- Why does poverty still beset a large number of people, whilst others are grossly well-off?’
- Why are house prices continuously rising much faster than inflation?
- Why do the majority of workers find themselves as employees in jobs that give them little real sense of fulfilment?
- Why is a multi-national coffee shop franchise not actually making its money from coffee?
These questions have confronted developed economies in varying degrees for decades without resolution by governments of the right or left. It is the failure of economics, the author argues.
Economists have long asserted that three factors of production, land, labour and capital, lie at the root of their subject. Yet in the development of the subject into theories and practical applications there has been a thorough analysis of labour and capital but a grievous omission of the factor of land. This is reflected in the minimal place it holds in modern textbooks, in popular discussion and political debate. Much of the argument about major issues, like industrial policy, the distribution of wealth and income and government policy reverts to a polarised struggle between two antagonists, labour and capital. The third factor, land, hides in the background unacknowledged yet exerting a major influence on the outcome of the whole economic process.
For example, house prices have risen continuously at a rate well in excess of the rate of inflation, causing difficulties for new buyers, creating serious problems in the mortgage market, and profoundly changing the distribution of wealth between generations and between regions. Yet what is called the ‘house price’ is really a combination of land price and building price. These two prices operate quite differently and require quite different approaches by policy-makers. The impact of this error upon the economy is serious.
The author suggests there are three reasons why this lacuna in economic thinking has come about. Firstly, the land enclosure movement in Britain took place over a long period, reaching its peak in the early nineteenth century, by which time little land was left for public use and access. Private claims on land, particularly those of the major enclosing landlords, but also of all others who came to regard a piece of land as absolutely ‘mine’, developed vested interests. They preferred to ignore the older tradition of land as communal property to be used by individuals under conditions that took account of the interests of others. This absolute claim on land now extends to large commercial companies, including foreign ones, and crucially to the ownership of urban land, in which over fifty percent of the population now have a vested interest.
Secondly, economic thought developed on lines that seemed to justify the growth of such vested interests, whilst theoretical reasons appeared to support the omission of land from most of the analysis. It was no coincidence that as the private enclosure of land grew, alongside it grew a theory of supply and demand that only employs the concepts of labour and capital, and later a theory of macro-economics that treats the whole economy as producing and consuming in a landless environment. When land gets mentioned at all, it is usually treated as capital. The consequence of this egregious sleight of hand will be examined.
The third reason for the omission of land from economic thought is that as urbanisation developed, following land enclosure, the general awareness of the presence of land became gradually attenuated. How often do people in cities realise that they are living on land? Houses, factories, offices, shops, pavements, and indeed all the built environment, seem to establish a kind of screen between people and land. When a building is pulled down, or a road dug up, the screen is broken. Bare mud or rock provides a glimpse of the earth that lies ubiquitously but unseen beneath our feet. One result is that the term ‘land’ becomes associated almost exclusively with the countryside, where a minority of the population live or work. The ‘land question’ that so disturbed our ancestors, when it occasionally arises, is usually in the form of debates about farming tenancies or pollution of agricultural land. The city dweller is not concerned. Yet that same city dweller spends hundreds of thousands of pounds on a house, with at least half the price consisting of the land price. Similarly the worth of a retail business may be largely determined by whether it has a freehold on the land it occupies. Urbanisation makes land invisible. Only a few shrewd businessmen realise its worth, and make fortunes from trading in it.
What needs to change, the author argues, are deeply embedded features, which have generally been established for a very long time. They are principally the taxation system, the land tenure system, and the banking system.
A legal duty of care for the Earth Fifteen years ago Polly Higgins abandoned her career as a barrister to campaign for an international crime of ecocide. Sadly she died of cancer on Easter Sunday at the early age of 50.read more
Over the last year or so there have been a number of articles broaching the subject of land-value taxation in the national press. The Economist (9th August) even suggested ‘The time may be right for land-value taxes’, but
there is also much misunderstanding about that a land-value tax (LVT) is.
In the first place it is not a tax. A tax was defined by Hugh Dalton, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his Principles of Public Finance as “a compulsory contribution imposed by a public authority, irrespective of the amount of service rendered in return”. An example will illustrate: the Jubilee Line extension to the London Underground system cost the taxpayer £3.5 billion. Millions of taxpayers who contributed to its cost will never use it. Those who use it for their daily commute or to go shopping pay for its use through their fares, but the big beneficiaries are the land owners along the route. They will have contributed to the cost as all other taxpayers, but the huge uplift in value of their land within a 100 metre radius of the 11 stations along the line was estimated to have been £13.5 billion. Properties beyond the 100 metre radius would also have benefited, but progressively less the further they were from the stations. The cost was born by all taxpayers but the ‘service rendered’ was not reaped in proportion to ‘contribution’. This is the nature of a tax.
With a Land-Value Tax (it is more accurate to regard it as an annual ground rent) there would be an equivalence between ‘contribution’ and ‘service rendered’ – the greater the services received, the higher the
contribution. The ground rent is a market estimation of the value of the services rendered. For example, the existence of a good school in a neighbourhood will increase property prices in exactly the same way as proximity to a station. It is not an arbitrary amount decided by government. LVT is therefore unlike a tax.
LVT differs from taxes in another respect. It does not distort economic activity. Some taxes, the so-called ‘sin taxes’ on tobacco, spirits and petrol, are introduced with the deliberate intent of discouraging certain behaviour by making it more expensive, but all taxes have this negative effect. They reduce economic activity. For example Stamp Duty discourages people from downsizing and affects adversely labour mobility. VAT makes goods 20% more expensive, thus reducing sales and affecting the viability of small businesses.read more
Further Reading: Public Revenue Without Taxation by Ronald Burgess Land-Value Taxation by Kenneth C. Wenzer By Dr Peter Bowman The market mechanism provides the most efficient way of allocating the resources of an economy. Yet public services, which can count for...read more
By John Symons: People debate endlessly whether or not Churchill would have supported Brexit. But what of the great man whom Churchill recommended to the King in 1942 as Archbishop of Canterbury? Which side would William Temple, perhaps the greatest Archbishop in the last century, have supported?read more
“You can become wealthy by creating wealth or by appropriating the wealth created by other people. When the appropriation of the wealth is illegal it is called theft or fraud. When it is legal economists call it rent-seeking”
John Kay, Financial Times 27th Dec 2009
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, they cannot save the few who are rich.”
John F Kennedy, Inaugural Speech, Jan 1961
“If science is defined by its ability to forecast the future, the failure of much of the economics profession to see the crisis coming should be a cause for great concern”
“Today we live in a world that is divided. A world in which we have made great progress and advances in science and technology. But it is also a world where millions of children die because they have no access to medicines… It is a world of great promise and hope. It is also a world of despair, disease and hunger”
How Our Economy Really Works
– Why are so many trapped in poverty, when others are grossly well-off?
– Why are house prices continuously rising faster than inflation?
– Why do people so often find themselves in jobs that give them little sense of fulfilment?
– Why is a multi-national coffee shop franchise not actually making its money from coffee?
These questions have confronted the UK economy for decades without resolution by governments of the right or left. It is the failure of economics, the author argues.
ISBN 9780856835292 | Price: £9.95