Marion Mills Miller
[An excerpt from Chapter II of the book Great
Debates In American History, published in 1913 by Current
Literature Publishing Company, New York]
From twelve to twenty years after Mr. Burgess wrote his "Letters
on Taxation," Henry George, a compositor and journalist of San
Francisco, developed the same theory and program. The vast fortunes
acquired in California through the sudden and great increase of values
in land and in properties, such as railroads, dependent on franchises
in land, and the increase, at the same time, in poverty, not merely
relative but absolute, as shown in constantly diminishing wages, had
called his attention to the land question as the fundamental problem
He published his views on the subjects in 1871 in a pamphlet entitled
''Our Land and Land Policy.'' The basic principle was that private
appropriation of the value of land is a monopoly.
The germinal idea of this book George developed into a treatise which
he published in 1879. This was Progress and Poverty.
In this, his greatest work, Mr. George attacked the "wages fund
theory" of John Stuart Mill, which, though Mill had abandoned it
in the last years of his life, was generally accepted, forming,
indeed, the basis of the trades union movement and the doctrine of
protection. According to this theory wages are paid out of capital.
George held that wages are directly labor's own creation, and
therefore that there is no essential conflict between labor and
capital, but that both should cooperate in destroying the common
enemy, monopoly, which in all its forms rests upon absorption of
public revenues by private persons through special privileges granted
them by the State and protected by law.
Progress and Poverty became recognized within a few years
after publication as an epoch-making work in economic and social
science. It elicited many replies from persons of greater or less
eminence and ability, among which may be mentioned "The Prophet
of San Francisco" , by George J. D. Campbell, the eighth
Duke of Argyle, and Property and Progress  by W. H.
Mallock, a leading English writer on social and economic matters.
In 1881 Mr. George wrote a book specially applying his philosophy to
the burning issue of the day in British politics, which he called at
first The Irish Land Question, and, later, simply The Land
Question, since its principles were applicable to the solution of
the problem in all countries. He visited Great Britain several times
in the early eighties in the interest of his doctrines, promoting a "Land
Restoration League," which steadily grew in influence in the
Liberal party, until in 1909 David Lloyd George, Secretary of the
Exchequer, embodied the land value tax in the national budget.
In 1886 George became the Labor candidate for mayor of New York
against Abram S. Hewitt, Democrat, and Theodore Roosevelt, Republican.
Mr. Hewitt was elected, George running a close second. Believing that
there had been an agreement between the Democrats and Republican
managers, whereby sufficient Republican votes were counted for Mr.
Hewitt toward the close of the poll to secure Mr. Hewitt's election,
Mr. George devoted from that time forward much of his energies to
secure ballot reform. For this, in connection with the propaganda of
the single tax, he visited Australia, where the secret ballot was
used. To the exertions of himself and his followers is largely due the
general adoption of this system throughout the United States.
In 1886 Mr. George wrote a work called Protection and Free Trade,
in which he made special application of his philosophy to the tariff.
In 1892, when the discussion on the McKinley bill had made the tariff
the leading political question of the hour, Tom L. Johnson [O.], who
was the leading Single-Taxer in Congress, and who knew the
self-sacrificing devotion of Mr. George to his cause, secured his
consent that the entire contents of the book be incorporated in
speeches to be delivered in Congress by Mr. Johnson and others, and,
being spread upon the Record, to be "franked" in the
form of reprints as public documents by these Congressmen to persons
in every part of the country. There were 1,062,000 copies so
circulated. Naturally the sales of the regular edition of the book
were greatly impaired, to the author's financial loss. In the
political campaign of 1912 a million more of these copies were sent
out under franks of Representative Henry George, Jr. [N.Y.], and other
Congressmen friendly to free trade and the single tax.
The Congressmen who joined with Mr. Johnson in 1892 in incorporating
the book in their speeches were William J. Stone [Ky.], Joseph E.
Washington [Tenn.], George W. Fithian [Ill.], Thomas Bowman [Ia.], and
Jerry Simpson [Kan.].
Mr. Johnson introduced his quotation with the following speech (March
Free Trade and the Single Tax
Tom L. Johnson, M.C.
I am for free trade, not merely as a matter of wise policy, but as a
matter of natural right. I hold that the right freely to trade with
whomever one pleases and on whatever terms he pleases is one of the
most important of those natural rights asserted by our Declaration of
Independence, and that to deny this to the American citizen is to that
extent to enslave and rob him. To the open enunciation of this clear
principle I hope to see the Democratic party come. "When it does
it will be invincible.
I hope to see this Congress, before we adjourn, pass a bill putting
lumber, coal, and iron ore on the free list, and, to show that as a
manufacturer I am ready to take just what I propose, I am willing to
put steel rails also on the free list.
MICHAEL D. HAETER [O.]. - And agricultural implements?
MB. JOHNSON. - Yes, and agricultural implements. My colleague, who is
one of the largest of agricultural implement makers, has, too, the
spirit of true free trade, and stands ready, and more than ready, to
vote for the abolition of every duty that applies to what he makes.
I was very much interested, a few days ago, at the explanation of the
gentleman from Iowa [Walt H. Butler] of what he meant by free
trade. Let me say frankly that I am not that kind of a free trader.
As a Democrat I am here simply to enter my protest against that part
of the tariff that is protective, for that is as far as party
divisions yet go, both Democrats and Republicans agreeing that we
shall continue to raise the revenue by a tariff. But in my humble
opinion in this matter, both are wrong.
Speaking for myself, and speaking too for a large and rapidly
increasing body of men within the Democratic party, I wish to say that
what I mean by free trade is not a tariff for revenue only, but
nothing less than free trade itself; the abolition of all custom
houses and the same freedom to trade with all the world that we now
have between our States.
Though the Democratic party has not yet got so far, I hope some day
to see it advocating that principle. The discussion now going on must
broaden till it brings up the whole question of taxation, and it is in
this that the real solution of the labor question is to be sought.
"We talk of taxing things - as taxing sugar, or taxing iron, or
taxing wool. But inanimate things cannot pay taxes. At last taxes are
levied on men. Discussions of taxation are in reality discussions of
how burdens shall be levied, not on merchandise, but on men. Already
the discussion of the tariff question is bringing out this fact, and
as it goes on we constantly hear expressions that show that it is
working in the minds of the people.
In discussing the question of taxation what we are really discussing
is how men shall be taxed for the support of the Government. A poll
tax taxes men by the head. An income tax taxes men in accordance with
their incomes - or aims at doing so. A property tax taxes men in
accordance with their property. A tax on land values taxes men
according to the value of the land they hold, irrespective of the
improvements on it. So a tariff tax taxes men in accordance with their
consumption. And I protest that it is therefore a most unjust mode of
It is in some respects even worse than a poll tax, for that would not
tax the married man more than the bachelor, the man who rears children
more than the man who supports only himself. It is really a system
that taxes men according to their necessities, and therefore much
worse by comparison than our State taxes on property. It is fairer to
tax men on what they have than on what they consume, and therefore the
general property tax of our States is very much better than the tariff
taxes, even when imposed for revenue only, and without the sheer
robbery of some to enrich others that is involved in protective taxes.
Even an income tax, -which is open to so many objections, which makes
a nation of liars, and opens so many avenues to fraud, and is a
miserable tax, is still a great deal better than a duty on sugar.
But if we abolish the tariff how can we get our revenue? Mr.
Chairman, it would have been better for the country if that question,
How can we get revenue? had been oftener asked in this House. The
question for years heretofore has been, How can we spend our revenue?
And if there were nothing else to damn the system of raising revenue
by custom house taxation, the manner in which this imposing of taxes
for the sake of taxation - this pouring of taxes into the treasury for
the sake of giving monopolists opportunity to levy additional taxes on
the people - has demoralized our Government and debauched our politics
is enough to do so.
So long as you have a system of taxation dictated by private
interests that wish to use it to make the people pay them more for
what they have to sell, and where similar interests band together to
prevent every repeal or reduction, no number of watchdogs will be able
to prevent the millions poured into the treasury by the robbery of the
poor from slipping out again in extravagance and corruption. If the
people want economy, if they want purity, if they want an end to the
spectacle that we will see again this year of the money scraped from
their hard earnings being used to influence their votes, they must
insist on some system of taxation that will not foster private
How shall we raise our national revenue? There is no way in which we
could raise it that would be more unjust than our present system of
raising it by tariff taxes that fall upon consumption, and most
heavily on those articles of necessity and common luxury that are used
by all. Any system of taxing men according to their means is better
and fairer than the system of taxing according to what they use. For,
since the poor must use far more of their incomes to live than do the
rich, these taxes fall with heaviest weight on those who are least
able to bear taxation and inevitably tend to make the rich richer and
the poor poorer. They are taxes, not upon surplus earnings, but upon
life, upon comfort, upon decency, upon the accumulation of the little
capital that enables a man to get a start, upon marrying and having
Is it not certain that we can find some better way than this; is it
not time that we should at least make up our mind that tariff taxes
Do not be afraid of the intelligence of the people. The American
mechanic and the American farmer, the great mass of our people who
find year after year of hard toil and close saving go by without
leaving them a whit ahead, and who feel that in spite of all our
wonderful advances in production it is getting no easier to live, are
fast coming to the conclusion that there is something radically wrong
with our system of taxation. Of the superstition of protection, of the
notion that the capitalists who spend so much money and so much effort
to put on and keep on tariff taxes do so simply out of their
benevolent regard for the farmer and the laborer, there is really
nothing left but the shell. And the moment the Democratic party have
the courage of Democratic principle, and, stopping their paltering
with six-penny measures of tariff reform, will boldly raise the banner
of opposition to all protection, they will break that shell.
The Knights of Labor lodges, the Farmers' Alliance, the thoughtful
men in all occupations, have been and are still doing a great deal of
thinking about this matter of taxation. They are fast making up their
minds that they want a system of taxation that will not bear on the
millionaire like a feather and on the day laborer like a millstone;
that will not fetter labor; that will not hamper industry; .that will
not fine enterprise; that will not muzzle the ox that grindeth out the
corn and let the dog in the manger go free to monopolize and waste; a
system that will not require a horde of officials; that will not
provoke extravagance and engender corruption, but will take from each
man for the use of the community the fair and just return of the
special pecuniary benefits that he receives from the community.
That system is the single tax. All over the country it is steadily
and swiftly making its way in the popular mind - nay, all over the
English-speaking world. It won in the last New Zealand Parliament, and
is already in large measure in force in that country. It carried the
city of London by a tremendous majority in the municipal elections a
few weeks ago. It is on the verge of practical politics here. It may
be too soon yet to ask this House to consider it, but we shall move
toward it as we move toward free trade. And I am a free trader because
I believe free trade leads to the single tax. [Loud applause.]
I desire to have printed with my remarks the following, being an
extract from Henry George's book,
Protection or Free Trade. This book, written by a man who
views the matter from the standpoint of the interests of the great
laboring masses, and who is acknowledged through the civilized world
as the foremost of political economists, is the clearest, most
thorough exposition of the whole subject ever yet made.
One of the quotations from Mr. George's book, which presented his
philosophy, was as follows:
RESTORATION OF THE LAND TO THE PEOPLE
To make either the abolition of protection or any other reform
beneficial to the working class we must abolish the inequality
of legal rights to land, and restore to all their natural and
equal rights in the common heritage.
How can this be done?
Consider for a moment precisely what it is that needs to be
done, for it is here that confusion sometimes arises. To secure
to each of the people of a country his equal right to the land
of that country does not mean to secure to each an equal piece
of land. Save in an extremely primitive society, where
population was sparse, the division of labor had made little
progress, and family groups lived and worked in common, a
division of land into anything like equal pieces would indeed be
impracticable. In a state of society such as exists in civilized
countries to-day, it would be extremely difficult, if not
altogether impossible, to make an equal division of land.
Nor would one such division suffice. With the first division
the difficulty would only begin. "Where population is
increasing and its centers are constantly changing; where
different vocations make different uses of lands and require
different qualities and amounts of it; where improvements and
discoveries and inventions are constantly bringing out new uses,
and changing relative values, a division that should be equal
to-day would soon become very unequal, and to maintain equality
a redivision every year would be necessary.
But to make a redivision every year, or to treat land as a
common, where no one could claim the exclusive use of any
particular piece, would only be practicable where men lived in
movable tents and made no permanent improvements, and would
effectually prevent any advance beyond such a state.
No one would sow a crop or build a house, or open a mine, or
plant an orchard, or cut a drain, so long as anyone else could
come in and turn him out of the land in which or on which such
improvements must be fixed. Thus it is absolutely necessary to
the proper use and improvement of land that society should
secure to the user and improver safe possession.
This point is constantly raised by those who resent any
questioning of our present treatment of land. They seek to befog
the issue by persistently treating every proposition to secure
equal rights to land as though it were a proposition to secure
an equal division of land, and attempt to defend private
property in land by setting forth the necessity of securing safe
possession to the improver.
But the two things are essentially different.
In the first place equal rights to land could not be secured by
the equal division of land, and in the second place it is not
necessary to make land the private property of individuals in
order to secure to improvers that safe possession of their
improvements that is needed to induce men to make improvements.
On the contrary, private property in land, as we may see in any
country where it exists, enables mere dogs-in-the-manger to levy
blackmail upon improvers. It enables the mere owner of land to
compel the improver to pay him for the privilege of making
improvements, and in many cases it enables him to confiscate the
Here are two simple principles, both of which are self-evident:
- That all men have equal rights to the use and enjoyment
of the elements provided by nature.
- That each man has an exclusive right to the use and
enjoyment of what is produced by his own labor.
There is no conflict between these principles. On the contrary,
they are correlative. To fully secure the individual right of
property in the produce of labor we must treat the elements of
nature as common property. If anyone could claim the sunlight as
his property and could compel me to pay him for the agency of
the sun in the growth of crops I had planted, it would
necessarily lessen my right of property in the produce of my
labor. And conversely, where everyone is secured the full right
of property in the produce of his labor, no one can have any
right of property in what is not the produce of labor.
No matter how complex the industrial organization, nor how
highly developed the civilization, there is no real difficulty
in carrying out these principles. All we have to do is to treat
the land as the joint property of the whole people, just as a
railway is treated as the joint property of many shareholders,
or as a ship is treated as the joint property of several owners.
In other words, we can leave land now being used in the secure
possession of those using it, and leave land now unused to be
taken possession of by those who wish to make use of it, on
condition that those who thus hold land shall pay to the
community a fair rent for the exclusive privilege they enjoy -
that is to say, a rent based on the value of the privilege the
individual receives from the community in being accorded the
exclusive use of this much of the common property, and which
should have no reference to any improvement he had made in or on
it, or to any property due to the use of his labor and capital.
In this way all would be placed upon an equality in regard to
the use and enjoyment of those natural elements which are
clearly the common heritage, and that value which attaches to
land, not because of what the individual user does, but because
of the growth of the community, would accrue to the community,
and could be used for purposes of common benefit. As Herbert
Spencer has said of it:
"Such a doctrine is consistent with the highest state of
civilization; may be carried out without involving a community
of goods, and need cause no very serious revolution in existing
arrangements. The change required would be simply a change of
landlords. Separate ownership would merge into the joint stock
ownership of the public. Instead of being in the possession of
individuals, the country would be held by the great corporate
body - society.
A state of things so ordered would be in
perfect harmony with the moral law. Under it all men would be
equally landlords, all men would be alike free to become
tenants. Clearly, therefore, on such a system the earth might be
inclosed, occupied, and cultivated, in entire subordination to
the law of equal freedom."
That this simple change would, as Mr. Spencer says, involve no
serious revolution in existing arrangements is in many cases not
perceived by those who think of it for the first time. It is
sometimes said that while this principle is manifestly just, and
while it would be easy to apply it to a new country just being
settled, it would be exceedingly difficult to apply it to an
already settled country where land had already been divided as
private property, since, in such a country, to take possession
of the land as common property and let it out to individuals
would involve a sudden revolution of the greatest magnitude.
This objection, however, is founded upon the mistaken idea that
it is necessary to do everything at once. But it often happens
that a precipice we could not hope to climb, and that we might
well despair of making a ladder long enough and strong enough to
scale, may be surmounted by a gentle road. And there is in this
case a gentle road open to us, which will lead us so far that
the rest will be but an easy step. To make land virtually the
common property of the whole people, and to appropriate ground
rent for public use, there is a much simpler and easier way than
that of formally assuming the ownership of land and proceeding
to rent it out in lots-a way that involves no shock, that will
conform to present customs, and that, instead of requiring a
great increase of governmental machinery, will permit of a great
simplification of governmental machinery.
In every well-developed community large sums are needed for
common purposes, and the sums thus needed increase with social
growth, not merely in amount, but proportionately, since social
progress tends steadily to devolve on the community as a whole
functions which in a ruder stage are discharged by individuals.
Now, while people are not used to paying rent to government,
they are used to paying taxes to government. Some of these taxes
are levied upon personal or movable property, some upon
occupations or businesses or persons (as in the ease of income
taxes, which are in reality taxes on persons according to
income); some upon the transportation or exchange of
commodities, in which last category fall the taxes imposed by
tariffs; and some, in the United States at least, on real estate
- that is to say, on the value of land and of the improvements
upon it taken together.
That part of the tax on real estate which is assessed on the
value of land irrespective of improvements is, in its nature,
not a tax, but a rent - a taking for the common use of the
community of a part of the income that properly belongs to the
community by reason of the equal right of all to the use of
Now it is evident that, in order to take for the use of the
community the whole income arising from land, just as
effectually as it could be taken by formally appropriating and
letting out the land, it is only necessary to abolish, one after
another, all other taxes now levied, and to increase the tax on
land values till it reaches, as near as may be, the full annual
value of the land.
Whenever this point of theoretical perfection is reached, the
selling value of land will entirely disappear, and the charge
made to the individual by the community for the use of the
common property will become in form what it is in fact - a rent.
But, until that point is reached, this rent may be collected by
the simple increase of a tax already levied in all our States,
assessed (as direct taxes are now assessed) upon the selling
value of land irrespective of improvements-a value that can be
ascertained more easily and more accurately than any other
For a full exposition of the effects of this change in the
method of raising public revenues, I must refer the reader to
the works in which I have treated this branch of the subject at
greater length than is here possible. Briefly, they would be
In the first place, all taxes that now fall upon the exertion
of labor or use of capital would be abolished. No one would be
taxed for building a house or improving a farm or opening a
mine, for bringing things in from foreign countries, or for
adding in any way to the stock of things that satisfy human
wants and constitute national wealth. Everyone would be free to
make and save wealth; to buy, sell, give, or exchange, without
let or hindrance, any article of human production the use of
which did not involve any public injury.
All those taxes which increase prices as things pass from hand
to hand, falling finally upon the consumer, would disappear.
Buildings or other fixed improvements would be as secure as now,
and could be bought and sold, as now, subject to the tax or
ground rent due to the community for the ground on which they
stood. Houses and the ground they stand on, or other
improvements and the laud they are made on, would also be rented
as now. But the amount the tenant would have to pay would be
less than now, since the taxes now levied on buildings or
improvements fall ultimately (save in decaying communities) on
the user, and the tenant would therefore get the benefit of
their abolition. And in this reduced, rent the tenant would pay
all those taxes that he now has to pay in addition to his rent
-any remainder of what he paid on account of the ground going,
not to increase the wealth of a landlord, but to add to a fund
in which the tenant himself would be an equal sharer.
In the second place, a large and constantly increasing fund
would be provided for common uses without any tax on the
earnings of labor or on the returns of capital - a fund which in
well-settled countries would not only suffice for all of what
are now considered necessary expenses of government, but would
leave a large surplus to be devoted to purposes of general
In the third place, and most important of all, the monopoly of
land would be abolished, and land would be thrown open and kept
open to the use of labor, since it would be unprofitable for
anyone to hold land without putting it to its full use, and both
the temptation and the power to speculate in natural
opportunities would be gone.
The speculative value of land would be destroyed as soon as it
was known that, no matter whether land was used or not, the tax
would increase as fast as the value increased, and no one would
want to hold land that he did not use. With the disappearance of
the capitalized or selling value of land, the premium which must
now be paid as purchase money by those who wish to use land
would disappear, differences in the value of land being measured
by what would have to be paid for it to the community, nominally
in taxes but really in rent. So long as any unused land
remained, those who wished to use it could obtain it, not only
without the payment of any purchase price, but without the
payment of any tax or rent.
Nothing would be required for the use of land till less
advantageous land came into use, and possession thus gave an
advance over and above the return to the labor and capital
expended upon it, and, no matter how much the growth of
population and the progress of society increased the value of
land, this increase would go to the whole community, swelling
that general fund in which the poorest would be an equal sharer
with the richest.
Thus the great cause of the present unequal distribution of
wealth would be destroyed, and that one-sided competition would
cease which now deprives men who possess nothing but power to
labor of the benefits of advancing civilization, and forces --
wages to a minimum, no matter what the increase of wealth.
Labor, free to the natural elements of production, would no
longer be incapable of employing itself, and competition, acting
as fully and freely between employers as between employed, would
carry wages up to what is truly their natural rate - the full
value of the produce of labor - and keep them there.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- Mr. Butler had defined free trade as a tariff for revenue only.