What’s in a Name?

by Lindy Davies

In his well-crafted report on last July’s IU conference in London, Bill Batt included the following news from the Business Meeting:

From its inception, the name has been ‘The International Union for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade,’ even though it is widely understood that the words “Free Trade” have today become linked to an economic philosophy of neoliberalism with corporate trade rules that are detrimental to labor and the environment. Free trade advocacy for Georgists has always been premised on the assumption of the universal institution of taxation of land rents, which would then provide greater efficiency, equity, and a harmonized level playing field among nations. For this reason, and the fact that current usage of free trade in our title acts as a barrier when discussing LVT within the UN and other venues, a majority of those present and voting argued for the elimination of the words “and Free Trade.” But altering the IU constitution requires a 2/3 majority, and the vote fell just one short of that number.

The International Georgist Union was chewing on this question back in the 1980s, when I started associating with this movement. I feel I must reiterate what I said back then: that while a name might be more or less useful in different rhetorical contexts, a message is a message, and clarity is essential. I don’t think Bill Batt is quite correct in saying that “free trade advocacy for Georgists has always been premised on the assumption of the universal institution of taxation of land rents.” Does this mean that until we institute universal LVT, we must levy tariffs on imports, to insulate domestic producers from competition? Protective tariffs, by raising prices without increasing the quality or quantity of goods, add to our overall toil and effort. Removing them has the same general effect as labor-saving inventions — what Henry George calls “improvements in the arts of production and exchange.” George points out that all such things make production more efficient, and therefore increase demand for our eternally-fixed supply of land, disproportionately lining the pockets of land monopolists. But does this mean that until we have the Single Tax, we should avoid assembly lines, computers, or improved education for workers?

It is indeed true that recent multilateral “free trade” pacts have codified great advantages to monopolists and politically-powerful corporate interests, serving to weaken environmental and worker-safety regulations in many places. Clearly, advocates of NAFTA/CAFTA, WTO, TPP, etc. have usurped the term “free trade,” defining it in an Orwellian way. But freedom really isn’t slavery: it’s our job to correct such cynical misuse of terms which refer, after all, to perfectly serviceable ideas.

Of course, “free trade” isn’t the only term that has been misused in this way. Consider the widespread misapprehension, endorsed by prominent people who really ought to know better, that land rent represents a mere 2% of national income. This bit of bull-funky is a neoclassical economist’s way of admitting that land does exist (there it is, after all, under our feet), while asserting that economically it really doesn’t amount to much. They tell us that the community’s rent is, in this best of all possible worlds, transmogrified into private profit by the power of entrepreneurs. I’m recalling Henry George’s observation: “Hence arises in political economy a liability to confusion in thought from lack of definiteness in the use of terms.” You think?

Distasteful as many find the term “free trade” in this day and age, I’ll bet even more have a problem with “Taxation” — though I have heard no hue & cry to get it removed from the IU’s name. As Henry George and others have reminded us, the public collection of land rent isn’t taxation. It is a payment for benefits received by those who have been granted exclusive access to land sites (and other natural opportunities). For many years there has been a cohort of crusty old Single Taxers, bless ’em, who blame the Georgist movement’s lack of success on its bad habit of using the ugly misnomer, “tax.” And they’re perfectly right (well, they’re right about it not being a tax, anyway). There is a corollary misstatement, dating back to an unfortunate moment of imprecision by Henry George himself, stating our goal as “To abolish all taxation save that upon land values.” Well, that seems OK, until we realize that it leaves open the possibility of getting rid of all taxes except for a partial levy on land values. That is NOT what Henry George advocated; he called for the public collection of the full rent of land and all other natural opportunities. If that raises more revenue than the government needs, no problem: the surplus can be rebated equally to the citizens. But collect it first! George was crystal-clear on that, and we should be, too.

But getting back to the IU’s name: it seems to me that if “free trade” is unacceptable as part of our International Union’s name, “taxation” ought to be deleted as well. Keeping “taxation” while removing “free trade” signals the sort of ideological loading that the original namers worked hard to avoid.

The original name does seem rather a mish-mash, though. The term “land value taxation” refers, as many Georgists have pointed out, to a practical policy designed to implement our fundamental equal right to the opportunities of nature. “Free trade,” on the other hand, suggests a higher calling than the mere elimination of import duties; it draws a line against all the manifest errors of socialism (which were probably more on people’s minds in 1926, when the IU was founded, than they are now).

I get that coming up with an organizational name, especially for a group whose goals are as profoundly radical as ours are, is not easy. One can even quibble with the term “International” — because it seems to affirm the legitimacy of nation-states and their exclusive sovereignty over the land inside their borders (borders set and secured by conquest, often in spite of ancient ethnic or cultural geographical connections). The IU’s classic manifesto, its “International Declaration on Individual and Common Rights to Earth” is somewhat ambiguous on this point. (This excellent document appears to have been removed from the IU’s website, but it can be found at the Earth Rights Institute.) It affirms the individual’s right “to the free transfer of land according to the laws of the country.” (Elsewhere, of course, it states that our fundamental rights trump any national laws permitting individuals to profit from land ownership.) However, it finally, boldly, declares that “The Earth is the Birthright of All People.” I think that means Ghanaians and Fijians have as much right to the rent of Manhattan Island as Iowans do. Perhaps the IU had better ditch the term “International,” too.

Leaving us with what? Well, it behooves the International Georgist Union to think long-term, and to be as inclusive as it can possibly be. I note that the name “Earthsharing” has been popping up in Georgist circles lately. I like it. It points to the loftiest of goals, and that’s appropriate. It falls into none of the ideological traps that have ensnared the old name in controversy. So, friends, I hereby propose to change the name of “The International Union for Land Value Taxation and Free Trade” to “The Earthsharing Union.”

If people wonder what that means, we’ll be happy to let them know.

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