A Tribute to Harry Gunnison Brown

Dick Netzer

[Comments made by Prof. Dick Netzer at a Tax Symposium held at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; 6 April, 1973]

A fair proportion of all economists who have given any thought to the question appear convinced that the theoretical case for land value taxation as a distinctly superior instrument for financing the urban public sector has long since been made, in no small measure by the writings of Harry Gunnison Brown. A nagging question must occur to those who are so persuaded; why do so many others remain unconvinced? More relevantly, why has it been so difficult to persuade governments of the merits of land value taxation? There are some obvious answers: fiscal institutions, especially those at the local level, are notoriously slow to change; the case for land value taxation is difficult to explain to laymen, like so many other theoretical propositions that to economists are seemingly obvious - propositions as general as the conditions for economic optimality, the efficiency of decentralized economic decisions - making through markets, and the for internalizing externalities, and as policy-specific as fractional reserve banking, compensatory financing, and floating exchange rates. Furthermore, however good the explanations the persistence of ignorance and error is remarkable in human affairs while the gainers from land values are peculiarly influential in public affairs while the rest ofus are diffuse and relatively uninfluential.

One of the more dismal characteristics of the very recent past is the emergence of bad ideas whose time seems to have come. …Land value taxation is a good idea, and its time may be at hand at last.