Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XVI
Chapter XVI The enigma resolved – the first enigma reform
There is but one way to remove an evil and that is to remove its cause. To extirpate poverty, to make wages what justice commands they should be, the full earnings of the labourer, we must substitute for the individual ownership of land a common ownership. Nothing else will go to the cause of the evil, in nothing else is there the slightest hope.
But this is a truth which, in the present state of society, will arouse the most bitter antagonism, and must fight its way, inch by inch. It will be necessary, therefore, to meet the objections of those who, even when driven to admit this truth, will declare that it cannot be practically applied.
In doing this we shall bring our previous reasoning to a new and crucial test. Just as we try addition by subtraction and multiplication by division, so may we, by testing the sufficiency of the remedy, prove the correctness of our conclusions as to the cause of the evil.
The laws of the universe are harmonious. And if the remedy to which we have been led is the true one, it must be consistent with justice; it must be practicable of application; it must accord with the tendencies of social development and it must harmonize with other reform.
I propose to show that this simple measure is not only easy of application, but that it is a sufficient remedy for all the evils which, as modern progress goes on, arise from the greater and greater inequality in the distribution of wealth - that it will substitute equality for inequality, plenty for want, justice for injustice, social strength for social weakness, and will open the way to grander and nobler advances of civilization.
But a question of method remains. How shall we do it?
We should satisfy the law of justice, we should meet all economic requirements, by at one stroke abolishing all private titles, declaring all land public property, and letting it out to the highest bidders in lots to suit, under such conditions as would sacredly guard the private right to improvements.
Thus we should secure, in a more complex state of society, the same equality of rights that in a ruder state were secured by equal partitions of the soil and, by giving the use of the land to whoever could procure the most from it, we should secure the greatest production.
But such a plan, though perfectly feasible, does not seem to me the best.
To do that would involve a needless shock to present customs and habits of thought - which is to be avoided.
To do that would involve a needless extension of governmental machinery - which is to be avoided.
It is an axiom of statesmanship, which the successful founders of tyranny have understood and acted upon, that great changes can best be brought about under old forms. We, who would free men, should heed the same truth. It is the natural method. When nature would make a higher type, she takes a lower one and develops it. This is the law also of social growth. Let us work by it. With the current we may glide fast and far. Against it, it is hard pulling and slow progress.
I do not propose either the purchase or the confiscation of private property in land. The first would be unjust; the second, needless. Let the individuals who now hold it still retain, if they want to, possession of what they are pleased to call their land. Let them continue to call it their land. Let them buy and sell, and bequeath and devise it. It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.
Nor to take rent for public uses is it necessary that the state should bother with the letting of lands. It is not necessary that any new machinery should be created. The machinery already exists. Instead of extending it, all we have to do is to simplify and reduce it. By making use of this existing machinery, we may, without jar or shock, assert the common right to land by taking rent for public uses.
We already take some rent in taxation. We have only to make some changes in our modes of taxation to take it all. Therefore, what I propose is - to appropriate rent by taxation.
In form, the ownership of land would remain just as now. No owner of land need be dispossessed, and no restriction need be placed upon the amount of land any one could hold. For, rent being taken by the state in taxes, land, no matter in whose name it stood or in what parcels it was field, would be really common property, and every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership.
Now, insomuch as the taxation of rent, or land values, must necessarily be increased just as we abolish other taxes, we may put the proposition into practical form by proposing to abolish all taxation save that upon land values.
As we have seen, the value of land is at the beginning of society nothing, but as society develops by the increase of population and the advance of the arts, it becomes greater and greater. Hence it will not be enough merely to place all taxes upon the value of land. It will be necessary, where rent exceeds the present governmental revenues, to increase commensurately the amount demanded in taxation, and to continue this increase as society progresses and rent advances. But this is so natural and easy a matter, that it may be considered as involved, or at least understood, in the proposition to put an taxes on the value of land.
Wherever the idea of concentrating all taxation upon land values finds lodgment sufficient to induce consideration, it invariably makes way, but there are few of the classes most to be benefited by it, who at first, or even for a long time afterwards, see its full significance and power. It is difficult for working-men to get over the idea that there is a real antagonism between capital and labour. It is difficult for small farmers and homestead owners to get over the idea that to put all taxes on the value of land would be to tax them unduly. It is difficult for both classes to get over the idea that to exempt capital from taxation would be to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer. These ideas spring from confused thought. But behind ignorance and prejudice there is a powerful interest, which has hitherto dominated literature, education and opinion. A great wrong always dies hard, and the great wrong which in every civilized country condemns the masses of men to poverty and want will not die without a bitter struggle.