In 1909, a young Winston Churchill, then a member of the Liberal Party, stood in Parliament and proclaimed vituperatively, “He renders no service to the community; he contributes nothing to the general welfare; he contributes nothing even to the process from which his own enrichment is derived." The target of his ire was landlords, and the context of his tirade a debate on land use value taxes.
Churchill was no radical red. Neither are many of the most prominent advocates of a land value tax, which count among their number classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Smith advocated for a tax on the value of land based on the theory that the value the owner derives from the land is drawn from the efforts of the community that surrounds it. In Wealth of Nations he highlights the basis of this value, writing, “The proprietor of land is necessarily a citizen of the particular country in which his estate lies.” That is to say, land draws value largely from the community around it, not simply the improvements made on it by the proprietor.
Taxing land in this manner acknowledges the values that communities contribute, and the role that governments have in that process.
In the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party proposed a land value tax in its 2017 election manifesto. The attacks on it were predictable. The Conservative Chancellor Phillip Hammond called the measure a “bombshell” that would triple the taxes of some Britons. Labour justified the measure by saying it would return more funds to local communities, which, in the theory of land use value taxes, are the ones that give the land its value in the first place.
Part of any plan for taking power back for the people necessarily includes giving them the power of the purse. That’s the basis of my proposition of a people’s legislature. In my new book Human Governance I lay out a fourth, co-equal branch of government in which the people directly take charge of lawmaking themselves. Representative government has failed; I learned that in my 12 years in the Senate. Social science research backs this up as well. A Princeton University study made headlines in 2014 for showing something most people already know: Average stakeholders have zero impact—not a little bit, but zero—on policy adoption in our system of government.
The only way to change that is giving power directly back to the people, and part of that process is to give budgets back to the people. A land value tax will be a crucial component of revitalizing these budgets, so people’s legislatures can draw from them to execute a strong infrastructure policy.
Defenders and apologists of the current system should look at Oregon, one of the few states in the union with a Democratic supermajority. A climate bill with majority support should surely be able to pass there, right? After all, in electing representatives who support it, that’s what the majority of the people in Oregon want.
But no. Instead, minority lawmakers in the Republican caucus decided they knew better than the people and fled the assembly, refusing to provide the necessary quorum under which a vote could be brought forward on the floor. When Kate Brown, the Democratic governor of the state, demanded that the lawmakers return and promised to send state troopers to force their attendance, the Republican Party allied with reactionary right-wing militias who promised to keep the state senators safe “at any cost.” The Democrats backed down.
There’s only one course to take to avoid this, as minority rule entrenches itself across the union. We must return lawmaking power directly to the people through a legislature of the people, and give them the budgets they need through a land value tax. Only then will we move closer to a more perfect union that serves us all.
Mike Gravel is a former U.S. senator from Alaska and a Democratic candidate for president.
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