.


SCI LIBRARY

The Rent of Land and its Taxation

Harry Gunnison Brown



[A paper published by Lucas Brothers, 1921. Part 1 of 2]


Land Rent as a Marginal Product of Land


In The Theory of Earned and Unearned Incomes,[1] the writer had occasion to suppose the existence of a piece of land on which the labor of five men working with the aid of improvements and equipment worth $5,000, produced a yearly product above repair and depreciation costs, of $2,200. Of this $2,200, wages constituted $1,500, interest (at 8 per cent.) $400, and $300 a year remained as rent. This $300 measures, roughly, the amount of rent the owner could secure from a tenant. It is the surplus produced on the land, above the remuneration of the labor and waiting (i. e., saving, or the postponement of consumption) used. But the remuneration of waiting or saving, the interest on capital, is fixed by demand and supply at a point where it equals the marginal productivity of waiting.[2] Likewise, the remuneration of labor is fixed by demand and supply at a point where it equals the marginal product of labor.[3] Hence, to say that a piece of land yields per year a surplus of $300 over interest to waiting and wages of labor is to say that it yields a surplus of $300 above the marginal product of such waiting and labor. Let us suppose this particular piece of land to be nonexistent. Then the labor and capital applied upon it must needs be applied on poorer or less well situated land not previously used, or this labor and capital must be applied to using more intensively land already in use. Applied in either of these ways, such labor and capital would produce $300 less than could be produced if the labor and capital were applied to the $2,200 yielding land. In other words, the $300 is the product of this particular piece of unimproved land in the sense that the existence and use of this piece of land makes it possible for a product $300 larger to be secured with no more labor and waiting, simply because the land resources to which the labor and waiting are applied are that much better than the margin at which the labor and waiting in question must otherwise be applied. But although $300 may thus be regarded as a contribution of the land to production, it is not on that account to be regarded as a contribution of the landowner to production.

It is to be emphasized that the rent of city land is determined in just the same way as the rent of land in the country. The well-located merchant derives a larger return from his business as a retailer or a jobber by virtue of his superior situation. So, also, the manufacturer whose business is wisely located in relation to sources of power and to shipping facilities derives from such a location advantages for which he may be willing, if necessary, to pay a high rent and for which, if the desired location is equally advantageous to others, he will have to pay such a rent. In the case of either country or city land it is here intended to regard as land rent only the amount which is the marginal product of the land as such. Interest on the cost of improvements, whether swamp draining and fertilizing in the case of farm land or filling and levelling in the case of city land, is not properly a part of the rent of land but is a return on capital investment.

The amount of rent which landowners can get for the use of their land appears to be pretty definitely fixed by the conditions of demand and supply. Attention is commonly called, by economists, to the fact that a tax on land rent can not be shifted. The owner of the land cannot, when a tax is levied, get any more rent. The tax does not increase the marginal product of the land. It does not decrease the marginal product of waiting or the marginal product of labor. It cannot make interest lower or wages lower. It cannot, therefore, increase the difference between the total product of the land and the amount going to capitalists and wage earners. It does not make land any scarcer. The tax-paying landowner can even less afford to keep his land idle than the landowner who is untaxed. It does not decrease the quantity of goods produced on the land and does not increase prices. It simply leaves the landowner with a smaller income by the amount of the tax subtraction. A tax on interest might diminish saving and make interest, eventually, higher. A tax on wages, especially if heavy, might diminish population and so make wages, in a later generation, larger.[5] But a tax on rent can have no effect other than to diminish the amount of revenue received by landowners and give this revenue to the general public. It should be said, however, by way of qualification, that when the rent results not chiefly from a favorable situation or other conditions independent of the owner's labor but in part from a fertility which has to be maintained by the owner's efforts, some shifting may take place. (Return on improvements due to labor is properly interest on capital.) But a tax upon the situation rent or value of land falls upon the owner and upon no one else.


Land Rent versus Capital Interest


An examination of the justice of special land-value taxation may advantageously begin with a brief consideration of the difference between rent and interest.[6] It is sometimes said that the rent of land is no less interest than the return on other capital, since the return on land can be viewed as a given percentage on a given valuation, while on the other hand, the interest on other capital can be viewed as an absolute amount in dollars per machine or factory, just as land rent is viewed as so many dollars per building lot or per acre a year.[7] But more fundamentally there is a difference, despite the superficial resemblance, between situation rent and capital interest. The return on land should be looked at as an absolute amount measured and determined by the surplus over production on the extensive or intensive margin. It is not determined by the value of the land. Neither has the value of land as such, i. e., its situation value apart from improvements, any relation to any cost of production, since the land was not humanly produced. On the contrary, the value of the land can be arrived at only by discounting its expected future rents or returns at some previously found rate of interest. Thus, a piece of land which would yield $5,000 per year net rent (above taxes, wages of labor employed, interest on the capital invested in buildings and other improvements, and insurance) would be worth, if interest were 5 per cent., $100,000. Were the current rate 10 per cent., such a piece of land would be worth but $50,000.

With equipment of the producible and reproducible kind, however, the relation between capital and income value is not the simple one above outlined. The value of such capital, though not unaffected by the value of its expected services, is very directly related to the cost of its production. Buildings of a type costing $5,000 each will hardly be put up to sell for much less, as a rule, by the builders. Nor, so long as the alternative is open to him of supervising the construction of a similar building, will a possible buyer care to pay a great deal more.[8] The value of a building is determined then, in large part, by the expenses, such as wages, of producing the materials and of putting it up; and these wages are determined, in the last analysis, by the existence of alternative lines of activity open to the wage-earners, while the other costs are determined by the alternative uses to which the land or capital which must be used in producing the materials might be put.

Since the value of produced and reproducible capital is thus in large part fixed directly by its cost of production, the assertion that interest is in large part determined by the rate of productivity of capital does not involve reasoning in a circle. Interest is 5 per cent, because, for one and perhaps the most important reason, capital worth $10,000 will produce an annual net income of $500. It therefore appears, to sum up our conclusions thus far, that the value of produced capital depends in a considerable degree on cost of production, that the ratio between the value of capital and its income is an important factor in determining the general long-run rate of interest, and that this rate of interest is an essential element in the valuation of land.


Land Rent as an Unearned Income[9]


It is but a short step to the conclusion that the accumulators of produced capital may - and in many cases doubtless do - add to the value of the annual aggregate income of society as much as they take out of this income in interest; while the owners of land, as such, contribute no service in return for their income. Whereas, in the case of produced capital, the public (except in certain cases, numerous enough, no doubt, where the capital is wastefully or injuriously used) pays the owner for a service which, without his saving (or the saving of someone whose right to payment has been transferred to him), would not have been enjoyed, in the case of land the payment is made for a benefit which is dependent on no individual's saving or effort and a benefit for which, therefore, no individual is responsible. In the one case the community pays for a service which is actually rendered to it. In the other case it pays people who have, in the capacity in which they are paid, rendered no service.

The view presented so consistently in this book that incomes received not in payment for service rendered lack social justification will not, of course, be accepted by the Junker type of mind. More or less plausible arguments may again be advanced as they have often been before, in favor of incomes to privileged classes. It will be alleged that members of these classes, not having to worry about their livelihood, will become efficient officers of state, scholars devoted to research, and, in other ways, profitable social servants. To the argument that if a class is to be supported without definite regard to a special service for which their income is received, in order that such results may accrue, the public might select in a better way the individuals who should make up this class, it will doubtless be replied that, in practice, the public will not select in any such manner as to give equally good results. Or the supporters of a privileged aristocracy may go a step farther and defend its existence, not by virtue of any alleged superior social service, but as being good in itself, as a class for the good of which other classes exist, as constituting "the backbone of the state." To one who accepts either view above outlined, no argument against exploitation will be convincing, especially if the exploitation is of an ancient sort and has the prescriptive sanction of long usage, as is the case with land rent.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let it be emphasized that land rent as here defined does not mean merely the sum paid by a tenant to an owner, for the use of land, but equally the amount received by the person who himself uses his own land, in excess of wages for his labor and interest on his capital. This rent comes to him in money when he sells the goods or services which the land produces. He is paid, thus, by others, for benefits which not he but the land renders. The community in buying from him, pays him for more than the service he and his saving render them.

But, it may be said, at least many of the present landowners are persons who have made their savings from what they have earned and have chosen to invest their savings in land rather than elsewhere. Have they not, in their savings, given the community as much value as they draw in rent? The answer may well be that they have given, to that part of the community from whom their rent income is derived, nothing whatever. If A, who has saved $10,000, uses it to buy a piece of land from B, he is merely paying B for the privilege, previously enjoyed by B, of receiving rent from others for the use of something that neither he nor any other individual produced and the use of which would be equally available had no owner or purchaser of land ever been born. In turn, B has now the $10,000 of accumulations and it is quite possible that he may use it in some way that will increase the annual product of industry. If so, the community, or some members of the community, will come to be paying B, in interest on capital, for services which, without A's saving, would not have been available, while they will be paying A, in rent, for benefits from the use of land, which are not due to any individual's work or savings. If, before, the community was paying the landowner B a rent while getting no service that could fairly be regarded as coming from him, now it is making payments to both A and B, as rent and interest respectively, and receiving services in return from only one. If, before, B the landowner was a pensioner to whom the community gave something for nothing, now A has become the pensioner, having bought out B, and is receiving, from the rest of the community, something for nothing. For it should be clearly evident that the $10,000 paid to B for the land is not a service rendered to C, D, or E, who are the persons that have to pay A for the use of the land. Yet much of emphasis is commonly directed to the assertion that the land-using part of the community ought to pay rent to landowners because these landowners have in many cases paid previous landowners for the land and despite the fact that none of the landowners in the series can be said to have rendered any service to those from whom they collect rent payment. In other words, it is asserted that C, D, and E ought to be obliged to pay A for no service rendered by him or by anyone, simply because A previously paid $10,000, not to C or D or E, but to B. Is such a doctrine good utilitarianism? Is its application good social policy?


Improvements by Special Assessments and the Right of Landowners to a Rental Return


Nevertheless, to assert that in practice the landowner, as such, never performs any service for which he is entitled to a return in payment for the use of his land is going too far. If he is entitled to nothing else, he is usually entitled to a return on the cost, to him, of improvements (such as cutting through and paving streets) met by special assessments. These assessments are customarily made on all owners of land where a street is to be put through or paved, on the theory that they derive a special benefit from the improvement, a theory which is generally in accord with the facts. It would seem that there is much the same reason for the owners of land which is, in effect, improved by such expenditures, to meet them as there is for farmers to pay the cost of fencing and manuring their own land.

That the benefit of this street building (as of social growth) goes to the landowners as such, and not to the owners of buildings on the land, should become apparent when it is realized that a building, apart from its situation, can hardly go much above the cost of putting up another like it. Suppose two building lots side by side, each worth $2,000. On one, a $5,000 house is put. The other stands vacant. If the building of a street or the growth of the community makes the combined house and lot worth $9,000, is not the added $2,000 an increase in the value of the land? If there is no change in the cost of putting up such a house, will not the adjoining land (on which an exactly similar house can be built for $5,000, to sell, with the lot, for $9,000) immediately come to be worth $4,000? A house or other building unwisely located where it cannot be used may come to have less value than its cost, by the necessary expense of moving it, or, if it is not movable to a desirable locality, by an indefinite amount. But a house, as such, can hardly increase in value much above its cost of duplication. Analysis seems to show that the increase inheres in the site.

If, then, on the basis of this fact, the owner of land is compelled to bear the cost, or most of the cost, of the improvements made, it seems but reasonable that he should be allowed to enjoy some return on his investment in the expense of paving or other improvement, if any such return is forthcoming. This does not mean that he is entitled to secure all the value that results from social growth, or, perhaps, any of the value so resulting, but it may mean that he should be regarded as the owner of, and is entitled to interest on, the difference between what the value of the land in question would be to a prospective purchaser by whom the costs of improvement had still to be met, and the value to a purchaser after such improvements have been made. In short, the investor is entitled to a return - if the land can ever be made to yield it - on the expense to him of the special assessments.

It seems clear enough to the writer that a not very excessive rate on such expenditures for street-making, etc., will compensate owners on the average for any risks that their land may, in certain contingencies of population shifting, yield less than an average return on such expenses. If, however, a group of lot-owners take steps to have a street cut through long before there is need of it and therefore find that a return on this cost cannot for some time be had, it does not follow that these owners are entitled to get, out of the increased value which later may result from social growth, all the interest lost during the interval of waiting.

That the value of city land usually includes more than can be accounted for by the expense of such improvements is evident if we call to mind the value of well-situated land where such local improvements have not yet been made. A piece of land in a great city, situated where the building of a street was contemplated but not begun, might well be less valuable by only about the cost of the necessary assessments than if the street were there. Without doubt it is sometimes true that improvements such as street construction start the fashion of living in a given section of a city and so bring up the value of sites there by far more than the cost of the improvements. But it is also true that the outward pressure of population or the building of a railroad or trolley line gives value to the unimproved land in the absence of streets, and makes the putting through of the streets worth while. In this latter case the causal influence runs the opposite way. It is the conditions leading to increased value, and the contingent possibility of deriving from the land an income previously not obtainable even if improvements had been made, that give rise to the street-cutting movement.

Our conclusion seems to be that owners of land are entitled to a return on their investments in improvements, such as special assessments for cutting streets, in the same sense and to the same degree that they are entitled to a return on the cost of building houses or factories; that, however, they are no more entitled to a socially guaranteed return in the one case than in the other;[10] and that there is no reason why they should be allowed more than enough, on the basis of such expenditures, to make the expenditures worth while. It does not follow that the sums required as special assessments or purposely invested by land speculators in street building, etc., are not fairly subject to tax in the same way as any property is subject to tax, but only that whatever reasons there may be for special taxation of land values in general do not apply to the part of land values clearly due to such investments any more than they apply to the part of farm land values due to the owners' expenditures in fertilization.


Other Services of City Landowners


Are there any other expenses met or services performed by the city landowner which are to be regarded from the viewpoint of the land-value-taxation philosophy as entitling him to some exemptions? Does the landlord, for instance, perform a service worthy of a share of economic rent by "managing" the land? Is the joint activity of landowners in a given section, in determining the class or race of tenants who may live in such a section, or attending to other matters of common interest, a service entitling them to the enjoyment of rent? Some of this activity or attention is needed only when the land is used for residential purposes, and perhaps might be given, under some arrangement for a percentage consent in favor of new residents, by tenants instead of by landowners as such, or, as is sometimes the case in a limited degree, by municipal ordinance. The desired protection of tenants in the matter of neighbors is but inadequately given when even two or three landlords, by departing from a general understanding, choose, for a profit, to admit undesirables as tenants or purchasers. Municipal protection might not, in a democratic community, be much better, but it probably would not be much worse. At any rate, any service of this sort yielded by landowners does not entitle them to more than a very small fraction of the annual rent of the land. To say that it is worth all the rent in every case is to say that it is worth much more in a metropolis than in a small town. And to say that all the rent is earned by such service is to say that the cost and trouble of rendering the service so offsets the rent as to make the value of the land (the amount that a purchaser would pay for the future enjoyment of the rent) zero.

Another view is that the rent of land, instead of being, aside from interest on special assessments, altogether an unearned income, is partly a compensation for risk and a stimulus to seek out and bring into use desirable locations. In such a view, it might be argued that the real estate dealers who develop a new section of a city or a city suburb for residential purposes risk getting but an inadequate return; or the capital put into improvements may be, if the new section proves to be wholly unpopular, entirely lost. Must there be a chance for a corresponding gain of the so-called unearned-increment variety in order that the improvements desired shall be made?[11] And if the possibility of surplus gain needs to be kept open to the land speculator, must this gain include all the rental value of the land for all future time? Is the fact that a given speculator foresaw, earlier than others, the possibility of developing certain sites, and thus hastened the flow of business or population to them, a reason why later generations of business people or of residents to whom the early bringing into use of the land is no advantage, should have to pay him for the privilege of working or living on it? Of what service is such earlier development to these later generations, that they should have to pay an extra rent for the space used, in order to compensate for an early risk of loss, landowners or the descendants of landowners who took risk by, possibly, premature building in a new section? So long as this section is now built up and available for business or residence, its having been built long before their use of it is probably of no advantage to present users. If these present users must pay more in consequence of such early development, the landowner is presumably receiving payment from persons to whom neither he nor his predecessors have, as landowners, rendered a corresponding service.

In the case of inventions and patents, we limit the time during which the inventor is to enjoy a special .profit on his idea, our philosophy being - partly, at least - that after a few years the general progress of knowledge would be likely to bring the essential idea involved to someone else or to several, and that the general public or that part of the public using the invention cannot be regarded as perpetually indebted to the patentee. May not the discovering of, and the calling of the community's attention to, the value of new sites (and likewise of new mines, etc.) be a service of this limited kind? Can it be supposed that the residents of a city would forever, and despite increase of numbers, be indifferent to the advantages of living in "Hillcrest," "Riverview," "Countryside," or "Eastville"? For how many generations must the public pay the descendants of, or the purchasers of land from, those who first emphasized or advertised the advantages of these sections for the service of thus advertising them? It is, indeed, quite possible that the land speculators who first, by their advertising, induced population to move into a new section, have sometimes performed a disservice rather than a service, by unduly hastening a movement which would have normally come somewhat later.

Another point sometimes emphasized in the case of patents is that a limited period of special profit is enough to induce the invention and its exploitation. It is unnecessary, therefore, to make the public pay this excess profit forever. May not the same conclusion apply in the case of the service of landowners in calling attention to the advantages of special sites?

A parallel argument applies in the case of mines, oil wells and power sites. It is unreasonable to suppose either that resources of these sorts would never be discovered except by the individuals who first happen upon them, or that it is necessary, in order to get them discovered and used, to grant the discoverers the entire rental value of them so long as they are used.

Even if we should decide that this particular kind of service was of no value and that we did not wish population or business location to be affected by the activities of land speculators, and even if, therefore, we allowed no part of the rental value of land to go into private hands to pay for such services, there would need to be no fear that houses and other structures would not be built. Obviously, a certain intensity of demand and willingness to pay rent for houses, etc., on the part of tenants, would yield a sufficient average return on the cost of building to make investors willing to take the risk of building in places where there was reasonable probability of the use of the houses, and this without any prospect of realization of situation rent as an offset to possibilities of loss.

While we are on this general topic, one point should be particularly emphasized, viz., that foresight, purely as such, deserves nothing whatever. The man who, foreseeing a rise in certain land values from a probable increase in, or shift of, population, puts himself in a strategic position to profit by it, is not thereby rendering any service to those from whom he derives return. Foresight used to give a service may earn remuneration. Foresight used to get something for nothing seems hardly deserving of any special protection.


The Increment of Land Values in Relation to the Settlement of the American West


The expectation of an increase of land values, considered as an inducement to bringing new land into use, has sometimes been brought up in connection with the settlement of the West. It has been asserted, for example, that the lure of the "unearned increment" was instrumental in inducing the settlement of the West.[12] It has also been argued, in the same connection, that the stimulus to settlement of the West and its earlier settlement because of this prospect of an increasing value of the land, benefited not only the settlers, but also those who remained East, and that, therefore, the unearned increment was "diffused" throughout the country.[13] Many have doubtless drawn from this contention the conclusion that the descendants of the early settlers in the West are clearly entitled to any increase that may have come to the value of their land, even when cities have grown up on or near it and their descendants have been able to retire and live as landed aristocrats, leaving to others not so fortunate the occupation of agriculture in which their fathers were wont to engage. The argument regarding the diffusion of the increment is based upon the belief that the prospect of rising land values, by inducing a movement of the labor supply westward and its settlement upon the farms, prevented the labor congestion in the East, in the cities, and even in the agricultural West from being as great as it might otherwise have become. Hence, it can be argued, the settlement of the West prevented the (marginal) product of labor from being so small and wages from being so low, in the East and elsewhere, as might otherwise have been the case.

But may we not, in some degree, question the conclusion that an unearned increment, or any substantial amount of it, was necessary to get the West settled? After all, relatively few of the settlers were fortunate enough to take up land which afterward became part of the sites of cities and it is probable that most of them did not seriously expect such fortune. May we not conclude that, for the most part, they might have been willing, for the possibility of enjoying homes where the (marginal) product of their labor gave promise of being high to go and take up new land even though the value of the bare land, as such, could not be expected greatly to increase? It is those who, thus, did not greatly profit from rising land values, whose sons and grandsons are now, presumably, working farmers and not landed gentry.

But if, as some economists assert, the prospect of an increasing land value was an essential part of the invitation of the West, then the question arises whether settlement was hastened, to the temporary economic loss of those who went first and to the later loss (through rent payments) of those who followed, and whether a more gradual spreading of population westward, when a real need rather than an artificial inducement began to operate, would not have been economically better.[14]

As to the question whether the early comers or their descendants are entitled to rent compensation for being earliest because of any service that they thus rendered, we must bear in mind that any such compensation, under our present land system, does not come from those easterners whose wages are conceivably higher because of the drawing off of surplus population to the West. Nor will it probably come, for the most part, from wage earners in the West whose wages have been made higher by the movement to the land so stimulated by the prospect of securing a profit from its appreciation. Under the present land system, the rental compensation to wealthy western landowners comes from people living in the West, and mostly from people who came a little too late to get land for themselves, or, in some cases, from people who had other ambitions. It is these people whose coming and whose demand for the use of the land bid up land rents. To them, as persons who have come to be inhabitants of the West, any artificially induced scarcity of labor in the East is no longer - if, perchance, it once was - an advantage. Their wages are not higher, but are perhaps lower, in the long run, than if the West were less completely settled. For the (marginal) product of western labor, if not less, is almost certainly not greater. The old alternative of taking up new and good land is gone. Of course, so long as there was still other new and good land to be had, even western wages must have been kept up by the rush of labor to this land, but this would not continue to be the case as the land filled up and as the available free land became progressively poorer.[15]

In what sense, then, and how far, were the benefits of rising land values diffused? Was it in such a sense that the descendants of those who did not take up land must, in justice, pay the descendants of those who did, for the privilege of living and working on it? Are the descendants of those who did not acquire the land to be regarded as having so gained from the possibly slightly larger labor incomes of their grandfathers, or to have so lent their moral sanction to the system, as to be under obligation not to change it, even where cities have grown up and have made land which was worth its hundreds of dollars now worth millions? Is it their social duty to go on paying indefinitely for the use of land which would be equally available and which would be about equally desirable if any individual owner to whom or to whose descendants the payments for its use are made had never lived? Or can society in general be regarded as having ever even impliedly pledged itself that the increase in land values resulting from social growth should go entirely to individuals and should not be subject to any considerable taxation by states or cities?

Is it not, indeed, clear that we are very definitely maintaining a land system which makes part of the public pay large sums annually to the rest of the public for no service that the recipients of these sums, or their ancestors, or any other landowners as such have ever rendered to the persons from whom their rental incomes are derived? Why are those who thus pay without getting, under an obligation to maintain the system and to continue paying through all future time? Must countless generations of the disinherited be held under obligation to pay for a somewhat problematical "diffusion" benefiting some of their ancestors, a diffusion from which most of the descendants of those who may thus have somewhat benefited have very likely realized nothing whatever? We do not allow the creditors of a father to require payment for the father's debts from the labor income of a son, however much the father may have gained - in his lifetime - by his borrowing, nor do we insist on "compensation" to a creditor who is therefore unable to recover. We adhere to this policy because we do not consider it socially desirable to make one class partially the slaves of another class, to compel them to spend part of their time working for that other class without return from the latter, even though the latter class may conceivably have rendered a real service to the ancestors of the class that pays. May it not be as much contrary to good public policy to recognize any implied contract by which, as an offset to the possibly temporarily larger incomes of one class, the descendants of that class have to pay others for the use of the earth? Is not the recognition of any such implied contract equivalent to recognizing the right of men to sell their children or their grandchildren into slavery? We would not recognize the latter right, in our society, directly and avowedly, even if the children were sold to get food to save their lives. Must we recognize the former? It is true that, in the case of land rent, we associate the payment made with a material thing, the land, but are we not, nevertheless, in essence, dealing with a payment for which no service is rendered?

If it is said that the western homesteaders sometimes had to fight the Indians, it can also be said that they frequently and largely received protection from the United States army paid for out of the general tax fund; and it may well be that men who served in the army and gave such protection, or men who contributed in taxes to maintain it, afterward came to have to pay, for the use of land, persons so protected. It is to be questioned whether any service of the pioneers, still less of the droves of later settlers, who followed them while the land was still cheap, was so important and far-reaching that the descendants of the more fortunate ones can be held to have acquired a right to receive tribute for all future time because of this service, and that the millions of dollars of situation rent in the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco really all represent legitimate payment from later comers and their descendants for the equivalent services to these later comers and their descendants, of those who chose to come first. Surely, one who holds this needs take but a short step farther to prove that the whole idea of the unearned increment is a myth, or the product of diseased imagination, and that, really, anything that anyone gets is earned by equivalent service to the one who pays it.

A qualification of society's right to land rent should be made in the case of a country the population of which has increased or is increasing beyond the point of maximum per capita production. In such a country there may be many families who have each enough land for the most efficient application of their own labor and for comfortable subsistence and who, by limitation of offspring, are preventing the undue subdivision of such land into small plots - who are doing their share in keeping up the general level of comfort by trying to prevent too great an increase of population in relation to available land. If the rest of the nation multiplies quite without regard to natural resources or land space and so forces down the wages of labor production, society's right to land space will scarcely justify re-dividing the land equally, thus directly depriving the families which have kept down their numbers of the standard of comfort which would naturally result from their low birth-rate. Nor will this right of society justify a system of taxation of rental values which indirectly accomplishes the same result. For it should be clear that if the land so held by individual families comes to be more valuable, not by virtue of its yielding more, but solely because pressure of population increases the demand for it, then to take all of the greater annual value in taxation may leave less to the owners than they could previously fairly earn. To express differently the same thought: if the policy of state appropriation of land rent is consistently applied, so that individuals get only the earnings of their other capital and the wages of their labor (employed or self-directed), then an increase of population which lowers the productiveness of labor will not only enable the state to collect more than previously from individual landowners, but will leave less to them as individuals and families than before. Such an increase of population will then leave less than before even to those families which are in no way responsible for the population increase from which flows their new family poverty. For this reason, - viz., because it would remove a stimulus to desirable limitation of offspring, because it would penalize the far-seeing, because it would give to families whose ideals tend toward universal misery the inheritance of those families whose self-imposed limitation of numbers certainly does not decrease the amount of land available for the rest of society and whose ideals, if generally adhered to, would bring universal plenty - such an appropriation of all rental values of land might not be a desirable social policy. Part of the rental value of land, even of agricultural land held by actual cultivators, may fairly be taken, but not, in crowded countries, all.

However, in practice the increase of land values is usually in large part an increase in the value of special sections of land which growth of population causes to become more advantageously situated in one or more ways. As the country grows, certain places come to have new and special advantages as market centers, as ports, etc., and thus acquire an increased rental value not dependent on a lowering of the margin of production. Increase of population in a fertile, unsettled plain, containing a great deal of land of approximately the same fertility, might not for many years lower the marginal product of labor. To be sure the later settlers might have to go farther, but the more distant points would be no more isolated than the first-taken land was at an earlier date, and the extension of roads and railroads might make them less so. Rent would rise, not because the margin has become lower, but because the situation of a part of the land relatively to markets, population centers, etc., has become better. Still more clearly does this fact stand out when at some point on the plain a city develops, called into existence by the increasing number of those whom its merchants, artisans, et al., can effectively serve. Its growth is, possibly, an advantage even to the owners of marginal land, but confers a special advantage on those whose near-by location enables them to reap exceptional profit from supplying the city needs as to produce. The growth of the city confers a still greater advantage on those whose land comes to have value for distinctly urban uses. The occasional settler who or whose descendant finds that his land is in the center of a thriving city may become a millionaire as a consequence of conditions to which his own contribution was negligible if anything at all. In this case and, in general, in a country like the United States, land rent has probably grown much more largely by the increase of the possibilities of special, often supra-marginal, land, thus creating a differential between it and marginal land, than by forcing cultivation to a lower margin. Hence, any desire that we may feel to protect small landholders who limit their families from being made to suffer through the general increase of population, need not prevent us from taking, in taxation, most of the rental value of land, including that of mines and power sites, and nearly all of the rental value flowing from its situation of city land.


The Bearing of the Contention that there may be Other Unearned Incomes Not Especially Associated with Land


It has sometimes been pointed out, by way of objection to the single-tax proposal, that land rent is not the only income which is of the nature of an unearned differential. Sometimes the incomes of genius in excess of what persons of ordinary ability can secure are presented as an analogous case. Whatever may be, in some respects, the degree of likeness, the two cases certainly are not alike in all respects. Thus, it may not be equally possible to tax largely and successfully the incomes resulting from the exercise of genius, as to tax land rent, for, in the case of the large incomes of the exceptionally gifted, the attempt to tax them heavily might conceivably discourage effort and cause the former recipients of these incomes to be satisfied with smaller - and, therefore, untaxed - returns. Taxation of the rental value of land, however, if based upon such general considerations as the evident yield of neighboring sites and the apparent market value of the land to be taxed, i. e., if the tax is not made larger because an efficient producer or business man gets more from his land than others could get, would probably in no wise affect the owner's choice of uses for the land or his intensity of use of it or the efficiency of his use of it. Having a tax to pay which was independent of his efficiency, he would be just as eager to earn the maximum income out of which to pay the tax as he would be to earn the maximum income if he were not taxed.

Indeed, the levying of a tax upon the potential situation rent of land, whether actually received or not, would discourage the speculative holding of land out of use and so would operate to prevent the forcing up of rent by any scarcity of available land induced by such speculative holding.

Economists whose class sympathy (of the influence of which they are not always conscious) or whose training by their former teachers, incapacitates them for seeing any distinction between land and capital and predisposes them to accept superficial resemblances as a conclusive defense, are fond of saying that other values than land values are enhanced by social forces. It is true enough that dress suits are likely to have less salable value in the Ozark Mountains than in the centers of wealth and fashion and that a twenty-story office building is worth more in New York City than in a country village. Nevertheless, cases of monopoly excepted, it can hardly be denied that, year in and year out, produced goods cannot be sold anywhere for much more or much less than the cost of producing them in the places where they are to be sold. An occasional dress suit may have to be sold at a sacrifice in the Ozarks, and a building too large for the needs to be met may prove to have been a mistaken investment in the country village. But as a general rule dress suits will not be produced in or transported to the Ozarks except as the anticipated price covers costs, nor will skyscrapers be regularly built to sell for less than a return which seems reasonable in relation to building expenses. And, on the other hand, where competition is active and is carried on fairly, the prices of goods which have to be humanly produced cannot go much above costs. Even making all possible qualifications for cases of obsolescence and for changing conditions of production, can anyone say that cost is really an element of corresponding significance in the case of land rent?

Again, it may be said that there is possible no large remuneration, in a sparsely settled primitive community, for the person gifted with an exceptional voice or other highly specialized talent. But neither is so large a service possible in return for the remuneration. When such remuneration is received it is in return for an equivalent service rendered by the person who receives it, and this is not the case with the situation rent of land. May not considerations of eugenics as well as of efficiency in service, apply differently to the proposition to tax such incomes than to the proposition to tax land rent?

Furthermore, some of the incomes which are often thought of as unearned are chance gains so offset by corresponding deficiencies of incomes at other times, as to mean no average loss to the public. If the failure of the Argentine wheat crop may unexpectedly give to American farmers, grain dealers and millers a higher return than was contemplated when they made their expenditures for seed, labor or grain; so, also, an unexpectedly large crop of wheat in Argentina, Canada, or elsewhere, may compel the same persons to accept prices which fall far short of compensating them for the expenditures and effort undergone. The general public is likely to gain in the latter case as much as it loses in the former. But the general public never gains from an unexpected fall in the rental value of land except in the sense that the public is then less exploited than before. It continues to be exploited, though in a smaller degree. There is little point to an attempt at equating continuous exploitation varying in degree, with occasional excess pay for service which is likely at other times to be underpaid. It will be worth while, here, to emphasize the fact that land rent involves exploitation when the land is used in socially desirable ways as well as when it is used anti-socially. In the latter case, payment is made for a disservice. But even in the former case payment is made for a zero service or for a service less than equivalent to the rent. Where wages of labor, interest on capital or rent on land are secured by activities or by uses of property which definitely injure the general well-being, which are anti-social, these activities or uses should be prohibited rather than that men should be allowed thus to secure wealth which society afterwards taxes. When a business concern by means of unfair competition, e. g., by misrepresentation of competitors' goods or by securing discriminating rates on the railroads, succeeds in getting extra profits which its rivals do not get, or, being able to undersell the rivals discriminated against, gets business which would otherwise go to them, we have .a clear case of unearned income resulting from anti-social activity. Success is made to depend, not on superior service, not on superior efficiency in economizing labor, but on the ability to exclude rivals from the market even if, as may well happen, these rivals are much more efficient in the proper business of both or all. The public cannot afford to let the principle become established that success and wealth may be gained by such methods. In the long run, consumers must expect to suffer unless competition of this sort is effectively forbidden. So, too, in the case of monopoly, which gives more than an ordinary return to effort or to the users of capital or land, it is the consumers of the monopolized article or articles who are entitled to relief since it is they alone who are exploited.[17] In general, industrial free-booting should be stamped out, so far as this is possible. But for unearned income in the form of land rent, purely as such, the tax method is adequate and is the logical method of correction.

Again, even if there are - as there may be - other increments than situation rent which are equally unearned, it does not follow that the heavier taxation of land values should be deferred until such time as a general agreement is reached regarding such other increments. It may suit the views of reactionaries to have us use the claim that many and complicated reforms are needed, as a reason for delaying one the justice and desirability of which are reasonably evident, but that kind of attitude should scarcely suit anybody else.


The Taxation of Future Increments of Value


Hesitating to accept the more radical proposal of Henry George in favor of sweeping into the public treasuries situation rent both new and old, some writers have contented themselves with advocating the public taxation and use of future increases in the rental value of land.[18] This advocacy, they seem to have felt, frees them from the necessity of urging anything that looks like confiscation. But there are reasons for thinking that if the more radical proposal involves confiscation, the other does also, though it may be less in degree; and it is doubtful if the more moderate plan can be successfully defended without raising a presumption that the more far-reaching scheme has also something in its favor.

To the proposal that only future increases in rental value be taken by the state, it has been answered that to take future increases without compensating landowners in the case of future decreases in the value of their land unfairly deprives them of the chance of gain while still leaving them the risk of loss. In the words of F. A. Walker, "the game of 'heads I win, tails you lose' is not one in which the state can, in fairness and decency, play a part."[19] If one believes that the present rental yield of land, as well as future increases of this yield, should not go to the private owner, this contention will not disturb him. Otherwise it may seem to be convincing.

There still remains the argument, however, that, in a growing country, increases are frequent and decreases rare and that, therefore, no large injustice would be done by the scheme. But what if the opposition contends, as it plausibly may, that the present owners of land have, in many cases, bought it at prices which they were willing to pay only because of the prospect of future increases? The opposition may contend, in other words, that expected future yields have been discounted into the present price of the land, and that, therefore, to tax heavily these future yields will deprive such purchasers of an income they paid to receive, and will depreciate the value of their land below the price at which they bought it. Some increases, to be sure, may come as unforeseen luck, but many must be, at least in part, anticipated. Is a tax on such increases any less "confiscation," so far as the capitalized value of land is concerned, than would be a moderate increase in tax which would take away a part of the constant annual rent of a piece of land bought with no expectation of a rise, but bought in the belief that its owner would be left undisturbed in the enjoyment of the entire rent?

Without now pursuing this comparison further, we may note that a doctrine according to which the public has no right to take by taxation future increases in land values, increases not earned by any service rendered by the landowners, must, logically, be opposed to other governmental policies of which most of us are in favor. Such a doctrine would mean, for instance, that the purchaser of stock in a company which contemplated - or the purchaser of whose stock foresaw the likelihood of its undertaking - selling out to, or becoming part of, a monopoly and so securing monopoly profits, since such purchaser paid more for his stock because of this expectation, must be allowed to enjoy these monopoly profits, or, if they are taken away from him, must be compensated. Has the purchaser of stock under circumstances of this kind any such claim even if the policy of limiting monopoly profits is one which was not previously in force but was adopted after he purchased the stock?


Land-Value Taxation in Relation to the Theory of Vested Rights


The principal objection actually felt, if not the one chiefly emphasized by opponents of land-value taxation, is an objection based upon respect for vested rights, viz., that such a scheme of taxation would take away from the owners of land a large part of the capitalized value of their property by making it impossible for them to enjoy from it the expected future income. If a piece of land yielding $1,000 per year is valued on a 5 per cent, basis, its selling price would be $20,000. To take $200 a year would mean, since a tax on land rent cannot be shifted, that the selling price of the land must fall to $16,000. Hence, it is said, since such taxation takes from the owner a fifth of the value of his property, it is confiscation and a denial of vested rights. Of course what we definitely take is a fifth of the yearly income, but since the value is dependent upon the income the establishment of such a tax as a permanent part of the tax system in effect takes one-fifth of the capital. But how is it if through indirect taxation we take $100 a year from the family of a workingman whose annual income is $50G If the man's expectation of life is thirty years, would not the capitalized value of his income be well in the thousands of dollars, supposing it to be salable? And would not this capitalized value be reduced one-fifth by a tax of $100 per year if such a tax were adopted as a permanent part of the tax system? To be sure, workmen are not in the habit of thus capitalizing and selling the right to their future incomes, but is the injury to them from a tax any the less for that, or the fundamental nature of the problem essentially different? If a need of increased revenues were thus met, there might be sympathy expressed for the working classes and objection to the tax as an undue hardship upon them, but the word "confiscation" or the expression "vested rights" probably would not be used. No complaint would be made that the fundamental rights of property were being invaded or that society had violated any implied pledge.

It seems to be this last notion, that of an implied pledge or sanction given by society, which makes many thinkers regard so askance any proposal for radical changes. .We must not take rent in taxation because the enjoyment of it is a vested right. "Society" has allowed individuals to appropriate nearly all of rent in the past and various persons have bought land, relying upon the continuance of the system. Hence the private enjoyment of land rent must always be allowed unless compensation is paid by the dispossessed to the possessors.

If we are perfectly frank in our adoption of this vested-rights argument as a reason for refusing to take from those enjoying them incomes not earned by service given to those who pay them, we shall have to admit very frankly that several types of incomes ordinarily objected to by economists must be continued indefinitely. Thus, in consistency, we must protest against any regulation of monopoly which will do away with the monopoly prices on which any monopolists had counted, and particularly so if the monopolists have bought stock at a higher price because of the expectation of monopoly profit. "Society" has permitted this profit in the past, has lent its "sanction" to it, has allowed people to buy stock in the expectation of realizing an exceptional profit. May society, therefore, by its regulations cut down this profit? Must it not pay the monopoly prices indefinitely or else compensate the monopolists by paying them in advance the capitalized value of their expected future monopoly profits?

So, again, if we would be perfectly consistent, we must not remove the protective tariff on goods when those who have invested in the companies producing such goods have paid more for their stock than they would otherwise, in the expectation of deriving protected profits. In other words, since, largely through the influence of those engaged in protected industries, the policy of protection has been maintained for a limited number of years, society at large owes such industries a continuance of favor. In still other words - for this is the inescapable implication -those who wish to consume the protected goods may properly be required to pay for these goods an excess price, a price above the real value of the service given. In this view of the case, the taxed class, being part of society, has some sort of responsibility for what society has done, even for what the class that profits by protection has influenced society to do, and has no right suddenly to refuse longer to pay tribute to the protected class.

The foregoing is a view which the writer cannot bring himself to accept. Society is under no obligation nor is any class in society under an obligation to pay tribute to any person or group of persons for all future time. Still less is a class which, while another class has controlled government, has been exploited, under obligation to continue to let itself be exploited if and when it is able to get into the saddle. Society as such has given no pledge, and is not in a position to give a pledge, that its policy will not change. Those who buy stock in a monopoly or invest their money in a protected industry must be held to have done so, not under any guaranty of permanence, but at their own risk, knowing it to be the right of the rest of society to cease paying the excess prices and adopt a new policy at any time.

How does the matter stand in the case of land values? Must not purchasers of land be presumed to have purchased in the knowledge that rates of taxation might be changed and that government might discriminate, for purposes of taxation, among different kinds of property as it often has done among different commodities? Is it correct to think of land-value taxation primarily as a system of taxation that infringes on vested rights by taking something away from landowners? Is it not more enlightening to call to mind that, indeed, the rest of society is continually (weekly, monthly, or annually)[xx] paying tribute to the owners of land, tribute for which neither these owners nor any previous owners as such have ever rendered a return to those who thus pay them? When we say that for the public to take in taxation most of the rental value of land would be to confiscate the "property" of those who had previously enjoyed this rent, do we not express the fact the wrong way about? Would it not be nearer the truth to say that the rest of society simply refuses longer to have its earnings confiscated by the landowning class? Does the situation value of land, the value apart from improvements, represent anything else but the estimate, in a present valuation, of the future tribute, the future payments without corresponding services, which the owners are in a position to get from others? Are not the masses paying a perpetual tax to the owners of land for the privilege of living upon, and making use of, sites which were neither produced nor rendered valuable by the owners? Suppose the masses who are thus paying tribute without receiving either labor services or more capital equipment for production than would otherwise be available, or indeed anything else worth the price, simply decide to stop paying this tribute! Would their doing this be confiscatory? And must they, if they are to cease paying, compensate the landowners by giving to the latter interest-bearing bonds worth as much as the land, and payable finally, as to interest and principal, by the same persons who now pay rent? Is this not equivalent to saying, not only that those who are slaves in the sense that they devote much of their labor to the support of a parasitic class cannot be freed without provision for compensating the parasitic class, but also that the compensation must be provided by the slaves? Could we reasonably expect the slaves, once they were in the saddle politically and thoroughly understood the matter, to take this view of it?

As an analogy to the payment of tribute for the use of land to persons who are in no way responsible for its existence, let us suppose that an ancient king or a small ruling caste has somewhere given to a favorite or to someone of political influence the negotiable privilege of collecting each year a certain amount of the taxes and turning them to his own use. The favorite later sells his "right" to another for a large sum of money which that other had honestly earned by hard and faithful work at a useful task. Some time after this second arrangement is made, the taxed class overthrows the power of the king or aristocracy and establishes itself in power. Must this class go on contributing the tax because the would-be recipient paid to get it, notwithstanding he paid nothing to those whom he now expects to pay him? And if they refuse, using the money in question instead as part of their general tax fund for common purposes, are they guilty of an immoral act? Must not the would-be collector of tax money be assumed to have made his purchase subject to the condition that society could in its own good time make such changes as its members might see fit? And if the remainder of society came to believe that, in the long run, the greatest good to the greatest number would be attained by establishing a system in which, in general, each should profit according as he served, and in which, except as some special social reason justified the apparent exception, no one might receive tribute from those he did not serve, would not society have, a moral right to establish such a system?

The truth is that few of those who advocate large taxation of land values, even of the single-taxers, urge any but a gradual change in the rate of taxation of land. A sudden break with the past is not sought for. Nor, if it were, would there be any serious likelihood of its coming. Though we may work for the change with ardor, it will probably come through compromises and little by little. But even if the tax change, as such, were suddenly made, its being preceded by a long period of agitation and of growth of the land rent taxation sentiment would forewarn landowners and operate to ease the transition for those who were likely to lose by it. Indeed, it is not unlikely that by the time such a change goes into effect - if it finally does go into effect - many landowners will have come into possession of their land more or less expecting the change and will have allowed for it in the price offered for the land they have purchased.

Again, even if, here and there, a town or city increases rapidly the amount of tax it puts upon land, this may not, while the new system is not general, cause very considerable loss to landlords. For it will be likely to mean that in those cities business and individuals are relieved of other taxation which elsewhere they have to meet, and the policy will, therefore, probably cause those towns to be more rapidly settled (by the drawing of population away from other towns) and land rents in them to go up.[21] This is a result which would not be brought about if the equally rapid increase of land-value taxation in other places kept the balance.[22]

Furthermore, even if the tax were generally applied, no great loss would fall on small landowners who have improved their land and who themselves live on it, persons who own their own homes and little else,[23] and many such would clearly gain. But to persons owning land and buildings which are used by others or for the production of goods to be sold to others, a tax on land rent might eventually involve a considerably heavier burden, since such a tax clearly cannot be shifted (if general), while the tax on buildings very possibly can be, at least to some extent.[24]

The removal of taxation from all capital and its concentration on land values would of course involve an increased burden to those whose property was chiefly in land values. But the immediate loss to the person who owned both land and capital would be minimized by the fact that he would be enjoying relief from taxation on his capital[25] (the interest from which, if the capital was itself earned and was being used in socially advantageous ways, would be earned), at the same time that he was being made to pay heavier taxes on his land (the situation rent of which was principally unearned). In the end, the removal of taxation on capital would presumably reduce interest rates if the leaving of larger net returns to owners of capital operated to encourage capital accumulation. But for some time the average property owner would probably be largely compensated in his greater net interest on capital, for the reduction by taxation of his net rent on land.

In truth, when all is said regarding confiscation, we must recall that government cannot possibly raise revenue without taking something from somebody. And if we have to choose between taking an unearned income already being collected by part of us from the rest of us, or allowing part of us to enjoy such an unearned income and taking something more, in taxes for common purposes, from the rest of us, the choice should not be difficult.

To be relieved of the burden of supporting social parasites by rent payments while at the same time supporting government out of taxes, and instead to let the rent serve also as the taxes, would mean a clear and large net gain to the classes previously exploited. Yet many of the exploited, understanding little, what is happening, and failing to distinguish between property incomes based on service and property incomes purely exploitive, prate pseudo-learnedly of surplus value, the class struggle, and the prospective evolution from capitalism to socialism. Eternal children in their comprehension of the working of economic forces, unwilling, for the most part, carefully to examine any other economic philosophy than their own, the majority of socialists are ready to follow the Marxian doctrines wherever they may lead, as the dancing feet of the care-free children of Hamelin followed into the dark mountain-side the enrapturing music of the Pied Piper. The socialistic theory in outline is simple. To the mind unused to analysis it seems to be both a comprehensive and a conclusive account of the nature of exploitation. But its doctrine regarding the nature of interest on capital is utterly fallacious [26] and the prospect that its program could be put into effect and made to work is exceedingly dubious.[27] The classes which profit by privilege, are, in their understanding of economic and social phenomena, but little superior to the exploited masses. Were this not the case, and were there not the fear of Bolshevist violence, we might well expect them to be exultant at the relative strength of socialism among reform movements. For socialism almost hopelessly diverts the minds of those who might be the principal protestants against the receipt of unearned incomes into an indiscriminate opposition to earned and unearned incomes alike. And it therefore serves to prevent recognition of facts the recognition of which by the masses might mean to those who hold economic power based on privilege rather than service, real danger of its loss. The one chief virtue which socialism, as currently preached, does have, is its insistence that evils exist, that present conditions are far from ideal and that the doctrines and propaganda of the privileged classes are not to be accepted as final truth.