After Paine: Henry George’s “Single Tax”
Nearly a century after Thomas Paine’s proposal, reformer Henry George popularized a similar scheme.
July 4, 2015
Henry George may be the most important 19th-century American political thinker most people have never heard of. George led the charge for the secret ballot in the United States.
Between the 1870s and 1890s, he campaigned for free trade, women’s suffrage, public control of natural monopolies like utilities and railroads, and other reforms.
George’s main project, which made him a celebrity, was the “single tax” proposal that he developed independently of Thomas Paine but which echoes Paine’s basic insight.
Struggling as a printer and journalist in San Francisco, George had been struck by the contrast between wealth of the earliest settlers and speculators, who had scooped up the best land in the Bay Area for pennies on the dollar, and the economic hardships faced by later migrants. Merely to get a foothold in the region, they had to pay exorbitant rents to the earlier comers.
George saw that the playing field of economic life is stacked in favor of those who can charge rent—unearned income that is the reward not of any effort or contribution to society, but of merely being first on the scene.
A follower of George later developed a board game, the “Landlord’s Game,” to illustrate that principle. That game gave rise to the variant we now know as Monopoly.
A fair mix of resources and labor
In his 1879 bestseller Progress and Poverty, George reiterated Locke’s argument that a productive enterprise mixes land and natural resources (which belong to all) with labor (which belongs to the laborer).
In the footsteps of Paine, he argued that the value contributed by land should be distributed equitably. Unlike Paine, he argued for a tax rather than a trust/dividend model.
George proposed that a “single tax” on land values would be adequate to meet all public expenses. That would include government operations, and also (similar to Paine) pensions for the elderly.
George’s ideas reached a wide audience and enjoyed considerable popularity (as well as the scorn of professional economists, who considered him an interloper). At the height of his popularity, George narrowly missed being elected mayor of New York City.
Experiments abounded after his death, including Georgist colonies in Alabama, Delaware, and New Jersey. Some cities, such as Pittsburgh, have had success with two-tier real estate assessments. This involves taxing buildings at a lower rate than land.
Such policies stimulate construction, encourage dense (pedestrian-friendly) development, and help keep housing affordable, all while raising public revenue.
But Henry George’s “single tax” was never enacted on a large scale.
Paine’s idea went underground again. It found advocates, to be sure, but only at the margins of power and influence.
There are Georgist organizations. There are enthusiasts who debate the merits of various citizens’ dividend and social dividend schemes. (I first learned of them in the 1990s from one such enthusiast, an elderly Quaker peace and justice activist named Alfred Andersen.)
Approaching another Paine movement?
It would be easy to suppose that the world has passed Paine by, that there is little chance a radical proposal such as his could find a mass following or be implemented on a large scale today.
Even the success of the Alaska PFD could be seen as the exception that proves the rule. The PFD was, after all, the brainchild of a maverick governor (Jay Hammond) in a state that is an outlier in more than just the geographic sense. How could one imagine it would be reproduced anywhere else?
But there are reasons to think that Alaska is in the vanguard, that we are approaching another Paine moment.
George’s main project was the “single tax” proposal that echoes Paine’s basic insight.
A board game developed to illustrate George’s principle gave rise to the variant we now know as Monopoly.
Unlike Paine, George argued for a tax rather than a trust/dividend model.
With Alaska in the vanguard, it could very well be that we are approaching another Paine moment.