09 March 2009

The Forgotten Single Taxer

Most supporters of the idea that Land Value Taxation should be the sole source of government revenue view Henry George as the forefather of the movement, to the extent that supporters of the idea are widely referred to as Georgists. While it is clear that George's impact in America was huge and did more to bring the ideas into the public consciousness than anybody else, there was an Englishman who was born almost a century before Henry George who promoted the same ideas and has been almost completely forgotten, even amongst those who share his beliefs.

His name was Thomas Spence and he was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1750. He dedicated his life to spreading the idea that the only just society is one in which all people have equal access to natural resources and enjoy the freedom to do as they please with their own property so long as they do not infringe the freedom of others. His work resulted in him being imprisoned on charges of high treason for seven months, before being acquitted. Following his death, some of his followers continued to meet as The Society of Spencean Philanthropists, which resulted in four of the members also facing charges of high treason, as well as an Act of Parliament being passed to outlaw all societies or clubs calling themselves Spencean or Spencean Philanthropists.

His seminal lecture, The Real Rights of Man [
1], contains some gems which are still as pertinent today as they were over 200 years ago, such as

society ought properly to be nothing but a mutual agreement among the inhabitants of a country to maintain the natural rights and privileges of one another against all opposers


the right to deprive anything of the means of living, supposes a right to deprive it of life; and this right ancestors are not supposed to have over their posterity.

His proposal, as laid out in his Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth [
2] was to put the overall control of land in the hands of parishes, which would rent out the land to the highest bidder, use the funds to pay for public services, pay a small levy to national government and share the remainder equally between the residents of the parish as a dividend. No other taxes would be levied.

In the 21st Century, I don't believe the process of leasing out land to the highest bidder or constraining rent collection to the parish level would be practical, given the dense and extensive urban development we have and the amount of expenditure which is spent centrally on nationwide infrastructure. However, I imagine the proposal would have made much more sense in the 1700s and the underlying principles are still as sound today as they were then.

My favourite paragraph of Spence's writing comes from The Real Rights of Man, when he describes his ideal society:

There are no tolls or taxes of any kind paid among them by native or foreigner, but the aforesaid rent which every person pays to the parish, according to the quantity, quality, and conveniences of the land, housing, etc., which he occupies in it. The government, poor, roads, etc. etc., as said before, are all maintained by the parishes with the rent; on which account all wares, manufactures, allowable trade employments or actions are entirely duty free. Freedom to do anything whatever cannot there be bought; a thing is either entirely prohibited, as theft or murder; or entirely free to everyone without tax or price, and the rents are still not so high, notwithstanding all that is done with them, as they were formerly for only the maintenance of a few haughty, unthankful landlords. For the government, which may be said to be the greatest mouth, having neither excisemen, customhouse men, collectors, army, pensioners, bribery, nor such like ruination vermin to maintain, is soon satisfied, and moreover there are no more persons employed in offices, either about the government or parishes, than are absolutely necessary; and their salaries are but just sufficient to maintain them suitably to their offices. And, as to the other charges, they are but trifles, and might be increased or diminished at pleasure.

I think there is plenty in there for any libertarian or geoist to agree with.




Mark Wadsworth said...

Top stuff. See also Charles Bradlaugh.

AntiCitizenOne said...

That was interesting. Sounds like "my" idea (market geonomics) was thought of only 250 years ago!

Paul Lockett said...

Now that I've read a bit about Charles Bradlaugh, I can see a pattern emerging - if you promote geonomics in the UK and people start paying attention, you'll probably end up being charged with sedition!