The concepts of artificial intelligence (AI) and universal basic income (UBI) are almost certainly familiar to the reader. Furthermore, the reader is likely familiar with arguments about the connection between the two concepts and may have opinions on the matter. However, the reader is much less likely to be familiar with land value taxation (LVT) and how it relates to AI and UBI. The purpose of this memorandum is to being laying out those connections.
The concept of a UBI has been discussed and written about for millennia (examples include: the Roman empire, ancient Jewish law, and Thomas Paine) and basic forms of UBI have even been implemented in limited forms at various points in history. The reasons cited in support of UBI have been numerous and varied. They include the following reasons, which is certainly not an exhaustive list.
- To provide sustenance for the poor and needy.
- To quell the riotous inclinations of the masses.
- To ensure political and social stability.
- To eradicate poverty.
- To promote the health and well being of populations.
- To provide a “linen shirt” to all citizens to ensure their ability to participate in society and in the market.
- To provide a social safety net in order to reduce the risks of entrepreneurship, research, development, and invention.
- To provide economic empowerment to those on the margins of society or who have historically and systematically been marginalized.
- To simplify the welfare state.
- To decrease income and wealth inequality.
- The compensate those whose work is not compensated by the market (the primary example given being raising children and taking care of older relatives).
- To provide for those who have been dislocated and displaced by transitions in the economy.
More recently, a new reason has been added to this list and has garnered significant attention: the rise of AI. This reason is different in kind from all the rest because it envisions a “post-capitalism” world in which UBI is absolutely necessary in the face of a dramatic reduction in the demand for human labor, while all the other reasons simply aim to improve capitalism by dealing with some of its undesirable side effects.
The potential ramifications of AI are certainly familiar to the intended audience of this memorandum. However, a brief recitation may be useful to other readers who are less familiar with the social and political implications of AI.
In some ways, AI is like the last reason for UBI cited above.
To provide for those who have been dislocated and displaced by transitions in the economy.
During the Industrial Revolution, agricultural workers were dislocated and displaced by increased agricultural productivity that necessitated fewer agricultural workers. However, this was accompanied by an increased demand for industrial factory workers in urban centers.
Similarly, the advent of automobiles in the twentieth century dislocated and displaced countless buggy manufacturers, stable workers, and tackle producers. However, this was accompanied by an increase in the demand for labor in the car manufacturing, petroleum, and road construction industries.
Later, the dramatic decrease in the number of auto workers in Detroit during the latter part of the twentieth century was accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of auto workers in other countries during those same years.
In all these cases, a UBI would have significantly reduced the suffering of these dislocated and displaced workers and likely would have increased the speed and efficiency with which they could have retrained and/or relocated for jobs in emerging industries.
The rise of AI will look like this, but with one glaring difference: the disappearance of jobs will not be accompanied by the appearance of new jobs in different industries or locations. Over the coming years and decades AI will begin taking over an unprecedented number of jobs. Indeed, there is some evidence that this is already occurring. The key difference is that AI will already be better than humans at any new “jobs” (is it really a job if a human never performs it?) that emerge. Therefore, unlike in the past, dislocated and displaced workers will not have any new industries or locations to transition into.
The significance of the last two sentences cannot be overstated: of all the reasons for UBI, AI is different in kind because after AI there will be fewer jobs than there were before and we will enter a “post-capitalism” era.
Interestingly, and perhaps encouragingly, UBI has gained attention and some initial support from various corners of the political and economic spectrums. Labor leaders and business executives have spoken approvingly of it. However, virtually all of these discussions and supportive statements end with the same question: how to fund such a massive undertaking.
However, in light of AI, the problem of funding a UBI becomes even larger than first meets the eye. In a future where there are far fewer jobs, how will we fund a UBI (or any other public programs for that matter) in a society that relies primarily on the wages of labor for public revenue? Thus, while necessitating UBI more than ever, it seems to make the funding of UBI all the more difficult. But it is in the light of this consideration that we can begin to see the natural source for funding a UBI.
There are four ultimate sources from which public revenue may be obtained.
- The returns to labor, which are called wages.
- The returns to capital, which are called profits.
- The returns to land, which are called rents.
- The existing accumulation of wages, profits, and rents, which are called wealth.
Public revenues are generated by taking a portion of wages, profits, rents, and wealth in a process known as taxation.
In the United States, public debate on taxation almost exclusively focuses on the quantity of taxation.
Examples include: “We need a tax cut.” “Taxes are too high.“ “We need to raise taxes on the wealthy.” “Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.”
However, from an economic and analytical standpoint, the questions of what we tax and how we tax it are far more important. History is replete with examples of poorly devised tax policies that failed or had significant negative impacts not because of how much they taxed, but because of what and how they taxed.
An anecdote may be illustrative. It is said that Muhammad Ali of Egypt applied a tax on date trees in the nineteenth century that resulted in all the date trees in Egypt being cut down by their owners. Other trees were then planted in their place and no tax liability was incurred.
In the United States, there has not been a public discussion of what or how we tax in over a century, let alone an actual change in what or how we tax. All tax policy, even significant tax reform, over the last century has merely tinkered with the question of how much to tax.
As mentioned above, the modern state primarily raises public revenue by taxation of wages from labor. However, the rise of AI will dramatically reduce the amount of labor and wages . Therefore, the rise of AI will necessitate shifting what we tax in order to raise the necessary public revenues for the modern state. Thus, the rise of AI will present the opportunity for public debate of what should be taxed instead of labor.
The process of elimination of labor and wages will not happen overnight, but it may happen quickly. As mentioned earlier, there is some evidence that the process of job elimination without an accompanying increase in jobs elsewhere has already begun. This erosion of the current tax base will only accelerate over the next decade and necessitates having the public debate of what to tax now. Without a change in policy, we may soon experience a decrease in public revenue despite experiencing economic growth.
The Covid-19 pandemic has further demonstrated this possibility: a booming stock market at the same time as record levels of unemployment and plunging public revenues.
With the gradual elimination of labor/wages as a basis of taxation, the remaining possible bases of taxation are capital/profits, land/rents, and existing wealth. The tendency to overemphasize how much we tax, rather than what and how we tax, will likely lead some individuals to conclude that it doesn’t matter which of these tax bases we shift to after the rise of AI, but it is important to remember that the choice of what and how to tax can have dramatic consequences.
The imminent and necessary shifting of the tax base away from labor/wages will have massive and dramatic impacts. Debates around tax policy tend to focus on incremental change and effects on the margins. Although certainly a powerful tool, such analysis will not suffice here. Shifting the tax base away from labor/wages will not constitute tinkering at the margins and we shouldn’t primarily be concerned with effects on the margins; we must start with the big picture and ask whether shifting to a new tax base is even sustainable or desirable.
Option 1: taxing capital/profits.
The easiest shift in the tax base for people to contemplate will likely be onto capital/profits. This shift is relatively easy to imagine because it is most similar to our current tax base on labor/wages and because we already do it in some ways (the clearest examples being capital gains and corporate income taxes). However, it is important to remember that this will not be a marginal increase in existing taxation on capital/profits, but an increase to the tune of trillions of dollars. If such a shift were to occur, it would certainly trigger concerns of disincentivizing investment, research, and development and would reverse the policy that profits should receive preferential treatment in order to promote economic growth. But there are at least three concerns that are even more fundamental.
Issue 1: volatility of revenue.
First, tax revenues would plummet during recessions. While recessions are generally accompanied by a decrease in tax revenue due to layoffs and pay cuts, a shift in the tax base to capital/profits would greatly exacerbate this problem. The amount of capital that remains idle or unprofitable during a recession far exceeds the quantity of labor that becomes unemployed.
In 2009, federal revenue from personal income taxes fell by roughly 20% due to the Great Recession; corporate income taxes plunged 45%.
The ability and cost of governments to raise funds by borrowing would likely be inhibited as well due to the heavy taxation of capital.
Issue 2: inhibiting innovation and progress.
Second, the shifting of the tax base onto capital/profits would occur precisely at the same time as AI is implemented throughout the economy, becomes a dominant industry, and becomes the most productive form of capital. Taxing this capital would be ill advised and would significantly inhibit progress at the very least. Try to imagine what the world might look like today if the tax base had been shifted to capital/profits at the emergence of the internet age. Would we have Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft today? If so, what would they look like? Would we be on the verge of an AI revolution today?
Some may advocate heavy taxation of capital/profits precisely for the reason that it would slow the development of AI and push back the day that it takes human jobs. But such an approach is shortsighted at best. There is no sense in postponing the inevitable and there are numerous reasons to accelerate the development of AI (not the least of which is national security).
Issue 3: mobility.
Finally, capital is the easiest tax base to move to “more friendly” jurisdictions. Heavy taxation of capital inevitably leads to capital fleeing that jurisdiction for a neighboring jurisdiction where it can do the same work and earn the same profits without being subject to heavy taxation. Labor can move jurisdictions as well, but such changes tend to be limited and gradual because the decision to relocated labor is personal and subject to all sorts of other considerations; relocating capital is merely a business decision. Shifting the tax base from labor/wages to capital/profit would inevitably be accompanied by a giant sucking noise as capital moves to more hospitable jurisdictions. To even consider a sustainable tax on capital/profits would likely require a global tax treaty requiring an unprecedented level of coordination, cooperation, and loss of sovereignty.
Option 2: taxing wealth.
For these reasons, shifting trillions of dollars of taxes from labor/wages to capital/profits is ill advised at best and likely completely unsustainable. Next, we turn to wealth. Wealth is different from labor/wages, capital/profits, and land/rent in that it is merely the accumulated sum of unused wages, profits, and rents. Thus wealth can actually be traced back to its origin in wages, profits, and/or rents and dealt with in the analysis of each of these tax bases. However, some additional observations are helpful.
A tax on wealth merely encourages individuals to consume in greater quantities rather than continuing to accumulate it. Therefore a tax on wealth has the natural tendency to immediately decrease the stock of wealth and the amount available for taxation. As such, a wealth tax is not necessarily a sustainable tax base. The other three potential tax bases (labor/wages, capital/profits, land/rent) are ongoing activities that occur on a daily and annual basis and can therefore be taxed on an ongoing basis. In contrast to this, wealth is not based on any particular activity and it is therefore difficult to tax on an ongoing basis. For this reason, policies and proposals to tax wealth are not primarily about generating public revenues; they are generally attempting to accomplish other policy goals such as reducing income inequality or preventing the accumulation of generational wealth.
The first two alternatives to labor/wages as a tax base (capital/profits and wealth) are utterly inadequate for the funding of the modern state, not to mention an expansion for for UBI. This leaves land/rent.
Option 3: taxing land.
What is land?
This leaves one viable basis of taxation: land. Perhaps it is best to begin this discussion with a statement of what a tax on land would be and what it would not be since the use of land as a tax base is virtually unknown in the United States.
The fact that this last statement will likely be surprising to the reader just goes to show that it is necessary to start with some definitions.
This in turn requires an understanding of what land is. Although the word “land” is certainly familiar, the economic category of land is someone more technical.
Land, in an economic sense, is all naturally occurring resources and phenomena. These naturally occurring phenomena cannot be created or destroyed by human exertion — merely transformed. Thus, thinking of land as the soil beneath our feet is far too narrow a conception of land. It also includes the electromagnetic spectrum, geosynchronous orbit, waterways, the atmosphere, genetic information, mineral deposits, and countless other phenomena. In this memorandum we will focus on land in the sense of specific space on the surface of the earth. As such, most of these other examples are beyond the scope of this memorandum, but the same principles apply because they all occupy the economic category of land and respond to the same laws.
Land and capital are (very) different.
It is very common, even amongst professional economists, to confuse land and capital. To see the benefits of shifting the tax base to land, it is essential to carefully differentiate between land and capital.
The reason for the confusion is at least partially related to the shift in the most valuable form of land from agricultural land to residential, commercial, and industrial land. When you look at agricultural land, it is very easy to remember that there is land involved. But when you look at an office building, it is easy to forget that land is involved.
It is important to remember that when you look at the office building, you are looking at two very different factors of production: capital and land. The essential difference is that land is absolutely fixed and exists wholly apart from human labor; more capital is at all times being produced as a direct result of human labor. If the office building burns to the ground, it can be replaced; if it becomes too small, more stories can be added to it. However, the land is completely static. These differences mean that land and capital respond very differently to economic laws.
The philosophical and legal basis of property.
Another source of the confusion between land and capital is that we use the word “property” to refer to both land and capital. However, just as land and capital behave very differently economically, they have distinct philosophical and legal bases.
Property is a result of human freedom and autonomy. Because your labor belongs to you and no one else has the right to force you to labor, that which you create must be your property. Thus it makes sense to describe things like tables, t-shirts, and buildings as property because they would not exist but for someone’s labor. But the same cannot be said of land. Land cannot be created and needs no human labor to exist. Therefore land cannot be property.
Every legal, historical, cultural, and religious tradition has recognized that land is the common inheritance for the provision of all mankind. This is a rational response to the insight that land is not property in the sense that capital is.
This is a useful place to note that the taxation of labor/wages and capital/profits is in some sense a theft: it is depriving individuals of the fruits of their labor against their will. That is, it is taking their property and undermines their freedom and autonomy as human beings. It may be necessary, beneficial, or justified to do so, but at a basic level it is a theft. However, the same criticism could not be leveled against a tax on land since it cannot be property and does not belong to individuals in the same sense that true property does.
The creation of value in land.
It is clear where the value in labor and capital come from and who that value belongs to. Wages are what are necessary to convince an individual to perform labor — to perform a massage or fix your car. Profit is what is necessary to convince an individual to part with their property, whether on a temporary or permanent basis — to lease you a truck or to sell you a piece of equipment. Without wages, you would not get any labor and without profit you would not get any capital.
Land, however, is very different. As we have already seen, the amount of land is fixed. Thus, the rent on land cannot affect the quantity of land one iota. Furthermore, the owner of land does not create the value in land whatsoever.
At this point it is essential to remember the distinction between land and capital. An owner could create capital by building or improving a building on land. But the value of the land will not increase. If the building burned down the next day, the land would have the same value.
Where then does the value in land arise from? Put quite simply, the value in land arises from the surrounding community. It comes from infrastructure such as water, sewers, high speed internet, electric lines, gas lines, and cell towers; transportation and public improvements such as roads, gutters, bridges, railways, airports, and harbors; from public and civic institutions such as schools, parks, hospitals, museums, universities; from public services such as police protection, fire protection, and national defense; and from the local population’s education, expertise, and skills.
Thus, just as labor and capital produce value and must be compensated in wages and profits, so the community produces value in land and ought to be compensated in rent. Rent on land, therefore, is the most natural tax base.
Ownership versus exclusive use.
This model fits perfectly with the cultural, legal, historical, and religious norms that land is the inheritance of and belongs to all mankind and is for the benefit and provision of all mankind. Under the model, all of mankind has inherited the earth (and creates the value in the earth) and merely leases out individual plots to individuals, who in turn compensate mankind and the community with a periodic rent.
It is important to note that ownership of land the and right to exclusive use of land are not the same thing. We want to provide the right to exclusive use of land to incentivize its proper use and the employment of labor and capital on it. No one will build an office building and start a business on land if that land can be taken away or if anyone and everyone has the right to enter onto the land. However, this does not mean that we have to grant the owner the right of ownership to the land; they can merely hold an exclusive and indefinite right to the use of the land and compensate the community for that right with periodic rent payments.
However, we don’t even have to change the ownership of all land into the public and charge periodic rent to the occupiers. Retaining “ownership” in individuals and merely taxing them at the rental rate of the land that they “own” will accomplish the exact same thing.
What are the consequences of private ownership of land?
When land is privately owned (or, more precisely, when individuals are able to reap all the benefits of ownership of land without compensating the rest of society for that right), the owners are freeriders on society: reaping the benefits created by the rest of society without contributing anything in return. This, in and of itself, is an injustice. However, it creates a cascade of economic problems: poverty, income and wealth inequality, unemployment, and recessions.
Poverty and inequality.
To understand why these phenomena are naturally the result of private ownership of land, it is necessary to understand one of the foundational laws of of economics: Ricardo’s Law of Rent.
John Stuart Mill considered Ricardo’s Law of Rent the pons asinorum: Latin for the bridge of asses — a foundational principle essential for moving beyond a novice understanding.
Despite being foundational and profoundly influential, the Law is also highly intuitive. I will therefore set it forth with an allegory before stating it simply.
Imagine an island on which there are two plots of land: one is owned and can produce 100 coconuts and one that is unowned and can produce 60 coconuts. The local population of laborers are tenant coconut farmers. They go to the owner of the more productive piece of land and ask to farm it. What rent will the landowner demand? Keeping in mind that the owner of the land wants to maximize rent and that the farmers can always go to the second piece of land and earn 60 coconuts there rent free, it is clear that the owner of the first piece of land will demand 40 coconuts in rent, leaving the farmers 60 coconuts in wages. If the land owner raises the rent to 41 coconuts, the farmers would only net 59 coconuts and would simply go to the second piece of land.
Ricardo’s Law of Rent states that the rent on land is equal to the productive value of that land minus the productive value of the most productive free land available. This is precisely what we have intuited and derived.
But what did the landowner do to deserve their 40 coconuts in rent? Did they invent or build anything? Not a thing. Did they contribute any labor? They didn’t so much as raise a finger. The legal system on the island simply recognizes their exclusive rights to the land without any corresponding obligation to compensate society; they are a free rider.
Imagine now that the second plot of land also becomes owned. What will the rent on each piece of land be? Ricardo’s Law of Rent says that it will be the productive value of each piece of land (100 and 60, respectively) minus the productive value of the most productive free land available. However, there is no longer any free land available. Thus, we would subtract 0, resulting in rents of 100 and 60, respectively. However, this would result in 0 wages and no one will work for free. What then will happen? The owner of each piece of land will find the farmer willing to work for the lowest amount of wages, say 20 coconuts. The rent will thus become 80 coconuts and 40 coconuts, respectively.
Thus, Ricardo’s Law of Rent says that when there is no longer any free land available, the rent on land becomes the productive value of the land minus the least amount anyone in the society is willing to work for.
What has happened on our island? Now that there is no free land available, rents on land have skyrocketed and wages have collapsed to their bare minimum. Poverty has emerged and dramatic income and wealth inequalities have emerged.
Next let us imagine that capital is introduced on the island. Perhaps ladders or carts are developed; perhaps irrigation and fertilizer systems are installed; perhaps there is public investment in roadways or a harbor; perhaps management and organizational practices are implemented. Let us assume that the result of this capital is to double the productive value of land on our island; the first piece of land can now produce 200 coconuts and the second piece of land can now produce 120 coconuts.
What does Ricardo’s Law of Rent say will now occur? The owner of land will still find the laborer who is willing to work for the least amount in the society. Thus, labor will still receive 20 coconuts in wages and capital will receive, say, 30 coconuts in profits. After this, the owner of the first piece of land will receive 150 coconuts in rent and the owner of the second piece of land will receive 70 coconuts in rent.
What now is the state of our island? Despite incredible growth in productivity in wealth (the society has doubled its output), wages have not budged at all, capital has derived some profits, and rents have skyrocketed.
If you have trouble seeing that land trumps capital, imagine a world in which one person owns all the land and the other owns all the capital. Who will win? The landowner will win every time because land is necessary to employ capital, but the reverse is not true.
Thus, we still see crushing poverty and and further increases wealth and income inequality. All this despite a doubling of the productivity of the island!
Ricardo’s Law of Rent thus has two practical consequences. First, when there is no longer any free land available (a historical event known as the closing of the frontier), wages plummet to the bare minimum while rents skyrocket. Second, when society becomes more productive, the owners of land suck up all of that increased productivity at the end of the day.
This largely explains wage stagnation over the past five decades in the United States despite dramatic increases in productivity.
Some might protest that it is unfair to assume that wages on the island will remain 20 coconuts after a doubling of the productive capacity of the island. That may be true. Collective action through unions or a minimum wage laws may raise wages; expertise in coconut harvesting (or loading or transporting of coconuts) may demand higher wages; a sense of justice in a dramatically wealthier society may lead to demands for higher wages. However, none of these defeat Ricardo’s Law of Rent. They merely change what the minimum amount that labor is willing to work for is (or is legally permitted to work for), and this in turn gets plugged into the formula of Ricardo’s Law of Rent. Thus wages may in fact increase from 20 coconuts to 25 coconuts. The larger point is that labor is still working for the bare amount it is willing to receive and all the remaining increased productivity goes to the owners of land. Historically, the rate of increase in wages is less than the increase in productivity in a society, so the gap will increase.
From whence do landowners derive this surprising power? It is because the amount of land is fixed. This means that no matter how high the demand for land is and no matter how high the price for land rises, the supply of land will never expand.
To see a practical example of this, imagine a market in chairs. If the demand for chairs increased and the market price of chairs doubled in response, many firms would jump into the chair market and the supply of chairs would increase to meet the increased demand. The price of chairs would then fall and none of the chair manufacturers would make any longterm windfalls. But is the same true of land? If demand for land increases and the price of land doubles (an experience that is unfortunately all too real to millions of people over the past decade), will the supply of land increase in response? No — the supply of land is completely fixed. Society will just be stuck with the higher prices and landowners will continue to get richer.
Recessions and unemployment.
We have seen how the structure of ownership of land leads to poverty and wealth and income inequality. How does it connect to recessions and unemployment? A result of Ricardo’s Law of Rent is that land becomes more valuable every time society becomes more productive. This occurs without the owner of the land having to do anything. As such, land is a very good “investment.”
In reality, land is not an investment because “investing” in land does not create any new wealth — the land was there to begin with.
In fact, it is such a good “investment” that the price of land frequently gets driven up past the price that its true productive capacity can support or justify. This is the start of a bubble. At some point “investors” realize that their irrational exuberance has become foolish and the price of land will collapse, sending reverberations throughout the economy.
It is interesting to note that it is commonly understood that land and recessions are linked but that so little effort is made to understand the link.
Understanding that our structure of land ownership drives speculation, which leads to recessions, it is easy to see a connection to unemployment. But there is a more fundamental connection between land and employment. When someone owns land, they realize all of the future increase in the value of the land without having to do anything, which leads to chronic underutilization of land. This manifests itself in countless ways: ground level parking lots in urban cores, oversized homes and yards, resistance to development, NIMBYism, “hold outs” in areas being redeveloped, leapfrog development and sprawl, growth outwards rather than upwards, and a million other ways.
This is bad for a host of reasons (city and regional planning, infrastructure and public service costs, erosions of communities, transfer of public wealth to private individuals, environmental degradation, congestion, and sprawl, just to name a few), but there is a more subtle consequence: a drag on employment. When land is being underutilized, it means that jobs that could easily be created are not being created. When a land owner holds on to a ground level parking lot in an urban core, they are depriving the community of the countless jobs that would arise if the land were put to its highest and best use. To add insult to injury, the land owner is privately profiting from the community at the same time they are depriving it of jobs.
One further consequence of the private ownership of land is worth noting. In agricultural societies, it is quite easy to see the use of land, the value of the land, the power that ownership of land yields, and the economic consequences of the ownership of land. Today, in a modern industrial and commercial society, many casually state that the value and importance of land is greatly diminished. But nothing could be further from the truth. The value of land is greater than ever; it is simply harder to see because its value is “mixed up” in countless businesses and activities.
Some of the most valuable land in the United States is owned by businesses that operate on the premises. As such, there is no literal transfer of land rents as there might be from a peasant farmer to a feudal lord. However, this does not mean, economically speaking, that there is not actually rent on land involved. It merely means that the rent is being transferred to the business itself. Put another way, the business is actually in two businesses: producing widgets and being a land owner.
This insight has dramatic consequences. Imagine two identical businesses producing widgets — equal in efficiency, quality, innovation, and access to resources and markets. However, the first business owns the land on which it is situated while the second rents the land it uses. What will happen? The first business will beat the second business every time because it is paying its land rent to itself rather than to an outside landowner. Further, this problem will become more and more exacerbated over time as the value of the land, and accompanying rent, increase over time as the society becomes more productive, just as we saw on the island.
Now imagine that the second business is actually a better business — it is more innovative and efficient. In a true market, the second business should triumph every time. But is that what will actually occur? Not necessarily. The first business still has the advantage of being in two businesses (producing widgets and being a landowner) and this may produce enough of an edge to beat out the second business.
This is quite startling. Because of the influence of land — even in a modern economy — there is no true competition as long as private ownership of land exists. There is always a thumb on one side of the scale, which causes less efficient, less innovative businesses to win every day. What amount of progress over the past few decades has been sacrificed to the private ownership of land? We can only imagine what disruptive technologies and revolutionary ideas might have been but were stifled in order to enrich entrenched and outdated ideas.
What are the consequences of taxing the ownership of land?
This all may sound like an argument for the confiscation and collectivization of land; it is not. As discussed earlier, there is an important distinction between the ownership and the use of land. We want the users of land to rest assured that they have the exclusive right to the use of land, that they will continue in that right as long as they so desire, and that they will be able to reap all the fruits of their labor on the land. Without that assurance, people will not plant, build structures, or conduct business.
We arguably don’t even want a system in which the state owns the land and rents it out to individual users. This would be a dramatic bureaucratic expansion and would inevitably lead to governmental meddling in who gets to use which pieces of land.
A much simpler solution is available: for the state to tax land at a rate equal to its rental value. This is commonly known as a land value tax (LVT). This perfectly simulates the model of the people owning the land as their common inheritance and being compensated in the form of rent from land “owners” in exchange for their right of exclusive and continuous use.
In addition to satisfying the moral and philosophical arguments laid out to this point, a land value tax creates all sorts of economic benefits. The precise reasoning behind all the benefits of taxing land is a whole body of economics unto itself, which will not be presented in its entirety here. Instead, many (but certainly not all) of the benefits of taxing land will be quickly laid out with brief explanations.
A brief history.
Economists stretching back to Adam Smith have recognized the fact that land is the ideal base of taxation. As discussed earlier, David Ricardo, who came shortly after Adam Smith, presented a thorough analysis of land and similarly recognized the benefits of taxing land over all other bases of taxation. John Stuart Mill in turn wrote about the benefits of taxing land.Twentieth century economists have widely made the unfortunate mistake of thinking of land and capital as being the same factor of production, which has obscured their analysis of the benefits of taxing land. Nevertheless, there is wide recognition amongst economists, including Nobel laureates, that land is particularly well suited for taxation.
Canons of Taxation.
Adam Smith introduced the ideas of canons of taxation: principles by which various tax systems can be compared and contrasted.
This again demonstrates the economic importance of what is taxed and how it is taxed over how high taxes are, which seems to be the exclusive preoccupation of contemporary political debate.
Smith produced four canons, but economists have introduced various other canons over time. In a word, taxation of land easily prevails over all other forms of taxation in each and every canon. A land value tax is the simplest, cheapest, most transparent tax system you can implement. Think about it: you can’t hide land like you can hide income or transactions. Whole armies of tax lawyers, accountants, and auditors will no longer be necessary.
No deadweight loss.
A tax on anything acts to increase the cost of that thing, which in turn results in lower demand and supply for that item. This is called deadweight loss by economists. Sometimes we tax things for the explicit purpose of having less of it in society — alcohol and tobacco being the most common examples.
However, the primary things that we tax in the United States (labor in the form of income and payroll taxes, transactions in the form of sales taxes, and improvements in the form of property taxes) are generally things that we don’t want less of in society. The heavy tax burdens placed on these items mean that we see significantly less of them in society. Land, however, is the one item that cannot suffer deadweight loss for a very simple reason: the amount of land is fixed. No matter how heavily land is taxed, the supply of it will not decrease and it will not suffer any deadweight loss.
A land value tax cannot be passed on.
A land value tax is also the only tax that cannot be passed on from the individual on whom it is imposed. It is well known and commonly stated that businesses just pass their taxes on to end consumers: a tax on gas companies will be passed on to consumers at the pump; a tax imposed on employers based on the number of employees they have will be passed on to employees in the form of lower wages or lower employment. The same is not true of land. The easiest way to see this is to remember that the supply of land is fixed. The mechanism by which taxes are passed on to consumers is by an artificial lowering of the supply, which raises the price of the item. However, the supply of land is fixed, so this cannot occur with a land tax.
Calling land into its highest and best use.
In fact, taxing land has the opposite effect in some ways: taxing land increases the supply of land available for actual use. This occurs in two ways. First, valuable land that is held completely out of production for speculative reasons will be taxed based on its actual value, which will mean that it will no longer be sustainable for it to be held out of production — forcing the owner to offer it up to production. Second, the owner of land that is being used productively but in an inefficient or suboptimal way will be forced to be put the land into its highest and best use in order to generate sufficient revenue to pay the tax bill based on the value of the land.
Formerly unviable land becomes viable.
When the tax base is shifted onto land, land that was not formerly viable for productive use becomes viable. Under the current system, a business must pay for the land that they are situated on plus a whole host of other taxes (property taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes, business taxes, and income taxes). This results in a burden that renders some pieces of land (even in urban areas) unviable since not enough revenue can be generated to cover all these expenses and make the endeavor worthwhile. However, under a land tax system all these other expenses are eliminated and only the cost of the land must be covered (in the form of a land value tax to a public entity, instead of in the form of rent to a landlord).
Eliminate unemployment and raise wages.
A tax on the value of land has the potential to end unemployment. This may appear to be a radical statement, but a simple mental game demonstrates the importance of land to employment. In the period after the Louisiana purchase when free land was available on the frontier, what were unemployment levels? Zero. Anyone was willing and able to work had the ability to work. Based on the previous comments on the ability of a land tax to call land into production and into its highest and best use, it is easy to see how taxing land “creates new land” by making it available and by incentivizing economic activity on that land. A sixty story building in an urban core provides a lot more opportunities for employment than a parking lot does.
All this increased use of land will create jobs and demand for labor. This in turn will increase wages. In fact, if unemployment is truly eliminated, wages for labor will be tied to actual productivity instead of to the bare minimum that anyone in society is willing to work for. Ricardo’s Law of Rent will finally be broken and labor’s share of wages will increase as society’s productivity increases.
As labor’s wages rise, the rentier class will see its wealth derived from land ownership cut down dramatically. This will do much to reduce income and wealth inequality.
An end to speculation in land and recessions.
As hinted at in the previous point, a land tax prevents speculation in land. However, the way in which it does this is even more radical than merely forcing owners of land to put the land into productive use. A land tax actually makes it impossible to profit from the mere ownership of land because the value of land will be zero since rents from land can no longer be collected and a profit can therefore no longer be made from mere ownership. Thus, there is no reason to speculate in land any longer.
This in turn eliminates the principal driver of recessions: the incessant speculation in land. This speculation is based on the fact that under the current system of taxation land virtually always becomes more valuable over time. The speculation further drives up prices in land, which attracts even more speculative dollars. This continues until the price of land is driven up to unsustainable levels, and then the bubble pops. This primary driver of recessions would be completely eliminated under a land tax system.
Free up credit for productive uses, lower interest rates, and end inflation.
Currently, massive amount of credit are used to buy and speculate in land. This is wasted credit because buying and owning land has no productive value; the land is just as productive before as after. Because a land value tax would drive the value of land to zero, no credit would be necessary to gain access to land. Instead, credit would be devoted exclusive to productive uses such as building buildings, buying equipment, and engaging in research and development. Because land would no longer be competing for credit, this would drive down interest rates.
Finally, the inflationary nature of credit would be eliminated. Inflation is caused by more money chasing the same amount of goods and services. This largely occurs because massive amounts of credit are poured into land (thus increasing the money supply through fractional reserve banking) without any accompanying increase in the quantity of goods. That is, buying land on credit is inflationary. But the same is not true of credit used to procure capital; such lending increases the quantity of goods available and is therefore not inflationary.
Eliminate barrier of entry to business and promote true competition.
As has already been fleshed out, a land tax calls land into its highest and best use, making formerly unviable land viable, and eliminates numerous costs of doing business. All of this increases the ease and reduces the costs of starting businesses. Further, as discussed earlier, existing companies will no longer have the advantage of early entry into the land market over later entrants or businesses that have to rent. Thus true competition will finally exist between businesses. It cannot be overstated how much opportunity this will create for individuals far and wide and for businesses small and large.
Self funding infrastructure.
It is well known that massive investments in infrastructure are currently needed in the United States. Moreover, continual investment, not just one time investment, is needed. However, the question of how to fund this investment is incredibly contentious. And it should be contentious because anytime there is investment in infrastructure, it constitutes a massive transfer of wealth from society to the private owners of land. Infrastructure virtually always makes land more valuable and therefore acts to make the owners of land more wealthy while crowding out those who do not own land. There are countless examples of new railways, bridges, campuses, and parks making landowners quite rich at no cost to themselves. A land value tax solves this problem by collecting the rental value of the land, which will capture the increased value created by the infrastructure, which in turn will act to self fund the infrastructure investment.
An end to NIMBYism.
To the extent that owners of land who complain about public projects decreasing the value of their land are correct, a land tax will perfectly compensate them by an accompanying decrease in their land value tax. This is merely the flip side of self funding infrastructure.
A stable and sustainable tax base.
As discussed earlier, land is the one basis of taxation that cannot flee a jurisdiction. In an era of increasing mobility of labor and capital, land is the last basis of taxation that jurisdictions will have available. Fortunately, land will stay put even when taxed and provides countless other benefits.
Volumes could be written on the environmental benefits of shifting taxes onto land. As outlined above, a land value tax would result in more compact, efficient use of land and all the environmental benefits that would come along with such use instead of the sprawl caused by land speculation and underutilization of land.
However, the environmental benefits of a land value tax are far more fundamental than any specific improvement in land use. Under our current legal system, land is treated as a natural resource over which an individual asserts complete dominion in order to reap as much profit as possible, regardless of the consequences to the rest of society. Under a land value tax system, land is the collective inheritance of all of mankind for the provision of all of mankind and anyone who wants to use land must compensate the rest of society for that use.
Under which system do you think we will be more likely to develop a culture and legal system that protests and conserves the environment?
AI, UBI, and LVT.
This memorandum has largely been focused on how to fund a UBI. The outlines of the argument are simple.
- A UBI will require a dramatic increase in tax revenue.
- At the same time, if AI decreases the need for labor, we will experience a decrease in tax revenue from the income tax.
- Shifting taxation to capital is undesirable for reasons of competitiveness, innovation, and capital flight.
- Land is the final option on which to shift taxation.
- Taxation of land is not only viable, it is highly desirable.
However, there is another link between UBI and land value taxation. Imagine a community in which a UBI of $1,000 per month for each household was implemented. It isn’t that hard to imagine that rents would start creeping up pretty quickly and might coincidentally be $1,000 higher per month within the year.
There’s a scene in Matthew Demond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City in which a landlord sees a tenant buying a computer for the tenant’s daughter. The result: a rent increase because the tenant clearly had the disposable income to afford the rent increase.
For this reason, there is some risk that a UBI would result in a massive transfer of wealth to landowners (possibly the greatest transfer of wealth ever?).
A land value tax prevents this problem. For the reasons explained above, a land value tax cannot be passed on to tenants. The landlords would pay the land value tax, it could be distributed to all people, and tenants would be able to keep it in their pockets.
In fact, this is the realization of the vision that the earth is the common inheritance of all mankind for the provision of all of mankind. All would be provided with a basic income from the provision of the earth.