A MORE DETAILED DIAGRAMMATIC EXPLANATION
The best way of explaining LVT is through a series of diagrams showing how land values arise from the first settlement of virgin territory through its evolution to a large community, and the best example of this is the settlement and development of North America.
The column diagrams that follow show the economic growth of a community from very simple beginnings, where each column represents the productivity on each site.
All real wealth derives from work, physical or mental, and in the earliest settlements this was almost exclusively due to agrarian work applied directly to the land.
Figure 1 represents the productivity of the first site settled and worked by one man and his family. The settler has an abundance of choice from equally fertile sites and the column represents the maximum production he can achieve to support himself and his family on the site he selects.
Figure 2 shows two further sites settled and worked with similar results, giving a general level of productivity by settlers working independently on sites of similar fertility, assuming equality of work done by each settler. In reality although the sites may well be physically adjacent, as they are worked independently, they are shown as separate in the diagram.
In figure 3 two of the settlers decide that it is mutually beneficial to work in co-operation to effect what neither would be able to do alone. Their total combined product is therefore more than twice the product of each working separately. This additional product may be described as a co-operative surplus. The decision of A and B to co-operate is the first step in the creation of an ‘economic’ society. Economics begins with and depends on interaction. This principle is fundamental to any understanding of LVT. The idea of co-operation is paramount. Economics as such begins at this point; when men co-operate to act collectively. When the three settlers were operating independently an economic community had not come into being. When A and B agreed to co-operate an economic relationship was established.
In figure 4 settlers C and D have joined the embryonic community and the overall product increases accordingly. It is reasonable to assume that the settlers will choose what they see as the best sites, which may be described as ‘prime sites’. At this stage it should be noted that the production on each site is equal; the original production level, common to all sites, becomes a useful reference datum to maintain through the subsequent diagrams.
Each new settler is naturally attracted to join the existing community and with each addition the co-operative surplus increases with greater efficiency through more specialisation. In this simple community the distribution of the surplus product would be shared equally for equal work done; as yet there are no taxes. The level of this co-operative production rises with each new member of the community but is still the same for all sites, which are of equal productivity. At this stage the growing community is still characterised by equality; of work done, production achieved, distribution of benefits and values of the respective sites.
As the prime sites are all taken the next settler will have to take a site which is less productive (in agrarian terms), a so called marginal site (site E, figure 5). However his production will still be superior to that which he could achieve independently. He will receive the benefit from the co-operative surplus as well as contributing towards it. His independent production level is shown (theoretically) as lower than that of the production of the original prime sites. Marginal sites will be occupied and worked as long as they provide the occupant with a viable living.
The level of production at the margin will, in later development, become an important factor in the economic arrangement. The appearance of the margin has created the first manifestation of a differential in land values albeit due to the reduced value of site E. However this difference is largely caused by the physical condition of site E within an agrarian economy; due for instance to reduced fertility or the lack of a natural water source. It is the site itself that is different; nothing has changed on the prime sites. The apparent advantage of the prime sites is due to the negative disadvantage of site E. The theoretical marginal site independent production level is shown in the diagrams for the sake of comparison.
Fig 6 shows the next phenomenon of positive advantage due to location.
At the same time as more marginal sites are occupied, adding to the co-operative surplus, a positive difference in productive advantage arises on certain sites due entirely to their location in relation to all the others. Though no increase of work on the sites has taken place they will become more productive due to their proximity to the centre of economic activity. They may not necessarily be at the geographical centre of the community, but rather at the economic centre; perhaps where the community chooses to hold a market, or where a crossroads arises. In Fig.6, site A shows an additional productivity that may be termed a location surplus and it is this surplus that provides the justification for a land value tax. This location surplus introduces a second differential in land values, which has a different cause to the first. The first is due to decreased fertility, an act of Nature, the second is a man-made phenomenon, due to the existence and growth of a community. It is this second type of differential that will be the future basis for LVT. Certainly the manifestation of location value would appear on the prime sites first as they would already be at the centre of the community. This would be due to their positive advantage of location and have little to do with any advantage of fertility.
The community as it grows will, for whatever reason, naturally form an economic centre of gravity and those that benefit from this will do so by the simple good fortune of their location. It is this fact of location that will outweigh all others as an advantage as a community grows to eventually become a large city. The important point to acknowledge is that this increase of value is not due to any particular activity on the site itself, but to the collective activity of all the sites as an economic whole. One may say that this collective activity gives rise to a centripetal economic pressure. This pressure causes certain sites to become more valuable within a community purely due to their location. The foregoing is a description in principle of how differential land values arise. This same principle holds good throughout the subsequent development of the small community into a great thriving metropolis with very high land values. Nothing in this process changes the principle that these differential values are created by the whole community and for that reason may be considered a proper source for taxation.
With continuing growth the community transforms from a mainly agrarian to a more commercial urban base, and the more valuable sites are at the centres of commerce and trade. In our simple early community a general store might be established on what is seen as the most advantageous location, followed by a hotel and other amenities, so consolidating the establishment of an economic centre. Each new arrival adds to the overall prosperity increasing the pressure on the more valuable sites and thereby increasing the location surplus. (fig 7).
It must be remembered that these diagrams are useful only to explain the principles involved. In reality a community is a living dynamic organism which evolves on all fronts at the same time. As will be shown later, the datum provided by the original agrarian prime site level will eventually be replaced by the datum of the marginal level, from which the location surplus will thereafter be measured.
Up to this point the diagrams have been based on the growth of a fundamentally agrarian society. However the more a society grows the more it transforms the basic activities to commerce and trade; the measure of productivity, and therefore the value of a site, will move away from considerations of fertility and proximity to the market to more commercially based criteria. The economic centre will move to where the action is; for example the construction of a bridge may provide a new centre for trade. Sites previously considered marginal may well become more valuable because of their location; and this is the nub of the matter; location is all important. The previous significance of agrarian prime site production diminishes as society moves to commerce and trade. However the basic causes of the co-operative surplus and the location surplus do not change.
As the community grows, productivity increases on all sites, but the increase is now due to commercial rather than agrarian activity. In this transformation to urban development, the prime sites A, B, C, D, will be favoured due to their location, not their fertility; production now being more a question of profitability for the occupier in whatever form that can be achieved.
Fig 8 shows an even gradation of differential values from the highest production on site A to the newest marginal site G. Where marginal sites are freely available, the prospective occupier will be free to decide for himself whether to exploit the site on his own account or work for another for wages. (The subject of wages will be discussed later together with employment and the issue of speculation).
Throughout the whole process the original prime site agrarian production levels remain relatively static whilst all other levels are inexorably rising, including at the margin. Fig.9 shows the situation where the newest marginal site H, having no locational advantage has a productivity level higher than that of the original prime sites. It is therefore still worthwhile for any newcomer to join a prospering community and to benefit from the co-operative surplus. Fig. 9 shows continuing growth where sites A,B,C & D are all showing locational advantage, for commercial reasons, whereas their original agrarian production level remains the same. The agrarian based levels of production have by now become completely overtaken by the commercial levels.
Fig 10 shows further growth where previously marginal sites E and F are now showing locational advantage with productivity on the margin constantly rising as the community prospers.
So far in the diagrams the agrarian levels of production have been useful in explaining how the co-operative surplus arises as an integral part of the economic process but in the new commercial situation the agrarian criteria are increasingly redundant and are shown in Fig.10 purely for theoretical comparison. For clarity they will be omitted from Fig.11 onwards, where only the commercial marginal level will be used as the new datum. Henceforth the diagrams are based on urban rather than agrarian values. However it has to be remembered that all production below the level due to location always comprises an element due to co-operation. All communities depend on co-operation and interaction if they are to prosper. Although it may not be readily apparent it is always there; it is the glue that holds a community together and provides the future foundation for location values, (1). Interaction also includes competition as well as co-operation. This is shown where certain activities and trades group together for mutual benefit but still remain in competition.
In fig.11 we see that the current commercial marginal level of production has exceeded the previous prime site agrarian level. The marginal level now becomes the base line from which to measure values due to location. From this point onwards it is the level of production at the margin that will provide the criterion for ensuing economic development, in particular relating to the issues of wages, employment and speculation.
WAGES AND EMPLOYMENT
From the very earliest stages of development, on the more productive sites, an occupant may decide that it is more profitable to employ labour to carry out the work. To attract the labour the wages offered will need to be higher than an individual can achieve working independently on a marginal site. This level of wages will therefore be related to the alternative level of earnings at the margin. The level of wages offered will depend on the supply and demand of labour. Where labour is scarce the level will rise above the marginal site level; where it is abundant it will tend to fall below, and new marginal sites will be occupied in preference. In general these levels will tend to track each other where land is freely available; see Fig.12.
Where land is not freely available (due to enclosure or prior claims to ownership) the prospective settlers will be forced to seek their fortune elsewhere or work for wages at a depressed level. (Fig.13)
In the early years of settlement in North America the settlers were simply squatters on land previously used freely by the Native Americans who had no concept of land ownership. The settlers staked out as much land as they could use and proceeded to work it. Over time, due to their responsible occupation, their apropriation went unchallenged and became quasi ownership through custom and usage. (Their ownership was finally legitimised in the general pre-emption law of 1841, (2)). On the more productive sites owner/occupiers could choose to employ labour directly or rent all or part of their land to a tenant, who paid a rent out of his earnings from the land he worked. The rental value to the owner was thus related to the productive value of the site. It is this annual rental value of land that is later to become the basis for calculating the rate of LVT
The US Federal Government was always interested in encouraging the settlement and development westward by small farmers and homesteaders. To this end, in 1785, it introduced an ordinance in which minimum lots of 640 acres of land could be sold off for $2 an acre, (3). However this was still far too much for small farmers but it unfortunately attracted wealthy speculators who had no intention of working the land themselves. They bought up large selective areas, which they then held out of use, waiting for values to rise so they could make a good profit from renting or selling later at a higher price. This of course prevented new settlers from gaining access to viable sites. An even lower margin was thus created beyond the enclosed land held out of use, which further depressed the level of wages. (Fig.14)
The speculators were able to make great fortunes selling off individual sites at high profits as the land values rose with increasing demand. This type of speculation continues to this day and is especially damaging in newly developing countries.
Fig.15 represents the fully developed community with site values ranging from the minimum at the margin to the maximum at the centre, showing the location surplus from which a land value tax would be taken. In reality the differences in values are always steeper towards the economic centre and more gradual towards the margin. Fig.16 has been drawn to show this distinction, where the closer one approaches the centre the greater are the differences, whereas sites towards the margin which are more numerous will have differences which progressively diminish.
All communities will develop an economic centre, which will arise naturally at the centre of greatest economic activity, not necessarily near any geographic centre, but nevertheless fairly well defined within a limited area.
On the other hand the economic margin will be less well defined and more amorphous, being determined simply by the decision of any potential occupier as to whether the return achievable on any site is worthwhile; compared to the alternative of working for wages, or trying another community altogether.
In later development a large city may have numerous local centres as well as a principal centre with the highest site values. Low value sites may occur anywhere between these centres but the true margin of activity will be at the periphery of the whole agglomeration. Within a developing community the economic centre will not be fixed either in character or position. An earlier centre may well be overtaken by another centre related to other activities, but one thing they will all have in common is that the communal demand to occupy the sites will determine their value.
It is worth noting that within a typical concentric form of growth, valuable sites at the centre are few, whereas sites at the margin are numerous. Also, as was shown earlier, the least productive sites at the margin contribute to the value of the sites at the centre. As LVT is to be taken only from above the level of the margin it is clear that the marginal site, by definition, would always be tax free.
“Buy land, they’re not making it any more” – Mark Twain
The foregoing text and diagrams cover the explanation of basic principles; the following items give some supplementary information which completes the overall picture; under the headings:
1. Application. 2. Advantages 3. Early History 4. 20th Century History
1. APPLICATION OF THE TAX
All tax revenues, whether in money or goods, have to derive ultimately from existing wealth or the wealth creation process. Taxing poverty is not only unjust but unproductive. It is commonly accepted that wealth is represented by the ownership of goods, property or the means of production. The wealth creation process is represented by work, manufacture and trade.
A fair principle that most would accept is that the wealthy should pay more than the less wealthy. The difficulty (with all progressive taxes) lies in how to measure this distinction.
Land values provide a very clear distinction in that they are directly related to prosperity, and therefore the general level of wealth within an area, especially in an urban situation. They provide a clear gradation that is directly related to the capacity for wealth creation and also to the ownership of that capacity. They also indicate how the different benefits of such ownership might be measured. This benefit has traditionally been collected as the economic rent (described in part 1). LVT would enable the community to take ownership of this rent, albeit the ownership of the actual land may continue in private hands.
The tax would be imposed in proportion to the location surplus values for each site, ie. the values that register above the margin of production. Those at the margin would not be taxed; whatever product they achieved they would keep.
The tax may also be described as a levy that society imposes for the exclusive occupation and use of a site. The use to which the site is put may or may not be for wealth creation purposes. Where a site is occupied for a purely residential purpose, the levy is still payable according to the value of the site. Also the owners of vacant sites would pay the tax whether occupied or not. This would discourage the deliberate holding out of use of sites for speculative purposes.
As with most property taxes, there would be an appeals system. With LVT, valuations could always be challenged, but these would be more likely on the high value sites rather than near the margin, where the tax burden would be slight.
LVT should be introduced gradually without any sudden shock; perhaps over a period of ten years or more, in which other unsuitable taxes could be reduced or eliminated; those for instance which are an impediment to wealth creation. LVT is proposed as a replacement tax, not an additional tax. The overall tax take from all taxes would remain the same although, because LVT is an efficient tax, considerable savings could be made, so reducing the overall tax requirement. LVT would cause a shift in the burden of taxation away from the margin towards the centre; away from less prosperous areas onto the more prosperous, as measured by location values. Thus it would satisfy the requirement that taxes should be paid in accordance to the ability to pay.
In an established system of LVT one might envisage the principal source of revenue coming from LVT, alongside other useful taxes, which are retained. The overall tax take would vary according to government requirements, which hopefully could be reduced due to efficiencies. Where this occurred, any reduction in LVT should be measured ‘from the top down’, that is to say with a graduated percentage reduction inversely proportional to site value. This would effectively raise the level of the margin and take marginal sites out of tax altogether.
2. ADVANTAGES OF LVT
A great deal of taxpayers money is currently spent on regional assistance schemes aimed at depressed areas, in order to encourage economic activity and a revival in fortunes for the populace in those areas. A National land value tax would automatically address this problem. It would provide a re-distribution of wealth through the general easing of taxes on less prosperous areas, with low land values, the burden being transferred to the more prosperous areas. It would also eliminate the demeaning dependence certain areas have on government hand outs, which naturally keep them within the government’s power. Contrary to their claims about devolving power, all governments are inclined to retain the real power by maintaining control of the purse strings.
Devolution and Local Taxes
Few governments advocate the most important factor in devolution to the regions; the power to raise revenue, (4). LVT would be an ideal means for giving local authorities real power if applied at a local level. Raising revenue for local government has become an intractable problem over the years. The various methods tried, Local Rates, the Community Charge and Council Tax have all proved unsatisfactory. A local Income Tax has also been proposed as a solution. However there appears to be a general consensus that any local tax should relate in some way to property and be graduated according to its rentable value. Previous systems have attempted this in different ways, but none has ever directly taken into account the most important factor; the value of the site upon which the property stands.
The value of a property has two parts; the value of the building, the bricks and mortar, and the value of the site. A tax on the site value only would resolve many problems. It would remove the current penalty against new building or making improvements. It would encourage the productive use of vacant and ‘brownfield’ sites and it would provide a natural system of gradation. It would also dampen down the escalation of property prices and speculation based on constantly increasing location values.
Tax evasion and avoidance
The government relies heavily on income tax to raise revenue, but one of its great weaknesses is that it is easily subject to evasion by unscrupulous operators. This costs the exchequer countless billions in lost revenue, which of course has to be made good by the honest taxpayer. There is also a thriving legal tax avoidance industry in which highly paid lawyers and accountants devote their time advising us how to be ‘tax efficient’; in other words how to avoid paying our taxes. All of this depends on the obscurity and ambiguity of the existing tax systems. LVT is a system that is clear and obvious to all and would eliminate this unproductive activity, which represents an enormous waste of a human resource that could otherwise be employed to some useful purpose.
Tax in whatever form, has never been popular. It is usually seen as an evil; an unwelcome burden to be borne with resentment and avoided wherever possible. But in an enlightened society the payment of tax would be seen not only as a good, but also as a privilege; in being able to contribute to the well-being of society. It isn’t tax that is the problem; it is the means of raising it.
3. EARLY HISTORY OF LVT
LVT has never been introduced in Britain, although the idea has been discussed at government level and on several occasions almost been implemented.
An early history may be briefly summarized chronologically in the following events and publications:
1662: Publication of ‘The Treatise on Taxes and Contributions’ By William Petty (1623-87), Economist, Scientist and Philosopher, in which he mentions ‘Land Taxe’ as a means of raising revenue.
In 1692, amongst a package of other taxes on personal estate, movable goods and income from public office, a ‘Land Tax’ was introduced (which astonishingly endured until 1963). Initially this tax was based on annual rental values, but after the first valuation no more were carried out. From 1698, quotas based on acreages at the 1692 values, were established for each county, and remained fixed thereafter. Consequently the amount collected diminished progressively, from 35% of total revenue at the start, to 17% in the 1790s and 11% by the 1820s. By 1733 that part of the tax on personal income and moveable goods had proved too difficult to collect and was largely abandoned, so the tax became almost entirely based on the revenue from land. The tax became gradually overshadowed by other taxes, but continued into the 20th century, raising eventually no more than the cost of collection. It was finally abolished in 1963, (5).
1758: Publication of ‘Tableau Economique’ by François Quesnay (1694-1774), Economist, Physician to Louis 15th and co-founder of the Physiocrats. The Physiocrats considered that all wealth derived from the agrarian production of land and proposed a ‘Single Tax’ on land only.
1796; Publication of ‘Agrarian Justice’ by Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Political Theorist and Revolutionary. In his pamphlet he writes ‘Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds’.
1776: Publication of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith (1723-90), Political Economist and Philosopher. Adam Smith is generally considered to be the father of modern economics. In his book he advocates the taxing of ‘ground rents’.
1817: Publication of ‘On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation’ by David Ricardo (1772-1823). Ricardo is credited with defining the idea of the ‘Economic Rent’ or the ‘Law of Rent’.
1848: Publication of ‘The Principles of Political Economy’ by John Stuart Mill (1806-73), Political economist and Philosopher. In book 5, chapter 2.28 he describes the benefits landlords gain from rents in which ‘They grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking or economising’.
1887; Publication of ‘Progress and Poverty’ by Henry George (1839-97), American Economist and Social Philosopher. In his book George finally pulls together all the threads and comprehensively explains an economic system based on ‘Land Value Taxation’, which will become the definitive work and will give rise to a world-wide movement.
Smith, Ricardo and Mill were the founders of what came to be known as Classical Economics, in which land was considered an essential factor of production along with Labour and Capital, and the phenomenon of ‘economic rent’ was acknowledged. In the 20th century the Neo-Classical school of economics arose in which Land became considered as a part of Capital, and so its significance virtually disappeared. It is this Neo-Classical school that still dominates economic thinking but which is now being challenged by some eminent economists. (6)
” An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia” — Lord Macaulay, 1837
4. 20th CENTURY HISTORY
Henry George’s influence was extensive at the turn of the 19th century and attracted many progressive thinkers of the time, not least of whom were Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw and a young Winston Churchill, then still a Liberal MP. However the forces of landed vested interests also recognised the threat to their power base and were always able to defeat attempts to introduce the system. The‘People’s budget’ of the Liberal government of 1909 included LVT, but was defeated by the Lords (many of whom were landlords). In a further attempt in 1931 the Labour Chancellor Philip Snowden included LVT in his March budget, but in the subsequent Conservative dominated coalition government elected in October, the measure was repealed. In 1939 the Labour MP Herbert Morrison attempted to introduce a Site Value Rating bill for the London County area, but this was defeated again by a Conservative majority. Events were then overtaken by the advent of the Second World War.
After the war LVT had become forgotten in the new Labour government’s enthusiasm for the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which was indeed a necessary and progressive measure, and to which we owe the fact that England remains largely a green and pleasant land, but it did not deal sufficiently with the unearned gains to be made through land ownership. The government was aware that large gains could now be made through speculation and the possibilities of ‘planning gain’, but the Development Charge that was part of the act was too feeble a measure to capture the betterment gains for which it was intended; the landlords simply held on to their land and did not develop; awaiting a change of government, which arrived in 1951, and duly repealed the charge.
The next Labour government introduced the Land Commission Act Betterment Levy in 1967, which was ritually abolished by the succeeding Conservative government in 1970. Once again the third post-war Labour government brought in the Community Land Act in 1975, followed by the Development Land Tax in 1976. However none of these measures really encompassed the underlying principle of LVT, which is the continuous collection of the Economic Rent for the public purse.
Throughout the whole post-war period, ignorance of the real significance of land values is very evident in the various attempts at taxing ‘Betterment Gains’. The Capital Gains Tax (introduced in 1967) serves only to obscure the importance of land values; it is applied to all property, including art, antiques and cars; it is beset with complex exemptions and conditions, and in any case only applies once, at the moment of sale, where principal homes are exempt.
In 1990 the new Town and Country Planning Act included a ‘Section 106 Agreement’, which enabled developers who were the beneficiaries of any planning gain, to negotiate with the Local Authorities as to how much of the gain they would surrender as tax (almost akin to voluntary taxation). Because of perceived deficiencies in this system it was superseded in 2010 by the Community Infrastructure Levy, which is considered to be an improvement. But all of these attempts to reclaim community created value fail to recognize the importance of continuity relating to the underlying Law of Rent; revealed by Ricardo.
Various other ideas for redeeming betterment gain have also been proposed in recent years:
Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
This is a system of ‘value capture’ relating to specific infrastructure projects, whereby a proportion of the resulting increase in property values can be recouped by the local authority to finance the project. It has been employed (not without controversy) in the USA, (7) and is supported in the UK by Centre for Cities; an organisation which represents the interests of mainly provincial cities.
Community Land Auctions (CLAs)
A system whereby land parcels which come up for sale and which gain in value through planning consent for development can be auctioned to the highest bidder; the local authority taking a proportion of the proceeds. This system has been advocated by Tim Leunig of the think tank Centre Forum, (8).
These two systems recognize the significance of increased land (or property) values, but depend on one-off events so lacking the continuity that is required for any effective taxation system.
The Mansion Tax
The proposed Mansion Tax arose as a consequence of the excessive increases of house prices, especially before the collapse of 2008. As was explained earlier, the houses themselves do not change in any material way. What changes is the value of the sites upon which they are located. The Mansion Tax is an attempt to recoup some of this increase of value by imposing an annual tax of 1% on houses exceeding £2m. in value. Unfortunately it makes no distinction between building value and site value. It has been pointed out that the same end result could be achieved by simply extending the existing council tax bands; the valuation basis being the same.
As with TIF and CLAs a Mansion Tax would be automatically incorporated in any comprehensive system of Land Value Taxation.
” To prove legal title to land, one must trace it back to the man who stole it” — David Lloyd George, 1909
(1) For an excellent example of contemporary infrastructure co-operation refer to video: ‘The Bridge at Q’eswachaka’
(4) This is now being re-considered in Wales: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-24763988
(5) National Archives talk by Mark Pearsal: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/land-tax.mp3
(6) Martin Wolf: http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2010/7/13/64728/5954
Prof. Steve Keen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Keen