8. (2014 April) Research: Did Georgist economics fail during Reconstruction?

Did Georgist economics fail during Reconstruction? -Cliff Cobb, AJES

Reconstruction is the name given to the period from 1863 to 1876, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Compromise of 1876, by which Tilden withdrew his candidacy and allowed Hayes to become President of the U.S., in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.  During the brief period, we got a glimpse of how states would be governed if former slaves and dispossessed whites were given a chance to participate fully in the political process.

In his 1988 book, Reconstruction, Eric Foner summarized (pp. 375-376) the policies that dealt with land, which had been mostly held by a small planter elite before the Civil War.  In South Carolina alone, a massive land redistribution program took place, with about 14% of the black population gaining title to land that the state sold on long-term credit.  “Rather than emulate South Carolina, Republicans in other states chose to employ taxation as an indirect means of weakening the plantation and promoting black ownership.” The poll tax had dominated the South before the war.  Now an ad valorem tax on real and personal property became the main source of state revenue, although the poll tax was not eliminated.  Prior to the war, the low property tax rates had been self-assessed, but now the state sent officials to make assessments.  “Rising taxes quickly emerged as a rallying cry for Reconstruction’s opponents, but many blacks hoped high levies would make extensive holdings of uncultivated land unprofitable and force real estate onto the market.”  For example, in Louisiana, less than 10% of the farmland was being cultivated after the War.  In Mississippi, 20% of the land was forfeited to the state for non-payment of taxes.  State laws then required that such land be sold in small lots to make it available to poor farmers.  But the experiment largely failed.  Northern speculators bought much of the land that was put up for auction at prices higher than any small farmer could afford.  And title to the land was never secure.  “In Mississippi, 95 percent of the forfeited acreage eventually found its way back to the owner.”  It may have been better than the system before the war, “but as a means of land distribution, it proved singularly ineffective.”

That is Foner’s final judgment: ineffective.  But the system of redistribution through taxation only operated for a few years, five or six at the most.  What this story really reveals is the importance of state power to enforce laws.  The mechanisms of the Georgist tax policy seem to have worked remarkably well in breaking up plantations, but the collapse of state power made it impossible to follow through on the land revolution.  Foner makes clear that the libertarian philosophy of the Republican leadership actually doomed the system from the start.  “Most white Republicans, and many freeborn blacks, while perfectly willing to  guarantee the freedmen their rights as free laborers and equal citizens, opposed using the power of the state to redistribute property.”  Although the labor of slaves had created the economy that gave value to the land of the South, the pristine logic of “free labor” did not admit of any such calculations.  As in the libertarian philosophy of our own day, history counted for nothing.  A more historically equitable solution would have been to combine the South Carolina system of direct land redistribution (with delayed repayments) with the indirect tax system adopted in other states.


8. (2013 December) Research: Total Resource Rents Report -Australia

Fellow Georgist Karl Fitzgerald in Melbourne, Australia recently released Total Resource Rents Report. He writes:

“The Total Resource Rents of Australia report finds monopoly rents are capable of replacing taxation at all levels of government. In 2011-12, local, state and federal governments required $390.067 billion in operating revenue. The most efficient form of government revenue-raising, the taxation of economic rents, can raise 87% ($340.719 billion) of revenue needed. By including ‘sin taxes’ and non taxation revenue, a fairer, more equitable tax base is possible.“

Read more: http://bit.ly/1co9U1n

5. (2013 March) Research: The Road Not Taken — An Old Proposal and Its Implications

The Road Not Taken — An Old Proposal and Its Implications
Introduction by Cliff Cobb (edited for The Georgist News)

In 1996, John Bodley, professor of anthropology and author of the widely used text, Victims of Progress, asked the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation (RSF) for support to write articles on “elite power and land ownership.” At the time, he had recently discovered Progress and Poverty and saw its significance for political theory. Although the proposal was not approved, I requested and obtained permission from John Bodley and from RSF to submit it to The Georgist News.

Bodley proposed to apply the Georgist paradigm to the concentration of political power, as mediated by concentrated ownership of land. Already in 1995 Bodley had been conducting empirical research on this topic in Spokane, Washington. The project promised to make a major contribution to studies of local power structure, which were once a standard feature of sociological analysis, but which largely disappeared with the rise of the constructivist view in the social sciences that everything is a function of language and meaning. To my knowledge, none of the earlier studies of local power structure focused on land ownership, so Bodley might have started a new trend in research.

Bodley continued to conduct research on the topic and write papers, but without an empirical foundation, his work did not address the issues central to a nascent Georgist political theory. You can download two articles that grew out of his research on questions of power here: http://libarts.wsu.edu/anthro/faculty/bodley.html

  • 2001 Growth, Scale, and Power in Washington State. Human Organization. 60(4):367-379
  • 1999 Socioeconomic Growth, Culture Scale, and Household Well-Being: A Test of the Power-Elite Hypothesis. Current Anthropology. 40(5):595-620

Bodley’s work, if it were to be pursued, offers a Georgist counterweight to research on the power elite by the Marxist William Domhoff and by theorists of corporate power such as David Korten, Thomas Dye, and George Gonzalez. At a minimum, Bodley’s empirical Research, if continued, could inject the importance of land into contemporary politics. The role of land in urban politics has been discussed by Marxists such as Harvey Molotch, Michael Logan, and David Harvey, but their ideological emphasis on “capital” prevents them from appreciating the centrality of land in the drama of urban politics.

In the absence of any formal theory of politics, Georgists have implicitly adopted a “pluralist” model of political power, which assumes 1) that power is widely distributed in society, 2) that social mobility is a characteristic of industrial societies, and 3) that democratic structures are open and porous. In fact, since Georgists have not addressed theories of political power, these issues do not arise. Henry George alludes to the failures of democracy in Book X of Progress and Poverty, but it seems there has been little elaboration of this theme by subsequent Georgists.

Perhaps there is someone who might still pick up where Bodley left off by conducting the research necessary to develop a Georgist theory of urban politics.

Click below to see the original proposal: