This section of the book is from the "Introduction To Public Finance" book, by Carl Copping Plehn.
No nation has ever found it feasible to adopt any single tax as the sole source of its income. No nation at all advanced in civilisation has attempted to conduct its government entirely from the earnings of its domains or industries. Every civilised nation of to-day combines the three sorts of revenues, those produced by its own activities and those obtained from taxation and from fees. And furthermore, no nation attempts to exist with only one of each of these kinds of revenues. These different forms are combined into a "system" or general scheme, which conforms more or less closely to the general ideal of justice which may have been adopted by the nation. To judge of the justice or expediency of any tax it should be studied in its place in the "system." We have already seen the two main theories as to the proper measure of taxation, the one, that taxation should be measured by benefit, the other, that it should be measured by faculty. A perfect system would so combine the different forms that the total burden imposed would | be in accord with the ideal adopted.
There is a constant tendency toward the simplification of tax systems, although most modern systems arestill extremely complicated. It is the dream of financial theorists, and has been ever since the science began, and it is the aim of many would-be reformers, to find a single tax that will furnish all the necessary funds for the support of the government. The Physiocratic impôt unique on the produit net is well known, as is also the justification therefor. It is also well known wherein this fails. Modern proposals generally involve something more than mere tax reform. The socialistic demand for a single, exclusive income tax with a progressive rate, is advanced with a hope of effecting a redistribution ofthe wealth of the world. Henry George's well-known scheme for a single tax on land has a similar ulterior purpose. His object is to free industry from trammels which he supposes are due to the existence of private property in land. In form his proposition is not unlike that of the Physiocrats. He is an extreme individualist, but he aims, like the socialists, at a new distribution of property. Of these two modern schemes for a single tax the first is perfectly feasible from the fiscal point of view. Such a tax could probably be administered and could be made to yield ample revenue. It fails, however, to answer the simplest requirements of justice. For example, it would not, unless our whole scheme of economic life were first altered, seem just that the man whose property was benefited by the grading and metalling of a street should be entirely free from a special charge for the special benefit, The scheme is inexpedient for three reasons : (1) it presupposes for its successful administration a method of distribution of wealth very different from that which the world now has ; (2) it demands a perfection in the technique of administration as yet absolutely unattainable ; (3) it would need, in order to be fairly administered, more honesty than men have yet shown in their dealings with the government. None of these reasons militate in the least against the incorporation of an income tax in the tax system, beside other taxes. They apply only to its use as the sole source of income.
But the second scheme, that of Henry George, is not only unjust and inexpedient, it is also not feasible, since it would not yield the necessary revenues.1 It is unjust because its fundamental concept, that land values are solely due to the presence of a large number of inhabitants, is untrue. The value of land, like that of other wealth, depends on the use to which it may be put. Moreover, as improvements are not to be taxed, it would mean a heavier burden on farming lands than on city property.
1 See Spahr, "The Single Tax," Political Science Quarterly, 1891 ; Seligman, Essays, pp. 64-94.
But in no case would the scheme yield sufficient revenue. It has been estimated that if the entire annual rental of the land of England were appropriated by the government, it would fall $200,000,000, or £40,000,000, short of what is now needed to support the government. In the United States the matter is a little more difficult to estimate because it is not feasible to get a statement of the value of the land apart from the improvements thereon. Taxable real estate including improvements is estimated by the Eleventh Census at $35,711,209,108. This was assessed at $18,956,556,675. The value of the improvements is hard to estimate. Probably it is on the average at least two-thirds of the total value. But in order not to err on the side which favours our argument we will estimate the improvements at merely one-third of the total, which is certainly a moderate estimate. That would leave $23,807,472,739 as the highest value of the land. Suppose we take 3 per cent as the annual rental ; we have $714,224,182 as the sum available for the single tax. Now the national government, the commonwealth governments, and the municipalities spend together over $915,954,055 annually. That is, at the most favourable estimate the single tax would fall $200,000,000 short of what is necessary to maintain the governments. Mr. Spahr estimates that in Connecticut the assessed value of land increased $36,000,000 during a period in which $70,000,000 were paid in commonwealth and local taxes. All of these figures, which err on the side of moderation, show conclusively that even in the United States no tax on land, alone, sufficiently large to pay the entire expenses of the government could be laid without appropriating enough to ruin the user of the land, and practically prohibit its cultivation.
It may be urged that as the existing land taxes are regular charges, their capitalised value has already been deducted from the value of the land. But this would only be true if all the taxes now fell upon the land. Most of the existing taxes, however, fall upon other sources of revenue and improvements. The abolition of all other taxes on different forms of property would also be unjust. This can be shown without abandoning the ground of the Georgian doctrine. Every kind of economic wealth may, under certain circumstances, and frequently does increase in value in such a way as to yield its owner an " unearned " increment. Why should that escape, and the " unearned " increment of land values alone be taxed ?
Every tax tends to repress the development of the particular phenomenon on which it rests. A single tax of any kind will tend to defeat its own ends by repressing the existence of the phenomenon which forms the signal for its assessment. Forexample, in Mexico land is not taxed, but if the farmer kills a cow, or sells a crop, he is taxed. Naturally this discourages any extension of the uses of land that involve this disagreeable consequence. The experience of nations which has led them to diversify the forms of their taxation is, therefore, supported by theoretical considerations. The tax system of the United States is still, and the tax systems of all European nations have been, until of recently, and are yet in great measure, mere accidental jumbles of different historical taxes, which are retained simply for the revenue that they yield and not because of any belief in their justice. It is not often that nations are rich enough to enjoy what Professor Cohn has well called the " luxury of reform for reform's sake." Their reforms have been most often undertaken for the sake of increased revenues.
To be sure, the rough edges have been somewhat worn away by the friction of economic forces, and the process of tax shifting has in some instances removed some of the worst injustices. But examined from the standpoint of some ideal system, the tax systems of many modern nations fail woefully. It matters little which ideal be the one held up by which to test them; whether it be that of the benefit theory, or that of the faculty theory, the failure is the same.