The “Sovereign Remedy”

The word “panacea” comes to us from the Greek: pan, all, and akea, cure: a “universal remedy.” It’s rare to hear the word used without sarcasm. Our times are just so multifarious and complex, so nuanced, so challenging even to the finest Ph.Ds, that the suggestion of a Cure-All for society seems ludicrous. Georgists yearning for a normal conversation, weary of derision and disdain, are tempted to admit, heartily, like regular fellows, that “oh, I know it isn’t a panacea…”

But, folks, there’s no use denying it: the Georgist Remedy is a panacea.

It would almost certainly be easier on us, psychologically, if the cause to which we are devoted weren’t so universally potent. I mean, suppose we could confidently proclaim the answer to high-temperature superconductivity, or ocean desalination, or saving the polar bears, or curing the heartbreak of psoriasis or making windows that wash themselves. In that case our advocacy — even, dare we say, our marketing — would be much, much easier and Georgists wouldn’t be as prone as they are to headaches, self-loathing and odd behavior.

But no, we’re in the bizarre position of having to admit that in today’s economic world, delivering on a promise of cheap, abundant fresh water and electricity, happy polar bears, healthy skin and clean windows would have the ultimate effect of raising the rent of land and driving the wedge between rich and poor even deeper.

With all that in mind, there may be some reassurance in the caveat that the “sovereign remedy” is only a panacea if it’s implemented in full: if as-near-as-can-be to all the rental value of all the natural opportunities is collected and democratically shared, ultimately under some form of worldwide jurisdiction or at least global responsibility. That would undoubtedly cure what ails us. But if we yearn for normal conversations, we can take heart in the fact that the first steps of a thousand-mile journey, vital and laudable as they are, leave us with nine hundred ninety-nine and three-quarters miles to go.

For example, a revenue-neutral shift of property tax off buildings and onto land values is a fine thing. It stimulates new construction, creating jobs and new business, and it tends to cut down on land speculation. Very good! But it can also increase demand for land in that community, tempting richer land speculators to hold onto their land for higher prices to come — LVT, in the immortal words of Colin Bonner, can “benefit the Trumps while it hurts the Frumps!”

Or, consider royalties collected on extractive resources, and public capture of rents created by new infrastructure. These are fine things to do. But… if the resource rents are collected by a corrupt, undemocratic regime — as they are in Nigeria — they just serve to strengthen despotism. When rents are captured, and then used to line the pockets of political cronies, as they are in China, what social problems are solved?

Nevertheless, land value capture helped China to create a huge amount of growth-facilitating infrastructure, and LVT allowed Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to transform itself from a hell-hole to, all-in-all, a pretty snazzy city. The first steps aren’t worthless or bad; they just aren’t the whole trip.

But back to the panacea business. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Georgist Remedy (a.k.a. the Single Tax, or Elvie Biffer — see page 8) can honestly and accurately be called a cure-all, because it has to do with who controls the land, and how the land is used. Only in an alienated postmodern world could that be seen as anything but absolutely central to society’s accomplishments and prospects. When Henry George wrote:

The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people. And it must be so…. On the land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again — children of the soil as truly as is the blade of grass or the flower of the field [,]

he was closer to the days, lives and worldviews of indigenous people than we are today — yet his insight is as true as it ever was. In fact, it’s truer: the land under the world’s cities is worth more and more, with every new wave of migration. To be sure, it can be tiresome, even Sysiphusian, to have to keep re-explaining an outlandish nostrum — but let’s keep it up, because the Georgist Remedy is indeed a panacea.

And the other side of the mountain is all downhill.   — L. D.

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