The adoption of the single tax proposal in toto would mean the abolition of all other forms of taxes, whether they be primarily sumptuary or for revenue purposes. It would mean the abolition of customs duties and excise taxes, as well as the numerous regulatory taxes and licenses imposed under the police power. By securing all revenues from land values, and by taking the whole of these, elasticity, that necessary element to every effective revenue system, would be totally destroyed. The city, the commonwealth, and the nation must rely year after year upon the rental value of land, whether it produce a surplus or a deficit. There would be no way of increasing the tax rate or of taxing new bases in order to increase the income to meet an emergency such as a war.
Effect on Public Activities. - The nature of the state's business under the proposed scheme would be materially changed. Its expenditures would now have to be governed by its income, rather than its income be governed by its expenditures. This income, too, would be subject to wide and unforeseen fluctuations, so that officials could map out no definite program. In years of prosperity the income would be large, while it might be seriously reduced during periods of industrial depression. The support of all public enterprises, furthermore, would be coming from a very small percentage of the public - those who held title to land. It has always been considered an unwise political expedient to give one class of individuals the power to vote the expenditure of funds which another class has contributed. Under such circumstances little consideration is given to the relative importance of public needs, while waste and extravagance are fostered. The plan, moreover, seeks to overthrow the established principle of ability to pay as the just basis for taxes and reverts to the inadequate basis of benefits received.
Administrative Difficulties. - The problem of administration appears to be practically insurmountable. It is the problem of separating the value of the bare land from the value of the improvements on, or in, that land. The problem applies both to urban and rural communities, but in a somewhat different way. Most city improvements are on the land in the form of buildings; improvements in the country consist not only of buildings on the land, but of labor and capital invested irrevocably in the land.
Assume three farms in different parts of the country, each having a selling value of $300 per acre for the land.
One piece is comparatively new, and has been cultivated but little; another was swampy and comparatively worthless until a dredge ditch was constructed; the other has been farmed intensively for generations, and has its present fertility and value only because of scientific cultivation, rotation of crops, and extensive fertilization. The attempt to assess land values equally under the general property tax has proved so farcical that it would seem folly to attempt to separate the value of the bare land from that of the improvements in such cases as the above.
The problem of valuation would not be so hopeless in cities since the improvement usually consists in a separable building. Generally, however, no separate value has been placed upon the site and the building in making sales. The entire increase in site values, moreover, often does not represent unearned gains. The owner frequently makes no allowance for building depreciation, but calculates that the increase in the value of the site will offset the depreciation of the building. Such situations but magnify the difficulty of making assessments to determine the value of the bare land.
If the state had been the universal landlord from the beginning, and had proceeded to accurately measure and collect the economic rent from year to year, the single tax plan would involve no particular burden. The resulting condition would be that land would have no selling value. The insurmountable difficulties and injustices of destructions of values which have grown up over a period of time appear, however, when it is suggested that a social group adopt the single tax after the system of private property in land has been in vogue for several generations.
Modifications of Single Tax Plan. - Because of these very evident obstacles in the way of the adoption of the single tax principles in toto, some of the thorough single taxers at heart have temporized somewhat in their practical demands. These temporizations must not be considered, however, as the single tax, but merely as partaking somewhat of the nature of it. Some would allow other taxes to remain, especially those used for regulatory purposes under the police power. A few have gone so far as to advocate the Federal income tax - not that they believe in the income tax, but that they consider it better than an increase in the taxes on commodities.
Many are in favor of letting bygones be bygones, and advocate the taking of future increases in land values for the state. Different methods of collecting have been suggested, such as taking the increase at the time of sale, or increasing the amount of tax at regular intervals. The same difficulties occur here in determining what part of the increase in value belongs to the bare land, and what part to the results of labor on and in the land. Moreover, if a purchaser of land knows that when he sells the land all increased values will be confiscated, or that the tax is to be increased gradually, proper allowances will be made in the purchase price, and there will be no unearned increment except that which could not be foreseen.
This scheme of increased taxation could be carried out only through the practice of deception - the purchaser must be made to believe the tax will not be levied, and then the levy be made. The separate assessment of land and buildings, the placing of a lower rate of tax on buildings than on land, and the gradual reduction of taxes on buildings, are looked upon favorably by single tax enthusiasts as being possible entering wedges for the broader program.
Apportionment of Revenue. - One other difficulty deserves to be mentioned; that is, the apportionment of revenue. All the revenues of the various political units are to come from the single source - land. Upon what basis shall it be decided how much shall go to the Federal government, to the states, to the counties, cities, townships, and school districts? On the basis of the claim that this revenue belongs to society since it has been created by society, it would seem just and logical that the revenue should be distributed to the parts of society which have been instrumental in causing its accumulation. The difficulty which one would encounter in attempting to distribute the annual rental from the Woolworth site on such a basis is easily apparent.