Some great ideas gain very little traction. Sometimes because its time and place have not yet come. Sometimes they’ve come and gone. Either dilemma is not insoluble, not if its proponents bother to use what’s known about the science of social change.
Consider the idea of society recovering then sharing the values it generates by its mere presence, which is largely the annual rental value of locations. Other values, too, belong to society, but the biggest chunk is land value, and that’s the one that has long been in the sights of a few economic reformers.
And in your sights. Kudos. Most people have never heard of it. No offense, but that’s due in part to the people who advocate rent recovery doing such a lousy job of marketing. They do the same thing over and over and expect different results, the definition of insanity according to a smart guy, Einstein, who was also an admirer of Henry George.
When Henry George promoted the Single Tax was rent recovery's heyday. Several universities taught land economics. Several nations adopted land taxes, notably Australia and New Zealand, then repealed them.
Society changed while advocates did not keep up with the times. People went from rural to urban, from tenant to homeowner, and could not see why it’d be a good idea to surrender their greatest windfall and security blanket to undeserving politicians and bureaucrats. Put that way, I can’t either.
While a political impossibility now, it’s still a monstrously phenomenal way to run an economy. The requirement to pay land taxes or land dues impels owners to use land efficiently. On a rational settlement pattern, more jobs open up, more investment flows in, and everyone makes more money. Environmentally, compact cities leave lots of land for other species. It also slashes transport distances and thus polluting emissions.
Further, when everyone gets a rent share, they no longer have to sell themselves short or pay desperation prices, so production and distribution also become much more efficient, besides liberating people to enjoy lives of leisure, the whole point of an economy that works for us, not we for it.
Poverty, degradation, time famine—these problems erupt from our misappropriation of Earth’s worth. If Socrates is right—good can not come from bad, good can only come from good—then correcting entitlement to Earth’s worth is the only way to rescue civilization. But reformers can not win doing what taxists try. Rather they must do what works.
A rival economic reform went from zero to sixty in a few short years. Wannabe reformers know basic income while few know rent shares, aka Citizens Dividend. Ironically, advocates of basic income grants won attention without money behind them, while proponents of pubic recovery of land value have a half billion dollars locked away in century-old foundations. How can they have so much money and get so little done?
Of course it’s harder to present an unfamiliar idea—like Citizens Dividend—than one imaginable, even if false—like MAGA. But give fascists credit. They do not stop for fear. Any idea, no matter how offensive, they express with certainty. OTOH, people who want a better world for everyone sound afraid of ordinary people rejecting them, and don’t say what they believe but what they think others will accept. Their deceit alienates needed supporters. While fascists do tell lies, theirs assume the people are with them.
That’s in the mainstream political theater. Within the land rent “movement”—too small and inactive to actually qualify—nobody has the chutzpah to say: land value equals common wealth. Instead, those who control the funds reward the odd academic who admits land plays a role in economies (duh). Those few scholars, however, can not make up for the vast majority who’re useless, ignoring rent, unable to forecast or offer beneficial policies. Worse, they displace what could be useful. The field needs a paradigm shift from economics to geonomics, like astrology to astronomy and alchemy to chemistry.
Nevertheless, Georgist foundation trustees reward the dismal discipline, not activists. Academia is safe albeit ignored while activists garner attention yet occasionally stir controversy. However, when activists win popular support, make political headway, then scholars come out of the woodwork to publish and testify at legislative hearings; they don’t go missing.
Land taxers have been on the outside so long, they’ve become a cult, one with an inferiority complex. Mainly they talk among themselves but when anyone in the press says anything remotely agreeable, they swoon. At the same time, they starve their own who get stories published. Those writers use language and ideas that intrigue readers. Older advocates hear that as heresy.
The Old Guard focuses only on taxation, not at all on fees, dues, leases, or on regulation, nor on spending/subsidies. They advocate taking money, not sharing money. Growing up under the Protestant Work Ethic, not the Polynesian Play Ethic, sharing shames them—easier to be respectably self-deprecating and talk tax, nothing else.
Timid elders pretend that keeping quiet about continual failure of their alienating ways is good manners. They’re typically pleasant people in other aspects but lack the spine to be agents of change. Yet money is power and power corrupts. They cling to "movement" resources, staying in the way of those with potential. Competent activists attracted to the idea initially don’t feel welcome and don’t hang around.
In sports, business, and war, if you don't succeed, you don't survive. In the Georgist clique, just the opposite; even if you produce, you're not rewarded. A half billion dollars in the wrong hands is a sad fate for a fine idea. In the right hands, what can revenue reformers do going forward?
We Americans are notably ahistorical, one generation not knowing much about even its preceding generation. As Henry Ford (another land taxer) said, history is bunk. We’re also more opinionated than citizens of other nations. All through public school, we’re taught our opinions are golden and to shout them out. So political people and social researchers (not social scientists since economics and sociology, etc, are not sciences) can hold any opinion … and do. We’re not taught rigorous science or engineering or math. Guys and gals in those fields can not long hold a silly notion. Experiments must be replicated by others. Inventions must work and hold up. Math solutions, too, need irrefutable proof. But not political opinions. These are the people whom must be accommodated, for an unfamiliar idea to win.
To know what to say to early adopters and forge a critical mass, hire focus groups, test various phrases that express the core idea and push emotional buttons. But focus groups and polls cost money, as do an activist staff.
Goethe suggested (actually, an American translation put the words in his mouth), "What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” If you can’t go bold, step aside for those who can. Don’t keep this fantastic idea and its foundation money as a personal hobby, depriving the world of the basic policy it needs to work right for everyone.
How long will it take to finally win? Doing it the wrong way requires eternity. Doing it the right way, OTOH, would take just a few years. If the funds were spent on proven ways to shift a social paradigm, revenue reformers would’ve won by now.
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JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.