CHANGES WROUGHT IN ECONOMIC
The advantages that would be gained by substituting, for the numerous taxes by which the public revenues are now raised, a single tax levied upon the value of land, will appear more and more important the more they are considered.
To abolish the taxation, which acting and reacting now hampers every wheel of exchange and presses upon every form of industry, would be like removing an immense weight from a powerful spring. Imbued with fresh energy production would start into new life and trade would receive a stimulus that would be felt to the remotest arteries.
The present method of taxation operates upon exchange like artificial deserts and mountains.
To get goods through a customs house can cost as much as carrying them around the world. Today taxation operates upon energy, and industry, and skill, and thrift, like a fine upon those qualities. If you have worked harder and built yourself a good house while I have been contented to live in a hovel, the tax-gatherer now comes annually to make you pay a penalty for your energy and industry, by taxing you more than me. If you have saved while I have wasted, you are mulct while I am exempt.
We punish with a tax the man who covers barren fields with ripening grain; we fine him who puts up machinery and him who drains a swamp. How heavily these taxes burden production only those realize who have attempted to follow them through their ramifications, for their heaviest part is that which falls in increased prices. Manifestly these taxes are in their nature akin to the Egyptian Pasha's tax upon date trees. If they do not cause the trees to be cut down, they at least discourage the planting.
To abolish these taxes would be to lift the whole enormous weight of taxation from productive industry. The needle of the seamstress and the great manufactory, the horse and the locomotive, the fishing boat and the steamship, the farmer's plough and the merchant's stock, would be alike untaxed. All would be free to make or to save, to buy or to sell, unfined by taxes, unannoyed by the tax-gatherer. Instead of saying to the producer, as it does now, "The more you add to the general wealth the more shall you be taxed!" the Government would say, "Be as industrious, as thrifty, as enterprising as you choose, you shall have your full reward! You shall not be fined for making two blades of grass grow where one grew before; you shall not be taxed for adding to the aggregate wealth."
And will not the community gain by thus refusing to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; by thus refraining from muzzling the ox that treadeth out the corn; by thus leaning to industry, and thrift, and skill, their natural reward, full and unimpaired? For there is to the community also a natural reward. The law of society is each for all as well as all for each. No one can keep to himself the good he may do, any more than he can keep the bad. Every productive enterprise, besides its return to those who undertake it, yields collateral advantages to others. If a man plant a fruit tree, his gain is that he gathers the fruit in its time and season. But in addition to his gain, there is a gain to the whole community. Others than the owner are benefitted by the increased supply of fruit; the birds that it shelters fly far and wide; the rain that it helps to attract falls not alone on his field; and, even to the eye which rests upon it from a distance, it brings a sense of beauty. And so with everything else. The building of a house, a factory, a ship, or a railway, benefits others besides those who get the direct gains.
Well may the community leave to the individual producer all that prompts him to exertion; well may it let the labourer have the full reward of his labour, and the capitalist the full return of his capital. For the more that labour and capital produce, the greater grows the common wealth in which all may share. And in the value or rent of land this general gain is expressed in a definite and concrete form. Here is a fund which the state may take while leaving to labour and capital their full reward.
To shift the burden of taxation from production and exchange to the value or rent of land would be not merely to give new stimulus to the production of wealth; it would be to open new opportunities. For under this system no one would care to hold land unless to use it, and land now withheld from use would everywhere be thrown open to improvement. And it must be remembered that this would apply not merely to agricultural land but to all land. Mineral land would be thrown open to use as would agricultural land; and in the heart of a city no one could afford to keep land from its most profitable use, or on the outskirts to demand more for it than would be warranted by the use to which it could be put at the time.
Whoever planted an orchard, or sowed a field, or built a house, or erected a manufactory, no matter how costly, would have no more to pay in taxes than if he kept so much land idle. The owner of a vacant city lot would have to pay as much for the privilege of keeping other people off it until he wanted to use it as his neighbour who has a fine house upon his lot. It would cost as much to keep a row of tumble-down shanties upon valuable land as it would were the land covered with a grand hotel or a pile of great warehouses filled with costly goods.
The selling price of land would fall; land speculation would receive its death-blow; land monopolization would no longer pay. Thus there would disappear the premium which, wherever labour is most productive, must now be paid before labour can be exerted. The farmer would not have to pay out half his means, or mortgage his labour for years, in order to obtain land to cultivate. The company that proposed to erect a manufactory would not have to expend a great part of its capital for a site. And what would be paid from year to year to the state would be in lieu of all the taxes now levied upon improvements, machinery and stock.
Consider the effect of such a change upon the labour market. Instead of labourers competing with each other for employment, and in their competition cutting down wages to the point of bare subsistence, employers would compete for labourers and wages would rise to the fair earnings of labour. For into the labour market would have entered the greatest of all competitors for the employment of labour, a competitor whose demand cannot be satisfied - the demand of labour itself. The employers of labour would have to bid not merely against other employers, all feeling the stimulus of greater trade, but against the ability of labourers to become their own employers upon the natural opportunities thrown open to them by the tax which prevented monopolization.
With natural opportunities thus set free to labour, with capital and improvements exempt from tax and exchange released from restrictions, the spectacle of willing men unable to turn their labour into the things they want would become impossible; the recurring paroxysms which paralyse industry would cease; every wheel of production would be set in motion; trade would increase in every direction and wealth augment on every hand.
But great as they thus appear, the advantages of a transference of all public burdens to a tax upon the value of land cannot be fully appreciated until we consider the effect upon the distribution of wealth.
Who can say to what infinite powers the wealth-producing capacity of labour may not be raised by social adjustments that will give to the producers of wealth their fair proportion of its advantages and enjoyments? Every new power engaged in the service of man would improve the condition of all. And from the general intelligence and mental activity springing from this general improvement of conditions would come new developments of power of which as yet we cannot dream.
When it is first proposed to put all taxes upon the value of land and thus to confiscate rent, there will not be wanting appeals to the fears of small farm and homestead owners, who will be told that this is a proposition to rob them of their hard-earned property.
But a moment's reflection will show that this proposition should commend itself to all whose interests as landholders do not largely exceed their interests as labourers or capitalists, or both.
Take the case of the mechanic, shopkeeper or professional man who has secured himself a house and plot where he lives and which he contemplates with satisfaction as a place from which his family cannot be ejected in case of his death. Although he will have taxes to pay upon his land, he will be released from taxes upon his house and improvements, upon his furniture and personal property, upon all that he and his family eat, drink and wear, while his earnings will be largely increased by the rise of wages, the constant employment, and the increased briskness of trade.
And so with the farmer. I speak not of the farmer who never touches the handles of a plough, but of the working farmer who holds a small farm which he cultivates with the aid of his sons and perhaps some hired help. He would be a great gainer by the substitution of a single tax upon the value of land for all the taxes now imposed on commodities because the taxation of land values rests only on the value of land, which is low in agricultural districts as compared with towns and cities, where it is high. Acre for acre, the improved and cultivated farm, with its buildings, fences, orchard, crops and stock, would be taxed no more than unused land of equal quality. For taxes, being levied upon the value of the land alone, would fall with equal incidence upon unimproved as upon improved land.
The great wrong that takes wealth from the hands of those who produce, and concentrates it in the hands of those who do not, would be gone. Whatever disparities continued to exist would be those of nature, not the artificial disparities produced by the denial of equal rights. Wealth would not only be enormously increased; it would be distributed in accordance with the degree in which the industry, skill, knowledge or prudence of each contributed to the common stock.
It is not possible without too much elaboration to notice all the changes that would be wrought, or would become possible, by a change that would readjust the very foundation of society. Among these is the great simplicity that would become possible in government. To collect taxes, to prevent and punish evasions, to check and countercheck revenues drawn from so many distinct sources, now make up a large part of the business of government. An immense and complicated network of governmental machinery would thus be dispensed with. The rise of wages, the opening of opportunities for all to make an easy and comfortable living, would at once lessen and would soon eliminate from society the thieves, swindlers and other classes of criminals who spring from the unequal distribution of wealth. Thus the administration of the criminal law, with all its paraphernalia of policemen, detectives, prisons and penitentiaries, would cease to make such a drain upon the vital force and attention of society. The legislative, judicial and executive functions of government would be vastly simplified. Society would thus approach the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy.
THE MASTER MOTIVE OF HUMAN ACTION
In thinking of the possibilities of social organization, we are apt to assume that greed is the strongest of human motives, and that systems of administration can be safely based only upon the idea that the fear of punishment is necessary to keep men honest - that selfish interests are always stronger than general interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whatever is potent for evil may be made potent for good. The change I have proposed would destroy the conditions that distort impulses in themselves beneficent, and would transmute the forces that now tend to disintegrate society into forces that would tend to unite and purify it.
Give labour a free field and its full earnings; take for the benefit of the whole community that fund which the growth of the community creates, and want and the fear of want would be gone. The springs of production would be set free and the enormous increase of wealth would give the poorest ample comfort. Men would no more worry about finding employment than they worry about finding air to breathe; they need have no more care about physical necessities than do the lilies of the field. The progress of science, the march of invention, the diffusion of knowledge, would bring their benefits to all. With this abolition of want and the fear of want, the admiration of riches would decay and men would seek the respect and approbation of their fellows in other modes than by the acquisition and display of wealth. In this way there would be brought to the management of public affairs, and the administration of common funds the skill, the attention, the fidelity and the integrity that can now be secured only for private interests.
Short-sighted is the philosophy that counts on selfishness as the master motive of human action. It is blind to facts of which the world is full. It sees not the present, and reads not the past aright. If you would move men to action, to what shall you appeal? Not to their pockets, but to their patriotism; not to selfishness, but to sympathy. Self-interest is, as it were, a mechanical force - potent, it is true; capable of large and wide results. But there is in human nature what may be likened to a chemical force that melts and fuses and overwhelms, to which nothing seems impossible. "All that a man hath will he give for his life" - that is self-interest. But in loyalty to higher impulses men will give even life.
It is not selfishness that enriches the annals of every people with heroes and saints. It is not selfishness that on every page of the world's history bursts out in sudden splendour of noble deeds or sheds the soft radiance of benignant lives. It was not selfishness that turned Gautama's back to his royal home or bade the Maid of Orleans lift the sword from the altar; that held the Three Hundred in the Pass of Thermopylae, or gathered into Winkelried's bosom the sheaf of spears; that chained Vincent de Paul to the bench of the galley, or brought little starving children, during the Indian famine, tottering to the relief stations with yet weaker starvelings in their arms. Call it religion, patriotism, sympathy, the enthusiasm for humanity, or the love of God - give it what name you will; there is yet a force that overcomes and drives out selfishness; a force that is the electricity of the moral universe; a force beside which all others are weak. Everywhere that men have lived it has shown its power, and today, as ever, the world is full of it. To be pitied is the man who has never seen and never felt it. Look around! Among common men and women, amid the care and the struggle of daily life, in the jar of the noisy street and amid the squalor where want hides - every here and there is the darkness lighted with the tremulous play of its lambent flares. He who has not seen it has walked with shut eyes. He who looks may see, as says Plutarch, that "the soul has a principle of kindness in itself, and is born to love, as well as to perceive, think, or remember."
There are people who are unable to conceive of any better state of society than that which now exists - to whom the idea that there could be a state of society in which greed would be banished, prisons stand empty, individual interests be subordinated to general interests, and no one would seek to rob or to oppress his neighbour, is but the dream of impracticable dreamers. Such people - though some of them write books, and some of them occupy the chairs of universities, and some of them stand in pulpits - do not think. If they were accustomed to dine in those eating-houses where the knives and forks are chained to the table, they would deem it the natural, ineradicable disposition of man to carry off the knife and fork with which he has eaten.
Take a company of well-bred men and women dining together. There is no struggling for food, no attempt on the part of anyone to get more than his neighbour; no attempt to gorge or to carry off. On the contrary, each one is anxious to help his neighbour before he partakes himself; to offer to others the best rather than pick it out for himself; and should anyone show the slightest disposition to prefer the gratification of his own appetite to that of the others, or in any way to act the pig or pilferer, the swift and heavy penalty of social contempt and ostracism would show how such conduct is reprobated by common opinion.
Differing States of Society
All this is so common as to excite no remark, as to seem the natural state of things. Yet it is no more natural that men should not be greedy of food than that they should not be greedy of wealth. They are greedy of food when they are not assured that there will be a fair and equitable distribution that will give enough to each. But when these conditions are assured, they cease to be greedy of food. And so in society, as at present constituted, men are greedy of wealth because the conditions of distribution are so unjust that instead of each being sure of enough, many are certain to be condemned to want. It is the "devil catch the hindmost" of present social adjustments that causes the race and scramble for wealth, in which all considerations of justice, mercy, religion and sentiment are trampled underfoot; in which men forget their own souls and struggle to the very verge of the grave for what they cannot take beyond. But an equitable distribution of wealth, by exempting all from the fear of want, would destroy the greed of wealth, just as in polite society the greed of food has been destroyed.
Consider this existing fact of a cultivated and refined society, in which all the coarser passions are held in check, not by force, not by law, but by common opinion and the mutual desire to please. If this is possible for a part of a community, it is possible for a whole community. There are states of society in which everyone has to go armed - in which everyone has to hold himself in readiness to defend person and property with the strong hand. If we have progressed beyond that, we may progress still further.
But it may be said, to banish want and the fear of want would be to destroy the stimulus to exertion; men would simply become idlers, and such a happy state of general comfort and content would be the death of progress. This is the old slaveholders' argument, that men can only be driven to labour with the lash. Nothing is more untrue.
Want might be banished, but desire would remain. Man is the unsatisfied animal. He has only begun to explore, and the universe lies before him. Each step that he takes opens new vistas and kindles new desires. He is the constructive animal; he builds, he improves, he invents and puts together, and the greater the thing he does, the greater the thing he wants to do. He is more than an animal. Whatever be the intelligence that breathes through nature, it is in that likeness that man is made. The steamship, driven by her throbbing engines through the sea, is in kind, though not in degree, as much a creation as the whale that swims beneath. The telescope and the microscope, what are they but added eyes, which man has made for himself? The soft webs and fair colours in which our women array themselves, do they not answer to the plumage that nature gives the bird? Man must be doing something, or fancy that he is doing something, for in him throbs the creative impulse; the mere basker in the sunshine is not a natural, but an abnormal man.
It is not labour in itself that is repugnant to man; it is not the natural necessity for exertion that is a curse; it is only the labour that produces nothing - exertion of which he cannot see the results. To toil day after day, and yet get but the necessaries of life, this is indeed hard; it is like the infernal punishment of compelling a man to pump lest he be drowned, or to trudge on a treadmill lest he be crushed. But released from this necessity, men would but work the harder and the better, for then they would work as their inclinations led them; then, would they seem to be really doing something for themselves or for others.
The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power, enriches literature, and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for its own sake, and not that they may get more to cat or drink, or wear, or display. In a state of society where want was abolished, work of this sort would be enormously increased.
I am inclined to think that the result of confiscating rent in the manner I have proposed would be to cause the organization of labour, wherever large capitals were used, to assume the cooperative form, since the more equal diffusion of wealth would unite capitalist and labourer in the same person. But whether this would be so or not is of little moment. The hard toil of routine labour would disappear. Wages would be too high and opportunities too great to compel any man to stint and starve the higher qualities of his nature, and in every avocation the brain would aid the hand. Work, even of the coarser kinds, would become a lightsome thing. The tendency of modern production to subdivision would not involve monotony or the contraction of ability in the worker, since toil would be relieved by short hours, by change, by the alternation of intellectual with manual occupations.
The greatest of all the wastes that the present constitution of society involves is that of mental power. How infinitesimal are the forces that concur to the advance of civilization, as compared with the forces that lie latent!
How few are the thinkers, the discoverers, the inventors, the organizers, as compared with the great mass of the people! Yet such men are born in plenty; it is the conditions that permit so few to develop.
How little have the best of us, in acquirements, in position, even in character, that may be credited entirely to ourselves; how much to the influences that have moulded us. Who is there, wise, learned, discreet, or strong, who might not, were he to trace the inner history of his life, turn like the Stoic Emperor to give thanks to the gods, that by this one and that one, and here and there, good examples have been set him, noble thoughts have reached him and happy opportunities opened before him. Who is there, with his eyes about him and having reached the meridian of life, who has not sometimes echoed the thought of the pious Englishman, as the criminal passed to the gallows, "But for the grace of God, there go I." How little does heredity count as compared with conditions. This one, we say, is the result of a thousand years of European progress, and that one of a thousand years of Chinese petrifaction. Yet place an infant in the heart of China and, but for the angle of the eye or the shade of the hair, the Caucasian would grow up as those around him, using the same speech, thinking the same thoughts, exhibiting the same tastes. Change Lady Vere de Vere in her cradle with an infant of the slum and will the blood of a hundred earls give you a refined and cultured woman?
To remove want and the fear of want, to give to all classes leisure, comfort and independence, the decencies and refinements of life, the opportunities of mental and moral development, would be like turning water into a desert. The sterile waste would clothe itself with verdure and the barren places where life seemed banned would ere long be dappled with the shade of trees and musical with the song of birds. Talents now hidden, virtues unsuspected, would come forth to make human life richer, fuller, happier, nobler. For in those round men who are stuck into three-cornered holes and three-cornered men who are rammed into round holes; in those men who are wasting their energies in the scramble to be rich; in those who in factories are turned into machines, or are chained by necessity to bench or plough; in those children who are growing up in squalor, vice and ignorance, are powers of the highest order, talents the most splendid. All they need is the opportunity to bring them forth.
Consider the possibilities of a state of society that gave that opportunity to all. Let imagination fill out the picture; its colours grow too bright for words to paint. Consider the moral elevation, the intellectual activity, the social life. Consider how by a thousand actions and interactions the members of every community are linked together and how, in the present condition of things, even the fortunate few who stand upon the apex of the social pyramid must suffer, though they know it not, from the want, ignorance and degradation that are underneath. The change I propose would be for the benefit of everyone, even the greatest landholder. Would he not be safer of the future of his children in leaving them penniless in such a state of society than in leaving them the largest fortune in this? Did such a state of society anywhere exist, would he not buy entrance to it cheaply by giving up all his possessions?