- The science war Peter Boettke, Coordination Problem
- On wider access to culture Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Spaceship Earth explores Culture Space Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- The liberal dream is freedom plus groceries (and that’s okay) Brad DeLong, Grasping Reality
- The return of Henry George Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
- The politics of purity and indigenous rights Grant Havers, Law & Liberty
- The Ottoman Empire’s first map of the United States Nick Danforth, the Vault
- The age that women have babies: how a gap divides America Bui & Miller, the Upshot
Recently President Trump enacted a series of executive orders with the aim of extending religious liberty. This has gotten me to think about churches and tax policy. Just to be clear, in this post I will not discuss the details of Trump’s orders. I care about the broad concept here.
Churches in the United States are exempt from certain taxes due to their classification as charities. I have often been in favor of this designation. Taxes can easily serve as a way for the state to discriminate against groups subtly. I could easily imagine a tax that targets churches with kneeling pews (e.g. Catholic churches) and therefore disadvantages them relative to denominations that have less kneeling involved. I could also imagine a system, similar to some European countries, where the state collects the tithe on behalf of the church. This arrangement would favor larger, state recognized, churches at the expense of smaller start up denominations. In both cases taxes can be used by the state to effectively discriminate between churches.
Some time ago though it was pointed out to me that NOT taxing churches could also lead to discrimination against them. Take the case of property taxes. When urban planners draw up zones (residential, commercial, mixed use etc.) they effectively have the power to exclude churches from certain neighbors. Even without official census data it is not difficult to notice where certain religions sort within the city, and so a zealous planner could easily discriminate by denomination. When church property IS taxed there is a strong disincentive against this type of discrimination because it reduces potential city revenues. Even if a given planner may be willing to discriminate nonetheless, he would find himself fired by his tax-obsessed superiors. When church property ISN’T taxed this incentive is reversed. Since church property can’t be taxed cities lose out on potential tax revenue when they zone an area for a church over taxable property. A devout religious urban planner may easily be pressured to minimize the number of churches to maximize tax revenues. I suspect a Catholic urban planner would prefer to reduce the number of Protestant churches, so this is a scenario where minority denominations could easily find themselves zoned out of existence.
The current concern about whether churches should be allowed to be engaged in politics would be moot if they were taxed. The legal reason churches are limited in their political speech is that they are classified as charities. Certain crowds would be angry about allowing churches being involved in politics* anyway, but I suspect many politicians would be fine to look the other way in exchange for the increased tax revenues.
How can we balance the pros of taxing churched (helping them avoid being discriminated by zoning and gaining political speech) versus the cons (discrimination by taxation)? I think the answer is a georgist tax on land. It achieves the goal of taxing churches without discriminating against any given denomination.
*For the record I personally oppose my church, the Catholic Church, from getting involved in politics. I am fine with the priest lecturing against the evils of abortion, but I don’t want to hear his thoughts on the optimal income tax rate.
The inequality of wealth and income has become a meme loaded with danger. A “meme” is an idea that gets propagated like genes in biology. Economic inequality has long been a topic of interest, but during the past few years, and especially during the 2015-2016 American elections, the inequality meme has erupted into a major political issue among those who identify as progressive, liberal, and socialist.
The facts about inequality in the USA are clear. Since 1970, income inequality has increased. As national income has grown, most of the gains have gone to the rich. Average incomes have even dropped since the recession of 2007-2009.
During the 1800s, the first economist to analyze equality and inequality was Henry George. Karl Marx had touched on economic inequality by saying that the surplus from production was due to labor but was captured by the capitalist, the owner of the firm and its tools. Thus, the proletariat, the workers, stay poor and the capitalists get rich, creating inequality. But Marx and his followers focused on the conflict between labor and capital rather than the inequality.
Henry George pointed out that the surplus from production is not in wages, nor in business profits, but in land rent, which is a pure surplus, since land has no cost of production. George showed how land rent captures the gains from economic progress, creating the inequality in wealth and income between workers and the landowners. Competitive firms make normal profits, which has no surplus. Of course monopolies can capture surplus also, but the profits from entrepreneurship are a bonus to society, rather than a social problem, as entrepreneurs drive innovation and economic progress.
Unfortunately, when the classical economics of the 1800s turned into the neoclassical doctrines of the 1900s, both by design (in opposition to the Georgist remedy of taxing land value) and for mathematical convenience, land was dropped as an input factor, and mainstream economics became the two-factor production function Q=f(K,L). It is illogical that land rent gets included in the distribution of income in the return on K, but excluded on the production side, as the models are based only on the two inputs, labor L and capital goods K. This contradiction is not questioned by graduate students in economics, who are too busy learning the calculus of “math econ” to bother asking if the whole system makes sense.
Therefore the inequality meme is now blended with the labor-capital meme, ignoring the real source of economic inequality, unequal land tenure. Politicians exploit the all-too-real economic inequality with a superficial, simplistic, and dangerous remedy: tax the rich and transfer the funds to the poor. Of course governments are doing that already, and that has not reduced inequality, but the welfare-statists insist that government should do more of it.
Conservative opponents of greater redistribution point out, correctly, that higher taxes and takings from the rich will stifle entrepreneurship and savings, reducing the economic growth. But other than eliminating some of the tax deductions and generating more growth by reducing the top tax rates, the conservatives have no effective remedy. Their call to flatten the tax rates play into the political agenda of the redistributionists who call for higher, not lower, tax rates on the rich.
The danger in the inequality meme is the confiscation of the wealth not just of the rich but also of the middle class. A family that spent all its income and now has no wealth would be given welfare aid, while the family with the same income but frugally saved its income for retirement or to provide for their children would have their wealth taken away, not just by ordinary and predictable taxation, but by a sudden taking, as happened in Cyprus in 2013. Government chiefs facing a debt crisis can kill two birds with one stone: confiscate savings and use some of it to pay off debt and the rest to transfer to the poor. Such confiscation has been suggested by the International Monetary Fund, which lends funds to countries bogged down in debt. In its publication Fiscal Monitor Report, the IMF stated (pdf):
The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).” There we have the proposition that such confiscation of wealth can be “fair” (49).
This IMF capital-levy proposition was presented in Forbes with the title, “The International Monetary Fund Lays The Groundwork For Global Wealth Confiscation.” The Wikipedia article on “capital levy” shows that this meme is getting some traction, such as by Germany’s Bundesbank. The concept of a capital levy, confiscation of savings and investment, comes from the meme of economic inequality that looks only at the superficial existence of unequal wealth and not to the source.
It has been well pointed out by British journalist and economist Fred Harrison in his Youtube video “Ricardo’s Law: the Great Tax Clawback Scam” that while the rich pay much in taxes, many of them get the tax back, as a clawback, from government’s public goods, which generate higher rent and land value.
The effective and equitable remedy for economic inequality is not redistribution but the proper initial distribution of income. Wages and capital yields should be kept by the workers and investors, while land rent should be equally distributed either as cash or in public services. Public revenue from land rent would equalize income while promoting growth and raising wages. We need to bring land back into economic discourse, but that requires penetrating the appeal of superficial thinking. That’s what Henry George tried to do, and the Georgist meme had reached up to the heads of state in China, Great Britain, and Russia (after the first revolution with Kerensky), but World War I blasted the impending tax reforms to bits.
The candidates who now rant against inequality, the corporations, and the billionaires, even if they don’t win the election, will influence policy and generate calls for more redistribution and, perhaps in the next financial crisis, a capital levy. While alarmists often exploit impending doom for their own gains, sometimes they are right.
This article is also in progress.org under the title “Tyrants Exploit Income Inequality”
[Ed. note: I added tags, categories, and links, and patched up some grammar – BC]
Where did the concept of “majority rule” come from? Why should any majority rule over any minority?
Of course the idea of protecting minority rights also exists. It is accepted in the civilized world that minority religions, ethnicities, and cultures should be respected. So evidently the global belief in majoritarianism is not absolute. But overall, the prevailing global political culture in democratic societies is majoritarian. The party which has some majority in an election gets its leaders in the government, and it is able to impose its policies on everybody.
In a voluntary club, it seems natural that the leader be elected by the majority. Everyone in the club agrees about the mission of the club. Suppose it is a hiking club. It does not matter too much who the leader is, so a majority vote seems like the best option. Also, in deciding which location to hike in, majority rules seems sensible. Majority rule provides greater utility than minority rule, and there is general agreement that making more people happy is better than if fewer are happy.
But when it comes to government, majority rule is problematic. First of all, majority rule is based on the persons who may vote, not the whole population. Young children do not vote, and foreign residents do not vote. The adult citizens own the country, so they vote.
People believe in majority rule because they think of the alternative as either dictatorship or a rule by an elite minority. Why should one man or an aristocracy rule over the others? The global political culture now rejects monarchial rule as violating equality. What is not understood is that imposed majority rule also violates equality.
If we accept human equality, that all human beings have an equal moral worth, then the logical conclusion is equal self-governance. No person has a natural right to impose his will on another, because is it morally evil to coercively harm another person. Harm means an invasion into the domain of others, including the harm of restricting the other’s peaceful and honest actions.
When a person becomes employed, or enrolls in an institution such as a university, one does not usually expect democratic governance. The company is a non-democratic hierarchy, in which there is a top boss, lower bosses, and the ordinary workers who are directed. The workers has to comply with rules he may not favor, but the arrangement is voluntary because the worker chose to enter into employment or enrollment, and he may quit.
The equality of the employment situation is the ability of the worker to enter and exit, and the ability of the employer to equally contract with the employee and to terminate the employment. Free association is the basis of equal liberty.
The governance of territory is in accord with human equality when there is freedom of association among the members. Whether a territory is ruled by one man or by a majority does not matter so long as the individuals consent to be governed, so long as they can exit at will. After all, a traveler does not expect a voice in the rules of the places he visits. Whether the location is run by one person or the local majority does not matter to the traveler, so long as he may come and go, and so long as any unusual rules are presented in advance.
We need governing structures, but these can be contractual agreements among equals. We have today voluntary contractual communities such as homeowner associations, road associations, condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities. All neighborhoods could be governed this way, and then the local organizations can form greater associations for public goods with a broader scope. An occasional hermit would not disturb the governing continuum.
Just as local communities would be able to associate, they would have the freedom to disassociate. The problem with imposed majoritarianism is that individuals and communities may not secede, and so they are forced to be dominated by the majority. Minorities are subjected to the law enforcement, schooling, drug laws, civic services, and taxes favored by the majority.
The reform that would establish deep equality would be a constitutional rule that would prohibit only coercive harm to others. Government would not impose costs and restrictions on peaceful and honest action. Contractual communities would be free to have restrictive rules among their own members. Contractual governance is best implemented bottom up, with secession where feasible.
The avoidance of imposed costs implies the absence of taxes on transactions and produced goods. There would be charges for trespass and invasions, such as pollution. In the absence of taxes on labor, capital, and trade, those who hold title to land would have to pay for civic services from the yield of their land, the rent. Ideally, people would understand the logic of equal benefits from the rent generated by nature and community. The deepest equality would consist of both equal self-governance and, as Henry George put it, standing “on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature.”
There are many people who blame “capitalism” for the world’s economic problems, such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, and environmental destruction. This common belief is based on a confusion of meaning, and a lack of analysis. It is neither surprising nor noteworthy that many people fail to apply consecutive thought to economic issues, but it is sad that the Dalai Lama, as an influential religious leader, has not fully applied his compassionate thought to examine the causes and effective remedies of social problems.
The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has identified himself as a Marxist socialist. He blames “capitalism” for economic inequality, and sees the Marxist alternative as the alternative that would increase equality. He advocates a more “human approach,” which implies less “capitalism” and more socialism. The Dalai Lama adds that he is not a Leninist, meaning that his Marxist views do not imply a desire for a totalitarian state.
The Dalai Lama believes that Marxism is founded on moral principles, such as economic equality, while “capitalism” is founded only on the pursuit of profit. His social and economic views were published in the 1996 book Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses. He said there that Marxism is concerned with the poor and with exploited minorities. Therefore, he said, “I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” The Dalai Lama had studied Marxist ideology in China during the 1950s, and became attracted to it.
The essential problem with the word “capitalism” is that it is used both as a label for current economies, which are a mixture of markets and governmental interventions, and for the concept of private enterprise and free markets. Its use as a label for mixed economies makes it meaningless to blame “capitalism” for economic problems.
This confusion is similar to blaming diets for ill health. The diet of most people is a mixture of healthy foods such as vegetables and unhealthy stuff such as excessive sugar. The proposition that “diets” cause illness may be true, but it tells us nothing about which elements of our diets are causing the problem.
Likewise, to blame “capitalism,” meaning the mixed economy, for economic inequality, is meaningless, as this does not tell us which elements of the economy are causing the problem, whether it is markets or interventions. Blaming “capitalism” is worse than useless; it fogs the mind, because the label for mixed economies gets confused with the other meaning, private enterprise, so that, in a sly tacit shift of meanings, markets get blamed for economic woes.
It is meaningless to accuse “capitalism,” as a label, as only caring about profit and ignoring the poor, because the actual “mixed economy” cannot have any thoughts or feelings. Moreover, the concept of a pure market economy does have an ethical basis. The pure market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary. The concept of voluntary human action implies the existence of a universal ethic, or natural moral law, that designates acts as good, evil, or neutral, with voluntary action being good or neutral, and involuntary action consisting in coercive harm, which is evil.
One of the premises from which natural moral law is derived is the concept of human equality, that human beings have an equal moral worth, and should therefore be equal in the application of law. Human equality does not imply that all persons should have an equal income or wealth, because moral equality implies an equal self-ownership (or ownership of one’s body) of all persons. Therefore, each person properly owns his wage and the goods and investments bought from his wage. Income, however unequal, that comes from labor, including entrepreneurship, is not an evil outcome.
The mixed economy does create poverty, but not from private entrepreneurship. The poverty comes from government’s taxing the poor and subsidizing the rich. A study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Pew Research Center recently concluded that the poorest fifth of households pay more than twice the state and local tax rate (11 percent) as the richest one percent. Also, although the rich pay a much higher tax rate on their income, many of the rich get their money back implicitly in the form of the higher rent and land value generated by government spending, paid for by taxes on wages, goods, and enterprise profits. The taxes on the poor are even higher than that found in the study, as there are federal excise taxes included in goods, and also, federal taxes and restrictions on labor and self-employment add to the interventionist burden of the poor.
The economist Henry George wrote that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty and excessive inequality are caused by human institutions. If Marxism implies income redistribution or government ownership of industry, this treats, and mistreats, the symptoms, not the causes. The main causes are the stifling of labor and enterprise from taxation and imposed barriers. The ultimate remedy is a completely free market, with voluntary, contractual, decentralized governance. Given today’s states and taxes, government interventions can be minimized with a constitutional prohibition of restrictions and imposed costs on peaceful and honest enterprise, thus with taxes only on bad effects – pollution – and on the ground rent generated by government’s public goods.
If he understood the ethics and economics of liberty, then the Dalai Lama would become a much greater global leader in promoting effective reforms that would not only promote liberty but also greater prosperity and social peace.
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 legal basis for land ownership in the Americas is “Christian Discovery.” This land doctrine derives from the 15th century theology of the Catholic Church. The moral origin of the Vatican’s land doctrine is its old claim of the supremacy of Christianity over all other religions. The “Christian discovery” doctrine is not in the US Constitution, yet it has been adopted by the US government and upheld by the courts.
“Bully’s Justice” by George Zebrowsky, an eye-opening article on Christian Discovery, was published in the June/July 2014 issues of Free Inquiry. Under Christian Discovery, the first Christians to “discover” land previously unknown to the Christian chiefs of state, and held by non-Christians, have a legally legitimate claim to that land. The indigenous and current dwellers have no legal property rights.
A court case in 2005 showed that the Christian Discovery doctrine is still in force. The Onondaga Indian (native American) nation in the State of New York sought federal-court recognition to title of ancestral lands. Also in 2005 the Oneida and Cayuga Indian nations had their land claims dismissed by the US Supreme Court. The Onondaga claim was dismissed in 2010 based on the 2005 Supreme Court decision.
The Supreme Court stated that “Under the doctrine of discovery,” the ownership of “lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign, first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.”
There are three moral justifications of land ownership. First is natural moral law, the universal ethic that is inherent in human nature and is a moral imperative for humanity. Second is tradition. Third is force. Natural moral law invalidates both tradition and force as moral rationales.
The laws of the United States derive from English common law, the US Constitution, natural moral law, and the Vatican’s doctrine of land discovery. The US Constitution recognizes the supremacy of natural moral law in its Ninth Amendment, and it also recognizes common law. The US Constitution does not recognize the legality of tradition, force, or the Christian Discovery doctrine, yet the US Supreme Court continues to adhere to Christian Discovery.
As stated in “Bully’s Justice” (p. 28), this Doctrine of Discovery is “one of the rare principles of American law that came not from English common law or from the pen of some Enlightenment philosopher but rather from the Vatican.” The US Supreme Court recognized the doctrine in Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823 under Chief Justice John Marshall.
The doctrine of Christian Discovery originated in 1455 when Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Romanus Pontifex. Without any Biblical justification, this declaration justified the conquest of African lands by the king of Portugal. Pope Alexander VI extended the doctrine to the Spanish conquests in the Americas. The doctrine of Christian Discovery authorized European Christian explorers and their monarchs the rationale to claim lands not occupied by Christians. The doctrine deprived the indigenous inhabitants of any legal land rights.
As ultimate legal owner of the land, the state can then lease land to private tenants, and it can sell or transfer land titles to private persons, but such titles are always secondary to the state as senior and supreme owner, as the state can tax land, control its use, and forcibly buy back title with eminent domain.
The current Pope has expressed concern with global inequalities, but he has not gone to the core cause of inequality and poverty: privileged land tenure and the denial of labor’s self-ownership rights. The Catholic Church would have to confront its old doctrine on the conquest of land, and this is cannot do, and therefore popes must confine their concern about poverty and inequality to laments and exhortations. Now come economists such as Thomas Piketty calling for massive redistribution to treat the effects of income inequality, but refusing to acknowledge the origins and remedies in land and labor.
The Christian Discovery doctrine is based on supremacism, the belief that one’s religion, culture, and traditions are superior to those of others, justifying the use of force to maintain this supremacy. Such supremacy has been adopted by several religions, but this violates the human equality that is the basis of natural moral law and that has been recognized in declarations of human rights. Such constitutional cognitive dissonance does not seem to bother legal authorities.
If we seriously apply natural moral law to the question of land ownership, we need to confront both the false justifications of Christian Doctrine of Discovery and also the aboriginal land claims. As stated by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, human moral equality implies that one may fully own land only so long as there is free land of that quality available to others. When such land is scarce and has a price, the analysis of Henry George kicks in, that one may have possession conditional on paying the land rent to the members of the relevant community in equal shares.
Therefore the native American Indians may not take full ownership of their former lands. The land rent belongs not to them but to all humanity, or at least to all Americans. Also, the rental value of land due to civic improvements is a return on the capital goods, not the natural spacial resource.
Justice requires the abolition of the supremacist Doctrine of Discovery and its replacement with natural moral law. Some compensation and restoration of rights of possession are due to the aboriginal inhabitants, but history cannot be erased, and the current residents, users, and title holders, having followed the current rules, also deserve some consideration.
In the USA, people of age 16 and above are considered of working age. Of those of that age range, those who are working, seeking work, or hired but not yet working, are designated to be in the labor force. The labor force participation rate is the number of people in the labor force divided by the number of those of working age.
From 1950 to 2000, the labor force participation rate in the USA rose from 59 percent to 67 percent. Much of that increase came from the doubling of the participation rate of women, from 30 percent in 1950 to 60 percent in 2000. But total labor participation has declined since 2000 to 63 percent.
While the portion of women in the US labor force rose, the portion of men has been declining. The prime working years are considered to be from age 25 to 54, and one sixth of the men of that age range are not working. In 1950, only four percent of men of that range were not employed.
Many of those not working are not seeking work, and are therefore not counted in the labor force. They are also not counted as unemployed, because by definition, the unemployed are those actively seeking work plus those who have been hired but not yet started to work for wages. Two thirds of working age men are not seeking work, although some who sought work but stopped because they were discouraged, would take a job if offered.
About 40 percent of the men seeking work have been unemployed for six months or more. The chronically unemployed are less likely to become employed, so the long-term unemployment feeds on itself.
The real wage of lower-skilled workers has been falling since 1970. For workers who did not finish high school, the real wage (adjusted for inflation) has fallen 25 percent. That fall in wages is offset somewhat by the availability of new products such as cell phones and by the fall in the relative prices of electronics and other goods, but the cost of housing, medical care, taxes, and college tuition have risen to offset some of that productivity gain.
There are several reasons why male labor participation has fallen. First, more men are attending college. Second, due to the expansion of the war on drugs, the portion of men in prison has risen. Third, as more women work for wages, some male partners choose home production, doing house work and child care at home, which is real labor but not counted in the output data. Fourth, more people are obtaining government’s disability income. Very few on disability go back to work. Fifth, many in the first of the baby-boom generation, born during 1946-1950, are retiring.
The downward trend of labor participation will continue. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the participation rate will fall to 61% by 2024. CBO calculates that the Affordable Care Act reduce the labor force by more than 2 million jobs. Workers will be able to quit their jobs without losing medical coverage, and the expansion of Medicaid will induce many more adults to obtain medical care without having a job.
One of the problems with a lower labor participation rate is that it reduces the ratio of workers to non-workers. Social Security and Medicare are supported by transferring income from workers to non-workers. A smaller labor participation rate will use up the trust funds and create a deficit for these programs sooner. Also, fewer workers results in lower economic growth, which implies that more of those in poverty will stay that way.
Much of the labor participation decline is not voluntary, but caused by tax and subsidy policies. Without taxes on wages and enterprise profits, both wages and employment would be higher. If the funds now going into Social Security instead went into tax-free private retirement accounts, those who retire would rely on their own past savings rather than transfers from those working. Without the income-tax distortion caused by tax-free medical insurance and taxed money wages, workers would be able to choose the insurance plan that fits them best rather than having to accept the limited plans offered by employers and the government.
The best alternative to taxing wages is to tax land rent or land value. But even without such a fundamental shift in policy, the labor force participation rate can be made more voluntary with employee and self-employment incentives for those long out of work, such as tax offsets and exemptions from restrictions (e.g. licensing, union rules, and city zoning) that prevents working at home, and exemptions from litigation risks. Immigration reform – legalizing those already in the country and allowing more of those with labor skills into the country, would also substantially increase the labor population.
The basic problem with labor world-wide are restrictions on hiring and firing labor, and the heavy costs imposed by taxes, regulations, and mandates on employers. If an employer, including a self-employer, could simply hire a worker without having to deal with forms and regulations, and with no taxes on the employer and the employee, we would have full employment at wages that would provide a decent standard of living. The labor problems we have are iatrogenic, a disease caused by the doctor, in this case, the economic malady caused by government policy. The government people look to for solving economic problems has caused them in the first place.
Many articles have recently appeared in magazines, web sites, and social media criticizing free markets and libertarian ideas. It seems to me that this opposition is a result of a growing interest in freedom as people realize that the economies of the world are in serious trouble. As people see continuing high unemployment, slow growth, ever greater government debt, environmental disaster, more turbulent weather, and endless wars, some folks seek solutions in greater freedom while others seek solutions in greater state control. The critics of libertarianism and economic freedom have fallen for several fallacies.
1. Critics confuse today’s mixed economies, a mixture of markets and government intervention, with a “free market.” A truly free market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary for all persons. Government intervention changes what people would otherwise voluntarily do. A pure market would not impose the taxation of labor and capital. It would not prohibit trade with Cuba. Free markets would not subsidize industry. Any peaceful and honest action would be free of restrictions and taxes. That is not the economy we have today in any country.
2. Critics use the term “capitalism” to falsely blame markets for economic trouble. Those opposed to private enterprise call today’s economies “capitalist.” They then note that the economy has trouble such as poverty, great inequality, unemployment, and recessions. The critics conclude that “capitalism” causes these problems. This illogic uses a sly change in meaning. They use the term “capitalism” as a label for the current economies and also to refer to free markets. It makes no sense to label the economy as XYZ and then say XYZ causes problems. The critics use the double meaning of “capitalism” to blame the non-existing free market for social problems. This confusion is often deliberate, as I have found that it is almost impossible to get the critics to replace their confusing use of the term “capitalism” with clearer terms such as either the “mixed economy” or the “pure market.”
3. Critics think that the “market” means “anything goes.” For example, they think that a free market allows unlimited pollution. They often call this, “unbridled capitalism.” But freedom stops at the limit of harm. In a pure market with property rights for all resources, pollution that crosses outside one’s own property is trespass and invasion. This violation of others’ property rights would require compensation, and that payment would limit pollution.
4. Critics confuse privatization with contracting out. They then blame private enterprise for problems such as occurs with private prisons. When government contracts with private firms to produce roads, it is still a governmental road. When governments hire private contractors to provide services in a war, it is still government’s war. Government sets the rules when firms do work under contract. Genuine privatization means transferring the whole ownership, financing, and operation to a private firm.
5. Critics overlook subsidies. Government distorts the economy with subsidies to agriculture, energy production, and other corporate welfare. The biggest subsidy is implicit: the greater land rent and land value generated by the public goods provided by government and financed mostly from taxes on labor and enterprise. Critics not only ignore this implicit subsidy but also overlook the explicit subsidies to agriculture and programs such as the promotion of ethanol from corn.
6. Critics do not understand the crowding out of private services because of government programs. The critics of libertarianism say that with less government, old folks and poor folks would starve and die because they would not receive social security and medical care. What they overlook is that the reason many of the elderly have little savings for retirement is that government took away half their income while they were working. Income taxes reduce their net wages, while sales taxes raise the cost of living. Low-income people pay little or no income tax, but they pay hefty sales and excise taxes, and they indirectly pay property taxes from their rental payments to landlords. Libertarians want to abolish poverty and have a society where all people have good medical care. They just want to accomplish this by letting workers keep their full pay, which would enable them to pay for their own medical services. Also, with no taxes on interest and dividend income, people would be better able to provide for their own retirement income, indeed to have much more than social security now provides.
7. Critics fail to understand contractual governance. A pure market would not consist of isolated individuals. Human beings have always lived in community associations. In a free market, communities such as condominiums, land trusts, and civic associations would provide the public goods that the members want.
8. The critics of market believe that corporations control the economy, exploit labor, and plunder the planet. Corporations do have power, but mainly because they obtain subsidies and monopoly privileges from governments. But labor unions and lawyers also lobby the government for power and favors. Rather than blaming private enterprise, the critics should examine how the structure of government enables special interest to obtain power and wealth.
Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1905 that nobody really argues with the economics and philosophy of Henry George and public revenue from land rent; the critics either misunderstand the concepts, or they create misinformation. The same applies to critics of libertarianism. The fact that the critics falsify the free market in criticizing it implies that the actual concept is sound, otherwise they would provide valid arguments.
Nobody has refuted the free market and the libertarian ethic of “live and let live”. The critics of liberty either misunderstand it or else falsify it. Even when their errors in logic, their false evidence, and their confused terminology are pointed out, the critics persist in their falsification. They are stubbornly anchored to their viewpoints. Why this is so is a problem I will leave to psychologists to figure out.
by Fred E. Foldvary
Any statements which deplore “trickle down” economics reveal that the author has not quite yet grasped the heart of economics.
On November 26, 2013, The Vatican press published the apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” The text was written in Spanish, and its full title in the English translation (converted here from upper case to initial capitals) is “Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World.” Besides its religious calls, Pope Francis makes statements about today’s economic problems, and calls for greater economic justice.
One of the aims of this proclamation is to point out “new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.” One of the questions the Pope seeks to discuss is “the inclusion of the poor in society.” Chapter Two is entitled, “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment.” In paragraph 52, Francis writes that “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills… Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”
The Pope is wise and correct in seeing the harm done by inequality, but I urge him to see past the appearances to study the underlying reality. What provides the powerful with their might? The state has the ultimate power of force, and by its power to tax, to restrict, to mandate, and to subsidize, the state endows the powerful with the means to feed on the powerless. Market competition as such cannot impose force, and it does not create poverty. In a free society, each person has the power to be employed and pursue happiness. In a truly free market, all are fit to survive, because workers have access to natural opportunities. It is government intervention that stops this access.
Paragraph 54 is the key, widely cited, economic passage. We need to be sure that the English version is true to the original Spanish. In Spanish, Francis wrote, “algunos todavía defienden las teorías del « derrame », que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.”
The Vatican’s English translation says, “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”
The English-edition term “trickle-down theories” is translated from the Spanish, “teoria del derrame.” “Derrame” means a slow leak, hence a trickle, and so the English translation is accurate. The translated term “free market” is more literally “the liberty of the market” in the original Spanish, but the meaning is the same.
As noted by Harvard professor Greg Mankiw in his blog, critics of markets often use the term “trickle down” as a pejorative for the effects of a market economy. There is indeed a trickle down effect, for example, when a tourist resort is built in a location with many poor people, where a few get hired to work to clean rooms and wash dishes. A bit of the wealth of the resort trickles to the local population. But this situation does not confront the issue of why the poverty exists in the first place.
The theory of the free market is not one of “trickle down.” A truly free market is a fountain that gushes up wealth for all. Moreover, economic growth in market economies has indeed raised millions of persons up from poverty. However, the theory of market-driven growth does not claim that growth brings justice. The causation is the opposite: economic justice promotes growth. Moreover, justice and liberty are two faces of the same coin, so if a market has liberty, it must also provide justice.
The Pope continues: “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
But the proposition that free markets provide growth that benefits all is not a mere opinion. The proposition is a theory of growth that was first analyzed by the French economists of the 1700s, who concluded that the unhampered market, with free trade, would provide the greatest prosperity for all.
The prescription of the French economists was to abolish taxes on labor and trade, and instead use the surplus of the economy, which is land rent, for public revenue. Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations brought this theory into classical economics. The American economist Henry George a century later explained in detail how land rent captures the gains from economic progress, and how growth generates inequality and poverty if that rent is not equally shared.
Markets have had various degrees of freedom, but there is no truly free market in the world today. Those who advocate a pure free market do not defend the “prevailing economic system,” but rather, they seek to stop the state’s subsidy of economic powers. The greatest subsidy and economic power is the land rent generated by the public goods provided by government.
The Pope is correct in decrying “the denial of the primacy of the human person” (paragraph 55) and that “Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics” (57). Ethics and the primacy of the human person requires the equal right of each person to pursue happiness without harming others and to keep the earnings of his labor, as recognized by the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” Ethics must also respect the equal sharing of the benefits of nature and community, as stated in Ecclesiastes 5:9, “the profit of the earth is for all.”
The heart of economics is the understanding of the root cause of poverty: the forced redistribution of wealth from the working poor to the landed rich. This is caused not by markets but from state policy. It is good that Pope Francis seeks to remedy poverty. His “new path” should be to go more deeply into the economics and politics of maldistribution.
by Fred Foldvary
When the USA adopted the 16th Amendment to the Constitution a century ago, did the people understand that this would deprive Americans world-wide of foreign banking services? Americans thought that the income tax would just grab the money from the rich, but they did not understand that the income tax would tax everybody else more. All that is needed to equalize wealth without damage to the economy is to stop government subsidies, but this requires an economic sophistication that so far has eluded most people.
Inherently, an income tax yields an incentive to cheat, as the government depends on reporting. So the Internal Revenue Service has to monitor financial accounts to prevent tax evasion. Gradually, the IRS has extended its reach into accounts, first within the USA, and now into the foreign accounts held by American citizens.
No other country has imposed such costs and mandates on foreign accounts as the USA. So ironically the “land of the free” has the least economic freedom for its citizens abroad. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), enacted in 2010 requires foreign financial institutions to make reports on American accounts. Foreign financial institutions with American customers are required obtain a Global Intermediary Identification Number. FATCA requires foreign financial firms to identify their U.S. account holders, to disclose the account holders’ names, social security or other tax IDs, addresses, and the accounts’ balances, receipts, and withdrawals. For some accounts, the foreign bank is required to withhold some of the interest paid to the account, and send it straight to the IRS. This US law overrides the privacy laws of the foreign countries.
US law is thus legislating not only within US territory but throughout the whole world. If a financial firm does not comply, the IRS will tax 30 percent of its US-sourced income. The IRS is also busy laying out the legal infrastructure for enforcing this law with agreements with foreign governments for data sharing. Governments world-wide are signing on, because they too face the problem of tax evasion when they tax income that can hide.
FATCA does not just affect fat cats. Many foreign banks are now refusing to provide Americans with bank accounts and are closing the accounts of Americans, who are now also unable to obtain mortgages and insurance abroad. Americans are increasingly giving up their US citizenship in order to be able to work or retire abroad.
The US economy depends on international trade and global finance, with many Americans working abroad for US and foreign firms. Six million Americans live outside the territory of the USA. If Americans can no longer have foreign bank accounts, because the costs to the banks are too high, they will be so hampered that fewer Americans will be willing to live abroad, and this will hurt American enterprise.
Since the US government cannot directly impose laws on foreign lands, many foreign firms will sell their US affiliates and stop holding assets within the USA, thus putting themselves beyond the control of the US government. The overall cost to the US economy of FATCA may be much greater than the increase in tax revenue from reduced tax evasion. Also, those who seek to evade income taxes will find other ways. High taxes induce tax evasion, and enforcement drives evasion into other channels. How successful are US drug laws in stopping the smuggling in of drugs, and how successful have US immigration restrictions been at preventing illegal immigration?
Another consequence of greater reporting of American accounts is the increased risk of identity theft and theft of money from accounts. The greater the reporting, the greater the revelation of data that can be stolen.
It is no use seeking to repeal FATCA. The regulation of accounts, no matter how costly, follows from the income tax being, as Henry George put it, a tax on honesty. The taxation of wealth that can hide and flee requires strict and costly reporting and enforcement. The only effective remedy is to tax something that will not flee, hide, or shrink when taxed. A tax on land value cannot be evaded, and if that were the only tax, there would be no need to impose costs on finances.