A Practical Program
for Successful Tax Reform

Responding to Antonio Bastida

Harry Gunnison Brown

[Reprinted from Land and Freedom, May-June 1930]

The argument of Mr. Antonio Bastida in May-June Land and Freedom is presented most courteously. And, indeed, I sympathize sincerely with much that he has said in it. Yet he has certainly, though perhaps through my own lack of clearness, entirely misapprehended my meaning. For I never intended to suggest that land tax advocates should, as a group, adopt any such irrelevant issue as free silver, membership of the United States in the League of Nations, socialism, prohibition, public ownership, or even free trade. I have little faith that the advocates of these policies would, in any appreciable numbers, be thus converted to our cause or help us in it.

Not such, however, were the kinds of current controversy that I had in mind. Rather did I have in my thought controversies or issues which clearly involve the principles in which we are especially Interested. And I mentioned particularly the current slogan, "tax relief for real estate," which implies putting taxes elsewhere and definitely proposes taking taxes off of land. This is a proposal that unquestionably does involve, by flouting them, our most fundamental principles. And by entering into the controversy, in which we shall have many allies who do not now understand our philosophy, but who are opposed to taking taxes off of land and putting them elsewhere, we may do much to bring our principles into public discussion.

When, in my "Open Letter, " I urged our joining actively in the fight over this specific issue, I took occasion to remark that the slavery question came into practical politics and came to be a really burning issue, not as a question of abolition but as a question of further extension versus territorial limitation. And slavery disappeared. We have now a real issue to fight over, an issue which arouses wide popular interest far beyond the boundaries of our little group of active workers for the land-value tax, yet one which can be fought out largely on the principles we profess. It is not an issue, like that of free silver, unrelated to our principles or, like that of free trade, related only remotely and contingently to the idea of appropriating publicly-produced value to public uses. On the contrary, it directly and clearly involves these principles and this idea.

We are confronted at the same time by a magnificent opportunity to get attention for the principles we hold fundamental and also by a most dangerous threat to the small application of these principles that America already has.

If in our desire to preach our full and complete doctrine regardless of how few will listen, we ignore this opportunity to get our principles before the public through a controversy which interests many, we shall prove ourselves, in my opinion, hopelessly inept in political skill. And if, for the privilege of spending time repeating to each other's admiring ears the glories of our one-hundred-per-cent. programme, we give up on an issue made, as if for the very purpose of bringing our principles into discussion, and let the landowners secure, without a fight, that "tax relief for real estate" which they are so vociferously demanding, then, it seems to me, we are practically recreant to our great cause.

It should be our job to make the current slogan "tax relief for real estate, " not only unpopular but "a hissing and a by-word" among all persons who pretend to any slightest degree of liberal sympathy. And in doing so we can make the economic facts about land and the reasons for taxing it instead of labor and thrift, for greatly raising rather than lowering the tax on land, more and more clear to an increasing number of voters.

Such a method of propaganda most certainly does not mean that if landowners should agree no longer to request reduced taxes (how likely!), we would thereupon cease our agitation.

To Mr. Bastida 's suggestion that what I am urging means emphasis on the public appropriation of land rent from the "fiscal" point of view only, I most earnestly object. Does Mr. Bastida know what I have said, in articles and books, regarding rent as a payment which some men are able to exact from others, for permission to work and live on those parts of the earth which community growth and development, together with the past operation of geologic forces, have made relatively desirable? Is such, in his view, a merely "fiscal" discussion?

May it not turn out, after all that Mr. Bastida and I are more nearly in agreement than he appears to think?