May 8 • 6M

Pay for what you use, not what you produce

Your Sunday morning thought piece

Dominic Frisby
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There are about 65 million people in the UK and 60 million acres of land – almost enough, in theory, for an acre each. (It’s not quite that simple, of course, and not all acres are equal.) Yet about two-thirds of the land – 40 million acres – is owned by fewer than 6,000 people. Land is the most basic form of wealth there is, so if there is a more telling statistic about the unequal distribution of wealth in this country, I’d like to know what it is. And it’s been that way since 1066.

Today, so distorted is our system of taxation, many landowners actually receive subsidies for for land. The rest of us, meanwhile, must pay council tax.

The largest landowners, whether families or institutions, exploit tax loopholes. Some families pass land from one generation to the next via the tax avoidance vehicle that is the trust, while the rest of us must pay inheritance tax.

The complexity and inconsistency of our tax systems are to blame for so much wealth inequality. One group - large institutions, the super-rich, the government - has the resources to find the loopholes and exploit them, the rest of us don’t: and so pay more on a proportional basis. Complexity allows there to be one rule for some and another for everybody else.

About the only way the person who starts out with nothing can improve his or her lot is through labour. And yet we tax labour constantly and heavily. The worker pays the vast majority of taxes: 40% of government revenue comes from income tax and national insurance, with another 20% from VAT.

aerial photography of London skyline during daytime
It’s the needs of the community the make the above real estate so valuable.

The wealth of the super-rich does not derive from their labour, however. It derives from the appreciation in the value of their land, their houses, their stocks, their shares, their bonds, their fine art – what economists call their assets. These go untaxed, unless you sell. So most don’t.

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If you want to redistribute wealth naturally, rather than via the moral minefield that is state re-allocation, the answer lies in changing the way we tax people.

Instead of taxing our labour – what we produce – why don’t we tax what we use? Instead of taxing the wealth that is earned, why don’t we tax the wealth that is unearned?

I’m talking about land. Nobody made the land. Nature gave it to us. By building on it, or farming it, or mining it, you have improved it, but the land itself was always there. So let us look solely at the unimproved value of the land. This is easy to assess.

Obviously real estate in city centres commands an extremely high value, remote rural farmland very little.

If you want the right to occupy a piece of land, and you want the government to protect your title to that land, then a rent should be paid to the community that reflects the value of that land, because it is the needs of the community which have given that land value.

The least bad tax

What I’m describing might sound extremely left wing, but the granddaddy of rightwing economists, Milton Friedman, described it as the, “least bad tax”: that is LVT – land value tax.

Who would pay the most if we hand land value tax in the UK? Whoever occupies the most valuable real estate. The Queen (she owns most of it - or rather the crown does), the Duke of Westminster (or rather the Grosvenor Trust, which owns the land), the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Atholl, Captain Alwyne Farquharson, pension funds, utility companies and large government bodies such as the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence.

The Royal Family - one of the UK’s biggest land-users

The late duke may have been a canny businessman, but he did not invent anything new, he did not bring some amazing new product or service to the world, which we all wanted to use. His ancestors benefited from the corn laws 200 years ago and the estates were built. Now planning laws are such that few can build anything new. The estate, which owns some of the most desirable land in London, was effectively handed a monopoly and the duke made good from the fact that so many people want to live and work in London.

There’s big money to be made in land banking but there is nothing creative about it. You are not bringing anything new to the world or improving it. It is simply exploiting the restrictive planning laws in this country that prevent progress and money supply growth. It is crony capitalism at its worst.

If you don’t want to pay land value tax, you don’t have to. This is a tax that is voluntary. You simply sell the land to someone who is prepared to.

The amounts of tax payable are clear. It’s an easy tax to administer. It doesn’t require 10 million words of tax code. And there need be no loopholes. The land is here – it is not in the Cayman Islands – and you are the owner.

The Green party actually has LVT in its manifesto, but it has it in addition to other taxes. LVT should replace other taxes.

Remember the mantra: don’t tax labour, tax land. Not only would it make for a much healthier, happier and more productive society, it would make for one in which wealth is more fairly distributed and one in which the relationship between government and citizen is held in balance.

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This article first appeared here in the Guardian.