What's the justification for a land value tax?

We can't ignore the fact that land is the property of the commons.

Photograph: Getty Images

George Monbiot has written a passionate call for a land value tax in the Guardian today. Pointing out that the coalition has singularly failed to take any real attempt to increase tax revenue — with the Lib Dems reneging on their promise to raise capital gains tax to 50p, and both parties turning their nose up at the economically-beneficial revenue gains of a financial transaction tax — he suggests one final attempt to come up with a novel way of raising revenue which the government might support: a land-value tax.

He describes the benefits:

It stops the speculative land hoarding that prevents homes from being built. It ensures that the most valuable real estate – in city centres – is developed first, discouraging urban sprawl. It prevents speculative property bubbles, of the kind that have recently trashed the economies of Ireland, Spain and other nations, and that make rents and first homes so hard to afford. Because it does not affect the supply of land (they stopped making it some time ago), it cannot cause the rents that people must pay to the landlords to be raised. It is easy to calculate and hard to avoid: you can't hide your land in London in a secret account in the Cayman Islands. And it could probably discharge the entire deficit.

More importantly — for the purported aim of winning over the coalition government — he also cites the politico-philosophical background of the tax, in the words of Winston Churchill:

Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived ... the unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.

In quoting Churchill, Monbiot may strengthen the ability of his argument to win over the marginal Conservative, but he weakens the overall power of the claim to the justice of a land-value tax.

Because in these days of massive private-sector involvement in the provision of public goods, it is harder to argue that the landlord in his role as land monopolist "renders no service to the community". Developers put up money for transport links, for schools, for shops, and for park land and open space. A good developer does, deliberately and directly, increase the value of the land on which they build. And, despite Monbiot's claim to the contrary, some developers do go so far as to create the land on which they build.

The better argument for why a land value tax is just is that land, unlike all other property, can only ever have its root in expropriation from the commons. Even in the case of artificially created land, the sea-bed from which it was raised was once the collective property of all human-kind, and was only later privatised. In Britain, the legal fiction around land ownership even promotes this idea: no-one but the crown actually owns land. No matter how big your estate, it is remains the actual property of the Queen.

In other words, a land value tax isn't only justifiable because of the effect of the state in increasing the value of land; it's also justifiable because, no matter how long ago that land was cordoned off and turned into private property, it was once part of the commons.

(In fact, of course, the longer that land has been privately held, the more justifiable a land value tax is. In recent centuries the state has sold land to private interests, at least ensuring that some of the gains were collectivised; but no-one was paid when the first nobles threw up walls around their estates a thousand years ago.)

But arguing political philosophy with the coalition also reveals the folly of trying to convince them on the benefits of a land-value tax, or indeed any tax. Because while the rhetoric is about shrinking the deficit, which new taxes help, the ideology is about shrinking the state. And if that's the aim, arguing about the value of various taxes will never win the fight.