Socialism and the Single Tax
John T. McRoy
[An address delivered before the Bennington, Vermont,
Socialist Party Local, Mr. John Spargo Presiding. Reprinted from the
Single Tax Review, January-February 1916]
In appearing before you today, I must at the outset disavow all
purpose of playing the part of an apostle intent upon your conversion.
My scope tonight shall be far less ambitious and I shall attempt
merely to prove the merit of Single Tax as a step in social advance.
It is not my purpose to draw any contrast between the theories of
Single Tax and of Socialism. I shall not consider these two theories
as competitors for popular favor, but rather as aids to each other in
the development of social opinion. For it is clearly evident that were
it not for the colossal efforts of the socialist movement, there would
hardly be a mental attitude among the people at large fit to
understand sympathetically the propaganda of other forms of
radicalism. And in so far as other radical movements have been
benefited by the steady growth of socialistic convictions, it may be
of value to determine to what extent socialism may itself be benefited
by those very doctrines.
My outline of the Single Tax this evening will not include its
pretensions to a solution of our industrial problems. In truth, the
word "solution" is a very inconvenient one in economic
questions. We speak of solving a social question in the same sense as
the solving of a mathematical problem. The use of the same word "problem"
for two different situations seems, no doubt, to be the cause of this
confusion. It is not the first time the deficiencies of language have
brought about confusion of thought.
Every social order gives rise to questions of its own. Thus democracy
has necessitated vigilance against the manipulations of bosses; a
question as difficult in its own way as was that of the elimination of
aristocracy. Thus capitalism may have solved the problem of the
relation of lord and servant, but it has brought forth the more
serious question of capitalist class and working class. Judged by the
past, there is no reason to believe that any social order, no matter
how well constructed, can escape most vexatious difficulties. Hegel,
who was Karl Marx's master, has said that in this world there is no
finality; when once a thing has been accomplished, it at once begins
to cultivate tendencies which ultimately destroy it.
There is, however, an advance possible along certain lines of
economic reform. Just as the cholera and the plague have been
eliminated from our physical life, so it may be hoped will low wages
and unemployment be eliminated from our economic life. For while the
social question can never be solved particular social evils may be
entirely done away with.
The nature of any appeal by a Single Taxer to Socialists, must take
into account that school of Socialism to which his auditors belong.
For practical purposes, I shall distinguish two broad tendencies in
modern socialism. First we may place orthodox or modified Marxism, for
officially at least, it is the dominating socialism of the world. Next
we may place revisionist socialism, including in that group the
Fabians of England and the Opportunists of the United States.
Karl Marx in "The Communist Manifesto," in concluding his
passionate appeal to the working classes, decides on certain practical
measures which would greatly improve their condition. By far the most
important of these reforms, he stated, was the appropriation by the
government of all ground rents. This, as you well know, is in
substance the Single Tax doctrine. Since we have the authority of Marx
for this reform as a first step, I feel that I am placing my case
tonight before a friendly group.
In the thirty-second chapter of Capital Karl Marx declares
that the capitalist system, with its accompanying exploitation of the
working classes, could not have been established had not the landlords
"Expropriated the mass of the people from the soil."
In substance this simply means that a Capitalist society could not
exploit the working classes were the soil free to them, A considerable
number of the laboring classes are skilled workers who have
accumulated small savings, and who not being altogether helpless,
could always have returned to the soil, had they so willed. To this
day in Russia, factories and capitalism have been slow in developing,
because during strikes, the laborers can return to the "Mir,"
or communal farm group. In a country like Russia, this is a great
impediment to industrial development, and so we find the
representatives of the cities in the Duma eager to abolish the
communal land-owning societies and substitute private ownership. Once
this is done, the expropriated peasant will come to the cities and
Russia's capitalist system will be as fully developed as those of her
more "Civilized" neighbors. In the United States of America,
however, the question is quite different. We have developed a
tremendous industrial organization. Every decade a larger and larger
percentage of our people are found in urban communities. The machine
has become the very soul of American production. Our manufacturers are
a most influential group in our state legislatures. Their influence
has enabled them to perpetuate themselves and to multiply. Nay, what
is more, our people are growing more and more citified, and the white
lights and the whirling trolleys have so charmed men that they look
upon farm life with repugnance. I have little doubt that the majority
of city men would prefer much lower wages and live near the center of
population, than accept high wages and live in sparsely settled
communities. For capitalism has created a different idea among men as
to what constitutes the fullness of life. In feudal days the
satisfaction of duty and the living of the moral life were considered
all-sufficing. Today stress is laid, not so much upon the duties of
life, as upon the manifold enjoyments and varied pleasures that a
complex civilization affords. And it is no wonder that except for a
brief breathing spell, industrialized humanity is loath to return to
It has been this aspect of the land question that has been most
noticed by the scientific socialists. The Single Taxers say that it is
an impossibility for men to willingly retrace their steps and abandon
an industrial for a rural community. It is my purpose to point out how
glaring a misconception it is of the fundamental position taken by the
Single Taxers to think that they believe otherwise.
The Single Taxer is not unwise enough to propose, nor has he ever
proposed, that mankind should go back to dug-outs and claw sand in
order to make a living. Nor does he think that we should go back to
the conditions of the year 1750, before the great brains of England
had by its industrial inventions revolutionized the character of the
producing world. The Single Taxer is as fully convinced of the
impossibility of retracing one's steps as is the most dogmatic Marxian
Socialists. But he does believe that when all land is taxed into use,
the position of the laborer will become considerably more independent
and the economic system greatly weakened (to put it mildly) in its
power of coercing the laborer.
To the revisionist Socialist there is hardly any necessity for
appealing. Throughout the world, Socialists of the type of Bernstein
in Germany, Ramsay McDonald in England, and the Opportunists in the
United States, have been among the most vigorous champions of land
values taxation. Their reasons seem to have been, first, to socialize
the unearned increment on land values resulting from public
improvements, and secondly, to improve housing conditions. There is no
doubt that land values taxation has checked speculation in land and by
causing land to be put to its best use has improved housing
conditions. Of course, the cooperation of proper transportation
facilities is usually necessary. But when once the land value tax is
increased so that speculators can no longer afford to hold their land
idle, they erect attractive homes to lure tenants away from the older
dwellings. Competition in turn forces the owners of the older
buildings to improve their properties in order to get a return upon
their investment. This is all accomplished without the presence of any
tendency towards higher rents.
Proper housing conditions are eminently a social good. They are a
benefit not only to the individuals affected, but to movements which
appeal to the higher qualities of men. A man who is miserably poor,
under-fed, weak, and mentally crushed, is not a factor for revolution.
He is despairing, and he who despairs is of no value to any cause
It is for this reason that Socialists who are distinguished men of
science such as Karl Pearson of the University of London, are in the
eugenics movement. They realize that under no circumstances will
socialism come through a race that is degenerating or physically
defective. As a writer in the socialist New Review has pointed out, it
is not the laborer working for 30 cents a day in Southern Mexico who
revolts, but it is the mine worker getting 80 cents a day in the
Northern part of the country. This principle is recognized by
capitalists who realize that one concession to working men means many
concessions. The more the working class improves, the more desirous is
it of improvement.
Austin Lewis has written a book on "The Militant Proletariat"
in which he distinguishes four groups of workers; the contented, the
ambitious, the degraded, and the revolutionary. The first three groups
are well nigh hopeless as socialist timber; only those workers who are
outside of these three groups may join the fourth. Karl Marx was of
the same opinion. For the riff-raff, he has absolutely no regard,
holding that any side could buy them out. Since, therefore, the Single
Tax has wherever tried in modified form improved the housing
condition, the comfort, leisure and health of the working classes, it
has made them intelligent enough to understand the Socialist when he
appeals to them.
The Single Taxer has, however, a constructive side to his programme.
Not only does he desire to improve living conditions; he also seeks to
reduce unemployment and raise wages.
The first great effect of the Single Tax would be the enormous
increase of the production of wealth. The Single Taxer proposes that
the annual rental value of land shall be the sole source of government
revenues. By taking taxes off of all wealth produced, there is, of
course, a great impetus given to the further production of wealth. For
the socialistic theory of taxation is that the laborers do not pay
taxes but that the capitalist class do. The socialist maintains that
since the level of wages falls under all circumstances to a bare
subsistence, the laborer can not therefore pay taxes out of nothing.
If any increased taxes are levied, they are paid by the capitalist
class. While I consider the socialistic view of taxation as almost
entirely mistaken (and in this I have the support of eminent
Socialists, such as Bernstein, McDonald and Prof. Beard), it,
nevertheless, in this instance, helps my argument. For since the
capitalist class will be free to place this revenue into the channels
of investment, there will ensue a very much increased production of
If the annual rental value of land be $50., that land will usually be
sold for $1000. The Single Taxer by taxing the rental value, thereby
destroys the basis of the selling value of land. For instance, if this
land worth $1000. were to be taxed $40. a year the net income of the
land owner would be only $10. a year, which would make the selling
value of his land one fifth of $1000. or $200.
Two things are now clear. The Single Tax by abolishing taxation on
everything but land would cheapen the price of all goods, from ribbons
to houses. The Single Tax by taking the greater part of the value of
land would force all the vacant land into use for which there was any
demand, and thus cheapen the price of land. There is one great
principle to be learned in taxation, and that is that taxation on land
acts in an opposite manner to taxation on improvements. A tax on
commodities hampers their supply and increases the price. A high tax
on land by forcing vacant land into use, increases the supply and
diminishes the price. Not only is this true, but whereas the selling
price of a commodity includes a tax, the selling value of land is
diminished exactly to the extent of twenty times the amount of the
tax, assuming for convenience that the current rate of interest is 5%.
What significance has this for the working class? In the first place,
by forcing all the land into use it would open up all the jobs in all
the products which are derived from the land. And I do not think that
anyone in this audience is sufficiently gifted with imagination to
think of any industry that is not in the long run dependent on the
land. The Single Tax therefore, satisfies Karl Marx's theory without
going back to feudalism. It helps to emancipate the laborer from
capitalist exploitation by destroying his expropriation from the soil.
I may now sum up the advantages of Single Tax for the working
classes. The Single Tax will bring about the employment of all the
unemployed who actually desire to work. Since the resources of the
country are more than adequate for the population, by opening up the
country to productive wealth, it will give employment to all. The
effect of this step upon wages can easily be seen. When working-men
are in great demand and when the production of wealth has greatly
increased, a sharp advance in wages is a foregone conclusion. The
working class will grow more powerful and with that power will come
And, lastly, let us not forget the benefits which this system of
taxation would give in the little community of which we are members.
Bennington would not have to borrow money and saddle future
generations for the cost of needed improvements. The land value of
this town is ample to provide for all our public activities and some
much needed social activities to boot. The partially used or unused
land around Bennington would be put to adequate use and the housing
conditions of our own operatives in the town greatly improved. A small
State like Vermont is ideal for the opportunities it affords men to do
their duty in aspiring after this great good.