The New York Times is running a feature today on
Henry George, the 19th-century political economist, [who] spent his seminal years in San Francisco. He is no longer a household name, and his “land-value taxation” theory is probably among the few radical ideas for government financial reform that haven’t gotten a hearing in Washington in recent weeks.
The article, “A Tax Policy With San Francisco Roots” by Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, a columnist for the Times-affiliated Bay Citizen in San Francisco, says George’s ideas “are remarkably relevant now.”
George proposed a simple taxation system in which land, but not the value of any buildings or improvements, would be taxed at a rate so high that it would satisfy all of government’s revenue needs. No complicated income tax code. No dog’s breakfast of special fees and gimmicks to balance government budgets. Just a confiscatory tax on land [value]. “Georgism,” as its single-tax principle is known, would be devastating for real estate speculators and large landowners, but proponents say it would be painless for most everyone else.
Here in California, a state that has bled itself dry by radically reducing property taxes, it’s easy to forget that just a few decades ago Georgism had an avid following. None less than Willie L. Brown Jr., the former San Francisco mayor and State Assembly speaker, championed Georgist policies, sometimes with the support of John Burton, the longtime Democratic power broker.
Mr. Brown twice introduced state legislation to create a Georgist land-tax regime. “I was badly defeated with that legislation both times,” he wrote a fellow Georgist in 1973. “But I am still convinced that land-value taxation should be given a try.”
A few years later, voters opted instead to slash property taxes via Proposition 13. Mr. Brown moved on, first to an enormously successful (and centrist) political career, and then to his current gig as a high-powered lawyer who counts major real estate developers and corporate landowners among his clients.
But Mr. Brown was certainly in good company as a Georgist. Devotees over the years have included Leo Tolstoy, Winston Churchill, Sun Yat-Sen, and the inventor of the board game that would become Monopoly.
“Henry George was called the Prophet of San Francisco,” said Joshua Vincent, a Georgist and the executive director of the Center for the Study of Economics in Philadelphia. “He led a mass movement, a pre-socialist labor movement.”
Non-socialist, in the ordinary sense of that word, would be more accurate than “pre-socialist.”
Full Disclosure: I was the Georgist recipient of the 1973 letter from Willie Brown, who was then chairman of the tax-writing Assembly Ways and Means Committee of the California Legislature, and I provided some background information for this article to reporter Elizabeth Lesly Stevens.