essays

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1897

After Nestor: Picketing Henry George

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

In a brief flurry of choice editorials, Tucker returns again to “picket duty,” addressing some of the many differences between himself and contemporary Henry George.

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Part Four: Land and Rent

 

On Picket Duty.

Henry George, in the Standard, calls Dr. Cogswell of San Francisco, who has endowed a polytechnic college in that city, and for its maintenance has conveyed certain lands to trustees, a “philanthropist by proxy,” on the ground that the people who pay rent for these lands are really taxed by Dr. Cogswell for the support of the college. But what are Henry George himself, by his theory, and his ideal State, by its practice, after realization, but “philanthropists by proxy”? What else, in fact, is the State as it now exists? (Oftener a cannibal than a philanthropist, to be sure, but in either case by proxy.) Does not Mr. George propose that the State shall tax individuals to secure “public improvements” which they may not consider such, or which they may consider less desirable to them than private improvements? Does he not propose that individuals shall “labor gratis” for the State, “whether they like it or not”? Does he not maintain that what the State “does with their labor is simply none of their business”? Mr. George’s criticism of Dr. Cogswell is equally a criticism of every form of compulsory taxation, especially the taxation of land values. He has aptly and accurately described himself.—Liberty, April 23, 1887.

There must be a limitation to great fortunes, says Henry George, “but that limitation must be natural, not artificial. Such a limitation is offered by the land value tax.” What in the name of sense is there about a tax that makes it natural as distinguished from artificial? If anything in the world is purely artificial, taxes are. And if they are collected by force, they are not only artificial, but arbitrary and tyrannical.—Liberty, May 7, 1887.

Henry George answers a correspondent who asks if under his system of taxing land values an enemy could not compel him to pay a higher tax on his land simply by making him an offer for the land in excess of the existing basis of taxation, by saying that no offers will change the basis of taxation unless they are made in good faith and for other than sentimental motives. It seems, then, that the tax assessors are to be inquisitors as well, armed with power to subject men to examination of their motives for desiring to effect any given transaction in land. What glorious days those will be for “boodlers”! What golden opportunities for fraud, favoritism, bribery, and corruption! And yet Mr. George will have it that he intends to reduce the power of government.—Liberty, May 28, 1887.

Henry George thinks the New York Sun’s claim, that it is “for liberty first, last, and forever,” pretty cool from a paper that supports a protective tariff. So it is. But the frigidity of this claim is even greater when it comes from a man who proposes on occasion to tax a man out of his home, and to “simplify” government by making it the owner of all rail-roads, telegraphs, gas-works, and water-works, so enlarging its revenues that all sorts of undreamed-of public improvements will become possible, and unnumbered public officials to administer them necessary.—Liberty, July 2, 1887.

The idiocy of the arguments employed by the daily press in discussing the labor question cannot well be exaggerated, but nevertheless it sometimes makes a point on Henry George which that gentleman cannot meet. For instance, the New York World lately pointed out that unearned increment attaches not only to land, but to almost every product of labor. “Newspapers,” it said, “are made valuable properties by the increase in population.” Mr. George seems to think this ridiculous, and inquires confidently whether the World’s success is due to increase of population or to Pulitzer’s business management. As if one cause excluded the other! Does Mr. George believe, then, that Pulitzer’s business management could have secured a million readers of the World if there had been no people in New York? Of course not. Then, to follow his own logic, Mr. George ought to discriminate in this case, as in the case of land, between the owner’s improvements and the community’s improvements, and tax the latter out of the owner’s hands.—Liberty, July 2, 1887.

Henry George was recently reminded in these columns that his own logic would compel him to lay a tax not only on land values, but on all values growing out of increase of population, and newspaper properties were cited in illustration. A correspondent of the Standard has made the same criticism, instancing, instead of a newspaper, “Crusoe’s boat, which rose in value when a ship appeared on the horizon.” To this correspondent Mr. George makes answer that, while Crusoe’s boat might have acquired a value when other people came, “because value is a factor of trading, and, when there is no one to trade with, there can be no value,” yet “it by no means follows that growth of population increases the value of labor products; for a population of fifty will give as much value to a desirable product as a population of a million.” I am ready to admit this of any article which can be readily produced by any and all who choose to produce it. But, as Mr. George says, it is not true of land; and it is as emphatically not true of every article in great demand which can be produced, in approximately equal expense, by only one or a few persons. There are many such articles, and one of them is a popular newspaper. Such articles are of small value when there are few people and of immense value when there are many. This extra value is unearned increment, and ought to be taxed out of the individual’s hands into those of the community if any unearned increment ought to be. Come, Mr. George, be honest! Let us see whither your doctrine will lead us.—Liberty, July 30, 1887.

Cart and horse are all one to Henry George. He puts either first to suit his fancy or the turn his questioner may take, and no matter which he places in the lead, he “gets there all the same”—on paper. When he is asked how taxation of land values will abolish poverty, he answers that the rush of wage-laborers to the land will reduce the supply of labor and send wages up. Then, when somebody else asks him how wage-laborers will be able to rush to the land without money to take them there and capital to work the land afterwards, he answers that wages will then be so high that the laborers will soon be able to save up money enough to start with. Sometimes, indeed, as if dimly perceiving the presence of some inconsistency lurking between these two propositions, he volunteers an additional suggestion that, after the lapse of a generation, he will be a phenomenally unfortunate young man who shall have no relatives or friends to help him start upon the land. But we are left as much in the dark as ever about the method by which these relatives or friends, during the generation which must before the young men get to the land, are to save up anything to give these young men a start, in the absence of that increase of wages which can only come as a consequence of the young men having gone to the land. Mr. George, however, has still another resource in reserve, and, when forced to it, he trots it out,—namely, that, there being all grades between the rich and the very poor, those having enough to start themselves upon the land would do so, and the abjectly poor, no longer having them for competitors, would get higher wages. Of course one might ask why these diminutive capitalists, who even now can go to the land if they choose, since there is plenty to be had for but little more than the asking, refrain nevertheless from at once relieving an over-stocked labor market; but it would do no good. You see, you can’t stump Henry George. He always comes up blandly smiling. He knows he has a ready tongue and a facile pen, and on these he relies to carry him safely through the mazes of unreason.—Liberty, July 30, 1887.

The Providence People having declared that “every tax is in the nature of a tax to discourage industry,” I asked it if that was the reason why it favored a tax on land values. It answers that it favors such a tax because it would discourage industry less than any other tax, and because some tax is necessary in order to govern people who cannot govern themselves. In other words, the People declares that it is necessary to discourage industry in order to suppress crime. Did it ever occur to the People that the discouragement of industry causes more crime than it suppresses, and that, if industry were not discouraged, there would be little or no crime to suppress?—Liberty, October 8, 1887.

Perhaps no feature of Henry George’s scheme is so often paraded before the public as a bait as the claim that with a tax levied on land values all other taxes will be abolished. But now it is stated in the Standard that, if any great fortunes remain after the adoption of the land tax, it will be “a mere detail to terminate them by a probate tax.” This is offered for the benefit of those who believe that interest no less than rent causes concentration of wealth. To those who fear the effects upon home industry in case of an abolition of the tariff Mr. George hints that he will be perfectly agreeable to the offering of bounties out of the land tax; but the use of the proceeds of the land tax for a new purpose, after existing governmental expenses had been met, would be equivalent to a new tax. So we already have three taxes in sight where there was to be but one,—the land tax, the probate tax, and the bounty tax. Presently, as new necessities arise, a fourth will loom up, and a fifth, and a sixth. Thus the grand work of “simplifying government” goes on.—Liberty, November 5, 1887.

“What gives value to land?” asks Rev. Hugh O. Pentecost. And he answers: “The presence of population—the community. Then rent, or the value of land, morally belongs to the community.” What gives value to Mr. Pentecost’s preaching? The presence of population—the community. Then Mr. Pentecost’s salary, or the value of his preaching, morally belongs to the community.—Liberty, August 18, 1888.

This is part of a series