Should anyone own the Sun? If you write a book, obviously it’s yours. It would be wrong to claim ownership of a book someone else wrote without their permission, right?
Natural resources are peculiar in the sense that nobody created them. Nobody created the Sun or any of the other stars in the sky for that matter. If it seems strange to think of individuals owning the sun or even the moon, which has also been claimed, ownership of other celestial bodies like Jupiter, Mars, and even Earth should seem strange as well. This notion that the Earth could be carved up and sold to private owners for all eternity seemed immoral to the Algonquin leader Massasoit.
“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit
Socialism regards all property, natural resources and the products of labor alike, as collective property –actively managed by the state. By contrast, our current economic system in the United States generally regards all property as somewhat private and somewhat public. This is evident in that natural resources and the products of labor are both taxed with indifference to the fact that one simply exists and the other is created by the efforts of individuals.
Georgism however draws a distinction between the fruits of nature and the fruits of labor. Generally speaking, those things that are produced by people and add beneficial inputs to the the economy should not be taxed, while those things that were freely provided by nature and are excludable should be taxed. Would it be right for a few privileged people to have absolute control over the air and water? What about oil buried deep underneath the ground? Morally speaking, why should those whose ancestors were more ruthless in war have any more right to land and resources than anyone else? They shouldn’t.
Privilege is an unearned benefit. In the case of resources, ownership is the privilege to exclude others from what is freely provided by nature. The ideal would be to simply require those who exclude others from resources to pay in proportion to their privilege. Resource charges and pollution charges would replace the need to tax the products of people’s hard work.
All resources have their own particular nuances when it comes to taxation but drawing a distinction in people’s minds between the fruits of nature and the fruits of labor is the first step to creating a just and prosperous society.
In many ways, Georgism is an elegant reconciliation of Capitalism and Socialism. It is not just a watered down compromise between the two. It keeps what’s useful about these ideologies and throws out what isn’t. What could be more Capitalistic than removing taxes on the machines and labor necessary for production? Taxing capital, though it attempts to increase equality, decreases production. What could be more “progressive” and egalitarian than to stop taxing workers and tenants altogether? Is it possible to increase equality and production simultaneously, i.e. to grow the pie larger and divide it more fairly?
Taxing land and resources is simply a way of acknowledging that the earth belongs to everyone and the products of labor belong to the individual. Making this simple and obvious distinction in our tax system can be the catalyst for a sustainable renaissance. We can all enjoy material abundance, free of poverty, without destroying the environment in the process.