Taxation According to "Ability to Pay":

What It Means and What Is Wrong with It

Harry Gunnison Brown

[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology,
Vol. 4, No. 4 (July, 1945), pp. 461-477]

WHEN IT IS PROPOSED that the annual rental value of land, geologically produced and community produced, be made the first source of public revenue, those who are implacably opposed to this reform present a variety of objections. Among these is the contention that such taxation would operate to the relief of the owners of capital, such as buildings, and to the relief of the recipients of large salaries, and that both classes "ought" to be required to pay appreciable -- even large -- sums in taxes.

Before discussing at length the major principles involved, it may properly be pointed out that to appropriate most of the rent of land to community needs does not necessarily mean the abolition of all other taxes. We can, therefore, combine with such heavy land-value taxation, if we want to, especially heavy taxes on the largest salaries, even though these are fairly earned by skill and hard work, and similar heavy taxes on the capital (or the income from it) of those who have a great deal of capital, regardless of how hard they may have worked to acquire it. We can use the revenue from an increased land-value tax, if we want to, for the purpose of lightening the tax burden only on the incomes of those who earn low wages (or "salaries"), on the capital of those who have but little capital and on commodities (e.g., cigarettes and goods subject to a general retail sales tax) which are bought in considerable degree by the comparatively poor.

Nevertheless, it is highly important to emphasize the fact that the economic philosophy of these objectors is altogether different from that of advocates of the public appropriation, by increased taxes, of land and site rent. These objectors to the land-value tax program are little interested -- indeed, one is inclined to believe that most of them are not at all interested -- in the source from which the taxpayer's income is derived. They are much more concerned with taxing heavily large incomes, however fully and fairly earned by service given to those from whom the incomes, in the last analysis, are received than they are concerned with taxing incomes which are not earned at all by any service rendered in return. That some should be able to derive incomes by charging others for permission to work on and live on the earth, in those locations where work is relatively effective and life relatively pleasant, does not especially disturb them. What disturbs them is, rather, that some persons have appreciably larger incomes than other persons. And this appears to disturb them just as much when such larger incomes are received in return for equivalent service rendered as when they are purely exploitative.

PERHAPS IT WILL HELP to bring home to the reader the principle involved in this controversy if we suppose a country where there is private ownership of seas, rivers, lakes and air and where, therefore, a large part of the people have to pay rent to the owners of such "property" for the permission of the latter to transport goods on-and to row, fish or swim in -- the seas, rivers and lakes and to breathe the air. Suppose, then, an effort to bring it about that the rents paid to use seas, rivers, lakes and air -- which the "owners" never themselves brought into existence-should be the first source of public revenue and, therefore, used for the benefit of all. Immediately it is objected that this arrangement might relieve of taxation some persons whose incomes, though fully earned by the rendering of equivalent service in return, may nevertheless be larger than the incomes received by some of the poorer owners of sections of seas, lakes or rivers or some of the owners of small amounts of the country's air or some not very prosperous owners of very small lakes!

Such concern over the inequality of income resulting from inequality of contribution, together with comparative indifference to the problem of exploitation, is nearly identical with the attitude of those who urge charity to aid the poor but have no interest in justice. If, having understanding minds as well as sympathetic hearts, we were willing really to establish substantial justice -- in the sense that incomes were received henceforth for services rendered and not through chicanery, monopoly, slavery or charging men for permission to use the earth-there would certainly be much less need for charity.

Those who express such great concern lest sizable earned incomes be somewhat relieved of taxation by making the rent of land a first source of public revenue are probably, in general, adherents of the "ability theory" of taxation. They believe that taxes "ought" to be levied on a basis of "ability to pay."

The idea of basing taxes on ability to pay grows out of the fact that a dollar has less significance to a person who has many dollars than to one who has few. To a person whose income is already large an additional dollar means only the ability to buy some inconsequential luxury. In the case of a person whose income is very small, on the other hand, the lack of a single dollar of it may mean deprivation of sufficient food, clothing or other necessity. The contention is made, therefore, that taxes on the larger incomes involve less "sacrifice" from the taxpayer than taxes of similar amounts on the smaller incomes and that taxes on the larger incomes should be greater.

But how much greater? So far, the notion that taxes should be based on "ability to pay" is vague. How much more "ability to pay" goes with a $50,000 income than with a $2,000 income?

Here we need to consider two somewhat divergent branches of the "ability" idea. One is that taxes "ought" to be so levied as to impose "equal sacrifice" on the different taxpayers. The other is that taxes should be so levied as to impose the least aggregate or total sacrifice.

Individuals differ in needs, tastes and desires, and so we cannot be certain that two persons of equal incomes will be undergoing equal sacrifice if they are equally taxed. However, it is evidently assumed by those who hold the "equal sacrifice" philosophy that for practical purposes we are not to bother with individual tastes and habits but only with differences of income and of relatively necessary expense (such as the expense imposed by dependents). Then, presumably, a rough guess would be made regarding "equality" of sacrifice. Such a guess might be, for example, that an annual tax contribution of $15,000 from a person with a $50,000 income involves a sacrifice "equal to" that imposed on the recipient of a $2,000 income by an annual tax of $10! But the question inevitably obtrudes itself whether any- one, anywhere, at any time, has worked out or could possibly work out cogent evidence to show what would be "equality" of sacrifice. Might it possibly be the case that the phrase "equality and sacrifice" is just a slogan used to persuade an unanalytical public to accept the policy of those who use the expression?

But why should we want taxes levied so as to make the "sacrifice" of different taxpayers precisely equal? Is the word "equal," in this connection, anything more than a euphemism? Why not claim that the amount contributed by different taxpayers should be "equal"? Or that each should contribute an "equal" per cent? Is there any reason from the point of view of logic, ethics or the welfare of the social group why the thing to be made "equal" in the case of different taxpayers should be their "sacrifice"? Indeed, why not make the "sacrifice" very unequal in order that the magic word "equal" may be applied to the net income remaining to taxpayers after tax contributions are subtracted? Is there, in short, any really convincing argument for having the word "equal" apply to sacrifice rather than to amount of tax contribution or per cent of income taken or amount of income left for individual spending, except that some economists intuitively feel that way about it? Are not some of our mentors, in fact, giving us a mumbo-jumbo economics?

If there is nevertheless some sort of case for taxing the larger incomes more heavily so that sacrifice between different taxpayers is "equal," may there not be a still more plausible case for so levying taxes as to produce the least possible aggregate sacrifice? In this view, if $15,000 has been taken in taxation from a $50,000 income and still more revenue is needed, whether $10 more or $100 more or even $32,000 more, this additional amount should still be taken from the $50,000 income before anything at all is taken from the $2,000 income. Indeed, even if $47,000 ($15,000 plus $32,000) has been taken in taxation from the $50,000 income, there still remains $3,000, and so a dollar still has less utility (or importance) to such a taxpayer than to the recipient of an annual income of $2,000. Therefore, if (say) another $900 is needed by government, there will be less sacrifice imposed in the aggregate if this, too, is taken from the $50,000 income, bringing the recipient's net income down to $2,100, than if it is taken from the $2,000 income. And likewise if still another $99 or even $100 is needed by government, less aggregate sacrifice will be imposed by taking it also from the larger income, reducing this to a net of $2,001 or $2,000, than by taking it from the smaller income of $2,000 and so reducing the smaller income to a net of only $1,901 or $1,900.

But what if the expenses of government do not require so much revenue and such high taxes as we have just been assuming? And what if, therefore, the recipients of the initially larger incomes still have more left, even though they pay all of the taxes, than have the recipients of smaller incomes?

The logical answer, from the point of view of one who favors taxation to impose least aggregate sacrifice, would be that, since additional wealth has greater utility to the recipients of the smaller incomes than to those whose incomes are large, i.e., since their need is greater, therefore government should increase its levy on the larger incomes and spend the resulting additional funds mostly in providing services gratis for the needy. In other words, the only logical stopping place for the advocate of taxation according to least aggregate sacrifice is the communistic terminus of equal incomes for all, -- or, perhaps, "from each according to his capacity, to each according to his need."

But any such scheme of taxation and public expenditure, it will be said, would largely weaken the motive to efficiency. If the more competent and efficient worker, who earns more by virtue of his superior efficiency, is to have all -- or even the major part -- of such additional earnings taken from him, is it equally likely that he will work thus efficiently? And is it equally likely that he will spend the time and effort to become thus competent? If the benefit of his extra effort is to flow, not to those of his own family, for whom his affection is presumably the strongest, but to the entire community in larger tax revenues, is it humanly likely that he will feel the same incentive to effort? If to undergo an extended period of training for a difficult profession is to add little or nothing to the trainee's income, can we be confident that men will be as eager as now to undergo such training? Under the direction of Nicolai Lenin, even the communistically- minded Russian Bolsheviks abandoned their earlier communistic ideal of equality of incomes and began to pay more to the skilled and efficient than to the inefficient, the unskilled and the untrained.

But to say all this is to admit that "ability" or "sacrifice" should, at most, not be our only basis for the apportionment of taxes. And we may find, as we go on with our inquiry, that not only the matter of incentive to efficiency but also other important considerations have been and constantly are being overlooked or ignored by the tax theorists who prate so earnestly of comparative "sacrifice" and of "ability to pay."


ONE CONSIDERATION which certainly ought not to be overlooked is the possible effect of taxation on saving and, therefore, on the available total of capital. Inadequate capital means less and poorer equipment for a country's working force. It means lower productiveness of labor. And so, other things equal, it means lower wages.

If capital is very heavily taxed or if the income which it yields is very heavily taxed, there is at least some basis for doubting whether the amount of saving and, therefore, the amount of capital equipment will not be less. Certainly this possibility should not be completely ignored in planning a system of public revenue. If those who save are allowed to gain but a tiny share of the extra wealth the capital they have saved makes possible, they may have less motive for saving. And certainly the ability to continue to save and to save increasing amounts, on the part of those who have acquired the habit of saving, is lessened by such a tax.

A variant of this idea that high taxes on capital or its income may decrease the amount of capital-in-general, is the idea that such taxes may make impossible the accumulation of "venture capital." In a recent article, "Capitalism in the Postwar World,"[1] Professor Joseph A. Schumpeter of Harvard University undertakes to present an analysis of the way in which certain forces, political and economic, threaten or may threaten the continuance of "capitalism." Among the influences he mentions is heavy taxation which largely absorbs the gains of enterprise and investment. In this connection he refers to "burdens which eliminate capitalist motivation and make it impossible to accumulate venture capital, with risks of borrowing greatly increased."[2] And in an appended footnote he goes on to say:

"High or highly progressive taxation of profits increases the risks of borrowing for purposes of long-run investment, because it absorbs profits the accumulation of which might be counted on to take care of subsequent losses."

Perhaps "capitalism" is thus threatened. The general property tax, levied locally, takes a large slice of the annual yield of capital for the use of local and, in a considerable part of the country, state government. The income taxes levied by the states and the federal government take a large proportionate part of the remaining income of those whose incomes are high in any given year. And the excess profits tax levied on the gains of business takes another considerable slice. Conceivably a continuance -- and, especially, a further increase -- of such taxes would end all possibility of relying on private saving for the construction of a fairly sufficient amount of capital equipment. Were such a condition to confront us, we should probably be told that the free private enterprise system was "incapable of meeting modern needs." The final result might be a more or less complete socialization and regimentation of industry.

But why do not writers like Schumpeter call attention to the fact that a tax taking all or most of the annual geologically-produced and community-produced rental value of land does not remove the motive to accumulate? Why do they not remind us that the more we take in taxation of this income which is not the product of individual work or efficiency or saving ("thrift"), the more can other taxes be reduced? Is it because the land question has been ignored so long in the economics courses of the colleges and universities that, in general, the economists trained in them are entirely unfamiliar with it and that, therefore, the idea of suggesting an increased tax on land values seldom even occurs to them!

There is another group or "school" of economists, active participants in recent discussions on the causation of business depression, who ought logically to oppose heavy taxation of capital and, it seems to me, to support, in place of it, high taxation of land values. These are the economists whose view it is that very low returns on capital conduce to business depression through causing men to hold idle, waiting for a more favorable conjuncture, funds they would otherwise lend or invest.4 Because of such hoarding, demand for goods and labor is reduced, business activity is retarded and workers are subjected to unemployment.

"The concept of Hoarding," says Lord Keynes,[5] who is generally considered to be the leader of this group or school of economists, "may be regarded as a first approximation to the concept of Liquidity-preference. Indeed, if we were to substitute 'propensity to hoard' for 'hoarding,' it would come to substantially the same thing."

To examine adequately here into the theory of business depression would take us too far afield from our main topic.[6] Indeed, even to discuss more in detail the distinctive position of this special school of economists, with its reference (for example) to the response of borrowers to the hoarding propensities (at low interest rates) of lenders, would be, I think, an unwarranted digression. Suffice it to say that if a very low rate of return on capital would be likely to conduce in any way either to initiate or to prolong business depression, then there is a further reason for abolishing-or at least appreciably reducing-taxation of capital and its income. For obviously the net return on capital to the owners of it is much less when capital is heavily taxed than if it were not taxed.

Owners of capital presumably receive, on the average, about what capital yields or produces (its "marginal" productivity) minus what government takes by way of taxation. The more government takes, the less remains to owners. If, therefore, there is anything at all in this theory lately so much publicized, viz., that very low rates of return to owners tend to hoarding and thus conduce to business depression, its protagonists should readily admit that removal or substantial reduction of taxes on capital and on its income would help to avoid depression. And they ought to admit with equal readiness that public appropriation of all or practically all of the annual rental value of land and sites would not reduce the net per cent return either on present capital or on the savings which become embodied in future capital. Furthermore, they might reasonably be expected to be more vocal than the majority of other economists in pointing out that to remove or, at least, greatly reduce taxes on capital and the income from it and, instead, to tax more heavily the geologically-produced and community-produced (location advantages) value of land, would leave the desired larger net per cent returns to savers and investors.[7] If they are not thus vocal, what can be the reason!

But even if we are unconvinced that hoarding induced by taxation of capital or its income, and a resulting low net return, has or could have any causal relation to business depression, and even if we refuse to admit that taxation of capital may tend to reduce saving and investment and thus involve a decreased total amount of capital, there is still the question of the effect such taxation may have in reducing the available amount of capital in a particular state or nation. For if in one jurisdiction or state, capital is very heavily taxed, whereas in another jurisdiction it is taxed less or not at all, investors will certainly prefer, with other conditions anything like equally favorable, to send their savings for investment into the jurisdiction where capital is not taxed or is taxed but lightly. (If necessary to avoid future taxation on the income from such investment, they may themselves move.) For investors, like other men, prefer more to less! Thus the people in the state or jurisdiction where capital is heavily taxed may come to be less well provided with the capital needed for effective production.

What sort of economic "science" is it which bases its tax theory on intuitive slogans such as "equal sacrifice," which ignores the possible effect of taxation on thrift and the aggregate amount of capital, which ignores the effect of taxation in any given community in causing those whose saving makes capital possible to invest in other communities, and which ignores entirely any bearing taxation may have on the incentive to efficiency?


BUT THIS IS NOT ALL. Everyone who is acquainted with the facts knows that very considerable quantities of land are held wastefully vacant for years in the hope of a rise in the price at which they can be sold or, sometimes, in the determination not to sell for less than the potential seller has paid. This tends to crowding and slums in the cities, to lower productiveness of labor (e.g., because much land near cities and, therefore, well located for truck farming and dairying, remains vacant and unused awaiting a hoped-for suburban residential use which may be delayed for decades or never materialize at all) ,[8] and to various other wastes. Taxation according to "ability to pay" or according to any system of equal or least sacrifice means that these considerations also are altogether ignored. In fact, there is a tendency to commiserate with the speculative holder of vacant land and assess his property for taxation at a relatively lower per cent of its actual value than other property, despite his being a cause of waste and of loss to the community. "Poor chap!" it is said. "He certainly shouldn't be taxed much on his vacant land since he isn't making anything on it. He hasn't really much 'ability' to pay taxes on it."

But taxes ought to be levied with a view to promoting the common welfare. And a heavy land-value tax, as a result of which men could not afford to keep others -- by high prices for land-from using land they themselves do not use, would definitely promote the common welfare.

Not rightly to be ignored, either, is the question of tenancy. Decade by decade the proportion of tenants to owners, in the case of American farmers, mounts threateningly. And in the cities, also, non-owners have to pay owners for permission to use the sites on which they live and on which they work. High land-value taxation would make the price of land low. It would make possible great reduction in the burden of other taxes as well as increased productivity of labor and higher wages. The would-be owner of his home or farm could earn more, save faster and buy land far more cheaply. His rise from tenancy to independent ownership would be far easier. And the social consequences of this might well be profound. Yet all this is entirely ignored by those who, when questions are raised regarding taxation and the tax burden, are able merely to mouth such phrases as "ability to pay" and "equal sacrifice."

"The educated classes," said a distinguished sociologist of an earlier generation,9 "are victims of the phrase. Phrases are rhetorical flourishes. They are artifices of suggestion. They are the same old tricks of the medicine man adapted to an age of literature and common schools."

The one tax which can be urged most consistently with a defense of "capitalism" (the system of free enterprise) is a tax which appropriates practically all of the annual rental value of land. Such a tax does not discourage efficiency. It does not penalize thrift and the construction of capital. It does not impose a burden on so-called "venture capital." It penalizes only the interference with production which comes from holding good land out of use. It takes for the use of the public only the geologically-produced and com- munity-produced rental value of land. The fact that this tax is not enthusiastically supported by protagonists of the system of free enterprise who claim to dislike communism and all its works, can be attributed, it would seem, only to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. The "silent treatment" which the land-value tax has had in educational institutions has brought it about that many men who might be interested do not even think of it -- perhaps, often, have never heard of it.
  2. Various fallacies and superficial considerations, such as those I have discussed in this paper and other papers in this JOURNAL and in my book on The Economic Basis of Tax Reform, have definitely prejudiced some minds against it.
  3. Some men who claim to desire a system of free enterprise are primarily interested -- or only interested -- in their own gains and so are more eager to preserve incomes inconsistent with the principles they pretend to appeal to than they are to establish a fair and decent "capitalism."

Business leaders as individuals, and business men's organizations and their committees, may sometimes comment adversely to heavy tax penalties on efficiency, thrift and enterprise, much as has been done herein. But when they do so it is seldom if ever that they suggest, as an alternative, the taxation of the geologically-produced and community-produced rent of land. On the contrary, they are likely to be found urging an extension of the general sales tax or the levy of other taxes which rest heavily on common folks, which definitely increase the tax burdens of men who have but small incomes and incomes that they truly earn by hard work. Reformers of that ilk have not the slightest interest in re- moving or reducing taxes on production as such or on the contributions of capital and of labor as such. Their only interest is in removing taxes from the larger incomes (and, therefore, their own incomes or the incomes of the class with which they are closely associated) and putting them, instead, on the smaller incomes. What wonder if their pretense of being interested in efficiency and thrift and productive contribution is sometimes greeted with lifted eyebrows! Does such pretense really deserve anything better than hoots and jeers!

It may possibly turn out, in the end, that the stresses in our economic system induced by such features as the fact that some must pay others for permission to use the earth, will, if the system is not reformed consistently with freedom, bring us to regimentation and socialism. Reform of the economic system along the line of keeping it a system of free enterprise, requires intelligent understanding. If trained economists and business leaders cannot understand or, because of prejudice or self-interest, will not help in this most fundamental of reforms -- to establish the right to work on and live on the earth --changes may be made, blunderingly, along lines utterly different. That has been the trend in Europe and, recently, in America too. I do not venture to predict. No one has a magic crystal ball in which he can see the future with accuracy. But who will say that there is no threat of socialism, communism or other regimented economic system?

We need a liberalism of the older sort, a liberalism which demands justice and has confidence that justice and freedom are the best guarantees of an efficient and good economy. The recent so-called "liberalism" denies justice, refuses men equal rights to live on and work on the earth and attempts instead to provide for the masses by taxing the earnings of any who strive for superior efficiency. It offers charity for justice. And whatever proper place charity has in the general scheme of things, to substitute it for justice -- and with -- out giving justice a trial-is an evidence of decadence. We have been, indeed, in our economic theory, in a sort of "dark ages.") In fact, the treatment meted out by various text- book-writing economists to the analyses of Henry George has been not only contemptibly biased but also (and I do not mean this as an anti-climax) utterly unscientific.


PERHAPS THE OUTSTANDING ECONOMIC PHENOMENON of our time is the practically complete socialization of industry in Russia. And Russia's military might in this greatest war of all history is certainly helping to give prestige to her economic system.

An article in a news magazine last year, commenting on the frantic efforts of "the wealthy and great" of Rumania to escape from the advancing Russians, remarked that the discomfort of rich Rumanians was increased by "more and more sly grins on peasant faces." The peasants, said the writer, "have nothing to lose in the flight of Rumania's mighty" and "have nothing to fear from Russia's Red Army." How many of the unpropertied workers in other countries have exulted, secretly if not openly, at the triumphant advance of that same Red Army? To how many of them are the growing influence of Russia and the growing prestige of Russia's economic system omens of a future when the earth shall be the inheritance of all men and not the property of a relatively few?

The "system of free private enterprise," if so reformed as to make it consistent with the principles on the basis of which it is commonly defended, would be definitely preferable, I believe, to any system of regimented socialism. But the adoption of a socialistic economy seems less unlikely than it did only a few decades ago. And I am inclined to think that this is, in part at least, because most protagonists of our so- called free enterprise system do not really understand it and do not see -- even when they are not unwilling to see -- how it must be reformed if it is to operate really as in their defenses of it they say it does. Land-value taxation is, indeed, not the only reform needed. All forms of monopoly and monopolistic conspiracy must be adequately dealt with. Our monetary and banking system must be such as to make for stability in the general price level, to the end that inflation shall not enrich borrowers at the expense of lenders nor deflation bring ruin to borrowers and widespread unemployment to wage earners. But unless our reforms encompass land-value taxation, and, therefore, a practical recognition of the right of all to use the earth, they will not be enough.

Suppose, Mr. Capitalist or Mr. Business Executive, that you are seriously attempting to convince a group of socialistically- inclined employees of the advantages of a system of free private enterprise. Would you not have a far better logical case and a far more appealing case if you did not have to defend, but could frankly disavow, the exploitative features which our present economic system certainly does contain? Could you not defend much more convincingly the enjoyment of interest from their capital, by those whose saving and investment has made possible the construction of this capital (which does really help make industry more productive), if your defense of the gains of capital did not always carry with it, by implication, a defense of income from charging men for permission to live on and work on the earth? Would you not have a better chance to enlist these workers' support if you really could assure them truthfully, not only that, in general, business concerns do not get monopolistic incomes, but also that neither corporations nor individuals are able, in the system you defend, to obtain income otherwise than on the basis of service rendered by capital and (in the case of individuals) by work?


  1. Chapter VI of Postwar Economic Problems, edited by Seymour E. Harris, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
  2. Ibid., p. 121.
  3. As regards the "risks of borrowing," it should be noted that land-value taxation lowers the sale price of land and so reduces-and may reduce greatly-the amount of borrowing necessary. See my Basic Principles of Economics, Columbia, Mo., Lucas Brothers, 1942, especially Appendix 6.
  4. See J.M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1936, especially Chapters XIII and XVI.
  5. Ibid., page 174.
  6. My own view of the causation of business depression is presented in my Basic Principles of Economics, Chapter VI.
  7. Although, of course, they might argue that such larger net returns would stimulate saving, increase the total amount of capital and so, eventually, cause the net rate of return again to fall. But any such argument surely involves an admission that, for some time at least, the net rate to savers and investors would be higher and that, during such time, the alleged depression-producing influence of a very low rate of return must be destroyed or appreciably lessened!
  8. For a fuller discussion of this problem, see my book on The Economic Basis of Tax Reform, Columbia, Mo., Lucas Brothers, 1932, Chapter IV, subsection 3.
  9. William Graham Sumner, Folkways, Boston, Ginn, 1907, p. 179.