it is said, "there is not land enough to go round." That is to say, men stand in the marketplace idle because God failed to make enough land. Grotesquely, too, the people who glory in this atheism are often loudest in their professions of faith.

Now the truth is that our land policy puts a premium upon land speculation. That is, men often find it more profitable to hold land out of use than to use it. The system of taxation penalizes its use. The result is that not a third of the land of the nation is really used. Labor is locked out of it by paper titles. This is why men stand in the marketplace idle.

Does it seem an exaggeration to say that thirty-five per cent of the land of our Western States is held out of use by private owners? But this per cent holds even in New York City. The assessors' books show that thirty-five per cent of the separately assessed parcels of land are vacant, without the slightest improvement of any kind. Yet these vacant lots of the city are valued at one billion five hundred million dollars. The owners of these lots are neither willing to use them themselves, nor to let others use them. Thus they keep locked up one billion five hundred million dollars' worth of jobs. If these lots were sold for their assessed value, three hundred thousand good farms could be purchased for the money, farms that could support a million and a half of people. To these vacant lots should be added those that are but partially improved. The unused and the partially used together show to what extent speculative ownership interferes with the proper use of land.

Why, then, do men stand all the day idle? The answer is plain. It is because the tax burdens that now encumber industry are not so placed as to prevent the holding of land out of use. Labor is twice taxed; taxed to pay the landlord, and taxed to support the government. The landlord in his greed for speculative prices taxes land out of use. The government, to save the landlord, taxes industry out of existence. Tax land into use and let industry go free. In effect, make all land titles conditional upon use. Bring unused land and idle labor together by taxing the speculator loose from the land. Under that land policy men would be deluged with opportunities. The earth would cry out for men.