[A presentation at the reception of the annual conference of the
Council of Georgist Organizations, held in Cleveland, Ohio, 5 August
2009. Reprinted from
GroundSwell, July-August 2009]
The purpose of my remarks is to talk about privilege. By privilege, I
mean an unearned grant of money or some other advantage by the
government. By unearned I mean something the marketplace or chance has
In tonight's talk, I'd like to discuss why we, as Georgists, don't
talk as much about privilege as we do other Georgist topics. It's
important - George said it's important; as a matter of fact he said it
was both the origin of the land question, and the result of the
misanswering of the land question, yet we Georgists don't really
discuss it. There really isn't much public discussion of privilege on
anyone else's part either. But the idea has a lot of resonance with
the public. The public is suspicious that privilege strongly AFFECTS
the important issues of the day, Federal, State and local. We have a
lot to say in this regard and have a good enough grasp of the root
principles that we could make a difference in the discussion. Our
participation would not only be beneficial to the just and prosperous
society that everyone wants, but it could also put Georgist ideas on
the map, and give our other issues more traction as a result.
Please don't get me wrong. I have nothing but admiration for the
folks within our movement who have and continue to bring about site
value taxation. People like Steve Cord, Dan Sullivan and Josh Vincent
who recently, leading the New London Connecticut project, got us a new
state and city to adopt our approach to a better society. Surely,
everyone in this room has been involved in the promotion of site
taxation, and the world is a better place for it.
However, plumping for Site Value Taxation usually comes up dry. Why
this is and what we can do about it has been the grist for countless
presentations and late night discussions. Even beer has not helped. I
have as much passion for SVT as anyone else here does, but I think, in
our quest, we are approaching the definition of insanity. Maybe we
could try something new. My suggestion is that we should enter into
the public's conversation not by saying that SVT will make it all
better, or that the reason we have the problem is lack of SVT. No, we
can, I think, more easily enter into almost any issue in the public
square, and be listened to, if we speak as Henry George did -- on
privilege. Specifically on government grants of privilege.
If we can get some traction promoting a Georgist view of privilege,
then we can become folks whose opinions people in the public square
might come to value. Having gained that stature, our further message
on site taxation will have a more receptive audience.
Likewise, taking one side or the other on partisan issues of the day
has not advanced our cause. We are not Republicans or Democrats here,
We are Georgists. We can support parts of both parties' agendas and we
can oppose parts of them as well. Each of our parties wants good
things for our nation. Neither of them will achieve it the way they
are going. Both parties need our thinking.
Yet too many of us seem to show up as liberals or conservatives
first, and Georgists later. Perhaps that's a result of laboring so
long in the Georgist vineyard and not being able reap a harvest. We
can all take a current issue, be it global warming or tax cuts, be it
overregulation or healthcare, establish ourselves as an advocate for
it, then later find or put something Georgist in it, and then,
incredibly, call our position Georgist. This is real self-deception.
Shouldn't all Georgists be opposed to subsidies for the oil and gas
and coal industries? Shouldn't all Georgists also be opposed to
subsidies to the wind energy or even the flourescent bulb industry? We
know, almost better than anyone else in the discussion, what the
negative effects of subsidies are.
When a politician promotes higher taxes on labor or capital, do we
have to check his or her party first, to see if we agree? We all know
what happens when labor and capital are taxed.
At the same time, the people of the country are not so much
Republicans or Democrats, as they are people looking for solutions to
the problems of the day. One thing that most of them find repugnant,
regardless of party, is privilege. They don't like earmarks. They
don't like subsidies. They don't like regulations that favor one
player over another. Most tend to believe in liberty and justice for
all, just like the pledge says; they like a level playing field.
We, as Georgists have a well worked out set of beliefs about
privilege. We know that government grants of privilege are usually, in
net terms, harmful. They are sought by those who want to receive an
advantage supplied by everyone else, through the coercive power of the
government. The privilege-seeker's influence over politicians comes
from money or votes - old political debts or perhaps family
So if a political situation is of high public interest, whether local
state or federal, and some one or some thing is slated to get
something from the government that is unearned, we should be there. Or
if an existing privilege is under public discussion, we should be
there. We should be consistent and, ultimately, predictable.
I am of the opinion, and I'm sure I share the opinion with many of
you, that most of the problems we have in our society come from
government grants of privilege. Our country was founded by people who
were trying to escape the privilege system of old Europe. Yet, today,
most of the business of government, on all levels, is the granting of
privilege. And it is creating great harm. Usually, the public
discussion revolves around who is the more worthy recipient of the
government's favor, and how to "fix" things so that the
preferred recipient gets the goodies, and how the "bad"
contestant gets punished.
When things get bad enough that reform of a privilege is on people's
minds, the solutions usually involve:
- Retaining the old privilege but ...
- Outlawing the proper response to it, or
- Letting the complainers in on the privilege, or
- Just demonizing the complainers
None of this works. Things just tend to become more convoluted and
less free. The people suffer.
Many of us will nod our heads. We know this goes on. But I still
think that many of us have our favorites that we will go to bat for,
and we have our enemies, that we will try to disadvantage or even ruin
- often with privilege. Do we love or hate: the coal company or the
wind turbine company; the mortgage broker or the mortgage borrower;
the health insurance company or medicare; labor or capital. In our
passion for doing right for our friends or vanquishing our enemies, we
lose sight of the real villain of the piece -- the grantor of
privilege - the government. We blame our ideological enemy -- and
that's just what the government wants us to do. If we're on the losing
side, we yearn for our guy to get in. Then we'll turn the privilege
tables. Oh happy day! In the meantime, the institutionalized
government cheers us on. It does not care who is in ascendancy, as
long as it continues to expand its role of privilege grantor.
How is it that we can claim that Georgism is served by these
Let's take the mortgage bubble. Prospective home buyers were granted
privilege to buy more house than they could afford. Mortgage lenders
who made the loans were indemnified, primarily by Fannie and Freddy.
It all worked fine until it all blew up. Shouldn't we, as Georgists,
have been decrying both sides of this mountain of privilege? Shouldn't
we be talking about it now? Not one of these destructive grants of
privilege has been repealed. In general, we side with whichever
privilege recipient we favor -- instead of bringing a Georgist voice
to the discussion. Nevertheless, we call our opinion Georgist!
Twenty-five years ago or so, most labor unions funneled some of their
members' dues money into things called COPE, Committees on Political
Education. This was clearly illegal at the time. But rather than allow
prosecutions or set penalties for this theft, the Congress blessed it
and to make things "fair," allowed corporations to sponsor
PAC's, Political Action Committees. So, the "two wrongs make a
right" school of thought prevailed. And where were we when these
grants of privilege were being dispensed? Well, about half of us were
cheering for organized labor and the other half were plumping for the
corporations. In the meantime, the government has taken over and makes
all the rules for financing themselves into permanent incumbency.
Would Henry like this outcome?
In 1913, we took away the power the people had to regulate their own
currency. We granted the Federal Reserve that privilege and they have
made a mess of it, creating the great deflation of the depression, the
great inflation of the '70's and much of the excess money that fueled
the internet bubble and the mortgage crisis. Do we, as Georgists, have
anything to say about this monetary incompetence? And today, many want
to give the Fed even more power and privilege. Georgists can bring an
anti privilege perspective to the discussion that republicans and
democrats just can't. And, I believe the people would respond to it.
We must stop being like everyone else in the public square. We, as
Georgists, have a unique perpective -- yes we favor site taxation, but
we are also, fundamentally against government grants of privilege.
That basic issue is one that the public really understands. They agree
with the principle, if not with every application of it. As a
principle, Georgists almost own it.
If we speak our anti-privilege message on some of the major issues of
the day; if we make our case and explain why we make it, we can become
known and credible in the public square. I believe that such a
principled stance can gain us respect. Then I think our other great
cause can gain some traction.
Of course it's up to us. Are we willing to abandon our advocacy for
non-Georgist politics? Can we take issue with our republican or
democrat friends? Better yet, can we win them over? I believe we can.
We can become listened-to voices on the great issues of the day. We --
and the people- - can turn the discussion to - privilege.