The Underappreciated Genius of Henry George

This 19th century political theorist had crucial insights about how we use land more applicable now more than ever.

When discussing left-wing political theory, there are names that pop up frequently — Marx, Kropotkin, Bookchin, Lenin — all certainly with their own insights and blind spots. One who gets far too little love these days is Henry George, an American living in the 1800s who had a lot of particularly powerful insights about land. George correctly recognized the unique role it plays in enriching some and impoverishing others, more so than other forms of capital — the core focus of his most notable work, Progress and Poverty.

Land, unlike most resources, is fixed. The vast majority of things of value can be moved around — even, in many cases, whole buildings. Most items of value require some sort of extraction or harvesting or production to put in the hands of the end user. But then there’s land. Land just sort of exists there, largely immovable and uncreatable. For the most part, we do not get more and cannot transport it from places it is abundant to where it is scarce.

Sure, you can “move land” in the sense of moving earth like dirt and rock from one set of coordinates to the next, and coastal areas often “reclaim” land by filling in shallow waterways with such materials. This is a limited and resource-intensive process. Furthermore, when you sell “land,” you aren’t so much as selling the physical matter as an exclusive right to a particular plot on a map. You are buying space.

In this sense, we cannot manufacture more land. A city cannot suddenly be modified to have an extra square mile of room for new development. Either existing developments must be replaced, or the city must grow outward. This is the phenomenon of urban sprawl, and it is very bad from an efficiency standpoint.

George recognized that, because of this, more than anything, land ownership puts people at a unique advantage. As cities inevitably grow, the urban and suburban property values massively increase from the increased demand for land in the area. As the owners of this land sit idly by, the value of their land skyrockets, and so with it their wealth. Real estate speculation is incredibly lucrative over the long term in most cities, especially in California.

If additional people are going to live in the same given area while maintaining the same standard of living, by definition, that area’s land must be used increasingly efficiently over time. Rather than build outward, build upward. A single-story, single-family ranch home and a skyscraper can both be built on less than an acre of land, but one is capable of orders of power more useful human activity.

As it exists now, property taxes are levied on the entire value of the property in question — the land, the house, and any other value-adding amenities. George, though recognizing the distinct advantage owning property gives people, pointed out that this tax structure disincentivizes land owners redeveloping their land, given that objectively better land use leads to higher taxes. This is where the “Land Value Tax” comes into play.

George advocated very high taxes on the unimproved value of land — the value of the land and its natural resources without any of its human-added additions. This both recognizes the unique advantages land ownership provides while also encouraging, rather than discouraging a la traditional property taxes, economically productive use of it. Land speculation then becomes highly disincentivized, given the Land Value Tax makes idle ownership of it a financial black hole.

The classic mistake of anti-gentrification activists is mistaking new development for gentrification. Often, it prevents gentrification. People are priced out of their homes because of skyrocketing demand in areas where supply is not increased. Building a shiny new apartment building might ruin the “character” of an area, but meaningful anti-gentrification is not about protecting character, it is about protecting people. And more housing units per square mile means lower housing prices.

Thankfully, Georgism has found some new life on Twitter in recent years, where the emoji for the Japanese “novice mark” new drivers must display 🔰 was adopted as a symbol for the ideology. The yellow is meant to symbolize Georgism’s commitment to liberal values — something many radical approaches to left-wing politics lack — and the green to symbolize, of course, land.

Without taking land use more seriously, there are so many large-scale problems we will never solve, from spiraling housing prices to climate change, given the excessive amounts of energy wasted just navigating day-to-day in areas not sufficiently dense enough for their population. Much as the United States’s genocidal expulsion of Indigenous people may have created the illusion of land as excessively abundant, the empty plains of Wyoming won’t do much good saving San Francisco. So get to building and get to taxing land — and its unimproved value, of course.