Wednesday, 27 April 2016

“A tax on the value of a site is really a tax on productive potential”


John Key’s proposed land tax would take money out of the hands of would-be home builders at precisely the time when more homes need to be built. The godfather of land taxes was a fellow called Henry George, who it’s fair to say was single-minded on the topic. (Ahem.)  In his bio of Henry George in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, economist Charles Hooper makes this very criticism of the idea:

George was right that other taxes may have stronger disincentives, but economists now recognise that the single land tax is not innocent, either. Site values are created, not intrinsic. Why else would land in Tokyo be worth so much more than land in Mississippi? A tax on the value of a site is really a tax on productive potential, which is a result of improvements to land in the area. Henry George's proposed tax on one piece of land is, in effect, based on the improvements made to the neighboring land.
    And what if you are your "neighbour"? What if you buy a large expanse of land and raise the value of one portion of it by improving the surrounding land. Then you are taxed based on your improvements. This is not far-fetched. It is precisely what the Disney Corporation did in Florida. Disney bought up large amounts of land around the area where it planned to build Disney World, and then made this surrounding land more valuable by building Disney World. Had George's single tax on land been in existence, Disney might never have made the investment. So, contrary to George's reasoning, even a tax on unimproved land reduces incentives. [Emphasis mine.]

I’ll let you work out for yourself the incentives for large, staged subdivision developments…of precisely the sort the Productivity Commission argues is necessary to help bring down the cost of producing new houses.

[Hat tip David R. Henderson]


  • The Land Tax “suffers from a much more fundamental flaw.  Namely: A tax on the unimproved value of land distorts the incentive to search for new land and better uses of existing land.  If we actually imposed a 100% tax on the unimproved value of land, any incentive to search would disappear…
        “Take a real estate developer.  One of his main functions is to find valuable new ways to use existing land.  ‘This would be a great place for a new housing development.’  ‘This would be a perfect location for a Chinese restaurant.  And so on… ‘Information about the land can be considered an improvement in its own right. Some of the land's qualities have very low search costs to discover: is it arable, will it support any type of building, is it in the middle of a city or rural area, etc. Discovery of other potential uses may require significant search and/or investment in other technologies. An entrepreneur brings these qualities to market - they do not bring themselves. Until he does so, the value of the land is undefined.’”
    A Search-Theoretic Critique of [Land Tax] – Bryan Caplan, ECON LOG
  • “He’s now suggesting another way to put the grey ones’s hands in your pockets: a land tax on non-NZers and NZers living overseas. A land tax said to be around ten percent of the land’s value, payable every year. A land tax payable by owners out of their income on the value of their asset. A tax that will undoubtedly require a whole new army of assessors to value these ever-rising assets. A tax imposed on land owners as a xenophobic political sop instead of acknowledging the government policies that have made land in NZ far, far too expensive.”
    John Key finds another new tax – NOT PC
  • “[Land] taxers claim that the tax could not possibly have any ill effects; that it could not hamper production because the site is already God-given, and man does not have to produce it; that, therefore, taxing the earnings from a site could not restrict production, as do all other taxes. This claim rests on a fundamental assumption — the hard core of [land]-tax doctrine: Since the site-owner performs no productive service he is, therefore, a parasite and an exploiter, and so taxing 100 percent of his income could not hamper production.
        “But this assumption is totally false. The owner of land does perform a very valuable productive service, a service completely separate from that of the man who builds on, and improves, the land. The site owner brings sites into use and allocates them to the most productive user. He can only earn the highest ground rents from his land by allocating the site to those users and uses that will satisfy the consumers in the best possible way. We have seen already that the site owner must decide whether or not to work a plot of land or keep it idle. He must also decide which use the land will best satisfy. In doing so, he also ensures that each use is situated on its most productive location. A single tax would utterly destroy the market's important job of supplying efficient locations for all man's productive activities, and the efficient use of available land.”
    The [Land] Tax: Economic and Moral Implications – Murray Rothbard, MISES DAILY, 2011


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