The 100th Anniversary of the Defeat of Economic Land

The year 2014 is the 100th anniversary of an economics article that was the final nail in the coffin of classical economics, as it marked the victory of the neoclassical economics war against land. This was a victory so great that economists today do not even realize that there had been such an academic war.

Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874-1971) was an American economist at several universities, including Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Cornell. He was a co-founder of the New School at New York City. In 1902 he wrote “Rent in Modern Economic Theory: An Essay in Distribution.” Johnson, along with other economists who were turning the classical theories of the 1800s into the neoclassical doctrines of the 1900s, generalized “rent,” from the yield of land, into any surplus above opportunity cost, i.e. above the cost needed to put a resource to its most productive use. For example, a movie star paid $1 million to act in a movie, whose next best opportunity is being a salesman earning $100,000, has an economic rent of $900,000.

In 1914, Johnson published “The Case against the Single Tax” in The Atlantic Monthly. As has been well explained by Prof. Mason Gaffney in The Corruption of Economics, Johnson played a major role in suppressing, by falsification, the land-tax ideas of Henry George. Land is now visible everywhere except in academic economics. For example, the generation of land value by public goods is not even mentioned in the general textbooks.

Johnson correctly stated that a tax on the entire rent of land would bring the purchase price down to zero, but he expressed it as: “the value kernel of landed property will have been seized by the state.” In policy analysis, we need to examine inflammatory vocabulary. The moral case for land-value taxation rests in the proposition that the benefits of nature belong to all humanity equally, that the creation of local land values by population and commerce belongs in equal shares to the members of those communities, and that the rentals generated by public works may be used to pay the providers, whether this be private-sector or government providers. None of this is confiscation or seizing by the state.

In Georgist ethics, the people own the rent, not the chiefs of state. A government may justly act as the agent of the people to protect their property, such as the atmosphere, from damage, and a government may, as the agent of the people, collect the rent to distribute it among them, or to use to pay for public goods. The premise that the rent belongs to the people implies that the rent is not being seized from the landowners as though these title holders are the morally legitimate owners, but rather that the state is facilitating the collection of the rent to the proper owners, the people. Hence the terminology used by Johnson taints his analysis and begs the question of the proper ownership of land rent.

Johnson continues his attack by calling the single tax on land value “propaganda for the universal confiscation of land.” Henry George had unfortunately stated in Progress and Poverty that “It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.” The Latin origin of “confiscate” is “confiscare,” from “fiscus” meaning the government’s treasury. Fiscal policy is about governmental revenue and spending. Thus in linguistic origin, to confiscate means simply to tax, to transfer assets to the public treasury. But in modern popular usage, to “confiscate” means to take by force, with the implication that the state is seizing property that was legitimately owned. And despite George’s statement that it is only the rent, not the land itself, that is being “confiscated,” Johnson attacks the single tax as confiscating the land.

Moreover, by dismissing the theory behind the single tax as “propaganda,” Johnson denigrated the logic and evidence for land-value taxation in an anti-scholarly manner, and thus he himself indulged in propaganda.

Johnson’s mixing up the ownership of land and of its rent is also shown by his statement that if all the value of land is taxed, the revenue would cover the costs of government, “provided, of course, that the public can manage the lands as efficiently as they are now managed by their private owners.” This despite the statement of George that “I do not propose either to purchase or to confiscate private property in land.” Land-value taxation would not disturb private titles; it would not alter private control and possession. The government would not “manage the lands.”

Johnson states that much of the financial wealth of the middle class is in land value, and that the full taxation of land value would take more value from them than they would regain in the removal of other taxes. Of course in 1914, the 16th Amendment had just been enacted in 1913, and the middle class did not yet suffer from the income tax.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s statement is illogical. Suppose the total land rent is $1 trillion, and the cost of government is half of that; then the rent does not disappear, but is distributed back to the people in cash. So the effect of land value taxation would be to equalize the ownership of the rent, and a person who owned an average amount of rent would get half back in cash, and half back, ideally, in valued public goods. If government is squandering some of the rent, then the remedy is to give it all back to the people. Then the average land owner is in a neutral position.

Johnson falsely declared that “The Single Tax is, then, essentially a device for the spoilation of the middle class.” One could justly say that Johnson’s malicious attack was a device for the spoilation of the remedy for poverty, depressions, and land conflicts. What has spoiled the middle class is high taxes on their wages and on the goods they buy. Johnson’s falsifications were the spoilation of a policy that could have promoted sustainable prosperity and prevented needless economic inequality. Johnson’s propaganda succeeded in helping squash land-value taxation, but to the ruin of economies worldwide.

With the neoclassical victory against land, most economists today suffer from cognitive dissonance. Even if economists reject an egalitarian view of natural resources, they know that the supply of land is inelastic, so public revenue from land rent avoids the excess burden that other taxes have. But they do not extend this knowledge to the rest of theory and to policy. Mason Gaffney calls this the “corruption of economics.” I call it “academic brain freeze.” At any rate, it is worth marking the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s attack.

The Canons of Economics

by Fred E. Foldvary

A “canon” is a set of items which are regarded by the chiefs of a field to be the accepted elements of the domain. Every religion, for example, has a canon of accepted ideas and documents such as the established books of the Bible. Every scientific field has a canon of propositions and facts accepted as genuine by the experts and by those in authority such as editors of the major journals and most members of the departments of the prominent universities.

The canon of economics consists of the propositions, methods, and historical facts accepted as true and applicable by most scholarly economists. This canon appears in textbooks and in the articles of the prominent journals. The ideas and methods outside the canon are referred to as heterodox economics, in contrast to the mainstream or orthodox canon. There have been articles and organizations about the mainstream and alternative canons, but they have not laid out what the canons consist of. Here is my attempt.

The canon of orthodox neoclassical economics consists of 1) supply and demand; 2) graphical curves of equal utility, inputs, and output; 3) marginal analysis (additional amounts of utility, inputs, outputs); 4) the factors or input variables of capital goods and labor; 5) the price level; 6) equations of production and utility; 7) the government-influenced money supply and the market-based velocity of the circulation of money; 8) economic and accounting profit; 9) market failure and government corrections; 10) equilibrium; 11) maximizing and minimizing within constraints; 12) the premises of subjective values, self-interest, scarcity, unlimited desires, and the uncertainty of the future; 13) the “time preference” for present day good relative to future goods; 14) the trade-off between goods and leisure; 15) the trade-off between equity and efficiency; 16) diminishing marginal utility; 17) diminishing marginal products; 18) theory from mathematical models; 19) econometric testing of hypotheses; 20) the producer and consumer surplus.

Neoclassical economics is divided into several sub-schools for macroeconomic theory. The major schools and their canons are:
1) Keynesian or demand-side economics, with the canons of the consumption function, spending multiplier, and the determination of output from autonomous spending and the multiplier.
2) The Monetarist school, its canon being the equation of exchange: Money times velocity equals the price level times real output, hence monetary inflation generally causes price inflation.
3) The New Classical school with its canon of rational expectations, which makes inflationary policy ineffective.
4) The New Keynesian school with its canon of wages, prices, and interest rates stuck above equilibrium; it accepts New-Classical rational expectations but claims that contracts and other rigid conditions make expansionary policy effective in increasing output.

The heterodox Austrian economic school of thought accepts these elements of neoclassical economics:1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20. Austrians reject the excessive emphasis on 6, 9, 10, 11, 18, 19. The canons of the Austrian school that have not been absorbed into the mainstream are: 1) the time and interest-based structure of capital goods; 2) market dynamics rather than equilibrium; 3) dispersed knowledge; 4) discrete marginal utility based on diminishing importance; 4) axiomatic-deductive theory (praxeology); 5) entrepreneurship as both discovery and creative reconstruction; 6) free-market money and banking; 7) roundabout production; 8) the market as spontaneous order; 9) the failure of government intervention; 10) the evenly rotating economy that illustrates the role of entrepreneurship in the real world of uncertainty and change.

The Marxist school canon includes 1) class struggle, 2) the labor theory of value; 3) the surplus from labor taken by the capitalists who dominate labor; 4) benefits from socializing wealth.

The Georgist or geo-classical school has these canons: 1) land and its rent as major elements of the economy; 2) the margin of production as the least productive land in use; 3) land speculation and the movement of the margin raising rent and reducing wages; 4) the creation of land rentals from public goods; 5) depressions resulting from land-value bubbles; 6) economic effects of replacing market-hampering market-hampering taxes and subsidies with land-value taxation; 7) the surplus as land rent; 8) the ethics of labor and land; 9) harmony between equity and efficiency, and 10) the social behavioral effects of economic justice.

There is also a school of thought called “public choice,” which has been accepted by neoclassical economics as well as by other schools, as a side branch. Its canon includes: 1) self-interest in politics; 2) the rational ignorance of voters; 3) transfer-seeking and getting due to concentrated interests and spread-out costs; 4) vote trading by representatives; 5) bureaucrats maximizing their power and comfort; 6) the primacy of the median voter; 7) constitutional versus operational choice; 8) clubs that provide collective goods to their members.

The classical economics canon, before it turned neoclassical, included these elements: 1) Say’s law, that production pays factors that enable effective demand; 2) the division of labor; 3) economic growth from unhampered production and free trade; 4) the margin of production as the least productive land in use; 5) population growth pushing the margin to less productive land; 6) the three factors of production as land, labor, and capital goods.

A problem in economics today is that each canon excludes the useful elements of other schools. Economics needs a universalist canon that integrates the best elements from all schools of thought. However, economists disagree on what the canon should be. In my judgment, the most glaring omission in the mainstream canon is the neglect of the Austrian-school time-structure of capital goods, its neglect of the creation of land rent by public goods, and its neglect of the benefits of a prosperity tax shift, the replacement of market-hampering taxes with market-enhancing payments of land rent and pollution charges.

Note: This article first appeared in the Progress Report.