A Critique of the Single Tax

William C. Brann

[A follow-up response to A Defense of the Single Tax, by Thomas Flavin,
published in The Iconoclast, 12 August, 1897]

Ever since the appearance of my first courteous critique of the Single Tax theory the followers of that faith have been pouring in vigorous "replies"; but as my articles were directed to Mr. George and not to his disciples, I saw no occasion for the latter to intermeddle in the matter, and the tide of economic wisdom went to waste.

Although a publisher is supposed to be privileged to select his own contributors, and Mr. George had been requested to make reply at my expense, the Single Taxers raised a terrible hue and cry that the ICONOCLAST was unfair in that it "permitted one side to be presented." In order to cast a little kerosene upon the troubled waters I decided that they should be heard, and selected Dr. Flavin as their spokesman, believing him to be the ablest of those who have followed this particular economic rainbow into the bogs. So much by way of prolegomenon; now for the doctor.

My very dear sir, I shall heed your advice to "rise above" the abuse of those who mistake impudence for argument, and ignore the discourteous remarks with which you have so liberally interlarded your discourse. Doubtless you include yourself among that numerous tribe of Texas titans who can "unhorse" me as easily as turning a hen over; and having accorded you unlimited space in which to acquire momentum, I would certainly dread the shock were I cursed with an atom of polemical pride. Frankly, I wish you success -- trust that you can demonstrate beyond a peradventure of a doubt that all my objections to the Single Tax are fallacious, that it is indeed the correct solution of that sphinx riddle which we must soon answer or be destroyed. At a time when the industrial problem is pressing upon us with ever increasing power, it is discouraging to hear grown Americans prattling of "unhorsing" economic adversaries--priding themselves on polemical fence, like shyster lawyers, and seeking victory through sophistry rather than truth by honest inquiry. That is not patriotism, but a picayune partisanship which I profoundly pity.

Regarding "the public concept of truth" which seems to irritate you sorely, I will simply say that the people are slow to accept new and startling truths like those promulgated by Galileo, Newton and Harvey; but a truth, howsoever strange, GROWS year by year and age by age, while a falsehood creates more or less flurry at its birth, then fades into the everlasting night of utter nothingness.

That Mr. George's theory, after several years of discussion, is declining in popular favor, and has never made a convert among the careful students of political economy, is strong presumptive evidence that it is not founded on fact. The more you hammer truth the brighter it glows; the more you hammer Georgeism the paler it gets. It is not for me to prove the fallacy of the Single Tax theory -- the onus probandi rests with its apostles, and they but saltate from mistaken premises to ridiculous conclusions. Like the German metaphysicians, they are abstract reasoners who do not trouble themselves about conditions. It is not well to sneer at "the great blind multitude" because it fails to see the beauty or wisdom in the Single Tax, for many a great man before Lincoln's time had profound respect for the judgment of the common people. "Truth," say the Italians, "is lost by too much controversy;" and while the Georges and Flavins split hairs and spute and spout themselves into error, the hard- headed farmer and mechanic, exercising their practical common-sense, arrive at correct conclusions.

In saying that Mr. George has, by his sophistry, "deceived hundreds of abler men than himself," I simply accredited him with a feat that has been a thousand times performed. Carliostro was an ignoramus and possessed very ordinary intellect, yet for several years he succeeded in deceiving some of the wisest men of his day with his Egyptian Masonry idiocy. Thousands of fairly intelligent people believed poor looney Francis Schlatter a kind of second Messiah, some of the ablest men of Europe were misled by half-crazy Martin Luther--and Dr. Flavin regards Henry George's economic absurdities as omniscience. The latter has "mistaken the plausible for the actual," has deceived himself with his own sophistry, else he and his few score noisy followers are wiser than all the rest of the world, or, for the sake of gain or cheap notoriety, he's peddling what he knows to be arrant nonsense. You may take as many "pinches of snuff" on that proposition as you please.

All your remarks about land values, their origin and rightful ownership -- the tiresome old piece de resistance of every Single Tax discourse -- I answered fully in my two former articles on this subject, wherein I also explained how the "unearned increment" is at present appropriated by the public, and I cannot afford to rethresh old straw for the benefit of Single Taxers who WILL write and WON'T read. I will remark en passant, however, that by "unearned increment" I mean exactly what I suppose Mr. George to mean--increase in the market value of land for which the proprietor is not responsible. This, I have explained, is already appropriated by the public, because the total annual increase in land values in this country -- barring betterments of course -- does not exceed the total annual tax levied upon the land. There's always a boom in land values here and there; but hundreds of millions of acres, urban and suburban, have not increased a penny in selling price during the past decade. The owners are reaping no unearned increment, but they are paying taxes regularly into the public till.

"The exclusive creator or producer of a thing is the rightful owner," says Dr. Flavin. Quite true; and as the only thing the community creates for the land owner is the unearned increment, it has no moral right to take anything more. The Single Taxers persist in ignoring the fact that there is an EARNED as well as an UNEARNED increment, and that the former is as much the property of the individual as the barn he builds or the calf he breeds. Of this earned increment more anon.

"The highest homage, the highest act of faith which the human mind and heart can offer to God is to say he could not be God and pronounce the Single Tax to be unjust!" O hell! That's not argument, but simply empty declamation intended to tickle the ears of the groundlings -- to raise a whoop among the gallery gods. As you have suggested, "Come, let us argue with dignity and composure," instead of emitting fanatical screeches like fresh converts at a Methodist campmeeting, let's see about this God of Justice business: About 200 years ago a party whom we will call Brann, as that happened to be his name "cleared" a farm in the wilds of Virginia, enduring all the hardships and dangers of the frontier.

He built roads and bridges, drained swamps, exterminated Indians and wild animals. His descendants helped drive out the British butchers, some of them being scalped alive by John Bull's red allies, while their wives and children were tomahawked. They contributed in their humble way to secure the blessings of free government which the present inhabitants of Virginia enjoyed. They helped support schools, churches and charities and otherwise make the district desirable as a place of residence.

Finally railways were built and stores opened, not to enrich these people, but to be enriched by them. These conveniences added to the value of the land, but were paid for at a good round price, as such things ever are by the users. The land is now worth about $30.00 an acre, and while this value is unquestionably due to the presence of population,{sic} it is fair to assume that in two centuries the estate has yielded that much in the shape of taxes. As the present owner, I ask, has the Old Dominion against that property for unearned increment? I say it has not; that the $30.00 an acre represents the savings of seven generations of my ancestors; that while the community created the land value, said value has been duly purchased and paid for -- that it represents EARNED increment.

Unearned increment is not what Dr. Elavin is after; he would confiscate the RENT of my patrimony; he would deprive me of the VALUES created by my people -- would allow me no larger share therein than he accords to the newly arrived immigrant from that damned island we call England. If our God says THAT is just, then I want no angelic wings -- prefer to associate with Satan. Has the son a just right to wealth created and solemnly bequeathed him by his sire? That land is as much mine as the gold would be mine, had my people their savings in that shape, and the rent is mine as justly as the interest on the gold would be.

It is quite true that none of my clan CREATED that land; it is true that I cannot show a title to it signed by God Almighty and counter- signed by the Savior, any more than I can show a title from the same high source to the watch I hold in my hand; but I have a title to all the rights, conveniences and profits appertaining to control of the land, issued by their creator, the community, for value received. I have the same title to the land that I have to the watch; not to the material made by the Almighty, but to whatsoever has been added of desirability thereto by the action of man. The community has been settled with up-to-date for both the land and the watch, but has a continuing claim against them so long as it enables me to employ them advantageously than I could without its assistance. If I sell my land the purchaser receives in return for his money all those advantages which it required so many years of toil and danger to win--he pays for the sacrifices made by others in preference to going into the wilderness and making them himself. The market value of my land is a "labor product," just as my watch is a labor product, hence all this prattle about relieving industry of governmental burdens by any economic thaumaturgy whatsoever is the merest moonshine.

It is quite true that "the great middle class" does not own the most valuable lots in New York and London; but I have the "chilled steel" hardihood to affirm that not only the bulk of the land but of the land values are in the possession of people who are poor as compared with the occupants of those sumptuous palaces which the George conspiracy for the further enrichment if Dives and the starvation of Lazaras would exempt from taxation. The total wealth of this nation is not far from 75 billions, while all the land, exclusive of improvements, would not sell for more than 20 billion. The naked land of our 5 million farms is estimated at about 10 billion, so that leaves but about 10 billion for urban lands -- less than one-seventh of the total value. I have no reliable statistics at hand showing what proportion of urban inhabitants own their homes; but we may safely assume that one-half do so. Now, if this be true, we may also assume that the land values held by the very wealthy -- the people whom the Single Taxers profess to be after, -- do not exceed one-fourth of all land values, or one-fifteenth of total property values. Hence you see it is quite possible for 250,000 to own 80 per cent of ALL values, while the bulk of the LAND values remain with the common people. And it is these common people that the Single Tax will crush for the benefit of these 250,000 plutocrats, the bulk of whose wealth is in personal property.

Sit down and think it over, doctor; you are really too bright a man to be led astray by the razzle-dazzle of Single Tax sophistry. You do your enviable reputation for intelligence a rank injustice by mistaking poor old George for an economic Messiah, and if you are not careful somebody will try to sell you a gold-brick or stock in a Klondike company. Suppose that you and Hon. Walter Gresham occupy residence lots worth $1,000 each, but that you inhabit a $1,500 cottage and he a $150,000 mansion; and suppose that your income is $2,000 a year while his is $20,000: Do you think there is any necessity for tearing your balbriggan undershirt because not compelled to put up as much for the maintenance of government as your wealthy neighbor? Is it at all probable that Gresham will become discouraged, refuse to longer serve the corporations and sit in the woodshed and sulk, even jump off the bridge, because taxed in proportion to the property in his possession rather than according to the land he occupies? If Col. Moody builds a million dollar cotton mill on suburban land worth but $500 why should you refuse to sleep o' nights because not required to pay double the taxes of that old duffer? As a worthy disciple of Aesculapius you should know that too heavy a burden on your own back is liable to make you bow-legged.

I suspected all along that the Single Tax would require several able-bodied "corollaries" to enable it to effect much of a reformation, to usher in the Golden Age. It were very nice to throw unused coal and oil lands "open to all on equal terms," have the government pipe off all their products for equal pay, then compel operators by piling on taxes to maintain high prices to consumers "till other companies got well on their feet" -- and a combination was effected. If Rockefeller, Hanna, Carnegie, et id genes omnes tried any of their old tricks "we might get after them" -- just as we HAVE long been doing. These plutocrats are so afraid of our politicians that there is danger of their dying of neuropathy. If the coal, iron and oil operators advance prices we'll advance their taxes -- for the people to pay. And I suppose that when the whiskey trust get gay, the doctor will raise the rent of corn land, when the cotton-seed oil trust becomes too smooth, he'll knock it on the head by adding a dollar an acre to cotton land, and so on until we get the cormorant fairly by the goozle.

It's all dead easy when you understand it -- works as smoothly as an "iridescent dream" on a toboggan slide! We are continually discovering new coal, iron and oil districts, and these are "open to all on equal terms" -- I can acquire them just as cheaply as can Rockefeller or Carnegie. Then what's the matter? I lack the capital to properly develop them, to produce so cheaply as my wealthy competitors. Or if able to become a thorn in the side of the great corporations they either lower prices and freeze me out or make it to my advantage to enter the syndicate. When Rockefeller lowers the price of oil he lowers his rent; when I am either crushed by competition or taken in out of the cold, he advances the price of oil. His rent is regulated by competition for the use of oil lands -- you cannot make him pay more than the market price. When you raise his rent you raise that of all the other operators in proportion, and the same is the same as an increase of the excise on whisky -- the people get a meaner grade of goods at a higher price. If an ordinary man cooked up such a scheme as that for the benefit of the people, I'd feel justified in calling him a "crank," and I cannot conceive how a man like Dr. Slavin can tack his signature to such tommy-rot. Before we can make the Single Tax "a go" we've got to have government ownership of telegraphs, railways, pipe-lines, etc., etc., and use the taxing power to regulate prices just as the Republicans do the tariff -- and for what? To humble the haughty landlord? Oh no; to knock the stuffing out of capital -- so long wept over by Single Taxers as a fellow sufferer with toil. Why not call the George system Communism? -- "a rose by any other name," etc.

When the doctor get matters arranged it will really make no difference whether a farmer is located in the black-waxy district, or on the arid cactus-cursed lands of the trans-Pecos country, as he will have to surrender to the public all he produces in excess of what the poorest land in use will yield. He will have no incentive to study the capabilities of his land and bring to bear upon it exceptional industry, for he will be deprived of all the increase he can make it yield by such methods. A will be placed on a parity with D because he took the best land he could get instead of the poorest he could find. Intelligence and enterprise are to have no reward under the new regime. You can squat on a sand-bank or pile of rocks in any community and be on a financial parity with the man whose black soil reaches to the axis of the earth -- no need to bundle the old woman into a covered wagon, tie the brindled cow to the feed-box and head for a country where better land is to be had. There will be no temptation to carve out a home in the wilderness, for later immigrants will set at naught your toil and sacrifices and deprive your children of their patrimony -- the best situated merchant in Waco will have no advantage of the keeper of a tent store on a side street of Yuba Dam or Tombstone. A tax will not longer be "a fine on industry" -- it will be a fine on fools.

My Galveston friend should not work himself into a fit of hysteria because I declared that the George doctrine has had its day, it being sheer folly to quarrel with a self-evident fact.

When Henry George first flamed forth he made a great deal of money out of his writings, and has thus far shown no more aversion to the silver than has your humble servant. His paper was doubtless launched with a view of promoting his financial and political fortunes, for he did not go broke publishing it "for the good of the cause," but promptly rung off when he found that it did not PAY, hence I fail to see that he is entitled to any more credit than Col. Belo or myself. I called attention to the failure of his paper, not in a spirit of rejoicing over its downfall, but simply to accentuate the fact, after giving some years to consideration of his rather pretty platitudes, that people condemned them--that his heroic attempt to reclothe with living flesh the bones of the impot unique had proven a dismal failure. Now, my dear doctor, I have not undertaken in this hasty article to fully expose this Single Tax fallacy, having attended to that heretofore, but simply to answer a few of your arguments which I had not hitherto heard. Let's drop the subject--let the dead go bury its dead, while we devote our energies to LIVING issues.