John Kelly

[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 not bestowed.

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 relationships.

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 attitudes?

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.

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