A Practical Program
for Successful Tax Reform
Responding to Antonio Bastida
Harry Gunnison Brown
[Reprinted from Land and Freedom, May-June
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"
May it not turn out, after all that Mr. Bastida and I are more nearly
in agreement than he appears to think?