“It may be described as government without taxation,” F. W. Garrison wrote in his 1913 Atlantic article “The Case for the Single Tax,” “for, if the Georgian contention is true, the rent of land belongs not to the individual who would be required to surrender it, but to the community as a whole.”
The Single Taxers’ vision is still unrealized; the tax has never been widely implemented. But George’s simple idea to increase equity captured the imagination of workers disadvantaged by the changing economy in the decades after Progress and Poverty was published, and has retained a base of support among progressive reformers and economists for more than a century. Now interest in the land-value tax, and its promise to reduce inequality and promote economic justice, has been revived.
George’s timing was “exquisite,” says Edward T. O’Donnell, a history professor at College of the Holy Cross and the author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality. George made his appeal at the tail end of the Long Depression of the 1870s, a period of deflation that brought the mounting wealth disparity and apparent destitution that accompanied the rapid economic growth of the Gilded Age into stark relief. Those economic trends made his ideas popular with an unexpected audience: the working class.
“He writes his book and thinks it’s going to get him a professorship at a prestigious university, and it turns out his biggest fan club are working-class members of the Knights of Labor,” says O’Donnell. “How a 500-page book of political economy could become a best seller among carpenters and bricklayers and typesetters, it’s pretty amazing. But that’s ultimately what happened.”
Progress and Poverty sold hundreds of thousands of copies before the century was over, and spawned political parties, clubs, and colonies based on the notion of a collective right to unimproved land value. He continued to attract support both from common people and from prominent figures—including Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—long after his death, in 1897.
Today, with wealth disparities again widening and land values and housing prices skyrocketing in certain areas, Joan Youngman, the senior fellow and chair of the Department of Valuation and Taxation at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, says George’s appeal for greater economic inequality “resonates the way it did in the Gilded Age”—and it’s found vocal supporters among economists. In June 2017, three UCLA professors made the case in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, with Georgian logic, that land-value taxes should be used to finance affordable housing in California: “Housing scarcity delivers unearned wealth to people who own housing, and it imposes unwarranted burdens on people who don’t. To solve our housing crisis fairly and effectively, we should tax that wealth and use it to ease those burdens.” Two recent Economist articles, published in 2015 and 2018, advanced support for George’s idea along similar lines, as did pieces by Peter R. Orszag, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama, and the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, both written in 2015.