Anything less than an equal share is a violation of the Law of Equal Liberty, for any exclusive claim over natural opportunities necessarily reduces the opportunities available for everyone else. There is only one way to ensure equality of opportunity: for the community to recapture the value of land.
It is for these reasons that virtually all the notable classical liberal political economists supported the idea of the community recapturing the land values, using the discourse of taxation.
“A tax upon ground-rents would not raise the rents of houses. It would fall altogether upon the owner of the ground-rent, who acts always as a monopolist, and exacts the greatest rent which can be got for the use of his ground.” Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
“A tax on rent would affect rent only; it would fall wholly on landlords, and could not be shifted to any class of consumers. The landlord could not raise his rent, because he would leave unaltered the difference between the produce obtained from the least productive land in cultivation, and that obtained from land of every quality.” David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
When you impose costs on man-made objects, you see a reduction in supply. The supply of land, on the other hand, is fixed.
Income taxes discourage production, sales taxes discourage consumption (which drives production), tariffs discourage trade (which is really a form of production), but value capture only discourages the unproductive holding of land.
Instead of hampering production, it would boost it. Think of every vacant lot or surface level parking lot in a city, every abandoned building, every single-story fast food franchise amidst skyscrapers. Those are all examples of the waste and underdevelopment of the current system. These things occur simply because it is cheaper to sit on the land and hope others put in the work necessary to make it valuable, compared to the expense of undertaking an entrepreneurial venture.
Death and Taxes – Only One Needs to be Certain
Landholding ought not be seen as a no-strings-attached sovereignty. A true libertarian position recognizes that landholding comes with obligations: obligations to internalize negative externalities, and obligations to respect the Law of Equal Liberty. Sure both of those things may be difficult to do, and may not be accomplished perfectly, yet we must try to achieve them one way or another.
My goal is not to say exactly how the land value should be recaptured. Whether this is done by a municipality, a nation-state, or a Charter City is not the topic of this paper. I only aim to spread a general recognition that it is an essential prerequisite for a just and sustainable socioeconomic order.
Value Capture is most commonly advocated as “Land Value Taxation.” However, it is a tax only in the sense that Pigovian “Taxes” are. It is not a tax on production, and thus there is nothing objectionable about it from the perspective of classical liberalism. Indeed, I’d argue that without it, classical liberalism is a cruel joke. Value capture is simply a reconceptualization of who owns the value of the access rights over the Earth.
“Rent is not a tax. It is payment for the use of a location, determined by the higgling and haggling of the market, and it makes no difference to the land user whether he pays rent to the city fathers or to a private owner.” Frank Chodorov, Out of Step
Under the current system, rent is like an extractive force upon laborers and capitalists, and that can only be fixed by preventing the private appropriation of land rent. I care not whether the person pocketing the rent is an ideal Lockean homesteader or Donald Trump, it is unjust either way, just as it would be unjust for either of them to unaccountably create negative externalities.
The land value must be recaptured to the fullest extent possible, not simply as a means for funding essential services. If the government is limited enough and well-managed enough to not require all of the land rent, it should still recapture all of it and distribute the surplus as a flat Citizen’s Dividend, since that value truly does belong equally to all. This dividend would not only be essential for justice, but would provide a strong incentive for all parties to keep public services lean and efficient.
That which makes public services more efficient would be of direct interest to citizens. That which makes land values higher, would be of direct interest to bureaucrats, which means their incentive would be to create value for the community, rather than to take from productive activity. The incentives between individuals and their community are aligned.
The ideal of steady growth is completely feasible. Monetary policy is not the root cause of the business cycle. Borrowing fuels speculation, but it isn’t the ability to borrow which creates the business cycle. That merely amplifies it. You have to ask why they are borrowing. If the borrowing were for normal productive purposes, the borrowing wouldn’t be inflationary.
No, the root cause of the cycles isn’t borrowing, it’s when we leave for the taking a giant pile of community-generated wealth. We shouldn’t find it unusual that people should want to pocket unearned wealth. Or even that they should want to undertake bouts of debt-fueled speculation. “Safe” unearned income sure beats working. Who wouldn’t want that? It is the system which is corrupt.
Land shouldn’t be seen as this “safe” investment, which grows over time with the progress of civilization. No other asset works like that. It ought not even be seen as an investment; if anything, it should be seen as a liability. That we have obligations when we take on the duty of landholding might come as a shock to some, but it is the only position consistent with liberty, and key to our success.
Though it isn’t calculated in official statistics like the CPI, rent is what drives much of the increase in living expenses, and why the working classes often never see a piece of their increased productivity during booms. What good is it that the GDP has risen if the general level of wages do not rise as well? That is not the sort of steady growth we should be interested in.
Unemployment during busts is a result of the market correcting for the inflated cost of production resulting from land speculation and other rent-taking. Remember, land is necessary for all production, and life itself. I don’t care if your business is all Internet-based, you and your employees still require access rights to the Earth, as do all the producers of the capital goods you consume. Conversely, if people have access to land, there can be no unemployment.
Really Smart Growth
Another cruel joke of the current system is the notion of Smart Growth. We cannot possibly curb sprawl as long as land speculation occurs. Let’s say a really nice community is developing. Businesses are sprouting up. This increases the land values. Before you know it, the land values exceed the ability for many people to pay. Even though the transportation infrastructure isn’t anywhere near capacity, and density living is far more ecologically efficient, people begin to go elsewhere in search of a place to live. It is simply too expensive in town.
They buy up land outside of town. Yet, before you know it, the new settlement is getting built up, the community is generating lots of value, and they begin construction on new infrastructure, and again before you know it the land values exceed the ability for people to pay. How could anyone believe that people would make different decisions simply because a few do-gooders built pedestrian friendly development? It is absurd to believe this process of sprawl can be halted through zoning, light rail projects, philanthropy, or any sort of central planning. It can only be halted through systemic change.
Land is artificially scarce under the current system of land tenure. We’ve already discussed the issue of vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and underdevelopment. Those are just the most visible signs. What about the things we don’t see?
For instance, think about our industrialized agriculture system. It is probably the most land-intensive production there is. Wasteful production practices are essentially subsidized by this system. Why aren’t we moving towards more high-tech and efficient forms of production? You may have heard about the concept of vertical farming. People often ask why it isn’t common practice, and the answer given is that it is “not economically viable.” A primary reason why it isn’t viable is that holding lots of land is under our system is very cheap, and even profitable.
This insanity isn’t just contained domestically either. All the waste of the current system creates this compulsion to expand abroad, to continue fueling the land speculation Ponzi schemes. This creates international resource conflicts, and may even trigger war. It is no wonder that the Old World, where all the land was parceled out and the Commons long-enclosed, became the aggressors in the Scramble for Africa. Of course, eventually they gobbled up all of Africa, and finally turned inward on themselves in the form of the First World War.
– Edward Miller