A Practical Plan for Successful Tax Reform

Harry Gunnison Brown

[An open letter to Single Taxers, reprinted from Land and Freedom, March-April 1930]

Single Taxers are dreaming and talking of an ideal economic system dreaming of a kind of "celestial city" while the enemy is carrying off the spoils of war. What Single Taxers are talking about is too remote from the day-to-day struggles of political life to mean much to the masses. We need to make our propaganda relate to current controversies. We can't stir the average man by a discussion of far-off and (to him) seemingly unrealizable and abstract ideals. We may be able to stir him and stir him to really fight if we plunge into some current controversy that appears to him "practical" and important, stress the relation to it of the principles that we believe to be fundamental, and so spread a knowledge of those principles through the general interest in the controversies to which they apply.

We should draw a lesson, too but I fear most Single Taxers won't from the history of the struggle over slavery. Certainly honor is due to those idealists who asserted, in season and out, that slavery was wrong and ought to be abolished. But general popular sentiment was probably influenced much more rapidly through the problem's entering practical politics in a fight over the further extension of slavery. After a generation of controversy over that question and not over the question of abolition, popular sentiment became greatly aroused, the evils of slavery were more and more heatedly discussed and the time was ripe for the organization of a great political party pledged, as a party, against (still only this) any further extension of slave territory. The end of the whole matter was abolition but the means of arousing the masses and making them sense the great underlying human issue involved was the insistence on a more moderate policy that seemed to them immediately practicable and thus interested them.

Into what controversies can we enter? Into all political struggles in which one side calls for relieving "real estate" and, therefore, land, of taxes and putting the burden anywhere else. At every turn we can point out what calamitous results must tend to follow: congestion, high rents, high salable value of land, tenancy (or acquisition of land ownership only through heavy mortgage indebtedness followed, often, by bankruptcy and foreclosure), and the using of funds secured from taxes other than on land in such a way as to add to the value of the land of some owners and thus gain them a special privilege income at the expense of the public. If we cannot, as yet, interest the masses in the "Single Tax" as such, we may at least be able to interest them in the evil results of taking taxes off of land and putting the burden elsewhere. As understanding spreads we may often hold a balance of power and be able to say: "No. you shall not take taxes off of land and, if you want us to help take them off of improvements, you can get support from us only by conceding some increase in the tax on land values."

But now, while Single Taxers are living in a fools paradise of hope, the forces of reaction are putting a larger and larger proportion of the burden elsewhere than on land. Many states have already abolished absolutely the tax on property so far as purely state revenue is concerned, and state funds secured from other sources are being shared with local communities so that real estate may be "relieved." The first great battle may come when we demand that this removal of taxes from land absolutely cease. It is high time for this demand. If we make it, and give our reasons effectively, we shall be preparing the minds of men for the next step. But we must stop this swing backward or our case will be well-nigh hopeless.

Many men who have no real understanding of Single Tax, and who think themselves opposed to it, are nevertheless opposed also to the new taxes being substituted for taxes on real estate. They are anxious to find weapons for the fight and will often use some of our arguments, if we put these arguments into their thinking, without necessarily seeing to what these arguments may ultimately lead. Thus we greatly multiply our effective army. Sometimes our allies will be the people in a specific line or lines of business, like the druggists when soft drinks taxes are proposed, or the moving picture people when it is proposed to tax the movies. Sometimes they will be city professional and business interests who fear that increasing state income taxes to relieve land will unduly burden them. Whoever they are, it is for us to welcome, aid and use them, while also continuing our own positive propaganda, until, by these processes of education, we have spread an understanding and appreciation of the land problem far beyond our little group of idealists. Then will the time be ripe for some inspiring leader to focus in a challenging demand for reform the growing sentiment, and win a victory which may appear dramatic and sudden but to which all those will have contributed who, in a more disheartening period, constantly fought the propaganda of "tax relief for real estate."