A Defense of the Single Tax

Thomas Flavin

[A response to a criticism of the Single Tax by W.C. Brann
in The Iconocast, 12 August, 1897]

In your editorial on the "Henry George Hoodoo," which appears in the August number of the ICONOCLAST, the following passage occurs:

"It seems to me that I have treated the Single Taxers as fairly as they could ask, and if I now proceed to state a few plain truths about them and their faith they will have no just cause to complain."

From the tone and tenor of these words it is fair to assume that in the editorial referred to you have discharged against the Single Taxers and their faith the heaviest broadsides of which your ordnance is capable. If, notwithstanding all the time you have wasted "crucifying the economic mooncalf" which has played such sad havoc with the wits of Single Taxers, it should turn out that the monstrous concept, far from being crucified, annihilated, or even "dying of its own accord," only gathers strength, energy, and renewed activity from the healthful exercise with which you provide it, must it not seem the part of prudence for you, even if occasion of regret for us, that you should abandon the war and leave the calf to his fate? Your belated and apparently desperate resolve to "tell some plain truths" about us, Single Taxers, justifies the inquiry, what were you telling before?

The fact that it seems to yourself that you have treated Single Taxers fairly is not absolutely irrefragible proof that they have been so treated at least it has not brought conviction of the fact to them. That the offer of your space to Mr. George was courteously declined affords no just ground for refusing it to those "whose matin hymn and vesper prayer reads, there is no God but George," etc. I'll warrant you that if you and the Single Taxers had access on equal terms to a journal which neither controlled, and whose space both were bound to respect, you would not have to go outside the limits of your own state to find a dozen foemen worthy of your steel, and I'd stake my life on it that you'd find not a few to unhorse you. This is not claiming that any one of them, or all of them together, can come anywhere near you in the artistic manipulation of words or the construction of ear-tickling phrases; but it is claiming, and that without any false pretense of modesty, that they have yet seen no reason to fear you in rigidly logical argument when the Single Tax is the question at issue. Their cause is so palpably just, its underlying principle so transparently simple and elementary, its practical application so direct, feasible and efficient that no mere wizardry of words, no thimble-riggery or language, can by any possibility obscure the principle -- or confuse the advocates. Of course there are among Single Taxers, as among other enthusiasts, men who indiscreetly use abuse for argument, and of these you may have some reason to complain; but should not your great talents and the immense advantages which the undisputed control of your own journal give you, enable you to rise above their abuse, to ignore it completely, and to grapple with only those who present you with argument?

I have no right to expect from you more consideration than has been meted out to better men; still, you can but refuse this rejoinder to your August editorial, which is respectfully offered for publication in your journal. If you are quite sure of your ground, you can only gain strength from exposing my weakness, but even if you are not sure of it, both the requirements of simple justice and the amende honorable to Single Taxers would still plead for the publication of this article.

You say that Mr. George has obtained no standing of consequence in either politics or economics "because his teachings are violative of the public concept of truth." Do you really believe that the fact that he has obtained no standing of consequence in politics is in any way derogatory to his character or his teaching? Do you not know full well that a Bill Sykes, a Jonas Chuzzlewit, or a Mr. Montague Tigg would have a hundred chances to attain that distinction to-day to the one chance that Henry George, Vincent de Paul or even Jesus Christ would have? Don't you know this well, and if you do, why do you use it as an argument against Henry George?

As to his standing in economics, that, I submit, is a matter of opinion. You think he has no standing of consequence; I think his teaching is the most active ferment in the economic thought of to-day. We may be both mistaken, but whether we are or not cuts no figure in the truth or falsity of the Single Tax. But it is worth while to point out that the reason you have given for his lack of "standing" lends neither weight nor force to your argument. "Because," you say, "his teachings are violative of the public concept of truth." When did the public concept of truth become the standard by which to test it? The public concept of the best form of money is, and has been for thousands of years, gold and silver coins. I am much mistaken if that be your concept. By the way, why did you not say "violative of truth," instead of "violative of the public concept," etc.? I guess you had an inward consciousness that a thing is not true or false by public concept, but by being inherently so. What Henry George taught was inherently true or false before he ever taught it, and would be so still if he had been never born. The only difference would be that so many of us who now bask in the blessed light of inward, if not of outward, freedom would, in that event, be still barking with the great blind multitude over every false trail along which blinder teachers might be leading them and us.

You admit that Mr. George is a polemic without a peer, and you say that "no other living man could have made so absurd a theory appear so plausible, deceived hundreds of abler men than himself." Surely there is something very faulty in the position you assume here. If what you say be so, how do you know that you are not yourself the victim of deception at the hands of some inferior? Or is it only men who have "gone daft on Single Tax" that possess the extraordinary power of leading abler men than themselves by the nose? Surely that were too much honor for an antagonist to concede to them. More surely still, if a man's intelligence is not proof against deception by inferiors in argument, he can never reach finality in a process of reasoning, and logical proof for him there is none.

"He mistakes the plausible for the actual and by his sophistry deceives himself." O pshaw! We all say things sometimes that just do for talk, but this hasn't even that poor excuse. I might just as well say, "He takes the conceivable for the supposable and by his logic enlightens himself. One statement would be as valuable as the other and neither would be worth a pinch of snuff. Come, let us argue with dignity and composure, like honest men sincerely searching after truth, and eager to lend a hand in abolishing this social Inferno of legalized robbery which fairly threatens to consume us all.

There is, you'll admit, such a thing as land value, i.e. value attaching to land irrespective of improvements made in or on it by private industry. This value arises from the presence of a community and can never actually exist without it. If the exclusive creator or producer of a thing is its rightful owner, land belongs to the community that creates or produces it, and can never, in the first instance, rightly belong to any other owner. The Single Tax is the taking of this value for this community. Is it just? The highest homage, the highest act of faith which the human mind and heart can offer to God is to say that He could not be God and pronounce the Single Tax unjust! Here now is a gage of battle cast at the feet of whoever wishes to take it up, be the same logician, metaphysician or theologian. (Pardon me, Mr. Brann, for momentarily turning aside from you.)

The justice of the Single Tax is beyond all question of refutation. What about its efficiency for the cure of social ills? Here, I think, is where we are widest apart. You say, "the unearned increment is already taken for public use under our present system of taxation." If by "unearned increment" you mean what I have defined as land value (and I think you do) your statement is the wildest and most astounding I ever heard or read from a sane man making an argument.

Is it possible you have not learned that where all the land value is taken in taxation there can be no selling value? And where is the land to-day with a community settled upon it that has not selling value? If land value is already absorbed by taxation, what is it that goes to maintain landlordism? Perhaps you'll contend that landlordism doesn't exist. What value is it that a man pays for when he buys an unimproved lot in the heart of a city? What is it that the boomer booms and the land speculator gambles on when he adds acre to acre and lot to lot without any intention of productive use? What, if not the community value which he expects to attach to his land as a result of increase of population? And what advantage to him as a speculator would this community value be if, as you claim, it is now being absorbed in taxation and should continue to be so absorbed as fast as it arises?

Do landlords in cities and towns retain for themselves only the rent of buildings and hand over to the government the full amount of their ground rents as tax? I know an old eye-sore of a building in this city not worth $150, whose occupant pays $100 a month rent. Do you seriously believe that all of this $1,200 a year which does not go to the city and state in taxes is rent on the old $150 rat-warren? Why, the thing is too childish for serious discussion; and to have discussed it with you without having been driven to it by yourself, I should have regarded as in the nature of a slight on your intelligence. If what you claim as a fact were true, we would have the Single Tax in full swing now and would be fretting ourselves to fiddle-strings, not to bring it about, but to get rid of it for its evil fruit.

As to whether the Single Tax, in full force, would provide enough revenue for municipal, county, state and federal governments, we, Single Taxers, are not greatly concerned. We have our own opinions on that question and can give better reasons for them than our opponents can give for theirs. But the question is not essential to our argument. What we hold to is that until land values fully taxed prove inadequate for the expenses of government economically administered, not one cent should be levied on labor products, no matter in whose possession found. This, however, belongs to the fiscal side of our reform. Of infinitely more importance is the social side. Here our end and aim is to secure to all the sons of Adam an equal right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness by securing to them an equal right in the bounties of nature--and passing strange it certainly is that men who would not dream of denying this right in the abstract are ever ready to anathematize it in the concrete.

With the Single Tax in force, that is, with the plain behest of nature observed and respected, no man will hold land out of use when, whether he uses it or not, he must pay to the community its annual value for the privilege of monopolizing it. No man will hold land for a rise in community value when that value is taken from him for the use of the community as fast as it arises. No man will need to mortgage his home and the earnings of his most vigorous years to a boomer or speculator for the privilege of living on the earth for there will be no boomer or speculator to sell him the privilege, and the privilege itself will have ceased to be such and become an indefeasible right.

"He (Mr. George) is a well-intentioned man who confidently believes he can make the poverty-stricken millions prosperous by revoking the taxes of the rich and increasing the burthens of the poor." Fie, fie! What is to be gained by such transparent, palpable misrepresentation as this? Do you verily believe that land values, which Mr. George proposes to tax, are mainly in possession of the poor? Did you not see--of course you did--a diagrammatic exhibit made not long ago by the New York Herald of the holdings of twenty New York real estate owners? Let me quote a passage from an article in the New York Journal on this exhibit:

"The reason 170 families own half of Manhattan Island, as stated in the Herald, and that 1,800,000 out of the two million residents of Manhattan Island, until very recently, had no interest whatever, except as renters, in this superb property, is because, until the last few years, it required a fortune to own the smallest separate parcel of this great estate. Only the rich could participate in its ownership, its income, its profits."

Now is it your view that all this is but clumsy lying, and that in reality it is the poor people of New York as of other large cities that own the bulk of its land values? Again you say, "He would equalize the conditions of Dives and Lazarus by removing the tax from the palace of the one and laying it upon the potato patch of the other." This statement is much more artistic than the preceding one. It wears a jaunty semblance of truth. Indeed it is true in a sense as far as it goes. But it is vague and incomplete, and for that reason as deceptive and misleading as half truths always are.

With your permission I will fill it out in parenthesis and convert it into an honest whole truth: "He would equalize the conditions of (both freedom and justice for) Dives and Lazarus by removing the tax from the palace of the one (and from the labor products of the other) and laying it upon (the community value of the land occupied by the palace and) the potato patch of the other." Now, if the potato patches of the poor occupy, as a rule, more valuable land than the palaces of the rich, there might be some apparent ground for your contention. It would be only apparent, however, for in such a case the potato patch would be as much out of place as a public school on a wharf front. To devote highly valuable land to ordinary potato culture would be about as sensible as to print the Sunday edition of the Galveston News on costly linen paper. One of the virtues of the Single Tax is its potency to prevent such stupid waste of opportunity. Your way of stating the case, however, has this virtue that it is a welcome variation of the old wearisome chestnut about the poor widow owning a valuable lot, etc.

You believe Progress and Poverty inspired by the plutocracy, "250,000 of whom own 80 per cent. of the taxable wealth of the country, while the land is largely in possession of the great middle class." Passing over the source of the inspiration, you have come pretty close to the truth here! Unfortunately for you, however, the statement has no value in the argument. Single Taxers do not need to deny that the great middle class largely own the land, but they do claim, and you won't have the hardihood to deny it, that the plutocracy own the vast bulk of the land values. You will perceive the distinction when you reflect that the land is nearly all out in the country, while the land values are nearly all in the cities and towns. To tax land according to area is the bug-a-boo you are putting up your guards to; to tax it according to community value is what we invite you to smash if you can. You "cannot understand how a man possessed of common sense could fail to see that removing taxation from the class of property chiefly in the hands of the rich and placing it altogether on property chiefly in the hands of the comparatively poor, could fail to benefit the millionaire at the expense of the working man." Neither can I, if you tax it according to quantity, but that is not the Single Tax and it is time you knew it. Let me tell you now something that I can't understand--why a man who has the means and the ability to strike giant blows for the cause of the blind, stupid, plundered humanity prefers to waste his time, his talents, his opportunities making himself a straw man and, with that silly-looking thing for antagonist, belaboring all about him like a bull in a china shop. You sincerest well-wishers, of whom I claim to be one, earnestly hope you will soon change your tactics.

You ask some practical questions which it may be well to answer:

"How will you prevent the Standard Oil Company forcing weaker concerns to the wall by the simple expedient of selling below cost of production?"

The Standard Oil trust is maintained (1) by monopoly of oil lands; (2) by monopoly of pipe lines; (3) by collusion with railroads. The Single Tax and its corollaries would absolutely destroy each of these advantages; (1) by throwing unused oil lands open to all on equal terms; (2) by government ownership or complete control of pipe lines to all distributing points, such lines being open for use to all oil producers on equal terms; (3) by exactly analogous treatment of railroads. With the three-fold monopoly of oil lands, pipe line, and railroad abolished, the Standard Oil trust would find no wall against which to crush weaker concerns. As to the trust, we hope that the abolishment of the thieves' compact, i.e. the protective tariff, will make the trusts sick unto death. Absolute free trade, a necessary concomitant of the Single Tax, will leave 99 per cent. of the trusts stranded. If any survive it will not be the fault of the Single Tax. Be it remembered that the evils which the Single Tax is guaranteed to cure are, primarily, land monopoly, and, secondarily, all the other monopolies based upon it; as those of the coal, iron and lumber trust, the Standard Oil trust, etc.

"With coal fields leased to the operators by Uncle Sam, how would you prevent Hanna organizing a pool, limiting production, raising prices and reducing wages?"

Coal fields are included in the economic term, land. When unused land is free for occupancy, unused coal fields will also be free. If Mark sought to limit production by shutting down his mines, one of two things would happen. Either somebody else would start in to mine coal, or Mark's tax would be raised till the wisdom of either letting go or resuming would dawn on his fat wits. Unless he owned or controlled the coal fields he could not limit production, raise prices, or cut down wages.

"How will you prevent the Standard Oil company forcing weaker concerns to the wall by the simple expedient of selling below cost of production?"

We wouldn't prevent them. But if they afterwards tried to recoup their losses by raising prices as they do now, we might get after them with a tax commensurate with their asinine generosity, and keep after them till other concerns got well on their feet. If they became too refractory, what's to prevent the government from taking hold itself and working the oil wells for the benefit of the whole people? Remember the government is theoretically the people's servant, and it could be actually so if the people only had a little intelligence and moral courage.

You very needlessly tell your Ft. Hamilton friend that land is the primal source of all wealth; that it does not produce wealth, but simply affords man an opportunity to produce it; you forgot to add -- provided the landlord doesn't prevent him. You say in another place, "Figure it as you will, adjust it as you may, a tax is a fine on industry and will so remain until you get blood from turnips," etc. This very objection in protean form is continually being raised by a class of shallow-thinking men with whom the editor of the ICONOCLAST should not be proud to herd. "What difference docs it make," they say, "whether I pay rent to the government or to a landlord when I've got to pay it anyhow? And what difference does it make whether taxes are levied on my land or my improvements, or both, so long as I've got to pay them with the products of my labor?"

Now, it is quite true that all taxes of whatever nature are paid out of the products of labor. But must they be for that reason a tax on labor products. Let us see. I suppose you won't deny that a unit of labor applies to different kinds of land will give very different results. Suppose that a unit of labor produces on A's land 4, on B's 3, on C's 2 and on D's 1. A's land is the most, and D's is the least, productive land in use in the community to which they belong. B's and C's represent intermediate grades. Suppose each occupies the best land that was open to him when he entered into possession. Now, B, and C, and D have just as good a right to the use of the best land as A had. Manifestly then, if this be the whole story, there cannot be equality of opportunity where a unit of labor produces such different results, all other things being equal except the land. How is this equality to be secured? There is but one possible way. Each must surrender for the common use of all, himself included, whatever advantages accrues to him from the possession of land superior to that which falls to the lot of him who occupies the poorest.

In the case stated, what the unit of labor produces for D, is what it should produce for A, B and C, if these are not to have an advantage of natural opportunity over D. Hence equity is secured when A pays 3, D, 2 and C, 1 into a common fund for the common use of all--to be expended, say in digging a well, making a road or bridge, building a school, or other public utility. Is it not manifest that here the tax which A, B and C pay into a common fund, and from which D is exempt, is not a tax on their labor products (though paid out of them) but a tax on the superior advantage which they enjoy over D, and to which D has just as good a right as any of them.

The result of this arrangement is that each takes up as much of the best land open to him as he can put to gainful use, and what he cannot so use he leaves open for the next. Moreover, he is at no disadvantage with the rest who have come in ahead of him, for they provide for him, in proportion to their respective advantages, those public utilities which invariably arise wherever men live in communities. Of course he will in turn hold to those who come later the same relation that those who came earlier held to him.

Suppose now that taxes had been levied on labor products instead of land; all that any land-holder would have to do to avoid the tax is to produce little or nothing. He could just squat on his land, neither using it himself nor letting others use it, but he would not stop at this, for he would grab to the last acre all that he could possibly get hold of. Each of the others would do the same in turn, with the sure result that by and by, E, F and G would find no land left for them on which they might make a living. So they would have to hire their labor to those who had already monopolized the land, or else buy or rent a piece of land from them. Behold now the devil of landlordism getting his hoof on God's handiwork! Exit justice, freedom, social peace and plenty.

Enter robbery, slavery, social discontent, consuming grief, riotous but unearned wealth, degrading pauperism, crime breeding, want, the beggar's whine, and the tyrant's iron heel. And how did it all come about? By the simple expedient of taxing labor products in order that precious landlordism might laugh and grow fat on the bovine stupidity of the community that contributes its own land values toward its own enslavement! And yet men vacuously ask, "What difference does it make?" O tempora! O mores!

To be as plain as is necessary, it makes this four-fold difference. First, it robs the community of its land values; second, it robs labor of its wages in the name of taxation; third, it sustains and fosters landlordism, a most conspicuously damnable difference; fourth, it exhibits willing workers in enforced idleness; beholding their families in want on the one hand, and unused land that would yield them abundance on the other. This last is a difference that cries to heaven for vengeance, and if it does not always cry in vain, will W. C. Brann be able to draw his robe close around him and with a good conscience exclaim, "It's none of my fault; I am not my brother's keeper."

It will not do, my dear friend; you must think again on the Single Tax, even though, in doing so, you might make men suspect that you are not infallible. The sublimest act it will ever be given you to perform is to candidly confess to your grand and ever-growing constituency that you were mistaken in your estimate of the Single Taxers and their faith.

"Government must compel each to pay toll in proportion the amount of wealth it has produced -- and this is the only equitable law of taxation."

Just reflect for a moment what a monstrous conclusion flows from these premises. Labor applied to land produces all wealth. Landlordism as such produces nothing. Therefore labor should bear the whole burden of taxation, while landlordism and all other forms of monopoly should go scot free. The iniquity of our present system of taxation is that a portion of it is levied on land instead of being all levied on labor products, like the tariff! To be strictly just, we must quit taxing land and exact no royalty from owners of coal mines and oil wells! That your view?

"There is every indication that his cult has had its day and is rapidly going to join the many other isms, political and religious, that have been swallowed up like cast off clothes and other exuviae by the great mother of dead dogs."

This is fine, incontestably fine! Also forcible, impressibly forcible -- with the force of a squirt of tobacco juice. If "the Single Tax party will not long survive its creator," perhaps it is because it has not as much attraction for the great sovereign voter as the blessed protective tariff, which, to use your own fantastic expression, you should "cosset on your heaving brisket" for its splendid success as a survivor of its primogenitors. Look at the pinnacle of political success to which the McKinley bill has brought Bill McKinley (excuse the paltry little pun) and sound money (saving your presence) brought Grover Cleveland, and then contemplate the ignominy and obscurity has brought George and free silver has brought Bryan. Evidently George isn't a mouse to McKinley, while Bryan is but a brindle pup compared to the great and only Grover. Yes, the "public concept of truth" makes it plain that protection is all right and Single Tax all wrong. "George is a reformer who can't reform because he took issue with the wisdom of the world," just like the man who said that the earth was round and that the sun didn't go round it every twenty-four hours, contrary to what the wisdom of the world had long ago decided.

You are not mistaken in saying that "Mr. George was unable to keep one of these expounders of his doctrine (a S.T. paper) from running on the financial rocks." It is a very logical deduction to draw from this fact that the teachings of the paper were worthless. Why should anybody teach what does not, in the teaching, promote his financial prosperity? See what fools Professors Bemis and Andrews have made of themselves. Because they did not have due regard for the "public concept of the truth" they are cashiered; and it serves them right, for the truth must be vindicated--if it pays. On the other hand, see what splendid financial successes the ICONOCLAST, the Galveston News and the so-called yellow journalism of New York all are. "Deserve, in order to command success," the old copy-book headline used to say, from which it follows as mud does rain, that whatever succeeds deserves it, and whatever doesn't, doesn't. It doesn't take much besides capital to succeed, however, "where the conditions for the propagation of empiricism are more favorable than ever before." All you have to do is to propagate and expound the "public concept of truth" and let the truth itself alone. The Single Taxers respectfully solicit some more plain truths on the "Mumbojumboism of George."